As a barely 20-year-old gunner on a B-24 bomber in World War II, Howard Jones vividly remembers the day his plane limped across the English Channel, full of holes, and crash-landed in an air field with not a single injury to the crew.
Jones really never had a father. He was raised by his grandmother in upstate New York. He joined the Air Force in 1942 and was honorably discharged in 1945.
As he sits on his retirement property in Walterboro, it’s very clear that he loves life and he lives life.
What’s not altogether understandable is why he just celebrated his 91st birthday with a skydive from a perfectly good airplane.
His wife, Nell, of 67 years, died three years ago. These days, it’s just Jones and his four cats.
Why does he strap on a parachute on his birthday?
“I like it,” says Jones, who usually doesn’t speak in such short sentences. He started doing this seven years ago, on his 84th birthday, and now it’s become a reason for his six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren to stage a family reunion disguised as a birthday party.
Last year, the birthday weekend actually fell on Father’s Day, which made it an even greater celebration.
His two brothers, Dick, 81, and Jim, 76, also are retired and living in the Walterboro area.
Apparently, there’s something in these guys’ genes, because just recently, Dick was late to a family get-together because the motorcycle he was riding had a blow-out on the rear tire. He managed to lay it down and bring it to a sliding stop on U.S. Highway 17-A.
Jones is not trying to send any profound message to other seasoned citizens. He just believes “you should do what you want as long as you can do it.”
He does admit that at his age it’s tough to find anything exciting to do anymore.
Jones still drives and prefers to ride with the windows open.
(My own dad used to do that. How else can you smell the cut grass or know some honeysuckle is close by?)
Jones lives close enough to the Walterboro airport that he can watch skydivers from his back porch. The first time he saw them, his immediate thought was, “I gotta do that.”
He’s now made eight jumps and each one feels a little better than the one before.
Attached to the same instructor, Nick Schlable, the two free-fall for a mile. He likes that part the most.
When the cord is pulled, the final 5,000 feet takes a little longer as the ground starts getting bigger and bigger. “I just land on my behind,” says Jones, “and sit on the grass.”
He’s already looking forward to his 92nd birthday and his next jump.
He’s not trying to crusade or campaign for a 90-and-over skydiving club; he just wants people to enjoy life.
Jones has certainly gotten a lot out of his 91 years. He gets a little aggravated at himself these days when he forgets people’s names, but other than that, he doesn’t worry about much.
Who knew that the shivering tail gunner in that B-24 bomber would 71 years later be annually parachuting from a plane much smaller, as a birthday present to himself?
Jones’ dad left him before he was 2. It’s encouraging to know those circumstances never prevented him from raising his own family with a confidence and a can-do spirit that is still on full display.
It’s one thing to look at life, but something altogether different to live it. Though he never intended to proclaim such a message, it’s one all dads might share that will resonate no matter what their age.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org.