For Smitty the Jumper, retired sign painter, ballroom-dancing teacher and sex symbol, the winter past, his 87th, blew hot and cold. Smitty's vision grew cloudier, his hearing worsened, and his gait became more wobbly. His trailer in Wichita, Kans. lost some more paint. An inner-ear disturbance, aggravated by too much rock-'n'-roll, ended Smitty's nights out with rowdy friends at the Coyote Club.
On the plus side, Smitty was jumping out of airplanes again. He made his 216th parachute jump at Perris Valley, Calif. on Dec. 15, extending a record he set two years ago, when he claimed the title of World's Oldest Sky Diver. "I can't understand how I'm still around," he says, " 'cause I've done the damnedest things. But the birthdays just stack up."
At Perris Valley, Smitty made a tandem jump from 13,000 feet with Don Balch of the Perris Valley Sky Diving Society. During the 8,000-foot free-fall, Smitty and Balch linked up in an eight-sided star with seven members of the Coors World Champion Sky Diving Team before landing gently and on target amid a cheering crowd waiting on the valley floor. "It was wonderful," Smitty said. "I could make one of those every day of the week for 10 years. There's nothing to it."
Smitty's real name is H.T. Smith, but he has been either Daredevil Smitty or Smitty the Jumper since 1928, when, at age 30, he made his first jump with a chute made from J.C. Penney bed-sheet material. In his barnstorming days he thrilled air-show and fair crowds with overcoat jumps, multiple-chute jumps (releasing himself from one parachute and opening another just before impact), wing walks and automobile to airplane transfers. Many of his jumps were made with borrowed chutes, most without a reserve chute. A confirmed free-faller, he resisted making a static-line jump, in which the chute opens automatically by means of an attached cord when the jumper has fallen a certain distance.
April 21, 1986
In 1937, with 204 jumps behind him, Smitty retired from daredevil work, deferring to the wishes of his second wife. He painted signs in Midwestern cities, everything from multistory advertisements on brick walls to gold-leaf-on-glass work in offices. Television trivia buffs can file away this morsel: Smitty painted the lettering and the bird on the nose of Sky King's Cessna, The Songbird.
After 24 years of strictly terrestrial life spent raising three children, Smitty got the urge to jump again. In 1960, at 61, he jumped with a borrowed chute at the National Air Show in Wichita. He fainted the moment he left the airplane, regained consciousness on the way down and had trouble finding his rip cord. "A few more seconds and I would have bought the farm," he says. He made four more jumps over the next several years and retired again at 65.
Eight years later, at 73, he finally made a static-line jump over Maize, Kans. He landed downwind and broke his right leg. Two years later, jumping at Lincoln, Neb., he landed badly in the city dump and shattered his left leg. That injury earned Smitty 2½ months in the hospital. He later painted a sign on the wall of his trailer: WARNING TO ALL JUMPERS—QUIT BEFORE YOU ARE 76.
Smitty quit for good at that age.
Or would have, if not for the invention in 1982 of the tandem parachute by Florida sky diver Ted Strong. (It enables two jumpers linked by a harness to use a single oversized chute.) "When he came out with the tandem chute, I just had to try it," says Smitty. "It's wonderful. The other fellow does all the work and you have somebody to talk to on the way down."
Last year, after a 10-year layoff, Smitty made his first tandem jump at El Dorado, Kans., satisfying another urge at the same time: to jump with three of his grandchildren, including 23-year-old rodeo queen Lisa Smith. At Muskogee, Okla. he jumped with Strong as his tandem partner. Jump No. 214, at Oshkosh, Wis., was before an air-show crowd of 200,000. No. 216, at Perris Valley, set another world record, this time for oldest father-son skydiving team. (Smitty's son, Jerry Smith, a Wichita businessman, made his first-ever jump the day before, at 54. "I'd been thinking about it for 50 years," Jerry says.)
When he isn't jumping, Smitty is usually promoting. At conventions and air shows he sells SMITTY THE JUMPER T shirts and copies of his recently revised booklet, Smitty: His Exploits of Early Day Jumping. His trailer in north Wichita is a tourist attraction: Smitty's Wall of Fame.
The author, clutching a white pointer, conducts guided tours of the trailer, which is papered with historic aviation photos and posters. The body cast from his ill-fated Lincoln jump is displayed in a bedroom alcove. "If I could live my life over I'd live it exactly the same," he tells visitors, "but I'd leave out that last jump in Lincoln."
Until recently, Smitty made few concessions to his age. "I'd be out boogyin' at the Coyote Club from 10 p.m. to 2:30 in the morning," he says. "They'd give me free drinks. The girls would come up and tap me on the shoulder. I'm not bragging, just stating facts." He seems fatalistic about his grounding as a dancer. "That loud rock-'n'-roll, I don't know how I stood it as long as I did. I was teaching the Spanish tango when Valentino was in vogue."
In March, Smitty spoke at a dinner in Cheney, Kans. before a group of senior citizens to mark National Meals on Wheels Day. "It's an old persons' deal," he says. "I don't fool around with them very much. It might rub off." Bad weather there postponed a jump he had been hoping to make in preparation for his real goal: to jump as part of the Opening Ceremonies for the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, shortly before his 90th birthday.
"I know I'm old," he says. "I was five years old when the Wright brothers made their first flight. But with this tandem chute, I don't feel a year older. Now I'm jumping like a house afire. I'm ready to jump at any time."
Smitty grins. "The Olympics. Won't that be something?"