“Bury Me in Silk, Upside Down”
“Life depends on a single thread,” is the motto of the Caterpillar Club honoring the debt owed to the silkworm. The worm, a caterpillar, produced silk used to make early parachutes practical as lifesaving devices. To escape the inability of an airplane to continue flying, for whatever reason, be it structural failure or the result of an instrument of war is the standard requirement for recognition. The successful exit of a failed flying machine by using a canopy made of silk awarded you automatic membership into the club. Early notable members included such aviation stalwarts as General James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and astronaut John Glenn. To date, since its inception, over 34,000 members belong to the Caterpillar Club.
The following short story concerns a lifelong pursuit of skydiving; where the thrill of dangling beneath the canopy of a parachute reins supreme. The course of a young man’s life is determined by an innocent bite of a dog. His future snuck up on him early one morning, he was only five.
Born on “Cinco de Mayo, 1940” (May 5th), Ignacio Lopez would be named after the famous Mexican General, Ignacio Zaragoza. Who, on the same date in 1862, defeated the French forces at the battle of Puebla. The date later becoming an international holiday celebrated in many corners of the Americas. A slight child, Iggy as he was called, was the last born of eighteen children. His mother, declaring afterwards, “I have exhausted in this little one all of what remained of my life-giving abilities.”
The year following Iggy’s welcome into the world the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Second World War got underway. While still a toddler, Iggy witnessed most of his brothers and their friends leave for foreign shores to fight in the war effort. Strong in their faith not only did the Lopez family provide soldiers for the nation, they also championed both a priest and a nun in service to their Catholic Church. All of the Lopez brothers returned home safe at wars end to share their military adventures in faraway places with Iggy.
Not long after their return home Iggy, one morning, awoke to a puppy licking him in the face. They would call him Tippy because of the black spot on the end of his tail that looked like it had been dipped into a bottle of ink.. A few days later, while playing catch in the yard with a tennis ball, Tippy playfully sank a few teeth into Iggy’s cheek. It wasn’t a terrible wound, but it demanded injection of a series of rabies shots into his tummy. For Iggy’s bravery facing a long needle, his father rewarded him with a toy. It was a parachutist, a little cardboard man, attached by strings to a silk canopy stuffed into a small round cardboard tube. Blowing into the tube launched the little guy into the air. The silk, wrapped around the little figure, would blossom into a parachute then sway side to side, back and forth, on its way down. Iggy, misfortune or not, became obsessed with the new toy. He didn’t realize it then of course, but his fate in life had been decided. He wouldn’t be a policeman or a fireman, like most little boy’s dream, he wanted to be a paratrooper in the army.
Iggy couldn’t escape his early awakening. Soon after his sixteenth Birthday Iggy committed, for him, a rare sin. He lied. He lied about his age to the US Government and joined the Army with an intention to become a paratrooper. After completing his basic training, Iggy applied for the Army jump school and was assigned his date with destiny.
The youthful soldier marched through Army jump school as if he owned it; ground week… nothing to it, tower week, the same and jump week, yet another walk in the park. “Clear, Sergeant Airborne, Not Clear, Sergeant Airborne,” were mantras shouted in clear understanding of yes or no procedural orders given by his Black Hat instructors.
After completing five live jumps from an airplane the young soldier became eligible for graduation. The ceremony took place at Fort Benning, Georgia on the south end of Eubanks Field. An older veteran brother, and a sister attended, helping to pin on his new Parachutist Wings. Iggy Lopez, now a paratrooper, was only seventeen years old.
Iggy’s service occurred during the years between the Korean and Vietnam Wars, so battle ribbons were not in his future. Over time, he loved parachuting but didn’t enjoy being in the army. His unit training jumps were too far and few between and a long military career was no longer appealing. He wanted to jump on his own schedule not on Uncle Sam’s. At the end of his enlistment, with an Honorable Discharge in hand, Iggy took on life as a civilian.
Using his G.I. Bill benefits Iggy made his way through a technical course in medical services toward a career as an x-ray technician. He trained in both the industrial and medical field. His want and need to jump out of airplanes remained as did his pursuit to do so. He soon found a job and settled out near the south shore of Long Island in East Moriches, NY, just north of the Montauk Highway. Skydiving was popular at the local airport, it was there he would find a group of, some would say fanatics, that shared his passion for silk canopies and jumping out of airplanes.
After joining the local club Iggy soon enshrined himself among its members by agreeing to invest in an airplane. Inspired by Iggy’s heritage they renamed themselves the “Blossom Bombers.” Owning an airplane provided yet another challenge for Iggy; he needed to learn to fly it – which he did. The aircraft was modified by removing the passenger side door making the exit larger to accommodate jumpers. Then, a jump platform was added to the right-wing strut. A banner-towing hitch was also fitted for pulling advertising banners up and down the beaches.
Ignacio for many years, decades in fact, continued to jump and tow banners. He had a long life suspended beneath canopies of silk or its substitute materials. There were no records kept of how many jumps he had accumulated. The only hiccup in his life that caused him pain was a short marriage that provided him a daughter. But, it was no surprise to anyone when wife and daughter disappeared one day. There was no warning or good bye, they left for California and Iggy never saw them again. There was never a full explanation. Iggy, heartbroken about the little girl, carried and shared her picture wherever he journeyed always referred to her as his little blossom.”
As Iggy aged the jumps became fewer and fewer and small injuries became more frequent. Iggy, on his own, decided it was time to hang it up. His last and final jump was to occur on his 75th Birthday, on a bright and sunny afternoon in early May. It was to be a big party kind of day. The local community of jumpers made great plans for the event. Seventy-five members would take part and Iggy would be the last to jump. After which, the band would play and the Bar-B-Q and Clambake would begin. The party planned to last well into the night, there would be dancing of course.
If only; If only Iggy survived the jump. He didn’t.
Not long after his family disappeared Iggy coined a saying around the club. It was a derivation of a poem whose source is unknown to this author. The poems message was, “Bury me upside down, so the world can kiss my ass.” Iggy’s version went like this, please “Bury Me in Silk – Upside Down” with all the same sentiment “and the world can now kiss my Silky Smooth Derriere.” His pronouncement always gathered a few chuckles.
Iggy and his group would be the last to jump. A 360-degree circle around the field was the plan and Iggy would be the last out with the band set to begin playing “Hail to the Chief,” as if he were President for the day.
Upwind and approaching the drop zone Iggy took his position out onto the struts platform, and just as he let go his grip the band below began to play. Within a few seconds the chute blossomed fully and Iggy began his slow descent to perpetuity. Not long after his chute abruptly arrested his fall Iggy suffered what might be known as an acute heart failure. Had he been anywhere else on earth, his chances of survival might have been better. However, being unconscious and unable to control his descent to the airfield, it was obvious to the party below something was amiss. As Iggy passed well overhead, drifting briskly to the west, the band stopped playing as friends ran for their cars. About a mile away Iggy was found, suspended… his chute tangled, hanging in a tree. His face, nodding ever so slightly with the rhythm of the wind, wore a sly smile, his boots were clean and still tied tight.
Iggy’s party, much like his life, came to an abrupt halt.
The Blossom Bombers Jump Club, in honor of their mentor, decided on a final farewell to their hero and friend. Ignacio Perez needed a proper sendoff… a worthier final farewell than that of his final jump. That party was not something to remember.
Subsequently, after few days mourning, the jump group decided Iggy’s final request would be honored; buried in silk, upside down, so the world could kiss his you know what. Dressed in his jumpsuit and chute harness Iggy was placed lying face down in a wooden coffin wrapped completely in a silk parachute. As an Army veteran the lid of his simple wooden coffin was wrapped with an American Flag.
On a brisk, somewhat chilly Saturday morning in mid-May, Iggy’s wooden box was gingerly secured onto the floor of his airplane and readied for his last flight. Iggy was to be the celebrity at his own wake as friends planned a final farewell for their clubs’ patriarch. As the box was being tied down three of Iggy’s closest friends arrived with their chutes, having decided they would ride along and do a jump in his honor. It would be cramped but they had a plan. The friends each carried with them a single flare; one red, one blue and one white. It was their intention to join up in a triangle, light their flares and spiral downward. At the last moment they intended to separate and deploy their chutes while the airplane, with Iggy aboard, landed behind them. The party would then begin once again.
The airplane, with all aboard, lined up on the north runway and into a steady wind began its takeoff roll. The plan was to climb to nine thousand feet where the three friends would jump and join up in formation, light the flares while in free fall, and then spiral downward. Once the flares were exhausted they would simultaneously deploy their chutes to land just ahead of Iggy. That was the plan.
The event was going along nicely and according to plan, lazily climbing to near nine thousand feet as the jumpers readied themselves to exit the aircraft. While doing so, the tie down straps on Iggy’s boxed coffin were loosened ever so slightly to make more room for the jumpers to straddle the box as they moved forward, which allowed the coffin to slide closer to the enlarged cabin door. As the friends of Iggy climbed out onto the wing struts platform, the pilot intentionally skid the aircraft slightly to the right to accommodate the group jumping free, insuring their not hitting the horizontal stabilizer on the tail. In so doing a sizable vacuum was created by the ninety mile an hour slipstream of air rushing past the opening. Unfortunately, the suction rested free the flag draped top of the coffin and out the door it flew. It struck the leading edge of the horizontal stabilizer creating a huge dent while jamming and disabling the elevator and vertical flight controls. Along with sucking out the coffins top, the loosely wrapped parachute trailed out as well pulling Iggy, still fastened in his harness, with it. The lines of his chute got caught up in the crease created by the coffins top. This immediate drag on the aircraft caused the aircraft to pitch up and stall which fortunately set free the chute and Iggy. Now, once again, the likes of Iggy begins to float slowly downward on an all too familiar path. The chute, regrettably, with the aid of a north wind carried Iggy out several miles well past his planned airport destination. His final landing would be in the ocean waters south of Long Island. It was something Iggy had never done before… parachute to a water landing. The Coast Guard was notified and fortunately, Iggy’s remains were recovered a few hours later.
The pilot of Iggy’s aircraft was in the end the hero-of-the-day. His ability to wrestle the disabled aircraft back to earth is a story of its own, well worthy of the praise and recognition he received. The recovery itself, of both Iggy and his aircraft, is excuse enough to have a party and so they did, including his three friends, who escaped the disabled aircraft seconds ahead of the coffin.
The Capstone, the crowning achievement for Iggy’s career as a jumper, even though he earned no medals for his service to country as a paratrooper, was his newest posthumously awarded qualification: Membership in “The Caterpillar Club,” formed in 1922, says any person who jumped from a disabled aircraft with a parachute is eligible. As mentioned earlier notable members include: General James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and astronaut John Glen.
A similar organization called “The Goldfish Club” exists as well. Their membership eligibility requires escaping an aircraft by parachuting into the water. The club awarded Iggy the same honors. This club has more than 9,000 members so Iggy is in good company. But, not all are buried upside down.
Even though Iggy’s health situation could have been better when he left the aircraft, and even though he left involuntary, he no doubt would have survived had his heart been beating. Chances are he would have made it to shore after landing in the ocean as well. We conclude Ignacio Lopez, former Army Paratrooper, has earned the rights to memberships in these two elite clubs and so be it.
Bibliography: On 20 October 1922, Lieutenant Harold R. Harris, chief of the McCook Field Flying Station, jumped from a disabled Loening W-2A monoplane fighter. Shortly after, two reporters from the Dayton Herald, realizing that there would be more jumps in future, suggested that a club should be formed. Harris became the first member and from that time forward any person who jumped from a disabled aircraft with a parachute became a member of the Caterpillar Club. Other famous members include General James Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh and (retired) astronaut John Glenn.