This tale happened in March of 1987 when I was a newly minted soldier in the U.S. Army. After completing Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training I, and a few others, were sent to the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning Georgia to (hopefully) complete the Airborne Course. This was all planned out according to our enlistment contracts and we were fired up and ready to get going with this last segment of our training.
The first thing that happens at Airborne School is a physical fitness test. The fact that I had just completed 13 weeks of training did not matter. Not one bit. Having no choice but to go with the flow, I took the PT test, which was graded exceptionally hard by the way, and I came to find out later this was a weeding out process. One of many to come in the next few weeks.
The thing about Airborne School, besides the intense physical training is the mental aspect of it all. It is not normal for someone to intentionally leap out of an airplane – or any other vessel high in the air. But the instructors drill that out of you. They fill your mind with hype and sensationalism to the point that you start to believe it. The line we were fed was that there are regular soldiers who are detestable and there are paratroopers who are completely awesome. Paratroopers jump out of planes because they are better than everyone else. They have no fear. They walk taller. They not only face danger, they are danger. And failing Airborne School would strip you of all that and you would have to live your life as a lower being. A “dirty, nasty leg”, as they used to say.
The pressure to perform was mighty stiff and the standards were very high. Our morning physical training sessions, for instance, were at such a high tempo many people fell out. As a 19-year-old fresh out of training I thought I was in pretty good shape, but Airborne School is its own little world of structure and discipline. I was also surprised at how fast and how far we had to run. There were trainers watching us and if you fell behind you were lined up and sent home. Another weeding-out process. Only the strong would survive.
After two weeks of “mind control” and intense physical activity we finally began Jump Week. The last requirement to graduate was to complete 5 jumps. There were no do-overs. This is it. Excitement was boiling over as we got our parachutes rigged up and started out towards the plane. We all got settled and situated onboard and I’m sure that flight couldn’t have been longer than 20 minutes or so, but it felt like an eternity. Then the doors to the plane opened up and it got real. Roaring wind came rushing in and my heart just about leaped out of my chest. This was actually happening! I had long since made peace with my Maker about all this and I thought this might be the end of my story. I might not make it. But I was going through with it anyway. The jumpmaster had us stand up and hook up our static lines to a cable running the length of the plane. We all did one last equipment check then it was one minute to jump, then thirty seconds, then the green light went on and out I went.
I’m often asked, “Why would anyone jump out of a perfectly good airplane?” In my response I take a deep breath and try to explain the unexplainable. It’s something you have to experience to understand. To cheat death and live is pretty awesome.
The column represents the thoughts and opinions of Alan Shoalmire. Opinion columns are NOT the opinion of the Navasota Examiner.
Alan Shoalmire is a resident in Grimes County and the owner of Grill Sergeant Hotdogs and submits a column to the Navasota Examiner every other week.