WIMP OF SPARTA
Top Chef was on in the hotel room when I got the call about the shark attack.
My mother’s voice betrayed no panic on the phone. “He’s at Mercy Hospital.”
I didn’t panic either. In the Sparta family, the trip to thehospital was as much a part of going on vacation as airport security and hotel food.
“Dad or Tyson?” Tyson—my fifteen-year-old brother. Born without fear. Or brains.
This was a wrinkle. “Both?”
“Tyson’s not serious. He just hit his head on the side of the boat when they hauled up what was left of the shark cage. I swear—we should sue the whole crew! To abort our dive because of one little great white—”
That got my attention. “Dad was attacked by a great white?”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Peter,” she admonished me. “The doctors say it’s a dermal abrasion from the sharkskin.”
“Where’s Kelly?” I asked. She was the oldest. Seventeen, and possibly crazier than Tyson.
“Giving blood,” Mom replied. “Dad has a rare type. They don’t have much O-neg in this corner of Australia.”
“He needs a transfusion for a scratch?”
She was impatient. “There are scratches, and there are scratches. You know how sharks can be when there’s blood in the water.”
So now it wasn’t just the crew who overreacted. It was the great white, too.
“I have to hang up, Peter,” she said suddenly. “They’re wheeling your father out of Emergency. Take a taxi to the hospital. And don’t forget to ask the driver for a receipt.”
Welcome to the world of Sparta family vacations. The Spartans, Dad called us. He always compared us to the ancient Greeks. Personally, I didn’t see the connection. Those legendary warriors fought battles for the protection of their homes and loved ones, the survival of their city-state. But Dad wasn’t protecting his family when he jumped in the water with that great white. On the contrary, he practically got them all killed.
When we traveled, there was no Disney World in the itinerary, no Waikiki. Sun and sand meant crossing the Gobi desert on camelback. The closest we got to a water park was our raft trip down the cataracts of the Nile, complete with belligerent hippos and eighteen-foot crocs.
Daredevils, thrill seekers, or just plain nuts—the Spartans had been called all those, and a whole lot more. If you look up maniac in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a family portrait. But I wouldn’t be in it. I didn’t hang from sky hooks or fl y through the air withthe greatest of ease. Somehow the daredevil gene missed me; I got the cowardly recessive. I was the one who sat in the hotel waiting for the phone to ring with directions to thehospital. My biggest responsibility was to remember the taxi receipt. Believe it or not, near-death experiences were tax deductible. Since Dad wrote articles about the family adventures, my cab rides to the hospital were legitimate business expenses. So were doctor bills, rehab, crutches, neck braces, various creams and liniments, even Advil—and we went through piles of that.
“You can’t live your life cocooned in Bubble Wrap,” my father lectured me time and time again. “The world is full of rich and glorious experience, and you’re missing it!”
A lot of that rich and glorious experience had to do with doctors and hospitals. In his forty-seven years, Calvin Sparta had broken thirty-two bones, not to mention his three concussions and one fractured skull. His wife, my mother, left her eyebrows at four thousand feet over the Bermuda Triangle while adjusting the flame of a hot air balloon. Kelly and Tyson already bore the scars of battle as well. Both were convinced I’d been switched at birth with their real brother. Somewhere out there was a true biological Spartan, wondering why his parents wouldn’t let him BASE jump off the Empire State Building.
But they had a point. Why was I such a misfit? Not that I yearned to be part of their kamikaze lifestyle, but—well,
why didn’t I? It was like coming from a long line of concert pianists, and you were all thumbs. Even if you had no interest
in music, it still hurt to be left out. I didn’t belong. I didn’t want to belong their way. Still, I wanted to belong some way. I kept on hoping that there would turn out to be an alternate path to full membership in the Sparta clan—one that didn’t come at the end of a bungee cord, approaching terminal velocity.
I had traveled the world with nothing to show for it but frequent-flyer miles. I never did anything. I never saw anything
that didn’t happen to be along the road between our hotel and the hospital. My role was to wait for the damagereport. And it always came. Broken jaw, ruptured spleen, three-point landing on knees and nose, dislocated shoulder, missing teeth. I endured my parents’ lectures about living life to the fullest and my siblings’ taunts about what a wimp I was.
Deep down, I knew I was the most courageous of all. It took a lot of guts to sit by the phone for the call that would
one day surely come—the call that wouldn’t be about scrapes and bruises, or even fractures. The one where the directions wouldn’t be to any hospital, but to the local morgue.
Dad was in somewhat better shape when I joined the family at Mercy Hospital that day. His chest and arm were wrapped mummy-style in white bandages, but he was sitting up inbed, and his energy level was high as he argued with the doctor.
“Of course we’re going back out on the reef—as soon as I find a boat captain who won’t panic and raise the cage at the first little glitch!”
“The door falling off a shark cage isn’t a ‘little glitch,’” the doctor said soothingly. “And the poor man probably didn’t expect you to jump out of it.”
“I hadn’t taken any pictures!” Dad roared, as if this explained everything. He picked up the phone on the bedside table. “I hope it isn’t too late to book another charter for tomorrow morning.”
The doctor took the receiver from Dad’s hand and returned it to its cradle. “You’ve had forty percent of the skin scraped off your torso and upper arm. You put a wound like that in the ocean, you’ll attract every shark this side of the Horn of Africa. I’m afraid you’re high and dry, my American friend.”
I found a rare unbandaged spot on my father’s shoulder and patted it. “A little relaxation will do us good, Dad.”
Tyson glared at me from beneath the dressing on his forehead. “Relaxation doesn’t get your blood pumping.”
“From what I hear, yours was pumping all over the Great Barrier Reef,” I retorted.
“Just because we can’t dive doesn’t mean we can’t score some adrenaline,” Kelly pointed out. “We’re in Australia! There’s action in the Outback, right, doc?”
“I suppose,” the doctor told her. “But it’s a very big country. The Outback is hundreds of kilometers away. You’d have to charter a plane.”
Dad sat up, suppressing a grimace as bandages tugged against shark-abraded skin. “Great idea. A plane.” With a practiced motion, he tore off his hospital bracelet. “And parachutes.”
What do you do if you can’t dive with sharks? If your last name is Sparta, you go skydiving.
This family was driving me crazy.
Fast-forward twenty-four hours. Streaking across the sky at 11,000 feet, I counted the chutes blooming into colorfulpatterns below the aircraft. Yes, I was along for the ride this time. Not to jump of course, but to “see what a rush you’re missing”—Dad’s words, not mine.
“The only rush I’ll be missing is the ambulance ride,” I had told him sourly.
Actually, no airborne jump could have made me as nauseated as the flight to the drop site. The plane was perfect for Dad’s band of ancient warriors. It looked, rattled, and definitely smelled like it had seen action in the Trojan War.
Four skydivers, four parachutes. I sighed my relief into the hanging oxygen mask. The pilot flashed me a thumbs-up as he undid his seat belt to reach for a thermos of coffee.
Then it happened. The plane gave a violent lurch. A bloody mass of feathers thumped into the front windscreen—the propeller-mangled remains of a bird. The jolt bounced the pilot clear out of his chair, slamming his head against the cockpit bulkhead. Only my seat belt kept me from a similar fate.
With no one at the controls, the nose of the plane turned downward.
“Mister!” I batted off my mask. “Captain! Hey!”
Sprawled in a heap on the flight deck, the pilot did not stir.
I threw off the belt and made my way forward, legs unsteady as our descent steepened. I knelt by the pilot. He wasout like a light.
“Wake up!” I pleaded, slapping at his cheeks. “Come on, mister, nobody’s flying the plane!” I uncorked the thermos and poured lukewarm coffee over his head. No response.
A funny sensation took hold in my stomach—that rollercoaster feeling of free fall. My head jerked up sharply enough to bring on whiplash. The sky had disappeared from the front windshield. In its place, the coast of Queensland, Australia, was hurtling toward me at full speed!
In a blind panic, I leaped into the pilot’s seat and heaved back on the wheel, like I’d seen people do in movies. “Wake up!” I rasped over my shoulder as I pulled with all my might.
My efforts elicited no sign of life from the unconscious pilot, but slowly, a brilliant expanse of light blue swung into view. We were flying level again—the nose of the plane was just below the horizon. I checked the altimeter—2700. Was that feet or meters? Or donuts, for that matter! I couldn’t even be sure this was the altimeter. For all I knew, it was the fuel gauge or the tire-pressure indicator or the toy from the captain’s last Happy Meal!
Who was I kidding? I couldn’t fl y a plane. “Wake up!” I screamed yet again at the unmoving pilot. The irony of it nearly tore me in two. For twelve years, I had resisted an entire family of daredevils and maniacs, always taking the safe path. How could I have known that today the safe path would have been to jump out of the plane with the daredevils and maniacs?
I picked up the radio microphone and barked, “Mayday! Mayday!” Desperately, I twisted the dial. “Can anybody hear me? My name is Peter Sparta, and I’m in a plane with an unconscious pilot!” Nothing. “Aw, come on, Mayday, dammit!” Either the system was dead or I just couldn’t figure out how to make it work. One way or the other, I was on my own.
My eyes filled with tears. I’d always known that, sooner or later, somebody was going to get killed on one of these Sparta misadventures. But I never imagined it would be me.
I set my jaw. All those taxi rides were to the hospital instead of the cemetery for a reason—Spartans were survivors. Somewhere, buried deep inside the wimp my family had driven me to become, was the inner Spartan who could land this plane.
One benefit of hundreds of hours watching TV in hotel rooms while my family danced with death: I had a basic sense of how an airplane worked. Even this old junker was loaded with hundreds of little instruments, gauges, and other baffling doohickeys. I ignored all of them but two. The wheel moved me up, down, port, and starboard. And the throttle—the black stick beside the seat—regulated engine power.
I can do this, I told myself. I’m a Spartan.
Gently, I eased the wheel forward, pointing the nose of the plane downward. The roller-coaster feeling came almost immediately, and the horizon pivoted up and out of view. The altimeter dial spun in a circle as we plummeted. I thought of all the airplane landings I’d seen—the graceful descent, the delicate touchdown. No way was this the same thing. This was a suicide plunge!
Heart pounding like a jackhammer, I pulled back on the wheel. “If you’re planning to wake up,” I shouted at the pilot, “this would be a great time!”
He didn’t stir, but amazingly, the horizon returned to the windscreen, and I was able to straighten out the plane. I checked the altimeter—900. Feet, I guessed—the ground looked about that far away. Could I land on it? How flat did terrain have to be in order to pass for a runway?
There was no way to be sure. Yet one thing was certain. I had to try.
Besides, I had bigger worries. How could I descend without putting the plane into a nosedive? Maybe I was just flying too fast. With effort, I pried my trembling right hand from the wheel and transferred it to the throttle. Breathing a silent prayer, I nudged the stick backward a fraction of an inch. The tone of the engine noise changed slightly. I felt the speed slacken a little. And something else happened— something totally unexpected.
As the aircraft slowed, the nose dipped and the plane began to move lower—not the screaming, headlong dive of a minute ago, but a smooth, gradual descent.
Cut speed, and the plane goes down on its own!
Millimeter by millimeter, I pulled back on the stick, my eyes glued to the altimeter. I’d made it all the way down to 150 feet when a tinny distorted voice was suddenly yelling at me.
“Climb to an altitude of fourteen hundred feet!”
Shocked, I glanced over at the pilot, but he was still out cold.
“This is Cairns Air Traffic Control! Identify yourself!”
“I’m Peter Sparta!” I shouted helplessly. Terror does strange things to you. Yes, I knew that nobody could hear me unless I picked up the microphone. But with one hand on the throttle and the other on the wheel, that wasn’t an option right now.
“Repeat—climb to an altitude of fourteen hundred feet! You’re too low over a populated area. . . .”
I looked down to see houses, streets, cars—a town! Unbelievable! In the emptiest country on earth, I had managed to run out of empty!
“Climb!” the voice on the radio practically howled.
“Okay!” I let go of the throttle and yanked on the wheel with both hands. And I did climb—for about three feet. Then the plane began to shake, lurching lower in violent spasms as the engine sputtered and choked.
I’ve slowed down too much to ascend!
I straightened the wheel, and the ride smoothed a little. I checked the altimeter—60 feet.
“This is Cairns Air Traffic Control calling unidentified aircraft—”
“Shut up!” Sorry, Cairns Air Traffic Control, but I wasn’t about to crash and burn just because you made the mistake of assuming I knew how to fly a plane.
I was right over a wide boulevard, low enough to read brand names on billboards—well, what do you know, they have Fruit of the Loom underwear in Australia. A split second decision was required, and I made it. This was going to be my landing strip. I’d just have to pray the cars would be able to get out of my way. Fifty thousand useless gadgets, but nobody thought to put a simple horn on this dumb plane. Evidently, the manufacturer must have felt that if a motorist was too clueless to notice tons of machinery screaming down on his head, a polite honk wasn’t likely to capture his attention.
Okay—landing gear. I scanned the instrument panel in petrifi ed befuddlement. How did you put down the wheels on this crate? Unless this was one of those planes with fixed landing gear—yes? No? Maybe? Furiously, I tried to conjure a picture of the plane parked on the tarmac as Dad and Tyson had loaded the parachutes and gear. For the life of me—and it was literally going to come to that—I couldn’t seem to call up an angle that showed what was underneath the fuselage.
Forget it. No time. All I could do was point the nose at the center line of the road. And pray.
The altimeter was at zero—useless. I hadn’t touched down yet, but I was close—close enough to make out the cowed faces in the convertible off to my left. And that little girl—the one pointing and shrieking—were those braces on her teeth . . . ?
I yanked the throttle all the way back. With a jerk and a cough, the engine stalled and I was falling. I simultaneously screamed and wheezed, creating an instant of perfect, silent terror as the plane dropped ten feet.
Whump! The bouncing impact of inflated rubber. Tires— blessed tires! Fixed landing gear!
The wallop tossed the pilot from his resting place and sent him rolling into a bulkhead. With a painful groan, he sat up and tried to blink the cobwebs out of his eyes.
“Never mind that!” I barked. “How do you stop this crazy thing?”
Cars spun out and drove up on the sidewalk as the runaway aircraft jounced down the road at breakneck speed.
The wildness of the situation brought him back in a hurry. “Use the brakes!”
I looked around frantically. There were four pedals at my feet. I picked one and stomped on it. Instead of stopping, the plane swerved sharply to the right. We jumped the curb, crashed through a line of sawhorses, caromed over an expanse of broken concrete, and rattled out onto an old abandoned pier. Weathered timbers became a gray-brown blur as we hurtled along the dock.
“Not those pedals!” rasped the pilot. “The upper ones!”
I stomped on the brakes and pressed down with every ounce of force left in my exhausted body. The wheels locked up, and we skidded toward the gleaming Pacific.
“Come on!” I grunted, bracing my back against the pilot’s chair for more strength. The end of the pier was coming up fast. I stared in horror.
We weren’t going to stop in time.
The nose dropped as the front wheel bounced over the edge. The ancient planks split and splintered under the impact of the belly of the plane. And then—silence.
I looked around, barely daring to breathe. We were no longer moving.
“Yes!” I cheered, leaping up, fist held high. “Spartans are survivors!”
But the weight of the aircraft was too much for the ram-shackle wharf. With a groan and a crunch, the dilapidated structure fell apart, and the Pacific Ocean tilted and rose to meet me.
Mom, Dad, Kelly, and Tyson piled into a taxi and came to visit me in the hospital.
They forgot to get a receipt.
The other Spartans had come through their parachute jump without a scratch. Even I wasn’t too badly off, exceptfor a broken foot sustained kicking open the hatch of the sinking plane and splinters from crawling up what was left of the pier, dragging one concussed pilot. He was in stable condition three doors away, complaining of headaches and a mysterious coffee smell.
I think the doctors were only holding me because anyone who’d been through what I had should have been in full mental breakdown. The post–traumatic stress syndrome alone would be enough to kill a normal person.
But I wasn’t a normal person. I was a Spartan, just like the rest of the family. Who would have guessed it?
Dad ruffled my hair. “I’ve never been as proud of you as I am right now.”
Was he serious? When had he ever been proud of me?
“Why?” I asked him. “Because I survived or because I almost got killed?”
Tyson jostled my arm, aggravating one of many contusions. “Because you punched your ticket, man! That’s got to feel good! I take back everything I said about the hospital giving us the wrong baby! You’re one of us now.”
“Peter was always one of us,” Mom interceded gently but firmly. “What your brother means, honey, is that you don’t have to hide in hotel rooms anymore. You’re ready to take full part in all the family fun.”
Still, Tyson was right about one thing: I did feel good. Great, in fact. Not while I was in the plane. That had been the most horrible experience of my life. But now that it was over, now that I had survived something even more dangerous than the wildest line item on Dad’s résumé of the extreme, I could stand tall in the Sparta family—when I got out of this hospital bed, obviously.
And that gave me the cred I needed to make some rules.
“Listen up,” I said. “Now that I’m a full-fledged member of the family, I have an announcement to make: I quit.”
“But Peter—” Dad began.
“No buts. What I went through counts as a lifetime of adventure, and I’m retiring. Anyone got a problem with that?”
And how could they have, when I had just achieved the impossible? I had come closer to death than any of my relatives.
Okay, on the surface, not much had changed. I’d still be going on their family trips—and I’d still be the guy sitting in the hotel waiting for the phone call. The difference was this: I didn’t have to apologize for it anymore. I had starred in their X-game and then some. So I could be comfortable in my own skin when I chose to stay on the sidelines.
Even in ancient Greece, for every bunch of Spartan warriors, there had to be one wimp, standing on the rocks, scanning the horizon for the ship bringing back the survivors.
It was my destiny to be that Spartan.
I think my family understood that. And after today, maybe they would even come to realize they liked me better that way.
I liked me better that way, too.