On one rainy day, we were to drop onto an open field near Augsburg; as we dropped, I looked up and saw that one of the younger members, Eugen Frey, had a look on his face that was nothing short of panic; something was wrong with his chute. I could see it tangled behind him, trying to unknit itself, but to no avail.
He held his arms open and looked at me with huge, staring eyes, the wind whipping his jumpsuit frantically around him.
I needed to deploy my chute in seconds; he was floating above me, and there is no real way to navigate precisely during a free-fall. He made a motion to me to pull the ripcord, as though he were submitting to his fate. He knew there was nothing I could do. But as I did so, and my chute began to deploy, I began to slow down, ever so slightly; and as he passed me, falling faster of course, he touched one of my canopy lines, and held on. I held out my hand, and we managed, clumsily, to clutch at each other until he was in my arms, and my chute blossomed above us.
He felt like a greyhound, trembling; to disengage would be to die.
“You must relax,” I said—not relaxed myself. “I have you.”
I had one hand on his belt, one hand on his forearm, and pulled him in as close as I could. His face was right atop mine; I could feel him shaking furiously, uncontrollably; I could smell the fear emanating from him.
“Don’t drop me,” he said like a child.
I started to laugh out loud. What could one say at such a moment? I pulled him closer—for the sake of aerodynamics—and felt his body against mine, trembling, his legs twining with mine.
Instinctively we gripped each other’s legs in a scissors lock, the absurd feeling of achieving unity with a man plummeting at one hundred ninety-four kilometers an hour in space only making me hug tighter. I could feel the pulse of his heart beating in the huge vein in his leg, just where the leg joins the belly. A tender spot, I thought, and laughed.
He began to laugh as well, and the two of us nervously roared with laughter as the chute caressed the air above us, and we fell to Earth, snapping to attention only as the ground rushed forward, and we raised our legs to land properly. He rolled off to one side, his parachute still half in and half out of its pack. Not the most elegant of landings, but both of us simply stopped and panted for a minute.
The others who had seen us drop together started to crowd around us.
“You caught him in mid-air?”
“Sir, you saved his life?”
“That’s one for the books!”
“I would do it for any of you, you know that.” I put on the icy stare I was supposed to use for every occasion, but they pressed on and clapped us both on the shoulders.
There went around a story of a similar thing that happened in Fallschirmjäger C-division, where someone whose chute didn’t deploy grabbed hold of a lead, and the man on the chute kicked him off and watched him fall to his death. Of course that was the proper way to do it—no need to jeopardize two men—but the men knew in their hearts that I valued them.