Lesson in the Chinook

Man’s curiosity searches past and future
And clings to that dimension. But to apprehend
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint–“

Today was a jump day. I had to jump out of a Chinook. This is one of the occupational hazards of my day job, that periodically they require me to parachute from an aircraft while in flight. It is one of my least favorite parts of the job. I hate heights. I’m also bigger than the average guy so I fall faster and I always hit hard. Jump days also suck up a lot of time.

Today for instance, we started at 0800, with rigging our rucksacks. Then the prejump brief, a quick break to get measured for some new gear, and before you know it, it’s eleven and we are rushing to the hangar to hurry up and get our chutes on so we can make our hit time. Hurry up and rig, then, Oh, wait, someone forgot to do some paperwork so everyone sit down for an hour in harness and ruck. Then hurry up again to get out to the bird that’s spinning up on the tarmac. We take off and start heading to the drop zone, but wait! The pilot and crew have some trainees on board so they are going to do some certification tasks. So we land and sit for thirty minutes. Then we take off and fly nap of the earth, zooming along a river bed, up over the banks and the treeline, down into the clear, banking, turning, diving and climbing like a rollercoaster. Then finally we level off and begin the pass over the drop zone. Everyone goes into the familiar routine, “Standup, hookup, check static line, check equipment, sound off for equipment check.” We got all the way to “Standby!” before they called the winds at 15 knots. So we circled and checked again. Still 15 knots. So we circled again. Still 15 knots! So we all sat down while we circled once more, or maybe twice more. Then “Standup, hookup, etc. Again.”

This time we jumped. I came screaming down fast as a load of bricks again, but landed in a nice, soft muddy patch so it didn’t hurt too much. The winds were high enough that my chute didn’t deflate and actually dragged me for a few inches before I popped both of my releases.

Then we jumped back on the bird, they buttoned up the ramp, and we took the scenic roller coaster route back. I had missed lunch because we were sitting in harness all day, so my stomach was already empty and queasy. With the ramp shut it got hot and stuffy, and the stale air smelled like diesel fumes and hot metal. I could feel my stomach bouncing around and my cheeks going pale. The other guys said I looked “even whiter than usual”. The whole flight back I was focusing on not throwing up. It’s all about breathing, and trying to relax.

It was on the return flight, I think, that the quote at the top of this post came into my head. It is from T.S.Eliot’s “The Four Quartets”. (The Dry Salvages, lines 199-203. No, I didn’t know that from memory. I looked it up when I got home.)

I admit that I was pretty frustrated today. I couldn’t help but think about all the other places I wished I was, the other things I wanted to be doing, the other people I would rather be spending time with. The frustration continued on the way home, with every traffic light, speed limit and even the other drivers adding to that sense of loss. I wanted to get home so I could begin doing other things that I actually care about. But T. S. Eliot’s line kept returning to my mind. “The point of intersection of the timeless/ with time, is an occupation for the saint.”

My mind was in New York, in South Carolina, In Virginia, in Panera Bread or Pho’ Tai in Tacoma. What was on my mind was the past (the fun I had last night) and the future (upcoming weekends, get-togethers, leave, even the fact that I’m getting out of the army in a couple of years.) I was not in the present, which is the only point of intersection of the timeless with time. So I was not living as a saint would live.

Over the course of the day this has been my ongoing battle, to be present in this time, because this time alone is real. God is found only in the present, never in the past or the future. Leave time in September, as much as I look forward to it, is not what I have been given. It does not exist. I have been given this moment, with the smells, the heat, the headache, the noise, the nausea. The thick, numb feeling of my whole body from hours of bombardment with rotor noise is the gift I have been given. This is my calling, this moment, right here and now. The infinite presence of God is an intolerable notion sometimes, because it means there is no mistake. If I have been following Him, then here is where He has put me. And He did it on purpose. Dwelling endlessly on phantasms of where I wish I was is a sheer waste of precious time, time given me to become a saint. That time spent in discontented grumbling is time horribly unredeemed, unredeemed because I refuse to surrender it for redemption. Time is the stuff of which my eternity will be formed. Let me think twice before I spend my time grumbling.

Here and now and nowhere else is sanctity to be found. Here there are rosaries to be said, praises to be offered, petitions to be made, and redemption to be shared in. I have been given these inconveniences as a share (infinitesimal, but all I can handle) in the suffering that Jesus undergoes for the redemption of my family and my friends. As my mother used to say, “Offer it up!” Offering it up is nothing more than allowing Jesus to make you a partner in His redemptive suffering, a little co-redeemer if I may use the phrase. But to do that I must be present.

So while on the outside the story of my day went much like the paragraph above, a series of routine delays and inconveniences, interiorly my day was pretty much a volley of my mind, bouncing back and forth between irritation and resentment, and peace and gratitude. Going all in an instant from impatient muttering to prayers of thanksgiving, maledictions upon my fellow-man grudgingly reforged into prayers for my loved ones. A long, constant effort to drag my mind back from where it drifts to the call of God in this moment.

An occupation for the saint–
But no occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.
For most of us there is only the unattended
Moment…”

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