Thank you Mark for all the nice things you said in this article, and for sharing it on my blog.
Drew’s Bill Jackson – Gold Medal Paratrooper, Delta Artist Extraordinaire – One Cool Friend
Good Mornin’! Good Mornin’!
Did you ever have that really cool friend? Not someone that was a great jock or the best at something else but was just real, just cool and creative. I mean, they could be a great athlete and/or singer or whatever. But mostly they were always just themselves and weren’t trying to impress folks with what they have or what they could do. Yeah, that would be Bill Jackson from Drew, MS.
In 1959 the Golden Knights Parachute team was founded, only they called it the Strategic Army Command Parachute Team or STRAC. A US General wanted to compete against the Soviet dominated sport of skydiving. About a year later in Drew, Bill Jackson was born. He grew up in the duck hunting capital and went to North Sunflower Academy, then onto MDJC now MDCC in Moorhead to study what used to be called commercial art. We refer to it as graphic design these days. After getting his associates degree he traveled to Florida to the Ringling College of Art and Design to further hone his craft. After a year of study he came back to Mississippi to work for Delta Design Group in Greenville.
“I learned a lot and it was really expensive so I went back home,” Jackson said. “I did graphic design and whatever needed to be done.”
He worked on bank ads and magazine ads – all the basic stuff an ad agency works on. Good with a camera, Jackson used his artistic eye and talent to capture a wedding and he made a whopping $75.00. But that was 1981 dollars when stamps cost fifteen cents. A week before he and his late father, Charles, had been to an airshow and the younger Jackson was enamored with these men who jumped out of perfectly good airplanes while attached to a parachute. So it was serendipitous that one of the wedding guests he was talking to had to leave – to go jump out of an airplane with a parachute.
“I said, ‘you’re gonna do what?’ I was most interested,” he said. “He set it up the next weekend and I jumped out of an airplane two times at Sardis.”
The cost? $75.00 – and Jackson was hooked. This was when parachute canopies were mainly round and you trained for one day learning about reading the wind and learning how to land. That was August 21, 1981.
Since then he’s done it 12,500 more times.
“When I made that first jump. I landed and jumped up and said, ‘can I do it again?’ And they were like, ‘yeah’,” he said.
Early in his “jumping days” he and a buddy were to provide entertainment for the Yellow Dog Festival in Moorhead. Jackson had 100 jumps under his belt. Enough to know the basics but not enough to be really seasoned about every aspect and understanding different dangers. It was a windy day with a storm approaching. Normally, when you jump out of an airplane you travel about 20 miles an hour forward when the chute is fully open. Jackson was going backwards – at an alarming rate of speed with his chute open.
“That was so stupid. I remember the jump in my head. It was so windy,” he said. “I went backwards the whole jump. I could see Main Street buildings and I could either land on those buildings behind me or make a spiral.”
He made the spiral. He dropped like a rock when he hooked his canopy around.
“I yanked that canopy around,” he said. “It flapped and I hit the ground. I probably saved my life.”
Jackson landed on the blacktop and ended up cracking his jaw and chipping his lower back but didn’t break anything – and certainly not his spirit to jump.
“Once I got over that I was back in the air,” he said.
As a kid, Jackson wasn’t really a daredevil but he didn’t back away from challenges either. He climbed a tree that his little sister Regina (Jackson Gammill) was in.
“I fell out and broke my wrist when I was 12,” he said. “We were just out playing and I had the rope half way tied and I climbed up on it and it came untied and down I went.”
Jackson enjoyed water skiing and such but didn’t search out daredevilish type stunts. He was also creative as he enjoyed drawing and cutting stuff with a jig saw. He built models and tried to copy cartoons. He took art classes when he got in the ninth grade at North Sunflower Academy but only if he got his other grades up. He did.
“But I was horrible. I couldn’t draw anything. I was just pathetic but once I got to Moorhead I picked up other drawing skills. But it wasn’t until I got to Ringling and the drawing teacher I had could really explain it and it just clicked with me,” he said. “A light bulb went off. Then I was like ok, now I have to learn how to paint and all the other stuff.”
So he kept drawing and he kept jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, helicopters and the like. One weekend at a bigger skydive get together in a bigger plane, Jackson met some Golden Knight Parachute team members. He thought about it for a moment.
“Oh, these guys jump all day training to be world champions,” he said. “And that kind of put the bug in me that at my age I could actually go and be a world champion at something. So I had to go and join the Army and train for it but there was no guarantee that I would become a world champion or even be on the parachute team.”
So in February of 1984 he enlisted, went to Fort Bragg as part of the 82nd Airborne and trained for a year and waited for his opportunity.
“During tryouts we trained for eight weeks. We trained from 4:30 in the morning till midnight,” he said. “They really wanted to put you through so much stress to make sure we could all get along. You’re on the road all the time with the parachute team so you had to get along and not just when you’re in front of senators.”
For more than a decade, Jackson jumped out of planes and such all over the world competing in parachute competition and working as an Army recruiter.
“Recruiting command is what they fall under so they are all about recruiting. They also are R&D (research and development) for parachuting,” he said. “We had two demonstration teams and two competition teams. Our job was to go promote the Army and go win Gold medals.”
Jackson competed all over the world.
“I’ve jumped on every continent except Antarctica. I’ve competed all over Europe from Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, China, Brazil, Australia, England – I jumped at Stonehenge. I’ve jumped over the Space Shuttle,” he said. “They were putting Atlantis on the launch pad. The next day I was at 3,000 feet when the space shuttle took off. That was one of my favorite jumps.”
The apex of his jumping career came in 1994. In competition, skydivers have to land on a certain target and try to put their heel on a space that is the size of a quarter. Every centimeter off of that spot adds points to your score.
“You make 10 jumps and the person with the lowest score wins,” he said. “In Austria in 1994, I won the Military World Championships. That was the only Gold Medal that I won in World Championships.”
In 1992, Jackson won a silver medal in the overall world championships.
“That was my goal (winning the gold). That’s what I wanted to do.”
After 14 years and nearly 13,000 jumps later, Jackson retired from the Army with degenerative discs in his neck that stemmed from wearing a camera on his helmet. And even though he had continued to paint while enlisted, now he could focus full time on his art – specifically painting. He got a sweet gig housesitting for a Lt. Colonel for a few years being a glorified houseboy as a cook and caretaker but he got rent-free living and plenty of space and time to paint. He honed his skills as a realist painting landscapes.
From there he moved to Florida to help train a world-class aerobatic pilot who also noticed his art.
“She was wealthy and saw my Lion painting and said, ‘you need to be painting.’ A long time ago, Kings and rich people kept artist in business because they wanted to paint. So that’s kind of what my life has been like. My friends who have liked my art have made sure I kept painting.”
After a few years, Jackson did come home to Drew to be with family and to paint. With a studio in his “home apartment” that’s detached from his family home, Bill lives next to his mom, Nell, and pursues his art. His father passed away and his younger sister lives close by in Indianola.
That was eight years ago and Jackson has been painting his realistic landscapes of the Delta and other venues. A typical day might find him in his kayak paddling through a bayou and either painting while paddling or taking photos to take back to the studio to create from. But different days provide different shades of light and texture to draw from.
Jackson has also taken his art talent to the stage. At the Mid Delta Arts Association Theatre – “the Little Theatre” – in Indianola, he’s designed sets. His sister, Regina, has directed productions and big brother put together the sets to go with it.
“I would do all the set designs for mainly the kids performance that they do in the summer,” he said. “Mainly because my niece was in them and my sister was directing. And her husband is on the board.”
You might find Bill in a local bayou paddling by with his camera or watercolors. Or he might be subbing in the art room at North Sunflower Academy. You can find his art on his website, www.billjackson.net to purchase and if you’re in and around Jackson, MS in the Fondren District you can see his skills at the Browns Fine Art Gallery, www.brownsfineart.com. He’s on Twitter, billjacksonartist, Facebook with a personal and art page (https://www.facebook.com/billjacksonartist) as well as a Pinterest page, http://www.pinterest.com/billjackson. If you are interested in his art, shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
One project that Jackson is supporting through is art is the Special Operations Warrior Foundation. They ensure full scholarship grants and educational and family counseling to the surviving children of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corp special operations personnel who lose their lives in the line of duty. They also give immediate financial assistance for severely wounded special operations personnel and their families. Jackson created a painting while in the Army of two Blackhawk helicopters in flight and has 1,000 prints of it. Each one sells for $60 and $30 of that goes to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation Purchase: The Blackhawks Print.
One great guy and artist, Bill Jackson.
Do you know Bill? Lemme know, I’d always ‘preciate your comments here or over at Facebook or you can tweet me @markhstowers….see yah next week!
Mark H. Stowers