6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Jumping into an open heart and sky -- my son earns his wings

When my ex-wife and I attended our son’s graduation from Infantry OSUT at Fort Benning last month, we followed him to his next assignment at Airborne School. At first, we were told his processing would only take two to three hours, so we decided to wait for him out in the parking lot; that is, until we found out later that he wouldn’t be finished with processing until about 8 o’clock. Before we left to pass up the time at Barnes and Nobles in Columbus, I did get to observe some of the training that was going on that gave me a pretty good sense of how rigorous his next three weeks were going to be. One of the companies that marched onto the field broke into a run, chanting as they went:

“Airborne, airborne, everyday
Airborne, airborne, all the way.”

I stood about 100 feet away in front of one of the thirty-four foot towers with mock airplane doors. Cables descended from the door to the ground. Wearing harnesses, the soldiers would attach to the cables, jump out the door, and slide down at an angle similar to how you would come in for a parachute landing. That didn’t seem such a fearsome thing to accomplish. But in the field just beyond the smaller towers stood the three gigantic, 250 foot steel framework jump towers I had heard described by one of the parents after the graduation ceremony that morning.

I stopped one of the soldiers walking by. “Excuse me, Sir. Could you tell me how they get you up to the top of the tower?

“Sure,” he said. “You put on a parachute harness, and then you’re attached to a cable that hoists you to the top. Once you’re all the way up, a mechanism releases you and your chute.”

“Oh,” I said, thanking him as he turned and walked away. Just looking at the monstrous towers was enough to make me experience vertigo. I couldn’t actually imagine being hoisted up to the top of one and let go.

After I brought my son back to his barracks Sunday evening after his mother and I spent the weekend with him, my last image as I left was of the towers, their blinking red lights casting an eerie glow over the barracks. After I got back home to Maine, I settled back into my routine while my son finished Ground Week. He called me on Friday to let me know he was doing well and the training wasn’t as bad as he thought it was going to be. “Next week is Tower Week,” he said. “I’ll call you next Friday.”

Saturday night at about 9 pm, he finally called. As he described how it felt to be hoisted up to the tower and let go, I could hear a couple of women in the background talking and laughing with each other, but they weren’t speaking in English.

“It sounds like there’s a couple of young ladies close by you speaking in Spanish.”

“Yeah,” my son said. “They’re talking about how funny they find American soldiers.”

My son then cut me off, and I heard him say something to them in Spanish. There was a pause, followed by laughter, and then a response from one of the ladies. Next thing I know I’m listening to my son and a young woman conversing with each other in Spanish. At first it sounded like Brendan Fraser in “Bedazzled.” Since I don’t speak that language, I was left clueless as to what they might be talking about, but whatever it was, it was evident they were both enjoying the conversation.

“Dad, gotta go. I’ll call you in the morning.” And just like that, he hung up.

The next morning he called and said, “Guess what.”

“You won the lottery,” I said.

“Better than that. I have a date for tonight.”

“Let me guess, the young lady you started talking with last night?”

Not just any young lady, as it turned out, but the daughter of a Colonel in the Paraguay Army who was at Fort Benning for a training exercise. “Gee, better be careful,” I said, giggling.

“Not a problem. I met her father and asked for his permission to take his daughter out tonight. We’re going to go out for dinner, and then we’re going to see “Underworld: Evolution.”

Imagine that, I thought, my son, going out to dinner and a movie with a young lady from Paraguay. Maybe Army life isn’t so bad afterall. “Just remember,” I said. “Be a gentleman, and have a good time.”

He called me the next night to let me know how his date and his first jump went. “She’s really sweet, and we both had a good time. We’re going to keep in touch by writing letters to each other.”

“So, you made your first jump.” I said.

“What? Oh, figuratively and literally, yeah, I get it. Very funny, Dad. Actually, my jump went pretty good. Well, jumping out of the plane and landing, that is.”

“What, something happened?” I asked.

“Yeah. After I jumped from the plane, I got caught in a little turbulence that sent me spiraling head over heels, and when my chute deployed, I got whipped back up pretty hard. It almost felt like I was going to be split in half at the crotch by my harness. Oh, man, that hurt. Anyway, when I looked up, I saw my chute was only partially deployed.”

I wasn’t sure if that’s the part I wanted to hear.

“It wasn’t a big deal,” he said. “I saw what the problem was and I made a couple of moves that opened the chute all the way. Besides, I had my reserve just in case.”

“Gee, you must have been a little nervous about it,” I said.

“Not really. Actually, it was kind of peaceful.”

“Peaceful?” I asked, uncertain as to whether that’s a word I’d use for a situation such as he just described.

“Yeah, the jump itself. When you hop out of the plane, you’re just out there in the open sky, floating in the air. You count to four and wait for the tug as the chute is pulled out by the static line. Whatever fear you have is left behind on the plane.”

“How’d you land?” I asked.

“PLF’ed on my tippy toes,” he said.

I laughed. “It seems I’m going to be learning a lot of interesting terminology as you go along. What’s PLF?” I asked.

“Parachute Landing Fall. It’s the technique we’re trained to use to minimize injury when we come in for a landing. If you pull up just right before hitting the ground, you can come in as if you were landing on a feather pillow.”

“How’d everyone else do?”

“Pretty good. That is, most of us. Had one guy that came down in a tree, and I don’t know how, but another guy came down in the middle of a pond. Anyway, I gotta get going.”

I wished him well and then told him to make sure he called me as soon as he earned his wings.

“I’ll be sure to do that,” he said. “Love you, Dad. Talk with you later.”

The rest of the week went by and he hadn’t called. Friday and Saturday came and went, and still no call. I figured I probably hadn’t heard from him because he was busy getting his gear ready for his next move to Fort Bragg. Still, knowing his first jump seemed a little wild, I was more than curious as to how his other four jumps went, especially the night jump he had to make. Considering what I had learned so far about the rigors and dangers of jump school, the countless stories I’ve read of broken legs and head injuries, I was pretty anxious to say the least.

Sunday morning, though, I had enough of waiting, and needed to find out for sure. I called his step-brother, Jimmy, in Houston. Sure enough, Michael had called him on Thursday to tell him he passed his training, and earned his “wings.” “He called me while he was waiting to be transported to Fort Bragg on an Army bus,” he said. “I don’t think he had time to call anybody else.”

That Sunday night, my son finally called me from a pay phone to share his good news. “Fort Bragg’s huge,” he said. “It takes forever to get from the base into Fayetteville.” We spent the next ten minutes talking to each other. His next four weeks attending Special Operations Preparation Course (SOPC) will present him with an even greater challenge by testing his physical and mental stamina. After SOPC, he continue on to Special Forces Assessment and Selection Course (SFAS).

Reflecting on my experience when I was in Marine Corps infantry training, I said, “You’re going to have quite a few days that will be real suck fests. You up to it?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a definite,” he said. “But I’ll do just fine.”

By S. L. Cunningham