I’m not much on anniversaries. Ask my wife. There is an anniversary, though, that I’ve been thinking about the past few days. This April marks the 45th anniversary of something pretty wild I did. I parachuted from an airplane.
I don’t know whether that first jump can be attributed to bravery or stupidity — maybe both.
Forty-five years ago, though, I stood at the opened door of a Cessna airplane 3,500 feet in the air. Somehow, I jumped. After a few seconds, I pulled the ripcord on my parachute and floated down to earth. For 10-15 minutes or so, I was downright giddy.
My winged companions, the birds, circled around me during the descent, checking me out. I heard their chirping along with the whistling of the wind. It was as if my fellow birds were confused and asking, “Are you one of us?”
Why did I jump? It was a response to an invitation. The Fort Benning Sport Parachute Club invited me to join them in a jump on a clear Saturday morning.
My answer was, “What the heck. I’ll do it.” The jump was part of the club’s water-landing and rescue training.
Jump day is forever seared into my memory, because it was my one and only jump. I never felt drawn to do it again. But that new adventure in my life came along at the right time. I was ready to try something daring. And there’s nothing like the “sweet bird of youth” for taking on new adventures.
Back in the 1970s, jump clubs were sprouting up all over. The high-adrenalin sport traced its origin back to World War II. After the war, the Army sold off thousands of unused parachutes that had been manufactured for combat. Those parachutes were purchased mostly by former paratroopers, who had dropped into Normandy during the D-Day invasion and on other battlefields in Europe.
These experienced soldiers formed the nucleus of those early jump clubs. Soon after, adventurous non-veterans were attracted to the sport. And it took off like a race horse.
Today, skydiving and parachuting is a huge global sport, with clubs and members in just about every location with an airstrip within driving distance.
You may have seen some of these skydivers floating onto Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium before a big Tigers football game. These jumps, with U.S. flags billowing from the divers’ wrists and ankles, are now a routine part of just about every big-time game or outdoor event.
When I jumped, the sport was still considered risky and somewhat dangerous. It was not unusual at the time to read of jumpers who fell to their deaths after getting tangled in the cords, or of parachutes failing to open properly.
So, to be honest, it was with some degree of fear that I accepted the challenge. I did not just show up at the airfield, board the airplane, fly up and jump. I trained for days with club members and packed my own parachute, which was a requirement.
Maj. Sutherland (sorry, I can’t remember his first name) was my trainer and jumpmaster. He stayed after me like a bird dog while I learned all the proper safety procedures.
At the fort’s Main Post, three huge jump towers still stand tall on the training field. Soldiers practiced the skills of parachuting on these towers through several U.S. wars. These still-functioning towers are landmarks to the art of military parachuting. Untold thousands of Army paratroopers trained and experienced the thrill and jolt of first jumps from these towers.
I discovered pretty quickly that Maj. Sutherland and the other professionals took the sport very seriously. There was no goofing off, fooling around, joking. I checked and double-checked every small detail of packing my parachute.
As my jumpmaster, the major told me when to prepare to jump, when to move to the door and climb out, when to get ready, when to jump. All I had to do was follow his orders, and I did. To the letter. There’s a real art to “driving” a parachute through the air, and it can be mastered in just a few jumps. Using my “toggle” lines, I drove my parachute to a near-perfect landing near the middle of the lake.
When I hit the water, I let out a great sigh of relief. I was still alive after an unforgettable experience. I had a lifetime to dwell on the feeling.
I recall that club members told me that “jumping” was actually safer than driving a motorcycle across town or scuba diving in the ocean. I believed them. And their reassurances gave me the courage to make the jump. I’ll always remember the happy feeling after I landed. What a ride. What an adventure. No longer “fraidy cat,” now “birdman.”
Ralph Morris is a retired newspaperman who lives near Auburn. His email address is email@example.com.