What It Feels Like to Jump
by GEORGE GOODRIDGE
7.30 — Company F, First Parachute Training Regiment, falls into formation in coveralls and with helmets. In fifteen minutes we are at the airport — fog this morning thick as English plum pudding. Our company jumps after Company E. We’ve got some time to kill.
8.30 — They take us for a short hike through a stretch of Georgian wastes. Good idea, we think. Keeps us on the move. Keeps us from fretting and fidgeting too much. We’re given a fifteen-minute break. A crap game starts. Lose my spare change — twenty cents. The fellows are scattered in groups along the roadside. Conversational bits gleaned from random groups: “I read of a man that kept two wives for fortysix years.” “Can’t go home if I fail — all my friends and folks know I’ve got to jump to qualify.” “The door of the plane is on the left side.” “You’re crazy as hell, man — it’s on the right side.” The groups fall silent. Only crap game bets are audible. They march us back to the hangars.
9.07 — The sergeant bellows out our numbers: 65, 66, 67, 68 — that’s me. These are the bin numbers of our chutes. We line up accordingly and are divided into groups of twenty-four — a plane load. On the “double” to fetch our chutes. I have managed to keep cool and nonchalant up to this point; but things are going a bit awry — my legs aren’t coöperating at all; my kneecaps twitch in the most unusual manner.
9.30— We don our chutes. A group has already marched off to the runway to board a plane. Several are warming up. A hell of a racket. Chutes are inspected — both main and reserve. In front of my group are several others also ready and waiting. “Jump jitters,” or call it what you wall, has crept into me from head to foot. The plastic helmets we wear are passed on from one jumping class to another; they bear many souvenir scratchings. Can spot “Jump happy” on one, “Don’t freeze” on another, and several sets of initials on practically every one of them. Here comes a plane ready to land. Another one’s taking off. Her chalk name is “Too Late Now, Fuzzy - Ball.” Hager and Higbee on my left are chatting away like a couple of washerwomen. Staunch men I call ‘em. Gossert (nineteen years old) sits on my right — he’s smoking and keeping strong silence. Everyone seems a lot cooler than I am. A group of twenty-four men wait at the runway for the next plane. Four sparrows loop by with a swish.
Hello! There’s Patton on deck. He was picked up by M.P.’s eighty-seven miles from Fort Penning and locked up on two charges — he had no pass and was high-spirited. We, on the benches, are mighty quiet. Beg pardon, some sturdy soul pipes “Glory Hallelujah.” It peters out — no choral support. Rescued one of those vest-pocket novels from a pile of barracks rubbish this A.M. Brought it along to help pass the time. I reach for it under my saddle straps and what do you suppose the title is? — The Light That Failed, by Kipling. Stop right there. My neighbors think the incident highly amusing. I think otherwise.
9.50— The “Linda Loir’ swallows up a waiting group. She’s off! Happy landing! The twenty-four men in front of us march off to a waiting plane. “Hey, Chuck, take it easy.” “Good luck, fellows,” from us to them. Looks like our turn next. It’s swell jumping weather — hot sun and, best of all, very little wind.
9.57 — My group’s off to the runway. The “Fogcutter” will accommodate us. Ye gods! Be still, my heart, be still. She turns about — her whirling props smother us with dust. No, it won’t be the “Fogcutter” — she’s scooting off empty. (Didn’t like her anyway; patches all over the sides.) “How do you feel, Gold?” I ask a near-by buddy. “Fine — just like a picnic,” comes the answer. (I wonder.) “How about you, Haines?” “Feel like hell.” “Hermantz, how about you?” He holds up his shaking hands and remarks, “I ain’t savin’.” We can see them dropping from the plane. Looks so easy.
Waiting, waiting, waiting. Minutes seem like a noose around our necks. It’s loose at first; but then it tightens and we’ve got to ease the pressure by running a finger inside the collar. There’s Sergeant Burton, my parachute packing instructor, toting a portable wireless set, keeping in touch with the pilots aloft. Here comes our plane now! She’s that “Too Late Now, Fuzzy-Ball.” The men climb up her small ladder. The engines blow a windy hell. Golly! she’s a big ship.
10.10 — We sit facing each other — twelve men on each side. I’m in the second group to jump. I strap my helmet on tighter. The plane rolls easily to the other end. Engines roar up a storm . . . she’s speeding up . . . we’re off the ground with a swoop. Don’t feel any sensation of flying.
The jumpmaster (a sergeant) bellows out instructions: “After you stand to the door, each one of you jumps when I say ‘Go.’ The sooner you get to the door, the sooner you get out. If you don’t go out, I’ll help you. Anybody who stays in his seat and doesn’t jump, walks out of this plane barefooted — with boots in his hand.” Very little talking. Cigarettes light up.
The jumpmaster again: “Don’t slide out of the door — you’ll get hurt.” The faces of the men look taut and strained. Their eyes are open, but they see nothing. Wonder what my face looks like. This is the time that tries a man’s soul — waiting to jump after boarding the plane. My body is icecold. Can hear my heart thumping. My lips are bone-dry. Only my toes seem alive — they’re wiggling and straining against the boots. “How do you feel, Haines?” I yell to a fellow on the other side. “Boy, I’m sure sweating this one out.” Spoken for all of us. “How do you feel, Patton?” No reply — he just shakes his knees. The tenseness is terrific.
We seem to be waiting for an explosion from somewhere. Gardiner and Garrett in my group compare hands — both shake. “Everybody happy?” yells the jumpmaster. “Yeah,” comes the universal reply. He adjusts his goggles, squats at the door, and eyes the ground for the marker. When the plane approaches this mark, things happen. Suddenly— “First squad, stand up! Hook up!” Twelve men rise like a shot and hook static line snap fasteners on cable. Their eyes are absolutely motionless. They seem to stare at everything and yet at nothing. “Check your equipment.” Each man mechanically examines the pack of the man in front of him. “Sound off equipment check!” “Number 12 O.K.”; “Number 11 O.K.”; and so on to the Number 1 man. Jumpmaster’s helper also inspects the chutes — especially the static line fastener and the man’s hold on it. “Stand to the door.” The twelve men close up —Number 1 has head and hands outside the door. What a look on his face! Like that of a man completely lost. Crouched, he seems ossified from some sort of inner terror. Yet nothing will stop him. His lips are parted. Eyes wide, staring straight ahead.
10.15 — “Are you ready?” pipes the jumpmaster. “Yeah.” A slight tremor runs through the group. They move just a fraction of an inch. “Relax men — back up.” Plane overshot the marker; must make another circuit. The twelve men seem to crumple and melt. Their bodies act alive again. More torturous waiting for them. The extra plane ride is terrific punishment. “Settle down, men,” the jumpmaster booms. I look out the window behind me for the first time. The autumnal colors, brown, red, green, mauve, gray, yellow — they’re all down there 1500 feet; a mass of blended beauty.
10.17 — The twelve men remain standing and hooked up. “Are you ready?” “Yeah.” “Stand to the door.” Twelve robots close up. “Remember, men — go when I say ‘Go.’” “O.K. Go! Go! Go!” Twelve men shuffle up to the door, pivot on right foot, and are gone in about nine seconds. Can spot twelve bulging canopies bearing twelve happy men to the ground. Our turn next. I fidget, adjust my helmet. Wish I never started taking notes. Plane makes another circuit to get us over the marker. My heart stopped beating a long time ago. Jumpmaster squats at door, eyes ground. “Are you ready?” “Yeah,” as usual. “Stand up! Hook up!” That means me too. See you 1500 feet below.
How did I feel when I jumped from the plane? That’s a tough one to answer. I’m no Wilde or De Quincey. I yelled “Hal” the instant I jumped (this is the name of my guardian, to whom I dedicated my first jump). I know my eyes and mouth were wide open. I didn’t count 1000, 2000, 3000 as I was supposed to, was not conscious of the fact that I had a body with arms and legs falling into space. I was dead except for my mind, which was concentrating on and waiting for the opening shock. Over my head I could hear the swish of silk. The prop lash and ninety miles an hour speed of the plane waste no time in whipping out the canopy, filling it the instant the static line rips the cover off the pack and releases it. The canopy filled with a jerk and for a moment I had no idea which end of me was up.
And let me tell you, my good people, when I looked up and saw that bulging heaven of silk over my head, every nerve in me tingled with sheer joy. Joy, not so much because the chute opened and checked my descent, but rather because I had the guts to say, “To hell with everything. Here I go” — and came out, on top. A thousand million imps inside me had all yelled, “Don’t be a fool. Don’t jump!” over and over again. Call them what you will, — imps, elves, or devils, — they were there, as many a fellow who “freezes” at the door will tell you. Yet I was able to brush them aside and jump. This is the chief basis for my sweep of joy and that of the other twentythree men who said, “To hell with everything— here I go.” I can proudly call myself a man. Seldom in a man’s life will he ever experience anything so momentous, so all-enveloping, so downright thrilling as a parachute jump from a plane.
The descent itself is a decided anticlimax even if it can’t be called “duck soup.” An eight-mile ground wind will raise merry hell with a man’s body position just before landing and make him hit pretty hard. We all like to have the wind behind us so that we land in position to make a neat front tumble and so eliminate most of the shock. But then, we can’t have this war dependent upon the ground wind most suitable for the landing of paratroopers.
As for the chute’s not opening, this is, or ought to be, the least of our worries. Our chutes are well-nigh foolproof. I pity the paratrooper who doesn’t have the utmost confidence in his chute. Chances are he’ll quit eventually or else his existence will be a mental hell before each jump. Sometimes a malfunction occurs — such as one or two suspension lines settling over the canopy, thereby spilling a lot of air and causing a dangerously fast rate of descent. In most cases, the jumper can shake the lines loose. If this doesn’t work, he’s got his reserve chute right handy. If both the main and reserve chutes don’t open — well, we are told to encircle the field three times and prepare for a crash landing.
In conclusion, if any of you folks have a friend who suffers from a nagging wife, a host of creditors, or a bad case of asthma, tell him to go to his nearest Paratroop Post and persuade the Commanding Officer there to let him make a parachute jump. It will make a new man of him —reborn, rejuvenated, and immensely proud of himself.