The following article was submitted and accepted to the publication Parachutist Magazine, however, due to length, it would have been cut down and edited losing the heart of the message. So here it is, in its entirety. Feel free to comment. JMT
In 1972 I was a junior at Syracuse University. I pulled into my apartment parking lot at about 6 o’clock in the morning after dragging my ass home from some sort of interlude that escapes my memory. As I got out of my car, the three pre-dental students in the apartment below were just leaving. It was unheard of for these party boys to be getting up so early in the morning. When I asked what they were doing, they said they had signed up to do a parachute jump and asked if I wanted to go. I never reached the front door of my apartment. I just jumped into their car. We went to a small airport in upstate New York where two or three hours later some guy named Smitty tossed us out of a rickety old Cessna on a static line. I loved it and vowed to return again. I heard through the grapevine that this jumpmaster actually died shortly thereafter while trying to deploy fireworks under a round canopy at some sort of demo. This could have been hearsay and I invite anybody who was around the scene at that time to fill in the gaps of that story.
Fast-forward six years and I’m a lowly surgical intern in a New York City Hospital experiencing the “trial by fire” mentality of surgical training that existed during that era; when recent medical graduates worked 36 hours on and 12 hours. A sort of boot camp, sleep deprived “right of passage”; meant to prove we were made of the right stuff. It got to me after a while and I was seriously depressed and extremely disillusioned with my career choice and was thinking about taking a year off to figure it all out, or actually applying to veterinary school, as I was starting to prefer animals over humans. I was sitting in my apartment one night overlooking the Hudson River reading a copy of the Village Voice; when on the back page I scanned an advertisement that read as follows; “Do you think you have done it all? Sex drugs and rock ‘n roll just aren’t doing it for you anymore? Try this!”. The ad called to me, probably for all the wrong reasons, but I found myself the next weekend in Pittstown New jersey at Skydive East. An appropriately named Doug Angel dumped me out of his old Cessna later that day over a beautiful green field near the Delaware water gap. This time the bug bit me, hard, and I was back the next day and the next weekend and every weekend after that. I was hooked. During my first 30 second delay my instructor followed me out, flew up to me and laughed in my face and flew away. I was astounded by his control. I wanted to fly like that more than anything. Within a few short months, my friends and I grew into an unorganized group who chased the Otter on weekends wherever it went, because jumping out of an Otter was a big deal then. We rotated from Chambersberg to The Ranch, to Albany, or wherever the plane went.
Not long after that I went to a couple of Thanksgiving boogies at Z-Hills. It was the early Eighties. I slept in my car at the DZ to save money for jumps until this guy Jerry Bird offered me a place on his couch and later his skydiving roster. I remember sitting by the DZ bonfire one night as the political and social commentary got pretty deep. The guy leading the debate was Z-Hills owner Jim Hooper, always the deep thinking poet laureate. He and I have been friends ever since.
After 2 years of residency I decided I didn’t really want to deliver babies for the rest of my life and quit my residency. The powers of graduate medical education frown on such behavior and I was blackballed from getting another position for several months. During those times of anger, frustration and introspection, it was at the drop zone where I sought solace. Freefall was the antidepressant that cleared my mind to more productive and meaningful thinking. The dropzone was a haven of acceptance. Soon after I went on to secure a position in surgery and kept on jumping. I saw Bill Booth perform one of the very first tandem jumps using his mother as his willing passenger. I jumped in Puerto Vallarta while Norm Kent filmed, From Wings Came Flight. The blond in the swimming pool with the parrot during the opening sequence was my girlfriend at the time. In 1986 I moved to Arizona. I was ready to become an ex-NewYorker. I had been to several Easter Boogies at Coolidge. I was befriended by Larry and Lillian Hill, Skydive Arizona’s longtime owners. I’m proud to say we are close friends for 30 years and going strong. Soon after that, my wife got her AFF training from George Jicha of Arizona Airspeed which resulted in another thirty year friendship and many great jumps together including unforgettable sunset loads at Skydive Arizona and beach jumps in Mexico. On my honeymoon I went to Lombok Indonesia where I first met BJ Worth. During that trip I was called to assist a skydiver who managed to fly his canopy into a cement wall while landing. He had multiple facial fractures and I had to perform an emergency tracheostomy on a him with a razor blade and some PVC tubing on a helicopter between Lombok and Bali. Luckily he survived. I rekindled my friendship BJ almost twenty years later and went on to enjoy many wonderful bigway jumps with him. I once got to jump into a game preserve in South Africa with Tom Pirus and we saw giraffes roaming as we came in for a landing. So many amazing memories.
Lots of things tend to keep us away from the dropzone. Like life. Ten years later my surgical practice was busier than I could have ever imagined. I had two adorable daughters and was getting divorced. During that horrific process, there is that inescapable feeling that someone has glued a neon FAILURE sign to your forehead, and its hard to shake. Not only do you loose your house, your stuff, and half of your friends; you lose so much more. You lose a piece of your soul. Sure there is time with the kids, therapy, and meaningful work, but I ultimately found myself drawn back to the dropzone. A place where your soul can rekindle camaraderie without judgement, even though I had been absent for a few years. A unique place of almost unconditional acceptance. Things just seem clearer from 12,500 feet, and the baptismal cleansing of freefall is therapy unto itself. It saved me in more ways than I can explain. Maybe this column should be called: how skydiving saved my life?
A new wife, a new life, and 2 great little sons later, I found myself slowing down again and missing that unique camaraderie. I ran into Tim Weible and he encouraged me to get back on the horse and start doing bigways. I did, and never looked back. It’s been a blast and reinvigorated my love for the sport. My office is plastered with World team and P3 jump photos. Our sport has been blessed with some amazing leaders. Men and women who inspire us to create an entity that equals far more than the sum of its individual parts. Dallas 40 ways with Larry Henderson were a great example. Larry is an inspiration at so many levels. Unfortunately, he sent me home with two fractured ribs after a 240 pound jumper squashed me into the door on exit one year. He gifted me a bible I still read. It is my daily reminder of how skydivers support and lift each other up, both physically and spiritually. Kate Cooper became a coach, a friend, and an inspiration. We were enjoying some 8 way over Puerto Vallarta’s beach a couple of years ago when my canopy exploded on opening. It snapped my back so bad I could barely breath, much less cut away and open my reserve. Of course Kate followed my down and carried my sorry self back to the hotel and got me iced down and medicated. Bill Legard, one of the kindest jumpers I ever met, made sure I got fed and tucked in. It wasn’t until three days later, back in Phoenix, that the MRI showed 3 comminuted rib fractures at the juncture to my spine.
It took a few months to get back, but I managed. I kept reminding myself of my friend Dan BC and how he had the stones and determination to work his way back from far more serious injuries, even though his physicians told him it couldn’t be done. The problem was my back was irreversibly damaged. I couldn’t stretch out for long tracks and I had to limit my position on jumps, where previously I had been a “put me anywhere in the lineup” kind of guy. Those damn ribs and and a bit of congenital scoliosis were adding up. Then last year, on my 65th birthday, I was hiking the beautiful Coconino National Forest outside of Flagstaff when the weakest disc popped. Overnight I was in a wheelchair. On the way into surgery I asked my wife if my warranty had expired because I turned 65? She wasn’t exactly laughing. Two surgeries and months of spinal rehabilitation and I was finally back at work. I would continue to push myself, thinking my carrot was that I was going to be on the Parachutist over Sixty world record. If my friend Larry Hill could make the centerfold of Parachutists after a heart transplant, surely I could muster the strength to push through the pain.
Cut, bait, or fish? I had done all I could to get back to jump status. I engaged the help of a prominent Physical Medicine physician who shared an adventurous spirit and was brilliant and experienced. He treats retired professional athletes from all over the globe. I trust his judgement. I promised I would abide by his opinion. I, like all aging skydivers, had to learn to prioritize. I am an older dad. 65 with a 7 year old and a 3 year old son. I know you think that takes a special kind of crazy but I must go on record here and tell you it’s the most exciting decision of my life. I also want to practice medicine for a few more years. I need to be avaliable. My specialist tried to spin the upside when we met to review my MRI, like an oncologist telling you the good news is you will live 6 more months, but with chemotherapy. He started with ” You can lead a long athletic life and perform surgery and do sports with your kids for many years to come;…. as long as those sports DO NOT involve impact. Jeffrey; Your spine won’t take another hit and you will live out your life in a wheel chair if you ignore this.
So, (insert long, introspective painful pause here)… I’ll never be on that POPS record or make the tandem jump with my two boys like I planned. I’ll mourn the absence of my freefall time because it felt like religion to me, even though I know better. Faith comes from something far more powerfull than jumping. I’ll miss it for sure, but the trade off is a no brainer. Your life’s works and accomplishments and your family are your legacy. So that’s it. I’m done. Gear sold. No more jumping or skiing (at least not the bumps, I’m allowed to “cruise”). Did skydiving save my life? Not literally, but it added a dimension only we as jumpers will ever know. In my heart of hearts I believe the lessons I learned and the relationships I forged at the dropzone somehow made me a better father and a better physician. Those lessons were seeds that provided a tutorial to navigate the hills and valleys of everyday life. But you can’t go forward if you keep looking back. That world record you worked so hard to complete will be broken next year for sure. It’s about the moment. “Being in the moment” is so cliche these days, but it surely takes on a special meaning during climbout. During that split second when you are shuffling your feet before the count starts. When you look out at the beautiful sky and say to yourself, “I’m going to toss my body into this gorgeous sky and fly”. That’s the sacred turf where effort, accomplishment, humility, and knowledge merge. For me, that place was the dropzone. I will be forever grateful.
Over the years I have had the privilege and honor of changing hats and medically treating many of my skydiving brothers and sisters. Many have written kind words telling me they can jump or scuba today after nasal or sinus surgery. I am always humbled by this and continue to be available to all of you at BiltmoreENT.com