The Specter of Fear
lurks in the silent darkness, unwanted - hated. It's
power is so great that even when ignored or denied it
can still control our destiny.
My first parachute jump was a lesson in sheer terror.
The Airborne instructors had vigorously indoctrinated me to believe that I was
a tough paratrooper, impervious to fear. Yet I was still afraid.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
"Do the thing you fear and the death of
fear is certain." This adage is often true, but
I was afraid during my second jump too. I didn't know
it then, but my hard lessons in living and coping
with the more insidious aspects of fear had just begun.
I still had much to learn about fear's enormous capacity
to influence our behavior.
We arrived at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1943, two hundred
robust, cocky young men from all over the United States. The rigors of infantry
basic training were behind us; now we were ready to confront a new challenge
- Airborne training.
The grueling physical training we had endured prior
to coming to Jump School had, we thought, separated the men from the boys. We
were the elite of the Army, we boasted. We could do anything! We eagerly
awaited our chance to show the Army what real men were.
Were we afraid? No way! We were embarking on a
new and exciting adventure.
The sergeants who greeted us at the bus terminal
were seasoned Airborne veterans. They had once been green horns like us; they
knew our attitudes. The process of ego pulverization was fierce and immediate
as they rushed upon us like voracious sharks attacking minnows:
"Pick up those bags, you chicken-livered mama's
boys, and let's go!"
Mama's boys? Sergeant, you don't know who you're
talking to. We aren't afraid of you or anyone else!
How wrong we were.
The sergeants had one
primary objective - to separate the men from the boys.
In their less-than-humble opinion, the men were those
who would never give up despite injury, suffering
- even torture.
In infantry basic training
we had learned to run, or so we thought. But at Airborne
School we never just went for a run. All we ever did
was run, run, and run some more. Anytime we moved
it was on the run. We ran to the latrine. We ran to
chow. We ran to training sites - five, ten, or more
miles. Finally we reached such a high level of fitness
that we could run for hours on end without tiring.
Failing meant, heaven forbid, washing out of the glorious
But running was fun compared with the rigors at
the training sites. At one site we were suspended from harnesses like those that
would connect us to a parachute from which we would descend from plane to ground.
The harness straps, holding our dead weight and digging into our groins, felt
like thin wires straining under two hundred pounds of agonized flesh.
We hung in those harnesses while the sergeants explained, at
length, the fine art of being a "famous paratrooper."
"Do you hurt, mama's boys? Want to quit?"
"Quit? No Way!"
The worst thing that
could happen to a sergeant was for one of his mama's
boys to freeze in the airplane door - refuse to leap
into space. His plan was to weed out any trainee who
had the potential to quit, and the earlier the better.
We trainees were convinced that the sergeants got
a bonus for every one of us they could make a washout.
None of us wanted to quit, but the sergeants, it seemed,
had stronger wills. After the first grueling week
our group of 200 had decreased to 150.
Before each disgraced washout departed we were lined
up by the truck that would transport him to some unknown, abominable site for
a truly awful assignment. The sergeants themselves led us in jeering the miserable
failure. This harsh tactic was used to make those of us who remained that much
more determined not to be quitters, and never to be afraid.
At the end of the second week
125 of us remained. We ended preliminary training
acutely aware that the lowest level to which we could
ever sink was to be a washout. So far, so good. We
were fearless; we were the aristocracy of the elite.
At least that's what we wanted to believe. On the
morning of our first parachute jump, our barracks
echoed with jubilant shouts of "Geronimo!"
The worst was yet to come.
We returned to our barracks in triumph that evening,
brimming with gusto. We had made it! We had successfully completed our first
jump. Only four more jumps and we would earn the coveted silver wings of the
full-fledged paratrooper. Nothing could stop us now!
But we noticed that our number had shrunk from 125 to 120.
What had happened to the others? We learned that they had been injured. One had
broken his leg, but he would recover. Another had broken his back. No one had
mentioned that possibility during our training.
The next morning we were a bit less enthusiastic about
our upcoming jump We tried to muster a show of bravado, but none of us could
forget the man who had broken his back. A sergeant lined us up for another lecture:
"Yesterday one of this group of stupid little boys failed to do what he was taught.
He will not jump again. While preparing to land he was so scared that he looked
down at the ground rather than straight ahead as you were all taught. He broke
his back. If anyone else wants a broken back, do the same thing."
That evening several more of our comrades failed
to return to the barracks. Fear set in. It had become clear to us that our chosen
occupation wasn't all fun and games. Two men went AWOL. They couldn't face the
humiliation of the "quitter's parade".
On our fourth jump, three
men froze with fear at the open door of the plane,
refusing to make the plunge into space. They were
treated with the most disdain of all. That evening
they were paraded before us and derided as the
most contemptible examples of cowards that three mothers
ever brought into the world. The rest of us vowed
that we would never permit ourselves to be so vilified.
On the morning of our fifth jump there was an oppressive
silence in our barracks. If anyone had asked, "Are you afraid?" we would have
shot back, "Afraid? No!" And we would have been sincere. Each of us reasoned,
"I haven't quit. Therefore, I'm not afraid." It was the quitters who had been
afraid. However, if an animal with a keen sense of smell had been nearby, it
would easily have detected the fear that we so stubbornly denied.
I made it through the five qualifying jumps without
a scratch. Had I been afraid? Yes indeed! But I had learned to deny my fear,
and finally I stood triumphantly with my comrades as our commanding general pinned
the silver wings on my chest. I was now a member of the Army's most elite society
of warriors. There was no reason to be afraid now. That is, not until my next
leap into space.
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