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The Ride of My Life

by Paige Houston (Fairbanks '95) |

The article written by Jerry Dixon (Smokejumper April 2000), describing his experience with a double-malfunction, triggered a response in me of how precious life is and how quickly it can end. Until you feel death knocking at your door, the sensation is unfathomable. I sustained a malfunction and am reliving those painful 52 seconds through Jerry's story.

On July 27, 1996, I made my 37th jump on a fire in Northern California that turned out to be my last as a smokejumper. This 52-second ride should have put me in a pine box six feet under. I refused to believe this as I began my running routine two months and three days after the accident, which caused a broken back, and which the doctors told me should have caused paralysis.

There are instances where we don't realize how close we come to death and I was suffering from major denial. Maybe that explains the vertigo that plagued me during refresher training the following season. The constant dreams that I have of jumping or falling haunt me to this day. Needless to say, I choked and did not jump during the refresher training. Smokejumping was over for me and I wanted it back so badly I could taste it. I still do and hope someday I will be jumping again.

The hard work prior to being accepted to smokejumping felt wasted. Before I applied, I had spent seven seasons with a hotshot crew and grew up on a ranch in the boonies of Dubois, Wyo. Both took self-discipline, which I thought would help me function as a successful smokejumper. Being snowed in six months out of the year, having no central heating or television and snowmobiling to the school bus at 20 degrees below zero was just a way of life.

I was on top of the world July 27 and I had so much to look forward to in life. I had just met the love of my life eight days earlier and, little did I know, we would be married in May of 1998. My husband, Doug Houston, supported me in getting through extremely tough times when it would have been easy for him to walk away. My anger and frustration consumed me.

My life was different now. As the painful ache in the pit of my stomach returned with flashbacks of the wonderful memories of Alaska, I wanted to go back and change that day. After the accident, all of the Alaska bros took me under their wing and I truly felt like a little sister. Base Manager Tom Boatner, now State Director of Fire and Aviation for Montana, gave me a positive outlook on life. I feel honored to have jumped under Tom's leadership.

Looking back I have so much for which to be thankful. Special thanks to Boise jumper Gary Sexton, who packed my reserve that opened so fast. I was falling at 120 feet per second as I deployed my reserve at about 900 feet. As the reserve started to deploy, I hit a 130-foot Douglas fir, which collapsed the reserve but slowed the descent.

I kept saying to myself: "Stay as streamline as possible, don't get inverted in the branches, and do one hell of a roll." My roll was more accordion-style, fracturing my L1 and L2 vertebrae and my left ankle. My sternum was bruised from hitting every branch on the way down through the tree. This might have been the only instance in my life that I felt like smoking a cigarette in celebrating the joy that I was still alive.

I knew that in order for me to move on with my life and let go of the dream of returning to smokejumping, I had to make one more jump. I had to get back "on the horse" if I were to survive in life. Something had to change because I was self-destructing. I hated my favorite things in life. I was unmotivated, depressed and argued with everyone. At times, I questioned why I had walked away from that accident. How could my life that was going so well seem to be falling apart? I would not know the answer until I made that jump.

Doug and I located a skydiving center in Enumclaw, Wash. As we drove to the Kapowsin Air Center, he said, "I'm with you every step of the way." I could not have done it without his support. Upon arriving at Kapowsin, I became overwhelmed with anxiety, sweaty palms, dry mouth and had to make several trips to the john. However, I was focused and on a mission and had dreamed of this day for the past few years.

After completing four hours of training, we climbed into the Cessna 206. Because of my size, I would exit last. My turn came and I climbed out on the strut 3,000 feet above the ground. Doug had exited on the prior go around but his words were fresh in my mind- "Don't look back."

As I climbed out on the strut, the built up anxiety seemed to fade. On the spotter's signal, I stepped back off the strut. It felt like my first jump during rookie training into Farmer Brown's field just outside Ft. Wainwright.

The ride was much longer than 52 seconds, actually four minutes. I had made one more jump. The weight suddenly lifted off my shoulders! I attribute my ability to move forward to what I learned in Alaska. The bros and Sandy Ahlstom-Romero have left a deep impression in my heart that I will never forget, and will take with me forever.