“Black Hat”

Volume 8 | Spring 2018

by Jocelyn Corbin

“Are you going to vomit, cadet? Are you going to pass out, cadet? Cadet, are you alright?”

My eyes meet hers and I feel color creeping into my cheeks as the words “Ready to board, sergeant airborne,” spill out of my dry mouth. I am surprised by the confidence in my voice. My stomach cramps with nauseating pain again, and my head throbs to a slow beat. I can’t tell if it is nerves or dehydration. She lifts her black baseball cap from her head, and reveals a leathery forehead and slicked back blonde hair that looks hard and plastic. It’s perfectly tied tight behind her head. Is she even sweating?  It must be at least 95 degrees in this June, Georgia sun. I imagine that I must smell so bad, but I can’t tell. I’m wearing the same uniform for the third day in a row. I’m used to my own stink.

She remains quiet, returns her hat firmly back to its home and places her hands casually on the belt line of her camouflage pants. I stand staring at her, not knowing if there is something else I’m supposed to say or do. I have felt like a failure for nearly three weeks in front of her, missing my cues, using the wrong form in my landings, and forgetting the names of equipment. She saw it all and now she wants me to fail, or quit. I’m not sure yet which one. Too scared to react, I wait for her next move.

“Safety check,” she says tapping her fingers on her belt after a long moment of awkward silence. She begins walking me through a basic safety screening of equipment, which I have already completed numerous times this day. It must be the one hundredth safety check this week. She tugs hard at all of my straps. I am pulled and jerked in every direction, and I try hard not to trip as my weight shifts behind me. My hip aches from all of the falls I experienced that week and I wonder if the bruises will show all summer. I picture the colors of my hip changing over the months, like seasons in a children’s flip book. A sudden jerk at the top of my pack sends my shoulders back and my knees struggle to lock back into place. The inspection is complete. I look again to my sergeant airborne and focus on the brim of her black hat, trying to avoid her piercing eyes. I brace myself for an insult. What would it be this time? Princess? Cadidiot? She has many names for me. I’ve never felt so bullied in my 19 years of existence. How can an adult talk to me like this? I’m trying my best.

Her voice begins to soften and she astonishingly sounds more like a mom than a scary drill sergeant for the first time in two weeks. “What do you do if your parachute gets tangled in jump?”

Is this the same insulting beast that has been in my grill all week? I take a step back before answering. “I bicycle kick!” I say correctly, trying not to beam. Her lips turn up just the slightest in each corner, although she doesn’t dare to break a real smile.

“What if it doesn’t open?” she challenges back to me in a harsher tone.

“I pull the reserve!” I say with even more enthusiasm. I look down and place my

hand on the large metal handle from the parachute’s front casing. Doubt begins to sink in and jabs me one more time in the gut. Am I really strong enough to pull that thing? Droplets form at the center of my shoulder blades and trickle down to the small of my back.

“Are you ready for this?” She asks in an almost whisper, looking me directly in the eye now with such intensity, I force myself to hold my eyes to hers. Does she think I’m ready?

“I want to be Airborne!” I declare. My hands tingle with excitement. This is it. This is everything I’ve been training for. It’s jump day. I am the chosen one, after all, and I can’t come home empty handed. I will earn my silver wings. Kent State University only had 2 airborne slots for the school every year and I had earned my spot. I flew down to Ft. Benning two weeks before and was immediately thrown into this sweaty hell. Two weeks of running, pull-ups, and rolling around in the dirt have led me to this day. All that is left now is just five successful jumps out of a massive military carrier. Just five voluntary jumps from 1,250 feet in the air.

“Then get to it! Stay alert and stay alive,” she nudges her head to the right indicating I should move to the C-141. “Remember,” she warns, taking hold of my right strap, “If you don’t jump, they’ll push you.” She lets go of my strap, turns on her heel and walks away. A flood of panic washes over me.

They’ll push me? I wonder if I heard her right. I take my first heavy steps on the sandy path toward the roaring aircraft. Looking up, I see soldiers in front of me slowly hobbling up the ramp, like wounded Frankenstein monsters.  These are America’s heroes? I try hard to clear my mind and focus on the inevitable act before me. I step onto the plane and take my position. I will not be pushed.

The high-pitched hum of the engine drowns out all else. I strap into my seat with an oversized lap belt and metal buckle. I’m stuck now. The whole plane is a giant waiting room in the sky; all waiting for our number to be called. I look around to others. I feel a little reassured that I am not the only cadet. The cadet across from me is from West Point, which has many more airborne slots than our school each year. I wonder if he feels any less pressure to succeed. His eyes are closed now and he’s mouthing something. I wonder if it’s the steps we practiced or if it’s a prayer. Why does he have to look so nervous? I feel it too and reach for my barf bag, tucked conveniently under my seat. I hold it in my hands and try to read the directions on the back. The words blur together and I close my eyes tight. I breathe in, hold it, and blow out hard.

How did I even get myself into this plane in the first place? All I wanted to do was go to college. I was determined, even if it meant I was joining the Army. I truly didn’t know what I was getting myself into. No one else in my family had joined the military and I only knew what I saw in movies.

“Stand up” the jumpmaster yells as he stands next to the open door of the aircraft and motions to my row.

“Stand up,” my row echoes and rises in unison. This is my call to destiny.

“Hook up,” he commands.

Again, we echo his words and I do my best to follow the motions of the soldier in front of me. I think of the warning my black hat gave me, “if you don’t jump, they will push you.” Was it a warning, or was it advice? Did she say that to anyone else, or just me?

“Check equipment.”

I quickly test the tension of my straps. Thanks to my black hat, I am secure. I’m close enough to the door now that I spy the ground below. It looks more like a map than real land. The surrealness comforts me. I will not be pushed.

“Sound off for equipment check.”

One by one we call back.

“10 okay”.

“9 okay,” someone confirms. “8 okay.” I’m number 7.

“7 okay,” I strain my voice to be sure I’m heard. The plane bounces a little and my nausea returns. I inch forward. I will not be pushed. I will not be pushed.

“Jump!” he commands my row. One after another, the jumpers disappear out the door, swept away into the blue abyss. The green light flickers next to the open door, daring me to go. My feet fight for balance as I make my way closer.

There is only one jumper ahead of me. My hand is sweaty and shaking as I hand over my zip chord to the jumpmaster. I am sure to look him straight in the eye. I’m placing my future in his hand as I commit to the moment.

Everything is happening too quickly. I need more time to get ready. My boots are close to the edge of the plane now and it’s actually my turn. All of the training, all of the bruises, all of the insults has led to this moment. I will not be pushed.

I know from training that you don’t really leap out of the door. It’s more of a big step than an actual jump. It’s a step I know I can take. I lift up my right boot, close my eyes, put my chin down, and lean into the wind.

The airstream sucks the breath right out of my lungs and I twist violently in the air. Is this what’s supposed to happen? A hard yank of the zip chord heaves my body upright and I try to gather my bearings. I touch my head and grab hold of my straps. Ok, my Kevlar is still on. My parachute is open. I’m okay. I wonder for a moment why I feel like I am being pulled up instead of falling. I soon realize it’s just my parachute catching air above me and I take a deep breath. There’s a sudden sense of peace and relief as I float down in slow motion. Besides the light whistling of the wind, it’s quiet. I look up to the green, fluttering silk above me in a beautiful half balloon, and for the first time in weeks, I smile.

Hours later, after my last jump of the day, I stand on the top row of aluminum bleachers, thankful for the cool breeze. It’s the only thing keeping me from leaning against the tall man next to me after the longest day of my life. I place my right hand for a moment on the metal badge on my chest to make sure it is real. I rub my thumb over the ridges of the wings and look out into the faces of the small crowd that has formed in front of us.

In our audience, it’s easy to spot the black hats. I see my sergeant airborne, statuesque and terrifying. My hand drops to my side and I wonder why she felt compassion for me in those moments before that first flight. She wanted me to commit to the jump, and I did. Maybe her motherly instincts took over, or she saw a younger version of herself in me. She must have seen how much I wanted this. I guess I’ll never know the true reason, but she helped me regain the confidence needed to take those first steps toward the plane. I would not throw up, or pass out, and I certainly wouldn’t quit.

I long to shout to her, “I wasn’t pushed. I jumped.” I want her to be proud of me. But I know I can’t yell out.

I gaze at her with gratitude and I hope in that moment that she knows how much it means to me to be in those bleachers. But her stern face does not crack, and no acknowledgement is given. She is once again just a black hat, but I am now a paratrooper.