Skydiving club members treasure 40 years of down-to-earth memories


October 21, 2002|By Kathy Bergren Smith | Kathy Bergren Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MAN DISCOVERS himself when he measures himself against the obstacle."

This quote, by aviator and author of The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is pasted into Wayne Beall's parachutist's log book from 1962. That was the year Beall began skydiving with a group of other twenty-somethings who would become one of the pre-eminent parachuting clubs on the East Coast and form friendships that remain strong 40 years later.

"I don't know if it was the times or the people themselves, but it was just amazing," Beall said.

In the early 1960s, recreational parachuting was just beginning to catch on. Beall, his friend Jimmie Roberts and a small group of young adrenaline junkies began jumping on weekends.

Unlike today's extreme sports, the early skydivers did not have regulations or fancy equipment. Their gear was all Army surplus, the drop zone was an abandoned Navy airfield in Croom along the Patuxent River. The early canopies were big circles that floated in the breeze. Even though they modified the parachutes so they could steer them with toggle lines, sometimes the jumpers would land across the river. Farmers watching the spectacle would drive them back to the drop zone.

"One of the those farmers told us we looked like a bunch of pelicans diving. I don't know why, but the name stuck," Beall said. The Pelican Skydivers was formed and these pioneers jumped and jumped, sometimes landing in trees, sometimes landing in the river.

Billy Gifford of Edgewater, one of the Pelicans, said even though it seemed death-defying to people on the outside, parachuting was not so dangerous. "It was much more dangerous driving in the car to the plane. Just like anything else, we were careful," he said.

"Half the fun of jumping was sitting around drinking beer afterward, talking about it," said Rick Young of Edgewater.

After a day of jumps, the group, including girlfriends, wives and ultimately children would head up to the Old Brick Inn in Upper Marlboro for cheeseburgers and to debrief. "We still get together and drink beer and talk about it," Young said.

Tinker Shoemaker of Davidsonville remembers his initiation into the Pelicans.

"I had a friend who jumped, and I said to him, `I always have wanted to try that.' I knew the group was kind of close-knit and I asked him how I could join. Well, he said. `The best thing to do is to come on down to Croom with a case of beer for afterward,' and I did. I took my first jump that day, it was very frightening that first time." Beall says that "the thing about the Pelicans was, that if you came down and jumped, even for the first time, you were part of the group." Eventually, up to 30 people would be part of the Pelicans.

As the sport developed into a competitive one, the Pelicans moved to the forefront, winning major competitions and sending members to national championships. When Young enlisted in the Army in 1967, he was invited to join the Golden Knights, the precision demonstration parachuting team.

"When I look at the sophisticated equipment and techniques people are using today, it's like we didn't even do the same sport, but we paved the way for them," Young said.

Eventually, the Pelicans gave up jumping, but their friendships and adventures continued. Beall has a photo of himself and his wife, Nancy, fishing with Roberts in a Marlin tournament. The group gathers regularly to share stories and mark milestones.

Five years ago, when Roberts died, the Pelicans gathered at his hunting camp in West Virginia. "These men are all a part of our family, the love and friendship continues even though my dad is gone," said Jeanette Hartge of Galesville.

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