WHEN I FLEW LIKE A BIRD

By BENNY HORNSBY,

Man has always been fascinated with the possibility of flight. The last time I strolled through the myriad halls of the Louvre museum in Paris, for example, I noticed that at least three of the top ten exhibits had wings: the “Lamassu,” winged bulls with the heads of men from ancient Assyria (3000 BC), the “Victoire de Samothrace,” or “Winged Victory” sculpture (190 BC), from Greece,  and the statue of  “Psyche Ranimee par le Baiser de l’Amour,” or “Psyche Revived by the Kiss of Love” (1787 AD), featuring Cupid’s wings, from Italy.

The most popular exhibit in the Louvre, of course, is the “Mona Lisa” (1503-1517), a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, a polymath who was also preoccupied with flight.

Among his many inventions, none of which actually got off the ground, were the airplane, the helicopter, and the parachute.

This is where I come in. 

When I got out of Officer Candidate School (OCS), in my mind, at least, I was “180 pounds of spring steel and sex appeal,” and I decided that I really wanted to be a paratrooper.

The problem was that I was in the Navy instead of the Army. However, I had a plan.

I knew that midshipmen from the Naval Academy often attended the Army Airborne (Parachute) School at Fort Benning, Georgia, so I knew there was a precedent. I just had to figure out how to get my name on the list.

I ran it by the Old Man (Captain) of the ship I was on for his chop (approval). He said, “Go for it,” so I did.

Back in the day, you could get the green light for unorthodox ideas; now, probably not so much. 

I soon tracked down an Army sergeant in the Pentagon who controlled jump school seats, and he said, “Sure, when do you want to go?” I said, “How about next month?”

And so began my ascent into the clouds. I soon learned it’s the descent you have to worry about.

Besides wanting to “fly,” I had other motivations for wanting to be jump qualified.

At the time, I was holding permanent change of station (PCS) orders to the Marine Corps at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and I knew that I would be better received there if I showed up wearing parachute wings.

When you are just another lieutenant walking among dozens of other highly motivated, khaki-clad, high and tights, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd.

In the military, people read you and judge you by the ribbons and badges on your uniform.

In many ways, you are your own walking autobiography, a living curriculum vitae. 

The “au courant” who are familiar with the culture can size you and your career up in one glance. If you haven’t been anywhere, you probably won’t go anywhere.

Put another way, if you don’t have a past, you won’t have a future.

You have to stand out if you are going to survive. There’s truth in the old saying that “The Navy eats its young.”

Making your promotions on time and not getting bounced out for “failure to promote” is like climbing Mt. Everest: there are lots of people milling around at the bottom, but the air gets thinner and thinner the higher up you go.

I had been around a while and had plenty of campaign ribbons; I needed some hardware on my chest.

I will always be grateful to that early CO (Commanding Officer) who, basically, gave me thirty days’ vacation to attend Airborne school.

It was a nice gesture; however, he later turned down a similar request of mine in the Philippines.

I had talked my way into a seat at the much longer Navy scuba diver’s school that was located there, figuring that a gold scuba pin would look good alongside my silver jump wings, and he laughed me out of his sea cabin.

He said something to the effect that I “needed to get my inner John Wayne under control.”

I did get to do some neat dives in Subic Bay on my own, however. It’s full of wrecked ships from World War II, including the tragic “Hell Ship,” “Oryoku Maru,” a Japanese prisoner of war ship that was mistakenly bombed by American warplanes in December 1944, killing hundreds of Allied prisoners.

The main wreckage is only a few meters off Lava Pier where the aircraft carriers tied up when Subic was our largest naval base in the Pacific.

In the late 1960s, Airborne School at Fort Benning was four weeks long: one week of standing around; then Ground Week; Tower Week; and Jump Week.

It wasn’t particularly hard; I’d seen worse; the bad thing was the heat. Columbus, Georgia, is stifling hot in July.

Every hour, the drill instructors would run us through outdoor showers, fully clothed, to keep our body temperature down.

Then, we would go wallow in sawdust beneath various training devices that simulated the mechanics of parachuting out of an airplane.

That pretty much summarizes Ground Week.

During Tower Week, we’d jump, tethered to a line, from towers of various heights.

The grand finale was to get several free falls from some 250’ towers that originally came from the 1937 Chicago World’s Fair.

At this point, one began to pay attention to what the instructors had to say.

During the final week, Jump Week, the goal was to get five “successful” jumps from an airplane, and usually this happened over a two- or three-day period, depending on the weather.

If all went well, graduates normally got “pinned” on the drop zone after the final jump.

I didn’t have any trouble to speak of. I found the Army cadre to be highly trained and very professional, nor did I hear any language that I hadn’t heard before.

The most interesting thing there actually happened several years later.

My son, Benjy, who is now a teacher and coach at Oak Grove High School, went through Airborne school at Fort Benning on his way to five years’ service in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.

He was a college graduate but chose to go into the Army as a private.

I was about to retire after 36 years on active duty and, passing through the area on official business, I decided to visit him during Ground Week.

Since I was the same rank as the school’s commanding officer, my unannounced presence on the training site created quite a stir. I got the royal tour and treatment.

After I left, however, my poor son paid the price in extra push-ups and jumping jacks for my showing up uninvited and for disrupting training.

When you look back on such experiences, it’s odd the things you remember: I remember that pain really IS just weakness leaving your body; I remember that you don’t have to be afraid of what you can’t see (All my jumps were “night jumps” because I had my eyes closed) and, most vividly, I remember never being so “alive” as I was when I stepped out that airplane’s door for the first time, and flew into the mystic.

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com