The Mighty Little Ant
Numbness had fully settled in my toothpick legs. The full weight of the combat gear bore down on my lower extremities as if were clenched in the jaws of a rather ferocious vice. Standing at 5 feet tall and weighing 97 lbs, I was essentially carrying my own body weight’s worth in equipment. After some deliberation, the Blackhats collectively decided to give me a fake rucksack filled with sandbags to make sure that I ‘weigh enough to trigger the static line’ and deploy my parachute. Their collective thoughtfulness may have very well killed me right in the airplane hangar under the crushing 90 lbs. worth of equipment!
I sat there with the others under the strain of being tethered to the unimaginable physical burden of equipment, anticipating our first combat jump with great angst. The cavernous hangar was filled with the hush of uneasy tension. This was jump number three out of the required five in order to earn the honor of wearing the Airborne parachute badge on the uniform. A silent statement to say, ‘yea I maybe short, and I maybe a woman, but I’m a total badass!’
Due to high winds on the DZ we had been prepped and distressingly sitting since 0230 and it is now just after lunch. I had to move my right leg, the gear was becoming a tourniquet causing my feet to perpetually tingle annoyingly. I moved a few centimeters at most, anything to avoid a second equipment check by the Blackhats. The Blackhats took a particular sadistic delight in equipment checks. You see it afforded them the opportunity to affectionately polish the process off with the hardest slap on the butt which they could conjure and administer. I was fortunate to be so short that my Blackhat tried three times and failed to aim low enough. What he managed was a handful of the back of my parachute and I hope it hurted his hand … a lot.
With great care I moved my leg just enough so that the dented metal rucksack frame was no longer drilling directly on top my kneecap. My hands awkwardly laid to either side of me, some rested theirs on top of their reserve but I didn’t dare. I had an insatiable fear that the button on the sleeve of my uniform would accidentally latch the pull pin and arbitrally deploy my reserve in the middle of the hangar. The reserve was tucked right beneath my breasts and wrapped tightly around my torso like a deranged man’s corset. So like a boy on his first date I stiffly fiddled with my arm placement finally deciding that the side was the safest.
Some heads had started to bob forcibly forward under the weight of the kevlar helmet. It was like watching a game of ‘whack a mole’ as one-by-one the soldiers nodded off. A crooked smile broke through my face with the amusing scene and as I was about to succumb to the ‘z’ monster myself “STAND UP, STAND UP, STAND UP!” over the loudspeaker jolted me back to reality. In unison, we all Geisha shuffled towards the hangar door onto the tarmac. The cumbersome rucksacks were in front of our legs posted against our shins; so all any of us could muster was to waddle like a string of ducklings following mama duck to the other side of the road.
I was oddly thankful for the extra weight passing the back of the C-130’s thunderous propeller engines. The engines generated gusts of fuel laden scorching air which would have most certainly knocked me over equipment free. With every step closer to the plane my heart quickened its apprehensive pace. My hands grew clamy with nervous sweat and the booming engines faded leaving me to hear nothing but the sound of my own labored breaths, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. It echoed obtrusively like being in an astronaut helmet and for a moment panic had set in where I half contemplated to make a run for it.
We were herded on to the plane like cattle and the Jumpmaster relieves us of our static line as we passed. With a sharp click and a tug our faith were locked. The air seem to accumulate more and more nervousness as more paratroopers filed in. We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, knees touching knees, thighs touching thighs, like sardines jammed into too small of a can. The tempestuous vibration of the engines made one eager to leave the plane before anyone got sick in such close quarters. The Blackhats and Jumpmasters briskly walked on top of soldiers’ laps doing one last static line check because the aisle are all now enveloped with endless pairs of legs.
The Air Force Lieutenant Colonel next to me leaned over and half shouted, “you know, the Air Force just isn’t quite as proficient with punishing ourselves like the Army” he said with a playful twinkle in his kind pale blue eyes.
Stifling a laugh, “Oh really Sir?” I asked amused.
He nodded and explained, “If the jump was at 1 we would leisurely stroll on to the tarmac around … mmm let’s say 12ish. When we’re close to the DZ the co-pilot would come back to let us know. We put on chutes, check each other, doors open, jump – VALAH!”
I paused for a moment, thinking enviously ‘Dammit I joined the wrong service!’
After regaining my composure I retorted gently with a wink, “ahhm yeaaa … the Army … we’re really good at making ourselves miserable. Self inflicted misery, it’s an acquired taste.”
Our shared laugh was a grateful distraction from the guy who just violently vomited his lunch on himself and his surrounding neighbors. The sound of the human diaphragm regurgitating sometimes is worst than the end product. A potent noxious stench of stomach acid and dehydrated food quickly infiltrated the air. And when there is one there will inadvertently always be another. Just as a second began to dry heave the obnoxiously jarring alarm rang rambunctiously to interrupt. The large round red light dropped to green followed by “STAND UP STAND UP STAND UP!” The side doors opened on both sides of the plane. The cross breeze of unsullied air enticed the paratroopers to fall into its bosom like mermaids luring sailors.
Holding both hands up with all fingers extended “TEN MINUTES” the Jumpmaster bellowed.
A second seem to pass when the Jumpmaster barked “FIVE MINUTES!”
And before long “GO GO GO!” prompted our little dance into the open sky. The sheer momentum of everyone shuffling forward ensured that you were indeed exiting the plane. It was like a gentle but yet firm kick. I breached the door without a single thought; the static line became taut and after a slight rubber-band like jolt, my chute deploys. One would never realize the peace that 12,000 feet in the open sky can yield. Falling at the rate of 115 mph, all the chaos of the day, all the noise, the smells, hastily dissolves, like sugar in a hot cup of tea, it all stayed with the plane.