How ‘Bout Them Toadsuckers
People | Jul 04, 2024
How ‘Bout Them Toadsuckers

Kevin Keenan

Above: Boogie-goers prepare to get on a load. Photo by Michael Tomaselli.

The branch of skydiving in which participants deploy their parachutes at exit altitude and use hand and foot grips to fly them information is officially called canopy formation skydiving, but when it was created in the 1970s, the discipline was known as canopy relative work or CRW (pronounced “crew”). CRW is the name that many practitioners still use, although whatever you call it, most skydivers will know what you’re talking about.

In the skydiving world, CRW is one of the smaller disciplines (by a great margin), and as such, its followers tend to be a close-knit bunch. Some say that the discipline started when a few skydivers took the basic safety rule—stay away from other parachutes in the air—and made a whole new sport out of breaking it. The jumpers labeled themselves “CRW Dogs,” possibly from feeling persecuted due to their reputation as unsafe rule-breakers.

 


In 1982, Them Toadsuckers (Front row, from left: Pat Piper, Mark Evans, Jim Lacey, Ross Ankrom, Carey Troxel and Tom Balboni; Back row, from left: Wayne Martin, Kevin Keenan, Terry Stubblefield, Jon Condon-Sikorsky, Bob Franks, Paul Bliss and Chuck Massee) display a stunning variety of gear at the Indiantown, Florida, DZ owned by Paul Poppenhager (in plane) as they pose for a photo.

 

Ever since the early days of skydiving, jumpers have formed groups with those of similar interests. (Sometimes, admittedly, those interests were only skydiving and partying.) The Herd, Freak Brothers, Couch Freaks, Air Trash, Muff Brothers and Tree People are some of the groups on that long and distinguished list. Within the discipline of CRW, a loosely-organized (emphasis on loosely) fraternal group from Florida called “Them Toadsuckers” emerged.

First, to answer the obvious question, “WTF is up with the name?” Well, that goes back to the ‘60s. The unusual name sprang from the imagination of guitarist, poet and comedian Mason Williams, best known for his 1968 instrumental, “Classical Gas.” Williams was also a TV writer for “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “Saturday Night Live,” among others. In 1969, Williams performed the rhythmic poem “Them Toadsuckers” on the Smothers Brothers show:

 

 

In addition to being a hit with the hippy, counterculture audience of the Smothers Brothers, the piece stuck in the memories of a lot of skydivers, including Don Nichols, who jumped at South Florida Parachutes Inc., Paul Poppenhager’s DZ in Indiantown, Florida. Nichols had been skydiving since 1963, and started doing CRW with Florida jumpers Ross Ankrom, Paul Bliss, Jack Gregory, Ross McFadyen and Mike Lewis as the discipline grew throughout the ‘70s.

In those early days, CRW jumps could be fairly sketchy. Ram-air canopies were still somewhat new to the sport and ram-air reserves were still not a mainstream gear item. There was no dedicated main-canopy type for the discipline, so CRW Dogs used whatever main they had. This made for formations consisting of a lot of mismatched canopies, all with the standard long pilot-chute bridles. Naturally, the jumpers experienced lots of canopy wraps and entanglements, but being young and daring, they pressed on, learning the skills of this completely new way of flying parachutes.

In October 1979, the first recognized CRW competition took place at Zephyrhills, Florida. The events were 8-Way Speed Stack (teams attempt to build an 8-way canopy stack in the quickest time) and 4-Way Rotation (in succession, the top jumper in a 4-stack releases grips and moves to dock on the bottom of the stack, with a point awarded for each rotation). At that meet, favored powerhouse team The Plane Old Folks (Alfred Boger, Frank Cater, Cliff Dobson and Jack Gregory from Florida) took first place in both events. Another group from Florida—Paul Bliss, James Lacey, Carey Troxel and Brad Williams—entered under the name Them Toadsuckers. They finished in fourth place behind Chicken Chokers and The Other People, but their name was catchy and it stuck. A few months later, Them Toadsuckers won the CRW competition at the Fernandina Beach Shrimpboat Boogie.

After years of the Florida CRW Dogs reciting the toadsuckers poem around bonfires and on jump planes, Bliss, Jon Condon-Sikorsky, Lacey, Nichols and Troxel began promoting the Toadsucker Mission: to spread the understanding of CRW. And as more skydivers fell in love with the discipline, everyone wanted to be a Toadsucker. Those who wished to join had to qualify in at least one of three ways:

  • Be in a CRW formation consisting of at least 75% Toadsuckers
  • Sleep with a Toadsucker
  • Suck a toad


Two of the original Toadsuckers—Cary Troxel (right) and Paul Bliss (who was injured in a motorcycle accident on his way to the 2003 CF World Record event)—swap stories at the reunion.


An 18-way diamond, consisting of nine sets of two jumpers, flies over Zephyrhills.

 

This allowed spouses and girlfriends or boyfriends (and theoretically, even whuffos, if they were willing to actually suck a toad) to be members. Although Nichols hated the idea of issuing Toadsucker numbers—he was turned off by the “establishment” skydivers, those who made a big deal about having prestigious low license numbers—the group overruled him. Troxel began giving out numbers and naturally gave Nichols Toadsucker #1.

Nichols’ dream of a utopian, free-wheeling community existing only to perform good CRW spread throughout the community, and soon there were Toadsuckers worldwide. There still are. CRW is a very tiny niche of skydiving, and CRW Dogs have their own special good times. Combine all that with cool T-shirts, and what’s not to love? Them Toadsuckers are still going as strong as ever.

In May, Them Toadsuckers held its Reunion Crawfish Boogie at Skydive City Zephyrhills, a perfect venue, as the DZ has held so many memorable CRW events in the past. Today, the DZ still supports the discipline and makes the extra effort necessary to safely integrate it with the location’s large volume of freefall activity. Chuck Backus and Annie DeKoker even lead training events for new CRW Pups there on the first weekend of each month. These have been very successful, and its common to see newer CRW skydivers working with world-record-holding jumpers at the DZ. 

The four-day boogie offered perfect weather and attracted CRW jumpers from all over the country. Several veteran CRW Dogs attended, and newer fliers were able to gain experience and come away with some master-class tips. The high skill level of the event’s participants was evident as they built a number of very complex formations over the weekend. One of the coolest was an 18-way biplane diamond, where sets of two canopies flying together joined to build a large diamond formation.

The low-key, relaxed pace of the event allowed a lot of time for visiting and catching up with friends. Bliss, Dobson and Troxel were on hand, and drew a crowd with each jump story they recounted. Mississippi CRW Dog Paul Ferrell provided boiled crawfish and jambalaya each night, and Saturday evening’s festivities absolutely lived up to the legendary standards of the past. A local skydiver band, Down ’n’ Dirty, provided entertainment, and everyone at the party gave them a five-star rating. By the end of the night, everyone was chanting,


About the Author

Kevin Keenan, D-22164, was in his first canopy stack in 1979, and has been doing CRW ever since. Keenan has participated in several big-way canopy formation world records and was a member of CruZin’ 8, which won the gold-medal in 8-Way Speed Canopy Formation at the 2005 USPA Nationals.

 

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