“Every man’s memory is his private literature.”
Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963)
The waitress approached the table with five salad dishes balanced on her forearm. J.P. leaned back as she placed a plate before everyone. The restaurant was filling up and the din and clatter of utensils on plates and muted conversations became more noticeable. J.P. ordered another round of drinks and looked at Sky. “So, you knew them both pretty well from the beginning?”
Sky stabbed at a piece of lettuce. “It’s funny, I can remember the most insignificant details way back then but I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast yesterday.”
“Amen.” Frank added. Harley nodded.
“So how did Jake and dad become friends?” J.P. tried to jump-start Sky into continuing his story.
Sky chewed on some salad, put his fork down and picked up his Vodka Collins. “They really didn’t like each other from the first time they met. There was a mix-up with their gear on the first day in jump school. Johnny blamed Jake for taking the wrong barracks bag and Jake blamed Johnny for ratting him out to Bancroft.” Sky took a long pull on his drink. “For three weeks they eyed each other looking for an opportunity to settle it. They were always near each other because we did everything in alphabetical order, which meant I was near them, too. Then finally, they got the entire company in hot water.”
“And they became friends after that?” asked J.P.
“From bitter enemies to the best of friends, closer than brothers.”
“How did that happen?” J.P. asked.
“Before it got better, it got a whole lot worse. In A-Stage the instructors were brutal. They spent the entire first week weeding out the boys who couldn’t keep up.” Sky put down his drink and picked up his fork and poked at the air with it. “You see, anyone could sign up for the paratroopers. Some were curious, some were bored, others wanted the extra pay but not everybody was cut out for the airborne.” Sky looked at Frank who was munching on his salad. “Did you find that to be true?”
Frank nodded. “The instructors in my jump school class could wash anyone out at any time but in reality, that was rare. They would rather push people to their limits and have them quit. They only kicked out the obvious psycho misfits who caused a lot of trouble.”
“Same here,” Sky agreed. “Problem was Bancroft labeled the Kilroys as eight-balls and rode them both the whole time, trying to get them to quit. Jake got the worst of it.”
“How so?” asked J.P.
“Like I said, A-Stage was all about calisthenics. We double-timed everywhere. Then there were the long runs in the Georgia summer heat. Let me tell you, guys were passing out left and right. When they recovered, they would be given the chance to finish, a test of character and determination. Some did and stayed in. Most just quit right there.” Sky glanced at Frank.
“Same thing,” Frank agreed.
Sky paused to take a sip of his drink. “If you got caught wiping your sweat or scratching your nose you were ordered to drop and do pushups. Bancroft would drop Jake down for no reason. Jake was wiry and strong, not to mention stubborn, and he did the pushups every time, no problem. Johnny just got out of basic like me so we were in decent shape and able to keep up.” Sky quickly chewed a mouthful of salad and continued. “We had four hours of calisthenics, an hour running, an hour of rope climbing, an hour tumbling and an hour of hand-to-hand combat. It was brutal.” Sky looked over to Frank and smiled. “I can’t believe I remember all this crap.”
“You got it right,” Frank confirmed.
Sky wiped his mouth and continued. “But old Bancroft was right about one thing. By the end of that first week the bunks down the center of the barracks were gone and in the bunks that were left, well most of the boys had the double rack all to themselves. We lost almost half the freakin’ platoon that first week.”
Frank put his fork on his empty salad plate, thought he’d give Sky a chance to finish his food. “In the summer of forty-two this airborne stuff was all new. The army was feeling their way along, trying different methods, looking for answers. What kind of equipment, training and command structure would be required? But in forty-two all this was still an experiment, a work in progress and there were growing pains. One thing we did know right from the start. A paratrooper had to be a unique and special breed. So we were trained, almost brainwashed, to believe we were an invincible force. We had to withstand the physical challenges of jumping from planes and landing hard, day or night, with over one hundred pounds on our backs and then come together with whoever was left standing and complete the mission. If you can find people who would do that, they also had to be smart enough to read maps, and landmarks and decide where they were and where to go.” Frank stopped for a moment to gather his thoughts.
“If I recall correctly, your dad was very good at that. He had a photographic memory for maps and stuff, “ Frank remembered. J.P. looked surprised but noticed Harley gave Frank a slight scowl. Frank continued without acknowledging either of their looks.
“If paratroopers were too far from their objective, they had to decide how to best disrupt the enemy in his rear areas. Cut phone lines, blow bridges, and hide road signs, anything to cause confusion. They had to decide whether to engage or evade the enemy they encountered. Use their initiative and judgment. If a corporal were the senior rank in a large group of troopers, he would be expected to take command at the platoon or company level. If a colonel found himself in command of a small group of troopers, he would be expected to lead them using squad tactics. They would have to be resourceful enough to use every weapon authorized for their regiment and enemy weapons as well. Finally, if you could find people who could do all that, they would also have to have balls of steel. They were expected to stand and fight regardless of the odds, to attack superior positions without hesitation, to accomplish their mission regardless of the obstacles, to be unstoppable.” Frank leaned forward on the table, clasped his hands and looked directly at J.P. “It’s not surprising we lost so many. It’s a wonder so many volunteered.”
They all leaned back slightly as the waitress removed their plates and placed appetizers before each of them. Frank continued. “That weeding out process and that severe training was supposed to flush out those who couldn’t cut it. It wasn’t perfect. We let some good ones get away. And we let some bad apples in, guys that belonged in a psych ward, you know, steal from other troopers, loot from civilians, shoot prisoners, that kinda’ stuff. But, by and large, if you made it through the training and got your wings you had the right stuff to be a good paratrooper.”
The table became momentarily quiet as they began eating. J.P. took advantage of the brief lull to change the tape in his recorder. He smiled at Cynthia who smiled back. She was regaining her composure. He was anxious to hear the rest of the story. After giving Sky a few minutes to work on his appetizer, J.P. flipped on the recorder and prompted Sky to get him speaking again.
“Why did you volunteer for the airborne, Sky?”
“Why?” Sky smiled and shook his head. “Why did we do the stupid things we did when we were nineteen?” He continued after a brief pause. “I was born in LA, flunked out of U.C.L.A. after a year and saw an article in Life Magazine so I joined, mostly for the adventure. Knowing what I know now, I would never do it again, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.”
“Same here,” Frank added.
“What did you do when you got out?” J.P. asked.
“Like a lot of guys, I went back to school on the G.I. Bill. Got my degree in engineering, went into the demolition business and retired a few years ago.”
“Demolition?” asked J.P.
“Yeah, I really like to blow shit up.” Sky smiled and reached for another clam.
Both Harley and Frank laughed. They understood how difficult it was for some to adjust from the adrenaline pumping high of constant combat to the relatively lethargic pace of civilian life.
“So, Sky, the tension between Jake and Dad, you say it got worse before it got better? They almost got the whole platoon in hot water?”
Sky scooped out the last clam into his mouth, chewed and swallowed and wiped his lips. “The whole damn company,” he corrected. “On the last day of C-Stage. I would have bet they wouldn’t have waited that long but somehow they managed to get that far before they finally threw down on each other.” Sky waved his glass in the direction of the waitress and continued.
“With most of the misfits and pretenders washed out in A-Stage, the B-Stage training became all about learning the techniques for jumping out of planes and how to land. We prepared and trained by doing thousands of tumbles in the gym. We also jumped from platforms without gear over and over again. The jumps were called PLFs, parachute landing falls, and we did so many that we could do them in our sleep. Then we learned how to strap on the parachute and harness; not too tight, not too loose. We were taught how to check our equipment and how to exit the plane from a mock-up airplane door. They taught us the proper body position in the air. We went out of that mock-up probably five hundred times. Easier said than done with a hundred pounds on your back. Instructors would critique and correct us. Our goal was to jump a stick of eighteen paratroopers in less than ten seconds. We never quite made that in training but we got close.”
The waitress brought Sky another Vodka Collins. “Every time Johnny and Jake checked each other’s equipment or passed close by each other I held my breath. But other than looks that could kill, nothing happened. I don’t think either of them wanted to screw themselves or their buddies out of making it through jump school.” He took a sip and continued. The vodka was beginning to loosen him up. “Then we jumped from the thirty-four foot tower on a harness rigged to a cable that went from the tower to a pole a hundred feet away and eight feet off the ground. It was hairy and scary.”
Frank finished eating his crab cakes and joined the conversation. “We had a lot of guys wash out on the thirty-four foot tower too. Once they got past that, they were likely to make it through jump school.”
“Right,” Sky agreed. “Most of the guys had never even been in a plane before they joined up.” He leaned back in his chair. “Anyway, here we are in C-Stage and they take us to the two hundred and fifty foot towers. That’s where they hook you up to a parachute, pull you all the way up and let you go.” Sky was motioning with his hands. He had everyone’s attention. “They trained us to guide the parachute using the risers, the straps that held the chute to your harness. Pull hard on one side, dump some air from the canopy and guide the chute in the direction you want to go. It was good to know and worked if the wind wasn’t too strong. When you hit the ground they had these big fans blowing air into your chute. You had to learn to collapse it and muscle it down. A guy could really get busted up bad if he let himself be dragged along the freakin’ ground. Suddenly, the pushups and rope climbing made sense. We were stronger and able to execute these difficult strength maneuvers.”
J.P. was anxious to hear about what happened between his father and Jake and wanted Sky to get to the end of the story. However, he was reluctant to disrupt his train of thought. Sky seemed to enjoy reliving those days, which seemed seared indelibly into his memory. Harley and Frank seemed to be enjoying the reminiscence as well. J.P. decided to take a chance. “So, what happened on that last day of C-Stage?”
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Sky continued. “It started in the packing shed. We were learning how to pack parachutes. We were very closely supervised and everyone paid attention because our first jump would be with the chute we packed for ourselves. It was serious shit and we knew it. If you screwed it up you’d wind up with a streamer and they’d be scraping you up with a shovel. And you would have nobody to blame but yourself.”
J.P. looked at Frank curiously. Frank responded. “A streamer was when your lines get fouled up and keep the chute from opening. Usually happened when you didn’t pack the chute right.” J.P. nodded and looked at Sky who continued.
“I knew Johnny was feeling bad about how he acted but he wasn’t about to apologize. Jake certainly wasn’t going to offer Johnny his hand a second time. The situation was tense and it wouldn’t take much to ignite it. So, we’re next to each other in this hot packing shed, each of us with his chute laid out on this long, smooth table, listening to the instructors and flattening the silk panels and separating and clearing the shroud lines and carefully folding everything into the pack tray. Suddenly, Johnny notices that Jake left one of the shot bags under the folds of his chute and was just about to pack the chute into his tray and…”
“What’s a shot bag?” J.P. interrupted.
Frank answered. “It’s a cloth pouch about the size of a sausage with small round lead shot in it. They were used to hold down the silk while we straightened out the shroud lines. You know, so a breeze wouldn’t blow your chute off the table. It’s not a good thing if you pack them in with the chute.”
J.P. nodded his understanding and looked back at Sky who continued. “So Johnny looks around, no one else sees it, he doesn’t really want Jake to get killed so he innocently says, ‘Hey Enema, you left a bag in the chute’. Johnny was trying to be helpful but unintentionally called him Enema. Jake went nuts, came flying around the table. Me and some other guys got between them again. Jake’s friend, Danny Boy, was also trying to get at Johnny. It was a mess. The instructors jumped in, screamed at everyone and restored order. We finished packing the chutes and put our names on them. Johnny yelled over to Jake to remind him to make sure he picked out the right pack this time. They were seething at each other. So, Bancroft decided to punish the entire company with a forced march the Friday night of C-Stage. If we all didn’t finish on time there would be no passes for anybody. Now everybody was pissed at both of them.”
“So you marched?” asked J.P.
Sky deliberated for a moment. “I’m not sure why Bancroft set people against each other. He seemed to particularly enjoy the conflict between Johnny and Jake, since he pretty much started it.” Sky took a sip of his drink and then a deep breath. “Anyway, Bancroft did something that night of the march that I never saw an NCO do before or since.”
Sky hesitated, enjoying a sense of the drama he was creating. J.P. prodded him. “And what was that?”
“Well, nobody actually witnessed it, but the story goes like this.”