Not me, Buster…

10 May

“Not Me, Buster. You Need Some Idiot
to Climb That Pole? Look Around. We Got Lots of Them!”

That’s what I thought about telling that big lump of lard but since he carried my fate in his six and a half stripes, I said “alright, I’ll give it a go, but don’t blame me if I get hurt.”

You may remember. That “pole” was a shaved pine tree about three stories high set in our A-Company compound: two of them with a cross bar at the top, and knotted ropes hanging to the ground. The whole batty idea was that you haul yourself up one of the ropes, cross over the bridge and come down again on the other one. All this to be done without falling on your thick head. Despite the derision, hoots and hollers of our company of misfits I zoomed up there and (humbly admit it) set the record for corning down with nothing more calamitous than a flaming rope burn you know where.

Absolute terror will do that for you.

Now, it didn’t end there because Van Dom was a kind of penal colony run by an old British Commando who hated us Colonials. Whenever he found a couple of downed trees, or a pile of railroad ties or a bunch of busted concrete blocks, he built some fool thing for us to run up, climb over, and toss our brittle young bodies down the other side. And flop into a knee deep pool of bug infested muck which they trucked in from the cattle barns. That’s likely not true.

Some days we would hand vault over a fence or a stone wall, waving our rifles, landing in the same disgusting slime; running a mile to a cold shower for a de-mucking and hence to breakfast. You who worked the dawn patrol in a cow barn know the feeling. We lived for breakfast. Remember?

One especially hateful drill was riding the cable slide over a rocky creek. It was easy if you didn’t let go of the trolley. You knew you’d done well if you slammed nose first into the other tree to which the cable was attached. If you didn’t slam into it, you fell into the icy water and hit your head on the rocks, and soaked your pack and got laughed at, too. The D-I could depend on me for a couple of smirks.

The rope crossing I liked best was the one where you did a hand over hand with full pack, pulling yourself to the other side, holding on for dear life. I was the expert demonstrator, having done it once before to disastrous results. Half way over, my rifle and pack slipped; the sling caught me in a head-hold. We did not have “sissy hooks” in those days, I said “# @ # @ # @.” You know what that means and I let everything hang loose while I pondered landing on a big pointy rock or a hard place.

With despair as my guide I hauled me and my luggage, hand over hand, one agonizing inch at a time for forever. The applause was deafening and the instructor said he had never seen anything so dumb like that before. I was a first. The troops like seeing a beloved non-com get humiliated.

I wrote a note to the Junior Commander suggesting the troops should learn the rope trick, first from an altitude of three feet above the sand pit, instead of thirty feet above that craggy gorge. He asked me if I’d like permanent latrine duty.

That drill, however, prepared us for the “low tower” jump in paratrooper school It was familiarly known as “whoopyland.” You’d leap out the fake door, scream some obscenities, ride down a cable at Mach III toward a distant pile of dirt where you would hit like a thrown stone. Then back to your unit, to do it again till you got it right. Most of our drop-outs quit on the first, second or third drop. It wasn’t the height that got you; it was the impact. There was a part of the ‘hill’ that if you panicked and raised your legs, you’d go right over it and hit the telephone pole. There were guys there who were supposed to catch you. They didn’t.

The high speed landing trainer was a little different. Same harness, same trolley, same unanticipated punch in your gut, unless you hit on your head. If you stiffened up, you broke an ankle or two. You’d ride down a rail at about twenty miles per hour, suspended from your harness – and at a totally unexpected instant, you’d be let go by some disinterested schmuck with a release cable that cut you loose, full speed ahead. You could still quit, but by that time, nobody quit. You were an investment and breakfast was just a mile away. But we’d have to run for it. Full clip. Even with twisted ankles. In combat, a paratrooper hits the ground with a splat, like a dropped watermelon with legs. That’s when he’s most vulnerable. The training was designed to get you up and running after you’ve been delivered to earth.

We did a lot of running; that’s what Infantry people do. They run or hike, or jog or stand still, waiting for something to happen, or sit in drainage ditches and contemplate smoke rings. Or dig a hole in the ground.

For recreation, we had the weekly telephone pole races. Twelve of us would pick up the pole, heave it overhead and when the whistle blew, we sprinted like maniacs to the finish line a hundred yards away, where we heaved our guts. I always thought of the telephone pole races as beneath us, though the three hundred pound poles were mostly above us. We were not all equally tall so the shorter fellows never carried their share. You don’t have to be a math genius to figure that out. There was much cheating, as well. You learned to squat just a little as you sprinted. Mostly, we jogged until we dropped. Given a choice, I’d prefer digging foxholes in the decaying Louisiana swamps. Digging like that taught us how-to remove chiggers, avoid tarantulas and squash flies and mosquitoes.

We learned other things about soldiering, like saluting and marching in circles and sleeping standing up in the rain. For breakfast, on long hikes, fried fish in rainwater isn’t bad if you have a severe cold and can’t smell it. But my memories of those pointless antics like climbing poles and swinging on ropes have stuck with me. Fact is, in my time overseas, I never crossed a river on a rope or climbed a pole. I did fall about ten feet off a landing net into a Higgins boat. The imbecile above me stepped on my hands.

Given the march of time, I may never again do those things. Though I might. Sometimes in a crowded airplane aisle, I tote our carry-ons over my head. “Let me do that for you, old timer,” the shrimpy attendant smiles; she is not aware that on my eighty sixth birthday last year, I did fifteen paratrooper chin-ups. Never again. Last summer, in the hilarious, howling company of two little grandkids, I climbed three feet up on the monkey-bars at our beach playground. Then I slipped and dropped into the soft sand. “Do that again, Grandpa and we’ll take a picture when you fall down.” The Venice City Parks Officer said the monkey bars were not made for old people like me. What does he know about old?

Aside: there was a ‘monkey cage’ contraption at Ft. Benning; about the size of a three story house. It was made of interlocking steel tubes and ladders which were slippery in the morning dampness. You climbed and crawled and lifted and swung from crossbars, and jumped over emptiness knowing that if you slipped and fell … well, nobody ever did, to my recollection.

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