As the engraved, granite sidewalk footstones citing the names and dates of service at the entrance to the Stillwater Veterans Memorial attest, a significant number of St. Croix Valley men served during the Vietnam war era as draftees or volunteers, enlisted men and officers.
By the late 1960s and into the early 70s, having honorably fulfilled their military obligations and disillusioned by national policy and the war in Vietnam, some of us returned to the St. Croix Valley to find a new life. Among these veterans were airborne soldiers, such as myself.
For us, parachuting had become a way of life.
Given the public mood at the time, we were not particularly welcomed at home, and few in the community were sympathetic to the efforts we had to make to adjust to civilian life.
I found a purpose and potential source of income establishing an air charter business, flying Cessna 206 Sky wagon aircraft all over the Midwest from bases in St. Paul and Lake Elmo.
I would take calls for a charter — air taxi, medical emergency, express cargo, Canadian fly-ins, whatever came up — and go anywhere at any hour of the day or night. I considered every flight a blessing because I had found a niche in a civilian environment that was totally foreign to me.
The requests from a burgeoning number of sport parachuting clubs were more than welcome, even though the clubs were always short of money. I would cut them some slack. Parachuting was in my blood, after having made nearly 300 military jumps. Inevitably, dropping skydivers tantalized my wish to “hit the blast” again.
In the infancy of the sport of freefall parachuting, the chutes were modified standard military issue. I knew I’d return to jumping, and ordered a military surplus chute and sent if off for state-of-the-art modification. The technology then was very primitive by today’s standards. I remember the day in 1967 when I received the chute at the Lake Elmo post office.
In the years following, I dropped skydivers for clubs in Osceola, Hastings, the Twin Cities (Minnesota Golden Eagles), Princeton and elsewhere. By today’s safety standards, the setting for these events was decidedly informal, almost casual, yet disciplined once in the air.
I’d squeeze in a jump when I could get a trusted local pilot to fly my plane.
What is so amazing in view of the evolution and refinement of the sport is that the activity was done without significant control from the ground and at the drop zone (even though we jumped in uncontrolled air space, we had to get approval for the jumps from the FAA). Our chutes were often repacked on-site, on the ground or tarmac or on a row of picnic tables beside the runway.
I made my last freefall jump in Clewiston, Fla., over Lake Okeechobee while serving with Drug Enforcement Administration’s South Florida Drug Task Force in 1984. By that time, service-connected physical injuries had caught up with me, and I retired my old chute, which had become grossly obsolete.
As the years since passed, given aging and increasing physical limitations, I reconciled myself to the reality that I probably could never jump again, but the itch was always there, lying in wait like old-age shingles. Inevitably, around the time of my 79th birthday I had to deal with it. I needed to make one more jump. Comparable with good sex, I know of no other human experience quite as exhilarating.
Knowing I no longer had as much upper body strength due to shoulder injuries, I began to look for a local sport parachuting operation that offered the now rather outdated static line jump (the static line is attached to the aircraft and the jumper and activates the parachute within seconds as the jumper falls away from the plane).
I found what I was seeking almost around the corner at Skydive Wissota, operating from a small airport near Chippewa Falls, Wis. All I wanted was one more jump, so I got my VA doctor’s OK and scheduled myself for a drop.
I shared my plans with my middle son, a well-respected Minneapolis attorney in his 50s. To my total surprise and delight, and he immediately suggested that we make the jump together, a father-son event. I was deeply moved. While parachuting had always been so much of my life, young Brad had never jumped. Did he realize what he was getting himself into — the possible addiction to ‘hitting the blast” that had infected me since my military days and ever since? I scheduled us to attend the obligatory pre-jump classes and training for this past Father’s Day.
When we walked into the Wissota clubhouse-hanger complex, we found ourselves suddenly immersed in an, inspiring, almost cultish, church-like- atmosphere of dedicated skydiving enthusiasts. This was totally different from the casual, ad hoc sport parachuting culture I had experienced years earlier.
We spent the day in class covering virtually all aspects of current skydiving procedures and equipment, then went to the aircraft to practice seating and exiting. The instruction was extraordinarily supervised, almost meticulous. What had begun as a spontaneous and simple daredevil sport had come a very long way technologically and culturally. I was deeply impressed. I could tell young Brad was in awe.
The weather closed in so we couldn’t jump as planned. Since then, Brad has been able to get back to Chippewa and make three of the required five static line qualifying jumps to move on to freefall. I’ve yet to be able, because of physical complications, to get my jump in, but we have plans of jumping together when Brad makes his first freefall in a couple of weeks. The kid is hooked — must be something in the genes. Airborne! What have I done?
Bradley Ayers is a Stillwater native who began writing for the Gazette while still in high school in 1952. He is an Army Ranger CIA, DEA Veteran. Now 79 and semi-retired, he writes from his wilderness home near Frederic, Wis. His book “Zenith Secret” was released in November by Rosedog Books.