During the early part of my military career, I had the fortune of attending the U.S. Army Airborne School at Ft. Benning, GA. For three weeks, my classmates and I learned how to fall gracefully out of an airplane (if there is such a maneuver), descend toward the earth in a controlled fashion (preferably under a full parachute canopy), and hit the ground at the descent rate of 18-22 feet per second (the equivalent of jumping off a two-story rooftop) without breaking any bones or rupturing any vital organs. The training involved countless hours of mundane drills, simulated aircraft exits, parachute landing falls (the awkward rolling maneuver designed to dissipate the kinetic energy generated by a human body moving downward at 18-22 feet per second), and airborne instructors who felt it was their duty to recreate the opening scenes of Full Metal Jacket...in order to give us the full "airborne experience," of course. As I have said many times in the past, it was the most fun I never want to have again!
The final week of training--Jump Week--was, for me, the most stressful. It is the culmination of the course--the final exam, if you will. During Jump Week students put their previous two weeks of training to the test by physically jumping out of an aircraft in flight. In order to graduate from the course, the student must execute and survive five parachute jumps. Fortunately, I met these two criteria and earned the coveted airborne wings on a bright, summer afternoon at Fryar Drop Zone, Alabama. It was a glorious occasion that I will never forget.
However, the most memorable moment of my airborne training came a few days prior to graduation day when I was sitting in the back of a C-130 Hercules transport plane flying to the drop zone for my first ever parachute jump. As you can imagine, I was extremely nervous, sweat streaming down the back of my neck and my heart rate nearly equivalent to the rotational speed of the aircraft propellers. Just as I was having second thoughts about my decision to attend airborne school, I heard one of the airborne instructors ask, "Hey! Who wants to be the first one out the door?" What happened next defies all logic. For some unexplained reason, my hand darted into the air, the undeniable sign of an idiot...I mean, a volunteer. The instructor's eyes quickly turned to meet mine and pointing to me with the infamous knife-hand, he exclaimed, "Ok, you!"
At that point, I was ushered to the front of the line of jumpers. A couple of minutes later, I found myself standing in the door of the aircraft, staring out into a vacuum of blue, waiting for the command to jump. When the command came, I immediately stepped out of the door, and things just kind of fell into place (pun intended). A minute later, I was on the ground, elated that I had survived and immediately ready to take on the remaining four jumps. Airborne!
As I reflect on the experience today, however, the thrill of that moment has admittedly worn off. Time has a way of mitigating emotions. Presently, I'm less inclined to reminisce about the excitement and more inclined to ponder the life lesson of my first jump. When we are about to step into something new in life, we are often fearful and hesitant, sometimes wishing we could reverse time and/or change our minds. Indeed, such situations present us with a very simple choice: move into the new or turn away from it. If we choose the former, then we must put our hand in the air and volunteer to step out--to take a chance--and experience whatever may be in store. If we choose the latter, then we simply move back into the fold of status quo, never knowing what could have been. Had I chosen to quit that day, I would have never experienced the elation of accomplishment, I would have never dangled 1200 feet off the ground from a parachute canopy, I would have never hit the ground like a sack of bricks nearly giving myself a concussion, I would never have earned my silver wings, and I would have likely walked away from Ft. Benning feeling like a failure. But because I stepped out into the new, I experienced something quite extraordinary; I experienced what it means to be Airborne! And nothing can ever take that away.
Now if I could get myself to apply this lesson to every aspect of my life, I would be set! :)