You Have a Dark Halo

People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.

The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.

There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.

You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.

The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.

The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.

There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.

Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.

Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.

But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.

20 thoughts on “You Have a Dark Halo

  1. Thank you, Daphne. It’s always good to see you here.

    Sad to see the Haven shuttered. As long as I have some rights over there, I may have to do some guerrilla posting when the booze takes me. Or just log in and let my eighteen month old boy pound on the keys for a while.

    Thanks again. I never gained much popularity, but what I have is almost entirely thanks to you. I’ll not be forgetting any time soon.

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    1. Andy, I think you’re a truly good man and very talented writer. It’s been wonderful watching you and your family grow over the years.

      The Haven needed a break. I wasn’t writing what I wanted most of the time and the place was causing no small amount of friction in my personal life. But feel free to pound away at my site if the fancy takes, you’ll always have writing privileges as long as the doors stay open.

      Oh…you don’t owe me any thanks. Your writing speaks for itself, clear as a beautiful bell.

      Big hugs.

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  2. Fantastic bit of writing, Andy.

    Love this phrase: “When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes.”

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    1. Thank you, Nicole. I try to make things pretty when I can. Mostly they’re already pretty, though, and I just talk about them a bit. THAT’S THE SECRET TO THE WHOLE SHEBANG, RIGHT THERE.

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    1. Towards the end of my airborne days they were moving towards c-17s more and more frequently. I got a couple of jumps from those big bastards, and it was heaven compared to the Herk. The ride up, anyway. On a C-130 the flight crew literally had to walk across our laps to get from the rear to the front of the bird. On a C-17 you could have driven a golf cart down the aisles.

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  3. “Good stuff, Maynard.” I’ve spent decades challenging–always simply challenging–a fear of sudden stops from great heights w/o ever actually conquering the fear. (Now, I just wear really good safety gear when I have to deal with great heights *heh*) This plucked the strings of all those “challenges”.

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    1. Thanks for stopping in David.

      It’s true, my last jump was every bit as frightening as my first. Sure, knowing the routine alleviated a bit of the anxiety, but the moment of doing was always a frenzy of mental gymnastics. You deal with heights often?

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  4. What a great write up! They pushed me out 48 times, and, while I know I felt exactly as you described, I could never put it in such powerful prose. The 141s were my dream jumps…. just walk out. But every landing was an absolute terror filled adventure. I’m pretty certain I never did it the way the Blackhats trained me. Ahhhhh, those last 6 inches!

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    1. Hi Jim. Let me just tell you, brother, if you liked jumping from a 141, you’d have loved it from a C-17. I’m sure you could google up a picture or two of a C-17 fully loaded with pax. It’s amazing how big the insides of those things are. Loadmasters wandering up and down the aisles easily instead of hanging onto the anchor line cable and walking across your laps, no hurrying up to stow the damn seats, and a nice, deep door with a long platform for stepping out into the night.

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  5. ETS Feb 89. Would love to jump again. My last jump was anight jump and all I could think about was DON’T GET HURT. One guy broke his leg, I heard him scream in pain, my first thought was “I’m glad thats not me”. It was a friend , he still had 6months left, plenty of time to heal. Great story! A co 3/505

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    1. Hi Kelly. My second to last was my problem jump – I was way too careful, so my exit sucked. Nothing major, but a little sketchy.

      I was a Forward Observer with 3/319. Spent most of my time there calling fires for 2/504.

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  6. Beautiful, you nailed it. I ended up with 67 jumps total. The oddest ones were actually as Jumpmaster, the whole thing seems so much calmer and quieter after everyone else is gone.

    As far as perfectly good airplanes go, well some of the C-123’s I jumped out of were worth jumping from. Echo/325.

    Best

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    1. I’ll admit, Allen, that I didn’t have the balls for Jumpmaster. Had I stayed in the 82nd, I would have had to have sucked it up at some point, or just said goodbye to my professional development. An NCO in the 82nd who avoids Jumpmaster school, avoids promotion.

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  7. You didn’t miss much. Jumpmaster school was a short version of Jump school with a few more bells and whistles.

    There is one distinct memory that I have from a jump as Jumpmaster. As I was hanging out the door waiting for the waypoint to go by (just before “stand in the door”) I thought, what if I just left now. Fortunately, the madness passed. But, it sure was funny to think it.

    It’s been thirty odd years but I still remember the ditty for Sicily DZ, “when the street goes between your feet.”

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