Last week during my reading group, one woman produced a “show and tell.” It was a silken fragment of a World War II parachute, in green-brown jungle camouflage, that had been used in the invasion of Normandy. We passed it from hand to hand, remembering the meadows of crosses that mark the graves of soldiers killed in that war, and before that in the even more horrific First World War, only twenty years earlier—fields of graves. Someone remarked that to this day the plows of French farmers dig up live shells and armaments from WW I, and that it will take 500 years to find and detonate them all, and this is from only ONE war almost a century ago. And then, in anguish, I began to think of lives saved. For sometimes they are, and mysteriously, miraculously, as if by angelic intervention.
I’ll tell of two such events, both involving falls from unimaginable heights. The first was told me by Michael, the bellman of a Midwestern hotel, when I asked him lightheartedly if he’d ever seen an angel. Instantly his demeanor turned serious.
“Yes,” he said. “My life was saved once by angel.” He was a paratrooper in the army, making a nighttime training jump from low altitude. Each trooper hooked his chute line on the airplane cord and leapt from the plane, one after another– and he among them, vaulting into the darkness of the starry night; except his parachute became entangled in its own lines. He was plummeting to earth. If he pulled his reserve, he risked the smaller chute get tangling uselessly in the larger one, but if he did nothing, he would die. Just then he heard a voice call out from above him: “Don’t pull the reserve. I’ve got you.” He looked up and saw that the soldier above him had grabbed his tangled parachute and was carrying them both down on his open one.
The next minute he landed in a ballooning of silk together with his savior. “It’s been a long time since I jumped,” the man shouted happily – but by then Michael was busy gathering up armloads of parachute and finding his way to the meeting place. Later he looked for his colleague to thank him. He studied the airplane roster and went to each and every trooper who made that jump. He could not find the man who had carried him down on his open parachute—the man who had cried out joyfully that it had been a long time since he’d jumped.
“I think he was my guardian angel,” said Michael as he opened my hotel room for me, and I’ve never forgotten his tale.
The other story came to me only a year ago when a TV show, Weird or What? hosted by William Shatner (and you can look it up on www.tv.com/shows/weird-or-what) wrote to ask me to appear in connection with an “angel story” they had found. The TV program on the history channel about the paranormal and supernatural engenders mixed reviews, but the facts this time are as compelling as those of the parachutist. A young sky diver and her fiancé decided to take a skydiving jump together one fine day before their marriage. Their plane carried them up to 10,000 feet—which meant they would be soaring and falling for quite a few minutes before opening their chutes to land safely.
The only problem was the young woman’s chute didn’t open. She fell from 10,000 feet and smashed onto the concrete of a parking lot. You’d think she’d be a splatter of blood, but here’s the mystery: she broke some bones but was not killed. How is that possible? In the hospital it was discovered she was pregnant and the baby, too, was unhurt. Today she has a healthy son.
How do we explain surviving a fall onto concrete from 10,000 feet? How do we explain a man who saves another, carrying him on his parachute–then disappears? And why? Urgently I cry aloud to understand! Why sometimes and not others? Why to one person and not another? What do we do to earn this grace? And how do we reconcile the slaughter of men and women, the violence endemic to the human race, the unbearable mercy of the Divine?