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Fool’s Passage

Washington State
November 24, 1971

   The young man was on his hands and knees as he finished stuffing the rest of the parachute into position, then closed it up.  After a quick look at his watch he shook his head in disgust—he was behind schedule.  Repacking the chute took longer than expected.  It was, however, crucial that he examine it thoroughly.  After all, the Feds had given him the chute and he couldn’t allow them to determine the integrity of his only means of escape.
Standing up, he looked down the isle way of the 727.  It was empty and quiet.  A short time earlier on the flight deck, he checked to make sure they were on course.  He ordered the flight crew to remain in the cockpit while he finished preparing the next step in his plan.  Laying his jacket on the seat next to him, he opened it up revealing four pouches sown into the lining.  He checked the first three to make sure that the money was evenly distributed, then zipped them shut.
   Taking one last look around to make sure he was alone, he turned towards the back of the plane.  He would not turn around to face the front again.  If curiosity got the best of the flight crew, one of them might come back to get a good look at him.  Taking off his sun glasses and wig, he slid them into the fourth pouch.  He gently peeled the fake nose from his face and put it with the other two items. The disguise didn’t change him much, just enough so that nobody could positively identify him.
   He pulled a pair of goggles from a pouch then closed it up.  Putting them on, he adjusted the straps to fit properly.  Next came the jacket.  With full pouches, the normally comfortably fitting jacket felt tight.  The zipper strained as the young man pulled it to the top.
Reaching across the first seat, he grabbed the handle of his small brown leather suitcase and pulled it towards him.  He quickly opened it, took a long strap from inside, then closed it up again.  Attaching the strap to either end of the case, he pulled it over his head and around one shoulder.  The case was heavy and he had to rest it on the seat in order to adjust the strap properly.
   There, he thought, perfect.  He lifted the heavy case off the seat, and rested it in front of him against his legs, just above the knee and below the waist.  The case felt much heavier than it really was.  He had been carrying it all day, and the weight of the large battery pack and instrument package inside wore at his stamina.
   It was now time for the parachute.  He reached across to the opposite seat and grabbed the chute.  Pulling it onto his back, he fastened the buckles in the front, securely attaching it.  He made a few minor adjustments to make sure that the suitcase was held fast in place.  He didn’t want to make the mistake of losing it.  If he did, this game would be over before it started.  Caution forced him to check every attachment one more time to be sure.
   Again, a quick check of his watch.  Damn! he thought. There was less than five minutes to the drop zone— he had to hurry.  Moving swiftly to the rear door, he started turning the manual hand crank.  A tornado of air rushed past as the door’s seal opened.  They were not very high, but he allowed a few seconds for the pressure to equalize before continuing.  Warning lights would be going off in the cockpit, he knew.  A radio call was certainly being sent out to the Feds to let them know what was happening.
   As he turned the hand crank, he watched the door slowly roll outward becoming a small staircase.  The rear door of the 727 dropped straight down and back directly behind and below the engine in the tail.  Only a few steps were visible, the rest disappeared into an eerie darkness.
   The roar of the engines and howl of the wind grew louder as he nervously made his way to the staircase.  An icy blast of air struck him in the face, biting into every square inch of his exposed flesh.  At this altitude, the storm was more ice than rain and the wind chill factor plummeted well below zero.  From head to toe, his body was flash frozen and frost bite was already affecting his hands as his body heat was sucked out of him.
   The storm― that he knew would be there― raged angrily against the plane as it flew through the night.  It was worse than he had expected.  As the cold made his body tremble and his teeth chatter, he wondered if there was anything else he had underestimated.  Within seconds, a sheet of ice had formed on the staircase.  Icicles hung from the handrails, bent and twisted by the wind as if made by some sadistic spirit.
   Grabbing the handrail with one hand and holding the handle of the suitcase with the other, he lowered his weight onto the first step.  The hurricane of turbulence grabbed at him like a thousand hands trying to rip him off the staircase.  His foot slipped on the wet ice causing him to fall.  In a desperate panic, he dropped the case and lunged at the rail with both arms.
   His heart pounded as his mind frantically raced through reasons why he should turn back, but he knew that was impossible.  He had come too far to turn back.  His future was in front of him, not behind.  Blinded by the darkness, he felt for the case.  The straps had held it fast where it was supposed to be, and he allowed a small sigh of relief.
   In a sitting position, he slowly eased his way down the steps while hugging the rail with both arms.  As the plane sped through the night, the violent turbulence rocked him in all directions.  The shaking and bouncing was such that he thought the staircase would be ripped from the plane.
   He found it hard to control the burning fear as his heart pounded in his throat. To make things worse, the fluid in his inner ear was sloshing around so much he grew dizzy.  That, coupled with the fact that his eyes had nothing to focus on in the dimensionless darkness, created a powerful disorienting feeling.
   To help fight this effect, he forced his mind to concentrate on the plan.  By running each phase over in his head, he was able to calm himself.  Not much, but just enough to help him reach the bottom step.
   Still in a sitting position, he wrapped one leg and an arm around the last hand rail post.  A layer of ice was already beginning to build up around him.  He hoped that he would not be there too long or he’d risk being encased and cemented to the stair.  With his free hand, he grabbed the case and perilously opened it up on his lap.  Fumbling in the black for the power switch, he turned the device on.  He scrapped the ice from his goggles with his frozen fingernails so that he could see more clearly.  A small light lit up the inside of the case.
   Dials and gauges hunted sporadically for a signal, but found none.  When he’d tested the device weeks earlier, it hadn’t work properly.  He needed a larger antenna.  After making the size conversion calculations, he believed it would work with the 727.
   It’s now time to see if you were right, he told himself nervously as he unwrapped the cable from the case.  He held the large alligator clip in his free hand.  Well, here goes nothing, he thought as he clamped it to the aircraft.  Instantly the dials and gauges snapped to attention.  It works!  He allowed himself a quick smile of relief.  At least one thing was going as planned.  But don’t get cocky, he warned himself.  For the most dangerous part of the game was upon him.
   Sure, the device appeared to be working, but there was no way to be certain of its accuracy.  Precision was key, he knew.  His destination was a small narrow valley, just a thousand feet below, that he would jump into.  Towering rocky peaks surrounded the valley.  These jagged ridges reached up towards him from a mere three hundred feet beneath the plane.  Cloaked by the stormy darkness they were invisible, but he knew they were there ready to crush him if his calculations were the slightest bit off.
   He focused on the two lights in the center of the device.  The red one shown brightly, warning him not to jump.  When the green light comes on, you must jump without hesitation, he reminded himself.  If he jumped too soon or waited too long, he would perish on the rocks below.
   The others said that he was crazy to pull a stunt like this.  After all, it was only a thousand feet jump.  Sure, maybe on a clear day at twenty thousand feet a jump like this might be completed safely.  But at this altitude and in complete darkness?  —Never!
   They told him it was impossible.  If he opened his chute too early, the plane’s turbulence would collapse and tangle it sending him spiraling out of control.  If he opened it too late, the chute wouldn’t slow him down in time.  Either way, he would be dead.
   He had argued with them.  Told them it could be done if the timing was precise enough.  He even joked, “It’s not the fall that kills you.  It’s the sudden deceleration.”  They didn’t think it was funny, and suddenly neither did he.  For, with his adrenaline pumping and heart pounding, human error would be disastrous.
   He tried to wipe the questions from his mind as he concentrated on the lights.  The moment of truth was at hand.  He was about to find out if he was really as clever as he thought, or the stupid young fool the others had called him.
   Suddenly, the red light went out and the green light flashed.  Simultaneously he released his vice like grip on the plane as he detached the cable.  The turbulence instantly ripped him from the plane.  Hurtled into the darkness, he disappeared…