It was a diffcult period for our country, I just wanted to grow up. I joined the Army.
|In April of 1972, I joined the Army on a delayed entry program. I was officially in the Army of the United States, while I was still completing my senior year in high school. After My June graduation, I entered active service on August 8th of 1972.
Why did I join the Army? It was a question I would repeatedly ask myself for the next four years. We were losing the Vietnam War, and it would last another bloody year. I was very fortunate I did not get sent to that country to fight. Our country had many challenges and seemed to be tearing itself apart. War- peace in Vietnam, racial discrimination, the sexual revolution, inflation, a poor economy, exploding population growth, environmental issues, a cold war with the Soviet Union, nuclear holocaust was likely, an uneasy peace with North Korea; we had lots of problems as a people, and I just wanted to grow up.
I was young, naïve, and full of life. I wanted adventure. I needed to escape my childhood home, to take my first steps as an independent man. I was also scared. I was scared I could be hurt. I was scared of being a thought a coward. I was scared I would fail and disappoint those who believed in me. I felt I had a lot to live up to. I felt the memory of my dad pushing me toward tomorrow and I couldn’t be sure if I was getting it right.
My dad was a career marine. He died in 1971 in a freak accident. He had fallen from a chair lift called the Sky Ride at the Ohio State Fair. After dad died I had to figure out what being a man meant with out the benefit of his guidance. I continued my journey to become a man while in the Army. I had volunteered to become part of the elite force known as the Eighty Second Airborne Division. My first stop was Fort Knox Kentucky for basic training. I was then sent to jump school at Fort Benning Georgia.
It was late October, and the cooler weather was failing to assert itself over the waning summer heat. The early morning was cool, but the mid- day sun baked the macadam walkways, roads, the fields of burnt grass, and hard red Georgia clay.
We were in formation running on pavement. The heat was taking its toll on our struggling bodies. The sweat and the resulting smell added to our discomfort. A steel helmet was tightly strapped to my chin, and it became a despised object. I found myself hating the heavy awkward hunk of steel and canvas, and took it off at the every opportunity. Unfortunately, it would be awhile before I would get relief from the damn thing. My very short hair was soaked with sweat, and the cotton webbing of the helmet, made my scalp itch constantly.
“Here we go all the way”, the sergeant sang with a rhythm that matched our steps while running.
We responded, “Here we go all the way”.
The sergeant continued, “Everyday”.
The singing helped with the pain of running. My Achilles tendons were stretched raw from running. We had run scores of miles in the previous two weeks of jump school. My ankle hurt like hell. I had injured my ankle on my first drop from the 250-foot tower. I had to lace up my boot tightly: I risked cutting off the circulation in my foot to support the weak ankle. It was swollen and at night throbbed with pain with every beat of my heart. Ice was the only thing that brought relief. It numbed my ankle and cooled my body. The ice and the relief it brought was last night, and now that relief seemed a distant memory. The cadence of the chants from the black hats was perfectly timed for the needed breaths of air. We would exhale on the chants and inhale while the black hats sang the next line of the song.
“Everyday”, again we responded.
I think these black hat sergeants’ just got stronger while I got hotter and more exhausted. They can’t be human, I thought. Where do these black hats come from, I wondered, while sucking another gulp of hot musty Georgia air? The sergeants wore black baseball caps and T-shirts. The sun in Georgia focused it attention on the color black. It would punish anyone who would dare to wear it. Yet, those black hats could run all day and sing loud enough to shake the windows on the barracks, lined up in rows across the street.
My clothes were drenched in sweat. My starched olive drab cotton uniform trousers were tugging at my crotch leaving the inside of my thigh raw. My feet had blisters on my blisters. I had to continually battle the thought: I could quit. I just had to step out of line and stop running. It would be over.
A black hat would scream at me, “Get back in formation or join the quitters”. “Are you a quitter he would scream”?
I would say, “I have had enough”.
He might try to encourage me, but more likely he would just shake his head in disappointment, and point the way back to the barracks. I had seen this happen to other soldiers. We started out with 208 in our training company. We were now down to 146. I would not, could not, walk that walk of shame. How could I face my family if I failed? My dad, while gone, would be disappointed in me. I am no quitter! I was more fearful of being branded a quitter, than falling out of an airplane.
I had seen some of the quitters. I had mixed feelings about them. In one moment they looked weak and not worth talking to, and maybe even despised. In the next moment, I would feel as though I should say something to encourage them. Instead I offered a nod, but did not talk to them. I did not want to catch their disease quitters disease could brand you as a coward and or weak. They left our training barracks the same day they quit: I think the Army believed quitters’ bread more quitters.
The sergeant sang, “C130 going down the strip”!
We replied, “C130 going down the strip”!
“Airborne daddy going to take a little trip”.
“Airborne daddy going to take a little trip”.
“Standup hook up shuffle to the door”, he sang.
“Standup hook up shuffle to the door”, we offered.
Just for a few moments I had forgotten the pain I was in. The song reminded me why I was putting myself through this; I was going to be a paratrooper. At nineteen years old I believed if I were a paratrooper I would be a man. I struggled like most young men with the notion you must accomplish something to be a man. The accomplishment must be recognized by everyone as significant and should reflect the strength and bravery of the individual. I think I my father warrior’s spirit penetrated my young soul more than I could understand.
“Jump right out and count to four”, the sergeant continued.
“Jump right out and count to four”.
The song not only helped us breathe and forget the pain, it was part of the jump sequence we were training for.
The sergeant directed us toward a metal pipe gauntlet. He called a halt to our running and directed us to march through it. Just before we entered the structure, water started gushing through well-placed nozzles. It created a curtain of water for us to pass through. The relief was instant and for the moment we felt much better.
The sergeant commanded us to, “fallout”, and then shouted, “smoke’em if you got‘em”!
I found a place to sit on a concrete beam that was a tire stop on a parking lane. A food vendor pulled up just as we were beginning our break. He had hot coffee, an assortment of cold drinks, sweet snacks and sandwiches. A cue in front of the maggot wagon formed quickly. I am not sure how the maggot wagon it got its name, because the food was usually fresh and hot. Smoke from cigarettes filled the air; I had to find relief up wind in order to breathe. I joined a group of soldiers who had to move for the same reason as I did. We exchanged the usual morning pleasantries.
“Hey Dawson, I thought you were going to puss out on that run!” my buddy Mel Daniels exclaimed.
“Daniels bite me”, I replied with a smile, and added a penis grabbing gesture.
I thought if my mom knew I talked this way, she would wash my mouth out with soap. I found, in this mans army, one needed to be vulgar and blunt while expressing any point of view. I learned the language of young soldiers and men in the first few weeks of basic. I felt in order to be respected you needed to be as foul mouth as possible. My early efforts were tentative, but I soon gained momentum, and could cuss with the most vulgar solider.
Mel said, “do you need a pair of tweezers to find that thing your trying to grab!”
I replied, “I sure do, can I borrow your pair?
Mel now commanded the attention of the group we were in, he approached me, and acted as though he was handing me the smallest pair of tweezers in the world.
I accepted the tweezers and stated, “You must use these while taking a piss, your personal pair, and I’m flattered”!
Mel laughed, and moved on to an easier target. Some other soldier was going to benefit from his need to practice his verbal pugilism.
I think we engaged in the verbal pugilism in order to pass the time and to take our minds off the fact we were away from home and our families, and we would soon be risking our lives while jumping out of an airplane. We could not express any doubts, fears, or thoughts about our loneliness to each other. We could speak about our girlfriends, and how much we needed to make a physical connection them the next time we had a pass or leave. We would use the course language of soldiers to express our manly need.
A black hat walked up to the group of us and shouted, “Hit it”!
We responded as we had many times before, by jumping up into the tight body position all paratroopers assume while exiting an airplane.
We began counting loudly, “One thousand, and two thousand, three thousand, four thousand. “
We would then lean back, look up with our arms outstretched and state, “checking canopy”.
The black hat read the number printed on the front of my helmet and said, “589 your parachute has failed to open properly! “
I reassumed the tight body position and pulled my imaginary ripcord on my reserve parachute. I again, leaned back and stated “checking canopy.”
The black called, “recover”, and we were released to go back to our resting mode.
Failure to properly perform our little exercise could get you ten pushups. The ten pushups could take a while, as the black hat had to approve your pushup technique.
The black hat might say, “You call those pushups”?
The smart soldier made no comment. He would just start over his pushup count.
“One sergeant, two sergeant, three sergeant…” he would then continue his count until all ten were completed, assuming he satisfied the black hat.
A black Hat called the company to assemble and to get in formation. We were called to attention, “Company attention”! Our heels snapped together as one as we knew our real adventure was about to begin. The black hat started giving us instructions about how we were to draw our fist parachute. He gave us precise instructions about how we were to conduct ourselves and where we should go after we received our first parachute. We were to do nothing until we were told to.
I remember thinking as I accepted my first chute; I hope who ever packed this thing was in a good mood the day they packed it. The Army has an excellent quality control method of insuring each parachute is packed correctly. The riggers who pack the chutes must jump their own packed chutes. They can’t pick the chute they want to jump. The procedure created confidence the chutes would be packed correctly every time.
After I was instructed by a black hat to put on my parachute, I began the process of getting into my harness. We helped each other by holding the chute while the other fellow slipped into his shoulder straps. Once in the shoulder straps I would secure one of the straps that would go between my legs. I connected it to my snap link in the middle of my chest. I repeated the procedure until I had the second one secured in the same manner.
A black hat shouted, “tighten up those straps so the family jewels aren’t crushed like grapes when your chute opens.” We all responded eagerly to his guidance. I pulled my straps tight and then had Mel do it again. I repeated the procedure for Mel. The black hat then instructed us to get into single file and to come forward to get our equipment checked.
The black hat pulled at my straps again and said, “I thought I told you to tighten these straps”, “When I am done with you give me ten”.
Instead of giving him ten pushups, I was instructed to give him ten deep knee bends while in a parachute harness. My ankle and Achilles tendons did not need this additional test. The straps were so tight against my chaffed raw crotch that I almost forgot about how much my ankle hurt. The first five deep knee bends I did were not deep enough for him, so I started my count over again.
After my latest tormentor released me, I moved to another line and waited silently to be ordered on the plane. The smell of burning aviation fuel filled the air. There was less oxygen to breath and the first gulp of exhaust form the plane choked me and burned my eyes. I could finally see the plane I soon would be jumping out of. They crew was already warming up the engines. The turbines created a loud shrill noise that made casual conversion impossible. It was a c-141 jet transport. It could hold 120 of us. The jet was suppose to be an easier jump than one of the prop jobs like the c-130; when you jumped out of the 141 you only had to step off the jump platform. The 130 required you to jump up six inches and out thirty-six inches in order to clear the side of the airplane.
A black hat approached us and commanded, “Hit it”!
We performed our tight body exit sequence for the black hat well enough he said, “I think their ready sir”, as he saluted his commander.
We responded with cheers and the black shouted, “who said you pukes could open your mouths”?
The black hat removed his baseball cap and put on his helmet. He commanded, “Follow me!”
He lead us to the rear of the air plane and stated, “go forward and sit on the outboard stick.” When the outboard stick was full he pointed to me and said, “take the inboard stick and go all the way back and sit down.”
Great I thought I would be the last guy out of the plane. If the men in front of me are slow getting out of the plane I could end up in trees or even a pond or lake. The procedure is the black hat would be the last jumper out of the aircraft. He would check for towed jumpers and then leave the plane himself. He would make sure the group was precise in their timing and not allow them to delay jumping, the goal would be to prevent a landing in a less than perfect drop zone.
I sat down on the steel and cotton webbed seats. We sat sideways or parallel to the side of the plane. I buckled my webbed seat belt and wondered if it would really ever work when needed. It was not a comfortable way to ride. There were 120 of us packed in tightly in four rows. We had just settled in when the rear of the aircraft was raised up like draw bridge and it sealed us in. The air immediately became dense with nervous sweat, jet exhaust, Georgia heat and humidity. The fellow I was sitting beside had a cigarette before he got on. I could smell the burnt tobacco odor on any one who indulged. I nearly choked on the smells that assaulted my nostrils. I was losing ground, and felt the need to purge my stomach of my breakfast.
I closed my eyes, leaned forward and rested my chin on the top of my reserve chute. I held my breath and prayed please god don’t let me throw up now. The humiliation and grief I would get from my buddies would be difficult to bear. The planes engines began to surge with power. The engine’s sounded as though they resented being throttled up and screamed a high-pitched wail. I was shoved side ways into Mel on my left. I started to apologize to Mel when I noticed he too had closed his eyes and was resting his chin on his reserve.
I could see out a window and saw the ground moving ever quickly by. The wail of the engines increased and the nose of the plane turned up. We were off, I wanted adventure, I wanted excitement and I wanted to prove I was a man. I joined the Army for what may be silly reasons but I had found one of the anvils of my life. I was not yet a man but the forging of my early adult character was beginning today. My senses were functioning at the highest levels. Time was moving slowly. I could smell, taste and feel every second. My heart was beating so hard and so loudly, I wondered if anyone else could hear it. I looked at Mel and gave him an elbow.
“Hey don’t you think you should wake up and not miss the fun,” I asked? Mel was not in a mood to be played with, he gestured with his middle finger and promptly returned to his resting position. I looked up a down the rows of men. Some of the men were just resting quietly and others were engaged in causal conversations. I could probably guess what the subject was. Ninety eight percent of the conversations were about women. We were in the peak of our sexual health, and women were a favorite conversation subject and daydream. The other two percent of the conversations was about, Jody, (the guy back home with your girlfriend), sports, and what are we going to do this weekend. I’ll bet no one was talking about the jump. Just ignore the fear, and you won’t be eaten up by it.
The jump-master-black-hat came on the speaker and said we would have a good jump today as the winds were running parallel with the drop zone and were less than 5 knots. That was good news. Falling in a parachute at 22 feet per second, coupled with the wind speed of 5 knots or 7 miles per hour, meant you hit the ground with the same force as say jumping off the top of a car at 7 miles per hour. He then received a message from the air force flight engineer that was assigned to us during the flight.
He turned to us and said, “six minutes”!
My heart had been pounding and it was now filling my ears with blood. Why am I doing this, was a question that would slip into my brain as my self-preservation instincts were trying to gain control over my body. There was only one way out, through the jump door.
The jump-master pointed to the out board stick and shouted “outboard personal stand up.”
The group of 60 soldiers began to unbuckle their seat belts and struggled to stand up under the weight of equipment and the tight quarters of the aircraft. Just as the outboard completed the effort of standing up the jumpmaster commanded, “Inboard personal stand up.”
Our difficulty in standing up was increased as the outboard stick already was standing and was crowding the narrow aisle. I found myself standing half in the aisle and half on my seat.
I tried to get Mel’s attention but he was so focused on what was going on he failed to notice. The aircraft began to roll right a few degrees, tilting all of the soldiers into each other to the outside skin of the aircraft. Aircraft turbulence was something we would have to get use to. Our low altitudes and flying in trail with other aircraft made the approaches to the drop zone more like an amusement ride.
We would steady our selves eventually and I could hear comments from some the
Men, “what the fuck was that?”
Another soldier offered, “It’s turbulence you pussy!”
Those of us who could hear this exchange thought it was funny and a chorus of laughter interrupted the clamor of us bumping into each other as yet another tilt of the aircraft sent us into the sidewall again.
I tried one more time to engage Mel, “Hey Mel, you wimp, you have got to quit stepping on my foot!” Mel was in a zone; I could not reach him for the moment.
The jump-master shouted, “Hook up!”
We attached our snap hooks to one of the four cables that ran the length of the aircraft. We continued to hang on to the snap hook and the static line that would pull our chutes open. Each stick or row had their own cable to attach to; this allowed each stick to move independently of each other. The outboard stick would jump first and then, we the inboard stick, we would jump after they were all out. Facing the rear of the aircraft meant we were on the right side of the aircraft. The same events were occurring on the left side of the aircraft as they had their own jump door.
The jumpmaster shouted. “Check equipment!”
We checked each other to make sure our equipment was free of snags that could keep our parachutes from opening properly. We did not want to end up as a towed jumper. A towed jumper is a paratrooper worst nightmare. If tangled, soldiers would find themselves still attached to the aircraft at the end of their static line. The ride would be like the wagging tail of a dog that could ran at the speed of a jet. The aircraft crew would try to pull the soldier back in the aircraft. If the crew was unsuccessful and the soldier was conscious, the static line would be cut and they would have to depend on their reserve chute to get them down safely. If the soldier were not conscious then the runway would be foamed. The life of the jumper would depend on the skills of the pilot. The pilot had to land the aircraft slowly and very carefully.
The jump-master shouted, “Sound off!”
If my equipment check proved to be satisfactory, I would touch the soldier in front of me and shout, “Ok!” The next soldier would repeat the process until the Ok arrived at the front of the aircraft.
The last soldier would shout, “all OK,” to the jump-master.
I reached out to Mel and shouted, “OK.” He did not respond. He was standing there like a statue. I tried again, but this time with more force and louder. ”OK,” I screamed. I grabbed his left shoulder and shook him hard. He jumped as though he were startled, then he responded by sending the OK forward. “Hey Mel you Ok,” I asked?
Mel replied with the middle finger hand gesture again and turned smiled at me. That's the Mel I know, I thought.
The jump-masters opened the jump doors. The noise inside of the aircraft increased enormously. The screams of the engines shook my very soul. My adrenaline was already pumping with the force of a sluice gate on a major dam. I began to shake, first in my right knee and then in my left arm. I realized I had been clenching my static line and not just holding it. I released my grip and shook out my hand. My arm felt much better. The knee was still shaking; no one could see it, I thought, as I am in the back.
The jump-master shouted, “One minute!” The jump-master leaned out the side of the aircraft while hanging on to the sides of the door. He was checking to make sure we were lined up correctly on the drop zone.
The jump-master shouted, “thirty seconds!” His next command was, “Stand in the door!”
The soldier first in line stepped in to the jump door opening. I was glad I was not the first in line on this jump. My shaking knees would give me up as being frightened.
The jump-master shouted, “Green light, green light, go, go, go, go, go!”
The first jumper left the aircraft immediately and the soldiers on my right and in front of me began taking their turns exiting the aircraft. The outboard stick was first to jump. They would push their static lines forward make a right turn and step on the small jump platform out side of the aircraft.
The outboard stick was gone and the first soldier of the inboard stick advanced to the door and out of the aircraft. The soldiers in front of me moved forward steadily and my turn was coming fast. I followed the increasingly smaller line to the back of the aircraft. I had one more thought of quitting. I thought I could just sit down and no one could make me jump. It was then I saw Mel leave the aircraft. I watched him step out on the jump platform and the wind sweep him away to my left out of sight.
The jump-master must have thought I was taking too much time and shouted, “Get out of my aircraft!”
I stepped up to the door and stepped out on the jump platform. There was a windshield made of metal, and fabricated with dozens of 2-inch holes on my right. As my right foot began to bear weight I was brushed off the platform by the surging wind. We were traveling over 150 miles per hour. The wind’s impact and the sudden deceleration were jarring and
startling. My eyes were wide open and the view was incredible. I lived forty minutes in the next four seconds. I could see Max In front of me as I watched him in his tight body position. He was like a doll at the end of a rope. The forces of wind and gravity were buffeting him. The side of the aircraft was too close, I had moved to slowly across the platform and my helmet struck the side of the airplane. The momentary impact had no real effect on my position as gravity and the forward movement of the aircraft made it a glancing blow. I watched Mel’s chute open and started to feel my chute starting to gather air. The rapid deceleration continued until my chute opened fully. I looked up and saw my open parachute. The relief was immediate and I celebrated with some shouts of real joy.
“Yes! I did it,” I shouted.
I had forgot to count to four thousand. I decided I would have to do better on my next jump. It was then I realized my family jewels were not crushed like grapes, my chute did open, and I was not a towed jumper. I did not quit; I was feeling good and wanted to let the world know it.
“Wow what a ride. That was awesome.” It was then I noticed how quiet it was. The jet had moved on and I was slowly falling to the ground.
I could see Mel, he said, “Dawson you talk too much.” He was enjoying his ride. I could see a smile as wide as Arkansas on that boy. The ride to the ground would last sixty seconds. Those sixty seconds were some of the best I had experienced so far in life. The view of the ground, the other jumpers who had gone in front of me were in varying phases of their own experience. I began to prepare to land.
My ankle had not bothered me since we loaded on the aircraft. I had to keep my feet tightly together to adsorb the shock of landing evenly. I needed to avoid damaging my ankle further. The ground was coming up fast and the wind appeared to be blowing the full five knots the jumpmaster predicted. I needed to be loose and roll with the impact. My toes and the ball of my feet would take the first blow. I would twist sideways in the direction of the fall and present my calf, thigh and buttocks to the ground. I would then continue to roll to absorb more of the impact. I had practiced the PLF (parachute landing fall) scores of times and should complete the final step of the jump sequence as though it were instinct.
I landed on my toes but went flat footed and fell backwards. I completed a TBH (toe, butt, and head) landing fall and rolled over on myself backwards. My ankle was ok, but my butt followed by my helmeted head had pounded into the ground. My neck could not slow the force of gravity and the combined weight of my head and helmet. My teeth slammed together and I felt the shock inside my head. I thought for a moment I would pass out, but I regained my bearings in a few short moments.
A black hat, shouted, “589 are you ok? Then 589 continue your parachute recovery.”
The black hats were all over the drop zone and offering similar guidance to all. I released my chute by unlocking one of my snap connectors near my collarbone. I ran around the chute and began wrapping it up. I ran ½ mile to the rallying point and was given a bag to stuff the chute into. I added my bag with chute to a growing pile in the back of a flat bed truck.
A black hat screamed, ”589 what are you waiting for,a personal invitation get in the truck!”
I ran to the truck and started to climb on. Mel actually offered me a hand and pulled me up. Wow something had changed; Mel wouldn’t have been so helpful before the jump. Mel was all grins and was laughing and enjoying himself very much. I looked around and saw the rest of the soldiers, and they too were enjoying the moment. I decided to join in and had great fun reliving and recalling the experience to my new brothers. We had become brothers. We had triumphed over our fears and instincts and accomplished something, many had failed, or perhaps did not have the courage to try, but we did! We were a lot cockier and louder on our return trip to the airfield. We began to feel we could do anything and accomplish any task set before us. We were soldiers who jumped from a perfectly good airplane.
I would jump four more times during the week. On Friday after my last jump, an Army officer presented me a pair of jump wings. He handed me the wings looked me in the eye, shook my hand, saluted me and said, “all the way,”
I returned a crisp salute and replied, “Airborne.” My chest grew 4 inches that day’ I was taller and my new confidence was impenetrable. I was a paratrooper.
I was allowed to go home for a brief visit before I had to report to my assignment with the Eighty Second Airborne Division. I would stay with the Division for all 4 years of my military commitment. I would jump 30 times with my Eighty Second brothers. I developed relationships that would last for thirty years and counting. I met soldiers returning from Vietnam; whose military experience had been very painful and difficult. Most of them left the service as quickly as the Army would let them. They had been tested and tortured by combat; the ultimate challenge, and horror any human could experience. The ones that returned would never be the same. I was lucky.