In mid-1970s Ashland, a group of hard-living, chance-taking young people pioneered the sport of skydiving, using dangerously primitive equipment and thinking and talking about little else beyond their next freefall.
Their adventures — highlighted by the death of skydiver Joanie Carson and two others — are the subject of a new movie, “Ride the Sky,” which has shown on the film-festival circuit and will go live on the Internet today.
Produced by Paul Gorman of Rain City Cinema in Seattle, the feature film shows few shots of those early days, but carries many engaging comments of the jumpers, now in their 60s and 70s.
Several still live in Ashland. Their chief abode in the old days was the big apartment complex at the northeast corner of Fourth and B streets, says Steve Armitage, manager of “shingle shack,” as it was known, and veteran of 1,200 jumps.
Why were they so drawn to jumping out of planes?
“We did it for the thrill or to impress a girlfriend,” said Armitage, looking over the old apartment building and recalling the adrenaline rush of making five or six jumps in a day.
“Jumpers were bums. I would never have met anyone who wasn’t a jumper,” says Armitage. “We became best friends. When we were eating, we would talk about jumping, then when we were in bed. Our marriage was built on jumping and still is.”
“It was a very important part of life. We lived to jump,” said Deb Kalmakav, who met and married Armitage amid the swirl of skydiving. They still live in Ashland. “It was addictive, though terrifying at first. But I learned I could enjoy it. We were young and believed we were invincible.”
They weren’t. The film traces the life of Carson, whose main and reserve chutes both failed to open on a 1981 jump at Kalispell, Mont., where many skydivers migrated after some years in Ashland and then Beagle Ranch in Sams Valley. Two fellow skydivers died in the same year and a plane with three jumpers crashed, killing all, they said.
Filmmaker Gorman knew Carson in high school, then in San Francisco before her jumping days — and had a dream she would fall to her death. This, he said, motivated his making of the film and attempt to trace the origins of her risky behavior.
“Joanie was a real nice person, quiet and tough,” says Armitage.
“She was never scared of anything,” adds Kalmakav.
“She was happy and positive. I remember her smile,” said Ashlander Scott Rogers, who started the Southern Oregon College Skydiving Club while a student there, did 532 jumps and went on to a career as a city planner with Medford.
The attraction of jumping? “Because you could. You didn’t have to imagine what it was like to jump from a high place and freefall,” says Rogers. “The adrenaline got you, and you kept going back for more.”
Their jumping clique became the closest of friends, literally placing their lives in each other’s hands and blowing off steam with riotous pranks — riding a shopping cart filled with cases of beer down Fourth Street from Safeway, doing nude jumps on hot days, having endless fests at the Beau Club, doing a mass mooning of a comrade in Kim’s restaurant, says Richard “Zimmo” Zimmerman, now of Lincoln, Calif. Daring and inventive, they did the first-ever 10-man star in Southern Oregon, he adds.
“What we were doing was very dangerous, compared to today’s equipment. We did it with what we had at hand, much of it military surplus. I had 15 of those round parachutes fail and had to use the reserve,” says Zimmerman, in a phone interview. “With Joanie, she and I worked closely together. We were like brother and sister. We were there for each other. We were all very close. It tears your heart out when there’s an accident.”
On the day Carson died, he adds, she borrowed a parachute, one with the reserve packed by the owner, instead of a licensed person. Both of these actions are considered “very dangerous.”
Carson had a baby that she gave up, which, says Gorman, led her into skydiving, to help shed her grief. Ironically, he says, when the film became publicized on the Internet, the child, now a 42-year-old woman, finally found out who her mother was — and hours later learned she’d been killed.
The movie ends with a quote from Carson: “What can I say about something I love so much? It’s the love of my life. The beat of my heart. It cleanses my soul. The freedom of flight can do more to change one’s perspective on life than any earthbound freedom.”
The film may be viewed for $1.99, starting today, at raincitycinema.com.
John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.