I have friends in high places

1 May

Bumpety, bump, …. bump, bump … (long pause -long yowl) …, splat. …

That was me at the age of three, tumbling down stairs on my way to Broadway, the rail yards and misadventure. That is how grandmother described me: bruised, wet and laughing. Thus began my history of falling from high places. Some were scary, mostly fun, much of it crazy or plain dumb. It triggered an addiction which led to investigation, exploration, discovery and unerasable revelations.

My folks closed the door after my near-fatal fall and tied me to a table leg. It was by an open window and I was grabbed just before liftoff.

When I was ten, my brother and I flew an abandoned truck from behind our house. I released the brakes, stood on the seat, swung around trees, down the long grassy slope and into the swamp below. We got home alive. That was 1933. The truck is still there beneath a shopping mall..

By eighth grade our gang was into cliff climbing and cave exploring. Our town was a product of mountainous upheavals and the slipping and sliding of tectonic plates. As the ice retreated it carved tangled tunnels through the soft rocks and boulders. Some caverns were bottomless. All were dismal, inhabited by ghosts. We survived our curiosity.

By age fifteen good sense had not yet set in. We crossed the local Esopus creek on the underside of the bridge. A mere thirty foot fall, but the water was shallow, rocky and the landings hard. We did that one with help from painters’ scaffolds which the workers left in place on weekends.

We never did conquer the high river bridge downtown though we started. Terror triumphed when we were barely out on the girders, a hundred feet above land with a quarter mile to go to the catwalks. We backed down. Later; we found an unlocked service hatch to the towers. The iron ladder reached three hundred feet with resting platforms welded to the insides of the towers. We got to the topmost crossover and huddled in the gale, Godlike, transfixed by the river traffic. Realizing we might be locked in forever we reached bottom in record time.

During vacations, we kids worked on farms in the Catskills. Farms have high silos and barns that demanded climbing. We climbed ladders, inside and out but best of all, we climbed the loader, a truck mounted continuous belt that reached to the top of the silo and poured the ensilage in, ready for winter. We would sit on the crosswalks feeling spiritual. You could suffocate if you fell into a silo full of oats.. There were a lot of young and frisky farm girls there, so we enjoyed other revels and revelations as well. Mostly imaginary. They enjoyed teaching us how to milk cows and pick apples.

The ladders in the orchards were twelve or fourteen feet high and slippery on frosty days. We kids were not into weight lifting or balancing acts, however, a single day of shifting ladders, climbing, picking and carrying thirty pound bags to the ground would earn a five dollar bill. If you missed some apples, you went back up or lost your job.

In the army we climbed high poles, towers, walls, nets and ropes. Remember the feeling when you did it and if you failed you were gone? When the airborne called for able volunteers I was physically ready but had acquired an aversion to heights. I was afraid of breaking. Heights are greatly exaggerated, the recruiter said.

Three required obstacles still terrify me: the rope climb up a forty foot pole, across and down the other one. Frankly, I was too scared to fall and won a couple of races. We also had a pyramid of logs and you had to jump from one up to another at a dead run and we cut that back when too many people suffered broken bones. We never used our log climbing skills in combat. I remember best, the steel-pipe contraption, a big box about three stories high, wide, slippery and fearsome, although it was safe if you didn’t fall. Most of us did not fall. I can’t imagine an occasion when our training on the monkey bars served any purpose. Crossing hand over hand above a scummy garbage pit on a ladder was exhilarating.

Remember jumping from the dummy plane door only four feet above the ground – feet together, knees bent, touch down and roll. Or bounce, flip and splatter. Nobody did it right so we all did it a thousand times. Then came the low towers, entirely safe with nothing between us and the ground below or above if you did it wrong. Stand up, hook up, stand in the door – don’t look down, stupid, smile…GO! In every class someone went out with the static line in hand, unattached; a rumor but probable. People did freeze and took that awful walk back down the tower stairs … and out of the airborne, some in tears. I prayed. Today, people pay heavily for the imagined risk of bungee jumping.

The big towers were fun. Some brawny guys buckled me up as I fought to get away… and away we go. Are you ready on number three? The guy below yelled through his bullhorn. We screamed from up there. Release number three. Down we dropped. At the end of it I had six qualifying jumps, one with a broken big toe, then five tactical training jumps, two night jumps, and a disastrous dawn jump.

Among our last training days, we saw Jim Whitten dive into a tall pine just a second before doomsday. Our lieutenant landed astraddle a split rail fence. Higgins landed in the back of a truck and it’s said that one fellow landed on the Adjutant’s horse. I doubt that one. That was the day I broke my toe.

We were then tossed to a replacement regiment at Ft. Bragg where I did it again. We were armed, anxious and headed for Europe. That may be why we rode a wooden cattle train to San Francisco and took a boat to New Guinea. Europe did not want us.

Aside from our performances in the Philippines, one event should stand out. We were diving from a pile driver, impressing the Aussie nurses. It was in the final seconds that halfway down I saw a massive Portugese man-of-war, probably ten to twenty feet across. I hit it dead center and died from a thousand fires. The guys covered me with wet sand and aside from being beet colored and swollen I was good okay.

Jumping with a pack, grenades, weapons, ammo, the sink and stove was something today’s sports jumpers do not fathom. During our combat simulations with full gear, we lost people who had already earned their wings. Maybe ten percent, maybe more. Our e.o. lost most of his face.

Then came the payday landings into bandit land, loaded like mules; planes going too fast, slipping in the upchuck, tripping over equipment bundles, panels blowing out, high winds, ground squalls and hard landings … all in the game of war. A few of us crossed into Manila on the slimy remains of a concrete bridge over a deep chasm. We went man after man, one step at a time in total darkness. No matter the cries and razzing of the First Cavalry Division. Company Bof the 511 Parachute infantry Regiment was first over the Pasig River. In fact, General Swing was first, not by plan. The story is a legend and true.

When it was over, in the spring of 1946, I made one free fall from about three thousand feet, landed in a soft meadow, collected the chute and promised never to visit high places again. Nonsense, if you owned a house you climbed ladders, crawled out windows to fix roofs, shingles, chimneys or t.v. antennae. I doubt that airborne training helped, but youth and need did. None of my neighbors were troopers. A few fell from high up and earned crutches and casts.

Trooper training served well on two occasions: I tripped on a loose stairway carpet in a hotel, flew in a high arc and relaxed, hit and rolled, unscathed. A crowd stood agape. A Paratrooper, I said. Ohhh, they said. Is that why you did that?

One night as I left my 86th floor office – the elevator dropped with me and several cleaning ladies. We told jokes till a worker came through the roof, removed the elevator  walls and said we could stay or walk to safety on wooden planks – to the elevator alongside. Just don’t look down. After the giggling ladies proved it safe I went over with eyes closed, pretending to ignore the empty elevator shaft. The old girls were heroic. For twenty years since retirement I climbed ladders and trimmed trees. They grew taller as I grew shorter and I sensed that I was not the man I was. Last year, I was cleaning gutters and had this gut feeling that I was too doomed high. So with fingers rigid and knuckles white I quit. Me, airborne., a quitter facing doomsday from halfway up a twelve foot ladder.

Oh, the gutters will get cleaned for twenty bucks and the roof will be clear of pine needles. The palms will be pruned and I’ll stand aside, ashamed. The towering oak trees will whisper, O.K., knock it off. You don’t have to prove anything. Remember?

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