Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fun and exciting times in the army

Right before I left South Carolina in July of 1986 and began my four years of active army service my recruiter handed me a booklet showing all the nifty stuff a soldier could do in his or her spare time off post. The booklet, paid for with taxpayer dollars, came complete with glossy high quality photos of young smiling guys playing golf on a beautiful sunny day, a group of attractive guys and gals on a raft in the middle of a whitewater rafting excursion being splashed and paddling around rocks, a couple snow skiing down some unnamed mountain smiling so big their perfect teeth almost outshined the sun, and several other photos that were just too damn perfect to have any normal basis in the reality about serving in the United States Army even in the carefree lazy days of the mid to late 80’s. I had already served two years in the South Carolina National Guard and received enough exposure on how recruiters worked to understand that the story of Cinderella and the nifty off post activities booklet I had just looked at could have been sold in the same section of any book store being displayed side by side. But none the less I kept an open mind as I left the warm comfortable security of what was then the normal one weekend a month, two weeks in the summer National Guard duty and started playing soldier full time.

When I entered active duty I kept the same army MOS (Military Occupational Specialty or job) I had been trained for during my two years in the National Guard, which included my basic and Advanced Individual Training to become a Stinger missile gunner. And even now I must say I adjusted fairly quickly to the more intense and longer routine of training that active duty demanded. But as far as the neat off post activities booklet was concerned for the most part my initial suspicion was confirmed. The air defense battalion I was assigned to had huge segments of people that were either preparing to follow one of the three division brigades out on a Field Training Exercise (FTX), had a huge segment out on a FTX, or had people recovering from a FTX they recently returned from. All army posts have people, usually civilians, whose job it is to organize different off post activities but given the training schedule for the Fourth Division that at the time was based at Fort Carson, Colorado and how the air defense battalion farmed out its people we had very little time for group fun trips. So just about anything that was somewhat adventurous was organized by the soldiers themselves when time allowed but after what could be a month or longer in the field not many had the interest or energy for anything beyond the basics of human needs.

While the daily routine of army life kept us very busy soldiers in my battalion did have “down time” or time off that divided those soldiers living in the barracks into two different types. One type had a dynamic social life that had those guys only showing up in the barracks for an inspection, some sort of duty, the day before the unit moved out for a FTX, or for the couple of days after an FTX when equipment was repaired and cleaned to be made ready for the next FTX that came all too soon. After that the guys with a dynamic social life were out and gone. Despite what the off post activities may have been offered these guys, in their late teens to early twenties, cared not one bit for golf, whitewater rafting, or skiing they instead headed for their girlfriends house or apartment or wherever they could meet chicks looking to take care of those basic human needs. The other group living in the barracks were the ones without a real social life and after evening chow could be found drinking beer either in their rooms or in the barrack’s dayroom watching television. Occasionally some could be found on the floor anywhere between the latrine and their rooms after passing out from such a fun filled evening. Several times I found fellow comrades in the service of defending the Free World passed out at the base of a toilet and being honest here once or twice I found comfort myself in resting my forehead against cool porcelain, then again all soldiers at one time or another spent some portion of a night sleeping in the latrine.

Being single and living in the barracks I skirted the extremes of both groups. A date or just going out to some club was not a rare occasion for me but there were times that could stretch for a few months when due to some unexpected demand on my money or just a dry spell between girlfriends I could be found hanging out with the other beer drinkers. It was during one of these dry spells that after meeting my roommate’s friend from high school that I was talked into jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and almost talked into going to Ranger School.

Early in March of 1988 Rocky Bolan came to my unit after serving a year in Korea. Rocky and Lawrence Sanders, one of my roommates, were from Maui and were long time friends having gone to high school and played on the football team together. Lawrence was, or still is, an excellent soldier but his greatest concern at that time was getting back together with a ditzy girl he had met at some club that would drop him for another guy one day then come back not too many days later begging Lawrence to take her back. Rocky being new to the area had no contacts and because he had not seen Lawrence since they had graduated from basic training wanted to hang out with him some. Then there was me, after having to shell out five hundred bucks on car repair and because of the lack of transportation and disposable money my most recent girlfriend had dropped me like a rock covered in gooey poop, so we three were pretty much going nowhere during that time. After about a month the money situation for me got better, Lawrence once again hooked back up with his ditzy girlfriend and was following her around like a lost loving puppy, and Rocky began looking into a local skydiving club as some sort of preparation for his dream of going to Ranger School.

Ever since he arrived to Fort Carson Rocky had been trying to talk Lawrence into going skydiving with him but Lawrence, who told me many times he hated just flying in a plane to get home to Hawaii, would never ever willingly jump out of one. But harking back to the off post activities book my recruiter gave me and being seriously gung-ho (translation: brain dead) I told him I would go skydiving with him. A couple of weekends later Rocky and I loaded up in my now dead but stilled loved Camero for the trip out to Ellicott, Colorado for our skydiving adventure.

The place we arrived at where we would learn to throw ourselves out of a plane was a testament to the glory days of civilian aviation, which was long ago. We were well east of Colorado Springs on the dry prairie surrounded by a sea of small cactuses and thorny spear-like plants that in the field were called by soldiers a “Jesus Christ plant” due to the nature that whenever someone made any kind of contact with it pain and some blood loss resulted with the unlucky soul yelling out the aforementioned savior’s name. Several very old trailers and rickety sheds ran parallel to a gravel airstrip. Add a couple of faded windsocks, small planes in various states of disassembly, and a collection of locals sitting on anything from coolers to lounge chairs with the bottom about to fall out drinking beer early on a Saturday morning and you have what might send most people, with an ounce of common sense, back home quickly getting over the desire to put their life on the line for some stupid adventure. But for two young soldiers with far more money, at that time, than common sense it was a seriously cool place. Since Rocky and I were a few minutes late we were hustled straight into the “class” were we learned the various principles involved in skydiving and the maneuvers needed should any unexpected situation arise. Namely how to untangle the cords leading up to the chute if they were twisted after opening, disengaging the main chute should it completely fail, and the short simple prayer you should whisper if both the main and backup crapped out with the gravity being a bitch causing you and Mother Earth to rush to reunite. It was added as an afterthought by our instructors that it wasn’t the fall that killed you, but the sudden stop.

Once our training was done we were loaned a jumpsuit, a cheap helmet, goggles, and of course a parachute which was sized to our weight. After our small group of trainees including Rocky and myself were prepped and checked out by the pilot, who was wearing his own parachute, he gave us a small briefing saying simply that as newbie’s if for whatever reason we did not see him or our jumpmaster who was the guy who controlled the jumpers we should all exit the plane as quickly as possible since some sort of serious shit with the plane had occurred and they would already be out.

As luck would have it I was chosen to be the one who jumped first from the first group going up that afternoon. Thinking back now the term guinea pig comes to mind since all chutes being used by the newbie’s had just been packed that morning by the same people who already had a nice tower of empty beer cans going up as we drove up earlier that day. But being gung-ho (refer back to my earlier translation) I was eager to be the first guy to experience the thrill. Takeoff on the gravel and dirt airstrip was a bumpy affair with a strange squeal being heard at times that the pilot said under his breath were “damn prairie dogs”. Once we were airborne we leveled off at what I believe was at least 1700 feet with the jumpmaster standing up and throwing a lever that popped the door open I was sitting beside. The door was spring loaded and hinged at the top and it latched to the underside of the wing, I looked outside the open door at the doozy of a first step with wind whipping by me at 125 miles an hour. Still in enthralled in what I was about to do I automatically threw my left foot onto the small step mounted just outside the plane and used my left arm to grab the strut running from the bottom of the plane to the underside of the wing. I twisted and soon found myself standing on the small step holding the strut with both of my hands outside the plane. Jumping off the step but still holding onto the strut adrenalin was pumping through my veins and I had a massive rush the likes I had never had before. I apparently held on longer than I was suppose to when I heard the jumpmaster yelling for me to let go, I guess he thought I had froze up.

Since this was my first jump I was attached to a static line that went from the rip cord of the pack containing the parachute to the plane itself which automatically opened the chute once I had fallen back from the plane at a certain point. My actual freefall was about a second but in that second the plane zoomed away at what seemed like warp speed. The sudden jerk of the opening chute popped my consciousness back to my training and I checked to make sure the cords were not tangled and after that grabbing the small steering toggles that inflated the end cells of the square chute I was using. I looked up realizing that the skydiving club staff had packed my chute correctly even after a morning breakfast of Coors finest made from Rocky mountain spring water. With my most critical needs having been met at that time I was able to notice my surroundings as I slowly drifted downward. When flying on a plane the true scope of the earth below is greatly restricted due to the tiny windows. I have no idea how far off I was able to see from my descending position but I do remember the majesty of what lay below all around me. From the basic terrain features, the small cluster of human settlements that dotted the land around the airfield, to the crisscrossing roads with cars carrying people to unknown destinations. It all carried an importance that after years of pondering what I saw I’m still unable to fully describe.

After several minutes I again realized that there was something my training was requiring me to do. Since the area surrounding the airfield was full of unfriendly plants a space had been cleared for the skydivers to safely land without having to dig thorns out from sore butts. As soon as my chute was deployed I was suppose to use my steering toggles to turn completely around and steer myself to the landing zone which was marked at the center with a 30 foot day glow dot which could be easily seen, even from my height. My reverie of the earth below had taken enough time that I had drifted completely off the correct flight path and I was going to come down well away from even the 300 foot outer parameter of the landing zone. Another aspect of our training that day was how we were suppose to pull down on both the steering toggles and “flare” at the last second slowing our decent to the point we would touch down as lightly as all the videos show skydivers usually doing. With me being well away from the ground guides that would use hand signals to show me when to flare it looked like I was about to get real up-close and personal with the cactus and Jesus Christ plants below me. Because God looks after fools I somehow flared at just the right time and came down between a nasty nest of cactuses as light as a feather without hitting one. One of the staff members had tried to reach me but he arrived in time only to help me gather up the parachute that had fallen to the ground. None the less I was high as the space shuttle orbiting the Earth wanting to jump again as soon as possible.

The rest of the first group all made their touch downs inside the landing zone although one guy flared to early landing on his back with a loud thud. Since we were newbie’s after the club gave us our first jump we in turn had to wait at the bottom of the totem pole for another chance allowing the more experienced skydivers to get their jumps in. A couple of hours later the weather changed grounding us for what turned out the rest of the weekend. Like some new zealot converted to the true religion I was ready to do whatever it would take to jump from a plane on a more regular basis. I had long since had a desire to attend airborne school since I went active duty but given the confusing nature of my moving from the National Guard to active duty attending that school was somewhat of an issue for me and the army bureaucracy. Rocky trying to get a buddy to attend Ranger School with him assured me that after we finished Ranger school we would be sent straight to airborne training. As we drove back toward Fort Carson in the early evening we discussed plans on applying for and getting ready for Ranger and Airborne school.

It would nice to close this out writing that Rocky and I got to Ranger School, passed with flying colors, and were awarded the Ranger tab to wear on our uniform. But that didn’t happen; we did start running an extra three to four miles in the evening for several weeks along with working out heavy in the gym until Rocky got pulled for a temporary duty assignment down in Honduras, something we had both volunteered for but his number got pulled before mine. I next found myself being sent to the Pinyon Canyon maneuver site in southern Colorado for a very long FTX. When I returned Rocky was gone again but this time to the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. While I was recovering from my FTX I met a girl named Annette at an off post laundry washing my clothes and she and I hit it off pretty well. When Rocky returned he was once again ready to resume training but all I wanted by then was to hang out with Annette and, for a lack of any nicer way to write this, get my basic human needs met. Making matters even harder was that Annette didn’t have any real love for the army since her first marriage broke up over the demands the army put on it making her less than enthusiastic in supporting any “Rambo adventures.” Rocky didn’t take long to find another buddy to go to Ranger School with him after hooking up with a guy in one of the infantry battalions, and while I was always open to skydiving again Annette and I took up SCUBA diving (Yes, in Colorado I took up SCUBA diving, you will just have to wait for the story on that one.) which sucked up just about every penny I had buying my own equipment but had the advantage that Annette looked damn good in a tight wet suit.

Much changed by March of 1989 when all this started the year before. Lawrence and his ditzy girlfriend were married and when I lost contact with him in 1995 they were still happily married with three kids living on the Big Island. Lawrence left the army sometime after the Persian Gulf War getting a full-time job with the Hawaii National Guard. Rocky did make it to Ranger School and passed with flying colors then was sent to Germany for some reason. Through my contact with Lawrence I learned he finally made it to one of the Ranger battalions in 93 or 94. Annette and I did pretty well for several months until she realized that one of the young, and far better paid, insurance brokers in her office could whisk her off to Cancun far better than I ever could. I went home on leave a month later and saw my recruiter at a restaurant wheeling and dealing another kid in the direction of the army. When I approached them at their table I saw the kid looking at the same off post activities booklet he gave me. The kid put me in an awkward spot asking if all that fun stuff was possible while serving. My recruiter, a Sergeant First Class, raised one eyebrow giving me a strong warning look but I told the potential recruit that it was up to him to make the most of the army. The recruiter’s smile was enough to know that I had given the right answer. And you know as I walked away I realized that to a great extent it was the truth.


g-man said...

wow, that's a pretty mean thing to do to the new recruits! i mean people will join the army no matter what, if they're really interested won't they? not just for something they see on a booklet

"once or twice I found comfort myself in resting my forehead against cool porcelain" me too, twice! :D

i've always wanted to go skydiving. bungee jumping too. this post makes me wanna do it even more!!! diplomatic reply btw :)

Beach Bum said...

Never did the bungee jumping but while in the service I had money to burn on SCUBA diving, several hours flight training time in a little Cessna, a bear hunting trip, and of course my one skydiving trip.

I don't fault the recruiters that much for the off post booklet. There really was abunch to do off post in Colorado and if the soldiers back then could have thought of something more than just "meeting their basic human needs" I'm sure all sorts of adventure stories could be told.

lime said...

zipline incident and all i'd still give sky diving a chance, i really would....probably more likely to do that than bungee jump. the snapback of a bungee looks positively whiplash inducing and i have been there, don't need to do that.

Keshi said...

ur a HOT Army boi BB...dun we know. ;-)


Nitu said...

Aaw Beach, u r a pukka(complete) army bravo. Never did diving in my life. My nearest encounter with adventures was climbing trees and rocks while i was a kid. yeah, i remembered i slipped profusely even there !! Btw, i did it without a booklet in hand..:)

C.Rag said...

My Little Brother wants to join the military after college or maybe if he does law school to do JAG, because our Dad, grandfathers, & great grandfathers were all in the army.

There seems to be a lot of good & a lot of bullshit that goes with it.

Beach Bum said...

Lime: Never did care for bungee jumping to be honest. After my active duty service, when money became an issue, there were a few accidents involving people running bungee towers that didn't maintain them correctly causing a few injuries and I think a death or two. During my college years I didn't have health insurance and really didn't want to take the chance with it. The snapback you mentioned also freaked me out because of how strong it looked.

Keshi: Yeah, they were my glory days. I just wish I did more with them.

Nitu: Strangely enough in my old neighborhood when I was a kid we played in an undeveloped section that was essentially a swamp. While none of my friends or me ever got hurt there were enough dangerous places and animals around that surely God was looking over us. My one bad example of that swampy section involves how one of my friends had his golden retriever turned into dinner by a fairly large gator. Not too many days before several other kids including my friend and myself were knee deep in that water playing.

C. Rag: I do hope you read this because I honestly can not recommend the army in its current state. I can say that the Air Force or Navy is the way to go. I do not write this lightly for many reasons and if your little brother is single and completely unattached that is a different matter. Given the demands on army personnel army families are getting screwed beyond belief.

Colonel Colonel said...

Great story, although i still can't quite get me head around jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. Of course, the sight of the pilot wearing a parachute might make me feel otherwise if I was in the plane.

Stacy The Peanut Queen said...

I'd love to parachute...but I'd have to have a pretty big diaper on 'cause I'd probably end up wetting myself on the way down. I'd be SO scared. ;)

The Zombieslayer said...

Whitewater rafting? Skiing?
I'm soooo there!

Too funny. I think those who want to serve will serve.

Anyways, great description of getting dumped. I've been dumped plenty o' times, but never described it like that.

I'd pass on jumping out of a perfectly good plane. Luckily the good people who packed your chute were drinking Coors and not real beer, or else you may not be telling this story on your blog right now.

Good to know your buddy Rocky is defending us against the Germans. As for scuba diving in CO, would love to hear that one.

Beach Bum said...

Colonel: Even though Rocky was always more gung-ho than me even he questioned the sight of the pilot wearing a parachute. My brother Joe Cool, who is still very adventurous, wanted to try skydiving once and tried to talk me into doing it with him in the late 90's. I'll just say that while I didn't say no I never did bring the subject back up. Would I do it again now? I don't think so but never say never.

Stacy: Out of all the newbie's that jumped that day the guy I wrote about that flared too late and landed on his back spoke several times about how he might chicken out while we were training earlier that day. He was still coming down after I landed and was brought back to the landing zone. This guy who thought he would chicken out was using the steering toggles to do some pretty extreme turns with some of the ground staff fearing he would collapse the chute and really hit hard. His flaring too soon though was a result of him ignoring the staff but he still walked away wanting to do it again.

Slayer: If I went too far on anything it may have been the situation with the off post activities booklet. Even back in the carefree lazy days of the 80's a recruiter's job was alway very hard that if he or she didn't make the quota of recruits a otherwise great service career could go down in flames. A recruiter has alway had the tough duty to convince parents and, many times, spoiled children of what the service could do for the kids joining. My one criticize has been the selling of the service as a job, which even in the 80's it wasn't. The service is a life style in which you drag spouses and kids along with them suffering in many ways that can be worse than whatever a service member is going through short of dying. The off post activities booklet could have been looked at as icing on a cake of benefits the service could provide someone by joining. Now that I've cleared my tiny and weak conscious while many recruiters are honest and are just trying to offer what can be a way out of poverty with a real chance to advancement just like any profession some are dishonest and would lie to their grandmother as long as it helped them make their quota. But none are beyond stretching the truth and to a great extent the truth is a matter of a person's point of view. Yes, the area around Fort Carson offers many adventurous activities but with the demands of training few felt like pursuing them. But we did have down time and could have, and did take advantage of many but many times we just sat on our lazy butts and drank beer or chased chicks. Did any of that make sense? I've been drinking and I'm uncertain.

As for being dumped by girlfriends I may have to post some of those events. Annette and I never were serious beyond her using me and me using her. When she did give me the "Dear John" treatment I knew it was coming for weeks and really thought our time had pretty much played out. We "separated" on good terms.

Mike said...

Two of my really good friends went skydiving a couple of years ago. They begged and pleaded with me to go, but I just couldn't do it. I thought about it long and hard, but just couldn't do it.

Those two went amyway and one of them loved it and the other one came pretty close to pissing his pants.

Anonymous said...

No way would I ever jump from the sky. My feet stay on the ground at all times!


Beach Bum said...

Mike: From what I gather even now it is fairly safe but I did see a video of one jumper on some late night extreme video show somehow lose it and came down without deploying either the main or backup. There were no close up but it wasn't pretty.

Beach Bum said...

Preposterous Ponderings: From reading your posts I still would bet some money you would enjoy it. The guy who flared too early and landed on his back had his girlfriend, also a newbie, skydived as well. She was in the second group of newbies and when she got down she ran up cussed her boyfriend out, the gave him a long deep kiss and then said that it was the best thing she had ever done without taking her clothes off. When we, the newbies, finally broke off for the day due to high winds which grounded us she was still clinging to her boyfriend giving a strong impression that he would be rewarded when they got home.

E said...

I want to hear more stories! That was great!

Utah Savage said...

Great bit of history and autobiography. I love your candor, your willingness to let us in and see both into the mythiness of military life, and young manhood. You are a gifted writer. I hope you keep this up.

Beach Bum said...

E: Thanks, there are more, especially one were when I think about the story sounds good but once I begin to write just loses its luster. While on a FTX I found a curious relic perched overlooking Pinyon Canyon itself. The mystery it inspired in me was huge but I don't think anyone else would get it.

Utah: Its funny but I can't even begin to tell you how many times I reread this post with all the memories it pulled out of the dusty cobwebs of my mind. With all that I did do,even with all the field training exercises, its hard to believe I was active duty for only four years.

MadMike said...

I got on that bus to Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri on May 25, 1968. Things were much different then. No one gave us pamphlets and everyone yelled at us. When we had down time the Army made sure it was up time. We were required to move rocks to one pile and then move them back again. Of course we ran everywhere, they called it "double time" and we are always double timing. In Missouri in the Summer it gets hot. The Army wasn't supposed to train us in temps over 80 degrees but they didn't care about that. It was double time all the time, even in 99 degrees.

I enlisted to avoid being drafted. I was fortunate enough to get into Military Intelligence, a contradiction in terms no doubt, and after basic I was sent to Maryland for Spy School. We worked, we studied, and we got drunk, and then we prayed to the white Buddha. We did that almost every day, although sometimes we ignored the Buddha and that was a good thing.

Upon graduation I was sent to SE Asia, which was not a happy place. the Army gave us black jeeps so that we could blend in. Everyone else drove green jeeps. We did have classified rank, in other words we had US insignia on our lapels where rank should have been. Only intelligence agents had such insignia, but of course no one knew who we were.

The rest of the time I spent in the Army was a blur. I remember to this day however that almost everything was SNAFU. No wonder I am the way I am four decades later.

Beach Bum said...

MadMike: I did not miss the yelling and "rough" phase of basic training either it just that I joined the National Guard first in 84 and spent two years with it before going active the initial training was the same active army.

I flew into El Paso, Texas and boarded a bus for Fort Bliss less than a month after graduating from high school. While the army you served in and mine were worlds apart in many ways I still had my share of various Drill Sergeants yelling in my ear and running double time to every location in that godforsaken place. Top it all off I was the unlucky soul who the last to find his duffel bags in the pile that had been created as they threw the stuff off the bus giving me the honored privilege of having personal attention by two Drill Sergeants during as the battery did the duffel bag shuffle.

Instead of moving rocks though our basic training unit would be marched to some field covered in small rocks and told to get down on our hands and knees and pick every blade of grass and assorted weeds that had the audacity to spring up from the ground.

While heat was an issue through most of our training we were issued summer PT uniforms and by October as we were getting close to graduating discovered that El Paso did actually get damn cold.

When I did go active duty in 86 permanent party status at Fort Carson was the "carefree and lazy days" I referred to since all we had to worry about was the far off chance of a the Soviet dinosaur invading Germany and the FTX's that were more boring, when all is said and done, than anything else.

The guys and gals serving today and your time in the army have far more in common than anything I went through.


Great story, Beach Bum. Enjoyed reading it.

I personnaly have done a few dozen jumps for recreation but don't think I'll ever do bungee jumping. Brrrr... just the thought scares me.

Anonymous said...

interesting post...
Thanks for sharing......

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