James Leeland Jackson- Born on George Washington’s Birthday in 1934, grew up an inventor, designer, and “do it yourself” guy. He was building model airplanes during the depression with self earned money and designing them himself. He began dating my mom on leave from the army where he was in the 82nd Airborne, and was married shortly after and had my sister, Laurie, in 1959. He was working as an engineer at “World Engines” and created the first variable travel radio system for model airplanes while there. Always wanting to design full scale planes, he secured a job engineering at Piper Aircraft in 1968 when I was just 4 years old. By the time I was 6 years old he had me flying R/C planes and building my own by age 7, and I flew my first plane for a “job” by orders of my dad at age 8 for a test plane for Piper that he didn’t trust anyone but me to fly. He was always that way. I got my self esteem early, from him, through my R/C plane experiences with him. Back to my Dad… He built a full sized aerobatic Bi-Plane from scratch that took him 5 years 10 months and 12 days to do. He completed it in 1972 and got it out of our basement and flew it to the Oshkosh Airshow and won the “best homebuilt” competition for his incredible work with that plane.
I learned that not all projects are meant to be easy and that money, time, or real life should never interfere with your dreams.
He built this plane in our basement of our small house after work and on weekends, buying parts as he saved up money for them. I got to work along side of him, sanding, and helping in any way I could. He would have built a 2 seater had he known how much I loved planes. Engineering isn’t a job for my dad, it is a way of life. Designing, and building a better mousetrap isn’t a burden for him, but what he lives for. Perfection isn’t something he strives for, it is all he accepts from himself. From the outside, his perfectionism could be viewed as a curse sometimes. For example, he designed his own R/C radio, one of my favorites, and one that I learned on. It was getting old and started getting some glitches. I crashed a plane, that he designed and built himself, and he asked me what happened. I told him that the radio didn’t respond, he knew it wasn’t user error, as he was watching. He took the beautiful hand made R/C radio (brushed aluminum case, etc..) and stomped it on the ground until it was flat. “Now we won’t crash any more planes due to radio failure.” He wasn’t angry, just didn’t want something he built, that wasn’t working perfectly to be in the world. We used a wood strip canoe that he built from scratch and almost finished as kindling because the epoxy on the outer layer of 2 ounce fiberglass turned a little cloudy and the redwood strip canoe would have had to be painted instead of natural wood color.
Unlike most perfectionists, however, my dad is also a speed demon when it comes to getting work done. His perfectionism also includes processes and personal skill development in areas that relate to getting a job done fast. If somebody needs a part of a machine duplicated quickly, can is as fast as it can be done, and always right. When he builds a model airplane or anything that he designs on paper or CAD, the design seems to appear from nowhere if you blink, and then the airplane or whatever it is seems to just materialize, compared to what I imagine the pace should be. The reason for that is that he tends to be prepared for projects that he embarks on, with the design materials and skills, the materials to do the job, and the tools in hand. I am very jealous of his workshop that includes metal and wood lathes, drill press, band saw, table saw, planers, and every hand tool known to man.
My dad and I joined the Merrymack Valley Paddlers kayak club in 1979 in New Hampshire and there were about 40 members. He became president of the club in the first year (sucker!) and held the meetings at our house. By the end of the first year there were over 150 members and the following year about 250 members. That first year only one guy could do the eskimo roll, Bob O’Neil. Bob taught my dad and I how to roll in the pool and that same day we started teaching others and there were over 50 members who could roll by spring. It was fun times in New England, with a vibrant club of new and fired up kayakers of the likes of Yuk Yuk, Opie, “Over and Out”, “Piss and Moan”, and my nick name was “Um Um”. The club needed more boats and the members, many of them, didn’t have the money for a new one. My dad took a club boat, the Phoenix Savage, and cleaned it up, making it mirror smooth and built a mold off of it. He purchased a ton of fiberglass and had some Kevlar (he was one of the first people in the world to use Kevlar in his job designing airplanes) he had left over from Piper and built himself a boat. The Garage where he built it was not heated, but it was wintertime in NH, so the garage was below freezing. He built a resistance heater with wires and A/C power to heat the mold and insulated the mold. I built my boat next. Now the club members were lining up to build boats. Somehow I became the “indentured servant” and we had built just about everyone a boat by the time spring came.
My mom died that year, of cancer, and I went off to college at the University of Maine, for engineering, to follow in my Dad’s footsteps. He slowly phased out of kayaking over the next few years and about 5 years later met Beth on a beach and were married a year later. My dad raised her two kids with her and his kayaking stopped as he entered into a new chapter in his life. Another dream job opened up, and luckily for him it was right in Manchester, NH. Dean Kaymen, owner of Deka, hired him to design for his R+D firm. Known for the Segway, the wearable insulin pump and many more inventions, Deka was home for my dad for over 15 years. I was off on my own direction, as an engineering school dropout (after I completed my Junior year), which didn’t sit very well with my dad. It took many years of me being a kayaking bum before it was clear to him that I not only had a direction in my life, but that it was one that I couldn’t be deterred from and it would work out OK. When I made the Olympic Team in 1992, I think he really understood that I was every bit as committed to excellence in what I did, as he was in his arena. He never bothered me about completing my degree or getting a job after that.
Now, at age 77, living over 1,000 miles North East of Rock Island, TN and seeing his grandson KC for the second time, he is taking a much bigger role in my life, and the lives of my children, and Jackson Kayak. (He has his own logo- a cool Eagle shield that he designed that says “Jackson Aircraft” on it…. ) Taking on a new job at 77 is unusual. My dad is unusual and the secret to his longevity and his “spriteness” is that he doesn’t accept the traditional curve of decline of the “average american” as his decline. He played his first round of Disc Golf at my house two days ago, and by the 9th hole could drive the disc quite far and got a few pars on the course. When you meet him for the first time, be aware, he will probably pick you up in a big bear hug… not sure where that came from, but it took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t “normal” to bear hug somebody you just met and pick them off the ground.
Personally- it is a dream come true that something I created, Jackson Kayak, is worthy of his time and energy that he would be willing to apply himself to designing and helping me in this business. As his child, that kind of endorsement means the world to me, and the opportunity to work with him, and see him in action, directly applying himself to helping me make a better kayak, has been on my bucket list for a long time. What projects he’ll be doing, exactly, is being determined now. He will get to work with the kayak industries top R+D talent in Tony Lee, David Knight, Joe Walton, John Shepherd, and Scott Henderson.
Welcome Jim Jackson! Welcome Dad!
See you on the water,