THIS IS YOUR CAPTAIN SPEAKING

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Logo by Stefan Strasser

              

 

 

 

 For the Benefit of Others

(From This Is Your Captain Speaking)  

If it doesn’t help someone else, it’s probably not worth doing.

 My main man Cal (Captain Calhoun C. Treadaway) is just full of great ideas. One after another they just bubble forth from him like water from a mountain spring. And unlike most folks, he acts on his ideas. I have great ideas too, but I tend to sit on them, cogitate on them, wait for the right moment, until they die on the vine and nothing gets done. Cal doesn’t do that. An idea comes to him and bang, zap, he does something with it.

 There’s a curious thing about many of Cal’s ideas. They are most often good ideas, that is, they result in something good, but oftentimes the good is for somebody else; Cal may not even be involved in the end.

 For example, he cornered me in the crew lounge once, excitedly telling me about this great idea he had. I had run a Marathon once, hadn’t I? Yes. Well, how about we train up for and run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.? It would really be great. We’ll get in really good shape and the race is really neat, winding through all sorts of scenic and historical places.

 It did sound like a great idea, so I started on my training regimen. Getting into condition to run a Marathon is no small order of business. It takes at least a couple of hours a day for several months. Twenty-six point two miles is a long way on foot, at a runner’s pace. I told Cal it wasn’t the twenty-six miles that was so bad- - it was the point two at the end.

 For the first few weeks of our training, whenever I saw Cal or talked to him on the phone, he was all up about our coming adventure. But after a while, though he was still quite enthusiastic about the whole idea, he tended to be a little vague about the specifics of his training. I figured it was because he wasn’t hitting the times he wanted, so was reluctant to share his training numbers. Cal lives way out in the boondocks a long way from me, so it wasn’t practical for us to run together.

 It was in the final weeks before the race that I got the true picture. I put it to him bluntly. “Cal, how many miles per week are you doing?” I asked.

 “Well, not many,” he responded, while looking at the floor and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

 “How many is not many?”

 “Well, I’m not running at all right now. I sprained my ankle pretty badly.” He looked like a kid just caught eating the last cookie that he knew belonged to his little brother.

 “So, when did you sprain your ankle?”

 “About six months ago and it just hasn’t healed properly. I keep re-injuring it.”

 “Six months ago? That’s when we started training.”

 “Yeah, I didn’t want to tell you and get you all discouraged.”

 I ran the Marathon that year. Cal didn’t. I could have been a bit peeved about it, but it was a great Marathon. I’d gotten in great shape (for me). And it was all thanks to Cal. He had gotten nothing from the deal except a busted ankle.

 Then there was the time Cal talked a bunch of guys into going to South America with him to build a house for some orphaned children. At the last minute, Cal didn’t get to go. But the others did, and the house got built.

 He talked me into starting a five-year Bible study program with him. He had to drop out after a few weeks. I think he knew that I, once I’ve started something, cannot quit. It was good for me. Thanks Cal.

 Not all of Cal’s ideas are as good as others and sometimes it’s hard to find the good in the end.

 There was the time we went parasailing. I don’t remember how the subject came up (I’ve probably blanked it from my mind). Cal had asked my family and me to go to the lake with him and his family for a day of skiing and water fun. This was before I suffered a severe bout of mental illness that caused me to buy a boat of my own, so we would be using Cal’s boat, skies, and other water toys. It must have been while Cal was telling me about all his water toys (skis, kneeboard, tube, wakeboard, everything but a parasail) that I off-handedly quipped that I had a parasail.

 “Wow, you do? You’ve got to bring it with you to the lake. We’ll try it out.”

 I explained to him that it wasn’t really a parasail but a parachute, the one I had used for years while actively into skydiving. I told him we had towed it behind a car before and on days when it was far too windy to jump, we would at times put a rig such as mine on, tie a rope to the harness, the other end of which was attached to something immoveable (car bumper usually) and, facing into the wind, simply fly off the ground while tethered. My rig certainly ought to work behind a boat.

 

 But I was sure it would work, and Cal thought I knew what I was doing (a mistake he made fairly often). So we were well into this thing before I began to have little inklings of the fact that it might not be a good idea after all. By then I certainly couldn’t back out without losing all vestiges of my manly honor.

 

 The beach was okay for our purposes except for two points. One, it had a string of buoys (made of empty fifty-five gallon oil drums) marking off the swimming area. We would have to launch over these barrels or start off at a rather rakish angle to the shore. I chose the angle, not having any desire to smack into one of those steel drums if our attempt didn’t go well for some reason.

 Secondly, the wind was from the wrong direction. While a ram air parachute, like the one I had, will fly by itself into the wind, it would be a bit more reluctant to get air borne with the slight quartering tail wind. It was still doable; a higher takeoff speed would be required, that’s all, a higher ground speed. The airspeed would remain the same. It was the ground speed (speed relative to fixed objects on the ground) that I was concerned about.

 

 We didn’t have an appropriate towrope, so we doubled ski ropes to get what we needed. There can be a lot of pressure put on the rope in towing parasails. One strand of ski rope might not hack the load. I had suggested just two seventy-five foot ropes doubled together to give a total of seventy-five feet between me and the boat. This, of course, is not what you see from the professional parasail operators at the big beaches all around the world. They use several hundred feet. But for the ride I had in mind, reaching only a few feet off the water, seventy-five feet seemed plenty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 It got worse. The canopy coming out of the packed container can not be guaranteed to be square with the wind and in this case was not. It darted off to the right, recovered just after smacking its rider hard onto the ground, then zipped over to the left repeating its treatment of the hapless sky voyager on that side. You’ve seen kites do this, I’m sure. It’s rough on the kites. It’s even rougher on sky voyagers.

 The problem was that, though he was being flung about by what was supposedly a steerable (i.e. controllable) parachute canopy, he didn’t have time to get control between oscillations. So, he devoted himself to screaming uncontrollably instead. Fortunately, his friends heeded his shrieks of terror and hauled him in via the rope after he had pummeled the earth only about a dozen times.

 

 My wife (not knowing she was assisting in sending her husband to the very doors of horror beyond imagination.) and Cal’s wife stood behind me holding the canopy up so that it would catch the air quicker. This wouldn’t have been necessary if we had had any headwind at all. Finally when I could think of no further excuses, I shouted, “Hit it”, to Cal. There came a tiny, but nonetheless heart-stopping, tug on the rope. I began running toward the water.

 The canopy filled immediately but wasn’t producing much lift yet. The challenge had been to calculate just how far back from the water to start my run. Too far back and I’d still be over land if things didn’t go well early on (ala sky voyager). Too short of a run and I’d get to drink some lake water before going for a ride. I had calculated a little short and we had started too slowly. As I went skipping out across the water like a slow motion flat stone, I frantically tried to signal Cal to give me a little more speed.

 Cal is an incredibly smart fellow. But he had never done this before, and he does have that little character flaw; it’s all or nothing, if a little is good, a lot is great. He cobbed it. One moment I’m drinking lake water by the gallons born along by a lazy, recalcitrant parachute canopy, the next I’m looking at an overhead view of the boat, snatched aloft by what must have been a close cousin to a Saturn rocket.

 

 

 Yes, in this state of super consciousness, attainable only in that instant just before impact, I was able to, in a manner that seemed almost leisurely at the time, review all aspects of my life up to that point, with great exuberance quote one of my favorite cartoon characters, Goofy, when he said, “Whooooyeeehahaha,” and calculate the number, the all important number.

 I knew this number to be of great significance because, after years of parachuting experience, I knew the characteristics of the ram air canopy. It’s a wonderfully agile, incredibly maneuverable vehicle if operated within its normal operating parameters. One of the things that puts it outside those normal parameters very quickly is oscillation. I knew the moment the rope broke that severe oscillations were soon to follow. I knew that a severely oscillating canopy produces little or no lift; hence the importance of the number. A freefalling body will strike the water (or maybe even the boat) at a velocity of 75.38 mph when released from a height of 187.5 feet.

 Sure enough, just after working out “the number”, I found myself looking down at the canopy, which was now below me in the first of several wild, really wild, gyrations. It is not good to have one’s parachute canopy below one’s precious body while airborne. A nanosecond later I was in the water (narrowly missing the boat). It was only after I bobbed back to the surface, like a kid with “floaties” on after being tossed in the pool by his dad, that I sensed a peculiar numbness radiating from a spot right in the middle of my forehead. As I lay there giving thanks that I had at least been smart enough to wear a life vest and crash helmet, I became aware of a strange red tint to the world, a world that seemed to shimmer around me. It occurred to me that this numbness and special crimson view of things must have to do with being dead, for surely I hadn’t lived through “the number”.

 Cal motored back over in his near-racing boat. “Woooha, what a ride that was! You were…” I rolled over in the water to face him. “Ahghh,” he said, a sort of strangling, gagging sound, as he got a good look at my face.

 At that moment Cal’s son chimed in. “Ah, Dad, I think I have a little problem here.” He reached around placing his hand on the back of his shoulder. It came back covered in a crimson that almost exactly matched that on my face. Cal’s demeanor changed instantly.

 

 

 Further discussion bore out other great truths. While square (ram air) parachutes are great for skydiving, they are probably a bit too volatile for parasailing in tight places. Excess power must be used very judiciously. When Cal realized I wasn’t getting airborne, he added throttle. It was only a little too much initially, but it was enough that the canopy (me with it) shot skyward and actually lifted the back of the boat throwing Cal forward causing his hand to push the throttle lever to the limit.

 Cal is not a man easily rattled, but even he admitted he became somewhat concerned when, just prior to the rope breaking, he found his boat, in which he had untold hours and truck loads of money invested, standing on its pointy end with the engine turning just under ten thousand rpm. He had had an instantaneous vision of a fine sword being dropped tip first into the water, disappearing into the depths with just the tiniest of “plop” sounds. Fortunately, his vessel had not been drawn quite into the full vertical. When released from the sky demon dragging it toward outer space, it crashed back into the water allowing its propeller, which was turning at a speed it was never meant to attain, to bite into the water propelling the whole rig half way across the lake before control could once again be regained.

 The fact that the boat had shot, like a wad from a pea shooter, well clear of the area proved very good from my point of view, for I crashed into the water only a fraction of a second later in the precise spot where it had been. Cal expressed a little concern about the fact that his high dollar engine, though fine tuned to put out incredible power, wasn’t designed to turn the kind of rpm he had seen briefly before the cannon-shot across the lake. I didn’t wish Cal or his engine any ill fortune, but I just couldn’t conjure up too much dismay over a possible deterioration in the health of a machine.

 The breaking of the rope was both a bad thing and a good thing. It was bad because it was the source of the gash in my forehead and the deep whelp in Cal’s son’s back. Nylon rope when stretched to the breaking point springs back like a rubber band.

 But under the circumstances, it was good that it broke no later than it did. A fraction of a second later and the boat would have been dropped into the water like that sword previously mentioned only with a big propeller on the back turning at a horrendous rate. It wouldn’t have stopped until it got to China.

 We discussed all this while we were still some distance from the beach, where the ladies were, all the while waving to them and making like everything was perfectly okay. Surreptitiously, we wiped the blood from my head and the young man’s back. Once we had settled all the issues to our satisfaction, we motored back over to where the girls were and explained that it had become a bit too windy to try the parasail again.

 By unspoken mutual consent not only did we never try it again, we never even mentioned it again.

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