Diversions : Both sides now

Mark cohen headshotMark Cohen, Nederland.  This is a true story. In April of 1993 I was going through an early midlife crisis. I was living in Omaha. I had joined the Air Force “to see the world” and had ended up spending twelve years in Nebraska. My relationship with a woman had recently ended, and my Dalmatian and I had just found new digs. I had dropped out of a graduate program in philosophy because one year of practicing law and studying symbolic logic at the same time had taken a real toll on my physical and mental health. Practicing law paid better, so I stuck with that.

Suddenly alone and with plenty of free time, I decided to cross some things off my bucket list. I began taking karate lessons. I started to write a novel. And I decided to try skydiving.

With my birthday approaching, my brother, Roy JHCIACB Cohen, decided to drive to Omaha to join me on the skydiving adventure. And so it was that on a rainy Saturday we drove to Weeping Water, Nebraska, and received training to prepare us for our jump the next day. The jump school was located at a small airstrip surrounded by cornfields.

It rained all night and was still raining Sunday morning. We were not sure we would be able to jump, but we drove back to Weeping Water anyhow. Later that morning the rain stopped and the instructor decided we could jump.

We donned our jump suits and parachutes, then climbed into a small plane. As the little aircraft ascended my brother and I looked at each other. Are we really going to do this? The plane leveled off at about 3,200 feet. It was a long way down.

Being the older brother, we decided I would jump first. I climbed out of the plane and grabbed the strut with both hands, just as we’d been instructed. When the instructor gave the sign, I let go, arched my back, and saw the plane pull ahead of me. It was a static line jump, so my parachute opened within a second or two. I floated gently down to earth, enjoying the thrill and the view. I would definitely do this again.

Back on earth, I looked up and saw my brother climb out of the plane and grab the strut. Then he let go. But for some reason he flipped over backward and was not in the proper position when his parachute opened. The many cords that connected my brother to the parachute’s canopy became tangled and his parachute never fully opened. Rather than gently floating toward earth, he was plummeting toward it and his parachute looked something like a tampon.

We on the ground could not see where Roy had landed, but the pilot directed us through the cornfields to him. When we found him he was lying flat in a soggy cornfield. Two days of rain had probably saved his life.

An ambulance took Roy to an Omaha hospital. When I saw him the E.R., he looked at me and said, “Gravity works.”

The staff took x-rays and observed that not all the bones in Roy’s back were where they were supposed to be. The most notable damage was that his L-1 vertebrae had shattered and one small piece of it was resting against his spinal cord. The doctors advised Roy to have surgery that would put metal rods in his back, but if you know my brother, you know he declined and limped out of the E.R. later that evening. After resting for several days in my apartment, Roy loaded up on painkillers and drove back to Colorado.

Roy had an MRI every four weeks for nearly two years to ensure that the bone fragment was not pushing further into his spinal cord.  Eventually the entire area calcified (self-fused) and this served the same function the metal rods would have served. It took more than two years for Roy to recover, but he did.

So ended our brief skydiving career, but I don’t regret it because Roy eventually regained his health and I can truly say I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.

Mark Cohen

Mark Cohen, J.D., LL.M., is a lawyer in Nederland, Colorado. He is also the author of the Pepper Keane mystery series. A former chairperson of the editorial board of The Colorado Lawyer magazine, one of his interests is the use of Plain English rather than legal jargon.