Copyright© 2010 by Joe J
Jump School was a thoroughly unpleasant experience. I think the Army outdid itself in selecting the toughest and meanest SOBs alive to fill the ranks of the Airborne Course cadre. From the minute I arrived, until the day I left, those guys were up my ass like a pine cone suppository. The CO and first sergeant back at Camp Crocket hadn't done me any favors by making me a corporal, because the promotion made me the senior man in my class during detail week. As such, the cadre expected me to keep track of the two hundred plus guys that had reported with me.
During that week, we performed all the duties required to keep the school operating so the airborne students didn't miss any training. We did KP, drove trucks and pulled guard duty or anything else that needed doing. I must have done a million pushups that week, as I was held responsible for every fuck up, right along with the sad sack who did the deed. If Joe Shit the Rag man was late for KP, Corporal Jody was right beside him pushing Georgia. The cadre really enjoyed raking a new corporal over the coals.
Army officers and NCOs, plus men from the other services, started arriving on Thursday of that week. That didn't mean much to me though, because until Sunday evening, I was still nominally in charge of the slugs in the enlisted men's barracks. We were the low men on the totem pole until Monday morning when training started and the next bunch took over the details. I was thankful when a Captain assumed the position of class leader and I dropped down to squad leader. Ten men were much easier to keep track of than two hundred.
The technical aspect of the training we received was not that challenging, but the physical training and harassment made up for that lack in spades. From the first formation until graduation, we ran everywhere we went. Woe be unto your non-airborne qualified ass if some cadre sergeant caught you walking. If we weren't running it was because some cadre sergeant had us in the front leaning rest position doing pushups. "Drop and give me twenty," was the jump school mantra.
The first week of actual training was called Ground Week. During Ground Week, we learned all about the brand new model T-10 parachute, how to properly exit the door of an aircraft in flight, how to steer the parachute and how to do a parachute landing fall (PLF) once our sorry asses hit the ground. Ground week was home of the thirty-four foot mock door tower. At the thirty-four foot tower we practiced and were graded on our exit technique. You jumped out the door wearing a parachute harness hooked to a cable that was anchored on a berm two hundred feet away. An instructor unhooked you when you hit the berm then you double timed back to the tower to be critiqued by one of the cadre.
If the instructor didn't like your exit, He made you a rope man. The rope man had the job of pulling the trolley assembly and harness back to the tower. It was hard as hell getting the assembly close enough to the door so the instructor didn't have to lean out to grab it. I had nightmares for a week about someone screaming, "Take up the slack rope man, then drop and give me fifty."
The second week was Tower Week, where our lives revolved around the two hundred and fifty foot parachute towers that were the most prominent landmark on Fort Benning. The three towers were spaced a couple of hundred yards apart in the middle of a huge field. Each tower had four arms sprouting out of their top like a giant plus sign. The tower gave us would be troopers a chance to fall to earth under a deployed canopy without having to actually jump out of a plane.
The tower had my undivided attention because they put me in a parachute, hooked the deployed canopy into a cup-shaped metal frame work and hoisted me up dangling under the frame. When the framework reached the top of the tower, they left hanging there for what seemed like hours before releasing me. Two hundred and fifty feet was a long way down for a country boy who'd never been in a building taller than three stories.
The cadre sergeant in charge of Tower Week was particularly adept at making us miserable. His name was Horace Bechtel, and he had been a paratrooper since there had been an airborne. Sergeant First Class Bechtel was small, wiry and as mean as a water moccasin. He set the tone for week two when we formed up for PT on Monday morning.
"I don't like my Mama because she's a leg," he said. "So you can bet I don't like none of your candy asses from the get go. Do us both a favor and quit now, so I don't have to run you off."
After we did fifteen repetitions of the daily dozen, Bechtel formed us up for our morning run. I was pretty happy about him leading the run, because he looked as if he was about a hundred years old. I figured he'd be lucky to make it half way around the two mile track that circled the towers. I changed my tune when we started our second lap and he looked fresh as a daisy while running backwards, grinning evilly and singing cadence. By the time he double-timed us over to the mess hall, we were dog tired and eight guys had quit, all before six-thirty in the morning.
I sucked it up and gutted it out, which is pretty much the only way you can make it through those first two weeks. I heard all kinds of rationales for the harassment we had heaped on us, but I never have figured out if all the bullshit actually made us better soldiers.
The third week of the Airborne Course is Jump Week. During that last week, every trooper has to make five jumps, including one with combat equipment. We jumped from twin engine, twin tail-boomed C-119 cargo planes. The C-119 was an excellent jump platform because there was no fuselage behind the troop doors to bang into if your exit was weak. My first jump was also my first flight in an airplane, so was more nervous about taking off in the plane than I was about jumping out of it. As it happened, I took off in fifteen airplanes before I ever landed in one.
For our final jump, we didn't actually use combat equipment; instead, the Weapons & Individual Equipment Containers we jumped were pre-made around a rectangular ammo crate with a couple of sand bags in it. The WEIC (wick) container was an OD canvass affair that would hold about a hundred pounds of equipment. The containers hooked to the same 'D' rings on the parachute harness that the reserve parachute fastened to. The WEIC had a big red knob at the top that when pulled, released the container so that it hung beneath you on a fifteen foot lowering line. The container was uncomfortable to wear and seemed to weigh a ton by the time we waddled onto the airplane.
All my jumps were successful, in that I walked away from each of them. In fact, we only had a couple of casualties during the week, both broken legs from bad PLFs. For me, jumping out of an airplane in flight was neither exciting nor scary. I think it's that way for most guys, because you are so focused on doing what you were taught, you don't have time to think about anything else. Of course, after riding around in the cramped and bucking plane wearing all that heavy uncomfortable gear made the task of unassing the plane something to look forward to.
We had our graduation from the Airborne Course right on the drop zone after our fifth jump. We formed up as soon as everyone was on the ground and the commander of the course pinned our silver parachutist badges to our shirts. I thought it was cool as hell that we didn't have to put on our class 'A's and march around like we did in basic and AIT.
I was not the honor grad for our class; that title went to a West Point lieutenant who thought he was Audie Murphy reincarnated. That a shave tail from West Point was top man in our class pissed off SFC Bechtel even worse than usual. For some reason, Bechtel hated West Pointers. He subtly let that fact be known during the wing pinning ceremony.
Bechtel's job during graduation was to follow behind the commander and give each of us the two clips that held the badge to our shirts. He was third in line behind the commander and the course sergeant major. When it was his turn to drop the clips in the lieutenant's hand, Bechtel stopped and acted as if he was straightening the wings on the man's shirt. In reality, he used his thumbs to push the sharp points of the pins into the hapless LTs skin. When the second louie yelped in pain, Bechtel gave him his most evil grin.
"Oops, sorry about that sir," he said insincerely.
Megan did not attend the graduation. She wanted to, but I nixed the idea, because I didn't want her sitting in the bleachers if I had a malfunction and splattered myself across the DZ. I called Megan every night we jumped that week to let her know I was alright, so she wouldn't worry.
We had the rest of Friday and all of Saturday to get our shit together and clean the barracks before we moved out Sunday morning. Except for a weekly supervised trip to the PX, that day and a half was our only time off for the four weeks we'd spent at Benning. My buddy Steve and I hot-footed it over to the PX as soon as we returned from the DZ. We each bought a pair of the coveted Cochran Jump Boots and glider patches to sew onto our flat garrison caps. The glider patch was a two inch round patch with a parachute and a WWII assault glider embroidered on it.
Back at the barracks, we spit shined our new boots and sewed the glider patches on our caps. Steve sewed a silver dollar behind his glider patch, because some cadre sergeant told him it was a paratrooper tradition. The sergeant said that everyone knew you were a real trooper when you threw your hat on the bar and that dollar clanged. I didn't follow suit, because I didn't trust the source of the information. For all I knew, we'd get busted to private for unauthorized equipment or some such during our first inspection as paratroopers in class A's.
When our boots were like glass and our caps squared away, we put on our summer greens and headed to town. Steve was taking me bar hopping for the first time in my life. Steve could not believe that I had never been 'pub crawling' as he called it, but I wasn't much of a drinker and spent all of my time with my wife. He said taking the little lady out once a week didn't count, even though Megan and I sometimes went to a tavern for a couple of beers.
We were a couple of sharp looking soldiers with our new jump wings pinned to the left breast of our green jackets above our National Defense Service Medals, and our trouser legs bloused into the top of our spit shined jump boots. We also wore our blue infantry fourragère looped over our left shoulder to let everyone know we were proud airborne infantrymen.
We weren't the only newly minted paratroopers looking for a beer that night, but most of our classmates weren't twenty-one, so they could only drink on post at the EM Club. I was twenty-two and Steve was a year older than me.
We caught the post shuttle bus to the front gate and walked over to the taxicab stand right outside the gate. We hopped into the first cab in line. The cab driver looked up at us in the read view mirror.
"Where to Gents?" he asked.
"Somewhere with hot women and cold beer," Steve replied.
The driver barked out a laugh and shifted the cab into gear.
"I know just the place," the cabbie chortled.
The place he knew was across the Chattahoochee River in Phenix City, Alabama. I was a little nervous, because Phenix City had a bad reputation even down in Valdosta. Anything went in Phenix City, including gambling and prostitution. In nineteen forty when George Patton commanded Fort Benning, he threatened to take his tanks across the river and level the place. In nineteen fifty-five, the governor of Alabama had to call in the National Guard to clean up the town. After the guardsmen departed, Phenix City wasn't as bad, but it was still a rough and tumble town.
The cabbie turned down a street right over the bridge and slid to a stop in front of a neon honky-tonk named the Drop Zone Lounge. I paid the man and over Steve's objections, asked him to come back for us in a couple of hours.
The lounge was everything Steve asked for and then some. We were no sooner through the door, when two women grabbed our arms and dragged us to a table. The women were Korean and spoke a fractured version of English that Steve seemed to understand. The Drop Zone had about twenty tables in it, and about half of those were occupied by a pair of bargirls. It cost five dollars an hour to sit at one of the tables with them. In addition, you were expected to buy them over priced drinks and pay them a dollar for dancing with you.
Even if I hadn't been married, I was too frugal to spend my money that way. Steve paid for the table and I reluctantly ponied up a five spot so 'Kim', the bargirl who attached herself to me, could order a 'champagne cocktail' for her and a beer for me. Steve and I watched as the women went to the far end of the bar to get our drinks. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the bartender serving them was SFC Bechtel in civilian clothes. I pointed him out to Steve.
"That evil little son-of-a-bitch won't even let us drink in peace," he carped indignantly.
I laughed and stood up.
"I'm going to go say hello to him. I figure he'll talk to me now that I'm not a leg anymore," I said.
Steve waved his hand and grunted his acknowledgement but stayed in his seat. He wanted nothing to do with the man who had dogged his ass for two weeks. I was hoping like hell that Bechtel was in the mood to talk so I could make my escape from the table.
It turned out that Bechtel was a completely different person away from his duties at jump school. He pulled two draft beers from the tap and called out something in Korean to a young woman who was also tending bar. She smiled and nodded as he joined me on the other side of the bar.
"You must have a good boss if you can stop work and have a beer with your patrons," I remarked.
He laughed and took a big gulp of his Pabst Blue Ribbon.
"That's my old lady over there. We bought this place six months ago, but she runs it mostly. I'll retire and help her more when the Army tries to send me somewhere else. The women out there are all Korean like her, and are, or once were, married to GIs from Fort Benning. By ten o'clock, this place will be filled with horny GIs looking to get lucky. For the right price, some of them will, but we don't have a part in that. We run an honest place here, and I look out for soldiers."
I bought the next round and asked him about the three small gold stars I'd noticed on his jump wings. He told me they were for combat jumps he made in World War Two and Korea. He had some fascinating stories of those olden days that were funny as hell. For my part, I told him about Megan and how much in love we were. He toasted me on that and said it was the same for him and his Susie.
"I met her when I was stationed over there in fifty-eight. She was a working girl and a lot younger than me, but somehow we clicked and here we are. She is one forever more smart woman when it comes to a dollar, so I figure in a couple of years we'll be right well off."
He dug out his wallet and proudly showed me a picture of a couple of cute kids.