The Menu That Fell to Earth

WALLER -- The Internet come-on might've piqued the interest of extreme adventurer Tim Cahill, author of the tomes A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg and Jaguars Ripped My Flesh. Regular-guy Cahill makes a living doing irregular-guy kinda stuff -- drunken diving for sea snakes, that sort of thing; when he's not dodging hails of smugglers' bullets in the Peruvian jungle, he details more "mundane" adventures like spelunking, free climbing and ice fishing.

The Web communique was headlined "Airport Sandwich Shop" and opined: "Skydive Houston Airport is a neat place for Sat or Sun to eat at their sandwich shop and watch the skydivers jump 24 at a time." A bit awkwardly composed, but what a marvelous hook -- discomfort food in a dining room with a view.

The Swoop-In Cafe is located in the rear of the rattletrap Skydive Houston building, off Planeview Road next to the Waller Country Club. Outside, there's a sign that reads "No Alcohol in Drop Zone." Inside, guests have to cross an obstacle course of chattering, 'chute-packing students to get to the Swoop-In. A glorified convenience store, it has a limited menu of cold sandwiches, snackables and cold drinks. The selection was more limited than usual on my visit, as the most popular dishes -- the Frito pie and the barbecue sandwich -- were unavailable. Proprietress Darcie Kitchel hadn't had time to run to Sam's Club for supplies, she told me as I munched on one of her turkey sandwiches.

That's the kind of place it is -- catering by Sam's Club. Kitchel formerly sold her modest fare from a trailer parked near the DZ, but she's moved up -- and in. She fills a tiny vacuum at the skydiving school, feeding folks who've just experienced the adrenaline rush of leaping out of an airplane at 13,000 feet. It's a humble gig, but Kitchel seems to enjoy interacting with the crazies who frequent her little canteen (the dude behind me was nicknamed "Cannonball," and he almost tripped over the sacked-out pup sawing logs in front of the checkout counter).

"Skydivers have to be the most optimistic people in the world," Kitchel said. "Even in the worst weather, they're always looking for a little patch of blue." So was I; the Swoop-In is completely lacking in charm and windows, so I took what was left of my lunch into the shimmering heat for an impromptu picnic. Minutes later, I heard the high whine of a plane, followed quickly by the thwoop-thwoop-thwoop-thwoop-thwoop of 'chutes opening in succession. Staring into a bank of snow-white cumulus clouds shot through with coronal rainbows, I eyed the approaching parachutists, 21 strong. They were wee black dots, as small as stars in the night sky, but they grew geometrically until they were discernible humans floating overhead under brightly colored canopies.

Finally, one of the students broke from the circling pack; with a jerk on the cords of his rectangular ram-air 'chute, he plunged into a roaring, nearly vertical power dive. I sucked down a breath, thinking I was going to watch this poor schmuck snap femurs from less than 100 feet away, but no; the ram-air canopy has revolutionized landings, even for amateurs. Most of the students in this party attempted -- and achieved -- similarly stylish two-point touchdowns.

Though this diving adventure didn't involve intoxicated frolicking with sea serpents, it was hardly humdrum -- to me or the students. I was taken aback by the unanticipated intensity and artistry of the experience; they yakked excitedly about freefalls and cutaways, formations and tandems, as they trooped back to the Swoop-In for some of Chef Kitchel's string cheese and Gatorade.

-- Clay McNear

The Swoop-In Cafe is open from 8 a.m. to dusk weekends. Skydive Houston, 15355 Penick Road, Waller. Info: (281) 550-8070, (800)

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Clay McNear
Contact: Clay McNear