Frank tried to flag down his instructor using a beauty queen wave for the fifth time that day.
“Excuse me, Sergeant Airborne.”
A glare radiated beneath the brim of the instructor’s black cap as he led the troops to the open doors of the Curtiss C-46 Commando.
On the first morning of school, Frank tried to explain his predicament, but “orders don’t lie.” As the others in front of him filed into the “Curtis Calamity,” Frank waited for his opportunity to be face to face with instructor for one last plea.
“Sergeant Airborne, sir, I’m really not supposed to be doing this.” The instructor pointed to Frank’s name on the clipboard without hesitation. “You are Deagle, Frank number 23-345-668 correct?”
“Soldier, you are supposed to be where this paper says you are supposed to be, just like it has for the past three weeks.”
“But the other men said they volunteered.”
“If you want to go ahead and file a formal request for transfer, you can step off this line right now. Otherwise, get your ass up in that plane.”
“But I got an IQ test….” Frank realized the foolishness of this statement as the instructor’s stare liquefied him. Frank knew that anyone with an IQ as high as his should have taken less than three weeks to fix the clerical error that had placed him in paratrooper school. He loaded into the plane.
The other men who had lasted through the program settled into their seats and gave high fives all around, hiding their fear beneath bravado. Frank cradled his head in his hands and tried to figure out how to escape from a C-46 Commando without anyone noticing. The aircraft tilted nose up and proceeded the climb to 1,200 feet its body humming a deep tone accompanied by the percussion of shaking equipment.
After his boot camp tests, there were handshakes and talk of a codebreaking position in Washington. Some large men laden with medals called him a genius and patted him on the back with the vigor of a high school quarterback (or at least with what he imagined it was like. His pals on the “It’s Academic” team didn’t use quite so much punch when you answered calculus questions correctly.)
When his letter arrived, he tore the entire envelope apart to get to his assignment.
Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
That couldn’t possibly be right.
He tried to figure out how it happened, but the voice on the phone said, “just go where they tell you” until they could uncover an error. Just go through physical training. Just go on this a glider on the ground. Just go up this 34-foot tower and jump. Just go up this 250-foot tower and jump again… and now he was one more “just go” away from his first real jump and solidifying his place in the military.
“Men, this is it,” the instructor stood in front of the row of students whose anxiety and excitement were equally matched. The harshness he had shown early in school had softened each time the fittest survived. “This is the moment we separate the weak men from the strong fools. You jump, you’re a goddamned fool, but you’re a strong one. You don’t, you’re not a fool, but you’re one weak sonofabitch.” The rest of the men smiled and laughed a bit, the dense tension eased.
Frank refused to consider himself a “fool” in the way the instructor implied, yet “weak” was also unacceptable. He was not accustomed to failure of any kind, but now here he was, climbing the sky and strapped to a T-10 parachute when he was supposed to be in Washington, DC. He should have been able to work his way out of this before now. Perhaps he was a fool.
“Fools were significantly smarter than most people give them credit for.” Wait, did I say that our loud?
A few of the men chuckled. “Frank’s being weird again,” the imposing Jones tattled in a preschooler tone.
“I just mean,” shut up shut up shut up, “fools were part of the court of kings. They played dumb, but they actually had to be very intelligent to be able to entertain the worldly court members. They were respected members of the king’s court.”
Jones grimaced. “Oh, for Christ’s sake Frank. Just shut up.”
The instructor stepped in, “Now hold on a minute. Beagle actually has a point…”
“It’s Deagle Sergeant. With a “D” like dog, but not the actual dog breed with a “B.”
“You’re all dogs to me, soldier.” The men shared another tension-releasing laugh and he continued. “Being a fool for jumping out this plane doesn’t make you stupid. Crazy and foolish are only a step away from brave and selfless. Let’s go.”
The instructor looked to the light board as it turned from red to green, indicating they had reached jump altitude.
The men lined up in the center row of the plane, Jones confirming his alpha dog status by standing at the front of the line. Frank was content to be last.
“Hook static line.”
Frank reached up and connected his hook to the line running along the top of the Commando. The airplane rumbled, the vibrations only adding to the jitters that most of the men obviously had. Jones led the men to the open door.
One-by-one the men jumped, each inhaling a short burst and closing his eyes before falling over the edge and disappearing. Each put Frank seconds closer to his fated career path. The soldier in front of him was shaking and repeating to himself, “feet down and roll, feet down and roll.”
Within a minute, Frank was at the doorway. He paused and took a step backward. He opened his eyes wide and looked over the edge at the 17 parachutes flowing below.
“I’m not gonna push you son. You have to do this one yourself. Are you gonna be that smarty-pants fool you talked about or are you gonna run away and hope to get some fancy desk job somewhere.”
Frank stepped to the door. He took his deep inhale, but kept his eyes open.
By Petty Officer 3rd Class Daniel Rolston (https://www.dvidshub.net/image/1465628) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons