Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sparta Leaper Colony

Last night Valerie and I went to an event I’ve been looking forward to for months. It was the Sparta Leaper Colony reunion. It was at an Elks Lodge in Ladue. I didn’t know Elks Lodges had swimming pools. Maybe it did because it was in Ladue.

Sparta, Illinois was the home of Archway Skydiving Centre, a drop zone with a history going back to the 50s.

In the nineties we lost Sparta and moved to Vandalia. Not everyone made the move. A lot of my friends fanned out across the country. I did a lot of traveling back then and made a lot of new friends. Many Sparta jumpers went on to become world champions.

My buddies Jim and Scott Cowan had the team Quantum Leap. They won the national title for CReW (canopy relative work) and went on to become world champs. CReW is where they make all their formations under parachutes instead of freefalling.

They held the title for years and were able to get the country’s first SBA loan for and operation in Sullivan, Missouri. They called it Quantum Leap, of course. I worked there for years.

My heart was always in Sparta though. When I started there I’d just broken up with my girlfriend Joanie and felt like I had nothing keeping me in St. Louis. I was at a low point and I even temporally forgot about my musical ambitions.

Dave Verner ran the operation. Dave’s one of my two favorite bosses. Not surprisingly both were like fathers to me. Dave’s son Kirk moved on to join the Arizona Airspeed 4-way and 8-way freefall team. They became world champions and the only non-military team to beat the Army’s Golden Knights.

I bought my first rig from Don Thomas. Don was Wesley Snipes stunt double in the film Drop Zone. That led to other jobs. At the time Don was the only black skydiver allowed to do stunt work because no one else had enough jumps. In the movie Congo Don had a friend of his get a special waver because he only had 800 jumps. Two white guys had to wear black face.

While I was in Sparta I lived in a tent and sometimes slept in a small Cessna airplane. I didn’t have money then either. Everyone else stayed at the motel in town. It might sound romantic but in the summer if I closed the door the airplane became an oven. If I opened the door I was devoured by mosquitoes.

Anyway, the reunion was organized by Calvin “Calmodee” Britt and Gary “Titz” Barnyardie. Calvin sent us this……. with the one and only Dave "Bossman" Verner. Mr Archway Skydiving himself, the King of Kalamity, the Prince of Platitudes, the original "Do it All" Skygod of yore...., an evening of embellishment and laughter of the highest degree....

When we arrived the place was crowded. I thought they were Elks out on a Friday night. When I looked a little closer they were all dear friends. We’d all gotten so much older I didn’t recognize anyone at first. It was a testament to the love everyone felt for Dave that the place was packed. Skydivers came out of the woodwork.

Calvin’s always been a great organizer. He got us all together to do the Missouri POPS record in 2005. POPS stands for Parachutists Over Phorty. We did it at Quantum Leap in Sullivan out of the very airplane all of our friends died in. Four of the six fatalities were in our group.

Valerie had to get up early for work so we had to leave a little early. It almost broke my heart when I told Dave we were leaving. He looked at me and said, “No you’re not!”

Pics in order..... Dave Verner(The Prince of Darkness), Calmodee, Mo POPS record group 2005 (I'm last row-far left), old time skydive instruction at Sparta, memorial to our dear departed.


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