The hangar was a mess of tattoos, goatees, empty pizza boxes -- and grandmothers wearing designer sunglasses.
This was not the usual Saturday morning crowd for Westside Skydivers, a small business based in Winsted, Minn., just 50 miles west of Minneapolis. Sure, the company's crew of brawny employees was behaving as usual -- hauling arm-loads of harnesses and parachutes, unzipping their jumpsuits to cool off and expose their strong chests.
It was the older, female customers who lent the element of surprise. As they lounged about the hangar in clusters of three or four, the women kept their voices low and their composure cool. Was anybody feeling spooked? "Oh no, not at all," boasted Diane Adams, 52, a seasoned skydiver from Bloomington. "I'm a very adventurous person."
As if this were a matchmaking affair, each of the 15 woman was paired off with a professional skydiver. She would be tethered to this person -- usually a 20- or 30-something man with a black T-shirt and a swagger -- for the duration of her 13,000- or 18,000-foot plunge, depending on her level of experience. "It's cold up there," warned one of the pros.
"Don't worry, I'm 55," cracked Mary Sue Palazzari, a three-time skydiver from Edina. "We're warm at this age."
From the ground, a spectator could stretch her neck to see the constellation of specks forming above. Flocks of birds were twice mistaken as skydivers by the women's husbands and friends. Sure enough, a small army of red T-shirts eventually emerged to the foreground. The women's bodies swerved and sailed, bobbed and incrementally descended until the inscription on their shirts came into focus: Aging But Dangerous.
Founded in 2009, Aging But Dangerous is a membership organization inspired by a simple observation. "We had friends who were just struggling with aging," said co-founder C. Suzanne Bates, now 64 years old. "Everyone was closing in and isolating themselves." For example, many of Bates' friends were doing cosmetic surgery, yet no one cared to discuss the matter -- not even to share tips with their friends. Instead they went about the charade of "asking about one another's skin care regimens," said Bates, rolling her eyes.
So Bates and her best friend Jean Ketcham, now 72, hatched an ambitious plan. They hoped to inspire 50-plus women to talk frankly about the issues they faced while growing older. They also wanted to enrich women's lives with a little more fun. The pair initially set its sights on a television show, which they pitched to St. Paul-based Hubbard Broadcasting. When that didn't pan out, they settled on the current Aging But Dangerous model -- a membership organization for 50-plus women complete with a newsletter, a website and a host of unusual outings designed to foster community while catching some thrills.
Now 150 members strong, the group meets every month for a "swarm" or a novel activity, often with an educational component. Aging But Dangerous has hosted wine tastings and fashion events. They've been known to take in orchestra concerts and baseball games. In addition to skydiving, the group's most daring undertakings have included trips to the tattoo parlor and target practice at Bill's Gun Shop and Range, not to mention the pre-colonoscopy party Bates now admits was a mistake -- because it turned into a scene from the movie "Bridesmaids."
The group specializes in things "you probably wouldn't do on your own," observed Joyce Landgren, 66, an Aging But Dangerous member and first-time skydiver from Minneapolis. Landgren has wanted to try skydiving since she was 18 or 19 years old, she explained. "But you get into work, you get into raising kids..." Her voice trailed off.
"That's what Aging But Dangerous is about," said Bates, picking up where Landgren left off -- "empowering women to do the things they always wanted to do."
Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754