“Stand in the door!’ shouts the jumpmaster.
“I shuffle my way to the door, static line clenched in my sweaty fist, and enter the stream of rushing air as it passes between the open doors.”
Thus begins the story of his Air Force jump experience as written by John Mertes and which was sent to “Neighbors” by his sister, Jane (Mertes) Priebe, Wahpeton, N.D., after he died last fall in Mesa, Ariz., at the age of 64.
He was the fourth of five siblings and one of four who served in the Air Force. So, in keeping with this being Armed Forces Day, here is the story of an area family and its military history.
“Since our father was in the Air Force, we moved a lot,” Jane writes. “John was born in Fort Carson at Colorado Springs, Colo., three of us were born in Fargo, and one, Amy, was born in Antigo, Wis.
“When dad, Theodore ‘Joe’ Mertes, retired in 1967, he moved the family to Mantador, N.D., to the farm where he grew up and where his love of flying started.
“The story goes that when he and his brother Lawrence were picking corn the winter of 1942, an aircraft flew over real low heading for Canada and World War II in Europe. My dad decided then and there that flying was the way he wanted to go.
“He spent five years in the Navy (1942-1947); he had signed up after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the aviation program, attended many schools learning to fly, and on June 28, 1945, he shipped out to the Pacific Theater. He was on the USS Lexington, and during daily maneuvers, he participated in the Lexington’s 25,000th landing.
“After witnessing the signing of the Peace Treaty, he flew his Navy Hellcat to Japan, then was shipped back to the U.S. When he came home, he was an instructor pilot in Texas and was in the Navy Reserves.
“In 1947, he resigned his Navy commission and joined the North Dakota Air National Guard so he could fly the P-51 Mustang out of Hector Airport in Fargo.
“He married Esther Puetz in 1948.
“In 1951, due to the Korean War, the Air Guard was activated for 21 months. After that he went regular Air Force and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
“My older brother, Roger Mertes,” Jane writes, “went to high school in Anchorage, Alaska, in 1967, then graduated from North Dakota State University. He then went to Big Spring, Texas, to take pilot training.
“Not long into his military career, Roger got behind the controls of the B-52 bomber. It was the plane that started his flying legacy and the last plane he flew. He spent his last years in the Air Force as a squadron commander in Minot, N.D., leading 500 men and women through the Gulf War. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and died in 2013.”
As to John, Jane writes that “When he graduated from the NDSU ROTC program, he was commissioned an officer in the Air Force and served five years (1979-1984) as a missile launch officer at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Great Falls, Mont. He also worked at base operations at the Grand Forks AFB. He earned the rank of captain.
“The youngest of our family, Amy, is a graduate of Hankinson, N.D. High School and was commissioned through ROTC out of NDSU in 1984. (Both Roger and John also participated in ROTC; I did, too, but I went north and graduated from the University of North Dakota).
“Amy trained as a transportation officer. Her career took her to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Yokota Air Base, Japan; and McChord AFB in Washington. She also was in the Air Force Reserves at McChord and Scott AFB, Ill., before retiring in 2008 as a lieutenant colonel. She is married to Mark Bishop, who also served in the Air Force. They reside in West Virginia.”
Jane writes that John took a 16-week course in parachuting at jump school in Ft. Benning, Ga. So it was that she found that on the inside cover of an airborne company’s book, John had written about his first jump.
The first few lines of what he wrote lead off this column. Let’s pick it up:
“Handing over my static line to the jumpmaster,” John wrote, “I position my boot on the threshold that divides the security of flights and the unknown feeling of falling through space.
“Placing my hands on the cool outer skin of the craft, I wait for the final command of ‘Go!’”
“By now I’m so scared I no longer remember what I am about to do. I balance there, fighting the pitching and rocking caused by the turbulent air over the sun-baked drop zone.
“Am I ever going to get the ‘go’ signal?
“When it comes — a hearty slap on the butt and a shouted ‘GO!’ — I jump without hesitation (anything to get out of that door).
“The thought, ‘What am I doing?’ flashes through my mind as I count out loud — 1,000, 2,000, 3,000, 4,000. The realization that I’m falling through space follows simultaneously; this has to be the most climatic sensation!
“The first thing that strikes me is the quiet. It is timeless and spaceless and a brief glimpse of a totally undemanding eternity.
“For a few moments before I start to worry about my landing, I have some sensations that I never had before… a total bodily involvement in a new medium, a tremendous fulfilled high!
“I’ve found my thing,” John concluded; “I’m hooked.”
If you have an item of interest for this column, mail it to Neighbors, The Forum, Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107, fax it to 701-241-5487 or email email@example.com.