My father was a paratrooper.
He served as an infantry officer in World War Two, and settled into a mostly quiet life as a father of four in a small Alabama town. Then the Army summoned him again. He was called back to active duty for the Korean Conflict, and that’s when the paratrooper business began. He was a rugged guy, a former college football player, and for some reason he sought the more rugged side of Army life. He joined the Rangers, and then the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret who jumped out of airplanes.
I suspect my mother thought he was nuts – a guy with four young children at home who jumped out of airplanes. It wasn’t until he was back from Korea that we learned that he and his comrades jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines in North Korea and did mischief. It’s a good thing we didn’t know. He stayed in the service for awhile after Korea and we lived on Army posts – Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning. He kept on jumping out of airplanes.
Sometimes we watched. Mother would load the four kids in the car and we would park next to a large field. We’d hear the drone of the planes and then they would roar into view and people would start jumping out of them. Suddenly the air was filled with parachutes, hundreds of them, all floating to earth. It was an awesome sight, and as the oldest of the four kids, I thought it was fabulous.
It all came to an end when Dad’s unit got orders to go to Japan – a two-year peacetime deployment. That’s when Mother put her foot down. Enough foolishness. Dad got out of the Army and we returned to small-town Alabama life. If Dad missed it, he never said so. But I suspect he did.
I’ve thought about those paratroopers often in my adult life. I did an Army hitch, but never jumped out of an airplane. But I’ve always wanted to. It’s on my bucket list.
I’ve also thought about it in another way – how similar it is to writing. When a guy jumps out of an airplane, he’s taking a leap of faith – trusting that his parachute will open and he will float to earth. When I stare at a blank page and begin to tell a story, that’s also a leap of faith. I have to believe that my characters will truly come to life and lead me through the roller-coaster ride of the tale. I have to believe that somewhere in the future I will land safely and write “The End” and think I’ve done okay.
It’s taking that first leap of faith that’s the hardest part – flinging oneself out the door of the plane of imagination. It takes a bit of a certain kind of courage, and maybe – like my Dad – a touch of madness. There are so many people with a tale to tell and the aptitude with words to tell it. But few ever do. Taking the first step can be daunting, even terrifying. My friend Ralph Keyes talked about this elegantly in his book The Courage to Write. If you’re thinking about writing, you should read it.
This new book I have coming out in September, The Governor’s Lady, took me ten years to write. It was a time when I was becoming a playwright – seven plays, two of them musicals, all produced and all published by Dramatic Publishing Company. But the book was always there, and I always returned, trusting that I would land safely and write “The End.” Eventually I did, and readers will decide if I did okay.
There’s an old joke among paratroopers. A young trooper, about to make his first jump, goes to his sergeant and confesses he’s terrified.
“Nothing to it,” Sarge says. “Your parachute is attached to the plane, and when you jump, the line pulls the chute out of its pack, it opens, and you float safely to earth. In the very unlikely event the main chute doesn’t deploy, you pull the handle on your emergency chute, it opens, and you float safely to earth. When you get down, there’s a truck waiting to bring you back to the barracks.”
Reassured by Sarge, the young trooper leaps out of the plane. The main chute doesn’t open. He reaches for the handle of the emergency, and it comes off in his hand. As he plummets toward earth, he says, “Yeah, and I bet there ain’t no danged truck down there, either.”
I guess that’s the risk paratroopers and writers take when they make the leap of faith. As one who’s leaped a few times, I can say the risk is worth it.