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The Presidency: Bush's Final Salute

The ex-President closes the book on a terrifying World War II experience

By Hugh Sidey

TIME Magazine

(TIME, April 7) -- George Bush, 72, gave up martinis for a month to get in shape for his parachute jump, endured countless gibes from his loving but irreverent kids ("Next you'll tell us you have an 18-year-old girlfriend"), shouted "Arch!" (yes, as in arch your back) as he leaped into the blue instead of "Geronimo!" like John Wayne, bumped his head against the fuselage, but then floated exuberantly into the record books as the only parachuting former President.

Back at his desk in Houston after the jump, he was rummaging for the names and addresses of all his new skydiving buddies so he could pay up on a penalty--one case of beer--because he'd dropped the rip cord instead of fixing it back on the patch of Velcro. Unwritten rule of the skyways: Recycle your equipment. His fellow jumpers didn't mind a bit, pronouncing his jump "perfect" for a novice. But Bush cared.

He had the glow of a man fulfilled. "It was just wonderful," he said quietly, "something I'll carry with me the rest of my life." Perhaps only his family really understood how deeply his bailout from a burning Avenger torpedo bomber in World War II had shaped him. He was only three months beyond his teens when ground fire hit his plane as he thundered in with four 500-lb. bombs to drop on a radio tower and facilities on Chichi Jima, a volcanic island held by the Japanese. He followed the book, completed his drop and then told his two crewmen, Ted White and Jack Delaney, to bail out. He turned the plane to lessen wind on their hatch, looked for them but could not see them in the plane or out, figured they had jumped, and then began to cope himself.

"It was then pure terror," Bush said last week. "The cockpit was filled with smoke. I could see the flames a few inches from the gas tanks. I stuck my head out, and the wind sucked me out of the cockpit. I must have pulled the rip cord then--too early. My head grazed the elevator at the tail. The chute had several panels ripped out as it momentarily hung up. I was so lucky. An inch or two difference, and I would have been killed by the blow or dragged down with the plane.

"I grew up then," he continued. He felt devastated that his crewmen had been lost, White apparently killed in the plane, Delaney when his chute did not open. In truth there was nothing more Bush could have done. Yet he has wondered for years. War is like that. It is one of the oddities of his climb to the presidency that this story was almost unknown until he ran for the White House.

"I never really dwelled on making another jump," Bush said. "But it was always a thought back in my mind: Do it again and do it right." He doesn't say it, but maybe it was to be a last salute to his crewmen. He did not do anything about it until this February, when he gave a speech to the U.S. Parachute Association in Houston. His listeners stood and roared an ovation for one who had been there. In the presence of young adventurers, in and out of the military, Bush always gets an adrenaline rush, and right there he made the commitment to them and himself.

Last Monday he was strapped into a simulator at the Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, with a dozen private jumpers and members of the Army's elite Golden Knights parachute team taking him through six hours of training. He learned a new lingo--"arch, look, reach, pull"--and missed the entire aircraft carrier on a simulator run ("A little wet," joked Glenn Bangs, USPA director of safety and training); laughed when Larry Pennington, a 4,600-jump expert, said, "Mr. President, remember, landings are mandatory"; and learned the parachutists' handshake from Golden Knight Andy Serrano (doubled fists touching, forefingers pointed--the signal to pull the cord). "Probably come back and see Dana Carvey imitating me, 'Wouldn't be prudent, wouldn't be prudent,'" said Bush.

But Tuesday he was up in a Skyvan dive plane at 12,500 ft. "The only time I had any butterflies was when I stood up and backed toward the open door and looked down," Bush insisted. "Then I was out and busy." For 8,000 ft. there was the rush of air, then practicing the reach for the rip cord, as Bangs and Serrano held him at the sides, grinning, and half a dozen other jumpers with cameras and radios circling in the air. "Free fall went faster than I thought," declared Bush. "First thing I knew, I looked at my altimeter and I was at 5,000 ft. Time to pull. I forgot to give the wave-off, but not to pull. The jolt of the chute opening was more than I thought it would be. But I was happy to feel it." And then there was quiet, the desert beautiful below, his legs swinging as Pennington on the ground talked him down through turns and flares, Bush pulling the control cords, his old aviator's instincts being rekindled, thinking of the wonder of it all.

"The ground moved up fast the last 1,000 ft.," Bush said. "I thought I might have too much speed." Then Pennington boomed, "Flare! Flare!" Bush pulled the cords. The chute tipped, slowed, and with a tiny jar, Bush made it safely to the ground. "If I had really been worried," said landbound Barbara, "I wouldn't have been here. But I want to see the video reruns. They probably had to throw him out of the plane."

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