Take a Leap of Faith

By Erica Spiva, RAM Compliance Specialist

I grew up in Scott County, Tennessee. It was 2006, I was 21 years old, and I was attending the annual ‘Wings Over the Big South Fork’ airshow where RAM just happened to be doing a supply drop demonstration and a group skydive. To boost interest from the crowd, a local was supposed to be tagging along on the skydive. The morning of the airshow, she backed out, and I casually commented, “Man, I wish I could go.” I was with family and friends who all laughed and said I would never have the nerve to jump out of a perfectly good airplane! Well, I am stubborn and a bit defiant, and the more I am told not to or I ‘can’t’ do something, the more likely I am to go for it. Lo and behold, moments later, I found myself in front of Stan Brock volunteering/begging him to let me jump in her place. After a bit of a debate, he gave me permission, and away we went. 

Little did I know, spending the afternoon waiting out a rain shower under the wing of a legendary DC-3 with a few-dozen RAM volunteers was about to change my mind.

Now, a bit of context. I had a perfectly nice youth and was loved and cared for in all the ways one should be, but I still had somewhat limited horizons and was kind of ‘stuck’ in life. I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t doing anything about it either. I had a timeline for my life firmly in place and was convinced that if I took time to make changes, I would get ‘behind’ schedule, and therefore, I had no choice but to keep going along with things as they were. At 21 years old, I felt like this was IT. This was as good as it was going to get. This was ‘happy.’ This is what everyone else worked for and had, and I should just settle and let it be. Little did I know, spending the afternoon waiting out a rain shower under the wing of a legendary DC-3 with a few-dozen RAM volunteers was about to change my mind.

After receiving Stan’s blessing, I signed a waiver and was quickly hustled off to board the plane and get suited up. The DC-3 had to taxi down to the opposite end of the airport to get gas and pre-flight, but while we were there some rain moved in. So, we had to wait for the weather to clear for a safe jump. We waited, and we waited, and we waited for about three hours. 

I didn’t know a soul. Everybody was friendly, said hello, and introduced themselves, but I was essentially alone in a crowd of friends. Here and there, someone would try to pull me into the conversation. “Do you know how COOL this is? Do you understand the significance of skydiving from a DC-3? THIS DC-3? And it’s your FIRST skydive? Not fair! You don’t deserve this!” I replied honestly, yet sadly ignorant, “Umm, no, but I promise I’ll look it up!” I did indeed look it up, and learned this very same aircraft flew our military’s men over the beach in Normandy on D-Day, where they jumped into a terrifying and uncertain future. 

While the jump planned for this day was terrifying (for me) and as uncertain as any civilian skydive can be, the atmosphere was light. Everyone seemed truly happy and not inconvenienced by the rain delay in the least. There were no expressions of frustration or impatience, just joyful reunions and memories being shared. There were maybe 30 people milling around in jumpsuits and ‘tacky khaki,’ all catching up with each other and clearly enjoying the downtime the rain had provided for their prolonged gathering. If you can picture it, a group of people at least twice my age, hanging out under the massive wing of a plane that flew men into Normandy on D-Day, in 2006…just let that sink in. Others were sitting in the plane’s doorway with their feet dangling in the air, more still leaning up against the huge tundra tires.

As I sat there quietly, feeling very out of place and probably looking quite like a deer in headlights, I overheard a few folks talking about the last time they saw each other. They’d been volunteering in South America, trekking through remote jungles with minimal provisions, just to help out a community they’d heard needed some support. Others were telling stories of previous skydives they’d done together in places near and very far, some for fun and some to access a remote area that would otherwise take days of hiking to reach. This odd-ball community was full of more life experience than I had ever imagined, and they were from all walks of life. Military, retirees, doctors, nurses, mechanics, board members, business owners, grandparents, etc. 

Thankfully, the rain cleared, and we were off! I was able to have the unique vantage point from inside the plane while the group conducted their demonstration supply drop…pushing a large pallet attached to a parachute out of the cargo door at around 3,000 feet. Then, we climbed to a safe skydiving altitude of around 12,000 feet, where one-by-one, this group of strangers leapt, somersaulted, fell backwards, and cartwheeled out the cargo door and into freefall. My jump was incredible. The rushing air in my ears deafening, the horizon beyond, the airshow below, and in between dozens of parachutes popping open. Once my own canopy was open, the quiet was indescribable. While the freefall was a rush, the slow float was true peace. It felt like I could hear every conversation from the ground and from the other skydivers. It was truly an unexplainable experience. Once on the ground, I was immediately ready to go again. 

Instead, life somehow went back to normal…the airshow, and the rest of the world, moved along like something life-changing hadn’t just happened right in front of them. Now, my eyes were wide open to possibilities, opportunities. My timeline suddenly seemed ridiculous. I had plenty of time to make decisions, change directions, and fill my days, months, and years with a life I could be proud of. A life that I could truly live

There were others my age and older who hadn’t had the opportunity to learn to read or write and needed help with the forms.

A few weeks later, RAM was bringing a free clinic to my hometown, where I decided to volunteer as a way to say ‘thank you’ for the life changing experience of my free jump at the airshow. My first day, I helped in patient registration. It was eye-opening in an entirely new way. Classmates of mine from school came through the line, people I had no idea had ever struggled to get their most basic of healthcare needs met. There were others my age and older who hadn’t had the opportunity to learn to read or write and needed help with the forms. The state of health of some of these patients was shocking to my inexperienced self. The second day, I was told the dental area needed volunteers. That was the first and last day I ever volunteered in dental, and that story deserves a blog of its very own and is not for those with weak constitutions.

That clinic weekend was pivotal for me as well. I bought my first copy of Stan’s book, “All the Cowboys Were Indians.” I met Chris Hall, who is now a friend and RAM’s Chief Operations Officer. I met (now retired) volunteers Glenda Cannon, Ron Brewer, and Thom and Judy Dandridge who I still consider close friends. I met a volunteer named Roy who has since passed away…I was in the wrong place at the right time and happened to be holding the controls to the lift on his truck when it broke (which he teased me about endlessly). Years later, I was in a minor car accident on my way to a clinic, and Roy jumped right in and duct taped my car back together well enough to make it through the weekend and back. If something needed fixed, if food needed cooked, if a person needed a hug or support after a long clinic day, Roy was your man. He was the hardest working, most kind-hearted man I’ve ever met, and he will always hold a dear place in my heart.

All of a sudden, I found myself volunteering at RAM clinics all over our region. I was hooked. I’ve seen lives change before my eyes with the care RAM has provided. I volunteered regularly until I had my children, and have been a staff member at RAM Headquarters for a little over three years, processing paperwork for licenses and permits that allow us to provide care in states all across the country. I work with friends, the mission is close to my heart, and it is quite literally the least I could do to honor Stan’s memory and his permission to board the plane that transformed my life. The seed was planted at the airshow, and the very next day, I started making changes. I made decisions that changed the course of my future, decisions that made me into who I am today, where I am today, decisions that I may have never made if not for a rain shower at an airshow that fall day all those years ago.