Quinn, 48, is a plug of a man who wears his history in tattoos and scars. His work is heavy construction, pounding pilings along New York City's waterfront, and it seems he can't drive by a construction sight without waving to somebody. He has retired from jumping to spend more time with his wife, Roseann, and four children. When we met at his apartment in Queens, he was exultant both about a successful wild turkey hunt with his son and a victory in his 11-year battle to have a stop sign installed at a nearby intersection. To quiet the phone that seemed to ring constantly for his three daughters, he tossed the receiver into the clothes dryer. Then he mixed us tall glasses of Vino Rustico and cream soda with a twist of lemon and started to talk.
Quinn was born in the Bronx. His father, Huey, was a sleepwalker. His mother, Anna, was chronically ill, and when he was three, his parents split up and left him in the care of the Catholic orphanage system in Queens. "The Sisters at the orphanage didn't want to be there either," he says. "They went crazy and tried to beat religion into us." Young Quinn fantasized about flying and jumping out of planes, but his nighttime dreams were not so pleasant. Like his father, he was claustrophobic and would roam and scream in his sleep.
After some nine years of orphanages and foster homes, Quinn was rescued by his parents, who had reunited. He says he was not much of a student: He did not take well to Sacred Heart Middle School, but he was a runner with natural speed and a boxer that "nobody beat in the ring." Outside the ring, his fighting was less successful. When Quinn was 17, a judge gave him a choice of prison or the Army. He signed up for the airborne division, but a three-day pass stretched out to two weeks, a car was stolen, and Quinn landed in Elmira (N.Y.) Correctional Facility. From there he earned a transfer to an eight-by six-foot steel-doored cell at the maximum security prison at West Coxsackie, N.Y. He boxed and read during the day and at night roamed his cell in his sleep, screaming. Said Quinn, "I was young and bad. I wasn't a thief, I was a madman."
Quinn was 20 when a friend of his father's went to the president of the Seafarers International Union in Brooklyn and obtained sailing papers for him. Quinn's first two assignments were crewing aboard munitions ships bound for Vietnam. His third trip out was on a boat supposedly carrying rubber and tin from Indonesia to Malaysia and back, but hidden inside the cargo was an arsenal of high-tech weapons, ammunition and electronics. A unit of the Malaysian army boarded the ship, found the weapons, and Quinn spent nearly two months under ship's arrest awaiting execution for smuggling arms. "No kidding, there I was in Malaysia with a machine gun in my face. PF-9.5," he says. Eventually he was released.
Quinn was 23, on home leave, when he drove with some friends to a parachute school on Long Island. "It was the most terrifying thing in my life," he says. "But when I finally left the airplane, I felt I had total freedom."
It was several years before Quinn could jump again, but when he did, he became obsessed. He caught on as a stunt jumper and a wing-walker for air shows. In 1969, when the Mets were in the NL Championship Series against Atlanta, Quinn planned a bandit jump into Shea Stadium, but the scheme failed. Three hours before he planned to make the jump, his pilot suddenly backed out.
Quinn says that one of his most memorable moments—a turning point in his life—happened when a novice jumper sought his advice on packing a chute. "After all those years of being locked up and told what to do, this guy was asking me—he was trusting me with his life," Quinn says. Quinn became a jumpmaster and later went to West Point for intensive training to become an instructor. The man who had taught Quinn to jump took the same course...and failed. Quinn passed. It was then that he developed his first of many tenets as a skydiving guru: "If the student does not surpass the master, has not the master failed?"
Sergio is eight years younger than Quinn. He can look like a tough construction hand or a rock musician or a soap opera star. He has played all three roles at various times, and it is sometimes hard to know which one you are dealing with. Sergio was born on East 122nd Street in Harlem, around the corner from where his father still runs the family waterproofing business. Like Quinn, Sergio had trouble in high school—all four of them. But Sergio says he was very lucky while growing up: He was arrested once when the police mistakenly took the asthma pills he must carry as something far more potent and far less legal. The night Sergio spent in jail persuaded him to "straighten out." In 1968 he was accepted at Queens College and set about studying to become an actor.
Sergio first parachuted in 1971 when Pete the Greek, a roadie for the band in which Sergio sang, invited him to join an expedition to a parachute center called Ripcord in New Jersey. Says Sergio, "I volunteered to be the first to jump because I didn't want to have to watch the others. I was exploring the discipline of being scared."
Eventually, Sergio started jumping at an upstate New York drop site called Shawanaga, the home of "sky gods" like Owen Quinn. There was something mystical about Quinn. He was full of aphorisms and odd quotes from the Bible. One night, when the jumpers began settling in their tents under a huge pine tree by the runway, Quinn came over and persuaded them to move. Shortly afterward, a bolt of lightning split the tree in half. Sergio had found a guru.