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A story by R.A. "Doc" Correa
This is a try at a humorous story, a little something from my past. To tell this story, and have it made sense, I will need to provide some background. I will try to keep it short, but as Erika knows, I usually can’t write anything at a thousand words or less. Nonetheless, here we go.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and attended Eagle Rock High School, where I played football. My senior year I went varsity, and my position was linebacker. I was five foot eight and a half inches tall and weighed a hundred and seventy-five pounds (small for an LA varsity linebacker). I did all the workouts, weight training, wind sprints, etc., and thought I was in great shape, not an ounce of fat on me. Turns out I was a bit mistaken on that point.
After I graduated, I married my high school sweetheart, the redhead (for the record, this is how I always refer to my first wife). She was all of fifteen when we married, and like most kids from LA at the time she was quite the hippie.
In January of 1971 I left for the army. Now in basic training I didn’t lose or gain any weight. Then I went to medic school (at the time known as the 91A course), at The Academy of Health Sciences (or as we called it, the army high school), Fort Sam Houston, Texas. There I added about ten pounds.
Some of you know I was in the army, but here I’d like to be a little more specific, I’m a retired US Army Military Master Parachutist, and I’m qualified as a military parachutist in both the British and Canadian armies. At this point I bet you can guess that jumping out of an airplane has something to do with the story.
Those that are familiar with what the above means know that I have had over nine weeks of basic and advanced military parachute training (that counts training with the British Paras, and the Canadian Airborne Regiment). The only parachute training I didn’t attend in the army was military free fall school (something the bureaucracy prevented, and I regret not doing).
The US Army basic parachute school is three weeks long and considered one of the most physically demanding training programs on Earth. The instructors are exacting to the point of ruthlessness, and the dropout rate is high. Add in the drops from injury and you can see that making it through this training is not easy. Everything is done on the double time, and you spend a lot of time ‘kissing’ the ground (doing an unbelievable number of pushups) all day long.
To say the least, every ounce of fat on me was melted off by the end of those three weeks. Now I was still one hundred and seventy-five pounds when I graduated, but it literally was all muscle. And that’s when my wedding ring began to slip off my finger.
At first, I thought it was funny, I mean wow, I was so skinny my ring could slide off on its’ own. As it turned out that wasn’t so good.
One morning as I was leaving for ‘work’ the redhead asked (you remember her right), “Honey, what do you do so you don’t lose your ring when you jump?” She knew we had a jump scheduled for that day and was worried I’d lose it.
I replied, “I put it on my dog tag chain.”
“Okay,” she answered, then went back to sleep.
Now most training jumps are combat equipment jumps. In other words, you’re dragging around everything you need to fight with you. Add in the weight of your main and reserve parachutes and that’s quite a load. Further, about a third of all training jumps are at night, as it is preferred that real airborne combat operations happen at night. It makes it harder for the people on the ground to shoot you while you are coming down.
For those of you familiar with skydiving it is important to know that military parachuting and skydiving have nothing in common, even the parachutes are different. Skydiving is fun, military parachuting is far from fun. Whenever we met any skydivers, we would tell them the following: I don’t care how many skydives you have. Until you’ve stepped from an airplane into total darkness, wearing ninety-six pounds of combat equipment (with ammo a good twenty pounds more, and I was a medic, so I always carried fifteen pounds more than the grunts) and forty-two pounds of parachute at twelve hundred and fifty feet (very low for skydiving, very little time to react to a problem) you're still a Leg to me. In military parachuting circles calling someone a Leg is the highest insult possible (I met my second wife in the army. Though she is not parachute qualified I would never call her a Leg, she might hurt me).
But this jump was ‘Hollywood’. A Hollywood jump was the closest to fun military parachuting gets. The only piece of combat equipment you wear is your helmet.
Now another thing that makes this kind of jump ‘fun’ is getting to stand in the door. You spend close to one minute with the cool breeze blowing over you, watching the terrain rush by. And, usually, you get to make the best exit from the aircraft you’ll ever make. Plus, you are the first person out on that side of the plane, so no chance of a midair collision.
Oops, forgot to mention this part, another difference between skydiving and military parachuting is a skydiver might share the airspace with two to five other people. In military parachuting you are in the same sky with anywhere from sixty to twelve hundred other jumpers. That makes the chances of a midair collision a good deal higher.
In my fourteen years of active parachute status this was the only time ‘Doc’ (meaning me) got to stand in the door.
By now I expect you already realize that because the redhead asked me about it, I completely forgot to put my wedding ring on my dog tag chain. I forgot to do it at the muster where you hold out your dog tags and ID card so the jump master can check them against the jump manifest. I forgot to do it while we did emergency drills and Parachute Landing Fall (PLF) practice. I forgot to do it while my buddy and I rigged our chutes. I forgot to do it when the jump master did his safety inspection of my chute and assigned me to first man port side (left) of the aircraft. Damn it to hell, I forgot.
Now I might have thought about putting my wedding ring on my dog tag chain while we were waiting to takeoff, but this was North Carolina in the summertime. It is hot and humid, and we were packed into a big aluminum tube sitting in the sun with no ventilation, so you tend to focus on other things at a time like that.
Once in the air because we fly so low there are all kinds of turbulence due to the rising hot air, the plane bounces all over the place. And everybody barfs their brains out. So I didn’t think about it than either.
This truly enjoyable plane ride, which is about a five-minute flight from Pope Air Force Base to the Fort Bragg drop zones, has to last a minimum of forty minutes so the aircrew can log their flight hours. So, I could have thought about it then, but instead I did what I always do on these little junkets, rather than take in all the misery going on around me I went to sleep. I mean you can always use a thirty-minute nap, right.
The last ten minutes before a jump are very hectic. The jump masters and the safety NCOs have to do their last safety check, then they have to wake us up. At six minutes out the jump masters start giving their commands:
“Check static line!
“Sound off for equipment check!”
Now it is too late to think about the tremendous mistake I have made. From the front of the plane down the line, each man shouting into the ear of the man in front of him as he slaps the guy on the butt, resounds, “Okay!” until it reaches the two men at the rear of the plane, the two guys at the front of each ‘stick’, the two that will stand in the doors. I hear the guy behind me shout “Okay!” as he slaps my behind. I stomp my left foot pointing with my right hand (because I’m holding my static line with my left) to the jump master and shout, “All okay jump master!”
Now it’s really too late, not that it matters, I’m completely lost in ignorance of my error, totally focused on what comes next.
The jump master ‘hangs’ out the jump door, making his last visual safety inspection of the outside of the airplane. He wrestles himself back in, takes three steps back, turns to me and points at my chest shouting, “Stand in the door!”
I shuffle toward the door (every movement on the plane is done at an Airborne shuffle). Once there I plant my left foot on the jump step. Place my right foot about six inches back, knees bent, back straight, and I place both hands on the outer skin of the C-130 (either side of the door). I’m ready, wound tight, going to spring out there and snap into a tight exit body position. All the way, Airborne!
Nope, not a chance.
The vista is magnificent, such an incredible view. The prop blast from engines flows over me, the cool air is a huge relief from spending forty minutes in this flying tin can. All is perfect, except for the thing slipping down my finger.
What the hell!?!? Oh s*@t! There would have been more expletives, but there wasn’t time. Still the light has come on, “My ring!”
There is a reason why I was standing in the jump door the way I was. Over three decades of experimentation by the army on military parachuting went into everything we did. And in training, safety was always a consideration. In that moment, all that training went out the door, just before I did.
Time slows down when something ‘intense’ happens. Perhaps it’s a variation of time dilation, something God built inside us so that when we survive events we cause that are really stupid we learn not to repeat them. Just a personal theory, no proof, but I bet you’ve experienced it.
Instinctively I reached around to my left hand with my right. As I did my mind shouted, rather loudly, STUPID! Out of the corner of my eye I could see the shocked expression on the jump masters’ face. Then the prop blast from the engines caught my right shoulder, and I ‘left’ the airplane.
US Army paratroopers are trained to make a vigorous ‘jump’ out of a propeller driven plane (jets are different), and snap into a tight body position. This helps to avoid injury by colliding with the plane and assists the parachute to open safely.
I didn’t do any of these things.
For those reading this that have thought they might want to kiss the side of an airplane while it was flying, please take my advice, don’t!
I hit the side of one of the worlds sturdiest airplanes, with a very resounding thud. I don’t know what else I hit though many said I hit the side of the plane a second time. Others said that I hit the left stabilizer. I honestly don’t know.
I’ve always had an incredible amount of luck, even when I was doing something stupid. In this case my chute opened fully, no malfunctions, no twists, no tears. It was a good thing because I was out and could have done nothing if there had been.
I left the plane thirty seconds too soon, so instead of landing in the sand of the drop zone I became entangled in the trees just before it. I didn’t come to until the DZ medics cut me down, then I awoke, and everything hurt.
I was taken by ambulance to the base hospital. Emergency exam, X-rays, etc. it was late in the evening when I was released. Left side ribs taped, bandaged head, and thank God, pain killers. I was black and blue from head to toe on my left side. And had to use a crutch.
But now I had to report to the Battalion Commander. He, the Sargent-Major, my Company Commander and First Sargent were all waiting. The BC read me my Article 31 rights, then told me I was being charged with committing an unsafe act during a jump operation. Fortunately, the BC decided that the mess I was after getting out of the hospital was sufficient, with a little extra duty added. So, I was released to go home.
When the redhead saw me, she was very worried. She hugged me hard, which elicited a painful groan. I was late getting home so dinner was cold. She sat me on the couch and started to head for the kitchen, stopped in mid stride, turned with hands on her hips and shouted, “Where the hell is your wedding ring?”
I told her all that had happened, right to the Article 31 hearing. Once I had finished, she screamed, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have lost your ring!”
The redhead was a very passionate young woman, but when she became angry it was like a green-eyed demon from the seventh pit of hell had been released. By time she finished her fit I had come to the conclusion that it would have been better if my stupidity had gotten me killed.
So, the end result of this little adventure was a mild concussion, cracked ribs, black and blue from head to toe on my left side, I came very close to losing half my pay for ninety days, I did get two months of extra duty, I had a furious woman sleeping next to me, and all because my damn wedding ring slipped off my finger.
It is still residing somewhere in the woods just north of Holland Drop Zone. All things considered, that’s a good place for it to stay.
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