As one ages, birthdays take on conflicted intellectual, practical and emotional significance. This is especially true if you survived beyond the seventy marker. On the one hand, you’re thankful for making it through another year; and on the other, you look at the actuary tables and realize that time is running out. This is driven home as you see your contemporaries disappearing from the scene. Such is the nature of the human experience, and one has no choice but to accept and philosophically reconcile the reality.
I’ve got a birthday, number 79, coming up as this is being written. I typically spend the day alone, pondering over a martini, sushi and a double serving of hot sake. Past occasions flash, but there is one birthday I’ll never forget because it changed my life. I recall vividly as if it happened yesterday.
I enlisted in the airborne Army Rangers in 1953, just out of high school. For whatever the influence may have been growing up in Stillwater in the 1940s and 50s, I entered the service with an attitude of cavalier fatalism – whether it was my Jesuit Catholic spirituality, Kipling’s “IF” tacked to my father’s office wall in the big house on North Owen Street, or just simple youthful invincibility, I’ve really never been sure. But, I had an idealistic sense of purpose even though I did not know where it might take me.
On the 7th of March, 1957, my 22nd birthday, I found myself as a young officer stationed at Fort Campbell, Kentucky with the 101st Airborne Division. I was on a competitive career path and determined to log as many parachute jumps as I could on my way to earning my senior wings. I had one more of the required 35 to qualify. No better way to celebrate one’s birthday than with a jump.
I arose at 0430 kissed my still sleeping wife and son, spit shined my boots while gulping black coffee, put on freshly laundered starched fatigues and headed to the airport.
To get my jump in, I would hopefully tag on to a ‘stick’ of jump school students who were scheduled for the drop that morning. On arrival, I managed to talk my way on to the manifest. Today’s jump would be special in more ways than my birthday celebration. We would be dropped from the newly introduced C-123 tactical cargo aircraft the Air Force had developed to replace the aging fleet of twin boom, shake-rattle-and-roll C-119s that had been the airborne’s delivery workhorse since the early 50s.
This would be a new experience. Two other officers, tag-ons for their required monthly jump pay qualification, joined me. The grizzled lieutenant colonel wore, on his master wings, gold stars signifying three combat jumps. The other officer was Paul, a new second lieutenant. The three of us walked over to the chute shed to draw our equipment. The airborne students with whom we would jump were just arriving. I had gotten word from Stillwater that two or three airborne enlistees from the Valley were going through airborne training and looked for them to give a bit of encouragement (see footnote).
We checked one another’s equipment then lined up for the riggers check. As the specialist finished checking me I turned up the stiff collar of my fatigue. I had begun this habit early in my jumping career — for no reason I could remember except the possibility it kept the collar from wrinkling. This insignificant act was to loom very large a short while later.
The instructor strode over to the three of us and asked, as experienced parachutists, if we would demonstrate the jumping procedure. We agreed and he outlined our actions. On the first pass over the drop zone — all three of us would jump from the starboard door, at one second intervals, we would try to land near the marked impact point in the center of the DZ. We then went aboard the new 123 for a briefing on the aircraft interior, its configuration and the plane’s flight characteristics.
We three brought up the rear of the line of jumpers as we filed out to the aircraft. We took seats near the right door and fixed our seat belts, wrestling with our reserve chutes strapped across our stomachs.
The engines roared as we taxied for takeoff. Once airborne, we could feel the student’s tension grow. A few of the new jumpers nervously wisecracked over the roar of the engines. But most feigned sleep or sat quietly alone with their thoughts.
The 123 was fast off the ground, much more so than the 119. The sounds, vibrations, even the smell and kinetic sensations were different. We climbed steeply to cruising altitude and flew around for 30 minutes or so before lining up for the Yamoto drop zone at Campbell. Out the open door, I saw familiar landmarks pass beneath, Charlie’s Steak House, Highway 41, the base hospital and the Wherry housing area. We were steady at 1200 feet, jump altitude, with only mild turbulence and ground wind within limits for the drop.
The crew chief held up one finger signifying the number of minutes to drop time. The colonel, Paul and I released our seat belts and stood up. The colonel quickly went through the jump commands and we secured our static lines — the umbilical cord that would automatically open our chutes as we fell away from the airplane. The excitement became alertness. There was no fear or apprehension — just a completely captivating thrill.
The colonel crouched in the big open door, with his right toe in space. The wind tore at the equipment. I shuffled up behind him in the stance of the No. 2 man, Paul close behind me. The colonel watched the light box from the corner of his eye. These last seconds were when life, for once, seemed to come into sharp focus — your entire being wrapped in what the next moments would bring. Then the red light blinked, the green flashed, the exit bell rang – and in a quiet swoosh the colonel was gone. His static line fluttered violently in the prop wash, I pivoted in the door. Something unfamiliar streaked in front of my eyes. At the same instant, with a vigorous push and jump, I leaped into space.
“One thousand, two thousand, three thou—” My neck! Searing, excruciating pain tore at my neck — my head was being wrenched off. My main parachute had not deployed; I could feel its weight on my back. From rigid habit I held my exit body position in the prescribed head-down-arms-in attitude. On the ground, far below the toes of my boots, I could see the drop zone. But I was moving across rather than toward it! Somehow I was being towed through the sky by my neck at more than 150 knots.
I knew I had a problem, but instinctively maintained my exit body position. Redness flooded my vision, the terrible pain ebbed away, I felt an unreal, almost giddy sensation. I am dying, this is how it feels. My head rolled back and I sank into dark warm softness but I remained conscious. Then something happened. A lightening-like flash of peace and promise of whatever lay beyond. I surrendered and went limp. A metaphysical rebirth!
Suddenly, I was jerked upright, my arms and legs flopping like a rag dolls. Raw pain returned. At the familiar pressure on my harness I twisted my aching neck to look up. There, blossomed above me, was the great olive drab canopy. Somehow I had fallen free, my chute had deployed, and I was drifting gently to earth. I raised my hand to my neck, it stung like a red-hot poker and came away covered with blood. The ground came up quickly. I struck softly, rolled, than lay in the deep green grass.
I had come face to face with death, but how? I had noticed the colonel’s static line flapping strangely as I pivoted in the door. That streak before my eyes at the instant I jumped — that must have been his static line! Somehow a loop must have formed in the deployed rigging and I had, in exiting, put my head through the “noose.” As long as I kept my head down, I was simultaneously towed and strangled. The relaxation and lifting of my head had allowed the loop to slip from my neck and saved my life.
I turned my head from side to side. I could move it, so my neck was not broken. The bloodied turned-up collar was torn and burned. It had undoubtedly absorbed most of the nylon friction. Across the DZ I could see Paul and the colonel starting toward me.
At that moment, I was aware that everything around me had taken on a brilliant color – all my senses seemed to be focused the way they were before a jump. The hue of the blue sky, the sound of the plane far above, the warming, golden sunlight on the glittering richness of the waving grass, the warm smell of earth-living things.
Not seriously injured, I chose not to go to the hospital and went to the dispensary to get checked over. For the next two weeks, my wife bathed my wounds with an epsom salt, vinegar and Dreft solution. To this day I gag with the smell of epsom salts, vinegar and Dreft but I have few scars. Other close-calls followed as my public and not so private background reflects, but none stands out more prominently in my mind than the noose around my neck over Yamoto DZ.
So, as this birthday is at hand, I finally decided to try to cure the apparently inborn existential denial of my own mortality.
As a military and aviation instructor, one employs training aids to get a message across.
I recently found a craftsman in Osceola who makes simple, old-fashioned, natural wood caskets. My burial instructions include a preference for this mode of interment. In anticipation of the inevitable, I ordered one of his caskets and had another local wood carver emblazon it with certain military insignia of significance in my life.
Finished, it will make a beautiful coffee table until used for its original purpose. With my luck, I expect to enjoy it for another 20 years in this life, and then for eternity. There in my home it will be a discreet reminder of my mortality, and the need to live each remaining day abiding by the principles that have guided my life: have no fear, do no harm whenever it can be avoided and never quit. Lord, just give me one more day and I’ll get it done!
Footnote: I’d like to honor my lifetime friend, Dick Olsen, who passed away last week. He was very close to the Stillwater scene and was truly a good man. In our youth, as devout Catholics, we talked about becoming priests. Later, he entered seminary, and I chose the military.
Editor’s note: Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. Now 79 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. His hardcover, non-fiction book, “Zenith Secret,” released in November by Rosedog Books, is available online.