KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — Some senior citizens might celebrate birthdays with a cake from the grandkids, dinner out at a local restaurant, and leave it at that. But former president George H.W. Bush jump-started his 90th by leaping 6,300 feet from a helicopter.
Strapped to a former Army skydiver with more than 10,000 jumps on his resume, Bush landed with an unpresidential face-plant on the manicured lawn of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church, near the family compound at Walker’s Point.
But Bush was helped to a wheelchair without injuries to finish a short, startling drop that included a seven-second free-fall followed by controlled, looping circles above the rocky Maine coast.
“I think he made a statement,” said Michael Elliott, a former member of the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team, who guided Bush to the ground. “If you want to do something and have the passion, by all means do it.”
Bush, who lifted off from Walker’s Point at 10:45 a.m., had been advised by his entire family not to jump, Elliott said. His sons, former president George W. Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, tried to talk him out of it, the skydiver recalled. So did his wife, Barbara, and so did his doctor.
But all through the flight to the jump point, Elliott said, “He was giving me the thumb’s up.”
The timing of the jump was kept secret from nearly everyone in this vacation destination, where Bush spends his summers at a rambling, century-old family home on the ocean.
Residents and vacationers had heard rumors that Bush might jump, as he did for his 75th, 80th, and 85th birthdays. But only his family and close friends seemed to know for sure until the sound of whirring helicopter blades and the sight of parachutes — one for Bush, and others for videographers and stunt divers — began to fall from above.
Cars stopped on the sides of roads, shoppers rushed outside to look skyward, and a battery of smartphones and tablets were pointed skyward by astonished gawkers to record the moment.
Marilyn Austin, a 64-year-old visitor from Charleston, S.C., was taking a drive with her husband, Jennings, when suddenly, implausibly, just outside St. Ann’s Church, “here comes the parachute right over our car. I hurried to get the iPad out.”
Bush and his team decided to head to the skies Thursday morning, instead of Friday, to avoid potentially worse weather, said Richard Guy, a friend of Elliott’s who flew to Maine from Fayetteville, N.C., with the skydiver.
“It’s a wonderful day in Maine — in fact, nice enough for a parachute jump,’’ Bush tweeted in the morning.
Thick, leaden clouds kept the former president from ascending to 10,000 feet, which made the jump more difficult. At nearly half that altitude, Elliott said, “everything has to be almost all perfect.”
Despite the weather and the altitude, the dive nearly was. But Bush, who often uses a wheelchair, hit the ground hard because he had been unable to raise his legs high enough before impact, Elliott said.
The jump’s finishing drama paled in comparison with his first, which occurred in September 1944 when Bush, a World War II naval aviator, was shot down in the Pacific. He was rescued by a US submarine.
On Thursday, Bush was greeted by a throng of family and friends outside St. Ann’s, where the family attends church services, and then quickly returned to Walker’s Point, where former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called to offer his booming congratulations, Elliott said.
Elsewhere in Kennebunkport, where Bush has visited nearly every summer of his life, the bonds that bind the president, his family, and the town were on affectionate display.
At Bartley’s Dockside Restaurant, where Bush has ordered fried clams and other seafood since 1981, an outside sign read, “Happy Jumpin 90th Birthday, Mr. President.” Inside, the walls held dozens of photos of the owners, Dorothy and the late Jim Bartley, and the 41st president, dating to his days as vice president under Ronald Reagan.
“He told me, ‘Mrs. B, I will jump on my 90th,’ ” Dorothy recalled Bush saying several years ago. “I was kidding with him, and I said, ‘I’ll jump with you.’ We knew, if it was possible, he was going to do it.”
At the First Families Museum, beside a home dating from 1853, hundreds of people — some of whom know Bush well, and many of whom do not — strolled the lawns to inscribe birthday cards, sing “Happy Birthday,” and inspect nearly 90 cakes that were baked in a contest for the former president.
Robert Carreau, a 57-year-old Kennebunkport man who said his ancestors have lived in the town for 300 years, carefully jotted his birthday wishes on an oversize poster.
“Thank you for your dedication and service to the country,” Carreau wrote. Stepping back, he said, “There were leaders back then, not just politicians.”
Bush spent the afternoon in the company of his extended family and former advisers before heading to the Hidden Pond resort in Kennebunkport, where they would dine privately at Earth, a restaurant there.
The singer Jane Morgan, the wife of Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, said she would be in attendance to honor her lifelong friend in a town they both have cherished throughout their lives.
At a state dinner, Morgan recalled, she once asked Bush how they had met. “He said to me, ‘We didn’t meet. We’ve always known each other.’ ”
Many others in Kennebunkport can relate.