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The Humbling - (Early 1950s)

by Reid Jackson (McCall '49) |

As we all know - one of the more enjoyable sports pursued by second-year and older jumpers is badgering new jumper candidates (NEDS). Scare stories of all types are passed around. Most of these stories center around various types of parachute malfunctions all the way from line-overs (Mae West's) to full blown streamers, etc.

Back in the early 1950s, one of the more experienced and experts of such badgering was a squad leader named Gene Ellis (McCall '51). Gene had a dry sense of humor and a quick wit. However, he didn't limit his efforts to the new men only. He also worked over his peer group and occasionally even his boss.

In the early 195Os, while I was serving as project leader of the McCall Unit, I got a taste of Gene's quick wit. On that occasion, Gene was one of the jumpers near the top of the jump list so he was assigned to project work at headquarters. On this particular day he was raking the lawn near the flagpole area adjacent to the old original parachute loft when we received a fire call for eight jumpers. The top eight men stopped what they were doing and headed for the fire cache to get ready for the fire jump. However, the fire call turned out to be a dry run before the jumpers were airborne so they returned to the fire cache to put away their gear.

I called Gene into the office for what I felt was some needed discipline. As I recall, I said "Damn it, Gene, come in here."

He said, "What do you want?"

I said, "Damn it, when you get a fire call, you should take time to put away your project work tools before suiting up for a jump. When you were raking the lawn a while ago, you just dropped the rake and headed for the fire cache. The handle was partly in the road and Smith ran over it and broke it."

Gene looked me right in the eye and said, very matter-of-factly, "Did you chew his ass?"

Needless to say, discipline went out the window since I had to laugh.

On another occasion, Gene embarrassed me. We were observing training jumps at the Big Meadows jump spot using the megaphone to give instructions to new jumpers regarding "chute handling" as they descended. A lot of wives and other folks were watching the training jumps. I had too much coffee at breakfast and was looking for some tall sage brush as cover for relieving my bladder. Gene used the megaphone to call attention to my problem and tracked me everywhere I went to hide. I almost wet my pants before I managed to get out of sight.

However, as the old saying goes, "What goes around, comes around." Loft foreman, Wayne Webb, used to keep three old eagle chutes packed up in case someone felt brave enough to see what. jumping was like in "the old days" Unlike the FS-2s and later model chutes, which open from the top down as they catch the air, and thus have relatively easy opening shocks, the eagle chute has an extra skirt that catches the slip streams instantaneously and opens almost immediately with a very severe opening shock.

I had jumped an eagle chute once on a fire in the Little Salmon River Canyon, and it was an experience to remember. I had been warned to expect a very severe opening shock so I prepared as best I could - tight boot laces, tight harness, tight face-mask straps, tight gut muscles, and what I hoped was a tight pucker string. However, in spite of all of those precautions, it was by far the worst opening shock that I had ever experienced, including one associated with a delayed free fall opening using an old military seat pack. When that old eagle caught the air, my boots were snapped under me, my neck was wrenched, my head was snapped down to my chest and I was seeing stars most of the way to the ground.

A few months later in the early fall, we received a call from the fire dispatcher for an eight-man load to a hunter-caused fire near Cave Creek on the Big Creek Ranger District. I was included in the eight-man load along with Gene Ellis and six other jumpers. I wanted to use an eagle chute again to prove to myself that I had the necessary courage. It's sort of like getting bucked off of a bad horse - you need to crawl back on.

As we were suiting up in the fire cache, I mentioned that I was going to jump an eagle chute again. That was all Ellis needed to set him off. As I recall, he said, "I hope you break your damn neck and it jerks your boots off."

That gave me an idea, and I said, "Gene, someday we are going to hang an eagle chute on you and you're not going to know it until you get the opening shock."

He said, "You sons-of-bitches aren't smart enough to put that thing on me."

Spence Miller (McCall '52)was helping us get ready, and I caught his eye and nodded. Spence switched the eagle to Ellis, and I went on acting as though I were really sweating out the jump with the eagle that Ellis thought I had on. He badgered me all the way to the airport and into the plane until we were airborne and the engines drowned him out.

When we arrived over the fire, it was burning in heavy lodgepole pine on a north slope and was about 10 to 12 acres in size. The jump spot, a high mountain meadow about a half mile from the fire, was interspersed with small lodgepole pine and surrounded by dense timber. After selecting the jump spot and dropping drift chutes, we started our jump run.

As I recall, Carl Shaver (McCall '52) was the first jumper and went out alone. Jim Larkin was the pilot and got a good photo of Carl as his chute was opening with the fire below in the background. The photo was later made into an excellent postcard and was distributed all across Idaho.

Ellis was the second jumper. Without him knowing it, we told Jim Larkin what we had done with the eagle chute, and we asked that he do all he could to slow the old Ford down before Ellis' exit since Gene didn't know that he was jumping an eagle chute.

We came over the spot, Jim cut the engines and the Ford nosed over. Gene went out, and the remaining jumpers, the spotter, and Jim were glued to the windows to see the show.

We could hear the opening shock inside the Ford. It sounded like a cross between a sonic boom and the report of a 30-06. It snapped Gene almost up into the canopy, and then he got two aftershocks as he bounced twice more when he hit the end of the risers. I'm not sure, but I think it knocked him out or at least stunned him because he just hung with his arms to his sides and drifted away from the spot. As I recall, he hung up in some small lodgepole pines.

The rest of us jumped and were gathering up our jump gear and getting ready to go to the fire when Gene arrived at the jump spot, apparently none the worse for the experience. The only thing he said was, "Pretty damn funny."

However, I think the experience had a somewhat humbling effect on Gene. He seemed somewhat withdrawn and quieter during the remainder of the fire season.

Gene was a schoolteacher and later took a teaching job at the Strategic Air Command (SAC) base in Spain. I'm sure he has thought about the Cave Creek jump many times since that fall day in the early 1950s.

I, too, have thought about that jump on many occasions and have said to myself, what if one of the following had happened:

He had a streamer or other malfunction?

He was knocked unconscious and was hurt when he landed?

He had suffered neck or other injuries due to the opening shock?

He had hit me with a big stick when he arrived at the jump spot?

The list could go on and on.

It has been my experience that most injuries in any occupation can be traced back to horse-play. I think Del Catlin (McCall '47), who followed me as project leader of the McCall Unit, recognized this also. Del had the three old eagle chutes burned to remove a hazard. I think he probably did the right thing. However, on that fall day, long ago, it seemed like a good idea to hang one of those eagle chutes on Gene Ellis to see whether it would humble him a little.