I once heard that in times of high stress we should act like a duck on a pond escaping a small child who’s decided to wade in and catch it. Above the water, where everyone can see what’s going on, we should look cool and calm. Underwater, hidden from view, we are paddling like hell.
I was not thinking about ducks or ponds, when I began my third shift of my first year as a Dirt Ranger, my mind full of experiences from my first two Dirt Shifts. It was my only noon to 6 p.m. shift and I wasn’t quite sure what might come our way.
It was about 1600 and my partner, Tom 80 (a bit more about him in a minute) and I were slowly pedaling down Charlie headed towards four-zero-zero. I pointed out to Tom 80 that there were some parachuters falling from the sky. We pulled over to watch them float gently to Earth.
Then it caught my eye. There it was. Falling. Big. Fast. Heavy looking. I refused to label it as a person, but one thing was clear: there was an undeployed chute tailing behind it. My stomach felt sick.
“Khaki, Khaki – DharmaBum”
— “Go DharmaBum.”
Okay? Where do I start? What do I say first? I have no idea if I need medical. Am I seeing things? Take a breath. Be slow. Calm on top, frantic underneath.
“Khaki, there is…. there is an “object” (yea, that’s what I’ll call it, an object) falling from the sky. It is falling fast. There appears to be an undeployed parachute behind it. Break.”
Break? Why break? They told me to say “break” after like 15 seconds, shit, that was just like 10 seconds.
“I am at Charlie near four-zero-zero (how did I remember to say it that way?).”
Yep, saying break was unneeded and just plain stupid.
— “DharmaBum, can you still see the falling object? Do you know where it might land?”
“Khaki (why did I keep saying Khaki, Khaki knew who I was talking to), I can no longer see the object.”
Tom 80 cool and calm was by my side now listening in.
— “Investigate and report back.”
Tom 80 had been a cop in San Francisco for multiple decades, we had chatted earlier (I don’t think I’m making this up) about staying calm in tense times. And he was calm, I just hoped it was rubbing off on me.
Our 3 m.p.h. bike pace was over, we took off as fast as was safe, turned left on four-zero-zero and headed towards the open playa. An ambulance was headed towards us. We flagged it down. Explained. It turned around. We took off together.
I’d only share this with fellow Rangers, but when we hit the playa and veered right towards our best guess of where the “object” had landed; I’m embarrassed? ashamed? wise? to say I thought I should look for a large group of people. If that “object” was a person there will be a huge group of people.
There was no larger group. Tom 80 and I kept riding maybe 20 feet apart scanning in wide swaths left and right over and over, pedaling fast.
I spotted a BLM vehicle and headed towards it. Maybe they knew something.
We pulled up, out of breath. Explained. Panted. Calmly, peering out his rolled-down window, the BLM anger spoke:
— “Oh yea, someone had to release their main chute and use their secondary. They’ve landed.”
I know I radioed Khaki with that information. But the details are a blur after this. It’s curious how so much of the details before I learned that all was okay are clear to this day, and the details afterwards I just can’t seem to bring into focus. During our training and the mentor shift I was reminded about the impact of adrenaline on the mind, body and, yes, the spirit. It was like a valve was released and with it an internal pressure that caused acute focus, once released my mind could now relax. Well, at least for a moment.
I know I laughed when Khaki said something like, “Everyone who is thinking about, interested in, or considering heading towards the undeployed parachute incident… DON’T!”
To this day I still wonder if the Ranger radio communications with Khaki are recorded. I wonder if I was cool on top. Did I speak slowly? For now, it’s Schrodinger’s radio recording. I’ve never asked. I’m not sure I want to know how I really sounded.
The next couple of hours proved uneventful.
And as hokey as this might sound, many times as Tom 80 and I rode, chatted with folks, stopped by Berlin for water, during those last few hours, I kept thinking how grateful I was for the people who did the scenarios at my training, the individuals who arranged and conducted the on-line radio practice sessions using Zello, my incredible Alpha Shift mentors, Europa, Sir Jay Jay, Cobalt and Skitter Skip.
I have this feeling that without all of them, I just might have been a paddling-like-hell duck above as well as below the surface.