Three years and half-a-century ago I was a Jumpmaster in a new-fangled sport called skydiving. I worked hard to earn that title, and bore it with the arrogance of the young and immortal. In those ancient days only the 82nd Airborne jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, and that for a modest stipend. It was considered pretty radical to do it for the sheer thrill of freefalling at up to 180 mph for up to a minute, then, 14 seconds before life on earth would end abruptly, to pull the ripcord, endure a deceleration that puts your chin on your chest, your feet over your head and sometimes black and blue brands on the body where the chute straps dig in, thereupon to float in silken serenity, the only sound being the pounding of your heart subsiding in your ears, on down to terra firma…and to pay the pilot for half-a-flight. I suppose some unfortunate earthbound souls would still consider it radical, even though it’s become a common sport, and much safer with sophisticated, expensive parachutes and designer accessories. You can experience it with excellent HD videos all day long on YouTube from the safety of your sofa.
We used Army surplus parachutes—28-foot diameter C-9 chutes with 28-foot shroud lines, in those early days—and cut panels out and rigged a lanyard on each riser to make them somewhat steerable, about as rudimentary and effective as the Wright brothers pulling on a wire to bend the wings to make their plane turn. Perfect parachute landing falls (PLF’s) were paramount, because the missing panels allowed the parachute to descend even faster than a normal WW II paratrooper’s chute. I am reasonably certain some of my codgerhood aches and pains have their roots in those whiplash chute openings and hard landings in the middle of the last century, but I have no regrets. When it comes to pre-jump butterflies, I doubt any of the players on the field awaiting the kickoff at the Super Bowl will match the butterfly population in my stomach the first 20-30 times I jumped.
As Jumpmaster we did not jump until I said it was time to jump. I guided the pilot of the plane to put it in that precise point in the sky, calculated by me (as in the pic above, using thumb and index finger as a gauge), where skydivers would exit the airplane and end up as close as skill permitted to that big white X in some farmer’s pasture. And I taught like-minded crazies how to do it. It was pretty heady stuff for an aspiring fighter pilot who still measured his years in the teens.
After mastering the rudiments of falling in a controlled manner, a process not without its heart-stopping moments, it felt more like flying than falling. In fact it was important not to get so mesmerized with the flying aspect—time seemed to stand still—that you forgot about the ripcord thing. I dreamed of flying then, sometimes waking up in my bed on my stomach, my back arched my arms and feet spread wide and wishing I were a bird so I could do it forever. There is a video clip of a dream in my grey matter archives that periodically bubbles to the surface (prompting this nostalgic tale), where I am doing loops and rolls over the barn on the western Illinois farm where I grew up…so vividly bizarre I haven’t forgotten it 50+ years later.
There are other images you have not dreamed of that periodically clarify in my fading memory. My mentor was my (not your average) dentist. Doc and I twice jumped into the Mississippi River from 12,000 MSL, one for a summer celebration in Burlington, IA, called Steamboat Days. At a mile wide and length to the horizon in both directions, the Mighty Mississippi was an easy target to hit. We wore US Army surplus smoke flares mounted with homemade brackets on our jump boots that day. Doc’s made red smoke and mine made white. We went out of the plane a second apart and pulled the lanyard on the flare canisters when safely away from it. We then joined up in freefall (not as easy as it might look on YouTube), head-to-head and holding wide-spread hands as we “flew” at 120 mph, turning like a merry-go-round, making a 1000-foot-tall barber pole in the sky with our smoke trails. As we fell face-to-face, Doc had a wide open-mouthed smile and the rushing air blew into his mouth, making his cheeks flap comically like an English bulldog’s jowls when he sticks his head out of a moving car’s window. (We wore goggles to keep our eyelids from fluttering in the same manner—not so comical.) There’s an archived video clip of that adrenaline-soaked moment in my mind that I see every time I think of my dear old friend, and I smile, long after I’ve forgotten the pain he inflicted on my teeth.
I was a founding member of the first Big Ten skydiving club, at the University of Illinois. It was a great date magnet, attracting curious co-eds when more mundane activities could not, especially with this socially-challenged country boy. In the history of depraved mankind the possibility of death in a spectacular fashion has always drawn spectators. I took a date up one Saturday afternoon to let her watch me show off from the perspective of the airplane. As I fell away from the plane, I rolled over on my back and waved. She had a I’m-not-taking-this-guy-home-to-meet-Momma look on her face. And she was not exactly ecstatic about flying around in a little Cessna 172 with its (large!) passenger door and the right front passenger seat removed, but she was the star of the dinner hour at the sorority house that night.
Once my uncle approached me, shaking his head, as I folded my chute after jumping at a Fourth of July celebration outside a village near home, and boldly prophesied I would not see my 25th birthday. He was no Isaiah—he was wrong by 47 years so far.
My AFROTC professor at the University asked me if I would teach his knockout teenaged daughter how to skydive. I couldn’t say yes fast enough—few (actually no) fathers threw their daughters at me in those days. His trust in me with such a priceless possession astounds me to this day. After a few weeks of quality time together in training, the big day came. At 2500 feet AGL she boldly eased out the open door of the plane, at my command, and put one foot on the step into the cockpit, the other on the plane’s tire, and leaned forward and grabbed the strut of the high-wing plane in a two-handed death grip as the prop wash tried to blow her off her precarious perch. I was right beside her in the open door, and in the fullness of time I forcefully slapped her fanny, another memorable moment—the noise and her positioning precluded any other kind of communication—and she pushed off like a well-trained trooper. Her static line snapped taut and opened her orange and white chute a few feet below the plane, then I went up higher and made a free fall jump. When I rejoined her and her father, an Air Force pilot, on the ground, her pretty, smiling face, framed in long, disheveled black hair, was still flushed from the excitement. As he enthusiastically embraced her she said, “Daddy, I did it for you.” I got an easy A in that ROTC class, and graduated with a “regular” commission as a Second Lieutenant in the USAF, just like an Academy grad, rather than the usual “reserve” commission routinely given to ROTC grads. And it was all acquired while having more fun than any testosterone-driven young stud should be allowed to have. Only the LORD knows His mysterious ways.
The skydiving experience was helpful a few years later when I flew 268 combat missions in Vietnam in an F-100 Super Sabre. I had no fear of the unknown, should I have to eject, where a millisecond’s hesitation could mean death, but by God’s grace I never had to log another parachute jump.
They were glory days, yet another chapter proving the sovereignty of a Gracious God in my life, in spite of my best efforts to shorten my allotted days. To Him be the glory.