It’s the 25th anniversary of our parachute assault into Panama for Operation Just Cause. To mark the occasion, I’m sharing a short story about the moments in the aircraft just before the assault. This story was written in about 2010. It was a finalist in Southern NH University’s Amoskeag MFA Fiction contest. Enjoy, and yes, this is a bit of a roman à clef.
Green Light by Tim Deal
Squeezed in among four sticks of paratroopers on a C-141 bound for Panama, Corporal Bill Daisy had the soundtrack for the moment. The opening percussive rim taps to Bauhaus’s “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” carried just the right amount of tension — grim ambience, serious men on a serious mission.
Dinklage talked in his sleep next to him, something about “skin and scales.” Dinklage was a true snake-eater, hard, tabbed-out, Ranger-qualified. He’d almost been tossed out of Ranger School for talking in his sleep, but the kid maxed out his PT test and could write up and execute an operations order better than some of his instructors. Honor grad, no less, and would have been on the fast track to getting his sergeant stripes if he had not been caught in a gay bar in downtown Fayetteville. A full investigation was under way, the unit abuzz with rumors. Dinklage’s squad leader and platoon sergeant insisted that he made this deployment. The kid might prefer strobe lights and jean shorts, but he was squared away.
Twenty-four hours ago, Daisy was in Raleigh, up all night with an NC State cheerleader. The girl, a psych major or a sociology major, knew a very different Daisy. She knew the Daisy with a yellow mohawk fortified with Aqua Net (white can); she knew the Daisy with the painted leather jacket (Bad Religion, Misfits, Minor Threat), and hand-sewn plaid pants — the weekend Daisy.
“Are you in a band?” she had asked him. “Let me read your palm.”
But now, Daisy was a composite of military nomenclature: BDUs, LCE, TA-50, ALICE pack, M16A2 rifle, M1950 Weapons Case, MC1-1B Parachute. Daisy wasn’t a snake-eater, but he wasn’t a complete shitbag either. He passed every PT test, could hump twelve miles in under two and a half hours (full combat equipment), and had forty-two mass tactical jumps under his belt. Furthermore, he could stay up all night with an NC State cheerleader and not fall out of the 0600 Brigade Run.
Brown wasn’t a snake-eater either. He was a complete enigma. Twenty pounds overweight, a perpetual sniveler, and — much to the dismay of his roommate — a chronic masturbator. It was as if Brown had discovered his junk seven years after adolescence. He had been caught beating-off so many times he simply stopped lying about it. He’d offer a sly grin and then shuffle off to the shower. When Brown wasn’t skinning himself raw, he carried the “pig.” It was an unspoken rule in a rifle platoon that the fat guy carried the heaviest weapon, the M60 machine gun. The theory was that it would help him toughen up, lose weight. The reality was that Brown would only become tough enough to lug the pig on every other hump. In the intervals, he’d complain of stress fractures, shin splints, sprains, heat exhaustion, and general malaise. His chain of command became so tired of tearing into his ass that they would just pull him of the line, give the pig to Dinklage, and shuttle Brown to the aid station.
At that moment, Brown was breaking another unspoken rule. He had torn open an MRE (Meal Rejected by Everyone), and was spooning Beef Diced with Gravy into his mouth. There were few MREs that possessed the foul stench and dog-food consistency of Beef Diced With Gravy. The smell was compounded by the intermingled odors of jet fuel, sweat and flatulence. Daisy gave him a look, Brown paused, shrugged, spooned it in. The soundtrack didn’t fit here. This was not a Bauhaus moment.
Norton and Jenkins sat next to each other. Daisy couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was obvious they were swapping jokes. The irony of their friendship had long ago faded. Norton was a small-framed, big-mouthed white kid from North Carolina who unabashedly bragged about his membership in the KKK. Jenkins was a six-foot-three black guy from Detroit who was obsessed with heavy metal. The two were inseparable and the only real dispute Daisy had ever witnessed was whether Hank Williams Jr. or Metallica “ruled.” Army recruiters had a saying, “there’s only one color in the Army — green.” That was bullshit. Norton and Jenkin’s mutual affability was not representative nor symbolic, it simply was.
Daisy had gulped wine with the cheerleader. It was all she had at her apartment. They went through three bottles while they rifled through her roommates’ CD collection, each taking turns as DJ. She liked pop music, he did not, but she was beautiful. She had been in a swimsuit calendar. She studied yoga, had a guru. She was shocked to learn that Daisy was in the Army, but Raleigh was just far enough from post that it didn’t carry the social stigma of dating a soldier. Now, on the aircraft, surrounded by men, guns and ammunition, the cheerleader seemed like a dream. At that moment, she would have no idea where he was, or where he was going.
Staff Sergeant Chappy, his squad leader, was sleeping with an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Before coming to Division, Chappy was in the Old Guard and had supervised the detachment that marched at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Daisy rarely saw him without a cigarette in his mouth. Hell, he’d even seen him doing PT with one. Chappy believed in UFOs. He had a photo album of blurry pictures of flying saucers that he claimed he had taken himself. Chappy had gone to Ranger school with Dinklage and both claimed to have seen a glowing orb soar through the night sky during Desert Phase in Utah. Ranger School used food and sleep deprivation as a training tool.
Daisy’s legs had gone numb beneath the weight of his rucksack, which was rigged beneath his reserve parachute. His rucksack contained enough food, water and ammunition to last three days. Real ammunition weighed much more than blanks, and Daisy had made a point to take extra while he was in the secure personnel holding area before deployment.
His soundtrack shifted to “Disintegration” by The Cure: melancholic, encumbered, sober. He couldn’t sleep, though he had slept in less-comfortable conditions like cramped cattle cars, the back of a Sheridan Armored Reconnaissance vehicle, and standing for inspection at Division Review. Infantrymen could sleep anywhere when they were not humping, though there were a few occasions he felt himself drifting off then too.
In less than an hour, the cabin lights would come on and they’d be told to wake up anyway. They’d be told to stand up, hook up. check equipment, and then check static lines. After they “sounded off for equipment check,” the cabin lights would go out, the doors would open, and they’d be illuminated by the red indicator lights over each jump door. During a training jump into Florida, Daisy had exited the door poorly, failed to tuck his chin into his chest, and the risers ripped his K-pot from his head along with a layer of skin from his neck. He sprained his ankle on the landing and was medevac’d to the rear as a result. His helmet was never found and he had to buy a replacement from the supply NCO’s black market stash. Daisy had always suspected that he bought his own helmet back. The supply room was a racket. The supply NCO used to sell clean piss during drug tests.
Dinklage murmured something about “swift otters” in his sleep. Daisy ran his hands over his LCE to make sure he had properly taped all of the metallic noisy bits. They had done the rattle test back at the PHA, but sometimes the tape got stripped off while you were putting the parachute harness on. Though he was wearing a reserve chute, they were told that they’d have no time to use them if their mains malfunctioned. They’d be jumping at five hundred feet and their reserves were attached only as a point of reference for their hands during the exit.
The cheerleader’s name was Sara, and she was studying anthropology. Daisy thought it was important to remember that. He couldn’t remember her guru’s name, though Sara has told him many times and showed him pictures. Brown had lent him his piece of shit Diplomat to drive up to Raleigh, didn’t ask for gas money either. For some reason that was important for Daisy to remember as well.
Daisy found out his mom died on the night he had Battalion CQ duty. She’d had a heart attack while watching the World Cup finals at the Crown and Anchor in Las Vegas. At first, he didn’t recognize his father’s voice on the phone, it sounded hollow, dry. Sergeant Chappy was the staff duty NCO and released him early to make his leave arrangements. It would be Chappy that took him to the airport and got him smiling by the time they got there.
The jumpmasters and safeties began to stir and make preparations for the jump. In moments they’d all be up filling each other with the inflated bravado that only men knew how to manufacture. Daisy would play his part, he had to. It was like a fix. Suck in the testosterone and make it out the door when the red light turned to green. Whatever happened on the other side of that door would have to wait. But he could only make it through the door knowing they had to go through it together. The Division ran rampant with stories about the cherry paratrooper that froze in the door and was met with a jungle boot to the ass. He’d never seen it, but he was certain it’d happened. How many times had his legs weakened by the howl of wind that assaulted him as the jump doors were opened? Jumping out of a functional airplane was already an unnatural act. Jumping into combat was a whole different thing altogether.
Norton and Jenkins had lent him the fifty bucks he needed to buy another helmet. Daisy was broke after two of his post-dated checks to the pizza guy bounced and he was charged service fees. Norton offered thirty dollars and Jenkins the remaining twenty. They didn’t even bitch when it took a month and half to pay back. He bought them a case of Schlitz to make up for the delay, and then Jenkins kept the barracks awake with Megadeth and his drunken screaming.
“Air-fucking-born you pussies!”
Dinklage woke up and wiped his eyes. He elbowed Daisy.
“Did that fucking pogue open up an MRE in here?”
“Lights about to go on,” said Daisy.
“Whatta you think, ready for this?”
“Oh hell no, but I only bought the one-way ticket.” Dinklage smiled. He was a big kid, a Texan with smooth, confident drawl.
The lights came on and the paratroopers roused. They tightened leg straps, tugged on pouches of Redman, stood up and slapped backs. After a few moments the two jumpmasters positioned themselves in the rear of the aircraft next to the jump doors and faced them.
“Hook up!” They yelled in unison.
The words had instant effect. The troopers cheered in response. Daisy’s hand shook as he clipped his static line to the anchor line cable. Would this be the last time he ever hooked up? The last time Brown gripped a static line in his chubby hand? Daisy looked over at him, Brown’s camoflauge-painted chin still glistened from the rations. Their eyes connected for a moment. Brown was a slob and there was something real and alive about that. He was anything but a recruiting poster and Daisy liked it that way. Daisy nodded to him, Brown nodded back.
The jumpmaster told them them to check static lines, to check equipment, and then “sound off for equipment check!” On any other jump, like the ones at Sicily, Holland, Nijmegen, or any of the other drop zones at Bragg, the rearmost trooper would slap the ass of the trooper in front of him with a resounding “OK!” and then pass it forward. The ritual often became a contest to see who could leave the biggest welt. On this night the troopers passed up their message with a clench or pat on the shoulder and a firm, encouraging word.
The cabin lights dimmed and the red jump light bathed them in fury. The Air Force loadmasters opened the doors and turned them over to the Army. Warm air blasted Daisy’s face.
Daisy leaned around and grabbed Dinklage’s LCE strap. He yanked it hard, looked the man in the eyes, tried to say something meaningful.
“Fuckin’ A, man.”
He’d never asked Dinklage straight out if he were gay. It never seemed to matter. Dinklage was the first one to him after he sprained his ankle on the Florida jump. He’d helped him stow his chute, grabbed Daisy’s ruck and helped him to the rally point. Dinklage was also the first to check in on him after they returned, brought him a handle of Bacardi. Daisy had always wanted to be like Dinklage, to be as squared away. That’s what he thought about most.
Daisy saw streaks of light crisscrossing the ground below. It had been the first and only time he had seen tracer fire from the air and it took him a moment to realize that’s what he was seeing. Before he could tell Dinklage, the jumpmasters announced: “Hot DZ, Hot DZ!”
Panic knotted in his throat, his chest, his stomach. He bellowed to release it, joining the other impotent yells of false courage. What violence awaited them? He envisioned the bodies of dead WWII paratroopers hanging from the trees around Normandy. He thought of Sara and her guru. What words of wisdom would the cheerleader’s spiritual guide offer him? Would she tell him to breath a certain way? Chant? Pray? Meditate? If he died today, how would Sara find out? How much would it matter to her? Would it simply become an interesting anecdote she brought out during drinks with friends? Would she say she had seen his impending death in the palm of his hand?
He had the perfect song planned for this part, “She Sells Sanctuary” by The Cult — the extended version. The eery vocal strains would serve as the prelude to the jump, but once the first trooper made it out the door, the song’s explosive guitar riff would kick in.
The jumpmasters gave their second to last command: “stand by,” and the troopers moved forward towards the door. Daisy tried to turn up the volume of the music in his head, but the whiny-drone of the aircraft engines drowned it out. He could feel his platoon’s nervous energy vibrate and shudder through the anchor line cable. The brave exclamations had been replaced with a dense, resolute silence. Dinklage tapped him on his shoulder and yelled something that Daisy couldn’t make out.
“What was that?” Daisy yelled back over the drone of the engines.
Dinklage smiled and nodded towards the rear of the aircraft. The light turned green. Daisy’s stick shuffled quickly to the door. When he reached the opening he caught a flash of orange tracers, a sky full of silk, and the toes of his boots, before he leaped into the darkness.