Friday, September 14, 2012

Skydiving without a Pilot; Free falling with my Hero.

NB: or Pilot-imposed.

This blog was supposed to be about balling up ones fears, igniting them with courage and taking a leap of faith, or more literally, hurling self into the sky from a perfectly good aeroplane, with just a sheet of silk and a couple of ropes.

Supposed to be.

I had imagined that I would wax lyrical about white knuckles, thundering heartbeats, frosty air at 14,000 feet gnawing up my nostrils, a colon spastically writhing like an unmanned hose; then, the rush as I leapt with a 200lb man attached to my back, the facelift of the 'g' force making my skin rubber and cartoonish as I fell through the sky at 130 mph, the scrabble to pull the cord and *relief* as I sail through the sky, surfing the currents and enjoying the silence of no mobile phone, no cars, no computer hums, cat calls or door slams, and the reassuring contentment of knowing that, yes, I did not wimp out, and, YES! I did not pee myself! 

In my mind, it was James Bond meets Point Break, in figure-fitting pink and fuchsia.  I'd be Secret Agent Barbie McGee!  

But no, dear Reader.  I cannot talk to you of such things, because the plane never left the ground. 

Schuey (you’ll recall, he is my running partner and general adrenalin-junkie-at-arms, see: and I have been planning a tandem jump for as long as we’ve known each other.  On our ill-fated, yet legendary, first date –his friends shanghai-ed our dinner and suggested we all go to a strip club; it seemed churlish and prudish to refuse, and also, for a writer, was a scene pregnant with potential, so I assented—ever since then, we have discussed skydiving with childish enthusiasm.   

The first date really set the tone for the next two years, as we quickly discovered that we enjoyed adventures together like best friends, not as partners. 

So, our skydiving adventure was not just an ad hoc whim, there were two years of skyward fantasies whirring around the walnut cluster of my brain.  Before that, there was Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves free falling through my dreams and waking me up with a rousing recital of

 “I’m a fucking F.B.I agent!”

“I know.  Ain’t it wild!”

Skydiving was clearly for the coolest of the cool.

Back further, there was my Welsh grandfather, Taid as we called him.  Taid was a flyer, a pilot, a hoot, a ham, a hero.   Maybe that sounds corny and boastful, I don't care, I’m proud of it.   My Taid, Evan Gwyn Jones, was, in fact, a Wing Commander in the RAF, he was awarded the DFC and the AFC--yes, both, a rare honour--in addition to numerous other shiny medals and ribbons.  He flew Wellingtons and Mosquitoes.  He was selected for the 8 Group Pathfinders, the elite squadron of Bomber Command, leading bombing raids over Dresden, Cologne and Berlin, and he completed 89 operations--that's almost three tours of ops.  He was mentioned in Dispatches to the King.  He had parachuted from a burning plane, which made him far cooler than Keanu or Patrick could ever be.  I adored my Taid.
He was THAT brilliant they made special stamps to commemorate the First 1000 Bomber Raid.  That's my Taid's signature.  ;)

In single digits I was largely regarded as loud and obnoxious—please don’t say, “What’s changed?”—and I was hushed when I asked at excited-only-dogs-can-hear-you decibels,

“Taid, what is that one for?”

I touched the small gold caterpillar with ruby eyes, pinned to his weighted lapel—I probably touched it with sticky fingers—I recall I was always a sticky child--like human fly-paper.  

There, in the Mess, as the adults swayed with their naughty little drinkies and told war stories, Taid took my sticky paws in his big hands, twirled me around, and bundled me on to his lap.  Whilst the adult world circled doing their adult things, Taid explained each shiny gong to me.  Every humble explanation focused on the crew and the mission, never about the pilot, and all ended with a punch line, pulling up the story at the last minute before in descended into a blaze of loss, as all war stories inevitable did for one side or the other.
Irvin Caterpillar Club Pin

“The caterpillar, Enna bach,” he explained, “is from bailing out.  You know, a pilot hates to ditch, but sometimes you have to, love.”

“You had to parachute out of your aeroplane?”

“Oh yes.  This one is for ejecting over land.  That's what the ruby eyes mean, see?”


And I recall being so impressed, because at that age you think your grandparents must have been born in the dark ages and however did they manage the wonders of aeronautic engineering when surely, surely they didn’t even have electricity or fire!

Of course the conversation, faded over a quarter of a century or more, is not verbatim, but it was something like that.  He would have called me “Enna,” or “bach” or both.  For the non-Welshies, “bach” is not a reference to a German composer of the Baroque period—I had the musical ability and aspirations of a toe-nail clipping so Taid would hardly have coined that as my monicker—but it is a Welsh term of endearment, "small," used as we'd soften sentences with “love” or “pet.”  He definitely held my hand and I would have grabbed his thumb, because I always did.

It is funny the microscope of a child.  I saw, traced and saved the image of his hands.  It is a slide I can see clearly even now: his big, capable hands that had flown great metal machines and then, in peace time, tested aircraft;  hands that had, in retirement, carved wooden dressers, lamps and tables; that had created minute feather fascinators, to attract and lure salmon and trout; these warm, scarred hands, with rounded nail beds, sometimes red or purple or black with a hammer-whack, always quick to hand me a Polo mint or a pound to run to Woolies for some toffees for us to share, “But shhh!  Don’t tell Gran!”

He didn't tell me the blanks that my father would fill in later: that his Wellington had been shot down and all navigation had been ruined; that the crew bailed and Taid's parachute came down into some trees--an unfortunate crash landing for his cranium; that with conscussion and cracked skull he was marched through the fields to the police station by a scared Yorkshire farmer who had never heard a Welsh accent before, and thought he must be German.  A fortuitous happenstance for Taid, as the Police treated him to a grand spread of eggs and bacon, bread and butter!  Taid always did like his breakfasts, his hot, stewed, sweet tea and his cheese and onion sandwiches!

I used to think of him everyday, but I have been alive longer without him than with him now, so memories have clouded or dissipated.  I thought of him all morning though, as I went to my non-jump jump.  Silent tears trickled and plinked on my keyboard as I recalled his caterpillar and as I wrote of that memory to my facebook friends.  His wickedly delighted EGJ smile broke out over my face as I saw the aeroplane that was to take us up.  Schuey and I cracked jokes amid the tense waiting room, and I thought, yup, that’s what I imagine Taid would do before going up: he'd tell a joke, recite a poem, sing a song--probably a fairly lewd one!  I thought of the time he and my dad put fart-smell pellets in my Uncle Teg's cigarettes and how they laughed like school boys as they watched us all sniff, crease brows, exchange glances and shift away from the unpleasant stench.  

I wasn’t scared as I watched the skydiving video, emphasizing the risks involved.  I was not concerned as I signed my waiver, understanding that skydiving could result in injury or death, and my life insurance premium would never be the same again.  I was high, sky-high, thinking that I would be doing something that my Taid had done.  The difference being, I know he would have turned to me and said, “But Enna bach, why would you jump from a perfectly good plane?”

So, as my instructor hung up his cell phone for the last time, shrugged his shoulders and admitted that he couldn’t find a pilot to take us up, I couldn’t be that upset.  Our pilot was missing, but my pilot, my Taid, I had got to spend all day thinking of.  I had soared through the clouds in my brain to see him again, his toothy grin as he’d scrunch up his nose and make rabbit ears behind some unsuspecting friend.   The day wasn’t lost at all.  It was found.


  1. He was a wonderful man and lives on not only in your clarity of words but also in your spirit

  2. Thank you, that means a lot.
    I would be proud to be a fraction of my grandfathers (well, I am genetically), I just hope I keep my hair better than they did!

  3. This made me tear up! Beautiful! :)