By George Santaguida
Memories of my first parachute jump.
In May of 1965, I had just finished my high school education and was looking for ways to prove my newly acquired manhood. Many ideas came to my mind, and after much deliberation I determined there was no better way, than to join the United States Army. It was not long before I decided that being just a soldier was not fulfilling enough, and there had to be something more. In my sixth week of basic training at Fort Polk, Louisiana, a sergeant arrived at our unit looking for men who would volunteer for military parachuting, men of physical and mental strength. The sergeant informed us that this was not for everyone; it would require courage and stamina. As the recruiting speech continued, I noticed the bright silver jump wings on his chest, marking him as one who was above the rest. At the conclusion of this inspiring talk the only question I wanted to ask was, “where do I sign up?”
The quest for this silver badge of courage was to start at Fort Benning, Georgia. Many men would begin this pursuit of gallantry, but few were to finish. Upon my arrival, I was informed that I no longer had a name, I now was a number, number 708. My days of walking had ceased, and now there was nothing but running. I ran to formation with my comrades, then I would run to eat, to train, and at the end of the day, I would run back with them to my barracks to clean up and prepare for the next day. Everywhere I went, individually or with my unit, I had to run. Automatic termination was given if one could not keep up. The harassment was unending, and it seemed like a school of punishment rather then a school of training. The high humidity and heat of the Georgia sun had also joined in this plot of destroying my body, soul and mind. Personal insults were common from the cadre. Everything was questioned from my worthiness to be there to that of my parents love and concern for me.
My first class was spent in teaching us the different parts of the parachute, and each function of that part. During the beginning hours of these classes, I was also shown the correct way of putting on and taking off the parachute harness. In the following weeks, I would be instructed in how to control the direction that the parachute would travel. One training requirement was a drop from the 250 foot tower. I was taken up 250 feet in the air by a steel cable to the top of a Eiffel like tower. There was no higher place in all the world. My parachute was already in an opened position and released when the signal was given. This allowed me to get the feel of coming down out of the sky in a parachute. Every class would start with the vigorous questioning of who I was. The proper response to all was always a very loud and hearty “Airborne.” It was made known to me that my mission as a parachutist was to go were all others had failed and to succeed without any question. My last weeks in training before the actual jump were spent in putting all the training exercises together as one. Physically and mentally, a change was taking place. Only the young could survive such a metamorphosis. Once I had been a common soldier, but now through vigorous training and discipline, I was transformed into a warrior who would jump from the sky.
After many weeks of physical training and parachute jumping indoctrination, the ultimate phase was upon me. Could I now do as I had been trained to do?
The parachute had been issued, equipment had been checked, and my airplane had been assigned. The C-130 airplane, nicknamed ‘The Flying Hercules,’ was waiting to take me on a journey that few had ever traveled. The engines sounded as though they were racing and couldn’t wait to take off, even though I was most reluctant for this uncertain venture. This airplane and it’s crew had no conscience of what they were about to do. There was no hesitation in getting on with this mission of continued life or absolute death. As I was loaded into the belly of the great white whale, I knew that disaster was certain. Everyone had a new face, a mask of contained fear and terror, but no one dared speak of it. There was also a type of silence where few words were spoken, yet all was understood. Seat belts and hopes of success were buckled as this flying Moby Dick took off. My mind now was concentrating on the past instamatic pictures of my life and associating them with the issues of right and wrong decisions I had made: how one night at the age of 16 I left my mother crying with a broken heart, how I had decided to run away from home because I was not allowed to play football at Irvin High School, the picture of happiness and fulfillment on my mother’s face when she would meet a teacher with a positive report on a much improved student named George. The plane finally stopped climbing as to warn me that jump time was near. A very salty sweat ran down my face and neck, burning my skin where I had just shaved that morning. The sergeant stood much like Captain Ahab, but there was no sermon: all had been said. Two red lights had come on, one by each rear door. The countdown had started with the command, “stand up.” Something strange had happened. My mind had questioned what was about to take place, and my body had responded without question. To my amazement, I had quickly unbuckled my seat belt and stood up waiting for the next command of, “Hook up.” The static line that was empty would later be filled with soldier’s hopes of opening parachutes. Every order was obeyed and I had become the warrior. No matter what my brain was trying to convey to my body, I no longer had control. The training had captured my soul. The lights that were once red had turned green, proclaiming that it was time to jump out of the door. A strong blast of hot air was encountered from the propellers as I would leap from the plane. In silence or aloud (I cannot recall) as I had counted, “One thousand, two thousand, three thousand, four thousand,” and as five thousand was brought forth, the feel of the parachute opening was experienced with the all the joy and promises of a child like Christmas. The view was breath taking; the birds had flown below me, and the C-130’s had disappeared above me. Green hills and tree tops were viewed as topics for poetry, or a picture of God’s creation to be painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. All of a sudden, I realized with great concern how quickly the ground was approaching. The descend of joy and tranquillity had now been replaced with anxiety. My toes were pointed downward, my legs were in a relaxed position, and my elbows were tucked in. The closing seconds before I hit the ground rushed by with such speed that there was little memory of it. The ground tackled me, but I did not fight it. My body remained loose and relaxed. Roll call was made on my body. It responded to my inquiry with no pain and no breaks. The landing was a success. I reflected momentarily on the complete victory of my first parachute jump, and then ran to the truck that was waiting to take me back to the barracks, a different man. I felt so alive and so good. Every piece of my body was so appreciative of each inhalation and exhalation of air I breathed. There was now a greater respect for the gift of life. That night, there were individual testimonies of how that fear of the first jump had been conquered.
The great white whale of fear was harpooned and killed for that day. I knew that I had only made one jump, but it was the beginning, not the end. It was the greatest, because it was the first. After four more jumps, I would receive those ‘Silver Wings,’ a badge and a ticket to the ship of courage and pride.