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'Stand Me Up!' : And 87-Year-Old Makes 216th Parachute Jump

December 16, 1985|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

PERRIS, Calif. — Truesdell (Smitty) Smith first jumped out of an airplane in 1928, using a parachute slapped together from cheap silk, leather straps and the steering wheel off a Model T Ford.

That jump didn't kill him, and neither did any of the others he made in the next half century.

So on Sunday, the 87-year-old retired sign painter from Wichita, Kan., made his 216th jump--with members of the U.S. world champion sky-diving team--over Perris Valley Airport in Riverside County.

The event was billed as a jump to honor the man purported to be the oldest sky diver in the world.

But it seemed more like the celebration of an attitude. . . .

Still the daredevil showman, Smith was decked out for the occasion in a red, white, and blue jump suit, a combination modeled after one worn by the famed Evel Knievel.

"Yahoo!" he crowed as the twin-engine Otter airplane began its ascent.

"Stand me up!" he barked at his jump partner, Don Balch, 43, of Perris, when the pilot announced an altitude of 13,000 feet--and time to go.

Throughout the fall, the back of Smith's suit was connected to the front of Balch's, and they landed together, in a crouched position, in an open field.

Then, before dozens of admiring sky divers one-third his age, Smith let out a forceful "Phooie!"

"I could make one of those jumps every day of the week for 10 years," Smith said, taking off his skullcap and allowing his long gray hair to tumble free.

It was startling behavior for a man who seemed as frail as a sparrow.

Smith's physical condition is such that he must be led around arm-in-arm to get from one place to another. Friends found that they had to nearly shout into his ear to be understood.

But it hardly seemed to matter.

"A lot of people get old and quit sky diving," said Al Krueger, a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Parachuting Assn. "But this guy can hardly wait for the pilot to say 'Ready, set, go!' "

"I got showmanship in me," said Smith, who began jumping, on a dare, when a friend constructed a parachute for her husband out of spare parts. The husband "chickened out," Smith said--and so he took up the offer, and began an off-and-on love affair with barnstorming and parachuting that has lasted throughout his life.

It also began four decades of worry and headaches for his late wife.

"My mother hated his stunts," said Smith's son, Jerry, 53. "I remember her screaming at him, 'I hope you crack up, you son of a gun.' "

To which Smith's typical response was: "Rain on you, big sister."

A mishap in 1974 nearly brought an end to the pastime. That was the year Smith blacked out at 3,000 feet--fortunately with a chute that was already open. He landed in the city dump at Lincoln, Neb., breaking his left leg, hip and pelvis.

Naturally, he quit sky diving--for as long as it took to recover.

"I'll be making jumps till I'm 100," Smith said Sunday.

A young woman approached him, asking for his autograph.

Smith smiled graciously, grasped the pen firmly with shaking fingers, and signed his name and title:

"Smitty The Jumper."

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