Antigua, West Indies, Caribbean
Getting my wings.
“So who’s the Cherry?” the big Green Beret named Stan said as the plane banked hard, making the go-around for another pass at the drop zone. He was a big black brother, at least 6-foot-four. He sat on one knee, maintaining his balance from all the turbulence from the open cargo door. His muscular, ropey arms had a large tattoo of a green beret on one of them that said “Free The Oppressed,” the motto of the Green Berets. He wore a gray Air Force freefall parachute on his back as he hung himself on the outer edge of the ramp, holding on tightly as he looked down into the ocean for the drop zone. I was amazed that the air turbulence caused by the plane’s open ramp didn’t suck him out!
I raised my hand. “Me, Sergeant.”
He smirked at me. “You know how lucky you are doing this, right? It’s Valentine’s Day, your last name is Valentine… and this is your Cherry Jump, and you’re getting German Jumpwings out of it too.” He shook his head. “Incredible!”
“Yes Sergeant.” I said with a smirk. I hoped he wouldn’t drop me for another 20 pushups. I had been lucky enough to escape getting dogged by everyone by keeping my mouth shut! But he wouldn’t do that. It would soon be my turn to jump out of the aircraft!
Corporal Miles stood in front of me. I looked over his shoulder out the gaping cargo door. Nothing but a huge blue expanse sat out in front of us. By this time half the plane had jumped out of the aircraft, the “test dummy” Colonel landing in the water with no problems, giving the whole plane the green light for the jump since he came out okay. I just hoped I came out as well.
The German Jumpmaster gave Miles the pre-arranged signals to get ready to jump, the jump light inside the aircraft turning green. Within moments he gave Miles the “GO!!” Signal. Miles calmly walked down the ramp, and into the blue expanse of air. It was almost as if the air had swallowed him up! He fell out of sight. But then seconds later I saw him. His chute was open with no problems, and he gently turned out of the slipstream left behind by the aircraft, to enjoy the ride down.
Then it was my turn. The jumpmaster motioned me to walk towards him, which wasn’t too far from the edge of the ramp. As soon as I did, he immediately said “GO!” I walked down the ramp, chin in my chest, keeping a tight body position, and walked into nothing but empty space.
My first thought? Damn, I’m a bit high up in the air! My world seemed to rush around me for hours on end as my body fell from the sky at 120 miles an hour. Eyes open, the world seemed to whirl around me as my body position kept me straight in the air, like a bomb falling vertically from the sky. I then felt the tug of the static line attached to my parachute as my canopy was deployed, the whole thing zipping way forward of me directly above. The risers (what holds the canopy to your parachute harness) flew forward as well, slapping me in the face. They knocked off my sports glasses I just bought only a few weeks before, and I juggled them in midair as my now open parachute naturally righted itself! I couldn’t grab the damn things and down they fell, out of sight, into the Caribbean Ocean. Great. Now I couldn’t see, and my vision blurred. I wondered if they landed on a fish’s head at the bottom of the sea, surprising the hell out of it.
I grabbed the toggles on my canopy and immediately made a 180-degree turn into the wind to slow my descent down. But I wasn’t slowing down. I was speeding up. The wind was really kicking! It pulled me backwards as I descended and I immediately had thoughts of being dragged through the water, being drowned!
But there was nothing I could do. I had to ride this one out, and stayed calm. I looked around, enjoying the view. Down below I saw the Navy Seals Rigid Boat make a beeline for me, jumping up and down off the choppy surf.
Crap, I just remembered! Gotta inflate my water vest for safety. I pulled the string and it inflated with no problem.
As I got closer to the water, I began to estimate my distance. 500 feet… 200 feet… 150 feet… I had to loosen up my harness. I unclipped the chest strap loose and prepared to enter the water. I kept reminding myself… Remember what the Seals said in the pre-jump briefing… keep a tight body position… take a deep breath so when you’re dunked underwater you will have enough air to get out of your harness if you’re stuck and something goes wrong…
I tightened my body up as I looked down at the water. I could see my shadow appear… getting closer… closer… closer… PLOOSH!! I hit the water, going under temporarily. My canopy fell above and behind me like clockwork as I surfaced. I looked around and immediately relaxed. I was okay! I put my hands behind my head and laid on the surface of the water, waiting for the Rigid Boat to come get me. I saw the C-130 fly over once again on another pass, letting out some more jumpers. Damn they’re high up, I thought.
So there. I did it. I just busted my cherry!
The Seals sleek Rigid Raider drove up next to me. Corporal Miles and a few of the Fallshrimjeager were inside, dripping wet from their jumps.
“Yo Valentine! How was that for a Cherry Jump! You now have yourself some German Wings to wear on your uniform!”
“Yo, excellent bro!”
One of the Seals driving the boat leaned over to me he maneuvered closer to me. “Hey, the Corporal said you just broke your cherry, how does it feel? Great, huh?” he said as they pulled me and my parachute aboard the boat. “Feels better than sex?”
I looked at him with a grin. “Er – no.”
Several jumps and many training hours later mostly everyone went to Shirley Heights to party it up at the end of the day. I had heard a lot about Shirley Heights from the locals, during an earlier run into St. John, the main city. Everyone recommended it. A cliff overlooking English Harbor, the fortress was built there by the British to deter the use of the harbor from smugglers and pirates during the 18th-century. Now that those days were over, the decaying fortress was turned into an open-air concert hall, with reggae and calypso bands playing as locals, tourists, and the elite members of JSOC drank and traded war stories of the various jumps we had done, along with other types of water training.
The sun slowly set on a beautiful blood-red sky, turning the horizon a brilliant ultramarine blue. I couldn’t believe that this was my Cherry Jump: my first jump out of Airborne School. I felt so lucky just then. Most paratroopers’ Cherry Jumps are boring, mass tactical jumps during all types of weather, and usually on the drop zones of Fort Bragg which were filled with barbed wire and burning oil drums. This certainly beat that any day.
I met a tourist there, a beautiful German woman by the name of Alexandra, and we ended up speaking over a few drinks as we watched the sunset on the terrace. Alexandra was backpacking alone around the Caribbean for several weeks, Antigua being her sixth stop. I was intrigued with her exploits around the Caribbean; for up until that point I had never left the United States, and never even thought about backpacking as a budget traveler.
But her ability to just get up and travel amazed me. “Oh, it’s quite easy to travel Mo,” she said. “You just have to save the money, get the ticket and go.”
That idea sounded so foreign to me. “You mean, just let go of your job and go? Just like that?”
She sipped her beer. “Ya.”
“I can’t do that.” I said. “I mean, that sounds so crazy. You must be a millionaire or something to do something like that.”
She rolled her large, blue doe eyes at me like I was some sort of sinner not being able to see the light. “No, Mo… you Americans,” she chuckled. “You guys need to get out more. It’s not as hard as you think. As a matter of fact, I bet that if you do it just once, you will be hooked, and not want to stop.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll bet you on that.” We clanged our drinks together giving each other cheers and continued flirting. Little did I know that those words would come back to haunt me. For only a few years later, I would be doing exactly what she said. Except this time through Australia.
The reflection of the sunlight on her face was just perfect for the moment as we flirted with one another, and she asked me to dance. She led me by the hand as we joined the other revelers on the dance floor.
As we danced, Sergeant Herbert sneaked up behind me, a wide shit-eating grin on his face. I knew what he wanted.
He pointed at the floor. “Drop.”
I looked at Alexandra who was confused. “Er, excuse me.” I hit the floor and knocked out 20 pushups!
After I stood up and Herbie left us, Alexandra laughed at me as I wiped the dirt of my hands. “What was that about Mo?”
“It’ll take a while to explain,” I said, “but let’s keep dancing.”