harry hits the road


Chapter 9: Blue SKIES, Black DEath

The now or never phone call comes at high noon on a Monday in mid-August. I’m at a Best Western motel not far from the Iwo Jima monument in Arlington, Virginia. For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to convince Muse via texts, emails, and web videos that there’s more to my road trip than consuming adult beverages in economically priced motor lodges. But I’ve got to put my high tech take-me-back campaign on indefinite hold if I want to parachute with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights.

“You need to report to our headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, at 0900 hours tomorrow,” says a male voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, sir,” I reply. “Will do.”

It takes about a nanosecond after hanging up for me to realize what the hell I’ve just agreed to do. This is all the direct result of my visit with George Herbert Walker Bush. If only I’d kept my mouth shut instead of telling #41 he was my hero for parachuting on his 85th birthday. And as if jumping out of an airplane at 13,500 feet isn’t risky enough, I’ve now got to drive six hours straight on two very busy Interstates.

I think about chickening out most of the way from Arlington to Richmond. Flashbacks from my Empire State Building nightmares parade across the windshield of the Smart Car. The floating turtles in the pan on the floorboard offer no advice or counsel. At the junction where I leave I-95 and merge onto I-85, I call Muse to tell her that I’m trying to decide whether to trust my life to the Golden Knights.

“I don’t understand why you want to do it,” she says. “Testosterone?”

“Nein! It’s not just testosterone!”

“Am I supposed to be worrying? What am I supposed to do?”

An eighteen wheeler speeds past. The wind surge blows my Smart Car from the middle lane to the edge of the breakdown lane.

“Hold on a sec, bitte,” I say.

“Is it dangerous, the flying?” Muse asks.

“The flying? It’s the fucking jumping, dammit.”

“And that is dangerous, too?”

“Probably not as dangerous as what I’m doing right now.”

“I have to say I am marginally impressed.”

“Marginally? Are you impressed enough not to break up with me?”

“I am still deciding. Your anger and your drinking are...”

Just then the reception on my iPhone goes static. I tell Muse I’ll call her back when I get to my motel in North Carolina. Given her apparent lack of reception to my Golden Knights gig, I decide not to call Harrison and tell him about my jump until afterwards, assuming I go ahead with it and there is an afterwards.

HH3 in cabin of Twin Otter over Fort Bragg, NC

As I bounce on down I-85 dodging eighteen wheelers, Muse’s questions keep bugging me. Why am I going through with this crazy stunt? Maybe it is just testosterone.  Maybe I want to one up Bush #41. Is there something else I need to prove to myself? Maybe I’m just counter-phobic. Rather than fleeing my fears, I seem bent on facing them. Within another twenty miles, the answer becomes self-evident.

“Bubba,” I whisper to myself, “you’re just plain bent.”


“Blue skies, black death.”

Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bean, executive commander of the U.S. Army Parachute Team, strides across the parking lot of the Best Western Pinehurst Inn, and points at the license plate of his black Acura sedan. Echoing the last two words he uttered,  it reads: “BLK DTH.”

“It’s a saying that started at the birth of skydiving,” Jim informs me. “It kind of takes you from the joys of being in the blue sky and flying free to the reality of what can happen if things don’t go right.”

It’s 0845 hours, and Jim has come to escort me and my Smart Car onto the military base at Fort Bragg. Seeing my face blanche, he smiles and offers a note of reassurance. “I’ve got almost 1800 jumps, and I’m still smiling about it,” he says. “My wife is also a jumper and she has ‘BLUE SKIES’ on her license plate. So don’t think anything’s wrong.”

“No, of course not.”

“You’ll get a view of Mother Earth you’ve never had before,” Jim adds. “One thing I can say, you’ll be different this afternoon than you are now.”

I’m still pondering that prophecy when Jim delivers me to the Golden Knights’ newly built red brick battalion headquarters. The soaring glass atrium lobby is a shrine that features jumpsuits and other paraphernalia used by famous parachutists. Most prominent among them is #41, who was instrumental in getting the funding needed to move the team out of their decrepit old headquarters in a quonset hut across the street.

Jim leaves me with my instructor and tandem parachuting partner, sergeant first class Michael Elliot. A short, muscular African American in his middle thirties wearing a jumpsuit and an irrepressible grin, Michael has served nine years on the U.S. army parachute team. He’s made over 6,000 solo jumps and over 2,200 tandem jumps strapped to novice skydivers like me. Six weeks earlier, he jumped in tandem with #41 at his birthday bash in Kennebunkport, Maine.

“There are only three things I want you to do today,” Michael tells me at the outset of our one hour pre-jump training session. “Arch, relax, and have fun.”

Michael assures he’ll be doing most of the work throughout our jump, including pulling the rip cord and guiding us safely to the drop zone. My key task is to arch my back on exiting the aircraft, something he says is “uber important” for us to gain stability during the initial free fall stage. I’ll also need to extend my arms during the second free fall stage, and pull my knees to my chest right before landing. But that’s about it.

Michael points out that the equipment supplied to the Army by United Parachute Technologies is the best money can buy. My harness can withstand 5,000 pounds of force, more than 20 times my body weight. Michael’s pack has both a main chute and a reserve chute. There’s also a “cybernetic release system” designed to trigger the reserve parachute if Michael somehow gets knocked unconscious or incapacitated and we fall below an altitude of 750 feet.

HH3 and Jo Abelin with drogue chute open

There’s even a third parachute designed for tandem jumps called a drogue that Michael will deploy immediately after we exit the aircraft.

“A normal person falls through the air at 120 miles per hour, but if you increase the body weight as we do in a tandem jump that speed increases to 170 miles per hour,” he says. “We don’t want to open that main parachute at 170 miles per hour. It’ll be hard on us, hard on the equipment, and hard for that video guy to capture all your smiles or screams or whatever. The drogue chute will slow us back down to 120 miles per hour.”  

In spite of my fears, I start to realize this is a special honor and privilege. Founded in 1959, the Golden Knights consists of 95 team members who are best known for giving exhibitions to the general public at air shows and sporting events. But they also take part in much larger, more serious operations that give the Army the so-called “forced entry capability” of landing up to 50,000 soldiers at a time. In fact, Michael and his teammates are bound for Afghanistan in less than a month.

Michael introduces me to battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Dill, a square-jawed fellow in dress uniform. Lt. Col. Dill reminds me of the often invisible national defense shield that many Americans, particularly corporate executives who outsource jobs to other countries in pursuit of quarterly profits, take for granted.

“People put their lives in the hands of soldiers every day, they just don’t know it,” he notes. “But when you jump, you’re going to put your life directly in the hands of staff sergeant Michael Elliott. That is what the Army is all about.” 


At approximately 1430 hours on that hot, hazy summer afternoon, I squat in a baseball catcher’s crouch, and waddle toward the open rear door of UB-18A Twin Otter military aircraft with Michael strapped to my back. We’re two and half miles above the earth in the general vicinity of Laurinburg Maxon Airport. I hang the toes of my sneakers over the edge of the doorjamb, peering downward in disbelief and abject terror.

The landscape below looks like a Google satellite map. I can see tobacco fields, golf courses, shopping malls, and subdivisions bisected by roads and highways. But I know by the wind rippling my gold jumpsuit and the roar of the engines penetrating my leather helmet that this isn’t just an image on my iPod -- it’s the real deal.

HH3, Joe Abelin, and Jim Bean free falling

I glance over at Jon Ewalt, a veteran Golden Knights videographer wearing a black jumpsuit and a black helmet with a camera mounted on top. He asks if I have any last words before I jump.

“I love you Harrison, I love you Muse,” I say. Then I crane my neck around to look at my instructor and add, “And soon I will love you, Michael.”

Michael laughs and tells me it’s time to grab onto the black nylon straps of my harness. Jon exits the door and grips the strut of the left wing, hanging in midair. I steal one more look downward, teetering on the doorjamb. A big dark cloud passes between the bottom of the Twin Otter and the landscape I fancy as a Google satellite map. I feel my harness jerk.

“Pull back! Pull back!” Michael shouts.

Instead of jumping out of the plane as planned, we lurch backwards into the cabin like a pair of turtles turned over on their shells. Jon Ewalt swings in from the strut, and shuts the door.

“Thunder cell,” Jon says, wheezing. “We gotta abort.”

The Twin Otter banks the hard to the right, and dives back toward Laurinburg Maxon Airport. This is not a false alarm. As we land, rain drops are pelting the tarmac. One of the ground crew meets the plane with a metal exit ladder. Jon throws open the rear door. Thunder cracks. A bolt of lightning flashes across the sky directly overhead. We scramble down the ladder and dash into the nearest hangar.


That evening, I regroup at a bar across the highway from the Best Western Pinehurst Inn. To attempt a second jump or not to attempt a second jump? That is the question. Whether it’s better to suffer through potential death and/or a recurrence of lightning bolts, or by not acting, avoid them entirely?  My second Bloody Mary convinces me I’m more ham than Hamlet: this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it’s irresistible.

I call Muse on my iPhone.

“So you don’t jump out of the airplane today but you do it again tomorrow?”

“Ja,” I reply, adding, “That means yes.”

“Too much testosterone. You get yourself killed.”

“Maybe. Which reminds me, I don’t have a will, so I’m going to tell you now what to do with my stuff.”

“Bitte. I can’t believe you are saying this to me.”

“It’s real simple: Harrison is my next of kin. He gets whatever I have left in my bank accounts. But I want you to choose what you want to keep from my personal effects, the stuff in my office like the golf caps from all over the world and the stetsons and the boxes I stored in the basement at Halsey House. Except for my father’s Navy sword. I want Harrison to have that.”

“I don’t begrudge your son the money, but all I get is your hat collection?”

“And also the turtles if you want them. Wish me luck?”

“Ja. Vielen gluck.”



I awake at 0600 hours the following morning to a gray dawn that slowly brightens into blue sky. That means I will almost certainly face the specter of black death before high noon. Upon arriving at Laurinburg Maxon Airport in my Smart Car at 0730, I discover there are several more surprises in store.

Everyone on or connected with the U.S. Army Parachute Team has heard about my edge of the exit door abort the day before. That in itself is hardly a surprise. Bad news travels faster than thunder cells. If anything, the Golden Knights seem surprised, and to use Muse’s phrase, at least “marginally impressed,” that I’ve shown up at all.

I’m informed, however, that Michael Elliott has been called away on another assignment. In his absence, I’ll be jumping with staff sergeant Joe Abelin, age 29. Joe is a five year Army veteran, 6 feet tall and 190 pounds, with sandy blond hair and gleaming hazel eyes that make him look like a mischievous cherub. He’s done a tour in Iraq, and made, by his exact count, 3,243 jumps. Like me, however, he is, as he candidly admits, afraid of heights.

“I can jump out of an airplane just fine,” Joe confides, “but put me on the top rung of a step ladder, and...”

His voice trails off. My heart leaps. Two guys afraid of heights are about to attempt a tandem skydive?

“Somehow we’ll make it work,” Joe says as he helps me into my gold jumpsuit.

At 0940 hours, Joe, Jon Ewalt, and I are at 7,500 feet in the cabin of the Twin Otter alongside Lt. Col Jim Bean and half a dozen other Golden Knights. Once again, Jon trains his camera lens on me, and asks if I have anything to say before I jump.

“I love you Harrison, I love you Muse,” I repeat, adding, “And just to change it up a little bit, I think I’m gonna love you, Joe. I sure hope so.”

“It’s deja vu all over again,” Jon notes, chuckling. “Just don’t look down. And remember to smile. If you don’t smile, the wind will make your cheeks flap.”

A few minutes later, we’re at 13,500 feet, and I’m perched on Joe’s lap, strapped to his harness, and waddling toward the open rear door of the aircraft. Jon is hanging on the strut of the Twin Otter, filming.

I put my goggles over my eyes, and clutch the shoulder straps on my harness. Joe rocks us back and forth in our baseball catcher’s crouch.

“One... two...” he counts. “Three!”

I plunge face first out of the plane into a chilling void. It’s 84 degrees on the ground, but the temperature at this altitude is in the low 40s. I feel like I’ve fallen naked into a meat freezer. Worse, I fear I’m going to be butchered by gravity’s cleaver against the cutting board of Mother Earth.

I don’t have to remind myself not to look down. I’m way too disoriented, and way too scared. The force of the 120 mile per hour free fall batters my cheeks. I all but forget that Joe’s on my back. I have no idea whether the drogue chute has opened or not.

Then I see Jon fly over to within a few yards of us. Joe taps me on the shoulders. I let go of my harness straps and spread out my arms like wings, forcing a smile.

HH3, Joe Abelin, and Jim Bean free falling

I feel something clutch my right hand. I twist my neck around. It’s Jim Bean. He waves at me with his free hand, smiling. I wave back. The presence of yet another accomplished skydiver is starting to make me feel -- dare I think it? -- comfortable.

Jim lets go and tracks away. Jon flies in closer. I try to make a University of Texas “Hook “em Horns” sign, but the wind force cripples my fingers. All I can manage is two thumbs up.

I feel a stinging sensation in both armpits. It looks like Jon and Jim are plunging toward the earth, while Joe and I are shooting upward. It’s an illusion. Joe has just opened our main chute. He and I are still plummeting toward the ground, but we’re now falling at a much slower rate than Jon and Jim.

Then the most extraordinary thing happens. The sheer terror of my initial free fall gives way to a totally unexpected bliss as Joe and I sail earthward under the open canopy of our parachute. I muster the courage to look down. I see the tobacco fields, golf courses, shopping malls, subdivisions, and roads get bigger and bigger. Everything seems quiet and peaceful. And I love it, absolutely and unconditionally.

“Never thought I’d say this,” I shout to Joe. “But I think I’d like to do this again!”

“Alright!” Joe replies.

Our descent lasts a full three minutes. Thanks to Joe’s expert guidance and the aerodynamics of our square parachute, we drift slowly and steadily toward the drop zone, a patch of grass between the runways at Laurinburg Maxon Airport. When we’re about 50 feet above the ground, Joe tells me to grab the rubber grippers on the legs of my jumpsuit, and pull my legs toward my chest.

At 15 feet, Joe tells me to extend my legs outward and keep my toes pointed up. The object is for us to land standing up. But my excitement and inexperience get the best of me, I plop down on my butt, which, as I later learn, is the safest landing position anyway.

Joe yanks me back up on my feet. We exchange double high-fives, posing for the ground crew cameras. Then Joe climbs back into the Twin Otter to make yet another series of tandem jumps with a contingent of Secret Service agents Bush #41 has sent to the Golden Knights.

I climb into my Smart Car, and drive round trip to and from Charlotte to get an oil change. As I navigate convoys of eighteen wheelers, I realize that this five hour drive is by far the most dangerous thing I’m going to do that day. But just as Jim Bean predicted, I’m different than I was when I woke up that morning. This anti-Vietnam War protesting ex-hippie is morphing into a parachute team poster boy who wishes he wasn’t too old to enlist in the military and set himself up to retire on a government pension.

I shout at the traffic in military staccato: “Now... I... Am... Army... Strong!”


Photograph Captions and Credits: 1. HH3 in cabin of Twin Otter over Fort Bragg, NC (US Army) 2. HH3 and Jo Abelin with drogue chute open (US army) 3. HH3, Joe Abelin, and Jim Bean free falling (US Army) 4. HH3, Joe Abelin, and Jim Bean free falling (US Army)


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