I Jumped, despite the omens!
"I'm alive!" Those 2 words are written at the top of my journal page on May 21, 1978.
I wasn't just remarking that I'd survived my jump from a plane...but I had lived despite the 8 previous attempts which were halted by storms, wind, no-show instructors or other obstacles. It seemed clear, I was being given a message that I should not be attempting this silly endeavor, but I ignored it.
Smiling Before Jump
My friend Mark snapped this smiling picture of me before I headed to the plane.
I was smiling with relief that I was finally getting this over with! Mark had jumped earlier in the day after we re-trained for 2 hours along with a crowd of postponed "first jumpers" who were all quiet and grumpy like me... from the stress of waiting.
For weeks I had been attempting to complete a one day class that would end with an actual jump. Why would I put up with a "school" that looked like a horse stable and had instructors who didn't care about your name...and sometimes didn't show up? I guess because I was a student with a dream and no cash. Webster College had a "Parachute Club" with some funds...crazy.
It was late afternoon by the time my jump was scheduled. The early group got lots of attention. The first jumper had a crowd of students on ground squinting up into the sky. We waited to see that tiny speck of a person leap from the plane. Then we broke the tension with applause when the chute opened instantly.
I was excited for Mark when it was his turn. I gave him a silly toy parachute man to stuff in his pocket for good luck and I congratulated him after landing. But as the day wore on, my enthusiasm disappeared. All my past confidence was replaced with concern. I just knew the winds were going to pick up and my jump would be cancelled. I decided if that happened, I would stop trying.
My good spirits returned when I was finally told it was time to go. As I headed towards the plane I was stopped by a news reporter who had just arrived from Channel 2. Besides Mark and the two guys I was jumping with, all the other students were gone. I had no big cheering group...but hey, I was going to be on TV, with an even bigger audience!
I was nervous enough about jumping without having to come up with clever answers about why I wanted to jump out of a plane. I don't remember what I answered. Something about overcoming a challenge. But I do remember that I laughed about my mother not knowing I was doing this. Early in the morning, I had scribbled an obvious white lie on a piece of paper for my mom. "I've gone to 6 Flags for the day!" (After 8 earlier attempts, Mom had begged me to not tell her anymore)
I climbed in last, after the pilot, the jump master and two other first jumpers. That meant I would be first out! We stuffed into the tiny space like sardines and a moment later the plane roared and took off. I wobbled and my helmet clunked a couple other helmets.
How could I be sharing such a huge experience with people I didn't know? But I suddenly relaxed. I didn't care about them, I just knew I was going to jump and I couldn't stop grinning. When the motor cut, my jump master flipped open the door. He motioned for me to scoot forward. I did, and felt my legs dangling as I stared down at the hazy fields below. I wasn't scared anymore, just numb. I was signaled to climb onto the platform and I remember the feeling of opposite magnets as I pushed my body against the air. The blasting wind was tearing at my cheeks and coveralls. Suddenly there was a slap on my leg and a muffled, "GO!" It was so fast...no time to think. It felt almost refreshing as I arched my back away from the plane....like falling back into a pool on a hot day. No fear, just a feeling of AT LAST!
Did it open?
I was so distracted by the blinding speed of falling that I forgot to count. But when I felt the sudden jolt of the chute, I did remember I was supposed to look up to be sure the chute opened. But I couldn't! Something was tight against the back of my helmet. Did it actually open?
Then suddenly I was twirling, in a comical fashion as my lines untwisted and my head was finally free to look up and see those beautiful stripes on my open chute!
Twisted lines are much better than tangled lines!
A little interference!
I was so delighted to see the chute, I began hollering, "I can't believe it! I did it!" I kicked my legs in a giddy gesture, and grinned out at the view and soaked in the quiet, until the sound of my radio reminded me I was connected with a crew below, and they were probably laughing at me through their binoculars.
"Pull down on your left toggle." crackled the voice. I nervously pulled the right. I didn't want to steer or listen. I just wanted to float.
Then a twangy woman's voice came over the radio. "This is Lady Bug here. Breaker 1-9. How's it lookin' over your donkey, Sweetie Pie?" All I could do was laugh. I'm sure the crew didn't know I suddenly had a better reason than giddiness for not following their instructions!
A Comical Landing
It was only fitting that I would have a less than perfect landing. In the air, I did remember to keep my feet and knees together and my eyes on the horizon. I hit the ground hard and fell. I don't think it was anything like when we practiced.
In our training we spent a lot of time hanging by straps (like cadavers, my journal reads) and making perfect jumps into pits from our mock plane. But my real landing was clumsy and the chute behind me kept filling with air and trying to pull me backwards as I struggled to my feet. But I couldn't stop laughing and luckily Mark was there to snap a few photos as I clutched the parachute cloth like a prize!
I have never jumped again. I figured any other jump would be dull in comparison. But at some point I did make sure to dig out the old Barbie Diary list and give "Parachuting" a check!
First I had to find the Elephant Man.
In the summer of 1978, the Moolah Shriner Circus came to Busch Stadium in St. Louis. The whole parking lot surrounding the stadium was a jungle of trailers and equipment, cages and trucks. I figured if I could wander the lot and find the elephant trainer during off hours, I could at least ask about fulfilling my dream, of riding an elephant.
I was in luck. I came upon a number of elephants being hosed down in preparation for the evening show. Nearby was a curly haired man named Pat Anthony, who appeared to be in charge. He seemed good humored and likable, although he claimed he got into animal training because he preferred animals to people. When I told him my dream was to ride an elephant. He pondered a moment, and then replied "Well...the circus will head to Poplar Bluff tomorrow. Come on out and we'll see what we can do."
Mom in 1978
This photo has nothing to do with my elephant adventure, but it shows Mom in 1978. It shows what a good sport she was... with my silly brother. As it turns out, my mom was the only friend willing to make the 3 hour drive to Poplar Bluff the next day. Mom always loved an adventure!
When we arrived at the town's Junior High football field, Mom parked the car as I took off in search of Pat. I passed by a few Shriners in their festive hats selling tickets. I wandered back through the trailers, eyeing performers warming up on various pieces of equipment. Then I heard it, that wonderful sound of snorting-rumbling elephants!
Pre-Circus in Poplar Bluff
I followed the sound and stopped to ask a young boy if he knew Pat Anthony. I told the boy that Pat said I could ride an elephant. He laughed, "Pat doesn't have anything to do with the elephants!" A sluggish, shirtless man nearby chimed in, "Pat was pullin' your leg. You can't ride an elephant. Joe owns the elephants!" I calmly explained to the boy and man that I'd just driven 3 hours to ride an elephant. Suddenly, the sluggish laughed and pointed with new energy. "Well here Pat comes."
I turned to face Pat who was walking towards me with a grin. I could hear Sluggish Man under his breath, "I can't wait to hear this. She better chew him out." I firmly told Pat I had come to ride. "Of course you can." he answered, as he moved towards a weathered trailer. He knocked on the door and we waited. Eventually, a scowling man with jet black hair and tattooed arms answered. He mumbled about being woken from a nap. It took some convincing, but Joe finally agreed to get me up on an elephant.
I rushed to get Mom from the car. She snapped photos as I giddily approached the giant beast. I grinned to watch the elephant bend her front legs, so that her head dropped lower to the ground. Joe instructed me to step on the bent leg and reach for the strap. I swung my right leg up and over to straddle the neck. In my younger years I'd done a lot of bareback riding on horses, but this just felt comical. The thickness of this dear animal's neck! The feel of those lively ears, flapping at my legs! And then the awkward lift, as the body moved to stand upright again! Oh how I wanted to throw my head back and howl with joy... but Joe's irritated expression kept me slightly under control.
So Pat Anthony kept his word, that he'd get me on that elephant. I'm not sure I can ever claim that I "rode" this sweet beast. As you can see Joe didn't bother to unchain her poor ankle. Those chains still make me sad.
But as captive elephants do, this one swayed and moved forward and back and forward and back and I wobbled and laughed and loved every moment. I think what I loved most of all was how irritated Joe was when he made the command for the elephant to lower... and my sweet elephant friend refused. I hoped she would never bend down again!
I chose to believe my dream had been fulfilled! After climbing down, Mom and I walked away chuckling at the silliness of the whole event. Before long we were seated in the flimsy stands to watch the circus. The Poplar Bluff scene was a bit different than the St. Louis version. As my diary reads, "Pudgy girls wobbled over the soggy grass in their sparkly costumes...their spiked heels sinking with each step... Local high school students
squeaked out on instruments and struggled to keep the beat as a bored ring master sang dated circus favorites, into a microphone..."
I remember how the timing was off, with everything from music to stunts. Even the audience seemed disinterested. Before long, it rained and the circus was called off, before the elephants or the canon. But my mother and I huddled under an umbrella and watched as they "struck" the show. We saw "Miss Lydia" of the rope act. There she was, suddenly part of the crew, wearing her stretch shorts and no wig.
We chatted with some trapeze men from Sarasota who claimed to know some friends of ours from Florida. As odd as the show had seemed, I was still sad to see it end. And luckily the negative mood that seemed to surround Mom and me, had no effect on us at all. So off to dinner we went, glowing with the memories of our funny circus adventure!
My Circus Kids
Years later my own kids had made their own circus and elephant memories. They rode Flora, a beautiful young African elephant. She was the star of St. Louis based, "Circus Flora". A few years later, they took classes from some of the performers... members of the famous Flying Wallendas family!
But over the years most of us have learned a lot about the treatment of circus animals. I'm glad to know that abuse is no longer accepted in training. I'm especially glad to know that although Flora was never abused, she now lives in an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.
Later... a Different Kind of Encounter
My kids are grown and married now. All of our elephant riding days are over.
In 2017, our family traveled to Thailand and had a very different Elephant Encounter. My daughter-in-law arranged for us to visit a sanctuary where we were invited to feed and bathe elephants.
Mom would have so enjoyed this adventure!
The Nutty Balloonist
I spent 2 days convincing a nutty balloonist that I needed to ride! In the summer of 1974, I spent an agonizing number of hours being a Balloon Groupie in hopes of earning a ride. The Briarwood Mall had a two day promotion, each day ending with a hot air balloon launch.
During the day hours, a wacky balloonist named Mike partially filled his red, white and blue balloon inside the Mall, allowing children to play inside between blasts of hot air. I did more than my share of kid corralling for him. Then I helped lug equipment to the parking lot in the evening, reminding Mike repeatedly that I would love to go up in the balloon, since it was my dream... "Yeah, you and everyone else," he reminded me.
The first evening I was hopeful...
... until the mall manager suddenly arrived in his leisure suit, expecting a ride. I watched the balloon lift above me and drove home with twice the
I returned the second day for the same routine. Mike and his crew were growing amused by my overdone enthusiasm. But that evening after helping in the parking lot, two other "VIP" men arrived for their complimentary rides. Mike shrugged at my disappointed face. I continued helping the crew untangle some ropes.
Mike and the two men climbed into the basket while I helped the crew hold onto the wicker. Voices hollered orders over the blasts of the
burner. I was ready to step back and watch when Mike looked at me and chuckled softly. "Oh, get in." I scrambled over the edge and smooshed myself into a corner. "I've never had four in this basket." Mike laughed.
As we lifted above the heads of the small crowd, Mike suddenly put his foot on the lip of the basket and hoisted himself on the edge. "Whoo Hoo!" he hollered as he playfully reached for a dangling string above. I think he was just pretending to slip as he placed his feet on the tilting basket, then twisted and jerked into a falling pose. He laughed as he climbed back into safety. I was relieved to have an excuse to shriek and release a little of the exuberance bottled inside. With Mike back inside, the balloon lifted higher and caught a flow of wind moving it over a nearby meadow.
I really don't know how long we floated. I do remember the chase truck following us below on country roads.
I remember the silence when the burner was turned off and we drifted above fields and then the sound of the wind against the balloon, and then Mike's voice, bragging... about how he was the only balloonist to ever survive hitting power lines.
I'm not sure I picked the best pilot for my very first ballooning experience. I only pondered that worry for a moment. Suddenly it was time to land and Mike showed a bit of concern. "We're going fast." He announced firmly. "We can land this like a baby, if we all get on the opposite side and duck!" My nerves made me laugh with that suggestion. There was no where for any of us to move.
Suddenly we scrambled to the floor and the basket hit with a jerk and it felt like a million bodies on top of me, as we bounced and tumbled along the ground. Instead of panic, I felt a giddy wave of giggles and I tried to suppress them. The basket suddenly stopped and I couldn't move under the wieght. Mike yelled, "Put out the pilot!" The flame was burning near the oat field, where we had landed and Mike was suddenly out stomping as I crawled free. I ould see a huge path of ruined oats, where the basket had been dragging. The truck arrived and the heavy basket was heaved into the truck bed. Moments later, I was sitting in the back, grinning as the truck bumped down the dusty road. I was thrilled with every strong swerve, that gave me an excuse to hug the wicker basket once more.
Back at the Mall
I couldn't stop thanking Mike and the crew. Mike told me to be quiet. He claimed (with a grin) that the only reason he told me to get in was that he thought I was going to cry. And I probably would have.
I said good bye and headed to my car, making no attempts to hide my Dorothy style skip. Just before I reached the car I saw a little girl point to me and tell her mother. "Look, there's the balloon girl." I have never had a prouder title!
In 1974 at the age 16, I dug out my "on-going notepad-diary" and scribbled a frantic list. I remember the inspiration behind the list.
Earlier that day I had experienced my first actual HOT AIR BALLOON sighting! The image of that magical balloon and basket floating over my backyard completely undid me. If I had been 16 in 2012, I would have been on the internet googling hot air balloons.
I was dizzy with the notion that I had to find a way to go up in a balloon... but how? For starts, I raced around the house proclaiming to my family, "Out of all things I want to do in my life... my number 1 thing is to ride in a balloon!!" This led me to wondering what else should be on my list.
My Barbie Bucket List, couldn't have been more scrambled and complicated, with all the updates and added notes. My frantic cursive looks like that of an 8 year old. But when I see those scribbles, I'm reminded of the whacky teenager I was back then.
When some peers wished for romantic things or set proper goals, my head spun with craziness. I wanted to do things, try things, own things... And these things weren't exactly simple things to do, try and have. Below is the most complete list that I found in that silly Barbie Diary.
#1 - to take a ride in a balloon
#2 - to ride on an elephant
#3 - to live with an Amish family
#4 - to own a mannequin
$5 - to parachute
#6 - to lose 20 pounds ( my teen angst showing!)
#7 - to own a monkey
#8 - to go on an African safari
#9 - to star in a movie
#10 - to be in a trapeze act
#11 - to milk a cow
#12 - to ride a unicycle
#13 - to hop a train
#14 - to join the Peace Corps
How Many Checks?
I can only give about 5 full checks to this list. Ballooning, elephant riding and cow milking were achieved with bold coaxing, which is hard for a shy girl.
Unicycling and parachuting required some saved money and lots of practice and nerve.
So in the following posts, I'll use some inspiration from my old diaries and a few faded photos. I'll blog about my bizarre mix of achievements. Some thrilling and some just plain odd accomplishments. I've added about 5 more partially checked goals. I'm not a teenager anymore, but I had some fun with some lame half attempts, in recent years!
Who knows? Maybe it's not too late for that safari. And I've heard there are people older than me, in the Peace Corps! We'll see!
BARBIE BUCKET LIST
I was 8 years old when I got this embarrassing Barbie diary ... about 2 years before my real DIARY YEARS. (12 years of never missing a day) I was more into Trolls than Barbie, so I stashed it in a drawer and forgot about it.
Over the years my family moved numerous times and this super mod diary ended up burried in boxes over and over. For at least 12 years, whenever I ran across it, I would grab a pencil and jot down something ridiculous on the corresponding day. It was like a never ending doodle pad, fillled with more nonsense than reflection. The penmanship and horrendous spelling makes it difficult to read today, but the best discovery is a Bucket List that began on April 27, 1974!
Click on THE BEGINNING to see the LIST and how it evolved.