The Last Jump

They were running a low-level night jump in 36-knot winds, Larry Swenson’s last. Once the mission was done, he would leave the Army and take a long road trip, settling into whichever town along the way felt right to him. Maybe he would go back to school. Maybe he wouldn’t. He didn’t know for sure, and he didn’t really care. He just wanted to own his life again.

Everyone had already hooked up their static lines to the overhead cables and shuffled toward the doors of the C130. They would be shotgunning out of the plane from 800 feet. When the green light went on, jumpers would exit both doors at the same time. Although everyone carried reserve parachutes, they were exiting from such a low altitude that the reserves would be pointless if something went wrong so close to the ground.

Larry looked to his left and saw two privates from 1st Battalion straight across from him. Since the jump involved three battalions, Larry hadn’t been able to surround himself with his own team leaders, the ones he had trained. He knew that inexperienced jumpers sometimes caused problems in the air with other jumpers due to nervousness and poor technique, especially in high winds.

The light turned green, and each row of jumpers blasted through the doors and into the night. Larry exited cleanly, with his chin tucked, elbows in, and feet and knees together. He felt his static line tighten and his parachute pop open. Then he made a 360-degree check of his canopy, which had deployed perfectly. He pulled a toggle and turned to his right to see if he was clear of other jumpers, but he wasn’t. One of the 1st Battalion privates who had shotgunned the door across from him had gotten twists in his risers, which meant he had no canopy control, and the wind was blowing him straight at Larry.

Larry yelled at the private to pull his risers and bicycle his legs to undo the twists, but it was too late. The private’s torso careened into Larry’s chute and collapsed his canopy. Larry watched the private’s jungle boot hook the lip of his chute, the one last thing suspending Larry in the air. That foot carried both of them along for a second or so, and then “POP!” The private disappeared into the night, and Larry’s chute cigarette rolled, leaving him 80 feet above the ground with no lift capability. Larry pulled his feet and knees together, tucked his chin in, turned into the wind as best he could, and went limp like a dead man.

He plummeted to the ground in a matter of seconds, but because he had faced into the wind, he landed feet-butt-back at just enough of an angle to absorb some of the impact. He bounced ten feet through the air and smashed to the ground again. Then the high winds reinflated his chute, and Larry began bouncing across the drop zone like a flat rock skipping across the water. He turned his head to the side and popped one of his risers, deflating the chute.

He couldn’t believe he was still alive. He took a mental inventory of his body. His femurs, knees, and back seemed fine, but his ankle was sprained and his tailbone was broken. He put his weapon into action and rose slowly, favoring his good ankle.

Jacobs, one of his team leaders, came running over and said, “Sgt. Swenson, that was fucking awesome! Are you OK?”

“Let’s go, Jacobs.”

Larry thought about hunting down the private who had nearly killed him but knew it wouldn’t be worth the effort. He gathered his squad, and they moved toward the treeline. It felt good to walk once his body grew numb from the physical exertion.

It was time to leave the Army. The jump was evidence enough. But things were going to be different. Something would always be missing.

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“The Last Jump”