By Joe Lee
MADISON – Former President George H. W. Bush might be the first person that comes to mind when one thinks of skydiving late in life.
Our country’s 41st president, Bush passed away in 2018 at the age of 94. A Navy pilot during World War II, he jumped from an airplane in 1999 to commemorate his 75th birthday. He enjoyed the experience so much he did so again on birthdays in 2004, 2009 and, remarkably, in 2014 – at the ripe old age of 90.
“It’s vintage George Bush,” said spokesman Jim McGrath to Fox News after Bush’s skydive in 2014. “It’s that passion for life. It’s wanting to set a goal, wanting to achieve it. I’m sure part of it is sending a message to others that even in your retirement years you can still find challenges.”
Adventures in parasailing
Lois Booth didn’t make the national news after her skydive last Thanksgiving. Neither did Rita Martinson, her neighbor at St. Catherine’s Village in Madison. But the motivations for both – and their shared sense of accomplishment afterward – were comparable to those of our nation’s late Skydiver-in-Chief.
“My identical twin sister and I went to Orange Beach, Alabama, two years ago and parasailed. I loved it and she did, too,” said Booth, who grew up in Drew, Mississippi, became Catholic a year ago, and is a parishioner at Sacred Heart Church in Canton.
“The exhilaration I felt as we lifted off the back of that boat had me squealing like a teenager,” she continued. “I think we were 3,000-4,000 feet up. We were in the air about five minutes. There were six of us on the boat. You go off the back of the boat, and land on the back of the boat. I learned from parasailing how to land while skydiving.”
She also began thinking about skydiving for the first time that day.
Fascinated with flying
Rita Martinson, who served District 58 in the Mississippi House of Representatives from 1992-2016, is a long-time parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Madison. A native of Gloster, Mississippi, she thinks she has adventure in her blood.
“If you’d been raised in a little town like Gloster, you’d have it in yours, too,” she said of her formative years. “We lived in our imaginations.”
Always fascinated with flying, Martinson received her fixed-wing pilot license in 1965 and became certified to fly glider aircraft several years later. The move to parasailing probably wasn’t a surprise to anyone who knew Martinson and her late husband, Billy, who encouraged her and went along on her flights.
“Every chance I got, I flew,” Martinson said. “I was fascinated with hot-air balloon rides and rode in them. The next thing was to jump out of a plane. Billy and I joined several flying clubs. One was a Cessna club.”
In learning about flying a glider, Martinson became well-versed in thermals, or the combination of warmth provided by the sun and the ground that’s necessary to keep the lightweight craft aloft. As the sun warms the ground, the ground warms the air directly above it. This provides lift for the glider, which counters the natural sinking tendency of the plane.
“The higher you could get in one of those thermals, the longer you could stay up,” Martinson said. “The worst thing I ever experienced was actually a dream I had, where I pulled the rope too soon and couldn’t get the plane high enough to have altitude to land. That put the fear of the Lord in me for a while.”
Martinson and her husband went to Puerto Vallarto, Mexico, seven or eight times to parasail. In keeping with her lifelong sense of adventure, Martinson began to consider jumping out of a plane, thinking it would be fun.
“I’m in New Orleans often and found a skydiving club in St. Tammany Parish. I made sure they had precautions and safety measures,” she said. “Billy was still living when I made my first jump.”
Booth’s skydive took place last Thanksgiving in Raleigh, North Carolina. She relished the opportunity to go with her grandchild.
“I was tethered to an ex-Marine I met that morning,” she said. “He was delightful. I watched them pack the parachutes, and I had all the confidence in the world in him. There were 14-15 people on the plane, and when the green light by the door goes on, it’s done. There’s no turning back.”
“The most uncomfortable part is that once you jump, you freefall several thousand feet. It’s hard to breathe. Once (the ex-Marine) deployed the parachute, we sat upright, and it was absolutely beautiful. It was late afternoon, and the sun was getting ready to go down. It was a religious experience.”
“This was a drop of 13,000 feet,” Booth continued. “It was quiet and calm. You could not hear anything. It was about as serene as I have ever been. I told a friend that I soared like an eagle and landed like a feather. A lot of the people on the plane were true parachutists. One woman was making her fourteenth or fifteenth jump.”
Booth, who turns 84 in June, considered the skydive a bucket list item. Although she has no plans for another jump, the overwhelmingly positive first experience is something she’ll always carry with her.
“I think being able to step out of the box at this age is important, both to keep yourself up and running and interested – and interesting,” she said. “The pandemic took its toll on everybody, and I’m no exception. That was one more reason I needed to prove to myself that I could still do anything I wanted to do.”
“Sock it to me”
Martinson’s jump took place in November 2017. Like Booth, she went airborne with a grandchild.
“First, you don’t jump – you walk out of the plane,” she said. “Eric, who had jumped once before, was tethered to someone else. We were asked if we wanted to do any loops or twirls. I said, ‘Sock it to me.’ We were up at 11,000 feet when we jumped. It made me a little dizzy, but it’s fun to know what it’s like, and that you can do it.”
Martinson, who will celebrate her 85th birthday on September 11, will do what President Bush did on his 85th birthday – step out on faith and watch the world as she knows it come into focus while she floats back to earth.
“People who are afraid to take a chance never get to see what they can do,” Martinson said. “It helped me and our children that Billy always urged us to get out there and take risks. He did that, too.”
“I would like others to know that there are no firm boundaries keeping them from at least trying to do new things. There is so much to gain by at least giving it a whirl. I only wish there were more time to do more.”
(Joe Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Dogwood Press, and member of St. Francis Madison.)