Flying Blind Productions News Update October 2019

Well our website played a trick on us and we almost lost it. But we’re treating you with our news today, Halloween. How spooky! Our E-mail Address: If you have tried sending e-mails to us through producers@blindjohnmovie.com, we have corrected the problem. That e-mail address is working again and our website is back live. Thank you for your patience. Thanks a million to Lura Frazey for her ever-present gracious help behind the scenes.

October is recognized as National Disability Month!

What better way is there to celebrate than to send out our updates about the documentary we are making about the late John Fleming, our favorite and legendary blind skydiver! This film promises to be part of changing the culture around how people who are blind, and/or have other disabilities are viewed and integrated into the mainstream of life.

Have you heard?

Flying Blind Productions, LLC got a Regional Arts and Culture Grant (RACC) in October 2018.

Now we’re scheduled to show our work in progress, along with other RACC recipients! Save the Date!
When: Monday December 16, 2019
6:00 PM: Reception
7:00 PM: Film screening and other recipient work showing
Where: Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium
219 SW Park Ave.
Portland, OR
For information contact Darian at (503) 522-3272
Or Jenny at (503) 577-3917
Email us at: mailto:producers@blindjohnmovie.com

Accomplishments

Sometimes we apply for funding requiring local fiscal sponsorship. Therefore, we searched for a local fiscal sponsor to meet those requirements. We’re happy to announce our local fiscal sponsor is the YWCA in Portland, Oregon. Thanks Jenny for taking the lead on this. And, a special thanks to Susan Stoltenberg, Executive Director, Portland YWCA.

In June we met Cheryl Green. Cheryl is an accomplished video describer and closed caption expert. We hope to tap her knowledge and skills as we get closer to producing the final film.

In July, Jenny, Derek, Darian and her sister, Laura, held a film screening at the home of Mark and Randie Peterson in Southwest Portland. A special thanks to Mark and Randie Peterson for hosting us so graciously and to those who attended and provided financial support. Also thanks to Laura Roberts for her support.

August was a busy month. Darian, Jenny and Derek traveled to Medford and White City to interview some key players in John’s story. This time we were joined by a second camera person, Anna Mendes, a student at Southern Oregon State University. With Anna’s help, she and Derek shot great interview footage, b-roll, and even an outdoor shoot with Grog hiking the trail to John’s house in Williams. On top of that, Anna was skilled and fun to hang with. Thanks, Anna.

Thanks to Mike Burrill, Jr. for hosting us at his hanger and for participating in another interview himself. We were also pleased to interview George Holberton again. Second interviews have helped to capture individuals’s stories, as some previous interviews were done in groups.

Thanks to George Holberton for hosting us at Beagle Sky Ranch. It was great seeing Oliver and Ann Valencia, Wayne, Jim and others at the drop zone. We got some great interview footage. Mark Owen gave us a delightful interview, recalling so many memories of John. Thank you Mark!

Thanks to Rabbit for hosting us at her home in Ashland. Rabbit has a beautiful, interesting home, and it was fun to meet her husband, David. We got a few more juicy tidbits about her memories of John. I was too young to go to Woodstock, and I am envious that Rabbit was able to experience it. This was a timely topic as this is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. John would have loved to have been there.

We’re changing the name of the film! It was “Free Falling: The Story of John Fleming, Thrill Seeker”.

We think our new title is compelling and easy to remember. Look forward to more about our film: “Flying Blind”.

Funding

Do you know of companies who embrace the concept of raising awareness about blindness and who might consider sponsoring or investing in our project? Funding will enable us to get closer to completing the film. We would greatly appreciate any leads that would help us expedite our process. Please feel free to send your ideas to us: mailto:producers@blindjohnmovie.com

Would You Consider Becoming a Sustaining Donor?

So far you have all generously supported our project in word, encouragement, connections, sharing your memories of John and so much more. Your financial contributions have been the impetus that keeps us going. We are extremely grateful for your support.

We’re still keeping our noses to the grind stone, though, and there is still work to be done. Would you be willing to become a sustaining donor? Your support will ensure our ability to continue doing the work while we apply for larger grants and sponsorships. Financial support will assist with paying someone to catalog our materials, edit footage, hire additional camera people for live shooting, fund publicity efforts, reenact certain scenes from John’s stories, purchase insurance and music rights, complete trips for final interviews and pay fees to enter in film festivals

If interested, please contact Darian: (503) 522-3272 or:
mailto:producers@blindjohnmovie.com

Here are the links to the work we have accomplished to date:

Our website: http://www.blindjohnmovie.com/
Our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/blindjohnmovie/
Our work sample: https://youtu.be/8pa9whe3YBI

Our Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/blindjohnmovie
Our GoFundMe page: https://www.gofundme.com/blindjohnmovie

5 Ways to Donate to the John Fleming Documentary Project

Free Falling: The Story of John Fleming, Thrill Seeker
Donation Opportunities

Note: Options 1-3 are tax deductible.

OPTION 1: Make a tax-deductible donation online via American Council of the Blind

  1. Go to www.acb.org (American Council of the Blind)
  2. Click on the Donate button
  3. Choose honorary donation
  4. Enter “John Fleming movie” In box “donation is in honor of whom”
  5. Click donate
  6. You will be connected to PayPal where you will choose a payment method.

OPTION 2: Make a Tax-Deductible Donation by Check to American Council of the Blind

Mail a check to American Council of the Blind:
Write in memo line “John Fleming movie”
6300 Shingle Creek Parkway, Ste. 195
Brooklyn Center, MN 55430

OPTION 3: Donate by phone using a credit card via American Council of the Blind

Call 1-(800) 866-3242

OPTION 4: Donate directly via check to Flying Blind Productions, LLC

Mail a check to:

Flying Blind Productions, LLC
10424 SE Cherry Blossom Dr., Ste. B.
Portland, OR 97216

OPTION 5: Donate online at our GoFundMe page.


For more information contact

Flying Blind Productions
(503) 522-3272
flyingblindproductionsllc@gmail.com
facebook.com/blindjohnmovie

John and the Itsy Bitsy Bikini Cake that Got on the Radio

You’ve heard about John and his buddies walking on railroad tracks, hopping trains and jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. It seems there is a plethora of crazy stunts John and his family got up to throughout his life.

Well, here’s one from his early days about the song “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka dot Bikini” written by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss and first released in June 1959 by Brian Hyland with orchestra conducted by John Dixon.

One day, after that song came out, radio disc jockeys in Colton, California, put out a request for photos of girls in bikinis. John’s mom, Jeanne Fleming, baked a cake and decorated it like a girl in an “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini”. She even added cupcakes to the chest.

John and his brother, Gene, took the cake to the radio station where the disc jockeys talked about it on the air. John said they even said something like,”and you’ll never guess which part I’m eating now!”

John’s mom loved fun as much as her boys did. It must have been that fun-loving spirit that got passed onto John and gave him the strength and courage to take life light-heartedly even in the face of adversity.

This is definitely meant to make you smile and recall fond memories.

Every Story Has Other Stories Within

“You never know when you touch a heart and a life”. Little did I know that knowing John and doing this documentary project would unearth information I didn’t know about my own story.

This realization has my family and me on an emotional high. I am absolutely amazed. I didn’t know there were still answers to the questions I thought had been exhausted already.

Recently, Lincoln Graves from KATU News in Portland, Oregon, interviewed me about our documentary project. If I hadn’t known John, this unexpected result may never have come to light. So here’s some background.

I was a “normal” little girl at birth. At age 2 I was ill with acute croup. On a Friday morning, my mom took me to the doctor who told her to take me home, put me under a vaporizer and bring me back in on Monday if I wasn’t improved.
By that afternoon I was much worse. Mom got a ride and rushed me to the emergency room at Providence Hospital. She told them I was under the care of a doctor who was not on staff there. I was admitted and placed in a croup tent. We’ve always believed that quick action wasn’t taken because my pediatrician was off skiing and couldn’t be reached. I was told that doctors finally attempted a tracheotomy, but it was too late. Next they opened my chest and manually massaged my heart and revived me. I survived, but I may have been clinically dead for as much as 6 minutes. As a result, I have lived with significant multiple disabilities including impaired vision and severe muscular coordination problems.

When this happened, doctors had no idea what impact it would have on my quality of life. They urged my parents to put me in an institution such as Waverley Children’s Home in Portland. Thank God my parents didn’t take their advice.

On the day Lincoln Graves interviewed me about John’s documentary, I went on with my day as planned. Tired, I crawled into bed with my cell phone to read emails, check Facebook and view my daily horoscope. Wow, then, there it was, a friend request from Sandy McKenzie. Not knowing who she was, I almost deleted the request. I called my sister, Laura, to talk about the news interview and other sisterly things. Laura didn’t know Sandy McKenzie either, but she logged into Facebook to figure it out. As she read to me, she became more and more amazed and emotional. By the time she finished reading, I was overwhelmed with awe. My sister began corresponding with Sandy on the spot.

Sandy McKenzie had heard the news story. She asked if I could be that small child she, as a newly graduated nurse, cared for in Providence Hospital 59 years ago!

Sandy went off shift that night to get married, and she never knew what happened to me. She said she quit pediatric nursing because this experience was so traumatic for her. When her children and grandchildren got sick it brought back memories of her experience with me. She wrote in her message that she had been worrying, caring and praying for me all these years.
The next morning we told my parents, and friends commented on this story on Facebook. Sandy and I corresponded by email to find a time to talk on the phone. I asked Sandy if she had an iPhone, and could we talk by Face Time.
On Sunday March 11th, at the appointed time, I went to Mom and Dad’s apartment and waited for Sandy’s call. What an amazing afternoon that was.
Sandy gave us information about that day we hadn’t had before. My mom waited in the hall worrying and not knowing what was happening.  Sandy told us I was in a crib across from the nurse’s station. After shift change and report she checked on me and discovered that I was in severe distress and barely breathing.

Sandy said she immediately located the intern assigned to me eating lunch in the cafeteria. She told him what was happening, and he stated that he would finish up there and then come up and attend to me! Thank God Sandy didn’t stop there. She told him he had to come “right now”. Then she rushed around the corner to surgery and alerted doctors there. She told us doctors started running, a nurse followed with a tray of surgical instruments, and they attempted a tracheotomy. She added that she thought they took me into surgery after that to sew me up. She didn’t know the part about the surgeon cutting open my chest and manually massaging my heart which ultimately revived me. Last Sunday I learned that I was one of the very first people on whom this procedure had been performed.

This nurse, Sandy McKenzie, was actually the person who saved my life. She acted quickly and didn’t sit back waiting for doctors to do their jobs. I am alive because of Sandy!

God, the universe, whatever you subscribe to, works in fantastic ways. The KATU News interview put Sandy in touch with us, and her prayers have been answered because she knows how my story continued. My mom now knows that it wasn’t what she told admitting personnel that delayed my care. Discovering Sandy McKenzie doesn’t change what happened to me, but it has provided some measure of healing for all of us.

I wish things had been different, but now I know that someone in that hospital really cared. Thank you, my beloved husband, John, for providing the link to the missing piece of my story! Sandy McKenzie saw this news story: http://katu.com/news/local/gresham-woman-plans-documentary-for-late-blind-skydiving-husband

Flying Blind Productions Goes to Skydive Perris and Beyond!

In October, Darian, Derk, and Jenny traveled to Blind John’s old stompin’ grounds in Southern California. It was a whirlwind five days of interviews for the documentary — read on to share in our adventure of getting this movie made!

Meet Our Tour Guide, Matt Fleming

Matt Fleming behind the wheel of the car having a good laugh.
John’s brother Matt was one of the true highlights of the trip!

John’s brother, Matt Fleming, showed us John’s homes and favorite hangouts. We got to see John’s homes; Liam’s, John’s favorite bar; the area where John and his mom watched for airplanes and notified flight towers; and the railroad tracks where John and his buddies tempted fate. Along the way, Matt shared some great stories about his big brother.

We Collected Some More Stories about B.J.

Derrick and Darian interviewing one of John's old buddies outside Liam's
Interviewing some of John’s old friends outside Liam’s just felt right.

At Liam’s, we met a couple of guys named John who used to hang out with John Fleming. They told us about helping John Fleming flag down cabs and how the drivers would sometimes pretend they couldn’t find John after seeing him waiting with his guide dogs. Some nights, the owner of Liam’s had an employee take John home.

We Found a Great Resource in the Colton Area Museum

Colton Area Museum

Mike and Marian Murphy, board members of the Colton Area Museum, came in on their day off to give us a private tour and share their knowledge of Colton, California history. The museum, which relies on donations from Colton residents, contains many historical articles, period clothing, and photos. We plan to use some of this material in the documentary to give viewers a sense of what John’s hometown was like when he was growing up there in the 50s and 60s.

We Filmed Some Excellent Interviews at Skydive Perris

Skydive Perris sign at the entrance to their jump zone
The folks at Skydive Perris generously gave us space for interviews and a screening of the short film.

At Skydive Perris, skydiver Mike Muscat let us interview him about his experiences talking John down by radio. Mike also told us about his own experience jumping blindfolded. It’s a great story we were glad to be able to capture for the documentary.

Scott Smith, a training instructor at Skydive Perris, also had experience talking “Blind John” down by radio. He told us about one particularly bad landing he helped John have. Darian said John’s injuries after that jump were severe. His legs were cut nearly to the bone and had be washed and treated with iodine. But, as John’s skydiving buddies know, John could accept a bad landing once in a while much better than he could accept giving up skydiving.

Whew! We Accomplished a Lot with Help from Our Friends!

Derrick, Darian, and Jenny sitting at an outdoor table.
We had a great time too!

By the time it was all over we had interviewed 11 people for possible inclusion in the documentary, showed the short film to a new group of supporters, raised some money, and had a great time with some of John’s family and friends.

Huge thanks to Matt for driving us all over Colton, Riverside, and other parts of San Bernadino. Thanks to Larry, aka “Weasel,” and Judy and their five engaging Chihuahuas for sharing your stories about John and a great sing-a-long. Thanks to Carol for sharing her memories of getting to know John in Eugene, Oregon. Thanks to John’s cousin, Lee Hanson, and his wife Kris for telling us great stories about John’s guide dogs, Kiowa and Tia. Special thanks to Lee, Kris, Charlie, Cathy, Larry, and Lisa for all your help at the fundraiser at Skydive Perris. Big thanks to Skydive Perris for all your graciousness and your generous donation of space and equipment and for helping us spread the word about the screening/fundraiser event.

World’s Largest Freefall Formation of Totally Blind Skydivers

by Dan Rossi

September 13, 2003: Garrettsville OH

The world record for the largest freefall formation of blind skydivers was shattered today in the skies over rural Ohio. The two-way smashed the existing record by a factor of … two.

The participants, John “BJ” Fleming of California/Oregon 1900+ jumps, and Dan Rossi of Pennsylvania 300+ jumps, stepped off the tailgate of a Casa at 14,000 feet and into the skydiving history books, becoming the first two blind skydivers to ever be in freefall together.

Watch Here

The jumpers exited in a side-by-side and were stable right out the door. They closed for the two-way, screamed their congratulations to each other and then opened back to a side-by-side. At 6,500 feet Rossi gave Fleming the pull sign, a hard shake of his upper arm. Fleming deployed in position and then Rossi, assisted by a safety diver who was lurking near by, tracked to 4,000 feet and deployed.

There was quite a bit of radio traffic as Larry Wereb ably talked down the two skydivers, bringing them both in for great landings.

“We really pulled it off. I can’t believe it.” Said Fleming after landing back on the drop zone.

“It was beautiful.” Said Rossi. “I can’t believe that BJ let another blind guy give him the pull sign. He’s crazier than me.” He added after making his way back to the packing area.

Group photo with John Fleming, Dan Rossi, their guide dogs and friends
John Fleming (in red jumpsuit) and Dan Rossi (in black jacket , using white cane) with friends after World’s Largest Freefall Formation of Totally Blind Skydivers.

When asked about the complexities in a dive such as this, Rossi responded: “Well, large freefall formations like this take months of planning and practice. A lot of people have to be in the right place at the right time. We think it might be theoretically possible to add another blind jumper, but we’d really have to investigate the aerodynamics of a formation that large.”

When asked about the experience and talent of a jumper to be part of this momentous skydive, Fleming explained: “Well, for a jump of this magnitude we had to take the best, and only the best skydivers qualified to make this jump. We had to look for the best, most experienced, and most active blind skydivers in the country. Of the two possible candidates, I think we chose well.”

To prove it was no fluke, Fleming and Rossi made a second jump together on Sunday. This time they invited their two safety divers to join them in a four-way. Rossi and Fleming repeated their flawless exit from the previous day and were joined in freefall by Don Schwab of Ohio and Howard Hutchetson of Oregon. The four-way built quickly and the divers got bored of geeking at each other while waiting for 6,500 feet. Rossi again gave the pull signal and then tracked with Schwab to a 4,000 foot deployment. Mary O’Reilly of Ohio successfully talked down the two jumpers for great landings.

The record attempt was nearly ended before it began when Rossi was “lost” on a jump Thursday evening. Due to a much greater than expected push from the uppers, and deteriorating lighting conditions, Rossi’s radio man was unable to see him from the ground. Rossi landed uneventfully in a field more than a mile from the landing area.

Are you allowed to have a sense of humor about going blind? BJ did.

John Fleming, known as “Blind John” or “BJ” among skydivers, was the first skydiver to figure out how to safely jump solo without eyesight. In today’s clip, John talks about going blind, retinitis pigmentosa, and some of the funny predicaments his adventurous spirit got him into as his sight waned.

One of the things people most admired about John was his irrepressible spirit. It’s not that losing his sight didn’t affect him and create hardships, it did and he was honest about that — but he was also determined to live life on his own terms and, for him, that meant seeing the humorous side of living the life of a thrill-seeker who was going blind. So, don’t be afraid to chuckle while you watch this vid:

Blue skies!

P.S. If you love John’s stories and want more, consider a donation of $100 or more  at our GoFundMe page. Your gift will help support production costs for the full-length documentary and you will receive a copy of John Fleming’s ebook, No Shit, There I Was, I Thought I Was Going to Die. It is full of John’s stories of living a thrill-seeking life while losing his sight, and eventually, becoming totally blind.

What’s Charles Bonnet Syndrome Got to Do With It?

Toward the end of his life, John began to experience Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS). Common among people who have lost a significant amount of sight, CBS causes visual hallucinations. Researchers believe it is the result of the brain trying to “fill in” information the eyes are no longer sending to it.

Side by side images with street scene, one without CBS hallucination and one with CBS hallucinations transparent animals and people superimposed over the real street scene.
What is Charles Bonnet Syndrome like? Here’s one possibility.

CBS Can Be Frightening

Many people who develop CBS are afraid they are developing mental illness or Alzheimer’s disease, which can be anxiety producing. If you know someone who is losing their sight and they are starting to see geometric shapes and/or people, animals, or places that are not really there, it might be CBS.

John described CBS as being quite disturbing when it first started for him. Fortunately, he was open about the situation and had understanding people around him to help him cope. Many people don’t speak up when they start to have CBS hallucinations, because of concerns they will be considered “crazy.”

In this video, a woman named Bee describes her experiences with CBS:

Don’t Keep CBS a Secret

Vision Aware logo

If you think you or someone you love might have CBS, don’t let fear stop you. Speak up, talk to your doctor, learn all you can, and get support from others dealing with CBS.

VisionAware.org has some very good information, plus an online message board, links to support groups, and other useful resources for people managing CBS.

For a longer look at CBS, check out this TED talk by the Macular Degeneration Foundation.

Blue skies!

P.S. One of the great things about the full-length documentary we are making about John Fleming is that it’s not just entertaining. It will raise awareness about the conditions that blinded him and the ways he managed after losing his sight. If you think that sounds like an important goal, give what you can to support production costs at our GoFundMe page.

Why Would a Skydiver Need a Guide Dog?

To help him walk independently to the plane, of course!

John and Kiowa in the door of an airplane.
John and his guide dog, Kiowa.

Meet “Blind John’s” Guide Dogs

John had two guide dogs during the time he was skydiving. It’s probably important to note at this point that he did not have the dogs jump out of planes with him, so there is no need for folks to write us angry letters. 🙂

Kiowa

John behind the wheel of a van with Kiowa by his side
John and Kiowa

John and Kiowa were well known among skydivers. They loved playing practical jokes at the drop zones. One of their favorite pranks was having a sighted person in the passenger seat of the van steering while John sat behind the wheel with Kiowa by his side. Imagine the newbies’ faces when they saw John pull up and get out of the van with his guide dog and cane.

Based on Kiowa’s big smile in this picture, it looks like she enjoyed playing these games as much as John  and his skydiving buddies did. She is fondly remembered at the drop zones.

Tia

John in his flight suit holding his parachute with guide dog, Tia, by his side
John and Tia

John was also known to get strangers’ attention by having  his guide dog walk him and his cane up to the door of the plane. For those who didn’t know what a skilled skydiver John was, this caused some alarm!

Here’s Tia, John’s last guide dog, helping John navigate Skydive Perris. Tia was a sweetheart who made friends wherever she went.

Kiowa and Tia Weren’t Just Guide Dogs, They Were Family

Family portrait
John Fleming, stepson Tim Slayton, wife Darian Slayton Fleming, and guide dog, Tia

Want to Hear More Hilarious Stories about Blind John?

We have lots more, which we will include in the full-length documentary about John’s adventures skydiving while blind. But we can’t do that without your help. Please, give what you can to support our production costs at GoFundMe/BlindJohnMovie.

What Does Retinitis Pigmentosa and Macular Degeneration Look Like?

As a young man, John Fleming learned he had a hereditary eye condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) that likely would cause him to become totally blind. Eventually, he developed macular degeneration as well. When he first began to skydive, his sight was impaired, but he was not totally blind. Over the years, “Blind John,” as he was known among skydivers, lost his sight entirely.

Screen capture of John in the short film Free Falling. It is a moment right after he skydives and he is saying, "I can't see my hand in front of my face."
John Fleming, right after a jump, confirms he “can’t see his hand in front of his face.”

Imagining What Blind John Could See While Skydiving

But what does that look like? Many people assume blindness looks like complete darkness, but that’s actually extremely rare. Most blind people can at least perceive light. How that looks depends on the conditions causing the blindness and the individual person.

Here is a series of videos that do a great job of explaining RP and macular degeneration, along with one man’s description of what he sees. John Fleming’s experience with RP and macular degeneration may not have looked exactly like this, but it will give you an idea of the challenges John faced as a skydiver who was losing his sight.

My RP Retinitis Pigmentosa v2 by Steve Fialkoff & Family

My RP Visual Flashes by Steve Fialkoff & Family

Blue Soccer Ball Phenomena (Silent Film) by Steve Fialkoff & Family

Note: since this is a silent film, I am including the explanatory text from the YouTube post for our readers who can’t see this video.

Explanatory text from Steve Fialkoff:

I am in late stage RP, which is very limited but still have some usable sight. When I close my eyes to sleep, I see a tiny blue ball with webbing like a soccer ball. The ball slowly rotates one way, then stops and goes the other way. It is in the center and very small. It is a 3-dimensional image, that can be mistaken by most who see it as just lines swirling. If it is an “after image,” then it’s a new one on me, because it doesn’t fade for many minutes. the background around the ball is black. This animation is pretty close .

Huge thanks to Steve Fialkoff & Family (My RP Vision on YouTube) for making these excellent, informative videos.

Wondering How John Kept Skydiving Solo Even After He Lost His Sight?

It’s an incredible story and we are on a mission to create a full-length documentary that explains how John jumped safely and why he was determined to keep skydiving after he could no longer rely on his vision to guide him down. Want to see this film made? Please give what you can to support our production costs at our Blind John Movie GoFundMe page. We are a small production team of family and friends, so truly, every little bit helps.