What I learned by building — and surviving — a trash bag parachute

It was one of the first things we noticed about our new home in the heart of Albemarle County, Va.

My sister’s room on the second floor had a window that opened onto the roof of another section of the house. The window wasn’t nailed shut, glued shut or locked from the outside like so many of the hotel windows I’ve tried to open in my life.

It probably should’ve been.

I was 8, my sister 12, and I don’t think we’d unpacked a single box before we opened that window, popped out the screen and climbed onto the roof overlooking the deck on one side and the front yard on the other.

We spent many hours on that roof growing up. It was about 10 feet off the ground with little slope and was easy to navigate. We never felt in danger.

Nevertheless, this is the paragraph for the disclaimer. “Do not to try this at home. Furthermore, the words and crazy antics of this writer do not necessarily represent the opinions of this newspaper, its publishers, employees or immediate family members. Some restrictions apply. See store for details.”

The roof became a place to have big ideas and even bigger dreams. It was like a Magic 8 Ball that only had one answer: Yes!

My sister read novels on that roof.

I began to write them.

She spread her hobbies out on an orange blanket and we sat there on the days it was too cold to be outside and on the days it was so hot, the shingles burned our feet and we sipped on glasses of Tang.

We listened to music and did our homework. I did more of the former, she did more — much more — of the latter.

Sometimes my sister brought a friend over and I was uninvited to the roof. I pretended to be bothered, but I didn’t really mind. I played the role of the adorable little brother by lobbing water balloons like grenades from a secret spot below.

Those were simple times.

I also remember the time my infamous parachute idea took flight. One afternoon I sat alone on the roof and wondered aloud if I could build a parachute that would carry me safely from the roof to the ground.

Of course I could!

I’d seen the Flying Elvis troupe on television and I played the parachute game at school where noisy kids stood in a circle pulling on a giant fabric circle that launched plastic red balls into the air.

Yeah, I had the physics nailed down.

After a few days of sketching and making revisions, I took two black trash bags, cut them at the seams, and using man’s best friend — duct tape — I assembled the carefully flattened trash bags into the world’s finest homemade parachute.

I considered making strings and a harness. But let’s be serious, I knew that wouldn’t work.

I stood courageously near the edge of the roof, holding tightly to the wound up corners of my new invention. It was going to work. I just knew it.

The facts were in my favor. I was skinnier than a pretzel rod, there was no wind, and I had made the parachute more than large enough to hold my weight and deliver me softly to the ground.

I inched a little closer to the edge and threw the parachute behind me, positioning it perfectly to catch the wind. Then, with all the faith a boy can muster, I leapt from the roof and high into the air, waiting for the parachute to fill and carry me off on some wild adventure until I safely touched down.

I imagined myself making contact with the ground, just like I’d seen on television, bending my knees to absorb the impact and running a few steps with the parachute still unfurled behind me.

Oh, I made contact all right.

I landed with a thud, nearly blackening one of my eyes with my own knobby knee.

Three thoughts came to me as I stared up at the sky.

First, “So, that didn’t work.”

Second, “That’s going to leave a mark.”

Third, “I’m so glad I scheduled my test jump during a time when no one was paying attention.”

I later told my father about my big idea and confessed that it hadn’t worked quite as well as I envisioned. He took the opportunity to tenderly teach me a little something about weight times mass plus gravity equals I don’t really remember.

The message was clear enough: “Jason, it was a big idea, but a trash bag isn’t going to support you jumping from the roof.”

It hurt, literally, and I never tried it again. Instead, my dad taught me to make a wide variety of amazing airplanes that when launched from the roof, never seemed to land.

Though my parachuting hobby was short-lived, my childhood days were filled with countless other adventures. And why not? They were the days when I had great faith that simple solutions could solve big problems.

I miss those days.

Don’t you?

I’m much older now, though not much wiser, and married with children of my own. I can’t say I hope any of them are secretly building a parachute, but I do secretly hope they have the faith that they could.

(Originally published March 13, 2012.)

Courage to Be You
Jason’s new book, written with Gail Miller,
is now available from Amazon and DB

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