Heights weren’t the worst part.
It was that you had to
Have control in
We all had fathers. We all had brothers. We all had sisters. Of course, we all had mothers. We all had cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. Hell, we all had children, sons and daughters both. That’s the only thing you think of in the classroom. It’s all that’s in your head when you straighten your gig line, shine your shoes, adjust your hat so it’s just above your eyebrows. You forget it for a second when you try to remember the chain of command at inspection, but then it all comes back. But when you’re riding the bus to Chokecherry, when you’re hiking the path up the cliff, when your ass is dangling high in the air while your hands grip tight to your best friend the rope, all of that goes away. All that’s left is the air, and your family includes a carabiner, a figure-eight knot, and dozens of teenage eyes sneering at you from below. This was beautiful, this was combat, this was duty to your country, and it was a pleasure to serve.
It might have been the classroom simulation which set me up for such failure. My mind often wanders back to that first fall and wonders how things might have been different if I hadn’t felt my body violently collide with gym mats that day. How could she let me go like that? We didn’t even have to go. I didn’t have to put the uniform on at all; there were easier ways to get on with one’s life. But then we didn’t do it for the PE credit or the CPR lessons or some future pay-grade. We did it because we loved our country, we loved our uniforms with their badges and stripes and buttons, we loved the others who lined up with us in those uniforms only to be criticized for a stray scuff or unbuttoned pocket button. I guess that’s why so many of us signed up to go that day and risk our lives for the Panther Battalion. When the option came up for not going, not a one of us gave it a second thought. It was just assumed. There were a lot of things we didn’t have to do, though, so it’s useless to dwell on what choices we had. Still, I can’t help wondering why I was so willing to go even after that disaster during training. Was my head so full of stars and stripes that I was unable to see that I was not made for this work or this mission? Could I see the stars and stripes in everyone else’s head and vainly wished the same for my own? When the instructor at the top of the cliff asked me if I had gone through the training, I said yes. He asked how it went. I could only cry and blubber that I fell to the ground. He knew I was a lost cause, still drowning in my shellshock.
Of course, I’m no special case. I’m no hero and what I went through was only the latest in an entire history of trauma. JROTC battalions had been going to that cliff for decades and young cadets by the hundreds had found ways to bounce themselves down the sandstone face.
The fear didn’t grip me on the bus ride. It was all too unknown to be an object of fear. We drove down Piñon Hills Boulevard until we were nearly out of city limits. I recognized the spot we parked at as a common meeting place for four-wheelers or teenagers going out to shoot cans in Chokecherry Canyon. Exiting the bus that spring morning, I knew that not even my “Cadet of the Month” award would save me from what I had to face. We all chatted nervously together while we waited for instructions. My older brother had chosen not to undertake the mission that day due to a test in his English class. I was alone in this. I saw Adam milling about by himself near the pile of equipment. Our friendship was a spillover from sharing a seat on the bus to our middle school. I was fat, he brought a suitcase to school every day; it was a perfect collusion for surviving the daily twenty minute commutes amongst hostile company. He kind of followed me into my freshman year, but I was glad he was there for me the day we had to fall.
I gave him a meager wave. “Hey Adam. You ready for this?”
He replied, “I think so. I’m a little freaked out by the height of that thing, but it should be fine. It would suck to fall on your head from up there. I think that’s happened before. What about you, are you ready?”
“Yeah, I think I got this. Ugh, I just hate standing here and waiting. Let’s just do this thing!”
He gave a little laugh. “Yeah, I hear you.”
Our attentions were caught by the Sergeant Major when we were addressed as a battalion on how to use the equipment and how we would proceed. Adam helped me put on my harnesses and tie my knots correctly. Damn I was glad to have him in that moment. His company had always been bothersome and more for convenience, but I trusted him with my life that day. Soon, they started calling for volunteers to go first.
A lot of the older cadets were the first to hike the path to the top of the cliff. They had done this a few times before and were eager to get their small adrenaline rush. Some were jokingly arguing about going first and how they wish we had a higher cliff to rappel down. These were the true men of our battalion, jostling to be the first in line to dangle in the air for their country. I had done my part earlier that year representing the Panther Battalion in a knowledge competition, but the cliff didn’t care about how much I knew about military history or regulations. All the cliff cared about was the L-shape of my body and whether the hand which gripped the rope was far enough behind my back. The first man went down smoothly and easily, the cliff was easily conquered and he exclaimed that he was going to do it again. Even then I had the choice to back out, to just watch everyone take on gravity with only a harness and a rope. But would a true soldier back out of such a simple task? You can’t defend the nation if you can’t even defend yourself against heights. I saw Tim go down. Tim was my older brother’s friend and I was somehow included in their group. We would play Dungeons and Dragons in our garage or go to Taco Bell or just be loitering teenagers. Tim would eventually have his back broken by an improvised explosive device while part of a convoy in Baghdad. Real Army shit. I couldn’t back out in front of him. I was already the pariah of the group. But then my legs didn’t match my conviction, and I could feel the eyes upon me as other cadets took their second trips down the cliff face. I don’t remember hiking the trail to the cliff face. All I can remember is holding a rope and staring into the face of fear.