I recall two old friends from back in 1995 at one of my favorite sites. Don died of lung cancer. I am almost sure his wife Francis must have passed away by now. Don and Francis were indeed true gems.
I first met Don through a fellow jumper. Interestingly, the fellow jumper was a Houston Police Officer, and for privacy concerns for him, I’ll refer to him as “Mr. White.”
Don’s home was a simple shack, complete with an antique wood burning stove in the center of the shack and an outhouse that was really only used for the purpose of number 2. The shack had about 5000 empty beer cans unintentionally arranged into a large pyramid near the front door. This place was party central for all the locals, some of them shrimpers, some of them elderly, some of them elderly shrimpers, and a strange assortment of country people. These weren’t country people in the normal sort. This was like stepping back in time, several decades. In fact, the year easily could have been 1920. At least there was electricity powering the lights in his shack.
Don’s wife would drop by for the partying and would occasionally pull out her harmonica. It was impressive to listen too. I got the impression that Janis Joplin may have hung out there at some point in the distant past. Janis was from this area.
To the jumping…
Mr. White and I show up at Don’t place around midnight. His lights were off and Mr. White had to beat on Don’s door a bit to wake Don. Don answered the door with a large shotgun, followed by a smile, and an invitation to come on in. Mr. White chose terrible conditions for jumping simply because of his police career. He could not or would not get caught. There was no moon and it was very dark. Or rather, it was dark as hell. This was far out in the country and there is no light pollution that many jumpers rely on for night jumping, usually without even realizing it. This was early in my jumping and I only had a few jumps under my belt. This was to be my second BASE jump on a square canopy and I would consider myself very inexperienced at this stage. We gave Don the beer (Schafer’s light, his favorite) in exchange for a ride in our vehicle to the tower. I was a little surprised to discover a large herd of cattle at the base of the tower. Mr. White informs me just to punch them in the nose if they give us any problems. This was fairly disconcerting, since the cattle were pretty much so thick that they were knocking us around as we tried the 100 feet just to get to the object.
Mr. White and I climb up to 600 feet, at which point we pulled out our pilot chutes to go handheld. This was in the day before going stowed was so common. My BASE rig was an ancient rig I inherited from Steve “Deadman” Morrell that was built in 1984 and it had no spandex pouch, just a two rubber bands to hold the pilot chute. Mr. White went first and I immediately last sight of him after exit. I then exited, opened perfect, and continued to fly out. I was concerned that if I turned too soon that I would hit the object because it was so dark. I eventually turned completely around to face the tower, to land into the wind. At the last moment, a tree line appeared, and I realized I had flown out much too far. A turn at the last moment put me into the smallest of the trees and my feet touched the ground but my canopy was thoroughly caught in the tree. The ground was muddy. At this point, I just cut the canopy away to retrieve it the next morning. As I was proceeding to walk out through the field of mud, I thought “I’m glad it’s a winter time 50 degrees so any alligators that might be out here would be inactive.” After about 10 feet of walking out of this mud pit on the tree line, I notice something quite large and dark walking with me, about 2 feet to my left. I looked down again, jumped back, and then I noticed that it was a large alligator moving onto me. When I jumped back, it let out this death scream growl and then it lunged for me. Even to this day, I don’t think I’ve been so terrified. I immediately started jumping side to side and someone running through the mud field. Even more terrifying was the thought that the whole field may have been covered in these alligators. I discovered later that this area had the highest concentration of alligators in the whole state of Texas.
At this point, I think I could have passed Carl Lewis. Mr. White was on the side of the road, laughing quite hard as I was yelling “They’re alligators out here!” I wasn’t nearly as amused.
Don went out the next morning and managed to get my canopy down in pure Texas style – with a shotgun. He shot the offending limbs, without damaging my canopy in the slightest. It was an impressive feat.
There were many interesting experiences out there.
To me, one of the coolest was coming in to land when Don would have his friends at the bottom of the object. A crowd of 80-year-old people clapping when I landed really made a strong impression on me. BASE wasn’t nearly as radical as it was sold to everyone having all these elderly people congratulating me on a good jump. Pure gold…