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A First-time Skydiving Experience, a Fall to Earth and a Terrible Accident

A First-time Skydiving Experience, a Fall to Earth and a Terrible Accident Photo:

This story appears in the July 28, 2014, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Usually, Dave Hartsock packed his own parachute. He could just about do it with his eyes shut: straighten the lines, roll the canopy, fold in the outside, press out the excess air, then crease it into a package and carefully place the fabric in the deployment bag.

That was for solo jumps, though. Leading tandem sky dives was different. The canopies were so big, and the pressure so great to move one load of customers after another, that instructors rarely packed their own chutes.

And this Saturday afternoon, Aug. 1, 2009, was crazy as always. For the crew at the Skydive Houston drop zone in Waller County, Texas, it was all they could do to get customers up and back down in time to keep up with demand. Dave had made his first jump at 9 a.m. and five more since. Now, at 4 p.m., he was getting ready to clock out for the day when Todd Bell, the drop-zone manager, approached. Do us a solid, he said. Can you take up one more jumper?

Dave was tired and sweating intensely; the Texas air was still above 100º, even late in the afternoon. But he was game. He took a slug from a bottle of Gatorade, grabbed a prepacked parachute off the wall peg and turned to his final jumper of the day, a blonde, grandmotherly type. With his broad shoulders and close-cropped brown hair, Dave could be imposing. Which is why, as always, he deployed his best smile upon meeting the customer.

The smile told her that she could relax. That he had this. That everything was going to be O.K.

Usually, Shirley Dygert avoided risks. She steered clear of any vacation with the word adventure ­attached to it. She didn’t like driving at night. And when her older son Will, now a father to three, had decided to go skydiving on his 30th birthday a year earlier, she’d lobbied against it, without success.

Now here she was, wearing a bulky flight suit and preparing to jump out of an airplane. She wondered, What in the world am I doing? Will had invited her down to Houston from her home in Teague, Texas, 150 miles to the northwest, for a barbecue to celebrate both her 54th birthday and his brother Joe’s 30th. The plan was for Joe and his friends to go skydiving, because of course Joe wanted to be like Will and make his first jump for his 30th birthday. Five minutes before she ­arrived, Shirley’s cell rang. It was Joe. A buddy from San Antonio had decided not to jump. Did Shirley want to come?

Of course she didn’t, she thought. But part of her did. When you got to her age, you needed to try new things. She’d talked about it with her husband, Bill: If an opportunity came up -- any good ­opportunity -- they should take it. Well, here was an opportunity, a chance to explore life rather than retreat from it. A chance to connect with her sons.

Sure, I’ll go, she heard herself say.

So now here she stood, looking at this tall, fortyish man, a thick parachute strapped to his shoulders. In a few minutes she’d be attached to him, her life in his hands.

“How many times have you done this?” she asked.

“A lot,” the man said.

*****

As the 23-passenger Super Twin Otter ­ascended, past 5,000 feet to 10,000 and finally 13,500, Dave checked and rechecked his buckles at the four contact points. After more than 800 jumps he now did it reflexively. He’d long ago gotten over any nerves. Still, certain students worried him. There was the college kid who’d kicked around like a flailing salmon, threatening to flip them over. The big ones could be trouble too. Anyone who outweighed you could take control of the jump, jackknifing his legs or sending you into a spiral. In worst-case scenarios you were supposed to hit the students on the back of the head, knocking them out cold.

Shirley didn’t worry him, though. Shy, nervous smile. Docile. She’d follow directions.

He gave her the patter. Told her they’d spin three times so she could see all the way to Houston, 40 miles away; then he’d pull the chute at 5,000 feet, and they’d settle into a soft glide. The whole thing would take two to three minutes but feel five times that long. She stared at the open door, beyond which were only clouds. Finally she said, “I feel like I’m going to be sucked right out.”
Dave grabbed a carabiner and attached himself to her harness. “You’re not going anywhere without me.”

Contrary to what you might imagine, the first thing you see upon exiting the plane on a tandem dive is not the ground but the sky. To keep the student’s head from flying back in fear, the instructor cradles it up and away, against his right shoulder. Then together the two cross their arms over their chests (to guard against a panicked grab for the railing), keep their legs together, count to three and drop out of the plane. And so it was that in the first moments after Shirley left the Super Otter, heart pounding, all she saw was the vast Texas sky, pocked by clouds.

Then her perspective flipped, and she was falling nose-first into a wind tunnel. Her forehead tightened, her cheeks tried to run off her face. In the first three seconds her body accelerated to 51 mph; after nine seconds she and Dave had reached 120 mph, terminal velocity. As she’d been instructed in the brief training session before the jump, she threw her arms and legs behind her so that she fell belly first, allowing Dave to control the dive.

Time began to slow. Shirley could see houses, barns, a golf course. She realized she was so cold that she was shivering, which struck her as weird, considering how hot it was on the ground.
They passed 7,000 feet. Finally Shirley allowed herself to breathe. To take it in. It was beautiful. Off in the distance she could almost see Will’s house, where they’d be having dinner in a matter of hours. She was excited. She was doing it.

*****

There are thousands of things that can go wrong during a sky dive. Tangled lines. High winds. A tear in the canopy. The vast majority are fixable. As Dave often told his students, the sport is surprisingly safe. You’re more likely to die from a bee sting or a lightning strike. The previous year, in 2008, there were 30 fatalities over the course of 2.6 million jumps, accord­ing to the United States Parachute Association. For tandem jumps the rate was even lower: Only 0.0003% of jumpers perished.

At 5,000 feet Dave pulled the main chute. As always, the aim was the three S’s: for the canopy to be square, stable and steerable. Then it was a sightseeing expedition down to the bottom, after which he’d grin for some photos, stow his gear and shower before the fun began. Saturday nights were epic at Waller. The drop zone was in a small private airport that had a clubhouse, kitchen and swimming pool. Folks drank Shiner Bock and Bud Light, then told stories around a bonfire; many slept on-site in RVs.

On weekend nights Dave usually did the cooking, sometimes crawfish, or barbecued chicken with lime sauce, or brisket and burgers. He’d worked his way through high school and then the University of Houston by cooking at Olive Garden and Chi-Chi’s. Part of him wished he’d stuck with it, rather than go for the salary and stability of Randalls, the grocery store where he was a manager for many years. The job paid well, but the long hours contributed to his divorce; Dave and his wife, Holly, who worked on the service desk, were on different shift schedules. It wasn’t until 2004 -- four years after they split -- that he discovered skydiving.

Now Dave pulled the rip cord and instantly knew something was wrong. A parachute release can be jarring, but this was different. Dave felt a violent jerk and heard a loud pop! from above. He tried to look up, toward the line, but he was already ­spinning -- once, twice, then dozens of times, faster and faster. Usually, opening the chute slows you from 120 mph to 20 mph. But they were both plummeting and twirling. Blood began rushing ­toward his feet. He knew the danger: Spin too fast for too long, and he could black out. And if he blacked out, no one could pull the ­reserve parachute. An automatic deployment device was supposed to trigger the reserve chute at roughly 1,500 feet, but considering the way they were spinning, the reserve would only get tangled with the main canopy.

Catching a glimpse of the bow-tie shape of the parachute above him, Dave had an idea of what had occurred: either a tension knot or a “lineover,” when the cords connected to the canopy twist on top of the parachute instead of below it. Either way the problem was solvable. All Dave had to do was cut away the main chute and deploy the reserve. It would be the first time in five years of skydiving that he’d needed to cut away, but hey, there was a first time for everything. Besides, part of him was excited to see what it was like. He closed his eyes to better focus and shoved his hand up from his hip to grasp the cutaway handle.

Only one problem: The handle was no longer there.

*****

Shirley was becoming worried. This was more than three spins. She could hear Dave grunting above her, trying to reach something.

“Is it supposed to be like this?” Shirley shouted.

“No,” Dave yelled back. “To be honest, we got a serious problem. But I got it.”

With every second they spun faster. The world became a blur. She wondered what her husband was thinking, down there on the ground. They’d met just after high school, in Colstrip, Mont., where their fathers worked together in the coal mine. Bill was outgoing, playing drums in a country band called Swampgrass. Shirley was the fourth of six kids in a strict Catholic family, a shy, pretty girl. They honeymooned in Coeur d’Alene, had Will in 1977, then Joe two years later. Bill worked in the power plant and the mine. When the work dried up, they moved to a mine near Teague, a small railroad switching town halfway between Dallas and Houston.

The culture shock was strong. But then Shirley became ­involved in the church and the kids’ schools. She built a network, put down roots, watched out for the boys. Will and Joe both loved baseball and football, and were good at them. They adored their mom but had one request: “Don’t cry if we get hurt during the game.” Then, in 1998, when the boys had graduated from high school, Shirley took a job at the post office. She walked 13 miles a day, opening one mailbox after another, then moved to a rural route in nearby Groesbeck, Texas. She liked the routine of the job, the predictability. Her life was quiet, constant.

Bill? He was the daredevil in the relationship. The one who went cliff diving as a young man. His father had been a rodeo rider, of all things. Bill had inherited some of his bravado. The summer before, he’d hiked sections of the Rockies by himself. Yet she was the one up there, spinning like a roulette wheel, plummeting toward the earth. “God,” she said quietly, “please help David.”

*****

Cut away the canopy. That’s all Dave was thinking. Normally it was easy. Normally he’d just reach over and pull the handle, the one that had suddenly disappeared. He’d envisioned the maneuver countless times, ever since that first weekend, back in 2004. His buddy Steve ­Martin -- friends loved to tease him about that name -- had announced at his 40th birthday party the previous year that he wanted to skydive. “I’m in!” said Dave. He was the guy who was up for anything, the one who’d join your bowling or darts team, who loved nothing more than grabbing a pint, eating buffalo wings, playing Trivial Pursuit and chasing girls. Of course he was in. At the end of his first tandem jump at Skydive Houston, Dave turned to his ­instructor: “What do I have to do to be able to do this all the time?”

The next weekend Dave was back. He loved the exhilaration of flight, the way it inhabited him. It was electrifying. He ­returned again and again until Todd Bell, the manager, asked him to become an instructor. After three years Dave got his coach’s rating. Then, in 2009, he began taking out tandems. He did well enough that he quit his job at the Dr Pepper bottling plant, where he’d worked since leaving the gig at Randalls. Sky­diving was now his profession: five to seven jumps a day, almost every day of the week. He loved the people and the culture, a community of daredevils and thrill chasers and partyers. He loved that on every leap he was introducing someone new to the sport, checking an item off their bucket list.

Now, however, he was in a bind. The canopy malfunction had been so violent that it had yanked the cutaway handle upward. It was stuck between him and Shirley, and he couldn’t reach it. Worse, the other cutaway handle was blocked by her body. As they dropped past 4,000 feet, Dave knew time was running out. He had roughly 20 seconds until the point of no return, at 1,500 feet. Opening parachutes doesn’t do much good after that.

As they spun, Dave tried to reach the cutaway handle again, straining. Again, he couldn’t reach it. He had to move on. Never try something more than twice -- this was the Rule of Twos in skydiving. There wasn’t time for experimentation.

There was only one option left. At roughly 3,500 feet Dave pulled the reserve chute. Smaller than the regular canopies, reserve chutes are inspected and repacked by licensed parachute riggers every 180 days. Skydiving culture holds that if you deploy a reserve, you owe whoever packed it a case of beer or a bottle of good liquor. That was the last thing Dave was worried about now. He hoped the reserve would at least slow them down. Stop the spinning. Give him a chance to think.

The packet shot behind him into the blue sky and then expanded. For a moment, calm returned. One hundred mph became 60 mph. Their spin slowed. The blood rushed back to Dave’s head, and he was able to begin playing with the lines, trying to get the two ­semi-inflated­ canopies into the air. He thought, Maybe we’ll get out of this.

On the ground Bill Dygert watched with growing concern. The whole day had bothered him. He was accustomed to being in control. At the coal mine he was the production manager, the one who made the decisions. The same usually held in the family. The feeling of powerlessness drove him crazy.

Maybe that’s why he’d taken to his role as the day’s photographer so zealously. At least he was in charge of that. Using a Canon T50, he took pictures of Shirley in the drop-zone office. And before takeoff. And, even though they were just specks, he fired away as Joe jumped and then, not long after, Shirley.

Her jump looked fine at first. Then the parachute shot into the sky and, instead of blooming, folded in on itself, like a popped balloon. Then a second chute went up, but Bill could tell it wasn’t slowing them down all that much. They were streaking toward the ground. They’d also drifted way off course, headed for a grove of trees. Bill felt as if he were watching a car crash he could do nothing to prevent. He put down the camera and began running. He thought, Why the hell did I let her do this?

Shirley had just regained her sense of equilibrium when she felt a jolt. And then another acceleration. Above her the two canopies, hungry for air, had swung violently to opposite sides. They were now in a downplane -- roughly horizontal, in essence becoming two wings that were flying Dave and Shirley straight at the ground. Their speed increased from 60 mph back to 100-plus.

As they passed 2,500 feet, Shirley came to the realization that this was the last day of her life. She couldn’t believe it. There was so much still to do. She thought about Joe, who she’d once worried would be a college student his whole life. He’d finally graduated from Texas A&M, then earned his master’s at Trinity University in San Antonio. He now worked as a financial analyst for the Harris County hospital district, near Houston, but was still unmarried. Shirley would never meet his wife, never know his children.

Then she thought about Will, who was down there watching with his children -- her grandchildren -- Brady, 6; Caylon, 4, and Lexi, an infant. She wanted to find them on the ground, to hold her hand out to them and say, “It’s O.K. It’s O.K.”

One thought overwhelmed her: I don’t want my kids to have to see this.

A few hundred feet downwind, floating toward the drop zone, Joe Dygert tried to turn so he could see his mom, but his instructor immediately turned him away. Joe had been the one who pushed her to do this. She had always looked after him. He was excited to do this for her -- to inject some life into her life. Only now it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Behind him he could hear his instructor muttering, “Stop spinning. Stop spinning. Stop spinning.”

Joe caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye. His mom had jumped a good minute after him. She was going to reach the ground before him.

*****

Desperately, Dave grabbed at the lines. He needed to stop the downplane; seven seconds at that speed would eat up 1,000 feet. He twisted, pulled. But he got them out of it. They’d reduced their speed but were down to 1,500 feet and still plummeting at 60 mph. Worse, they were spinning again. The time to try to fix the canopy was over. It was time to start looking at the ground.

Once, 100 jumps in, Dave had talked about this moment, while drinking beers at the fire pit with Martin. If it came to it, what would they do during a malfunction. Would they go facedown? Burn in? That’s when a man named Stephen Seager, one of the most experienced jumpers, walked over. “You two are the biggest assholes I’ve met,” Seager said. “What do you do if you have a bad malfunction? You fight all the way down to stay alive, that’s what you do.”

It was a strange position to be in, responsible for someone else’s existence. Dave was no hero in everyday life. Sure, he was a good dude and the life of the party, a loyal friend who always had your back. But Dave could also be a smart-ass, and reckless. He’d spent much of his life in pursuit of good times. Eight years earlier a car hit his motorcycle at 2:30 in the morning. Dave wasn’t wearing a helmet. His skull was fractured. He suffered bleeding in the brain.

Three years later, while driving a Dr Pepper truck, he was T-boned by another car, at an intersection. Dave suffered a compression fracture of the L1 vertebra. The doctor said his back was broken, but he’d be O.K. “Will I ever be able to skydive again?” Dave asked. The doctor was shocked; most people wanted to know if they’d be able to walk. “No way,” the doctor said.

Dave was back at the drop zone within a year. He’d given up on having kids, on a family. He lived for himself now. He knew other men who became “drop-zone bums,” cutting themselves off from society and winnowing the world down to skydiving. Dave was fine with that. He understood that the sport might one day injure or kill him. That was part of the deal.

That wasn’t the deal that Shirley had made, though. This was the only jump of her life, that much Dave had known. He thought about her family on the ground, watching. About what would happen upon impact. He knew what he needed to do.

As they reached 750 feet, Shirley in front and Dave behind, Shirley thought about her mom, who’d died of cancer in 2000. She thought about how they’d see each other soon. She thought, too, of her father and her childhood. How they’d lived in a succession of small towns: Garrison, N.D.; Deming, N.M.; Forsyth, Mont. A new school every year, new friends. The family farmed; her dad had worked in road construction, then at the coal mines. He prided himself on never missing a day, never calling in sick. He worked himself into the grave, dying at 66. Shirley felt a warmth: She’d see him again soon too.

They hit 100 feet. Below her Shirley could see individual ­bushes. Fences. This is how I’m going to die, she thought. ­Strangely, she was O.K. with that. The anxiety vanished. She was at peace. She was ready. The yellow grass came closer. She was getting what’s known as “ground rush” -- when the earth seems to come at you like a freight train. Shirley prepared herself.
That’s when Dave shouted into her ear.

“Shirley, I want you to pull up your legs now!” he said. “Get ready for a really rough landing.”

And with that, as she kicked, Shirley felt herself twist ­upright. Behind her Dave pulled down on the two canopy lines, so hard that he dislocated both his shoulders. At the same time he kicked his own legs up, inverting their positions so that it was he, a 44-year-old man who’d spent his life largely in pursuit of personal gratification, who hit the hard Texas dirt first, becoming a human cushion for a woman he’d met only a half hour earlier.

The impact was so loud, it was audible a quarter mile away. Moments later Shirley opened her eyes, then blinked. Above her she saw light and sky and clouds. Beneath her she felt the inert form of Dave Hartsock.

*****

It’s been five years now, and Shirley still thinks about Dave every day. She and Bill still live in the same ranch-style house just outside of Teague. To get there you drive down a two-lane road, then another, then turn onto a dirt drive, scaring away the jackrabbits. Just before the horse barn, turn left.

Shirley’s hair is tinged with gray, and the creases have deepened around her eyes, but she smiles broadly and walks without a limp. She considers it a miracle that, for someone who broke multiple ribs, lost part of a kidney, tore her spleen, damaged her liver and broke five vertebrae in her neck, she has no lasting effects. “Good as new,” she says.

Photo:
The refrigerator bears photos of her grandchildren. A sign on the wall reads FAMILY FAITH FRIENDS. She walks over to the computer, where Bill types hero skydiver into the search box on his Web browser. The first result is from The CBS Evening News. The clip, from 2010, begins. There is Katie Couric, staring at the camera gravely. “The word hero is used so much these days, it’s almost lost its meaning,” she begins.

Three days after the accident, Bill thought they’d lost Dave. This was on Tuesday, before Shirley went in for surgery. While she rested, Bill heard from someone at the hospital that Dave had passed away in the night. He grabbed Will and Joe. “Do not, under any circumstances, tell your mom what happened until after she’s out of surgery,” Bill said.

The report was wrong. Dave was still alive. Barely. After the landing he’d been Life-Flighted­ to Houston’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, while Shirley rode in an ambulance to a nearby ER in Cypress, Texas, and from there to the trauma center at Houston’s Ben Taub General Hospital. Over and over during the next few days her family heard the same thing: Do you know how lucky she is to be alive?

Her recovery was surprisingly quick. Three days after surgery she was allowed to leave the hospital. Two weeks later, back for a checkup, she arrived early and walked a few blocks down to Memor­ial Hermann, where Dave was still in intensive care. She took the elevator up, found his room. No one was there but the nurse. He looked up. He could see her, but he couldn’t talk. “David, how are you doing?” she said. Then she kissed him on the forehead.

Dave looked at her. He saw her neck brace. He began to cry.

“It’s O.K.,” Shirley said. “We’re both going to be walking.” Now she was tearing up too. “Dave,” she continued, “I just want to tell you that I love you.”

Dave looked up at her. A tube emerged from his throat. His head was swaddled, his face puffy, his body lifeless. He began to mouth words. I. Love. You. Too.

In the months that followed the media called. There were ripple effects too. Joe’s friend who was supposed to jump that day and didn’t, a young man from San Antonio named Michael Stovall? He was one of the first on the scene. The experience triggered his decision to study medicine.

The accident changed the Dygerts’ relationship too. It wasn’t that Bill had ignored Shirley before. He just hadn’t stopped to appreciate her as much as he might. Shirley and Bill go out more often now -- they recently saw Paul Simon in concert in Houston. But Shirley has also become more careful. She still has her horses, but seldom rides them. She thinks more about others. “I don’t want to just pass by anybody,” she says. “I want to give them a smile. Something.”

Five years later Shirley remains haunted by that afternoon at the drop zone. She thinks about it at least once a day, if not more. Her survivor’s guilt is real, and strong. Three months after the accident she called Dave’s mother, Viki, who was staying with him at the hospital. “I have to ask,” Shirley said quietly. “Did I do something wrong?” Viki didn’t hesitate. “No,” she said. “As a matter of fact, the first thing Dave said was that if you’d panicked, neither of you would have lived.”

The experience took something out of Shirley that may never come back, she says. In a way, she’s now living for two people. Yet she continues to marvel at Dave’s actions.

*****

These days Dave and Viki Hartsock live in a small, three-bedroom house in the northern sprawl of Houston, on a quiet residential street near strip malls. Dave bought the place in 1994, back when he was married. Dave comes to the door. His hair is short and graying on top. He uses his right hand to operate his motorized chair. He can’t grip, but he can offer a limp shake. “Sorry about my voice,” he says. It is scratchy, off-key. “That’s the thing about a tracheotomy. Makes you sound like a weirdo.”

When he came to, on the ground, Dave was surprised to be alive. Holy crap, he thought, we actually made it. Shirley was strapped on top of him, and she was trying to get up. He tried to rise but couldn’t. He assumed he’d broken his back. Later, at the hospital, the doctors recited complicated medical terms, but all that mattered was this: Dave was a quadriplegic. He’d never walk again.

Now he lives with his 76-year-old mother, a small, tough-talking woman with white hair and red lipstick. After the ­accident Viki moved from her retirement home near Phoenix to help take care of Dave. She’s redecorated the place. The giant fish tank is in the garage now. They sold off Dave’s entertainment center to help pay the medical bills. The living room is now filled with porcelain figurines. The couches are floral print.

When the accident occurred, Dave had only partial health-care coverage, through COBRA, because he’d just made a career change. It didn’t cover the costs of 24-hour care, and he says he’s only recently qualified for a form of Medicaid. So Viki takes care of him during the day, before a night nurse comes in. He needs to be turned every three hours while sleeping. His medicine supply cabinet is the size of a walk-in closet. Viki steels herself daily. She worries what will happen once she is gone.

Dave motors into his living room. It’s here that Viki keeps the folders of letters. From middle school students. From people Dave’s never met in New York and Washington and England. Skydivers take care of their own. When Dave’s friends began a campaign to raise money after the accident on giveforward.org, they hit their goal of $45,000 in a matter of weeks. To read the pledges is to be amazed by the different ways generosity is manifested: A pledge of $4.47 from Jennifer L. Lance, who hopes it’s “a drop in your bucket.” Another $23.15 from Sandra L. Hamilton, who writes, “Bless you for your unselfish act of courage. The world needs more people like you.” Another $934 from Anonymous. On it goes, pages and pages of pledges and notes.

In conversation Dave is sarcastic. The humor comes off as a defense mechanism, a way to try to be normal when he is no such thing. Like his email handle: quadraman. Dave’s life has narrowed. He can’t go out much. He watches a lot of movies. He spends a lot of time on the computer and worries about his health and finances. Occasionally he sees his skydiving buddies. Just a week earlier three of them organized a Fun Run on his behalf in Houston. Almost two dozen people showed up, and the event raised $3,100. One day, Dave says, he hopes to head back to a drop zone, just to hang out.

As for the fateful jump, bring it up and Dave is matter-of-fact. “I did what I felt was necessary for taking care of my student,” he says. “To me, that was the most important thing, making sure Shirley got down safely. My thoughts about whether I was going to survive took five seconds. I thought, if we do it this way, I’ll either get killed or paralyzed from the waist down.” He pauses. “And I’m like, O.K., I can live with that.”

Then there is the question everyone asks: Would you do it again? Dave doesn’t hesitate. “Yup,” he says, while allowing that in hindsight he wishes he’d tried one or two other maneuvers with the parachute lines. But the final flip? “I’d do that every time,” he says.

As with all major incidents, the USPA investigated Dave’s crash, but he has not seen the results. He says he doesn’t want to. (And according to a USPA spokesperson, he no longer can; the association says it looks into crashes to record statistics but does not keep individual records.) Similarly, he never asked who packed the parachute that malfunctioned. “People ask, ‘Don’t you want to know?’ ” he says. “I say no, because it doesn’t change anything. It might have been his fault, the guy who packed it. It might not be. But there’s no reason to find blame. It doesn’t make a difference.”

*****

The next morning, a Friday, the doorbell rings and Shirley enters, tentatively. She’s brought flowers.

“I’m giddy,” says Dave, grinning, dressed in shorts and a polo shirt with the insignia of a pirate in a wheelchair. “I’m excited you’re here.”

“You’re looking great,” Shirley says.

She took a day off work and drove down from Teague because a reporter is in town. For the last five years, whenever anyone has wanted to do a story on Dave and Shirley, she’s dropped everything to make it work. She hopes the coverage will bring in more donations. That it will inspire others.

They talk for a while. The warmth between them is genuine. She touches Dave on the arm during conversation. She gently takes hold of his fingers after he says he’s now able to move them and shows how he can use a large fork to eat. Dave says he considers Shirley a friend, and that comes across. As for Shirley, like many of Dave’s friends, she is amazed by how positive he remains, by how he’s always joking and laughing, how he signs off every email “God Bless and Blue Skies.” She’s not sure she could do the same in his position.

Dave waves away such talk. Mention how he’s inspired countless people, and he talks about how they’ve inspired him. About how he has been moved by every letter he’s received, every heartfelt note, every $10 bill in an envelope. “That’s not something I ever thought I’d do in my life -- inspire­ people,” he says.

As for why he did it -- what compelled him to sacrifice himself to save ­Shirley -- Dave has read the research on heroism and altruism. How it has biological roots, and how it can theoretically be trained, like a muscle. He’s not so sure about all that. His best guess is that his actions came from “a combination of having certain values instilled by my parents and the environment of skydiving, where you look out for everybody. It’s a very nurturing atmosphere. That’s part of what I loved about it.”

He pauses. “Everyone calls me a hero because I put her life ahead of mine,” he says, “and I understand the definition of a hero, and I guess I fall in that definition, but I never thought of myself that way.”

It was, in a strange way, a rare opportunity Dave received. How many of us have a chance to be tested like that? Perhaps we think we couldn’t do what Dave did. That we haven’t been heroic enough in our lives. But then who says you need to have lived a hero’s life to be a hero? Why can’t a hero be just another normal, flawed human being, a guy who likes hot wings and cold beer and chasing girls? Maybe that is the gift Dave gives the rest of us. The assurance that, in that moment, we might be able to do what he did.

Eventually Viki clears lunch. The heat outside begins to dissipate, and shadows creep across Dave’s back patio. Before he pulls away from the table, though, he says he wants to make one thing clear. To get it on the record. He is not bitter at the sport of skydiving. He still loves it. Still thinks it’s safe. Still wants other people to love it. The sport changed his life -- made him a different person -- and he’d jump again in a heartbeat if he could, he says. Whenever he sees Shirley, he jokes about their going out together again, once he’s better. He’s also heard that sometimes tandem instructors take out handicapped students, and he thinks that would be pretty damn cool. So he keeps up on the sport. During the day he watches videos and checks in with his skydiving buddies. He reads the blogs.

And at night, after he logs off the computer and finally drifts into a fitful sleep, when Dave Hartsock dreams, he dreams he is up there in the clouds again. He is not falling, though. He never was, in his mind.
No, he is flying.

To contribute to Dave Hartsock’s recovery fund, go to: giveforward.com/fundraiser/0635/david-hartsock-s-fundraise.

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