Head in the Clouds

| April 07, 2005

After his first jump at age 21, sky diving more passion than sport for trucker John Cox.

On his hauls all over this country and Canada, trucker John Cox likes to get high.

Really, really high – say about 10,000 feet. And when he gets way up there, he jumps out of a perfectly good plane and plunges, then floats, back to earth.

“Driving a truck can be downright scary at times,” says OTR pilot Cox. “Now skydiving, that’s a wonderful combination of relaxation and thrill. I’d rather jump than drive; it feels better.”

If you see him bobtailing out of a truckstop, Cox may be headed for the skies.
Cox, 35, has hauled a flatbed for Tulsa, Okla.-based Melton Truck Lines for almost five years now, running the lower 48 and Canada and dropping at Laredo for the company’s through service to Mexico. Based in Mobile, Ala., Cox was born and raised in San Diego, Calif.

Before he was a driver, Cox worked his way through a variety of jobs. “I was actually raised in a family that owned a flower shop, and I worked there a lot. I knew all about that business.”

But his longest pre-driving job was as a deckhand, bartender, maintenance man and jack-of-all-trades on a boat run by a San Diego excursion company. “I did anything that needed to be done. We’d tour the harbor; sometimes we’d run out into the open ocean and do some whale watching,” he says. “But it was real seasonal. If you wanted to stay working and not get laid off in the off-season you had to be able to do anything and everything. I could keep working – and keep my benefits – by working on the boat even when it was out of the water.”

While he worked for the excursion company, Cox spent a lot of time talking to the drivers who delivered anything from parts to food to the company. Later, those dockside discussions would play a part in his choosing the job that would become his career.

In all of those years he was growing up, Cox watched the skies over San Diego.

“I was a Navy brat; my father was in the Navy for 20 years, my wife’s father, too for 25 years. But I never gave the Navy any thought,” he says. “When I was a kid I’d go to air shows at the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego [the air base in the movie Top Gun]. And wow! I loved it, it was the sort of thrill a kid never forgets. Navy jets doing Top Gun stuff – absolutely awesome. But when the sky divers jumped, that’s when my eyes fell out of my head.”
He had no doubts about jumping. He had to do it. All he needed was to be old enough and to have enough money.

“There was never any doubt,” he says. “I knew I wouldn’t be afraid; I knew what it would be like. It’s as if I understood right from the first time I saw sky divers that I was going to be one, that it was inevitable, a fate.”

When he was 21, Cox decided it was time. So how did the reality match up to a childhood of dreams about it?

“I got the money, and I went out and did the basic training and did my first jump. It was in the morning. I went back and did it again in the afternoon. It lived up to every expectation I ever had and way more,” he says. “I wasn’t scared of the risks; I was worried I wouldn’t do it right. But I was OK. I was back the next weekend to jump again. When I got back, three instructors were looking at me. One crooked his finger and stuck it into his cheek like a fishhook catching a fish, and he just grinned and he could see it. He was saying to me, ‘You’re hooked.’ I sure was.

“After that I went back and took all the lessons I needed to keep jumping, keep improving and to get my license as a trainee. I’ve been working at getting better ever since,” says the master sky diver, now a veteran of more than 400 jumps.

When Cox married his wife Carrie, he moved to Mobile and needed a new line of work. It was then he remembered all the drivers he had talked to when they delivered to the San Diego boat. Recognizing that the all-around skills he had employed on the boat would be helpful as a trucker, he sat and talked with Carrie.

“We discussed what it would mean being away from home. We could see it would be good for us financially, but because of our background as Navy brats, we knew that time away from your family can be a real problem,” he says. “But we talked it through, and we realized that that very same background would be a help to us; it had given us an understanding of how to deal with time apart and not let it destroy you. We felt we could handle it.”

So Cox chose a two-month, government-sponsored course and joined the industry. Six years later he says the decision has worked out beautifully, with his own career thriving and the Cox family now including 5-year-old son Ammon.

“I do most of my jumping on the road,” says Cox. “I’ll find myself with free time, waiting for a load and having to park it for a while. I go to some places over and over to jump, and if I’m in a place I don’t know, I’ll pull out a drop zone directory and find a place to jump. With the 34-hour provision in the new hours of service, a lot of truckers will have a lot more truckstop time on their hands. I, for one, won’t waste it sitting in the cab.”

After Cox decides where to dive, he goes on a quest to get other truckers in the area interested. “Sometimes I’ll be bobtailing, sometimes I take the trailer, but I always get on the CB. I talk about jumping and where I’m going to jump with other drivers, invite them to come and watch, and if any want to, to come and try their first jump,” he says. “I’ll challenge them sometimes, you know the ‘man or mouse’ thing, but it’s all because I love it so much, and I’m hoping to find people that will love it as much as I do and bring them to the sport. I’ve had guys from truckstops turn up to watch. I’ve had one or two so interested after I jumped that they’ve gone over to instructors and plunked down their credit card.”

Over the last few miles of a day’s run with a stopover looming where he can jump, and again on the road from the truckstop to the drop zone, Cox’s normal driver’s concentration undergoes a change. “The anticipation gets me tapping my toes and drumming my fingers on the wheel, laughing, giggling, feeling the excitement grow. That’s why I can’t resist getting on the CB and seeing if I can pass the feeling on to another over-the-road driver. I have to share it.

“My favorite drop zone is in Texas, right behind a truckstop. I’d jumped there once, and another driver came up to me and asked me where I’d been. I told him ‘skydiving,’ and he asked ‘Where?’ and I just pointed sort of ‘right over there.’ He came and jumped with me. He loved it, told me he wanted to keep jumping and get to be a sky diver. But I kind of lost touch with him; I don’t know if he made it that far.”

Those first-time jumpers aren’t just hopping a flight and jumping out. There is some basic training and exhaustive safety education. But, says Cox, newcomers can very quickly get to jump.

“You can make your first jump a couple of hours after you arrive at the airfield. For example, you can do a tandem jump where you are strapped to an instructor. You get all the feeling, all the adrenaline, you get to open the chute, but you are attached to a very experienced jumper. You can do that sort of jump in a couple of hours.”

Of course, you have to sign some papers, waivers that will make it clear to you that this is a potentially dangerous sport.

New jumpers can also take training courses that will let them jump off a static line, a military-style jump where the chute is attached by a line to the inside of the plane that opens the chute for the jumper. And some new jumpers will take extended course and jump by themselves in the company of at least two instructors.

The children of longtime Navy dads, both John and Carrie Cox, with 5-year son Ammon, know something about building a successful family life when driving keeps him away from home.

Even the “there’s-nothing-quite-like-skydiving” Cox understands that skydiving is not for every driver. “Not everyone has the personality, and not everyone even has an interest; it just doesn’t do for them what it does for me. Some of the drivers I talk to just brush it off as something that doesn’t even need a reply. Others look at me as though I’m crazy. They’ll tell me, ‘You have to be nuts. Why would you jump out of a perfectly good plane?’ But every so often someone will think about it, and you can see they’re figuring out what a rush it will be.”

When it comes to stress, and even fear, Cox rates his road miles as riskier than his sky miles.

“There’s a lot of stress when you are driving. We all know how it builds up as you drive along and people around you are doing stupid things. There are a lot of ways to get rid of that stress, but for me I feel most relaxed when I’m jumping, even more relaxed than when I’m lounging in the sun beside a swimming pool. To me jumping is both the ultimate thrill and the ultimate relaxation. I can take 11 hours of driving tension out of my shoulders just by climbing into the plane.”

“I have no fear of it. I have no fear of being injured or killed. I know it can happen, and so does Carrie. But driving is riskier. And when I jump, I know just how much has been done, with equipment and procedures, to make sure I’m safe. Gear is checked regularly, and reserve chutes have to have been packed within 120 days and meet FAA inspector standards. I have full confidence in my gear, my training and my ability. And I love it from the time I arrive at the airfield until the time I leave the drop zone.”

Carrie Cox wasn’t always as at ease with her husband’s love of jumping out of airplanes from a great height. “She realizes it’s part of me, a passion, one of the loves of my life. When I first met her, it was like ‘Oh, my God, he skydives.’ But as things got serious between us it changed. I told her, ‘I would quit, because I love you. But it could tear us apart, because I wouldn’t be the same.’ She’s fine with it now.”

These days Cox is trying to improve his free-flying skills, working on ways to fall from the sky head first or in a sitting position. “It takes a lot of work to do it – it’s harder and you fall faster – but I love the idea of constantly learning more about this sport and doing new things well.”

Cox also finds enjoyment in the camaraderie among most jumpers and sky divers. “Mostly you can find a group that loves to sit around a campfire and talk about jumping. I’ve had a lot of sky divers who never met me say, ‘Don’t sleep in the truck – come sleep at my house after you jump.’ Most everybody in the sport will try to help newcomers. There are some snobs among experienced sky divers – we call them ‘the sky gods’ – but who’d want anything to do with them anyway?”

Asked to recall his most memorable jumps, Cox struggles to pick favorites. Then he comes up with two. “One was a night jump. That was really something,” he says. “I jumped a few seconds before midnight on a New Year’s Eve, so I was falling when the New Year started. I was falling for 65 seconds before I opened the chute, and I can still remember the feeling – it felt like five minutes. Everything was in slow motion. People were setting off fireworks at midnight, and I could see all these little pops of light. That was a wonderful experience.”
His other favorite was a sunset jump in Moss Point, Miss. “The sun was setting, there were rays filtering out from the clouds, shafts of light, absolutely awesome,” he says. “The thought ‘Thank you God, thank you for letting me be part of this beauty,’ suddenly entered my head.”

Cox says his skydiving passion helps him with his driving, too. “My reaction times are very good, and if you learn to handle problems when you are skydiving, it helps you handle emergencies more easily, I think. You have to use the time you have to avoid trouble or handle a problem rather than get excited about it. Excited isn’t going to help – just make your recovery take longer.”

Cox jumps about 100 times a year now after some slow years. After the early years of jumping maybe half that many times a year, the need to build family finances cut his jumping to just enough to keep his license alive. Truck driving gave him enough in earnings to make his family life secure and begin jumping regularly again, he says.

“It never ceases to be as big a thrill as it was the first time,” he says. “Every day behind the wheel I feel something that scares me, someone in a four-wheeler who does something that could kill me. I can’t wait to jump out of the truck and jump into a plane I can jump out of.

To check out the sport further, use the ‘Net and go to www.uspa.org.


Off-duty Destinations
Under the Road

You know places all over America. But what about places under America?

Caves are part of the country’s natural heritage, and they make some of the most unusual and spectacular destinations for drivers who have time to kill. Why choose a cave as a place to find a great outdoors adventure? The National Caves Association says this about going underground: “Within the short span of an hour or so you can be introduced to an experience unlike anything else in nature. At each turn a new view is seen, and with each step a different perspective appears. The developed show cave or cavern offers these experiences to the visitor without discomfort or inconvenience, on safe walkways with modern lighting.”

And, says the NCA, each cave is different from the other and each has something special to experience, enjoy and remember. They are also a reasonably priced destination.

You can find caves and karsts (irregular limestone regions with sinks, underground streams and caverns) all over (should that be under?) the country. For example, they are found in 120 parks in the National Park System, from as few as 10 to 15 caves in the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park to more than 450 in the Lava Beds National Monument in California.

Look at just one or two caves to get an idea of what you might get yourself into. The Cathedral Room of DeSoto Caverns in Childersberg, Ala., is larger than a football field and higher than a 12-story building, and the caverns’ oldest marker, Traders Rock, is dated back to 1723. These caverns also contain a Confederate gunpowder-mining center and this month feature an Indian Arts and Crafts Festival (April 12-13).

The Squire Boone Caverns near Corydon, Ind., were discovered by Squire Boone and his more famous brother, Daniel, in 1790. Squire later escaped a band of hostile Indians by hiding in the caverns. From that day on, he considered the area to be holy ground and was laid to rest within his beloved cave as he had requested.

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is the longest recorded cave system in the world with more than 360 miles explored and mapped. The Inner Space Cavern in Georgetown, Texas, was not discovered until 1963 when a Texas Highway Department core drilling team, testing land to see if it would hold a highway overpass, broke through into a cavern never seen or visited by man before.

The Seneca Caverns, near Riverton, W. Va., were discovered in 1760 and contain spectacular natural formations and huge chambers.

Remember Tom Sawyer and his caving exploits? The Mark Twain Cave near Hannibal, Mo., was regularly explored by Twain himself after it’s discovery in 1819 by a man hunting with his dog.

The NCA (www.cavern.com), the National Speleological
Society (www.cavern.com) and the Park Service (www.nps.gov/grba/npscaves.htm) have websites that are a mine of information about caves and caving and contain directories to caves all over America.


Rods & Barrels
Biking Little Switzerland

Up in the Colorado mountains, it’s easy to feel you are in Switzerland. John Griffin is more used to the eastern parts of the United States, but several summers ago he went west with a new motorcycle. The Byrd Brothers Trucking driver out of Frankfort, Ind., was seeing the state with a buddy who was riding his own bike.

“We trailered the bikes out to Colorado Springs – it was August – and spent a week riding through the mountains,” says Griffin. “I’d only had the bike a week. It’s a Honda Shadow 1100, and I’ve still got it. I’ve ridden it all over. I’ve been down to Bike Week and Biketoberfest in Daytona a couple of times with the bikes.”

Griffin had chosen to take his new bike west to see some new sights; his route takes him and his ’95 Freightliner FLD 120 up and down the east coast a lot, and he delivers furniture anywhere east of the Mississippi. For this picture Griffin was riding 550 a little north of Ouray, rolling through a part of the country they call the “Little Switzerland of America.” He was astounded by the breathtaking scenery. At one point he came across this eye-catching rock formation and stopped to take a photograph.

“I was getting set up when this flatbed came around the bend,” he says. “I stopped; I guess at first I thought it spoiled the picture. But then it just looked right, so I pressed the button.”

Griffin has taken a lot of photos during his rides. But this has become his favorite because his wife, Desta, loves it. She also loves riding with her husband on the Honda, or in his Freightliner. You might recognize them on the road – Griffin’s motorcycle is basically black and white, but, he says, “I’ve put a whole lot of chrome on it. Hey, I’m a truck driver, I gotta have a lot of chrome.”

Desta found this shot, taken before they were married, as she was going through some of his collection of road pictures. “Why not send it to Truckers News?” she said.

We’re always looking for good outdoors fun pictures from drivers, so maybe you could get your spouse to go through your old albums and find some new favorites for us.

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