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The Jump at Red Dawn

by Leo Cromwell (Idaho City '66) as told to Jason Greenlee (Redding '99) |

The Jump at Red Dawn (Part 1)

It was 1988, urban smokejumping was in its infancy, and the McCall jumpers were about to receive valuable lessons in that useful art.

Bob Shoemaker (McCall '76) thought it would be a great idea to do an exhibition jump at the New Meadows, Idaho elementary school's career day. As if you'd want to encourage impressionable children to become permanent juveniles!

We were jump partners on that fateful morning, Jim Duzak and Scott Anderson, (both McCall '84) and I. The jump spot was at the school football field just on the edge of town. The sky was overcast and it was windy. We knew we had a small problem when "Shoe" let the streamers fly. They showed at least 400 to 500 yards of drift, and the winds were squirrelly. As we approached the field, we noticed a thunderstorm closing in.

But Shoe was not going to disappoint the kids. We could see a lot of people in the bleachers, and we wanted to put on a good show. We decided to climb another 1,000 feet, then exit over Highway 95.

"Hump" (John Humphries, McCall '79) was first in the door. A little voice told him things were not right when the spotter said, "Oh, just spot yourself." Maybe we weren't supposed to hear that but we did, and it definitely gave us all pause to think. Why was the spotter telling Hump to spot himself? Our worst fears were confirmed when we could see that Hump was having trouble making the edge of the football field. When he landed, he was dragged across it and into a hogwire fence. The kids loved it: "Is that how they do it? Wow!" "Why do they slide along the ground like that?" "Are you supposed to yell those bad words when you land?"

History doesn't record whether Hump tried to call the plane to cancel the jump. If he did, it didn't make much difference because we were already in the door on final. We weren't happy puppies at that stage, and a call from Hump might have been just the excuse we needed to abort. Nevertheless, we were sucked into the historic events that followed like lemmings pulled inexorably toward the sea. No force or logic could have averted the mounting aerial invasion of the sleepy town. And there was no training that could prepare the poor smokejumpers of McCall for what they were about to encounter.

The Jump at Red Dawn (Part 2)

Jim exited the plane next. He had a good opening and got nicely oriented into the wind, but then realized he was a dead man. Even with the toggles up, he could see he was going to get blown backwards way past the field and into the town itself. Planing wasn't going to help. What difference would that make when he was already drifting over houses? He had no idea where his jump partner was, but he was certain that Scott was involved in the same bad deal as himself.

Jim remembers turning to quarter downwind at some point. It was just too uncomfortable coming in backwards into an urban landing zone. You have to remember that, in 1988, procedures for urban invasion by smokejumpers were only just being worked out. You weren't dealing with snags and boulders and all the sissy stuff mentioned in the manual; you were dealing with power lines, TV antennas, clotheslines and housewives.

With full brakes on, it looked like Jim was going to land atop a pitched roof. Such a landing has been shown to be hazardous, often resulting in jumper and parachute ending up in a ball 'midst rose bushes. Again, the manual says little about how to handle this situation. Improvising, Jim let off the brakes, surged ahead, lifted his legs and barely clipped the roof. He slammed hard into a small vegetable garden in a fenced backyard among a bunch of toys. His chute settled lightly over power lines. And, to add insult to injury, he executed a bad roll. For a moment there was dead silence. He could hear the vegetables growing and his blood pounding.

What happened next is enough to shrink to the size of raisins the gonads of even the most valiant smokejumper. Jim looked into the kitchen window only inches from his facemask. He'll never forget the expression on the housewife's face as she sleepily turned to see what the fuss was outside her window. She was in her curlers and robe, pouring coffee. Time stood still as they gazed at each other. It occurred to Jim as he looked deeply into the lady's widening irises that she was about to let out a scream. He decided that the best thing to do was offer some sort of salutation. Still helmeted, he popped his Capewells, stood, gave a friendly, if somewhat alien-looking wave, and began to get out of his suit. In a flash, "curlers" was gone, presumably to call the cops or get a gun.

The Jump at Red Dawn (Part 3)

Jim decided the best part of valor was a quick exit, so he jumped the fence and ran to the front yard and onto the street. Later he would claim he was not actually fleeing, but was really just looking for his jump partner. It's not clear from the record whether he was looking to help his JP, or if he was looking for help.

Meanwhile, Scotty was doing no better. He remembers holding as soon as he got under his canopy, then for the entire jump. Over the football field at about 500 feet and sailing over the spot backwards, he heard kids shrieking. Whether this was childish delight or horror, he couldn't tell from his height. The next thing he saw was power lines, buildings, streets and a lot of other scary looking stuff passing beneath his feet. He wistfully wished that he were with the screaming kids instead of 500 feet above them. He looked over at Duzak, who was pretty much even with him. The man had terror in his eyes and his life was obviously flashing before him as he and his chute moved inexorably toward New Meadows. Then he sunk slowly and sadly from sight among the houses and powerlines.

From about 200 feet, Scotty was looking pretty hard for a place, any place, to land. The best option looked like a tiny lawn, and options were disappearing fast. Upwind of his small green landing zone was a garage; downwind was a beautifully sculpted but monstrous cottonwood tree. On either side were a house and the street with power lines. In the middle was a walking sprinkler. To his disbelief, he actually managed to land in the small piece of lawn and miss the sprinkler. He landed backwards, however, and his canopy settled slowly into the cottonwood.

Scotty spotted another jumper come down in a yard downwind. There may have been screaming involved; he's not sure. His sympathy was short-lived, as he had his own problems to deal with. As he got to his feet he saw an elderly woman in a bath towel and curlers emerging rapidly from her house. Not a pretty sight for even the most seasoned smokejumper. The woman appeared to be upset about the parachute in her tree and the lines tangled in her sprinkler, which was now gurgling and making unnaturally small circles on the lawn.

The Jump at Red Dawn (Part 4)

At about the same time the elderly lady descended on Scotty, an older gentleman pulled up in an old Impala. He wanted to tell Scotty how he'd broken his leg as a parachute jumper on D-Day. Both people were very agitated, talking loudly and gesturing wildly. The woman was telling the gentleman in the Impala that she didn't really care to hear about D-Day just at that moment, thank you.

Just then, Len McNabb (McCall '87) and Mike Tyrrell (McCall '86) pulled up in a Forest Service "six-pack" in which they'd been patrolling the streets looking for jumpers. They'd found Duzak as he exited the screamer's back yard. Now they were confronted with World War II about to be reenacted. It was not going to be pretty.

Pandemonium was breaking out in all quarters of the town. Never had the inhabitants of New Meadows been subjected to an aerial invasion, and they were not happy. Most had never seen a smokejumper, and many were not interested in having them drop into their gardens. John Carothers (McCall '88) had landed in a yard with a dog that was considerably upset by this unwelcome visitor. Mike Dark (McCall '87) had collided with some monkey bars in the school playground. Harold Dramstead (McCall '87) had landed at the New Meadows airstrip. John Humphries (McCall '79), Ted Spencer (McCall '88), and Jack Seagraves (McCall '63) had miraculously hit the field. Well, to tell the truth, Seagraves more or less crashed after skipping across some unoccupied bleachers.

At this point, the kids across the field were going absolutely berserk. Girls were fainting in pure pleasure; boys were clapping and chanting "huh, huh!" "Big Ernie," awakened by the clamor, blearily gazed upon the scene and smiled.

Meanwhile, Scotty, following SOP, pulled out his fanno saw and was preparing to saw the cottonwood tree's carefully tended limbs to extricate his chute. The elderly woman with the bath towel, now armed with a broomstick, halted this activity. Good sense dictated a hasty retreat, which Scotty performed in the best smokejumper tradition, reminding onlookers (and by now there were many) of a cowboy being chased from a pen by a bull.

Later that morning, the abashed load of smokejumpers presented themselves to the gleeful mob of kids at New Meadows. To this day, the jumpers are still debating whether the kids were cheering them or laughing. One thing is agreed: it's unlikely that any kid past the third grade on that particular career day was persuaded to become a smokejumper.

The kids did ask some good questions. Every one of them was much more interested in hearing about the jumpers who landed in their town amongst the clotheslines and vegetables than in the jumpers who made it to the field.

As the kids were interviewing the jumpers, the jump plane was landing in McCall. The spotter leaped from the aircraft, sprinted to the operations desk and filled out a leave form, effective immediately. Better to be some place far away when the jumpers returned.