This story is by K.M.Hodge and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Turtle fuck!” coinciding with a dull thud against my helmet, brought me back to consciousness. My helmet felt heavy on my head and I rested it back on the netting behind me.
Yes, I had fallen asleep. I looked over at my assailant who was now grinning his lopsided grin, seating himself on the bench across from me.
“Asshole” muttered my squad mate seated to my right. He had the same wake up delivered to him, maybe harder since he was larger than I. The helmets did have a turtle-like shape to them.
Sitting along the sides of the large aircraft, I was one of a few hundred within our “stick” that was preparing to jump yet again from the perfectly good plane. The aroma of fuel mixed with the smell of nervous young bodies was thick in the air. It was hard to believe that I could fall asleep at such an exciting time but the Georgian heat, the physical energy exerted earlier in the day and previous weeks, along with the loud buzzing hum of the plane’s engines, had created just the right environment for me to take a nap.
Sitting up straighter and looking around, I saw many trainees doing the same. It was no easy feat to move as I was jam-packed between the two people who I had trained next to for the previous two weeks. The large parachute on my back provided some cushion against the netting but I always was a little nervous that I would snag on something. There was not a lot of talking. Everyone was either running through the training in their heads or they were staring across the aisle as I was now, looking into the focused and concerned eyes of fellow trainees.
The lop-sided assailant tried his best to add some levity and encouragement in his loud Texan drawl, “One more – right Charlie 10? And you get to be one of the first out the door to get it over with.” “Gomer”, what we called him, had been the comedian in the platoon. There was always one, and the help they provided in making light of any of the ridiculous and challenging situations we endured, was priceless. My “nickname” was simply the number I had received identifying where I was in the order of the other trainees.
I looked over to my left now, “Yeah, funny how that works.” I had been one of the first out for our first jump and now I would be one of the first out for the last. The “Black Hat” trainer, named for the hats that distinguished them from trainees, was standing not too far away holding onto a nylon handle that attached somewhere in the webbing to the frame of the plane. He was looking directly out the window of the door from which I and my stick mates would be soon departing.
“Well y’all get off that drop zone as quickly as you can, ‘cause I need lots of room for my final landing,” Gomer looked over at me and everyone around me, again with that goofy grin.
My attention was taken by the Black Hat at the door. He had straightened himself and was now studying the landscape from out of his window. He, along with many other dedicated souls, was completing another cycle; training perfectly normal human beings to do something very unnatural.
He was talking now to some of the other trainers and possibly the pilots, but hearing them and what they were discussing was completely drowned out by the engines.
I tensed up. I felt the others around me, also staring at the Black Hat, tense up. Helmets were being adjusted, cords were being tucked. Eyes seemed a little wider. I definitely felt like mine were. I saw lips moving, but could hear no words, prayers perhaps?
Black Hat at the door moved to the wall of the plane and after another exchange with another trainer, grabbed the handle and jerked the door open. Air gushed in like a huge warm wave and continued to pour over all of us. Now we could only hear the sound of the wind and the plane engines with the door open.
By leaning forward I could see just a little outside the door, the tops of the trees on the distant landscape. We must be close to the drop zone and at altitude. All eyes were now fixed on the Black Hat. We knew what came next as we had trained for two weeks running over and over this very scene and the actions we were now needing to execute with no room for error. Muscle memory needed to kick in but it did not hurt to run through the steps in your head.
The Black Hat, tied into the plane with a safety harness, now turned to face down the aisle with all the trainees on either side of him. “SIX MINUTES! he bellowed.
“SIX MINUTES, SIX MINUTES, SIX MINUTES!” I and all my stick mates yelled in echo as we swayed to the right and left and right again. If anyone had still managed to be napping, that was sure to wake them. The countdown had begun.
The fidgeting in the plane increased, ends of ropes and tie offs were tucked in and tightened as soldiers and sailors remembered the previous incidents from the earlier jumps that had caused injury or, worse. I reached up and tucked a few last strands of my hair into my hairnet. I had had strands of hair ripped out from the risers attaching me to my parachute, but had seen one girl who lost a little flesh from a large group of hair that had come loose from under the hairnet, entangled with the riser and with the speed of the descent, ripped away the hair and all attached to it.
The ritual continued, “ONE MINUTE, ONE MINUTE, ONE MINUTE!” our loud echo and rocking continued in our countdown identifying how far away we estimated our plane to be from the targeted drop zone.
I was holding on tight to my ripcord now. Held, like we trained, in my right hand since I would be turning to my left when we stood. I gripped the ring and turned it over in my hand. Though I had frozen for what was a fraction of a second in the door the first jump, a swift boot to my rear literally helped “kick” the training into action. Survival instinct and curiosity carried the day.
I stood and maneuvered to turn to face the wide open, air gushing door. Here is where my praying started, “Dear Lord, can I please have a good final jump maybe into the sand? Can I please put on my wings? Or Lord, can I please put on my wings even if I have to do so on crutches? Or…”
I and my standing stick mates immediately reached up and fastened our clasp to the thick steel cable that ran the length of the plane. Now I began to run through my next set of instructions in my head, “jump, tuck, count to 4…”
“SHUFFLE TO THE DOOR!”
We had reached the drop zone. Timing was critical so no one was allowed to delay. There were only a few fellow trainees ahead of me. We definitely shuffled, as it was all we could do given the movement of the plane with the space and the amount of gear we had on. I watched as now I saw the first jumpers disappear on my left out the door into the air. Only blue sky and some wispy clouds were visible from my angle view of the door.
I shuffled a few steps, then a few more. I was one person back now from the door. The Black Hat paused now, putting out a hand in front of Curly. She and I had become close friends in the short amount of time in training. We had made the first pass over the drop zone and were now maneuvering to make the second. Timing was critical to ensure we got everyone out but allowed enough time between the runs to clear the drop zone.
Black Hat now turned again to face us, saying “GO!” and reached over to my friend. I watched Curly hand over her cord, turn and she was gone. The tops of the trees were visible to me now, I saw the horizon dotted with little figures and open olive gray parachutes.
Two more shuffle steps and I stood facing the Black Hat. I shoved my ripcord over to him. He took it with a big grin on his face, “GO!”
I turned to my left standing on the solid belly of the plane, then jumped into the gushing wind.
I bellowed as I tucked into position, “ONE THOUSAND ONE, ONE THOUSAND TWO …” The next countdown had begun…