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For Jerry Dixon, The Dancing Never Stopped

by Doug Abromeit (McCall '71) |

I first laid eyes on Jerry Dixon (MYC-71) in 1971. I was in McCall smokejumper rookie training, lying face-down in the dirt with sweat rolling off my forehead and into my eyes with Neil Satterwhite (MYC-65) standing above me, yelling: “Okay, Puke, now give me 25 more.”

Satterwhite, of course, was referring to push-ups.

I was trying to summon the juice to do exactly as I was told because Satterwhite – who could do 20 one-armed push-ups and spoke with a gravelly growl that emitted from his throat at the same point a Viet Cong shell had ripped away his larynx – was undoubtedly the toughest human being I had run across in my sheltered life.

That’s when Dixon appeared. I looked up and saw this guy running across the field toward Del Catlin (MYC-47), the base manager.

I looked back down and grunted out 25 shaky, half-assed push-ups for Satterwhite and staggered to my feet. By that time Dixon was gone and I forgot about him. But the next morning there he was again, standing with the rest of us rookies waiting for the trainers to emerge from the loft.

We asked who he was. He said his name was Dixon and that he had been working in Council on the district fire crew and happened to be driving by when he saw us training. He said he stopped his pickup, ran over to Catlin and told him he had always wanted to be a smokejumper and could he join the group. “Be here tomorrow,” The Cat told him.

When the trainers came out, they introduced Dixon and noted that since half our class had been a bunch of wussies and had washed out, they were now forced to take Dixon on. They further noted that while the rest of us were, for the most part, worthless and had learned precious little, we had been at it for a week and Dixon would have to suck it up and catch up.

And Dixon’s catching up was the best thing that could have happened to the rest of us. Much of the trainers’ attention switched to Dixon and away from the rest of us. The trainers took turns having him do Allen rolls out of a moving, bouncing pickup, followed by push-ups; exits off the jump tower, followed by push-ups; and letdowns, followed by push-ups.

I remember Dixon being so tired he would drag himself into the cafeteria and eat, and then stagger up to the barracks and sleep. We called him Mattress Back and marveled that he didn’t quit.

And he didn’t; he was back every morning with his cocky “Cool Hand Luke” swagger ready to take everything that was thrown his way. At the end of the training sufferfest, the trainers, all of whom secretly admired Dixon’s verve, announced he would be allowed to join the rest of us and make the seven practice jumps required to be a smokejumper.

The fifth or sixth practice jump was the packout jump. We jumped, and then the spotters dropped cargo that we gathered along with our jump suits, stuffed it all into huge, thick canvas sacks that resembled feedbags for giant horses.

The bags were unwieldy, uncomfortable, bulbous and heavy. Our task was to put these monstrosities on our backs and carry them five tortuous miles back to the jump base in one hour; the trainers, of course, slipped rocks into everyone’s bag.

I had been dreading the packout. At 125 pounds, carrying a 110-pound pack sounded next to impossible. Dixon told me: “Hey, don’t worry, pal. I’ll be there.”

And he was. Dixon helped me get the bag on my back and told me I looked like an ant carrying a beetle. Dixon and I were last in line, but I was doing okay until the trail narrowed as it traversed a steep, rocky slope with a creek at the bottom of it. I slipped off the trail, and the overloaded cylindrical giant and I rolled downslope – thump, thump, thump.

The bag and I finally stopped at the edge of the creek. I was lacerated and had talus-shaped indentations all over my arms and face. I hurt everywhere and figured I was totally screwed.

But then, all of a sudden, there was Dixon saying: “Get your ass up, Abro. We gotta get going.”

We dragged the bag up the bank, got it onto my back, and off we went. When we got near the finish line at the jump base all our rookie buddies were there and cheering. The trainers were yelling, “You slugs have two minutes to make it.” Dixon and I started running – or at least trying to run – and we made it with thirty seconds to spare.

Dixon and I remained very close friends right to the end; we jumped together for several more years, skied in Alaska and Alta too many times to remember, sea kayaked in the Kenai Fjords, rowed the Grand Canyon, and, best of all, told the same stories over and over again and laughed a lot. During those 40 years, Dixon told me repeatedly that the greatest gifts a human can have are good friends and a loving family.

And Jerry had both, but unfortunately neither his many friends nor his loving family could stave off the ravages of ALS – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And now he’s gone, and I’ll miss Jerry calling from Alaska, waking me up at 1 o’clock in the morning and yelling: “Abromeit, both feet on the deck. We jump at dawn.” Then telling me about some new adventure he had hatched up, like dicing some un-skied line in the Chugach.

That’s the spirit that drove Jerry right to the end. During his last six months – despite precipitous physical decline – Jerry climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in February and then, after his local guide told him that his tribe had a proverb that said a man should never stop dancing, he was the only white guy who danced in a Kenyan ceremony at the foot of the mountain.

He skied several days at Sun Valley in April, floated the Grand Canyon in July in 120-degree heat, and drove solo up the Alaska-Canadian Highway in August. I talked to Jerry a few days before he died, and he told me,

“Abro, I’ve had a life blessed with a loving family and great friends, and Janet and you are two of them. I wish you all the best for all time and remember, pal, never stop dancing.”

All the best to you, Jerry; we all know you’ll never stop dancing.