Jack Hart, the 99-year-old skydiver
Carolyn Hart was a little hesitant to tell her father that she was planning to jump out of a perfectly good airplane 10,000 feet above western North Carolina.
So she waited until the night before to call him, then held her breath.
He reacted, of course, exactly the way she’d feared:
“Ohhhhhh, do you think it’s too late for me to get to be able to join you?” Jack Hart asked.
Carolyn had rehearsed her response: “Yeah, sorry, Dad — they’re booked up. I don’t think they would let you jump anyway.”
But the next morning, when the folks at Skydive Central North Carolina called to say the weather in Maiden looked a bit too cloudy for a good jump and apologized and asked to schedule a makeup date, Carolyn Hart knew. She wasn’t going to be able to wiggle her way out of this one. And he wasn’t going to drop it.
She knew her father — who turns 100 years old on Aug. 13 — was going to do everything he could to make sure that when Carolyn finally did go up in that little prop plane, he’d be sardined into the seat next to her, ready to go skydiving for the first time in his life.
Showing no signs of slowing down
As you can probably infer, Jack Hart is not your typical 99-year-old.
That’s clear, when you text him asking him if he’s free to talk, and he responds that he can do so after his swim class, and punctuates the reply with a smiley face emoji with its tongue sticking out.
It’s clear when you meet him inside the lobby at The Pines at Davidson retirement community, when he leaps from his chair to greet you, locks your hand in a powerful grip, shows you the step counter on his iPhone and you notice that he’s already gotten in 1,800-plus steps that day – and it’s only lunchtime.
And it’s clear when he gets to the elevator to take you up to his second-floor apartment, veers toward a door on the left and says, “You don’t mind if we take the stairs, do you?”
Inside that apartment, Hart’s bedroom is decorated practically floor to ceiling with watercolor paintings he’s done since taking up the hobby in 2012. Most are renderings of places he’s traveled to: Yellowstone National Park, the San Juan Islands, the Panama Canal, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal (which he says he visited several times while serving in India as a cryptanalyst for the Army’s Signal Intelligence Service from 1944 to 1946), and a pond in his hometown of Spokane, Wash., to which he used to hitch rides in a friend’s Model T Ford so he could ice-skate in the winters.
A giant map of the world hangs in one corner, dotted with hundreds of colored pins marking places he’s visited in roughly 200 countries across five continents — many with his wife of 62 years, Sara, who died in 2006.
Next to it is a plaque that recognizes him for his volunteer work: In 2012, at age 94, he was finishing up his final year of service with Our Towns Habitat for Humanity in Cornelius. Over the course of the previous seven, he’d logged more than 3,500 volunteer hours, helping with fundraising, fixing furniture and fans at Habitat ReStores, and repeatedly serving as the oldest volunteer (by far) on Habitat trips to Guatemala to build block houses and smokeless stoves for needy families.
He gestures to a 2003 Mazda SUV in the parking lot outside his window and says, “That’s mine. I drive every day. I go to the store, I go to Michael’s up in Mooresville to buy this paper (for watercolor paintings). It’s kind of expensive, to tell you the truth, but like my daughter says, ‘What else are you gonna spend your money on?’”
Then he brings out the certificate he received on June 9 for his successful skydiving experience and beams as he holds it up.
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” Hart says. “A wonderful experience. I really do recommend it — unless you’re infirm in some way.”
‘What if something goes wrong?’
When Carolyn Hart called her dad to say her jump was off due to overcast skies, he was thrilled. “You’re gonna reschedule, right?” he asked.
“Yeahhhh,” Carolyn replied, cautiously.
“Well, then I want to do it, too,” Jack announced. “Ask them if I can do it, too.”
Carolyn tried to make sure he was sure. “What if something goes wrong? You know, people do die skydiving. You could break a leg, break a hip, break your back, and that could be the end.”
Jack’s response: “Hey, what a way to go!”
When she relented, and called to ask the manager at the skydiving place if her dad could come too, she recalls, “He said, ‘Sure, let me get his birthdate.’ And I said, ‘August 13th, 1918.’ He said, ‘Nineteen-WHAT??’”
She explained what kind of shape Jack was in, that he swims three times a week, walks every day, drives, paints, gets around pretty well for a guy who’s 80. Really well for a guy who’s 90. Extraordinarily well for a guy who’s almost 100.
Then she sent the owners a video of her father getting up from a seated position, walking, lifting his knees into a march, sitting back down, then raising his knees off the ground to demonstrate the strength in his quads and abdominal muscles.
And whatever fears they may have had were allayed when Carolyn and Jack Hart arrived at the airfield that Saturday morning.
“When I saw him get out of his vehicle,” says Kelvin Wilkerson, co-owner of Skydive Central North Carolina, “just the way he got out of it and walked up to us, seeing his physical mobility, I could tell then that we were good, that I wouldn’t have any issues taking him. ... I mean, he’s in better shape than some 20-year-olds I’ve taken skydiving.”
The only trouble Jack had during the jump? His foot got caught as they were about to exit the plane, and when he wrenched it loose, his left foot came out of his gray size-101/2 tennis shoe — sending the sneaker tumbling out of the door, never to be found again.
Then, with Wilkerson strapped to his back and Carolyn not far behind him, Jack Hart went falling through the air at 120 miles per hour for about 35 seconds, until Wilkerson’s parachute deployed. They drifted the remaining 5,000 feet back to the ground, which Hart described as making him feel like he was “floating on a puffy cloud.”
Right before they touched back down on the ground, Wilkerson instructed Hart to lift his legs up, and Hart did, sticking the landing so to speak. Once they were unhitched from each other, they shared a hug.
“I want you to come back next year,” Wilkerson told him, “and do it again with me when you’re 100.”
‘I just keep on going’
It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Sure, he hasn’t been without health problems: About 61/2 years ago, Hart got a yeast infection in his esophagus that led to aspiration pneumonia, and he was on a feeding tube for months until he re-learned to swallow with the help of a speech therapist; he now can eat anything he wants. Then, a couple of years ago, he had a bout with bladder cancer; treatment worked, and he is in complete remission.
He also had a mini-stroke about a month ago, and he sometimes suffers from migraines. But otherwise — and this should be apparent by now — he’s doing quite well.
“I mean, he’s so healthy I wouldn’t be surprised if he lives several more years,” Carolyn Hart says. “But he has milked that worry (that he doesn’t have much time left) a little bit. When he was turning 90, he was like, ‘Am I gonna get a big party for my 90th birthday?’ So we gave him a big party. Then at 91, ‘Well, it might be my last birthday, are we doing a big party this year?’ By the time he got to be 95, I said, ‘You know what? You make it to 100 and maybe we’ll give you another big party.”
He actually got the biggest last year, for his 99th, when Carolyn and her partner Sandy Godwin hosted a “99 Bottles of Beer” bash for her dad at their Huntersville home. Jack’s not a huge beer drinker, but the theme was apropos — so each guest brought a bottle of beer as a gift, and/or made a donation to Our Towns Habitat’s Women Build program (more than $2,500 was collected). It was a big, bold, expensive party that featured more than 165 family members and friends, many bused down from his retirement community in Davidson.
So this year, he agreed on marking his 100th year in more low-key fashion: In August, he’ll join Carolyn, Sandy and another friend on a cruise ship that will take them up and down the coast of Maine. (“Yup, we’re gonna feed him a bunch of lobster,” Carolyn says. “And next thing you know, he’ll probably be out in a boat fishing with the Maine fishermen.”)
“This year we’re just going off quietly,” Jack says as he escorts his visitor back to the lobby at The Pines. “I just keep on going and hope I make it another year, but I don’t really think about it. I just think that I’m so glad that I have had each day I’ve had.”
Then he says his goodbyes with another firm handshake and heads off down the hall.
One can’t help but wonder whether he was, just maybe, showing off a little — so one discreetly follows him around the corner as he makes his way back to his apartment.
When Jack gets to the elevator, he banks left, opens the door, and heads on up the stairs.