Let’s not sugar coat it: 2017 started off kind of rough. Okay, it’s sucked. It didn’t just suck, it royally sucked. January began with a double outer and inner ear infection forcing me out of Chile. I remained optimistic, maybe it was time to take some extra rest after a long 2016. Then came a little ankle sprain 5 weeks before Ironman Texas. Certainly not ideal, but I would roll (no pun intended) into Texas a little more rested but still plenty fit. Unfortuantely Ironman Texas just repays in my mind like a movie gone very very wrong. An age group man crashing into me at mile 100 that would reinjure my ankle, fracture my fibula, and leave nasty road rash. And if this wasn’t enough, a week later I had a reaction to the bandages covering the road rashes causing burning, itching painful hives anywhere a bandage had touched my body.
Okay universe, I get it. I’ve done something to really piss you off and now I’m paying. Or you are really trying to make a point, some message behind all of this. What it is I’m not sure. I think I’m plenty thankful, grateful and humble. Let’s not belabor the point. 4-6 weeks became 8-10 became 12-14 off and then finally while in Colorado I enjoyed my first run, 10 x 1 minutes run by 1 minute walk. Yes, I’m in horrible shape but at least I’m moving. Thank goodness! Or so I thought. Two weeks later I’m finishing up my ride and I decide to cut through the parking lot so I’m not late for my chiropractic appointment (after all, I’m running now so my body actually needs some work). I’m going around a corner that I’ve ridden probably a hundred times; this is the same corner I would practice tandem riding with Patricia before Rio. The corner has a little water but no big deal, it’s not like I’m bombing through it. As I’m nearly through it suddenly I realize I’m going down. Apparently under the water was just a little bit of slick mud and I slid right out, landing on my hip/shoulder/head. I just lay there shocked. The pain is nauesauting. How did that just happen? Can I move? I think I can move. I’m stunned. I stand up slowly, unable to breathe. I’ve crashed 3 times in the last 15 years, 2 being in the last 4 months. This was by far the worse. I figure that I’m close to home so I climb back on, realize I only have one gear and can’t put any pressure on my right arm and just pedal as slowly as I can. I head straight to my appointment and then the hospital to find out the extent of the damage.
Well, serves me right for complaining I couldn’t run for so long because now I can’t run. Or ride. Or swim. What in the world?? Seriously universe, STOP HAZING ME!! I’m a nice person, I don’t deserve this! Right when I stand back up and dust myself off you are there to giggle and say “oh how cute, look at her!” Just to push me right back down. Leave me alone already!!!
So the thing about me is that I firmly believe that in order to survive the toughest scenarios you have to find the humor in it. Yeah, it will rattle me, make me cry, make me angry, make me depressed…but I can always find something in there to make me laugh. So as I can’t move my right arm more than 2 inches in any direction, I describe to my friend just what in the hell happen. I tell her about Airborne School and how we are taught the very first week the PLF, or Parachute Landing Fall. So a PLF (thank you Wikipedia) is a safety technique that allows a parachutist to land safely and without injury. The technique is performed by paratroopers and novice recreational parachutists when using round parachutes deployed by static line. While landing under a parachute canopy, the jumper’s feet strike the ground first and, immediately, he throws himself sideways to distribute the landing shock sequentially along five points of body contact with the ground:
1. the balls of the feet
2. the side of the calf
3. the side of the thigh
4. the side of the hip, or buttocks
5. the side of the back (latissimus dorsi muscle)
However, in my case I didn’t quite make it step 5, instead my shoulder and head replacing the side of the back. I imagine the Sergeant Airborne standing over me, as I lay on the ground, breathless and seeing stars. His eyes peer out from under his black hat and he says to me in disgust, “What the hell kind of shit was that, Charlie?”
I went to Airborne School in the summer of 1998 between my sophomore and junior year at West Point. Everyone at Airborne School is give a letter and number they go by during the school. I was C-123 (I don’t remember the actual number) but C was for cadet, and we were often referred to as Charlie. The thing is most of the Airborne Cadre didn’t seem to care too much for the cadets. There was a lot of debate on where the cadets fit in as far as rank. We weren’t officers (yet). Non-Commisioned Officers (ie the majority of the Airborne School Cadre) didn’t seem to like the idea that some snot nosed cadets that have not completed Officer Training might *think* they out rank them. There definitely seemed to be some tension around this while I was in school there.
Airborne school is three weeks long. The first week is ground week which is basically practicing over and over and over how you’ll land (see PLF above). Week 2 is tower week where you practice going out of a tower basically mimicking how you’ll exit the aircraft, but you get to ride a zip line. Again, you do this over and over and over. The last week is the actual jump week. There are five total jumps, some are with combat loads and some during the day and some at night. I went during August and given that we were in Fort Benning, Georgia if wasn’t the most pleasant weather to be running around in combat boots and fatigues, and oh yeah Sergeant Airbornes hazing and ridiculing your not so awesome landing form. At West Point everyone joked around how “easy” Airborne School was. While there was actually quite a bit of running, it was at a pretty slow pace aka “The Airborne Shuffle,” and all you really have to do is follow the person in front of you and jump out of an airplane. So easy, right? Once there I found it was actually quite challenging. First, it was brutally hot. And that slow running actually was quite painful, especially the part to and from the training sites in combat boots. And getting up at the ass crack of dawn for PT? Yeah definitely not my favorite. Lastly, I don’t care who you are: getting yelled at all the time is not how I normally like to spend my time. The upshot was I had some amazing classmates there and just like our previous summers we endured. We took it on the chin and knew it had an end point and some things you just have to suffer through. The night before jump week the ladies (we were separated male/female in the barracks at Airborne School) sat around talking about our first jump. There was nervousness to excitement to anxiety. I don’t think any of us slept well that night. We keep reminding and reinforcing to just follow the person in front of you. Don’t think too hard. Once the line starts moving just focus on that solider in front of you and once you get to the door it’s just like the tower, only higher and with no zip line but don’t think about it! And chances are the parachute will open because there’s only been a few duds the last few years but don’t think about it because you have your reserve chute and that will probably work is your main chute doesn’t open. But yeah don’t think about it. Just think about following that person in front of you!
We got up ridiculously early and went through the whole process of picking up our gear and getting set up and then sitting in a hanger and waiting for the bird to pick us up. We were told our first jump would be out of a C-130. Great, I thought to myself. My grandpa flew C-130s the tail end of his career so this had to be sign of good luck. We sat in the hanger for hours. Once we were inspected you couldn’t move, or talk, or do anything. This was definitely not ideal for someone with a tiny bladder. By the way, I have a tiny bladder.
We sat in the hangers based on our chalks, which is the group that we would actually do our jumps with. I remember taking a look around my chalk and seeing I was in a good position. I had a few officers in front of me, then a few non commissioned officers, another cadet and then me. I was pleased because I was just far enough from the door that I couldn’t see anything out but not so far back that you just don’t know what’s going on. Finally it was time to load up and we walked onto the tarmac to load the aircraft from behind. We would be the second chalk to jump, which meant the plane would fly over the drop zone and the first chalk would jump. The plane would then make another pass over the drop zone a few minutes later and our chalk would jump. We had sat around all day and we were all anxious to get going, but I remember being thankful there was a chalk in front of us so I could really understand how this would all go down. Finally it was their time to go and they went through their series of commands “Stand up! Hook up! Check equipment! Check static line!” (I could be very well out of order, it’s been a few years!) Finally it was time and one by one they headed for the door. However, the last jumper got to the door and completely froze. Just froze! The Sergeant Airborne looked at him in shock “What the hell are you doing???” He was a young E-5 (Sergeant) and his face was ghostly white and you could see the terror on his face. Freezing at the door is a big no-no. In fact, the whole school is designed to weed out the soldiers that could freeze. While the Army can often feel chaotic and disorienting, there’s always a reason behind everything it does and is actually an organized chaos. Freezing at the door is dangerous to the jumper, the chalk, it wastes assets (birds only have so many runs through a drop zone), and finally what will happen in an actually mission? A soldier failing to jump with his unit in an actual combat mission could be catastrophic.
The Sergeant Airborne grabbed the young E-5 and had a look of anger, dismay and shock. “What the hell are you doing??!!” He yelled in his face over the loud engine and the wind whipping through the open door of the C-130. The light on the top of the door was now red, which meant it was no longer safe to jump and it was clear that he had missed his drop zone. The ironic part was this particular E-5 had been quite vocal the entire school how women should never be allowed into combat arms. The movie GI Jane had been released that summer and it had sparked quite a bit of debate. Keep in mind, this was roughly 20 years ago so there were quite a few more bias towards women in the military. I had actually run the fastest 2 miles for the company at Airborne School that summer. However, I found it didn’t win me a lot of respect but unfortunately opened myself to be criticized for other things. I didn’t realize it at the time; this is pretty normal behavior in general for people who are threatened. This E-5 was definitely one of those people. He had told me earlier in tower week I might run faster but I couldn’t carry as heavy of a ruck sack nor was I as strong. While I knew this was untrue, I’m pretty sure I just didn’t want to get in a debate with him because that seemed to be the sentiment of a lot of people at the school.
So as the Sergeant Airborne is tearing into him he says, “You are going first next jump!!” He looks back and says, “Noooo!!!” Then looks over his shoulder, directly at me and shrieks, “Make HER go first!!!” I’m sitting there bewildered, but really not too concerned. I’m like the 6th or 7th person in with plenty of people that out rank me in front of me. Suddenly the Sergeant Airborne gets this devilish half grin and says, “That’s a great idea.” He looks directly at me and says “Charlie, move on up here.” I look over at the NCO and cadet sitting across from me, both of their eyes wide open in disbelief on how this is going down. I stand up and walk toward him and he says “Congrats Charlie, you will lead this chalk out of its first jump.” I’m in a bit of a haze; this can’t be happening. I’m supposed to just follow the person in front me. I don’t have to think about it. I’m just supposed to walk right up and jump right out. Suddenly it’s time to start through our series of commands and I get the sense the Sergeant Airborne is really liking the idea of freaking me out. He puts me right at the open door and he keep saying, “Oh Charlie make sure you look down!” “Are you scared Charlie?” Little chuckles here and there. All I can think is, “yeah you are an asshole.” I’m standing there for what feels like an eternity, the commands getting closer and closer to the actual jump. From the last jumper they slap the butt in front of them letting them know they are good to go yelling over the loud wind and engine, “Okay!” “Okay!” “Okay!” All the way up the line until I feel the tap and the jumper behind me yell, “Okay!” At this point the first jumper (me) looks directly at the Sergeant Airborne and yells “All okay Jump Master!!” Good thing I had actually been paying attention the last 3 weeks because never did I think that person would be me! “All okay Jump Master!!” I scream with confidence and (faked) enthusiasm. He looks at me says, “Did you just call me a dumb bastard??” Well no I didn’t but I was definitely thinking it now that you mention it. He gives that grin again and tells me to keep my eye on the light as it will be turning from red to green any second. These seconds before the light turns are like slow motion. Here I am, a 20 year old gal from Texas, standing at the door of a C-130 with an entire chalk behind her, looking down at the earth below, the first jumper on the very first jump. Who am I? Am I the person that freezes at the door? Or am I the person that looks out and fucking jumps? Suddenly the Sergeant Airborne moves very closely and says in my ear, “You got this. Enjoy it.” The light turns green and I don’t hesitate a split second. I’m out of the door into the turbulence of the wind hitting me once I hit the air, my parachute opens jerking my body up and now I’m falling into what is the most sublime, peaceful yet exhilarating moment. Holy shit. I just did that.
I’ve thought about that moment so many times the last 18 years. Standing at that door, scared, freaked out and in disbelief. I’ve thought about that E-5 and what I wouldn’t be afraid to say to him now–mainly thank you for giving me one of the best moments of my life. I thought about that particular Sergeant Airborne and what an asshole I thought he was that whole school. He would yell and criticize and it felt like he picked on me the entire time. It wasn’t until those final moments before that jump did I realize he wasn’t picking on me…he was preparing me. He would have never chosen me to be the first jumper unless he believed I would go through with it. Freezing would gotten me kicked out, but I imagine the consequences for him would have been worse.
So, I think about it. Is the universe picking on me? Or is the universe preparing me? Eleanor Roosevelt said “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'” This is so true. Life is hard. It takes courage to stand in the proverbial C-130 door and leap into the unknown. But the more you practice being strong, the more strength you realize you have. So okay universe, I get it. And thank you, because when that light turns green I know I’m ready.