Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ash Dive

Slyde arrived at Franklin Flying Field, right on schedule. He sat in the grass as his friends gathered in a circle and plotted how best to dump him from a Cessna.

“How about me and Ed hold him from both ends and you let him go?” 
“We could get under canopy and then drop him.” 
“Cathie, you were married to him. You should do the honors.”

It was a hot Saturday in August and weather threatened from the west. Cathie and Ed and Kivett and Ralph planned Slyde’s final skydive as Slyde sat patiently by –  in a box and all five cremated pounds of him.

Photo rights: Bristol Motor Speedway. Creative Commons reuse.
Cathie and Slyde had owned a thriving skydiving business, training students and running weekend jump operations. Slyde traveled the country with his demonstration team, jumping giant flags and banners and pyrotechnics into NHRA drags or baseball games or rodeos or NASCAR races.

Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” was usually playing loud over the speakers as Slyde spiraled onto the field. You wouldn't see many people who failed to doff their hats or rise to their feet.

He was Mark Schlatter by birth, but "Slyde Sphincter" by his alias, one of a band of 70s-era skydiving wild men who called themselves the "Sphincter Brothers."

"Floyd Sphincter" described Slyde as a guy who “could organize, juggle, unicycle, sew, rig parachutes, fly airplanes, skydive, grow pecans, raise sheep (why he needed 40 sheep is anyone’s guess), play the flute, and write music, poetry, and prose.”

He’d once put those sewing and rigging skills to work and constructed an “ash bag” – a hand-sewn deployment device of Cordura and Velcro in primary colors, designed to carry the cremated remains of a fellow skydiver to altitude, there to be given back to the sky. 

It was Slyde's ash bag around which his friends now gathered and into which his friends now spooned his ashes. They took turns shoveling, his remains the consistency of rough Alaskan beach sand and ground seashells.

Cathie picked a shard of twisted metal out of the bag and turned it over in the sunlight. “They were supposed to sift this stuff out,” she said. His friends speculated whether this might be a relic from a plate in Slyde’s head or a screw that had held bone together after one hard landing or another.

You can play squash or weekend basketball and the worst you’re likely to suffer is a sprained ankle. Lose your focus in a sport like skydiving and the consequences can be, well… severe. It’s surely this element of "putting yourself in the proximity of death but not actually dying" that draws some people to the sport.

The danger proves a counterpoint, highlighting a joy of being in the air, in the sky – a joy that seems rooted in our nature. You see it in the face of a toddler being tossed into the air by her father – pure exhilaration in her cries of "Again, Daddy. Again!" Children on playgrounds implore their mothers to "Swing me HIGHER!" When asked "Where is God," isn't the natural impulse to look first to the sky? 

Still, treading so close to the boundary of life and death does encourage a dark humor. A bumper sticker on a skydiver’s car is likely to read: “If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.” If you use fabric softener, it had better be Downy or Snuggle… never “Bounce” – because deceleration trauma is not something to be tempted. 

Cathie stood up to stretch her legs as Ralph shook the last of Slyde into the ash bag. Ed pinched shut the Velcro. Like Mom in the kitchen, Cathie held up the dusty utensil and looked around and asked pleasantly, “Who wants to lick the spoon?”

To say Slyde loved skydiving would be to understate the depth of it. Skydiving was his life as much as it was his living. As a young guy, Slyde was known to sell plasma to pay for jumps.  You could say then that skydiving was in his blood and his blood was in his skydiving.

When given a chance to compete in the 1976 skydiving nationals but having no money, he sold his own parachute to pay travel and entry fees – on the condition that he would not surrender his rig until after the competition. It was like a Gift of the Magi, to himself.

He went on to earn two master’s degrees and run a skydiving business and have two kids and accumulate more than 4,000 skydives and 48 hours of freefall time. Slyde was the envy of guys who looked out the window from the confines of a 9:00-to-5:00 cubicle and watched the high cumulus drifting by and wondered “wouldn’t it be great to actually make a living out of skydiving?”

His friends came from all around to see him off.  Ed Sphincter rolled in from Zionsville. Floyd Sphincter from St. Louis.  Kivett and Angie came from the southeast side. Karl flew in from Arizona, bringing with him the giant American flag he'd inherited from Slyde, a flag that Slyde had built.

Slyde's demo team had jumped those Stars and Stripes into hundreds of stock car races and football games and 4th of July parades from Virginia to Washington State. A video from a rodeo in Reno gives a sense of it.

Gary came up from Florida. Burns and Sue and Albers and Harry and Al and Barb and a dozen others swelled the ranks. Skydivers from the host drop zone wondered who are all these people? And what’s in that Cordura bag they're cradling?

Cathie and Slyde had split long ago, but remained friends. In her basement, she had a case of the dark beer Slyde loved to brew. Cathie and her husband Ralph threw that beer in a cooler and brought it with them from Chicago, ready to break it out as soon as the ash dive was over, the gear was stowed, and airplanes were pushed back into the hangar.

Ed and Kivett had a couple thousand skydives between them and they took charge of the "dirt dive": planning on the ground how things will go in the air. Are you out the door first? Who’s holding which end of the ash bag? We've got two planes, so how do you want to coordinate the exits and the docking? Should we give each jumper a Ziploc full of Slyde, or should we just stick with the ash bag?

Having worked out the plan and the backup plan and the backup to the backup, Kivett and Ed showed that this wasn't their first rodeo. Geared up and walking to the plane, each holding an end of the five-pound ash bag, Ed looked to Kivett and said, “Listen, plans aside… if things go to shit, YOU let go.”

A huddle and a prayer and the friends of Slyde Sphincter climbed aboard the two Cessnas.

They carried him a mile aloft, exited into the cool air, and let him go into the southern Indiana skies.  Karl towed Slyde's American flag, circling them all and bearing witness.

Back on the ground and friends gathering around, Ed held up the empty ash bag and asked, “Who’s next?”

Skydiving is a church. It’s a church where the chapel is an airplane hangar and the priest is a pony-tailed guy named Ed whose thirty-year-old tee shirt shows his pride to be one of the Sphincter Brothers.

Cathie and Ed called everyone to order. They opened the cooler and pass out bottles of Slyde's iced homebrew. Ed toasted him with simple words:
“We all know Slyde loved a cold one.” He raised his bottle. 
“Here’s to Slyde." 
“To Slyde,” answered the congregation.

Giving him back to the sky, it seemed fitting that they dumped Slyde from an ash bag that Slyde had built, circled Slyde's ashes with a flag that Slyde had sewn, and toasted Slyde with beer that Slyde had brewed.

Mark "Slyde" Schlatter



Joe said...

And some photos from the day:

Anonymous said...

Great writing, Joe--Hanker

Anonymous said...

Respects to Slyde. Kudos to your writing. Semper fi, John

Don said...

I only found out about Slyde a couple months ago! One of the things I missed most about skydiving WAS Slyde. I jumped at Frandfort for about 5 yrs. Slyde talked me into becoming a jumpmaster, senior rigger, and onto FSET. I never had more fun in my entire life than jumping and working with him. It was a ball Slyde. Glad you got to make that one last dive with your friends.. D-12179

Joe said...

Thanks for the comment, Don.

Joe said...

Appreciate the comment, Hanker.

Rob said...

Another skydiver posted this on his facebook page. He and I have jumped together since 1975 and have had friends whose ashes have exploded in the wind blast as yours did. Your account is outstanding. Thank you.

Joe said...

Thanks, Rob. For someone who loved being in the air, there's no better way to go. Let me know where the link is posted? I'd like to friend the guy so I can see the comments. Thanks again! j

Rob said...

It's posted in a facebook group called "oldschool skydiving" dated June 1, 2013

Joe said...

Thanks, Rob. Much appreciated!