Jeff Habberstad could hear the kids screaming from 1,000 feet.
With the sun trying hard to slice through the light gray haze behind them, Habberstad and Chris Wentzel were well into their unannounced parachute jump over an assembly of 600 children at Oak Avenue Intermediate School in Temple City last week.
"Everybody look up!" one surprised youngster said.
Teachers stood up and donned sunglasses while students used their hands to block out the glare as two rectangular blue-and-white parachutes spun slowly toward the school's grassy field.
Extracurricular activities at the school aren't uncommon, particularly with dances and field trips coming soon, but this year's graduating class wanted something special.
"We had to cancel a couple of programs (a talent show and a drama) this year and the kids were starting to ask 'Why us?' " explained principal Jerry Childs, who organized the top-secret event with his two assistant principals. "I think they were pretty amazed that this kind of thing could happen."
Even the teachers were not told what was going to happen at the assembly. For the seventh- and eighth-graders, it was enough just to get an unexpected break from class. A few students seemed a little suspicious that something unusual was going on when a single-engine plane continued to fly in wide circles over the otherwise quiet residential neighborhood. But no one seemed to notice the two strangers with duffle bags quietly speaking into walkie-talkies out on the field.
Assistant Principal Doug Sears teasingly began the assembly by calling for a square-dancing group.
"I'm sorry ladies, we're not going to have time for square-dancing today," he said with a grin. "OK, that was Part 1 of the assembly."
The typical mumbles and squeals of laughter were interrupted by a brief hush, followed by screams and gasps of excitement, when two men jumped from the plane and began floating down from the sky.
Childs said he kept the skydivers a secret from just about everyone. "If word had gotten out it wouldn't have been as dramatic," he said.
Any disappointment caused by the square-dance cancellation was gone by the time the two skydivers, kicking their legs and trailing flags and colored smoke, reached the ground.
"Where's Jennifer Woolery?" Sears asked over the loadspeaker. He quickly found the 14-year-old student council president and pulled her from the crowd in time for Wentzel and Habberstad to present her a stuffed animal and a plaque commemorating the graduating class.
When the students' screaming died down a bit, there was a short question-and-answer period with the skydivers, although few of the questions were about jumping out of airplanes. Most were aimed toward Habberstad, the younger of the two jumpers.
"How old are you?" a girl asked nervously.
Habberstad laughed. "I'm 25," he said, and the children hooted and yelled.
But the teen idol slant of the questioning prompted one student to ask, "What's your number, cutie?"
Wentzel, a stocky, short-haired man who began skydiving when he was with the Army Special Forces 16 years ago, told the crowd that he jumps between 60 and 90 times a year, most often for his North Hollywood-based Wings company, which does sky diving and aerial promotions. "I used to be a lot taller," he quipped.
He said younger audiences particularly enjoy the skydiving presentation because it is something "real" that they can experience and witness firsthand. "They may see it on television or in the movies, but it's not the same because it's not real."
The $300 to $500 fee for the show was paid out of student activity funds, school officials said.
After the assembly ended, and the parachutists packed up their gear and signed a few autographs, Childs stood to the side as the students lined up or scattered back to class. A smiling blond boy in a bulky jacket waved to the principal. "Bye, Mr. Childs. It was pretty neat."
Sears and Kathy Perini, the other assistant principal, said that activities like the skydiving demonstration play an important part in education and building school pride. "You have to have that balance of activities and academics so they want to be here and do their best," Sears said.
Such activities underline the positive aspects of school, Perini said. "Some of the kids who are kind of quiet and hang to themselves were out there asking questions."
Assistant Principals Sears and Perini perhaps have a deeper enthusiasm for Oak than other faculty members. Both graduated from the school, Sears 25 years ago and Perini 20 years ago.
"We didn't have any skydivers then," Perini recalled.
"No," said Sears, "Not in those days."