Sunday, March 10, 2013

Airborne School

"Airborne School is only three weeks long.  You can do anything for three weeks.  You can stand on your head for three weeks." - Black hat (instructor) at Airborne School

To tell the truth, I can't stand on my head for three weeks.  I can't stand on my head for three seconds.  I was one of those few, the not-so-proud, the cadets who failed Handstands in plebe gymspastics class.  Every time I tried, my feet quite explicitly informed me that they they do not appreciate being asked to inhabit the space above my head.  I tried--spent hours, in fact, up against the wall of the gym, head on the floor, repeatedly pushing up with my feet, only to fall over.  Up, oof.  Up, oof.  Up, oof.  Nope.

I couldn't do the feet-over-head vault, either, for that matter.  Was fine on the sideways and lengthwise horses, both from running jumps and off of the spring boards.  I was even one of the guys who took the twisty-scissor vault just fine (no, that wasn't what they called it, but I can't recall the actual term; we guys called it the "ball-buster vault" though, for the obvious, painful, and way too frequently demonstrated reason).  But feet over head?  Nope, can't do it.  I couldn't in the prime of my life, and I still can't.

Nevertheless, the message from the black hats was pretty clear.  Just keep at it.  Keep going, no matter how much you want to quit.  You can do it.

And they're right.

Airborne school is one of the first bits of training that many military folks attempt after their basic stuff.  It's also got quite a mixture of people attempting the class--it was mostly Army folks when I attended, but there were several Marines and even a few Zoomies (Air Force people).  That last worried me a bit--why would Air Force officers want to be qualified to jump out of a plane on purpose?  Hmm?  Secret plans?  Do they know something I don't?

Regardless, there was quite a variety of people in the class, some of whom hadn't been through the rigors of West Point, and so I figured perhaps such cajolings were appropriate.  As, I guess, were the prudent warnings about avoiding the night life on Victory Drive, the road right outside Fort Benning, called "VD Drive" for a reason other than its acronym, as well as not attempting to swim across the Chattahoochee, a river running right by/through Ft. Benning, one that's quite deep, cold, fast-running, and muddy, a fact I know from, um, some--well, experience. 

But they were right.  Airborne school wasn't really all that hard to deal with for just a few weeks.  Oh, we did a lot of pushups, to be certain.  I stopped counting when it hit several hundred in a day.  But doing pushups in formation was a curious activity, since there were so many people packed into the quads that the formations were quite tight.  You didn't have time to skip off to find a nice open space.  Instead, we all angled our bodies to the right and dropped to the ground when ordered, and those of us who weren't in the front row would find our chests right above the boots of the guy to our oblique front, our hands between his and his neighbor's boots.  Regular pushups involved hitting your chest on boot heels.  Airborne pushups, then, became an exercise in neck bobbing.

Sawdust was our primary enemy.  It was everywhere, and we exercised in it on the theory that it was softer to hit the ground in a sawdust pit than on hard Georgia clay (probably a true theory, honestly).  And we hit the ground often, since the focus in Airborne school is less on the majority of the jump time, floating down through the air, and more on the terrifying few seconds taken up by exiting the plane and, later, hitting the ground.  There's a certain type of fall they wanted to teach us, one that would absorb our energy and keep us from breaking anything important, and so we practiced it over, and over, and over.  Each time we did, the sawdust would make its way deeper, and deeper, and deeper into our private places, and this would cause our nighttime showers to be rather interesting rituals.  The fact that it was June, in Georgia, didn't help--sweat just pulls sawdust to it like metal filings to a magnet.

And that was just the first week!

The second week was more interesting.  Having learned all about how to drop down to the ground in a sawdust pit--and how to, later, clean sawdust out of our hoo-haws--we graduated to the more advanced activities.  Part of that was learning to exit the plane, which must be done in a specific and rather vigorous manner if you don't wish to exemplify what happens when turbulence slams a paratrooper into the metallic side of a transport plane.

And then there was the enhanced falling practice.  Part of learning to fall from greater heights than that presented by a wooden block placed in sawdust involved climbing up into a tower and peeling down a zip line, releasing when you were told in order to slam into the ground, roll up, and race to do it again.  Don't tell anybody wearing a black hat, but that part was actually rather fun.  It's akin to what I used to do as a Mississippi boy, except that they were smart enough to actually secure both ends of the zip line.  That securing of the line is probably the key to why I didn't break my arm again, but--well, yeah. 

Then there was a particularly sadistic (I thought) exercise.  The black hats led us into a barn-like structure and had us put on harnesses.  We'd then climb into the loft and hook the harness to a rope that dangled from a ceiling pulley.  At the special command to jump ("Jump!" I think it was) we'd leap from the edge of the loft and swing back and forth, dangling from the rope that was secured in a black hat's hand until he got tired of holding on or saw us in a particularly dangerous pose.  Zzzzip!  Bam!  Ow!  Repeat....

Hey, we learned to land safely, out of self-preservation if nothing else.

The third week of Airborne School was the one everybody was looking forward to: Jump Week.  In order to wear the wings of an Airborne Trooper, you have to make five jumps.  I don't recall anybody saying they all had to be successful, mind you, but the first four had to leave you sufficiently whole to jump the fifth time.  That was the goal: Jump Five.  The wonderful and much-looked-forward-to I'm done with this crap landing.  Zzzzip!  Bam!  Ow!  Bye!

There weren't any normal exams for the course.  All it took was one jump per day for five days.  If you did your five jumps, you passed.  If you didn't, you failed.

The first day of Jump Week dawned overcast and rainy.  They won't ask new people to jump in the rain; it's too dangerous.  Thus, we got the day off, if sitting around in the jump house wearing 60-pound parachutes hoping for it to clear up counts as a day off in anybody's book.

Day two of Jump Week dawned equally overcast and rainy.  I don't think I've ever prayed for sunshine as heavily as I did then.  Remember, I can't do a handstand for three seconds, much less three weeks due to rain.

Day three dawned just like day two.  We really started to worry.

The fourth day dawned--sunny!  Partly sunny, if you must be specific, but at that point I really didn't give a crap.  Nobody did.  It wasn't raining, and so we were going.  I excitedly put on my chute and the reserve and stumbled along in line with everybody else into the old musty C-130 transport.

If you've never ridden on a C-130--well, count your blessings, for one thing--think darkness and noise.  There are a series of round portholes along each side, and so you get a line of round spotlights piercing the darkness, but that only heightens the effect of the dark.  The C-130s used at Airborne School at the time were older than Methuselah, too, so they creaked and groaned and roared and vibrated while they were taking off, and then it got worse when they were in the air.  A light wispy smoke trailed through the dusky air, which seemed just perfect--the scary cherry on our terror sundae.  We were all jammed in hip-to-hip, unable to move much thanks to the size of our chutes and the reserves in our laps, but at least we were able to grin through the darkness to the person sitting across from us, whoever they were; it was tough to tell in the dank light and in our combat gear.  Didn't matter.  We were jumping!

There's a certain surrealism that happens when you jump, Army-style, out of a perfectly good, if ancient, airplane.  The Army way of doing Airborne assaults has been perfected over the years to ensure a certain economy of movement and effort while giving dozens of people jumping out of potentially hundreds of transports the greatest possible chance each of hitting the ground uninjured.  It's a process, one you've practiced many times by that point.  You stand up.  You connect your pull line to the metal cable that runs through the length of the plane.  You check your buddy's cable to make sure it's okay.  You repeat the Jumpmaster's calls like an automaton in one of Stephen King's books as he warns you of six minutes, and then one minute, and then thirty seconds to impending jump time.  Then the light turns green, and one by one you move to the open door, take up the jumping position, and with everything you have spring out and into the air, with or without a horizontal assist from the Jumpmaster's boot.

And--then it's silent.

No, I mean it's really, incredibly, totally, astoundingly, silent.

First off, you're coming from a noisy as hell aircraft in which the Jumpmaster has to scream just to be heard over the rumbles and the vibrations.  But after the leap, you're carried along by rather than fighting the wind, and so you don't even hear that.  In that one spring you transition magically from dark, dank, noisy, and stressful, into silent daylight, floating above the world blissfully.

It's incredible. It's amazing.  They weren't kidding when they said on the first day that it's the most fun you can have with your clothes on.

And then, you hit the ground.  Hopefully you remember what they taught you about safe landings, preferably not too late to use it.

As we were celebrating Jump #1, the black hats were furiously pushing us onto the buses to return to the airfield to do the next jump.  Remember, we were on Thursday and still had four more jumps to do.  They succeeded, and so we did another, and then we did another.  Three jumps, one day.  Not bad, eh?

The next day was more of the same.  It was Friday, after all, and we all had planes to catch to parts unknown.  At least, I did.  I was flying home for vacation.

Jump number four: no problem.  No problem for me, anyway.  Did I mention that once we were on the ground we got to watch others jumping and landing?  It was kinda fun, kinda cool, and, in one case, kinda heart-stopping.

Two guys coming down after me collided. 

That really is a big deal.  It doesn't seem like it should be, but it is.  See, the only thing keeping those big green parachutes open is the fact that the air pressure on the inside is greater than it is on the outside.  If you think about it, that makes perfect sense, because our weight is pulling us down and as it does so is gathering air inside the parachute.  But if you add the pressure of another, equally-pressurized, parachute pressing against yours, the equations change drastically.

Both parachutes often collapse.

There we stood, watching the two soldiers involved plummet to the earth, each of us who was already there rising onto the tippy-toes of our combat boots.  There were black hats all around the jump zone, and every single one of them was screaming into his megaphone words to the effect of "deploy your reserve!"

Now, nobody wants to deploy the reserve parachute.  It's attached at the hips rather than the shoulders, so making a good, healthy, landing with reserve deployed is pretty much impossible.  Granted, it's still going to be a better landing than one with no parachute, so we were relieved to see one of the endangered soldiers deployed his reserve fairly quickly.  His main chute also re-opened within a few yards, which gave him two to float down with.  It caused an awkward landing, but it worked.  For him.

The other guy nearly killed all of us as our hearts rose into our throats the closer he fell to the surface of the earth.  I still remember hearing the collective intake of air as he got to 100, and then 50 yards from the Alabama turf that was every bit as hard as the Georgia clay and would likely end his life.

Then, with a mere 25 or so yards to go, his main parachute reopened.  Poof!  Float....

Everybody breathed a sigh of relief at the same time, simultaneously sinking back onto our heels.  I don't know if you've ever been in a several-dozen-member company that's watched a member pull a life-saving miracle out of his hind quarters, but it's quite a feeling.  We all erupted in cheers.

The black hats, meanwhile, spoke of roasting the guy over an open pit.

That left jump number five. 

I have no idea how anybody else landed on Jump Number Five.  I don't care.  For me, it was the worst landing of all the jumps: instead of rolling down the meaty body parts, as in feet, shins, thighs, that landing went heels, butt, head, with the back of my head bouncing a few times off of the hardened Alabama soil.  I remember looking up into the sunshine, watching stars swivel around, thinking, "Hell, that hurt.  That hurt a lot.  But I don't care.  I'm done."

Graduation was quick.  They pinned wings on all of us.  Some people, despite it being against Army regulations, asked for "blood wings"--the posts being driven forcefully into the skin of the chest.  One of the women in the class ran up to us, wanting us to see her chest after she'd gotten blood wings--nope, sorry.  I wasn't a guy who normally turned down looking at women's chests, but I had a plane to catch.

I'll never forget the feeling of boarding an airplane that I wouldn't have to jump out of.  It's--profound.

I still can't stand on my head for three weeks.  But Airborne School did prove to me that I can put up with nearly anything else for that long.


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