Airborne Ranger, Airborne Ranger

Fourteen years ago this summer I suffered through the most miserable two and a half months of my life – 17 days each in the soupy July air of Fort Benning, Georgia; the frying pan-hot Chihuahuan Desert of eastern New Mexico; the demoralizingly steep ascents of the Appalachians; and the dysenteric swamps of the Florida panhandle; all largely on a meal a day and little to no sleep.  The reward was a Ranger tab, yet conventional Army wisdom still derisively labels me a “leg” – a non-Airborne qualified soldier.  But now here I am back at Ft. Benning hoping to remedy my deficiencies, this time at the U.S. Army Airborne School.  I am the senior officer in my class, and one of just two Majors out of over five hundred students.  The vast majority of my classmates are younger than my youngest sister; many, I find, were born the year I graduated from high school.  The training is geared specifically towards these Privates who are, regrettably, prone to not be where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be there, and not wearing the uniform they are supposed to be in.  For their trespasses I am yelled at (always respectfully, never directly), forced to do push-ups, flutter-kicks, ski-jumpers, and the grossly underestimated “overhead clap.”[1]

I am, as some have reminded me, no longer twenty-four.  I know this.  I am thirty-seven.  But no one here knows this, so on the outside I am a rock.  I always do my “optional” ten pull-ups and twenty push-ups each time we are released for the day.  I sound off vigorously with an “Airborne!” each time I hit the ground.  I never complain, I never doze off in class, I do everything Sergeant Airborne tells me to do, enthusiastically and without delay.  But inside I am dying.  The bottoms of my feet hurt.  The side of my neck is friction-burned from the straps of the mock-parachutes.  I have fire ant bites on my legs and hands.  I cannot feel, inexplicably, the this little piggy had none toe on my right foot.  I quietly await what, by all indications, seems to be the early stages of a hernia, and I think I pulled a muscle in my triceps opening my hotel room door.  But still I am here, and after two weeks of training and five jumps from a C-130 Hercules airplane, I will no longer be a dirty, nasty, non-Airborne qualified leg Ranger.

Zero Day and Ground Week

Airborne Ranger, Airborne Ranger, where have you been?

Around the world and back again.

Despite some anxiety – this will be the first time I’ve been around Joe[2] on a regular basis in over three years – I show up as close as possible to the Zero Day “no later than” report time of 1200 hours.  I am a cagey veteran, a veritable old-timer given the apparent average age of my classmates, and my Army experience has taught me that reporting any earlier than absolutely necessary only means you’ll either get tasked to go do something or just end up waiting that much longer.  I file into a classroom with about 200 other soldiers, holding in my hand my orders directing me to Ft. Benning; an Airborne physical stating I tested negative for HIV, have no blood in my stool, and am generally an able-bodied male; and an age waiver signed by my boss stating that despite the age limit of thirty-six, I should be allowed to attend Airborne training.  The soldiers around me are clearly brand-new to the Army – many having just arrived from Sand Hill, the basic training area for infantrymen – and do not need an age waiver.  The soldier sitting to my right appears to have a zit for each of my years.  I hear an audible gasp from the group as I stand after the administrative sergeant calls out “any majors here today?”  The NCO, a red-headed Sergeant First Class whom I immediately dislike, calls out for the other officer ranks, then directs us all in the completion of four forms he had previously passed out.

 

“Airborne, take everything off your desk and put it under your seat.  Everything Airborne!  Get everything off your desk or else you jackasses will fuck everything up, and I don’t have the time to be fucking with you.  Now, reach in that folder and take out THE TOP SHEET AND THE TOP SHEET ONLY.  On that first sheet, fill out block one where it says ‘last name.’  In this block you should put your last name and your last name only.  Airborne!  Did I tell you to fill out block two?  Don’t get ahead of me airborne, because you’ll just fuck everything up.  You don’t do shit until I tell you to!  Now, in BLOCK TWO” – he sends a condescending look in the direction of the overly ambitious jackass – “put down your first name and your first name only.  Fill it out in standard Army black letters and in ENGLISH ONLY.  I don’t want to see no Japanese hieroglyphics.”

It takes us over an hour to do what should have taken ten minutes, a trend that continues for the remainder of my time here.  I have to show, for the six hours of Zero Day I have spent at Airborne School, a helmet, a moldy canteen, a sunburn and an order to show up early Monday morning.  It’s going to be a long three weeks.

The Army frequently uses the “crawl, walk, run” method of instruction, which essentially means we train to the lowest common denominator, and so we spend most days crawling like a figurative nine-month old.  Though I am staying in Officer’s Quarters away from the Bravo Company area, where the soldiers sleep, I have to report each morning at 0450 hours for “forced hydration.”  This is where we stand around the second floor of the barracks (we’re in second platoon – note the symmetry) holding a full canteen of water until Sergeant Airborne shows up, reels off a few disparaging remarks, and then tells us to “DRINK UP AIRBORNE.”  We then guzzle the entire canteen.  After a few minutes, we solemnly move downstairs and outside to wait in formation with the rest of the company.  The cadre waits inside until the last possible minute (I went into their office one morning and found them sleeping, sprawled out like a bunch of cats), yelling through an open window if they need to talk to any particular soldier.

Sergeant Airborne yelling out the window for a specific student is one of my favorite parts of Airborne School.  It is five am, five hundred students have just guzzled a canteen full of water, and we all know we will stand around for approximately thirty minutes waiting for the cadre to come outside and run us to the training area.  This routine accommodates that basic human need for interaction, even at five am, and the company area quickly comes alive with human chatter, sounding like cicadas emerging from their seventeen year sleep.  Conversation is stopped only (but always) whenever we hear one of the windows slide open, Sergeant Airborne’s head emerging to yell out a roster number: “Charlie Three One Seven!”  Immediately five hundred voices respond.  “CHARLIE THREE ONE SEVEN!”  The cicada love song then resumes, and I giggle internally.

The main purpose of Ground Week seems to be to teach us how to fall down correctly, employing the “PLF” – the parachute landing fall.  In short, this consists of landing with your feet and knees tightly together, and hitting, preferably consecutively, your five “points of contact”: the balls of your feet, the outside of your calf, your thigh, your butt, and then your pull-up muscle, hopefully exposed by you keeping your elbows together in front of you and high up above your face.  This sequence of events, developed in the 1940’s, is the basis for the Army-specific directive, to “get your head out of your fourth point of contact.”  Feel free to adopt it into your own library of colloquialisms.  Ideally, the PLF will save you from serious injury, because the T-10 Delta parachute – a version of which has also been around since the 1940’s – is designed to get you to the ground safely, but more importantly, as quickly as possible.

This is not the landing you’ve seen on television, where a rainbow-clad skydiver pulls on toggles just before impact, hitting the ground running, yet softly, like a Pelican landing on terra firma.  This parachute was designed with the soldier in mind, specifically the enemy soldier, who is probably shooting at you as you fall from the sky, so getting down quickly is of utmost importance.  The trade-off is that you hit the ground harder than you’d like to, and to be able to properly minimize the impact is a good skill.  So we practice falling down.  Again.  And again, and again.  We practice falling down from our standing position.  We practice falling down from a 2’ wall.  We practice falling down while sliding on a cable.  We practice falling down facing forwards, facing sideways, facing backwards.  We practice falling down moving in all directions while sliding on the cable.  To emphasize the importance of keeping feet and knees together, we bunny-hop around the practice pit with our legs welded together, like we’re training for a gunny sack race but can’t find a gunny sack.  Not wearing underwear was a decision considerably lacking in foresight, as the sweat building up in my man-regions has nowhere to go.

We spend the last day of Ground Week jumping out of the 34’ Tower, the first occasion where I feel like I’m doing something kind of cool.  We do it both “Hollywood” – wearing only the parachute harness and a reserve parachute strapped in front of you – and “combat load,” which includes all of the above plus a thirty-five pound rucksack hanging from your waist.  Once we’re geared up, we walk up five flights of stairs, where a Sergeant Airborne hooks our harnesses to a pulley resting on a cable suspended 34’ off the ground.  Once hooked up, Sergeant Airborne gives a smack on the ass, indicating it is now time for you to jump out the door.  I give a vigorous kick and throw myself into a tight body position – chin tucked into chest, elbows in tight, feet and knees together.  I fall for just a fraction of a second until the harness catches, and then slide down the cable to other students waiting to unhook me.  With the exception of jumping off a tower, this is not a pleasurable experience.

If you’d like to get a taste of this, here’s a suitable recreation:  Take two seat belts, run them between your legs and then over your shoulder.  Fasten both, ensuring a buckle is digging into each clavicle.  Now squat down, and have your buddy cinch the belts up real tight.  Now stand up.  If you are unable to stand completely upright, then you’ve done it correctly (if, however, you feel your scrotum being pinched in between a belt and your thigh, you probably have some adjusting to do).  Now go get a computer monitor – not a flat screen, but one of the old school big ones.  Fill it with sand, and hang it from your waist.  Take two more seat belts, and run them through the two existing belts, right about at the front of your shoulders.  Make sure that when these belts extend straight up, your head doesn’t fit easily between them.  You want to reproduce the feeling of having your neck filleted as the straps rapidly shift from front to rear.  Now go walk up five flights of stairs.  Tie your two shoulder belts to the railing.  Jump off.  Repeat ad nauseum.

Tower Week

Airborne Ranger, Airborne Ranger, how did you go?

In a C-130, flying low.

 

The highlight of Tower Week is supposed to be the 250’ tower, where some students are slowly reeled up by a cable hooked to a parachute, and then dropped.  Think the Free Fall ride at Six Flags, and you’ll have the visual.  But we’re on a shortened training schedule, both because of a post-wide “Safety Day” and because of the four-day Memorial Day weekend, so the Tower is scrapped.

Instead we do a lot more hanging around, sitting in the bleachers and bullshitting in between either Sergeant Airborne or some uptight student yelling at us to “shut the fuck up.”  And for the majority of our down time, I’m pretty happy, because being around Joe again is invigorating.  Though my description at the end of this essay might leave you somewhat hesitant about the kismet awaiting Joe, have no doubt – he’s someone you want on your team.  And Joe is funny.  There are two female ROTC cadets in our platoon, both under 21 and attractive.  They are the object of much affection, and watching and listening to the mating call of Joe is hilarity of the highest order.  One afternoon I overhear two Marines one-upping each other in their efforts to impress Female Cadet, the winner clearly the Marine who proudly states he once teabagged[3] an anthill for $100.

We’ve now spent almost eight days together, for extended hours, and the student appointed as my squad leader annoys me.  He’s a 39 year old National Guard E7 from Oklahoma, and though his hayseed routine was initially endearing, it’s quickly become tiring.  He is a brownnoser, a Spotlight Ranger, a suckass, a sycophant, and has chosen Airborne School as his forum to display his leadership skills.  He also lacks what we call “situational awareness.”  One morning, after several rear PLFs, a Sergeant Airborne asked us if we wanted to do more.  My E7 responded affirmatively, the only one of 500 students.  Not like in “hooah Sergeant Airborne, you can’t smoke me!” but like in “shucks Sergeant Airborne, I sure would like to practice one more time.”  Later in the day, while assisting soldiers, he began calling off everyone’s number before they slid down the apparatus, as if the Sergeant Airborne was illiterate (our roster numbers are painted in big black letters on both the front and back of our helmet) and the student was mute.  Here’s our conversation, verbatim:

“Sergeant, if you feel the need to call out each person’s roster number, then just have them do it.”

“Oh no sir, I’m good, it’s not bothering me.”

“But it’s bothering me.”

On the last training day before Jump Week, I lock my keys in my truck at approximately 0440 am.  We spend all morning in our Physical Training uniforms, first conducting a company run and then, for no apparent reason, walking through an outdoor shower.  This is fine for all the Army soldiers, not so fine for the Marines.  The Army PT uniform consists of a thick gray t-shirt and black water repellant shorts.  The Marine Corps PT uniform, on the other hand, is a thread-bare thin olive drab t-shirt and a pair of short silkies,[4] and the cold water additive has rendered the rest of us observers at an impromptu spring-breakish scene.  My Marine Corps platoon sergeant looks like he’s been shrink-wrapped.  I can tell his religion.  After about 20 minutes, he tells the formation that some people are a little uncomfortable around the wet Marines (I have to admit, it’s difficult not to stare), and tells all his mates to use their canteens to discretely cover themselves.  So now I have about 10 strapping Marines (they’re all Force Recon guys) walking around holding their canteens below their waist like fig leaves.  They look ridiculous.

We end the morning (and the day) with a platoon photograph.  We arrange ourselves from tallest to shortest.  I put myself in front of three or four guys who I’m fairly certain are taller than I.  My weekend safety brief to all the soldiers consists of “don’t be a jackass.”  I hope I can follow my own advice.

At 8:30 pm, about two hours after calling “Pop-a-Lock,” I am visited by a tricked-out Jeep Wrangler with no visible company logo.  Out steps a 350 pound kid in jeans and a sleeveless tee (not the homemade type, but purchased, indicated by the hemmed arm-holes), white deodorant residue both hanging from the hairs protruding from his armpits and spread liberally across the sides of his shirt, markings of the hard day’s work put in by his mammoth and pendulous arms.  He sticks an air bag into the door jamb of my truck, inflates it enough so he can reach a beefed-up clothes hangar through the crack, and then unlocks my door.  Sixty-five dollars for about thirty seconds of work – I hope jump week goes a little better.

Jump Week

Airborne Ranger, Airborne Ranger, how’d you get down?

In a T-10 Charlie, big and round.

I am not afraid.  Though I’m uncomfortable in the harness, I am not sweating.  My heart rate is normal.  I am essentially indifferent as the loudspeaker calls out “CHALK FIVE, STAND UP AND FACE THE AIRFIELD.  KEEP YOUR FEET AND KNEES TOGETHER AIRBORNE.  IT’S GO TIME.”

It’s about noon inside the chute warehouse, and an overhead door slides up, revealing a C-130 Hercules rolling up the tarmac towards us, her four turboprop engines whining noisily.  She turns the corner, the lowering tailgate visible through the combined heat waves from the ground and the aircraft itself.  We shuffle towards the back of the plane, entering in reverse order and passing two or three of our instructors, who will act as Jump Masters on our flight.

As soon as we are seated, the plane begins to roll, and Jump Master beings his routine.

“TEN MINUTES!”

Sixty of us call back, “TEN MINUTES TEN MINUTES TEN MINUTES!”

Jump Master shouts, “GET READY!”

It has not been ten minutes; closer to thirty seconds.  As he shouts his second command, the jump door of the aircraft rolls up, revealing the passing tree line below us, and the tenor inside the belly of the airplane changes significantly.  A soldier sitting across from me turns his head from the open door to me, his mouth and eyes wide open.  I give him the “OK” sign, and we sixty call back “GET READY!”  I smile at the soldier.  This will be a breeze, a walk in the park.  We are trained, we are ready, equipment always works, and we have a reserve anyway.

Jump Master calls back to us, “INBOARD PERSONNEL, STAND UP!”  We repeat it back to him, and the first five jumpers in the two inner rows of cargo net seats struggle to their feet.

“OUTBOARD PERSONNEL, STAND UP!”  I repeat his command as I stand myself.

“HOOK UP!”  Jump Master simultaneously makes a sign-language “X” with both of his hands, and we twenty standing jumpers move to unhook our static lines from our reserves,[5] placing them on the cable running over our heads.

“CHECK STATIC LINES!”  It is imperative that your static line go from the cable overhead, through your hand, and over your shoulder to the parachute on your back.  Underneath your shoulder is bad juju, so you first check your own static line and then the line of the jumper in front of you.  If all appears to be well, you tap the helmet of the jumper in front of you and tell him “safe.”  This is passed forward until it gets to the Jump Master, who then shouts –

“CHECK EQUIPMENT!”  We repeat the command while running our hands along the brim of our helmet, our chinstrap, the buckle on our chest and then on each leg.  The last man in line, after checking his equipment, slaps the backside of the man in front of him and yells in his ear “OK!”  The command is passed forward until it reaches the last man, who confidently thrusts his open hand into the face of the Jump Master and yells “ALL OK JUMP MASTER!”

The Jump Master slaps the jumper’s hand, then turns to the door.  He stomps down one foot, checking the stability of the ramp, then methodically but deliberately checks the door jambs for any protrusions or sharp edges – it’s a truly dramatic scene.  He then looks at the first jumper, affirmatively shoving his finger-extended hand in his face, and shouts “STAND IN THE DOOR!”  The first jumper then hands the Safety (a non-jumper there to ensure a smooth exit from the aircraft) his static line, puts a hand on each side of the reserve at his waist, and then turns so he is facing out the door.

I cannot see him (I am the eighth of ten jumpers on my side of the airplane), but I have no doubt his eyes are as big as Oreos, his pulse racing, breathing heavy, his brow littered with sweat.  But not me.  I am solid, coolly indifferent to jumping out the door.  The light at the front of the aircraft turns from red to green, the Jump Master shouts “GO!,” and we are moving.  I shuffle forward, hand the Safety my static line, and turn towards the door.

When one jumps out of an airplane moving at 130 knots 1200’ above the ground, one is supposed to exit the door by jumping up six inches and out thirty-six.  One is supposed to tuck one’s chin into one’s chest, keeping elbows in tight to the ribs and hands firmly gripping the sides of the reserve parachute hanging at one’s belly.  The jumper is then supposed to count to four – one thousand two thousand three thousand four thousand – then move hands from the reserve parachute to the risers of the opening parachute above his head.  Once the jumper confirms he has an open and untwisted parachute, he then looks for other jumpers, ensuring not only he is keeping a safe distance from the other jumpers, but also that he is falling at a rate of descent consistent with the other jumpers.  At approximately 100’, the jumper is supposed to reach up and pull down on the two risers in the direction opposite of any drift, keeping eyes squarely on the horizon.  One does not look down once below 100’, as he is supposed to “feel” the ground with the balls of his feet.  Once the jumper feels contact, he should execute his perfected PLF, landing expertly.

This is not how it works for me.  It turns out that I am totally and unequivocally mentally unprepared for the violence about to befall me.  As I move to exit the door, I am sucked out before I can get my first “thousand” out of my mouth.  My chin is in my chest, but only because the risers being yanked out of my pack have slammed my head forward, knocking my helmet down over my eyes in the process.  I have a tight body position – elbows in, feet and knees together – but only because I am scared shitless.  I can see a sliver of scenery from the underside of my helmet, and I watch it turn from tree to ground to tree to sky and back again.  I feel like a cigarette being flicked from a fast moving car.

I do not count to four thousand, mostly because my jaw is clenched shut but also because I am chanting, in my head, to the God of Agnostics: chute open chute open chute open chute open.  I stop tumbling, fix my helmet, and then look up to see my risers twisted.  As I was instructed, I quickly grab a riser in each hand, pulling apart as hard as my panic-induced arms will allow, and bicycle my legs like I stole something and my Schwinn is the getaway car.  I untwist, the risers parting to reveal a gloriously open, unobstructed, fully inflated chute.

She is beautiful.  I want to name her.  I think I want to name my children after her.  I sheepishly look around and collect myself, feeling like I just took a spill on my skateboard at a quiet intersection – did anyone see that? – and settle in to enjoy the ride.  I then notice that I am falling faster than everyone else in front of me.  This is not, I think, supposed to happen like this.  Shouldn’t the first one out the door also be the first one to the ground?  I crane my neck to see the jumpers behind me, but nothing – I am falling faster than them as well.  I look for the smoke pot on the ground, lit to help us see which way the wind is blowing so we can execute the appropriate PLF.  The smoke seems to be moving only upwards, directly at me, and I am falling only down, directly at it.  They did not teach me how I was supposed to land if I was falling straight down.

I hear a voice.  “AIRBORNE STOP LOOKING AT THE GROUND.”  I have no idea where the voice is coming from, and cannot see its source, but it reminds me to keep my eyes on the horizon.  I need to feel the ground as I land, first touching with the balls of my feet, then calves, then thigh, then butt, then pull-up muscle.  This PLF, I think, needs to be a good one, because I am falling really, really fast.

I do, in fact, feel the ground with the balls of my feet.  A microsecond later I feel the ground with my ass, and then, like it’s the tail end of a childhood game of “crack the whip,” I feel the ground with the back of my head.  I have skipped my second, third, and fifth points of contact but added a sixth.  I lay there for a few seconds, spread eagle, partially disoriented but mostly grateful to be on the ground and alive.  When I sit up, I see a Sergeant Airborne (the source of the voice I heard) sitting on a cooler, only about fifteen feet from me.  His right hand, holding the bull horn, is draped lazily over his right knee.  His head is hanging down, and I can tell he is laughing.  I give him a “what the f**k” look, and he swings the bullhorn up to his lips.

“ARE YOU OK AIRBORNE?”

“FUCK NO I’M NOT OK!  That hurt.”  He laughs.  He goes back to the bullhorn.  “YOU HAVE TO TWIST YOUR BODY AIRBORNE.”

“When?,” I ask.  Because there is absolutely no time between my feet and ass and head hitting the ground.  But there are already more jumpers floating down, so I gather up my equipment and start running across the drop zone to the staging area.  I am the first one back, by a good five minutes.

Jumps two, three, and four go much the same, though on my second jump I land on a packed road rather than the tilled ground, seeing stars after my head hits; on my fourth jump I am dragged across the drop zone for ten feet or so before I can unhook the chute.  I have no idea why I fall faster than everyone else – I’m really not that much bigger – but for all subsequent jumps I make sure I am the last one out the door so that I will not interfere with anyone else as I come down.  I still make it back to the staging area first. For each jump I am progressively more nervous, but loathe them all equally.  We jump twice on the first day and twice on the second day, needing only one jump on day three to get our fifth, and Airborne-qualifying, jump.

The last day comes early.  We have to be at formation by 3:30 am, and we silently run the mile to the airfield.  Once we get there we practice exiting from both doors of the mock aircraft and go through our practice PLFs for Sergeant Airborne – I am, admittedly, phoning it in at this point, as I have yet to have a PLF work for me.  We eat a cold MRE for breakfast.  We are in the harness – combat load for jump five – by 6:15 am.  This morning my squad will be on the second aircraft, and I am very much looking forward to being on the ground and out of this torture device of a parachute harness as soon as possible.  There are a limited number of Jump Masters, and they do double-duty both for the Jump Master Personnel Inspection in the harness shed and as the Jump Masters on the aircraft, so once we’re inspected, we can’t get back out of the harness.  I don’t drink water so I won’t have to pee, and pass time trying new ways to sit on the wooden benches to alleviate some of the pain.

The first jumpers are scheduled to get on the plane at 1000 hours, but the hour comes and goes.  Then eleven.  Today is overcast, and we need the clouds to be no lower than 1700’ – 1200’ is jump altitude, but we’re required to have 500’ of clearance.  I ask a passing Air Force pilot about the ceiling: Only 700’.  The clock reads noon.  The sergeant in charge (NCOIC) gets a waiver from the commander so we can jump at 1000’ instead of 1200’.  But the clouds are still only at 900’.  I volunteer to jump from 900’.  I volunteer to jump from 700’, 500’, whatever it takes to get out of this harness.  It’s now one o’clock.  A soldier two down from me passes out from dehydration.  We yell for Sergeant Airborne, two of us clumsily unhooking the passed out soldier from his gear.  The NCOIC unsuccessfully tries to get the commander to allow us to drop combat gear.  Another soldier wets his pants, the rest of us informed by the NCOIC conducting his end of the conversation with another Sergeant Airborne over the loudspeaker (“WHY IS ONE NINE EIGHT GETTING OUT OF HIS GEAR?”  Seconds pass. “DID HE GET THE PARACHUTE WET?”  More seconds.  “DID HE TELL ANYONE HE HAD TO GO?”).

At 1345 hours – one forty-five pm, and seven and one half hours after getting into the harness – Sergeant Airborne comes over the loudspeaker.  “CHALKS FIVE AND SIX, STAND UP AND FACE THE AIRFIELD.”  At this point, there is neither elation nor relief.  I want to get out of the harness but am, to be honest, fairly apprehensive about this last jump.  I will exit the door, no doubt, but I am not particularly looking forward to it.  We trudge out the door, wait for the aircraft, walk up the back of the ramp, and sit.

And then?  And then.  And then.  And then, over the airplane radio, music.  No, not music, but an anthem.  The anthem of my senior year of college, Everlast’s opus, that homage to kicking ass, self-aggrandizement, and yes, jumping around.  And why not?  Why not jump around?  I’m about to exit an airplane with fifty pounds of crap slung off my body like an overloaded bandito, and I deserve to serve your ass like I’m John McEnroe.  I deserve a little jumping around.  A smile replaces my grimace as I drift back to 1993, sitting on our dryer in the filthy basement of the Green House, my friends around me smoking a joint as we stare together at the wood floor above us, pulsating with the synched bacchanalian jumps of a hundred of our closest friends living the dream.  Over the plane radio it begins, pack it up, pack it in, let me begin, I came to win, and the Jump Master is literally packing us in.  He seats one of us, then makes us lift our rucksacks up as high as possible as he squeezes someone else into the seat directly across.  There is barely room for one person with a ruck, but he needs to squeeze thirty per side.  He makes everyone raise their hands in the air (get up, stand up, come on throw your hands up) as he shoves us to the back of the plane.  But I do not care.  I am 37 and have been sitting on a wood bench for almost eight hours and I have to pee and there’s a metal bar grinding into my shin and I don’t care, because across from me I see an ROTC cadet, a young kid looking all of his twenty years, mouthing – yelling – the words to Jump Around and I cannot help but be overcome because this is one of those days, one of those moments that doesn’t come around all that often but when it does, it reminds me that I really, really like what I do.

I exit the aircraft fifteenth of fifteen and am flung from the door like litter.  My chute opens – no twists – and I watch as I pass fourteen other parachutists on my way down.  I pull the release lever for my rucksack at about 200’, and it dangles on its cord thirty feet below me.  I find the smoke pot to gauge the wind; it’s pushing me to my left.  At 100’ I reach up and grab the two right risers and pull down as hard as I can, my eyes on the horizon.  I feel the ground with the balls of my feet, then my left calf, then my left thigh, my left butt cheek, and finally my left pull-up muscle.  I keep my elbows in front of my face, my momentum swinging my feet and knees – held firmly together – up and over.  I unhook the parachute and start to get out of my equipment, and hear a Sergeant Airborne through his bullhorn: “NICE LANDING SIR.”

I want to hug somebody.  Instead, as I reel in my parachute, I utter, under my breath, that one word I have heard over and over so many times the last three weeks, to the point I never want to hear it again:

Airborne.

[1] For this exercise, stand with your feet shoulder width apart, arms extended out and parallel to the ground.  Keeping your arms straight, move your hands upward until they touch, then return them to shoulder level.  This is a four count exercise – one, two, three (one!), one, two three (two!).  Do 200 of these.  Seriously.  Now do push-ups.  Now do more overhead claps.

[2] “Joe” is a slangy name given to soldiers of any rank below that of sergeant, and it should convey to you a vivid image of his idiosyncrasies.  Joe owns both an XBox and a PlayStation.  Joe took his enlistment bonus and bought an ’08 Ford Mustang GT, financing the balance with a double-digit APR.  Joe smokes – he’s likely to chew as well – and has a tribal tattoo on his arm and shoulder.  He owns denim shorts, and frequently sports them with a “Linkin’ Park” concert t-shirt and a DC skateboards hat.  Sometimes you have to remind Joe that he needs to wash between his toes.  Though he likes girls, Joe’s not real sure how to relate to them, and so is prone to do things like flicking or punching them in the arm, much like a fourth-grader lustily reacting to the early pangs of puberty.  Joe has a big heart, with which he isn’t entirely sure how to deal.  Joe works hard, and most importantly, Joe will do anything for his fellow soldiers (and by proxy, you), including but not limited to: lie, display common sense-defying acts of loyalty, steal, provide back-up in a fist fight, assist in the cross-border transportation of marijuana, and dive on a grenade.

 

[3] Recounting here the definition of “teabagging” is simply too much for me, so I’ll instead refer you to http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=teabagging.  Reader beware.

[4] Army Rangers and Special Forces wear shorts consisting of essentially the same material, sometimes referred to as “Ranger Panties.”  The shorts are typical of what you’d see on any world-class marathon runner, expect Marines and Rangers aren’t usually built like world-class marathon runners.  They’re built like, well, Marines and Rangers, and so the shorts are really, really short and really, really thin.

[5] The system works like this: inside the aircraft and a little over 6’ from the floor are two cables running the length of the airplane.  On each soldier’s back is a parachute, with a nylon “static line” starting at the bag holding the parachute intact, protruding out of the pack and then over your shoulder.  At the end of the static line is a metal hook.  This metal hook goes onto the static line, and when you jump out of the aircraft, the hooked line pulls the bag and parachute out of your pack.  You are hooked to your hopefully opening parachute by four “risers,” pieces of think nylon webbing that run from the chute to your harness.

 

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Jay Morse

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