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.