I have made two trips to the Isle of Wight, one in 1969 and one in 2001. This is a classic, traditional, touristy tea towel with a sketch of the village of Shanklin; it doesn’t shake-up the world in terms of design but it certainly does bring back some memories that send a shiver down my spine.
In 1969, as a teenager, I decided that I wanted to go parachuting. Why I thought this was a good idea is beyond me, because I don’t like heights. It’s that arrogance of youth, where I felt I could do anything, be anything, nothing would phase me. The fact is, at that age, you don’t think things through properly. Most people thought I was mad; that was part of the attraction, doing something different. In those days people didn’t do ‘Charity Jumps’; in fact, you didn’t really hear of people parachute jumping.
I decided to go on a five day course in the Isle of Wight; I have no idea how I found this course since the internet wasn’t around. I was doing this on my own. My parents did everything they could to persuade me not to go (although this was a tale they ‘dined off’ for the rest of their lives: my daughter has been parachuting!). So arrogant, I didn’t listen to them. It certainly wasn’t a ‘spur of the moment’ thing because the preparatory paperwork was lengthy. You had to apply for a licence to ‘throw something out of an aircraft’, you had to have a health test and blood tests, so I must have been keen.
I travelled with small rucksack on the train (and boat) to Cowes where we were met by the course tutors. There were five of us, four young men and me. We stayed in basic single rooms, had communal meals and went out to the pub for a drink at night. We had two full days of training: understanding how a parachute worked, how it was packed up, getting in and out of the plane on the ground, balancing on the wing strut. We practiced jumping off chairs! We learnt to chant ‘one Geronimo, two Geronimo’ up to ‘five Geronimo’ at which point, if they thought you were skilled enough, you pulled the chord to open the parachute. We learnt about the directional toggles and how to work them, learned how to prepare for landing and roll on the ground following a jump. We even went up in a plane so we got the feel of how this was going to work, what you would see. Two parachutists at a time. This was all very exciting.
There were two things they didn’t cover in training: firstly, just how heavy the parachute pack was. As soon as I tried it on, unprepared, I fell on my back, legs and arms in the air, unable to move; a bit like when sheep fall on their backs. At this point I had tears rolling down my face, tears of laughter at the indignity of it all. I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to get the pack on and walk to the plane, let alone climb on the plane. Time would tell.
The second thing they didn’t explain was the wind blast. Practising climbing in and out of the plane was all well and good but the engine wasn’t on. Once the plane was flying there was a wind blast of 80mph from the front propeller. We are talking about gale force winds here. So if you try and climb on a wing strut, with gale force winds thrusting at you, it may not be possible to hold on tight while you position yourself to gracefully tumble off backwards; in my case I never managed it at all, not even after I completed five jumps. Basically, I fell out of the plane. After they saw my first jump, they didn’t trust me with the ‘one geronimo’ routine and I was attached to the plane so the parachute chord opened automatically.
I could see that the four young men on this course were much fitter than I was; there was definitely some rivalry. They weren’t going to be ‘outdone’ by some girl (if only they had known, there was never going to be any chance of that). I knew that given the choice I would walk away saying “I’ve enjoyed the training but I’ll pass on the jump”; there was no way I would do that in front of four men. As I write this, I can feel my stomach somersaulting, that sick feeling of sheer dread. I knew I did not want to jump. I didn’t see how I was ever going to be able to do this.
They carefully loaded me into the parchute harness, avoiding that immediate backward fall. I walked slowly up the steps of the plane, maintaining balance, so far so good. I sat on the bench, not easy with an enormous mountain on your back. Andy went first; not a good idea because I could see what I needed to do. My turn. I froze.
“Come on, move forward” the instructor shouted above the noise of the engine.
I froze. “Are you jumping?” he said impatiently.
“Yep” moving forward slowly.
”Onto the strut, right hand first”. I did that. “Now the left hand”. I gripped so tightly.
”Let go” he shouted. “Let go” he repeated more urgently. “You are unbalancing the plane”
”I don’t care. I can’t”. There was a simple answer to this problem; he leant forward and physically ungripped my hands and off I went. It was a combination of him pushing me and me falling out. You fall fast, tumble and suddenly there is a wrench when the parachute opens and jolts your shoulders. This isn’t how it is on films. It’s brutal. The fall passes quickly; the view is beautiful but I didn’t appreciate it because I was too worried about what the next stage was; something about bringing your knees up, preparing for the landing but I couldn’t remember exactly what to do. No matter, I’d landed, nowhere near the target but that was because I was so terrified I hadn’t even thought about the directional toggles.
That night, we all went to the pub and talked about our adventure. It was reassuring to know that the others were slightly shaken. It was only when the instructor asked whether we were all up for the next jump tomorrow that I realised that we could all have five jumps in total. I was confident they would all say that they had had enough but no. All four were keen. This was about ‘saving face’. I couldn’t back out. Perhaps it would be easier the second time.
”Let go” he said again.
“No”. This time he didn’t wait, just pushed me out. I remembered the toggles, while muttering under my breath “B_____d”. However, I never was very good at directions and I just turned in a circle. Slightly nearer the target. When we met up after Jump 2, there were only four of us. Andy had gone to hospital with a broken leg. By this time, part of me is terrified about Jump 3 and there is a small smug part of me that is pleased that it wasn’t me in hospital; I had survived. It was one of those macho men.
Jumps 3 and 4 were equally traumatic; I hadn’t learnt to let go but I had managed to move the toggles a bit and enjoy the gentle floating, watching birds flying alongside me. Jump 5 was a bit of a shock; it was a bit gusty as I jumped and was blown off course. I couldn’t find the target to direct myself towards; I twirled around and found myself descending towards a corn field with a combine harvester going around the edges. It is strange how quickly you can conjure up images of your parachute being caught up in the harvester’s machinery and you personally being torn to shreds. I lost concentration. I didn’t prepare for landing; I didn’t raise my legs up; I landed on my bottom and bruised my coccyx but otherwise I was ok. However, I was three miles from the airfield, parachute all over the place with a harvester nearing me. Fortunately, all the farmers are used to this sort of occurrence; he stopped on one of his turns and shouted “Just wait where you are; they will come and collect you” and they did.
Back to base, Tom was in A&E with a badly twisted ankle. The men may have been fitter and stronger than me but two of the four were in hospital and I was still fit for the pub. I immediately decided three things: firstly, I enjoyed the experience in a weird, masochistic way; secondly, I would never, ever jump out of a plane again, not for a million pounds, not for charity, not for a challenge, never, and thirdly, I think anyone who does jump out of a plane is just bonkers.
Probably the most embarrassing thing is that at the end of the course you were given a ‘Report Card’ with the instructor’s comments about the your jumps. A bit like a School Report and mine definitely fitted the ‘Could Do Better’ category. I still have the card; I kept it to remind me that if I was ever tempted to go parachuting again, I could look at this and remember!
My second trip to the Isle of Wight in 2001 was in search of a tea room. There was a beautiful garden tea room in Luccombe, overlooking the cliff edge, on a sunny day having tea, scone and jam under a parasol. It was such a beautiful setting. I had expected to find a number of tea towels but this was the only one. I can look at this picture of a quiet village and feel the churning stomach just thinking about parachuting. Thank goodness there was only one, I couldn’t go through that every time I did the wiping up.