(sung to the tune of "Beautiful Dreamer")
Beautiful streamer, open for me
Blue skies above me, no canopy.
Counted five thousand, waited too long
Looked for the ripcord, but the damn thing was gone
an old skydiver's song
It was a
brittle, overcast Sunday afternoon in December, 1969. We were performing
a demo jump in Oneida, N.Y. at a VFW post fundraiser, and the plan
was for Chip Maury and me to bail out first at about 5,200 feet.
This was my 76th jump and the first time I was actually paid to
make one, $25 if I recall correctly. A windfall at the time. We
had military smoke canisters on our boots so the spectators could
track our progress in free fall. On the 20-second delay I exited
first and then Maury went after me. He zipped over and approached
for a hook up, and after barely making contact, he flew under and
we waved off to open. The winter winds were gusty, and Maury's less-than-precise
exit point left us struggling to try and reach the target. We drifted
away from the VFW building behind some trees, landing only a few
yards from one another, not quite near the designated landing site.
We gathered in our chutes, talked briefly about the aborted hook
up, and began trekking through the snow, looking up and watching
for Smitty and Chuck Schmutz, who exited on the second pass.
Schmutz's canopy opened normally at
about two grand, and Willard Joseph Smith, a.k.a. Smitty, my skydiving
instructor and college roommate, aware that there was a crowd of
ex-military geezers waiting by the target, decided to take it off
the bottom. Low openings were what this guy was all about, and now
there was an audience, so this was no surprise. By now, I had a
fairly acute eye for following jumpers from the ground, and I saw
him pass through fifteen hundred, then a thousand, his smoke still
trailing from his foot, perfectly stable, still as a rock, his hand
poised on the D-ring, already outside its pocket holder. Just under
a thousand, he pulled, only to be greeted by a partial malfunction,
a severe bunch-up of flapping nylon, or more colloquially, a load
This was a situation. A dangerously low
opening and an acute main failure resulting in a high rate of descent.
He was extremely close to the ground when he separated from his
main, maybe 400 feet or so.
Smitty was about to go in only a hundred
yards from where I was standing, frozen, watching, painfully aware
that he was probably too low to deploy his reserve. I was about
to witness my first fatality, up close and far too personal. He
had exhausted his supply of luck. Maury was all but convinced, as
well, that Smitty had run out of sky. Suddenly, miraculously, a
white flash of canopy flew out from his chest, billowed and abruptly
checked his descent, no more than 75 feet off the deck, we estimated.
Usually, you notice the sound delay after a chute completes its
opening. If a jumper opens at 2,200 feet as recommended by the Basic
Safety Regulations, the ra-ta-ta-thunder clap usually follows by
about two seconds (because sound travels at 1,100 feet per second).
There was no sound lag on this reserve opening.
Smitty's feet jerked upward like a child's
marionette. His canopy oscillated once, then twice, and then he
bounced stiffly on to the slanted roof of a one-story, shingled
building, a local bank branch. You could hear the impact. Smitty
slid down the side of the peaked roof and into a snow bank, reminiscent
of an errant landing by a paratrooper during the Normandy invasion.
His total time under the canopy was only a few seconds.
Maury and I sped toward him. Before we
got there, he bounded up and all too casually began brushing the
snow from his jumpsuit. This was astonishing, for I thought he would
be at least winded by the collision with the roof. I expected him
to rise slowly and take inventory, as any normal person would after
such a close appointment with one's demise. But then Smitty was
not normal, certainly not a conventional skydiver. His expression
was strange, a mask of a grin covering what had to have been some
degree of terror. But Smith being Smith did not show fear. And this
stoic pose just frightened me more.
"Piece of cake," were the first words
he said, as if he'd planned the stunt down to the last detail.
By now, the vets had a vague notion that
they had seen a skydiving show that included far more than what
they were paying for. Being ex-military men, they would have settled
for far less. Several had hollow looks, as if they'd seen something
in combat they'd rather not talk about. It was getting dark. None
of us repacked our chutes, and we stuffed them into the trunk of
Smitty's Oldsmobile. We retreated to the VFW bar and ordered doubles,
all of us except Willard Joseph Smith, Jr., who didn't care for
alcohol, after all.
Smitty found himself face-to-face with
the she devil of skydiving. With a confident swagger he smirked
at death's merchant, laughed mockingly at her, ever the enfant terrible.
This was a first experience for me. It was a jump that skydivers
like to say resulted in "bonus days."
Skydivers often talk about the "Pucker
Factor," the level of absolute fear one experiences on a given jump.
The PF is part of the vernacular, and it refers to the degree of
contraction of one's sphincter muscle as it responds to the onslaught
of personal terror. A first jump, as frightening as it is for most
normally configured human beings, is a PF-1 or maybe a PF-2. Malfunctions
usually up the rating to about PF-5, but it varies depending on
how nasty the main came out, and how low you are, and how quickly
you get your reserve open. Bandit jumps (those that are illegal)
can be high PF ratings, as well, especially when the skydiver is
facing a rocky landing area, an angry constable or federal agent,
jail time, confiscation of equipment, or some combination thereof.
A PF-9 is theoretically the highest you can go and live to talk
about it. I do not think the reader needs to ask what happens on
Smitty's Oneida jump was a PF-9, no question.
Some time later on, Smitty talked
freely about that day and went over the jump and described what
went on technically, but his description was detached, devoid of
any emotion. When he went low, he liked to make comments about how
he saw someone on the ground actually picking his nose while he
was still in free fall. It was a sexy comment, even if it was bogus.
On the Oneida jump, he maintained that when he cut away and dumped
his reserve, he could see the trees peripherally as he looked upward.
"I figured it was over, but I'd give it a shot," was how he summarized
it. That I believed. No matter how many times we talked about it,
he would not admit to any loss of control or fear during the entire
jump. In intimate moments, however, he did say this: He honestly
believed there were few better ways to die other than skydiving.
If he had his choice, that would be his preference, especially at
a demo in front of a large crowd.
* * *
That your parachute will someday fail
you is, of course, inevitable. You prepare for an emergency from
your first day in the sport, and hope you will have a career like
Dave Lanzendorf, a jumper I knew who made more than a thousand jumps
and never had one not open. He packed his parachute like a luxury
dry cleaner spread out an Armani suit. I don't think I know of anyone
else who made more than a few hundred jumps without at least one
canopy malfunction. If you're a skydiver, you understand it's part
of the game, even if you don't always understand why the main didn't
Training for the inevitable involves the
term "simulated emergency," one of the quaintest oxymorons every
constructed. By definition, an emergency situation is one that you
encounter suddenly. There is a logical response to what goes wrong,
and it requires a certain amount of emotional withdrawal. The idea
is to create a procedure that, once you evaluate the situation,
becomes automatic. We all want to emulate the icy behavior of the
astronauts in Apollo 13, the aborted moon shot, where who
could forget? failure was not an option. Who doesn't want
to be like Chuck Yeager, calm in his country drawl, no matter what
the life-threatening situation?
A simulated emergency is all we have.
This is why airline pilots spend so much time in flight simulators
while maniacal examiners put the aircraft into convulsions that
captains know are highly unlikely. In the simulator, they expect
the worst, most diabolical scenarios. It is one thing to commit
to memory procedures you should follow when the shit storm arrives.
But how can you simulate how you're going to respond when the genuine
emergency arises? How does one learn not to panic? How do you know
whether you'll respond? Is this a personality trait, or is it training?
The short answer is, you don't know. Remaining cool under pressure
is just something you won't know until you have to know it.
* * *
The ceiling was 2,500 feet on Saturday
morning, but the low clouds began blowing out in the afternoon and
we were able to make a couple of short delays. Sunday was clear,
however, and I wanted to pile up some higher ones.
On my third leap that day, I made
a 30-second delay with two other skydivers, and we missed the hook
up. I tracked away and waved off, pulling right at 2,500 feet. There
it was, or rather wasn't. The usual opening shock, that is. I looked
up to see only about a third of the canopy deployed, choked off
at the skirt, the stabilizer panels flapping helplessly. An unopened
parachute is incredibly noisy. I reached to separate the risers,
thinking it might inflate the parachute completely, but they were
so stiffly twisted that I couldn't move them at all.
Here comes the Pucker Factor.
I was falling at a fairly high rate of
speed, probably 60-70 mph. This was now an emergency jump, and I
immediately decided to jettison the canopy. To do this you must
pull the covers off the canopy releases, located just above your
shoulders. Wire ring-holds then pop out, which you pull forward
with your thumbs. This releases the chute and drops you back into
free fall unencumbered by the mess above, giving you clean air to
deploy the reserve.
I must have performed this task like an
automaton, swiftly going through the maneuvers and pulling the reserve
in a matter of two or three seconds. (Today's more modern equipment
uses a "single point release," making the cutaway a single pull
motion with one hand. It is much faster and safer.)
I was safely dangling from a 24-foot white
parachute, at about 1,500 feet, drifting toward the end of the airport
near the river. I watched the mess of my main parachute fall past
me toward the ground, keeping an eye out for where I thought it
might land. The reserve was not steerable, so I pulled on a riser
trying to slip the chute so I wouldn't hit the airport hangar. I
also wanted to avoid the water. I blew the cartridge on my water
gear, inflating the life preserver just in case I'd be landing in
the Chenango River.
I ended up settling down in a small open
patch between all of these potential hazards, mostly by chance.
After executing a near-perfect "parachute landing fall" (reserves
in those days tended to land pretty hard), I got on my feet and
began shaking. There was a lot of nervous sweat. I had passed the
ultimate test, performing well, even admirably. But the feeling
wasn't one of comfort. Fear was belatedly kicking in. The thought
of what could have happened was overbearing.
Imagine, if you can, the time your car
went into a skid on the ice, out of control. For a few seconds you
cope, pumping the brakes, turning the wheel in the direction of
the drift, perhaps desperately, hoping to avoid objects and people.
You don't really remember fighting the steering wheel, do you? It
all happens so fast, doesn't it? You had no time to think. And then,
partly because of physics, or because of pure luck, the car eventually
comes to a halt without coming in contact with anything. Or maybe
you crash, but you walk away from it. On the side of the road, you
exhale in relief, and only when it is over, when you comprehend
the gravity of what could have happened, do you figuratively crap
in your knickers.
That is exactly what it feels like when
your parachute doesn't open.
* * *
The last weekend in July, 1973, the midpoint
of a dreamy summer, and I was longing to get out of the hot city
for a weekend in the country with my friends. We were anticipating
an outdoor rock and roll party, an extravaganza in the Finger Lakes
region at the Watkins Glen motor speedway. I had ordered four tickets
several weeks in advance, for Kathy and me, and another close friend
from grade school, Stu Cherney, and his then girlfriend, Marianne.
We would be camping out, hoping to capture some of the energy of
Woodstock, a cultural event which we had all missed but certainly
identified with. The concert was called the "Summer Jam," but almost
nobody from this era remembers that. They know it as Watkins Glen.
And while there wasn't an all-star lineup of a dozen groups that
played Woodstock four years earlier, there were three heavyweight
acts, The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. If you
followed popular music at that time, there weren't many better rock
guitarists than Greg Allman, Jerry Garcia, and Robbie Robertson.
Around 137,000 tickets were sold in advance.
We'd heard there might be record crowds, so I took Friday off, and
drove up with Kathy on Thursday afternoon. Already, the traffic
was snarled throughout central New York. On Friday we heard it was
completely backed up for miles on Route 14, outside the speedway.
Nobody at the gate took our tickets. We were told it was a free
concert. The fields were already filled with about 150,000 kids.
And although the bands weren't scheduled to perform until Saturday,
all three played sound checks that turned into one- to two-hour
sets. The smell of marijuana wafted everywhere. I'd never seen so
many dopers, hippies, freaks, college students, and assorted music
aficionados in one place. We were all out to have a good time. The
atmosphere was peaceful. Rich Aberman, my second on my first jump,
who had been married only a month ago in Geneva, N.Y., drove up
to see the festivities. It was hard to believe he found us.
By Saturday, it was clear that this was
a concert for the history books. A half dozen news and state police
helicopters were droning in the air, circling the race track. We
stumbled among the blankets and tents, and the general feeling was
that this was Woodstock redux. The Seventies would have its own
great rock extravaganza. On the day of the concert, the Dead played
for five hours, one of their classically endless sets. I wasn't
much of a Dead Head, so I toured the area looking for a portable
toilet, teasing the band's ardent fans about Jerry Garcia's interminable
solos. No wonder Dead Heads did so many drugs.
The Band was on stage when the dark, cranky
clouds arrived. A thunderstorm erupted. I remember thinking that
the musicians might be in danger with the three- or four-story sound
system and the stacks of speakers and amps. We took a quick, welcome
soaking. Indeed, it was turning into the mud bath that was Woodstock.
When The Band started playing "The Shape I'm In" in the middle of
a heavy squall, the crowd let out a giant roar. We all knew they
wouldn't stop. I suspect Robbie Robertson, the group's lead guitarist,
knew they wouldn't either. We were just shaking in the rain, pure
bliss amid several acres of elbow-to-elbow people. When the weather
cleared and the Allmans took over in the late afternoon, they jammed
for about four hours, perhaps the longest gig they ever played.
During this last set, I remember looking
up in the sky, for no reason at all. Amid all the gawking air traffic,
I saw a small plane circling, and then I saw a yellow streamer
a wind drift indicator which falls at the approximate rate of speed
of a jumper under an open canopy -- falling over the crowd. Someone
was up there calculating the exit point. At that moment, despite
my foggy condition, I immediately guessed what was about to happen.
There was no way this was an authorized skydive, part of the show,
I thought. Too many people. And there was only one man who had the
nerve to try such a stunt. Smitty. I started getting excited, actually
jumping up and down, yelling to anyone who would listen that more
entertainment -- parachutists falling from the sky! -- was on the
way. Few around us were sober, however, and my warning cries were
categorically ignored. I was hysterically happy, as if I were trying
to convince them that extra-terrestrials were coming. I followed
the circling plane, wondering when someone would bail out.
About five minutes later, a couple of
canopies opened above us, one a blue-and-white Papillion, a French
accuracy chute that was I knew was Smitty's. He had a smoke canister
attached to a boot, the crimson plume trailing behind him and delighting
those in the crowd that noticed. For me it was a wonderful moment
on a beautiful afternoon of a memorable day.
I was envious, of course. We hadn't talked
in awhile I was working long hours at the magazine and hadn't
seen him since June in Seneca Falls and I wondered why he
hadn't asked me on this load. Perhaps it was because our friendship
had been in flux. I was clearly my own skydiver now, and I no longer
needed Smitty as a mentor. But I was jealous nonetheless. He could
have at least told me about it in advance. Surely, he knew I was
loyal and would have kept it quiet. Or, maybe he thought I would
have tried to talk him out of it? Maybe I couldn't be trusted to
be part of a conspiracy on an outlaw jump of this magnitude?
I didn't recognize the other canopy, but
I speculated who he was and who the pilot of the plane was, and
as it turned out, I guessed right. His identity has never been disclosed
outside the skydiving community, and this secret is still safe.
The Watkins Glen concert made the Guinness
Book of World Records as the largest outdoor music festival ever
held (the mark still stands nearly three decades later). There were
600,000 people there, half again larger than Woodstock. Smitty had
done it. He'd made the demo in the history of the sport,
an outlaw jump for the ages. He'd always privately told me that
one of these days he would uncork one in a highly visible public
venue. This was it. There would likely never be a larger, more appreciative
I had to admire the stunt. Sure, he would
be arrested and fined, but I knew he felt the penalties were worth
the attention and publicity. I watched his canopy disappear behind
the stage, out of range, figuring he had picked a suitably open
patch to land.
On Sunday morning, a great line of traffic
began crawling out of the speedway. Stu and Marianne were in her
car in front of us, inching along the crusty roadway of dried mud.
And then, suddenly, Stu got out and walked over to my window with
a very grim expression. "Smitty's dead," he said. "He was killed
on that jump. We just heard it on the radio." There weren't any
other immediately details. Stu told me many years later that he
and Marianne debated for a few minutes whether to tell me right
away. They said, he's a skydiver. He'd want to know. He can handle
it. They didn't feel it would be right for me to find out on Monday
I was stunned, upset, and so was Kathy.
I expected the news of his arrest to make local radio, not this.
We both saw him under an open canopy. We wondered what could have
gone wrong. Could he have slammed into an object behind the stage?
No, impossible. He was far too good an accuracy jumper not to have
found a safe landing area.
The New York Times covered the
concert on the front page, and it was only then that the gravity
of the accident finally registered for me. Willard Joseph Smith,
Jr., 35, a skydiver, was the only fatality during this otherwise
remarkably festive and upbeat weekend. It wasn't until a few days
later that the details filtered out from the many skydivers who
knew the story. Smitty had jumped with a device called an artillery
simulator. He had apparently tucked it into the elastic pack opening
band of his chest-mounted reserve chute. The plan was to lower it
on a lanyard and detonate it in the air over the crowd. With a loud
explosion there would be no doubt of his arrival.
Years later, Chip Maury, who knew his
way around military explosives because of his Navy UDT training,
provided more insight. When Smitty first obtained the simulator,
he had asked Maury about it. Chip warned him that these things were
notoriously unstable. They had fuse delays that were frequently
unreliable, just like M-18 smoke bombs. (M-18s had a high malfunction
rate, but they were usually just duds.) In fact, he emphasized,
the artillery simulator had enough TNT to be extremely dangerous;
he'd he tried to talk Smitty out of jumping with it.
Here is what probably happened. Around
1,500 feet above the ground, drifting across the expanse of festival-goers,
he took the simulator out of the top of the pack, pulled the pin,
held the handle, and was about to lower it safely out of range,
when it suddenly detonated with the force of a grenade. His arrogance,
brashness, his reputation as a sky god who never knew any limits,
left his insides in a pool of blood on top of his reserve chute.
So when Smitty was drifting toward the
stage, he was limp in his harness. I'd watched a dead man drifting
under canopy. Nobody could have known this. The chute was landing
on its own. The tragedy left a wake of beauty in the audience that
viewed it, never suspecting the truth. In fact, when people learned
what happened, they assumed Smitty burned to death. A close friend
of mine, John Swenson, a music critic who was there that day, recalled,
"It is worth viewing this over the distance of history as a spectacular
if inadvertent piece of performance art."
A skydiver and friend, Heinz Biebrich,
told me about the funeral arrangements, offering to pick me up at
the Syracuse airport. I hadn't yet attended a skydiver's funeral.
In fact, I'd been rather insulated from death's proximity entirely.
I was 15 when I went to my grandfather's funeral, and that was the
extent of this sort of intrusion and trauma in my life. On drop
zones, I'd only seen one death, and that from a distance.
When Heinz drove up to the gate at Hancock
Field in his red Firebird, the first thing he did was hand me a
joint. This wasn't going to be easy, we figured. We assembled in
the living room of someone's house, and by early afternoon, it was
already the beginning of a major drunk fest. This was the second
one in less than a month. C-Pig Fellner had been buried earlier,
and I recognized his parents and offered my condolences. They were
taking this as hard as their own son's, I noticed. I was sorry I
had missed C-Pig's funeral. He was killed in an automobile accident
in New Mexico, apparently returning from a skydiver's funeral. Bizarre,
yes, but true. C-Pig's Corvette convertible had veered off the road
and thrown him, instantly breaking his neck. I felt like I was mourning
two of our brethren.
When the procession to the cemetery began
later in the day, I counted more than 30 cars. The funeral was led
by a state trooper's cruiser, red lights flashing, which was an
interesting irony. It brought back the memory of the only time I
saw Smitty carted off to jail. He had joined in the fracas of a
Syracuse semi-pro hockey game. He just got caught up in the emotion
of the event, jumped over the boards, and started punching a guy
on the visiting team.
It drizzled all day, and the ceiling was
very low. Almost socked in, the way Smitty might have planned it.
After all, he probably assumed even expected -- we would
jump into his funeral. There was a tent next to his grave to shield
the mourners from the weather. Someone had taped a small medal on
the top of his coffin. It was his gold wings badge, signifying a
thousand free falls. The quiet of the cemetery was shaken when Theresa
Smith, Smitty's mother, who was in her early sixties, broke down.
She kneeled and grasped at the dark brown coffin, sobbing for her
Willard, pleading with him for some explanation, and at the same
time apologizing to him for breaking down. This scene moved me deeply,
for I had not yet learned how to weep at the death of someone close.
A day later, when I returned to my studio
apartment in New York, I couldn't sleep. In the middle of the night,
I went to my Smith-Corona and began typing a short obituary. It
was entitled, "Requiem for a Chutist," and The Village Voice,
at the time New York's most widely read weekly, published it two
weeks later. There was a photo on the front page of Smitty's Papillion,
a hundred feet or so off the ground, on the way to its final landing
* * *
Over the years, Smitty's death has
come to the fore of my consciousness more than I had thought possible.
Some had confused him with two other Bill Smiths who also were skydivers.
Those jumpers who did not know him but knew of him called him "Dynamite
Bill." This was sadly accurate but an oversimplification. Smitty
was reckless but not suicidal, if there is a technical difference
in the definition. Though I'm sure if he knew he was going to die,
and could have chosen his own way, skydiving no doubt would have
figured in his plans, as he had alluded to me more than once. And
when the subject of the concert comes up, people who knew about
it vaguely remember a parachutist was killed that weekend. When
I mention my connection, I am usually anxious to reminisce, and
then I privately review my friendship with him over that period
between 1969 and 1973.
In the Fall of 2001, I decided to
visit Syracuse for the first time in 28 years. The excuse was to
have a reunion with Chip Maury, who was now retired but teaching
a photojournalism course. He had invited me to lecture his class.
We hadn't seen each other since 1982, but we had talked on the phone
on several occasions, and Smitty was among the first topics we chewed
over. A few years ago, he had called me on Father's Day asking if
I would send The Village Voice article to Allan Smith, Smitty's
oldest son. I called Allan, who was living down South, and he told
me that he had made several jumps. I wondered about the piece, however
which was raw and honest -- and how it would affect him.
I was trying to justify anything in it that might offend him. My
letter to him said, in part, "There are no other reasonable explanations
for what I wrote except for one: it was written by a kid who was
24 years old, a real rookie as a writer and as an adult. Part of
me was really angry that Smitty did what he did. But the writing
was an attempt to understand it and to exorcise what I knew would
be a lot of lingering demons." Linger they did, linger they do.
I should have trusted Chip's judgment
about Allan without reservations. He had carried that obit around
in his log book for many years. I had captured Smitty's core, I
suppose, for better and worse. And Chip knew that Allan was ready
to understand the truth about his father, even though some of it
might be painful.
When I arrived at the journalism building,
I sat outside Chip's office, waiting silently while he critiqued
the portfolio of one of his students. He looked the same as always,
despite the years, and his voice had so much vitality. Then, he
turned around and saw me, and we embraced in a minute-long bear
hug. We traded insults. It was gratifying to know that a skydiving
relationship stays with you wherever you may find yourself, and
if it has the right sinew and soul, it stays with you until one
of you dies.
Chip and I planned to call on Smitty's
mother, Theresa, now a robust and saucy 90 year old, still occupying
the house on Berwyn Avenue where she raised her two sons, Smitty
and Jerry. It is a very modest, brown two-story affair, in need
of some maintenance but not in disrepair. There is the stench of
shedding dogs, and their loose hair permeates the living room. Her
grandson (Smitty's youngest son), Jeffrey Joseph, or JJ, as we called
him, was divorced and living there. I'd only met him a couple of
times when he was perhaps seven or eight years old. I was sorry
he wasn't there during this visit. I'd been to the house on a few
occasions for supper when Smitty was alive, but Theresa didn't remember
me. I remembered her quite well, however, could have picked her
out of a police lineup even at her current age.
We looked at the Smith family photos,
including a few of Smitty. There was one where he is sitting on
the front steps of the house, posing with the family dog, and wearing
a U.S. National Championship skydiving T-shirt. We couldn't make
out what year it was. Another was displayed prominently on the wall
of the staircase, where he is in free fall with a fake turkey. That
picture was shot by Chip over Ovid, N.Y. for a local Sunday newspaper
feature. I had forgotten that I wrote the text. There is a third,
on the TV set, taken a year before he died, posing at a drop zone
with his gear on. He was a proud, serious skydiver, and perhaps
only really happy when he was in free fall, taking it off the bottom
with his hair in flames.
Theresa told us stories for about half
an hour, and when we got up to leave, she exclaimed how her son
was so "full of piss and vinegar." Chip and I smiled at each other,
as if we had to wonder where that part of his personality came from.
"You know, boys," she said. "Once, right
there by the step, my Willard was standing there, about to go upstairs
to bed, and my mother was right were you were. She nodded in my
direction. He said, 'Hey, grandma, you ever seen an ass like this?'
And then he just dropped his pants, just like that. And my mother,
oh, she was so embarrassed. She just blushed. Can you believe that?"
Smitty mooning his grandmother. Yes, we certainly could.
Our next stop was the White Chapel Cemetery,
in Dewitt, just east of the city. On the twenty-minute drive over,
Chip told me that he had been out there once after the funeral.
It was at least a few years after Smitty had died. He had gone out
there one very cold winter night, one of those characteristically
bitter Syracuse evenings that students and natives don't normally
complain about but visitors find oppressive. He was with a few other
people, and they were all shitfaced, he said. Chip sauntered up
to his headstone with a can of beer, unzipped his fly and then pissed
on his grave.
"Then I mooned him," Chip said.
One of the women watching this somewhat
unsettling scene was puzzled, and she said, "And he was your friend?"
Chip replied evenly, "Oh, yes. He was
my friend. A friend of the finest kind, of the very finest kind."
"Then why did you just do that?" she asked.
"Because he would have expected me to,
he would have expected it."
When we arrived on that mid-October afternoon,
it was seasonably cool with a nippy 20 mph wind, blowing gusts to
30, I estimated. You had to brace while standing in the wind, it
was that stiff. There was nobody in the office. We found a caretaker
who looked up his name and showed us on the map where to find plot
205-C, up on a hill not far from the entrance. The cemetery wasn't
at all like I remembered on the day he was buried. It had only flat
markers that blended in with the landscape, not the conventional
vertical headstones, so it looked more like a giant meadow than
a burial ground. (Actually, it was a perfect spot for a bandit jump.)
When we came upon Smitty's marker, it was partially covered with
fall leaves. His ex-wife, Clara, was buried next to him, only 31
when she succumbed to Hodgkin's. I thought, what a tragic family.
They died so young. But the survivors Smitty's mother, his
brother, his two children -- had so much dignity and spirit and
gumption and so little bitterness. If they felt that life had dealt
them a crappy hand, they didn't let anyone know it. They played
their cards without rancor.
It was an emotional moment for both of
us. We realized that we were probably as close to him as anyone
else. Smitty was one of a kind. There was never a skydiver like
him, and nobody would ever be like him. He was the outlaw you couldn't
help love. The guy buried here gave me my wings, in every sense
of its meaning. I mentioned to Chip that I wished he was still around,
that he hadn't lived long enough. Well, he hadn't lived long enough
for me, that is. I realized the selfishness of that statement. He
pissed me off a little, I said. Actually, he pissed me of a lot.
Who didn't he piss off? I wondered. And then Chip said something
appropriately cynical, and probably truthful, which I do not remember,
and I rationalized his death the way you would rationalize the death
of anyone you loved.
Maybe he had not died before his time.
Maybe this what was supposed to happen to someone like him. Had
he not been careless, we wouldn't be here right now. But then, if
we weren't here, there wouldn't have been a Smitty. There had to
be some order in the cosmos to accommodate him. I felt the tears
well up just a bit. But nothing flowed back in July of 1973, and
nothing flowed today, and we figured it was a bit too windy to piss
on his grave on this cool Fall afternoon. Call it anxiety over our
accuracy. Had we missed, he would have ragged us no end.