“Starboard personal stand up!” I could feel the engine humming under my feet, against my back, in the air around us. I was on a Casa aircraft. A plane that counted as little more than a go-kart with wings. One last jump to round out six years of jumping out of planes in the United States Army. 32 trips to earth instead of 31. I joined at 20 years old with Airborne School written into my contract. A guarantee that I could go to a school that my grandfather had been denied.
“Port side personal stand up!” I pulled myself up against the turbulent air beside the other jumpers on my chalk. Chalk is just slang for the group of people assigned to that specific jump. It helps ensure accountability and that no one gets lost on a drop zone. I was towards the back of the chalk that day and mad as hell about it. I knew that I was probably going to be walking for a while to get back to the checkpoint. And I have short legs.
“Hook up!” When you heard the command to hook up, you were supposed to unhook your static line that ran out of the top of your parachute and hook it to a cable that ran along the inside of the skin of the aircraft. Most of the time though, we’d unhook it and tuck it in the top of our top to save time in the air. Hooking up was normally when the nerves started to set in for me. My moment to question my sanity, if you will.
“Check equipment!” Checking equipment sounds complicated, but really just meant slapping your harness to make sure nothing had managed to come loose and that the person in front of you didn’t have their static line twisted or damaged. Normally at this point I would go over proper exit procedures in my head. Once, I didn’t tuck my head enough during training and managed to get a massive friction burn across my neck. It only happened once, but it was enough.
“Sound off for equipment check!” This was my favorite part of the in-aircraft actions. I just had to yell okay and smack the person in front of me somewhere on the body. Most people choose the side of the arm for easy access. Honestly, it’s just fun to smack someone that may be annoying on the arm.
“Standby! Green light, Go!” Those two commands tended to follow each other fairly quickly and then it was just a quick step off the ramp and you were free falling through the sky. Six short seconds later, you would feel a sharp jerk upward as your parachute filled with air. I could continue to bore you with the many protocols that exist in the sky but honestly the thing that I remember the most was the silence. For 10 whole seconds, between checking and gaining canopy control and landing on the very hard ground, it was peaceful. I loved it, enough to keep jumping after a broken tailbone, a sprained ankle and two concussions. In a way, it’s the perfect metaphor for my military service. I loved it even when it hurt me.
On my last jump I landed in a tree and got caught in my harness on the climb down. I spent almost a full minute upside down while I wiggled my foot free from the boot caught in the strap above me. It was my last jump, and my favorite, because it produced one of the best stories. As I continue on at Vassar, I’ll always have the reminder of how to handle pressure and self-correct when actions fail. My service wasn’t perfect. I dealt with bad leaders, sexism and unrealistic expectations but it isn’t something I’d want to change. I met my spouse, got to come to Vassar and meet new people. Growth is important no matter where it comes from.