“The Paratrooper” first appeared as a poem in my book Worked Stiff: Poetry and Prose for the Common but I decided to give a more meat to those bones and give the young man a little background as he made his decent. Even though I will likely never jump again after my neck surgery, I look back on all those Airborne Days with a great fondness for the camaraderie and exhilaration that is being a Paratrooper. Also the fact that, as a young Rigger officer, I packed my own parachute-twice, and my ocean jump in Tampa. I can’t help but think that I have been a part of the history that started at Camp Toccoa and continues to develop to this day. I would also be remiss not to include this awesome old school Airborne video for your enjoyment.
Feedback is always appreciated.
Time stops but the figures before the man keep moving. On and on, they perform with a lone purpose in mind. The boy finds his body in ritual too, copying their every move and singing. The grumbling beast then turns on its side, just when the birds thought that particular section of the sky was safe. The move for another pass captures the boy’s stomach. His will to ever say no again is gone. The men in front of the line all hook-up and chant, Private Mitchell does the same.
He turns around to see that nobody is there to copy his movements. There is no one there to push him out if he doesn’t seem to have the action required at the door. Mitchell is the last in his line and the time is coming. He knows this to be deathly true as the other men near the door show an inch on their fingers. The chant and sign echoed by the lines of the willing. All were done in ritual before, now this is for real. He tries to pretend it is not real, that this is another rehearsal and he is waiting in the long line on the ground in the hot sun, merely to jump off a pedestal again and again.
The fear inside of Private Mitchell is so great that it reaches absurdity. Boiling over, he can only smile and sheer himself out of his physical form. He can hear nothing. He can feel nothing but death playing the odds, rolling the dice on his behalf. He examines his body and his gear as he hovers above himself. He watches the soldier he once knew as a boy walk towards the door. Mitchell recognizes the boy somewhere in the face, but only a little. The youth he once knew for what seemed like a lifetime in the bathroom mirror of his mom’s house was fading. It was a lifetime, a lifetime that is now vanishing. Private Mitchell watches himself hand off his static line. His life turned over in trust to another, grittier man’s hands. Time allows only a momentary stare with the man, a real man. This cracks Private Mitchell back into his own body, that knowing look.
He exits the door into a sudden free-fall, and intense wind steals the young man’s lungs. Broccoli and toy trucks below morph into a pause for judgment. The soldier’s mind can only whirl through the many decisions he has made. Did he need to bomb that test? Did he need to take her out? Did he need to buy that car? Those and certain events have driven him into this life, into this panic.
“Well, if you are going to go off and join the godforsaken Army instead of going to college, the least you could do is keep your room clean when you come to visit,” Mom said when he brought home the pamphlets and a way out. She had her way of sneaking in jolts here and there to deal with pain.
“Yeah, I tried to join the Marines once, only lasted about three weeks, had to come home,” Uncle Bill said while they were digging a ditch in his yard the spring before he went to basic. “I was too tired all the time. Your aunt Nadine was the true reason, couldn’t spend one day without her. We weren’t married then, yet, but I worried that she would go and marry Bobby Burleson instead if I never came back. It pained the shit out of me more than any of the exercises and the yelling.”
With the air swirling around, Mitchell thinks of all the girls he flirted with in high school, even the one he met at that party, the one that went to Roschell High instead of his own school. The one that let him in, took his virginity and left. The one he scored. She wasn’t here, none of them were. There was nobody to leave this panic for.
Private Mitchell wonders if it will end. He feels the slight relief that perhaps he could just perish here with the adrenaline soaking in his blood. How romantic. The paper headlines back home would be righteous and his mother would get the four-hundred thousand they promised his beneficiary, the only choice on the form. Maybe she would pay off the car.
No, a snap of his torso gives Private Mitchell dangerous hope. His eyes look in wonder straight up at this moment’s only love. He can only guess this violence of body must mean survival. The pain in his groin from the leg straps and the burning around his neck must mean he has made it. A canopy, a savior, a prince.
Work to do now to ensure the rest goes well. Proper descent is only up to him and the ritual he remembers, wait. The soldier catches a peak of the horizon, the beautiful reality meeting him at his same level. The unreachable is there. Eye to eye, mesmerized to be equal to the Earth and the Sun. The spectacle has captured only him, is only for him. Mitchell’s eyes follow the streaks of light to the ground, past the tops of his trusty boots, an act the ritual warned against. They said he must never ever look straight down as he has just now. He forces his head back to the horizon, his eyes must not betray the work.
The soldier pulls with all his might this way and that. He combats the wind with his silk savior. He looks to the trees for permission. The sign is there to release his only belongings to the feared below. Down the weight of the ruck sack zings on a line, stopping far enough under his feet. He released his weapon case, it doesn’t follow suit. His actions are violent, frantic. It has all gone so well up to this point. Finally, the equipment obeys.
The time is coming, and soon. His eyes were no longer equal with the horizon, they are starting to recognize things that normal men see.
“Be loose! Be loose!” the soldier cries only to himself, his feet and knees together. Mantra, mantra, all the way down. He can anticipate no more or the sheer act will kill him altogether…
“Oomph!” The air leaves his body as he rolls to counteract the hit. Tall blades, crisp and sweet, had no idea he was coming. They are his forced friends now. They are who he will give all his life to. A reassuring fraction of a second without swelling pain is taken as a litmus. That is all the soldier needs to know that he has survived.
He cackles, playful as a child, the spilling parachute covers him like a blanket.