The Year I Fell from the Sky
by Jude Joseph Lovell
The summer of 1991, my big brother was visiting from the Midwest with this crappy, brown pickup truck that he was rather proud of. Having been raised in the comfy New Jersey suburbs by a neuroscientist and a busy working mom, we were not exactly a pickup-truck sort of family. But there we were.
He drove us to see the fireworks a few towns away. We lay down on blankets in the grass of a ballfield like Americans do, and we laughed and howled and ribbed each other like siblings do. On the way home, I lay unsafely in the back of that truck with my two other brothers and maybe my little sister and watched people roaming the streets and sidewalks with sparklers and the like. It was dark and clear and warm. And I was scared out of my mind.
Three days later my mother and father together ferried me alone to Newark Airport with two canvas Army bags and stuck me on a plane to Seattle, Washington. As a United States Army ROTC cadet on scholarship, I was required to attend boot camp at Fort Lewis. I would be away from my five siblings, including my twin brother, and all my friends for five weeks. I’d never flown that far before.
I can still see my parents as I walked down the long terminal, waving goodbye to me proudly. My heart was sitting in my mouth, but I raised my fist like I’d just taken the gold in the Seoul Summer Olympics. I was nineteen years old.
Riding a shuttle out of the Seattle-Tacoma airport, I gaped at Mount Rainier because I had never seen a mountain big enough to have snow on its peak. It’s still the only one I’ve ever seen. Later, a yellow school bus carried me and a bunch of other unhappy youths into a dirt lot next to a huge parade field, complete with a review grandstand, in the middle of nowhere. Someone said the only time we’d see that field again was when we graduated. I got off the bus, and people started yelling at me immediately. This was going to be my life for the next five weeks, or so I thought.
For three years in ROTC at college, they had rammed into our skulls the crucial importance of doing well at boot camp. How you score there, they said, will determine your future in the Army. So right away there was unbelievable pressure to excel. And the competition was fierce. Every single other cadet of the three hundred or so I was training with had been told the same thing.
I buckled. I had never been through anything like it.
Everyone there was trying so hard to “take charge,” to stand out. But it just wasn’t my thing. But I was too green to understand there were other ways. My fellow cadets, particularly the ones in my platoon, disliked me. The instructors preyed on me because I was intimidated and broadcasted a lack of confidence. Unforgiveable. I felt miserable.
Plus, it was in the Pacific Northwest. So it rained. A lot.
My bunkmate was a slob—even worse than me. The guy left his crap everywhere. And every morning we had an inspection. Finally, the wrinkly drill sergeant, at the end of a career that had seen him parachuting into Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, got sick of it one morning. He threw our bunks over and scattered our gear across the barracks. Then he called the two of us into his office and yelled at us so loud that even his officer sidekick was cowed. I barely held back tears. Horrifying.
My bunkmate was also a bit of a jerk. Sadly, his girlfriend was killed in a car accident halfway through camp, and he was shipped home on compassionate leave. That was the last I ever saw of him.
We trained in the forest night and day. We crept in a wedge formation right past the massive base of the mountain. We went on long patrols all night through the dark. We conducted assaults by helicopter. We built a bridge out of rope to cross what one guy memorably called “the butt-cold Nisqually River.” We attacked while firing machine guns, threw grenades, called in artillery—the whole bit. All in preparation to become United States Army officers.
A week before camp ended, the evaluator called me in and gave me a score that, while not technically a failing one, would amount to as much to the cadets and staff back at school. I knew that. It was a mediocre grade, and that would never be good enough. I was profoundly upset and dreaded returning for my senior year. Plus, I had been through five weeks of misery for what felt like naught.
But the guy also said, “You have received orders to continue to Fort Benning, Georgia, to attend the U.S. Army Airborne School. You will fly from here and start immediately.” Though I had not planned for it, the last three weeks of my summer would be spent learning to jump out of airplanes. Paratrooping! At one point during the school year, I had added my name to a “wish list” to go. Everybody else seemed to be doing it. I never dreamed I would be selected. But now I had printed orders in my hands.
It was August 1991. Fort Benning was insanely hot. A guy collapsed from heat exhaustion on one of the first runs. The school’s notorious “black hat” instructors screamed in our faces and called us “legs”—the ultimate pejorative to those who were Airborne qualified and could wear the revered “jump wings.” By then, though, the screaming rolled off me. But the paralyzing fear of heights did not. Not even close.
I will never forget a black hat reminding us during training, “Do not worry, legs, if you exit the aircraft and your parachute fails to open! You have the rest of your life to deploy your reserve!” Strangely, I remember my mother not being not so amused about that when I told her years later.
Metallica’s “black album” dropped while I was at Airborne School. The song “Enter Sandman” was its own force. It seemed to take over the entire Army. Troopers blasted it from boom boxes in their barracks. For whatever reason, this became the psych-out song for what we all jokingly called “the invasion of Alabama” (the “drop zone” for our five qualifying jumps was located over the state line). The things you remember.
We spent hour after hour, it felt, hopping off three-foot stands into a pit filled with wood chips, learning how to execute what is known as a “parachute landing fall,” or “PLF.” No one who attends Airborne School ever forgets those three letters. You press your knees together, bend them slightly, and direct the balls of your feet downward so they strike first. And above all, you watch the horizon, not the ground rising up so fast to greet you. Otherwise, you will flinch and break one or both of your legs.
Military parachuting is no joy ride. The chutes are designed to get you to the ground as quickly as possible. A trooper drifting in the sky is a sitting duck. It’s also why you jump from “only” 1,250 feet up. Roughly the height of the Twin Towers in New York, someone told us helpfully. In those days they seemed as indestructible as we hoped we were.
The morning arrived in late August where I lined up with a couple of dudes in ROTC who had also gone to Fort Lewis. We waited to climb onto a C-130 aircraft squatting on the tarmac like a grounded, metal dragon. We had heavy packs strapped to our shoulders and helmets on our heads. We carried M-16 rifles. We joked nervously to each other, “See you on the ground.” We were sweating profusely, and our eyes darted around in abject terror.
Once the plane lumbered into the sky, there was no escape. The flight itself seemed to last seconds. Everything was done with hand signals due to the incredible noise. The crewman hauled open the side doors, and light and air rushed into the cabin like a hell-born tornado.
The jumpmaster gave the sign to stand. He hooked both index fingers and jerked his forearms up and down. “Hook up!” he screamed. But it was like watching a silent movie. We secured our cables to a taut, heavy-steel wire running the length of the cabin. When we exited the airplane, the cable would pull tight and yank open our parachutes—assuming everything functioned properly.
A huge green light flashed behind the jumpmaster. The troopers started to shuffle forward and jump out. So did I.
I remember blind fear, a tremendous blast of air, flailing around in open space, a violent jerk upward, my breath flying from my lungs.
Then I was surrounded by profound silence and glory. The beautiful, green earth wheeled below. There was an acute strangeness in looking left and right and seeing my brothers and sisters floating through the blue with me, all whooping aloud in wonder and joy.
Very soon there would be important things to do. Total concentration and near-perfect execution were required. Above everything else, I had been trained to avoid a harsh injury and clear the drop zone for the tree line in a military manner.
But for those few minutes, and four more times after that, I hung suspended in the sky until I struck the earth, trampling my fears and doubts with the balls of my feet.
That was thirty years ago this summer. And while I had a very hard time most of the way, I understood by the beginning of my last year of school that even when I fell, I could still rise.
Photo credit by Jack Wilkins @jwilks23
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.