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Fallen Friend

by Mike McMillan (Fairbanks '96) |

Dave Liston smiled upon the gathering of people in the woods.

He braced his hands beneath the small round window and stood in the crowded twin-prop airplane. He wiped the sweat from his eyes and snapped the chinstrap on his helmet into place. His heart pounded as he tightened his leg straps. He had never felt this nervous before a practice jump. "Two jumpers!" boomed the spotter at the open door. Three thousand feet below the circling ship, Dave's girlfriend waited in a meadow known as the 'Big Spot'.

Kristin shaded the summer sun from her face and squinted at the plane buzzing far overhead. Standing among a crew of smokejumper trainers she quietly wondered why her boss told her to take the morning off just to watch Dave jump. Kristin's three friends from work seemed filled with giddy anticipation on the winding drive through the hills above Fairbanks, Alaska.

"Get Ready!" The spotter's hand came down on Dave's shoulder and he threw himself into the wind stream. Seconds later he pulled the green handle from his harness, sending his parachute to the sky with a loud crack. His drew in several deep breaths and fixed his eyes on the jump spot. Minutes later he turned upon final approach, sinking below the treetops. The wind faded near the target. Dave knew his landing would be rough. His boots hit first as he tucked into a tight roll. His helmet hit next, the impact filling his metal facemask with dirt.

Dave's parachute draped around him as he struggled to his feet. He hurried to free himself from his heavy jumpsuit. His hands worked at buckles and zippers as Kristin slowly walked toward him. Her eyes met his with a curious and beautiful smile.

Without a word he took her by the hand, the two of them wading through a sea of wild Alaska roses. The last of the jumpers landed as the gallery of onlookers turned their attention toward the young couple.

Dave steadied himself on one knee and pulled a small white box from his fire shirt pocket. Kristin rested her hand on his shoulder and knelt closer as he proposed to the love of his life. Kristin had carried her answer in her heart for years, feeling that Dave was unlike anyone she had ever known. His gentle spirit filled her life with happiness. They embraced and kissed sweetly, oblivious to the heartfelt applause rising from their family of friends.

Dave's journey to smokejumping began in the Sisters Wilderness of Oregon on an engine crew in 1993 and 1994. In 1995 he joined the Midnight Sun Hotshots and became an important part of an Alaska crew known for its fireline grit and toughness. In 1997 he was a squad boss with the North Star fire-crew, serving as an experienced firefighter and leader. That fall he was chosen as a rookie candidate by the Alaska Smokejumpers.

He trained alone as he did for years as a state champion wrestler from his hometown of Gladstone, Oregon. Now running in the sub-zero temperatures of Girdwood, Alaska, he put hundreds of miles behind him with his distinctive toe-heavy trot. He did thousands of pull-ups on a homemade bar inside the small cabin he and Kristin shared. She worked toward her nursing degree in Anchorage.

During rookie training Dave impressed his instructors with an unshakable resolve to give them his all. Late in the three-week program the group went for an 'Indian-run'; a single file formation in which rookies are alternately quizzed by their trainers.

Looking for a break from his standard list of questions about parachuting procedure, geography and jumper folklore, lead trainer John Lyons was sure that he had his rookies stumped.

Lyons thought of his rare pedigree hunting dog, now just a clumsy longhaired puppy. He called the first rookie to the front of the line. "Obrien, what kind of dog do I have?" "Uh, some kind of spaniel?" Mike answered, puzzled and out of breath. "No. Give me twenty." Obrien dropped out of line and hit the dirt. Humphrey sprinted to fill his place. "Humphrey, what kind of dog do I have?"

In his Texan drawl Ty slowly confessed that he had no idea.

"Give me twenty," snapped Lyons. Ty fell out and began his push-ups. Dave sprinted to fill the gap. "Liston! What kind of dog do I have?"

A wry grin crept across Dave's face as he looked in the eyes of his lead trainer. "A mutt?" Lyons contained his laughter long enough to calmly reply, "Get back in line, Liston."

Dave had earned his push-up reprieve.

Dave spent his rookie fire season first jumping fires in Alaska
and then in the rugged wilderness surrounding Winthrop, Washington.

On a salmon fishing trip that summer, Dave and two jumpers took leave to float down the Gulkana River of Alaska's Interior. As thunderstorms moved closer, only Robert Yeager was catching any fish. Veteran jumper Rod Dow thought for sure he'd at least catch a cold. A wind driven rain pelted their faces, lulling the trio into miserable silence. Dave suddenly looked at his two friends and yelled
from the front of the boat, "Man, is this great or what!"

They pondered their situation and the source of Dave's cheer as they sought shelter beneath a large white spruce.

In the spring of 1999 Dave returned as an Alaska Smokejumper, traveling south to jump fires out of West Yellowstone, Montana near the end of the season.
In the fall, Dave and Kristin lived in Rainbow Valley outside of Anchorage. A wind powered generator and solar panels illuminated their small cabin. They fed their wood-burning stove for cooking and heat. During the winter freeze they punched through the ice to fill water jugs from a fast-moving stream that ran through their yard. Dave built a shelter down slope where he often sat for hours in his poncho, whittling sticks, soaking up life in a land that felt like home.

That winter they welcomed a visit from Dave's father. John Liston flew lead planes for the Forest Service, guiding retardant bombers to their targets for seven seasons until 1996. During a long walk through the snow-covered valley, Dave told his father he couldn't imagine being happier. He lived in a beautiful place. He loved Kristin with his heart and soul. He looked forward to fire season and being a smokejumper again. Dave said he was living his dream. John was moved by the emotion in his son's words and the bond Dave and Kristin shared.

Under sunny skies on April 8, 2000, Dave and Kristin were married in Welches, Oregon. They returned to their Rainbow Valley cabin before driving to Fairbanks to prepare for the fire season. Dave and Kristin Liston bought two acres of land near the Chena River and planned to build a cabin of their own when the time was right.
On April 29 Dave sang happy birthday to his wife, kissed her and left for work. He was excited about the practice jumps scheduled for the day. Dave and seven fellow smokejumpers made the first of two jumps into a soggy meadow. Icy brown water soaked through their heavy boots as they bagged their canopies and headed back to the base. They secured fresh parachutes to their harnesses, ready to make another jump.

The jump ship flew 3000 feet over the "River Road" spot and began dropping sticks of two jumpers. As the eighth man on the load Dave was the last to leave the plane. He exited and pulled his green handle, but his main parachute stayed locked in its container. Falling toward earth he pulled the bright red handle on his reserve, releasing the spring-loaded parachute to the sky. What happened next can never be known with certainty. Dave's reserve canopy became tangled in a rare and fatal malfunction. Cries from the trainers at the jump spot filled the air. "Open!" "Open!" "No!" "No!" Disbelief gave way to numbing despair. Dave Liston was gone.

Operations were suspended as experts from the Alaska and Boise Smokejumpers and the parachuting industry searched tirelessly for answers. One conclusion drawn was that part of the deployment system on Dave's harness was wet from his first jump of the day. A key piece of equipment may have frozen in the 28-degree temperature recorded inside the orbiting plane at jump altitude. Several simple but significant modifications were completed before the BLM would return to jump
status more than two months later.

Jumping fires was hard to imagine in the wake of losing Dave.

A memorial at the Big Spot drew hundreds of people celebrating his life. A jump ship raced overhead across a clear blue sky, leaving a single yellow streamer fluttering to the ground in the stirring breeze.

Kristin began the hardest year of her life. She returned to school in Anchorage for the winter, living with close friends of hers and Dave's. Kristin's faith in God inspired those near her.

It was a faith she and Dave shared throughout their friendship, love and marriage.

In the spring of 2001 the Alaska Smokejumpers sledded a granite boulder into the forest where Dave fell. They built a foundation to hold the large stone in place. They mounted a metal plate on its face, bearing an engraved eulogy to their fallen friend.

On April 29th Kristin returned to Fairbanks to spend her birthday with the Alaska Smokejumpers. They gathered at the memorial and stood together quietly among the black spruce. Kristin made a cross from tree branches and set it at the base of the stone. Smokejumper Oded Shalom passed paper cups and water canteens in both directions. He spoke of renewal and healing in a shaken voice, his dark eyes swollen with tears. He described spring as the first chance for trees to draw life from the thawing ground. The water they held came from Birch trees tapped just days before. They toasted to their brother with a hint of sweetness in their cups. And Dave smiled upon the small group of people in the woods.