Herbert “Shorty” Stark leaped out of an airplane above Lake Elsinore in the fall of 1976, parachuting to safety as his friends applauded the 67-year-old’s daring.
This just wasn’t some old guy checking off a box on his bucket list of lifetime adventures. Actually, it wasn’t anything very unusual for Stark who had done it before maybe a couple of thousand times.
The jump, on Oct. 9, 1976, did have a sentimental purpose, though. It marked 50 years since his first parachute jump, an event that launched a career in which he regularly risked his life on the faith that his parachutes would open successfully, noted the Sun newspaper the following day.
His chutes did work fairly well almost every time, though he admitted to having had about 32 operations for one broken bone or another.
The 5-foot-5 Stark — who is buried at Elsinore Valley Cemetery not far from where he took off on that 1976 flight — performed as a parachutist (we call them skydivers today) during the 1920s into the 1950s. He regularly appeared at airshows or publicity events and, sometimes, just to show off to a few fans at a local airport.
“I never had but two hobbies in those days, chasing beautiful women and parachuting,” he told the Oklahoma City Oklahoman in a January 1984 interview. “I never could figure out what was more dangerous.”
When Stark passed away in 1989, he was one of the last of a corps of fearless and mostly crazy men and women in the early days of aviation who went aloft to perform aerial stunts, walk on airplane wings or defy gravity with a parachute.
He was born in Phoenix but raised in the Long Beach area. The 1940 census said he only attended high school for one year. As a teen, he worked delivering milk to support his mother and grandfather before taking to his free-falling career.
Stark, who lived several years in Pomona and later in Fontana, performed before crowds in the mid-1930s as the Human Bat, wearing a white jumpsuit with huge cloth wings under his arms. He entertained that way for a couple of years until the wind ripped off one of the wings during a jump near Portland, Oregon, tearing his shoulder out of his socket.
During parts of the Great Depression, he toured the country each year as a performer with a Texas air circus, returning to Southern California during the winter months where he picked up any jobs that came along.
As he became more well-known, Stark sometimes made several jumps a day, sometimes getting $125 for each. But he also admitted spending much of the thousands of dollars he earned in his youth on wine, women and song. Not surprising, in later years, what money he earned mostly went to medical bills.
In his later years, he claimed to have made as many as 3,000 to 4,000 jumps, but a logbook he kept that proved that number was stolen in 1945. Newspaper articles do tell of his frequent pursuit of records for the most parachute jumps made in a single day.
At Compton Airport on May 7, 1933, the 24-year-old Stark set what he said was a “world record” by making 16 jumps in 12 hours. He was helped by C.B. Sanders of Pomona who repacked his chute after every jump, the Pomona Progress-Bulletin reported the following day. He raised the record to 21 in 1936, which was broken a year later by a Long Beach man.
At Calexico, on the Mexican border, Stark achieved seemingly an unbreakable record when he made 30 jumps in nine hours on Jan. 18, 1940. Another daredevil, George Hopkins, aimed to break that record in October 1941 at Rapid City, South Dakota, but several injuries kept him on the ground after only 13 jumps.
Stark lived on South White Avenue in Pomona from 1933 to 1935 and frequently did jumps at the long-gone Pomona Airport, sometimes attracting spectators who later got a ride by slipping his pilot a few bucks. The Progress-Bulletin reported he made his first Pomona parachute jump in October 1927, at age 19.
He told the Oklahoman that he did occasional aerial work for the movies, serving as a stunt man for such actors as James Cagney and Hoot Gibson. Stark was hired to perform in conjunction with the opening of the Douglas Fairbanks’ movie “Parachute Jumper” at the Sunkist Theater in Pomona. He announced he would jump on March 24, 1933 at 1:15 p.m. “to afford spectators ample time to attend the first showing.”
During World War II, Stark spent three years in the Navy at a most appropriate assignment — as a parachute rigger and instructor.
After the war, his age, past injuries, and the public’s waning excitement over parachute jumps forced him to find more down-to-earth occupations.
One of them was as a truck driver at Kaiser Steel in Fontana in 1964. “At 56, he said he got the job because the plant doctor said Stark would help the firm meet its quota of handicapped employees,” wrote the Oklahoman.
Kaiser officials also advised him not to make any further parachute jumps while in their employ.
He spent his last years with his third wife in Lawton, Oklahoma, where he died in June 1989. He said he hoped to write a book about his experience but it doesn’t appear he ever got it done.
And such a book would have had plenty of interesting stories — like jumping in his early years with only a single parachute. Eventually aviation people forced him to wear a second or even a third safety chute.
This added security saved his life on April 2, 1933, when he did a jump at the opening of the Compton Airport, reported the Long Beach Sun, the following day. Stark “gave the spectators an unscheduled thrill when his first parachute ripped, the second fouled and third opened 100 feet from the ground,” wrote the newspaper.
Not surprising, “He was badly shaken up in landing.”
A train between Colton and Riverside struck a cow on the evening of Dec. 27, 1896, derailing the locomotive near the Santa Ana River. Its 20 passengers were forced to walk back to Colton.
The Colton Chronicle of Jan. 2, 1897, reported that a Riverside man by the name of Houghland said he was so shook up over the crash that his dyspepsia – an old term for an upset stomach, heartburn or gas – miraculously disappeared. But he certainly wasn’t very grateful.
“He threatened to sue the (Southern Pacific) for damages,” wrote the Chronicle, “but Conductor Easton informed him that the company would bring suit against him for medical services in curing his ailment.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.