Friday, July 21, 2017

The Maroon Beret

This writing is part one of a series about some feelings and thoughts an infantryman might experience during airborne operations. The series will be published every Friday until it is complete. Thank you for reading and feel free to share if this resonates with you.  
Confused, I suddenly jerked awake as some Air Force guy, a loadmaster I presumed, stepped on my ruck on his way to the front of the C-130. Even though his back was turned to me, I shot him a nasty look for disturbing my rest. He must have felt my eyes glaring at the back of his head because at that exact moment he turned around, caught my glare, and flipped me the middle finger, all with a big smile plastered on his face. I smiled and flipped him off; this was the only way to communicate in a noisy aircraft packed from front to back with paratroopers and their equipment for war. I wasn’t really upset that he had been walking on top of our rucksacks. I knew that was the only way he could get around the bird. It didn’t make it hurt any less, however, when the frame of my seventy-pound ruck, combined with the weight of the douche strolling across it, dug into my knee. Fuck that guy, I decided with an odd amount of satisfaction. What I really wanted, but couldn't have at the moment, was a dip. I use to be able to dip on the bird. Now, like everything else, it was deemed a safety hazard. What a fucking joke...
Flying in a C-130 is like being inside the belly of a mechanical whale; a large brain at the front controlled almost everything within. Wires, conduits, and various sizes of metal tubes ran the length of the wall, like veins, giving life blood to the vital machinery that acted as organs, allowing the aircraft to operate. Two rows of nylon red cargo netting benches faced each other on either side like intestines. There was constant churning, whirring, and whining emanating from somewhere within the dark recesses of the bird, like the great whale had an upset stomach. That stale air which was available smelled like shit, sweat, and tension mixed with a slight amount of electricity. It is almost as if the C-130 digested the sixty-four paratroopers on board, got an upset stomach, and was ready to violently expel us out of its back end.
The plane lurched suddenly, breaking my gaze from the internal workings of the aircraft and rousing everyone on board. Either we hit turbulence or had training pilots. It was just as well because everyone was waking up; it was almost time to jump. I looked at each person groggily coming back into consciousness, cranky that they were yanked out of their peaceful sleep. Some of the troopers I recognized and some I did not. It is standard practice to cross load each bird with troopers from each company. We do this so that the mission can still be accomplished in case a bird goes down.  I find it fascinating that anyone can sleep in the cramped confines of a C130, but here we were, more than half asleep at one point, myself included. Then again, I understand that  people will sleep anywhere if they are tired enough, and we were exhausted when we finally got inside the bird. Fuck, just thinking about the day we just lived through makes me want to fall asleep. Actually what I really wanted to do at this point was get out of the bird. I really hoped the jump wouldn’t get nixed. We were already too far in…
I always woke up early on jump days for. I did this for a few reasons. The first was that I liked how calm and silent the house was that early in the morning. There was no yelling or running around; it was good for the soul before the chaos of the day would ensue. I would brew myself a pot of coffee, sit, and consider life in the stillness. For whatever reason, I would contemplate my own mortality. I wondered what it would feel like to die. It is sad to think that there is always another moment until there is not…and we do not know when there won’t be another. While that is indeed sad, it makes you appreciate life, God, and all that is there for you in this lifetime. It is amazing how little control we have over anything in this world. Before leaving, I would look in on each one of my children and feel bad for not spending more time with them. There never seemed to be enough time to be a father. In fact, I barely knew my children; for most of their lives I had been deployed, in the field, or in some school that I thought was important at the time. My ambition, combined with my commitment to the team, took much away from my family. Little did I know at the time, the only team that mattered was right here in this house. For the millionth time, I promised myself I would care less about the nonsense of the Army and play with my children more often. For the million and first time I would break that promise.
The second reason I liked to wake up early was that I loved being the first one into the company. Like waking up at my house, this was an area which was usually chaotic. To be able to sit and take in the surroundings slowed my brain down. I loved greeting and talking to each soldier who came in; it didn’t matter whether they were a Private or a First Sergeant. It was the calm before the storm; a long day of manifests, planning, rehearsals, and rigging both of our equipment and ourselves was brutal. Worse still if you had a squad of soldiers to chase around. Sometimes it felt as though I was rounding up and inspecting chickens.
I closed my eyes as I felt my stomach drop suddenly. I was back in the present faced with two realities. One, that I was going to be jumping into the night soon. The second reality answered the question on whether it had been turbulence or new pilots. I considered my own mortality again and how little control I had at this moment. From my parachute being packed and rigged correctly, to the pilots flying the aircraft, I had no control over anything. The plane lurched violently again. I thought about how it was only a thin sheet of metal which separated me from 10,000 feet of open air and shivered as a chill ran down my spin. I wondered again what it would be like to die and how little we cherish the moments of our lives. The only control I really had was whether I would jump or not at this moment. For whatever reason, this thought comforted me. It made me feel as though I had some control. I found it odd that I was comforted choosing to do something which might kill me. In least if I was to die, it would be on my own terms, staring death in the face, afraid, but proud, to face him as a fierce Geronimo, Devil in Baggy Pants, Panther, Falcon, Sky Soldier, or Ranger. I wasn’t afraid to dance with the devil as I walked through the valley of death…
Ten Minutes!
The shouted command from the jumpmaster rose above the roar of the engines, penetrating my thoughts. I always seemed to become more philosophical on the bird. I shook my head to clear away those thoughts. The jumpmasters were screaming at us; we were ten minutes away from the drop zone. I had been so lost in my thoughts that I had not realized the jumpmasters were already getting into position. When I was newer at this job, this is where it became real.These days, I know that a tiresome ten-minute workout was to follow. In unison with the rest of the bird, I turned and shouted the command, waking up anyone else who might still be asleep.
As I repeated the command, a memory of Airborne School floated through my mind. In rather um, fabulous fashion, we were forced to repeat the command three times as we looked back and forth shouting. So it goes in Army schools, we used to laugh and say, “don’t ask, don’t tell”. Now I guess it is ask and tell? It doesn’t matter, knees will be in the breeze anyway, fabulous or not. Being Airborne is an equal opportunity endeavor; gravity doesn’t give a shit what identity you claim. It didn’t really matter, I thought dryly with a roll of my eyes, these jumps usually get cancelled for whatever reason anyway. The forecast that morning had called for some rain and strong winds. Even though I couldn’t see outside the bird, I was convinced, no way were we jumping today. The jumpmasters were just putting on a show, like usual. I started to grow angry for some reason. Fuck those guys..