@story MARCUS COKER
@images SKYDIVE SKYRANCH/TODD GRISWOLD
The first time Vicki Baker jumped out of a plane, she was sixty years old. “I loved it. I just wanted to do something to celebrate my sixtieth birthday. It’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done,” says Vicki. “I’m just beginning my second childhood.”
Vicki’s sixty-two now, and many weekends can still be found at Skydive Skyranch in Siloam Springs, not too far from her home in Prairie Grove. As she reaches for her camera, Vicki says that sometimes she just comes to watch. “[Just hearing the sound of the planes] turns me on,” says Vicki.
Vicki is a widow, and says the skydivers treat her like family. “The trick to getting into this group is bringing food. Today, I brought a pack of Oreos.” The Oreos sit on a large round table that’s half shaded by the airport hangar where Skydive Skyranch is located. Next to the Oreos sit a host of plastic spoons, dozens of cigarette butts, and a baseball glove. Throughout the day, men and women of all ages come and go from the sun-bleached table, setting down Dr. Pepper cans and picking up stories from their friends and fellow skydivers.
Not all of the stories are glamorous. During one of her solo jumps, Vicki ran into a power line. Her parachute collapsed, and she fell fifteen feet to the ground. Vicki didn’t break any bones, but says she doesn’t jump solo anymore; she only jumps with an instructor. Vicki walked away from the power line with more than a few bruises and a good story; she walked away with a nickname: Electra.
Most everyone at Skydive Skyranch has a nickname. Joe Caldwell has been around the drop zone for six years and is currently at 1,018 jumps. His nickname is Paris (as in Paris Hilton). Joe got the nickname when he spent too much time “primping” in the bathroom. Joe proudly introduces himself as Paris, and it seems everyone at the drop zone realizes the nicknames are just about having fun with the people they care about. Joe says it’s easy to get close to people when you put your life in their hands. “[You’re] depending on everyone else to make sure your gear is right. We’re all family, and we all love each other.”
If this is a family, then their house looks a lot like a college dorm room. There are torn pieces of carpet covering the concrete floor, lockers plastered with bumper stickers, a stove, a popcorn machine, stereo speakers, and even a guy named Eye Candy walking around with his shirt off. Inside the office bathroom, there’s a can of Barbasol shaving cream next to a set of dishes. Just outside the front door, there’s a soda machine and a few camping trailers. One thing is obvious: the drop zone isn’t just a place of business, it’s a home.
At the head of the home is Wolf Grulkey, the drop zone owner. When he’s not flying one of his three planes, he can often be found in his office, strumming his banjo or playing his violin. Everyone seems comfortable around him, and it’s no wonder they call him Dad. “This family, you choose to be in it. It ain’t like the blood family,” says Wolf as he chuckles.
When the sun sets, the plane engines will die down, and the parachutes will be packed away for the night. But not everyone will go home. Most will find a place to sleep, maybe even in one of the planes. Wolf says dinner will be pork loin. Someone has made a sour cream mustard sauce that’s supposed to be pretty good. These people know how to have a good time, even when they are not skydiving. Once a year, the drop zone even hosts Prom Night, an evening of formal wear, live music, and dancing under the stars.
“It’s not necessarily about the jumping. People come to hang out, have supper. The thing is, we work together, we play together, and we make sure each other’s safe together. We party together, and we have dinner together,” says Wolf. “Every one of those people has had their feet under my dinner table. And it’s just a good bunch of folks.”
For more information about skydiving, visit Skyranch.com.