Momma Andrea is busy at the manifest. She rules her domain with an iron glove. Keeping things straight in a computer powered by software written especially for the Mullins' operation, at the jab of a key, she can ensure no one double manifests without her approval. With her PC, she also can ensure a balance of students and upjumpers on each load, and can keep things running smoothly and efficiently. In between all this, with eyes seemingly in the back of her head, she keeps track of the goings on around the DZ, handling any number of crises as they crop up.
The Mullins kids--Joel and Jeffrey--never wander too far. In between jumps they know they will be called upon to handle chores such as fueling the airplane, cleaning up around the DZ, taking adorable Matthew, their two-year-old brother, for a walk around the DZ, keeping him entertained and happy, and enjoying the beautiful Tennessee sunshine.
Despite Andrea's seeming iron rule of her DZ, you can see she has a heart of gold. You can also get a glimpse into what makes this family tick. Both parents are tough, there's no question of that. I wouldn't have wanted to be raised in this family. One can see there's not too much shit that's put up with. But perhaps just because of that, they are closer-knit than most. The kids, all of them, gladly pitch in doing whatever is asked. Such an environment allows them to excel, each at their chosen discipline.
17-year-old Joel is studying for his private pilot's test. "I only wish I could have it now," he lamented. "It would be kind of neat to have a pilot's license before a driving one." Such a major accomplishment at such a young age, and he shrugs it off as though it is nothing.
Jeffrey and Joel have both been jumping since the age of eleven which, so far, makes them the world's youngest skydivers. Each of these kids were judged on their own merits, only being allowed to take to the sky when they had proven worthy of it, and met the high expectations of their parents. Those expectations involved proving their maturity and ability to take responsibility for their own safety.
Joel & Jeffrey Mullins
I've often lamented that if only I had gotten into this sport younger than the age of 40, what things I could have achieved! What new skills I would have had the time, and maybe even the ability, to master. These kids are golden. There is no telling what they will do. Jumping high performance canopies, testing out their glide ratios and handling characteristics. Jeffrey asks his dad on one lift if it would be okay for him to open at ten grand. He wants some time to play under canopy.
Another jump--this one a freefly affair. Joel climbs out first with a top of the line camera setup on his helmet. This guy has already learned to shoot video with skill that takes others years to learn.
On jump after jump, load after load, seemingly every lift, these kids can be seen -- outside the hanger with their buddies, dirt diving formations, planning intricate freefly moves -- children enjoying their youth in spite of the very much adult-like things they have claimed for themselves. Things people five times their age could only dream of. It's easy to see that they have the respect of many of the jumpers on the DZ: people who have jumped with them and know that these kids can more than hold their own on any formation and on any kind of dive.
Yet, at the sound of mom or dad's voice over that PA system, they come running. Doesn't matter what they are doing or who they are talking to, "gotta go...gotta see what mom wants." No chore is too mundane, no request too much of a bother. These are kids that were raised to respect their parents, and to gladly pitch in to run the family business.
As the sun is rapidly dipping in the west, and the last load of the day is walking back to the hanger, Jeffrey is already in the hanger busily packing his canopy. He's gotta hurry, cause mom has some chores for him to do before they leave.
Two year old Matthew is toddling around the DZ happily enjoying the attention of all at hand--the kind of attention that cute little two year olds generally garner. In a second he's grabbed from behind in a huge bear hug, by big brother Joel who will keep him entertained as mom and dad get things squared away at manifest. Charlie's getting things squared away in the hanger and making sure the airplane is buttoned down securely for the night. Making sure that it's ready to go in the morning for what will hopefully be another full day of skydiving. Jeffrey has been dispatched on an errand by his mom. He's picking up trash around the DZ -- tidying up -- sharing his parents' desire for a clean and pristine DZ. Something we skydivers don't always ensure.
"Don't put that butt out on the ground!" someone admonishes. Quickly I get up mumbling apologies. "Sorry, rotten habit." It's one I've got to learn to break, as I dispose of it in one of the many receptacles provided for just that purpose. I should know better. Even the regular jumpers here take pride in their DZ and don't want it fithied up with errant cigarette butts.
"All of my kids are honors students," commented Andrea when I asked her how they did in school. "How could they possibly find the time to devote to their studies," I wondered aloud. "Oh, they do." she assured me. "If they want to jump, they will." From the expression on her face, I don't doubt she'd ground them in a heartbeat! One infraction, and dad would back her 100 percent!
Many jumpers, myself once included, believe kids such as these are luckier than hell. They lead a charmed life. Man, it must be wonderful to always have a place to jump, free lifts, all the jumps one could make in a day. God, how lucky they are to be a part of a family such as this! Well, it's probably not quite so easy. One can see that while these kids may not have to pay for their lifts in money, they sure pay for them in sweat equity. Life is far from a never-ending picnic for them. They are taught responsibility from a young age. Being grounded in the Mullins household has a much more dire meaning. It's clear to see these guys have to tow the line if they want to jump come the weekend by keeping up with their studies, doing their chores, helping out wherever needed. And they do it willingly -- an incredible feat of time management. One can get dizzy just watching them -- jumping on this load --packing -- and yes, they each do all of their own packing. No paid packers for these guys! Then a couple of chores, a dirt dive, another formation, over and over and over again from sun up until sun down.
Check out the Mullin's Web site at http://www.skydivekingair.com/.
There's no partying at the bonfire for these guys after the jumping day. As soon as the chores have been done and all the many details of operating a DZ have been taken care of, everyone piles into the family car for the trip home. One can only imagine what the 30-some- odd-mile drive is like as sleep overcomes each of them exhausted from the rigors of the jump day. Morning on a DZ comes awfully early, and the Mullins clan is probably up with the sun, for they are back early -- much, much earlier than most of us have even begun stirring in our tents. Much work needs to be done before the first load can fly, and everyone pitches in to do it. Get the airplane fueled, inspected, ready for a new day. Get the manifest opened, the computer humming -- everything organized so that jumpers can be processed as efficiently as possible. And only once everything is ready do the gearbags come out and each kid begins to prepare for the jumps ahead -- and the fun to be had!
One often wonders, what things will be like ten years from now, what accomplishments, what stories, what tales these kids will have to tell. The stories of the father, incredible in their own right, will surely be nothing compared to those which the sons will achieve. One can only imagine the day when little Matthew will join his brothers in the sky to claim his rightful place among them as the littlest nestling soaring with eagles.
By rita - email@example.com
Photos by rita © 2000