[I have a friend who is an amazing writer but he tends to abandon his writing projects often. I wanted to save his writings for posterity and make them more widely available. The MonkeyPope Archives contain his collected works.]
Airborne: Week Three
Well God damned finally.
After the second week, most of us Airborne students began to relax. Little back slaps, smiles in the hallways, little pimping strut in the walk. Our training was officially over and all we had to do was fall five times. The Sergeant Airbornes were getting friendly, seemingly relaxing the rules. As long as we didn’t break a leg, we were as good as Airborne. Airborne, airborne, airborne.
Pretty naive of us. Jump Week ended up being the most brutal week yet.
Up at 3:30 am Monday morning for our 4 am formation. We run out to the airfield (which I guess is about a mile to a mile and a half away, but at that time in the morning and wearing a helmet, it may as well have been a marathon). Form up in a huge gravel pit and review all training — what to do in the air before and after chute deployment, what to do on the plane, practice all landings. Run here, run there, big bear. Our chow is devoured afterwards, outside in the dark (we don’t have time to run back to the dining hall!). Ends up being my favorite meals during the school. Considering the circumstances, I get everything smothered in gravy. Not just the biscuit, baby, but the eggs, the hashbrowns, the waffle — all drowning in warmed animal fat, flour and little bits of meat. Hey, I might die on a jump.
After breakfast, we’re ushered into the harness shed — a cavernous hangar outfitted with wooden benches running the length of the building. By sticks (or squads or chalks or groups — please feel free to insert your own term here), we run over to CNI (which stands for I Don’t Know) where we pick up our chutes and reserves. Why CNI is situated the equivalent of two blocks south of the harness shed? Either poor planning by the military or those masterminds saw another opportunity to make us feel like shit. The reserve must be carried by its top carrying handle in the right hand. The chute must be carried on the left arm like a backpack with your left hand firmly on top of your ballistic helmet. Now run back. Bitches.
Once back in the harness shed, we assist one another getting our shit on. Once suited, we wait for inspection by a Sergeant Airborne which is rather thorough and reassuring. We then wait for our second inspection. After both inspections are complete, we sit on the benches and wait for our stick to be called out. There is no sleeping and usually no talking permitted. If the flyboys feel like finishing their cappuccinos or if the weather is inclement, we wait. Waiting bores us all, yes? Nothing like smoking a bunch of Airborne soldiers to pass the time, especially if they’re wearing combat equipment. Though, being on the receiving end, it wasn’t my favorite way to pass the time.
When my stick was called Monday morning, sure I was nervous, but I was excited. And man, that gravy was good. We lucked out and got a C-17 for our first jump, a plane that appears to have been made after the rip roaring 50s, and also a plane much more capacious than the antique, the classic C-130 (when we flew on the C-130, I always expected some floor paneling rusted out so that I could see the Earth beneath us, like when I was a kid staring at the road zooming by through the holes in the bottom of our car).
When it was time to stand up, hook up and shuffle to the door, my nerves kicked in. My legs were shaking uncontrollably. I wondered if I’d have the strength to step forward and jump out. The third guy in my stick was apparently experiencing a similar sensation as when he turned to the door to jump, he fell to his knees and literally rolled out of the plane (he was fine, just embarrassed; incidentally, his Sergeant Airborne had nicknamed him and his buddy Meatloaf and Pork Chop, both short overweight black guys). Well, I didn’t want to do that. So I jumped out, started counting and pop goes my chute. Deploys without a twist. My nerves settle. I’m floating gently, the Earth is still a ways away, I check the air and there’s no other jumpers in my vicinity. Relax.
Then I hear a Kentucky-twanged, “Heeeyyyyyyyy,” behind me, sounded like an effeminate Southern retard trying to get the attention of the hot chic at the country line-dancing club. I twist my head to the rear like a little girl possessed to see the Kentucky Kid coming right for me. When confronted with other jumpers in the air, you’re supposed to pull your risers in the opposite direction to drift away from them. He’d have none of that. No, his choice of action was to fix me with a blank stare and open mouth. I immediately slip away and yell at him to do the same, but I’d more expect a cow to respond to that request.
After avoiding him, I noticed that most everyone else in my stick had already landed, but I was still peacefully floating about. Caught in a thermal, coulda stayed up there all day. The C-17 makes another passes, drops the next stick, they’re close to landing and I still couldn’t slip out of the thermal. Finally, I pull out of it which causes my chute to oscillate violently, swinging me back and forth perilously close to the Earth. So I did what any dual-degreed military intelligence soldier would do, I yelled at it, “Stop that!” And it did.
And here comes the ground. Slip in the opposite direction, eyes on the horizon, knees bent, feet up, eyes back on the horizon, damn it, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…thud. Not a bad landing. Load up my chute in my bag, attach it to the reserve, swing it over my head and double time it off. Four to go (but I swear the rest will be much more succinct).
The following day, we pull off our first combat equipment jump, and if you’ve seen Band of Brothers, you know what I’m talking about, and yes, it sucks as much as it looks. Under your reserve, you hook up your alice pack (backpack, rucksack, whatever) so that it dangles in front of your legs. To your left side, you attach your weapon case. The weight of all the equipment bruises the shoulders and collarbones and gives you the posture of an old Mexican immigrant strawberry-picker.
We luck out and get the C-17 again. What a blessing that is is revealed to us the following day when we load up on the C-130 with combat equipment. The jump is uneventful. The additional stress of the combat equipment seems to simplify things.
We were supposed to do two jumps on Tuesday but a storm rolled in, so we sat in our harnesses, watched the rain and lightning and got smoked.
Wednesday, the day of trials. The day of three jumps. Two hollywoods (i.e. no combat equipment), and one combat equipment at night. First jump goes off without a hitch, I give my head a little hit on my landing, but no big deal. Second jump of the day, my confidence is up. Ready to knock it out. My risers get tangled after my chute deploys, but I bicycle kick out it. I drift away from other jumpers, get ready for my landing. I’m coming in soft, gently drifting to my right, I slip left and anticipate my nicest landing yet. The wind is perfect…until a huge gust hits me about 10-15 feet off the ground and slams me into the Earth. I had good body position, chin tucked in, but the force of the impact (and my already weakened neck muscles) causes my head to pop out and greet the ground enthusiastically. Everything goes white, then black with stars. I awake to hear ringing in my hears and realize I had already disconnected one of my risers (to deflate the chute to keep it from dragging you on the ground. By the way, the Kentucky Kid who almost hit me midair in my first jump? Another soldier saw him land, disconnect his riser, then grab it so that it didn’t deflate and consequently got dragged while yelling, “Help me!!”).
Pretty shaken up, I laid there for awhile, trying to figure out what had happened and what was wrong. I thought my vision had gone temporarily bad because of the head trauma then realized that my glasses had broke. The back of my head hit so hard that my face was propelled forward and knocked out the lenses of my glasses. I finally stand, gather up my gear and try to run back, head throbbing. One jump to go.
There’s no opportunity to head back to the barracks and get another pair of glasses. Nor am I about to tell the Sergeant Airbornes I knocked myself out and probably have a concussion. Repeat jump week? No thank you. We get our gear and suit up for our final jump. As I’m being inspected, a yell of, “Rigger!” bursts out. My chute has ‘crispy risers’ and I have to take off all my combat equipment, reserve and harness, run back to CNI, get another one, and run back. Head throbbing and practically blind, I do so. I get everything back on again and stand and await my re-inspection…”Rigger!” This time, my line is frayed. I take everything off again, run back to CNI, draw another and run back again. I am pouring with sweat now and my head is in excruciating pain from the running.
I tell myself that if the third inspection goes bad, I’m not jumping. One too many signs from God.
The inspection is almost completed successfully when another Sergeant Airborne jumps up on the bench behind me where I had stupidly set my broken glasses. He picks them up and yells, “Whose glasses are these? You can’t jump if you can’t see!” I turn around and yell back, “They’re mine, Sergeant Airborne and I can see well enough to jump!” He looks at me, takes in the cut above my eye (that my glasses had left), the sweat dripping from every pore, and responds, “You the guy who had to draw three times?” “Yes, Sergeant Airborne.” In an uncharacteristic moment of pity, he shrugs, says, “Ok,” and sets my broken glasses back down.
This same Sergeant Airborne had busted two guys for wearing contacts (VERBOTEN), spotted after their third jump. They rolled back. Had busted two other guys for having chew on ’em. Had busted a lieutenant for wearing his own ankle braces. Kicked out a couple other for falling asleep. But chose to let me go.
And this time, my gear passes muster. I guess God does want me to jump out of a plane at night without being able to see and wearing a bunch of heavy shit and with a concussion. My God is an awesome God.
Oh, and by this point, my respiratory infection is having a heyday. I’m wheezing like Darth Vader with his helmet off.
The night comes quickly (maybe I blacked out again?) and before I know it, we’re being shoved into the C-130, stacking our alice packs on each others’ laps.
When the jump doors of the C-130 open onto the dark moonless night, the wind ripples by making a yawning sound like that I imagine an awakening demon in the halls of Beezlebub’s Pandemonium would make. It is a foreboding sound as if the night itself is alive and is preparing its gullet to swallow us whole.
My head throbs from the concussion of the last jump and my mind is woozy. My vision is blurred as anyone who knows me knows that I am comically near-sighted, that I am the stereotypical bumbling nerd in the movies too blind to find his own glasses until he crumples them underfoot. I look at my fellow paratroopers crammed into the belly of the plane and their features are hollowed out. They are shapes resembling human faces but lacking distinguishable features. The eyes become black pits, the gaping mouths likewise. I can’t tell who is who and they all look to me as if some mighty deity or alternate reality had wiped away anything unique to their faces and left generic approximations of what they were, the physical manifestation of lost souls in hell with no faces, no identity, no name left to scream.
We sit on red nylon webbing and the only light is a faint bluish-green hue from overhead bulbs. In the dark and the taint of the colored light and my horrible vision and my altered state (unfortunately not one induced psychotropically), the red webbing had the appearance of fresh bloody guts or intestines macramed to a metal frame. I began to wonder if the boatman to Hades had adopted modern technology and now flew a C-130. And I imagined Hell would be sitting endlessly on that gut-furnished plane in full combat equipment looking at hollowed out faces I no longer recognize and never jumping to the Promised Land.
But eventually, the first group stood up, hooked up and shuffled to the door and I know my time would come, too.
And it does.
I jump into the night and begin my count. My canopy deploys flawlessly and I am relieved and surprised to see no other large green blobs floating in my vicinity. As I mentioned earlier, it is a moonless night and even without my glasses, I am stunned by the enveloping darkness. I can see the halo-ish essences of light sticks set on the drop zone intended to give us a sense of location and altitude. I drop my combat equipment early (or so I presumed) since there were no jumpers in my vicinity and better early than late. I feel my direction of drift and assume the ground is close and pull my slip. The wind rises and I feel and hear the beginnings of a powerful gust, identical to the one that slammed me to the ground on my previous jump and knocked me out. I very audibly scream out, “Fuck!” in the assumption that I’m about to repeat history and most likely do serious damage to my head. But I underestimate the wind and how close I was to landing. Instead of slamming me down, the wind has the opposite effect. I touch down on the balls of my feet and gently fall to my hip. It was as soft as a mother laying her newborn babe down in its cradle. That wind was the breath of an angel, or the winged feet of Hermes, or the universe acknowledging me and acknowledging itself to me, it was the Japanese Kamikaze, the divine wind. I laid back on the Earth, laughed, raised my fists exultingly and yelled, “Thank you, God!”
For a man not taken by religion, the night was filled with it, or I filled the night with it.
Gathering up my combat gear and making my way off the drop zone took ages in the dark, scrambling on my hands and knees for my gear, but my relief at avoiding any further injury made all further discomfort more than bearable. And that feeling on making that final jump, overcoming all those little obstacles thrown in my path, was, well, an indescribable radiance deep in my chest.
After details and maintenance, we’re back at the barracks shortly before midnight, a twenty and a half-hour day consisting of three jumps, a concussion, alot of physical and mental anguish, and plenty of religious allusions.
Thursday was a waste of a day. Formation at 0600. I hardly recall what we did that day other than eat, sleep and pack. There was some administrative crap but nothing worthwhile.
Friday formation 0530 so that we could clean the barracks for two hours before breakfast. After breakfast, we kill time till the graduation ceremony. The ceremony is full of chest-thumping patriotic speeches legitimizing our ‘righteousness’ in forcing freedom on others, but I am proud to receive my wings and join the brotherhood of paratroopers (the debatable politics are another matter). We march back to the barracks, receive all our paperwork (certificate, authorization to wear the jump badge, authorization for jump pay, etc.) and are informed we’re free to go. I pause, a little confused. Normally, we’re never free to go unless we sign something, so I ask fellow soldiers and they say, “oh yeah, good to go,” as does the Operations NCO. So without making my goodbyes or changing my uniform, I get in my car and drive off.
Now that I’m 250 miles away, I have a bad feeling about that. Must have been something I was supposed to sign, but I’ll be accounted for in Colorado soon enough. So if I made a little snafu there, it’s rectifiable.
Either or, it’s over. I got my wings. My Mom always refers to me as ‘her little angel,’ and now that I have wings, it feels more appropriate.