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Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Wannabe Sky God

                        A Wannabe Sky God

      The old saying hindsight is 20/20 is certainly true when it comes to some events in our lives.  About 1963 the Golden Knights came to my hometown airport.  They made several jumps.  They had to repack their parachutes and one of them picked me to stand in the harness.  I was totally enthralled by the whole display.  I asked the jumper who had chosen me how you got to do such a neat thing.  He stopped folding the canopy and looked at me as if to size me up. He then said, “Join the Army, volunteer for jump school and then join a sky diving club. When you get enough jumps and experience apply to try out for the team.”

      With those few words that man changed the whole course of my life.  All of a sudden I had a goal and a purpose in life. In July 1965 I dropped out of high school and enlisted in the United States Army. Remembering what he said I volunteered for jump school.  As Vietnam was taking off and on the front pages I also volunteered to go to Vietnam. 

      The Army took its part in the program seriously.  Several of us from my Basic Training Company shipped to Ft. Gordon, Georgia and went through a specialized Advanced Infantry Training Course.  It was unique in that almost every one of us had volunteered to go to jump school. They assured us they would have us in condition to make it through jump school and they pushed us harder than many of the people could take.  They stuffed 200+ of us into two old World War II type wood barracks, that were designed to hold about 50 men each.  To say the conditions were tight would be a major understatement.  When you got up in the morning you could put your foot on the guys bunk next to yours to lace up your boots.  They were also all double bunks.

     One of the major events of the training cycle was to go and watch a Live Fire Exercise.  They gave us a briefing and started showing us how the weapons would work.  They talked us through what being assaulted would be like. They demonstrated and displayed each weapon’s capability.  At the end they fired all the weapons simultaneously. The announcer stated that a determined enemy would get through that firestorm they had laid down.  Quite a few guys decided they did not want to go to jump school.  Especially after the narrator encouraged us to imagine being under a parachute and coming down through that hellfire.

    Things went fine till graduation. Then we all got on buses to go to Ft. Benning for jump school.  Those who decided not to go to jump school were put on another bus and taken to the airport and shipped directly to Vietnam.  Quitting had a price.

     Succeeding had a price also.  We got off the bus at Ft. Benning and were put in the same kind of barracks.  There was one difference these had old coal boilers.  They only worked sporadically.  In December this is a problem even in South Georgia. Mopping the floors in the morning was a nightmare as the water froze to the floor.  No heat, also meant, no hot water. It was a fun three weeks.

      On Friday night at the end of the second week they started reading off the orders.  Smith, 101st,Vietnam.  Jones,173rd , Vietnam,   Everybody was going to Vietnam.  The following Monday I hurt my ankle on the swing landing trainer.  They did not kick me out but put several of us casualties on light duty.  We shined boots for cadre, swept their offices and were used as dummies for demonstrations.  The second time through tower week was not near as tough as the first one.

     The next Friday they read off the orders again.  Just as the week before all the names were going to Vietnam.  That included me.  At the end of the roll call and reading of assignments they asked if anybody wanted to volunteer for rigger school.  I was not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I was pretty sure, if it was a school it was not in Vietnam.  The fire power demonstration had made an impact on me and Vietnam seemed a little less hospitable.

        That was not the only reason. We had graduated AIT around Thanksgiving. One of the guys who decided he no longer wanted to go to jump school was nicknamed "the Swede" He was six foot plus, built like and inverted pyramid, blond, very likable and his real name was something like Schwelgein.  Anyhow the Army Times obituary list for the 17th of December had the Swedes name and another one of the people who decided not to go to jump schools names in it. Suddenly Vietnam was very real and very personal.

      Quite a few of us volunteered but they only needed fifty people.  They started eliminating people and finally the person in charge started counting from the first seat.  He hit fifty, two seats before mine, which put me in the eliminated bunch.  Then he stated that he left out one minor disqualification.  You could not be a draftee.  Several of the people he had already picked got up and went to the back.  Suddenly I was in school by the skin of my teeth.  I still did not know for sure what a rigger was, but found out it was a three month long school at Ft. Lee, Virginia. We also got to go home for Christmas.  We graduated from jump school on the 22nd of December.

       I took a bus to Indianapolis and got there late Christmas Eve. Nothing was moving toward my hometown of Logansport so I took a bus to South Bend and got off at the junctions US 31 and US 24. Standing there in a blizzard at 3 A.M. I started to doubt my wisdom.  Shortly later a semi stopped and picked me up. It happened that his son was in Vietnam at the time.  He took me and dropped me right in front of  my house. How he turned those corners to do it I have no clue. I drove a truck for twenty years and still don't know if I could do it. I went in the house at 4 A.M., we didn't lock doors back then. My Mom about had a heart attack when she saw me in the kitchen. She thought I was a burglar.  I spent a week at home and then went to Ft. Lee, Virginia for rigger school.

      Little did I know that I had just received one the first couple of divine interventions in my life. Later I would look back and see that it was only by providence I was not in the group going to Vietnam any longer.  It also was an event that aided me in accomplishing my life dream.  Even if I did not realize it at the time.

     After Rigger school I was assigned to the 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky.  It was too close to home and I bought a car and kept it off base.  My First Sergeant considered me a screw up.  He sent me to Fort Stewart, Georgia.  He thought he was sending me to Vietnam as most of the units on the base were shipping out.  In reality I ended up at the Army’s Fixed Wing Aviation School and my job was going out and checking the parachutes for the pilots to make sure they were currently packed and safe to use in an emergency.  Once a month myself or the sergeant I worked for had to take the parachutes that were not current to Fort Rucker, Alabama on a school bus and wait two days for them to be packed.  We were the only two paratroopers on the base and it was an experience.  I arrived in the middle of a Hurricane.  You could not see the road as it was flooded over.  My last stop before entering the base through one of the back gates I asked how to get to the main base. The guy told me keep it centered between the pine trees and go slow.  Fortunately there were no dips.  There were no rises either and I drove almost twenty miles and never saw the road. I did however see swimming snakes and alligators.

    The one good thing about Fort Stewart was that it had a sky diving club. I joined in June of 1966 and on July 3rd made my first jumps at Barnwell, SC at a private airfield.  Three years later I would make it to the 7th Army Parachute Team.  It was not the Golden Knights though several of the team members had been Golden Knights.  We did demonstrations and competitions all over Europe. It happened by doing just what that guy had told me to do in my home town.

   What can be better than getting paid to do something you absolutely love.  After leaving the team I managed to work in several skydiving clubs, first as a rigger. As I gained experience I became an instructor and then a club manager.  It was the dream job of a lifetime. It was my pleasure to train a couple thousand students over an almost ten year period. I hope to run into some of them in the course of my travels in the near future.

     Parachuting even allowed me to meet my wife.  I was teaching college students to jump in Vincennes, Indiana, which is where I live now.  I worked for a guy from Indianapolis.  I jumped at his place a few times and he found out I was stationed at Ft. Campbell.  He offered me a weekend job which was very generous for a guy in the Army.  One weekend while taking in the local atmosphere I met my wife.  That was almost forty-two years ago.

This is the before shot, my bio has the after shot

Delta Death my transition canopy from round to square notice the canvas strap on the left rear of the canopy which you wrapped around your color coded lines and velcroed it shut so as the nose opened it pulled the velcro off.  Six to eight hundred feet could easily be eaten up by the opening process. It always opened though. Unlike the hydraulicly reefed canopies that depended on fluids to control the openings. 

    The first of October I received my Agent Orange settlement and Lord Willing this Saturday I will be leaving on an adventure in my new life. I hope to start writing for magazines and doing travel stories.  My first adventure is to go spend time at Savannah Beach, GA and then to Zephyrhills, FL to watch skydivers for a few days.  Zephyrhills is to skydivers what Mecca is to Muslims.  Sooner or later you will end up there if you truly love jumping and being part of what is happening in the jumping world. 

      Hope to be back by the 28th of February.  Don’t know yet if I will write while on the road, but I may.  I will be living out of my 94 Chevy panel van and eating out of a cooler.  Hope it is half the adventure I remember it being.  Seeing and hearing parachutes in the air is like hearing the whop, whop, whop of helicopter blades is to a Vietnam Vet.   It stirs up memories of long ago and far away, but never forgotten experiences.

     Hopefully this will inspire someone to follow in my tracks and get free schooling to become a rigger, take advantage of the three hots and a cot, plus free jumps after a nominal club membership fee. Plus making some decent money that if you set aside a little and don't blow, can give you a head start in life.  Something like being an owner and operator of your own truck and traveling the country and stopping at any DZ on your route.  The only bad part for me was I compressed my back on my first and only civilian jump. (Which is another story) It worked for me, outside of being out of jumping, before I got into the trucking. Both were taught to me courtesy of the military. So was writing though.  I worked for the newspaper as a photo/journalist my last year in the Army. One door closes and another one opens. I was appointed to the job after entering a photo contest at the base Photography Club.

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