Sunday, October 24, 2021

The worst birthday

by By G. George Ostrom
| July 7, 2021 8:15 AM

A classic G. George Ostrom column from July 2009...

Some birthdays can never be forgotten…others never recalled. First Wife Iris gave a big party last year, so I can remember that one pretty well. Since then when people ask, “How are you doing George?” it’s been fun to say, “Very good -- for a guy over eighty.” Their replies are usually nice, “Oh! You don’t look eighty,” or some other thoughtful falsehood.

Most memorable birthday for me was number 70 in 1998 with a large crowd at the Outlaw Inn, lots of laughs, kindness and recognition. Others include the awesome four-mile transit of goat ledge across Glacier’s towering Ptarmigan Wall led by Dr. Gordon Edwards for the 58th, followed by magnificent climb up the Iceberg Wall with Doc for 61st, and 69th birthday party on top of Mt. Pollock.

Do not recall anything about a few birthdays, especially in the Army; however, can recall the worst one ever.

Until Iris Ann began straightening me out in 1958, I was living rather close to the edge. Take 1952! Fellow parachutists and some girls from the Missoula Nursing School persuaded me to have “a few birthday beers” even though I was on top of the smokejumper “next out” roster. The worst happened. Got back to the barracks late to find my name led a list to jump in the Salmon River wilderness at sunrise. Couple hours sleep did not solve my problem, but I did manage to get on a jumpsuit with a buddy’s help, strap on parachutes and climb into a dark rear corner of a C-47.

The flight was hell; rough air, circling the fire, flying alongside cliffs and banking around in a big canyon…no fun for a guy with an upset stomach and splitting headache. Being fireboss, I had to be first out. At last the spotter motioned to “stand up-hook up,” and get in the door. As we banked into the “drop-run” he pointed down at swirling smoke, rocks, blurry treed side hills, and asked if I was satisfied with the jump-spot. I nodded “Yes,” with no idea of where I was supposed to land. Just wanted out of that pitching plane.

The 90-mile-an-hour opening shock made me urp in the steel mesh mask so got that unfastened to clear my eyes and look for a spot to hit without breaking something. The spotter had let me out far enough upwind to land in tall brush near the fire. That’s where I tried to steer, but got sick again. Next thing I knew I was crashing through tree tops, breaking limbs and coming to a screeching halt. Tried to see, praying I wasn’t hung up 100 feet in some old ponderosa pine. With eyes finally wiped clear again, made out ground two feet below my boots. Cracked the harness release and collapsed on solid earth. Somebody was lookin’ out for me.

Struggled to a small nearby clearing and laid out orange streamers for other jumpers. The fire wasn’t big but throwing a lot of smoke from old ground fuel. Other than a bad birthday headache, this was my lucky day. A noisy little stream was running in a gully around the west side of the burning area, a natural barrier.

The next two crew members landed near my parachute and quickly joined me. One said, “The spotter is madder than hell, Ostrom. He wanted you to go into that clearing 100 yards from here, where he dropped our gear.”

“I’ll tell ya boys, I never hit the ground in this country if I can help it, too many rocks. The best landing in the Salmon is a stand of small trees like those I picked. That guy has probably never jumped down here. You guys get the tools and bring ‘em over while I do some scouting. We’re going to get a line around this thing, then dam the creek above the fire and do a little irrigating.”

The five remaining jumpers made it into the trees near my chute. They thought I had picked an excellent spot. Within two hours we were getting things under control; but it wasn’t easy for me. Made myself swear and suffer for stupidity, working hard against the smoke and flames, under blazing sun.

Not planning anything that dumb this July.

Note: George will turn 93 on July 24th of this year.