It was hot. The inside of the plane was cavernous but there wasn’t room to move easily, the space taken up by cargo. The air smelled like hot oil and jet fuel with a touch of something chemical. The plane was lumbering, occasionally pitching because of air pockets. I wondered what an air pocket was, exactly. I mean, I figure that air is air so pockets of what? More air? There were three guys in the big C-130 with me. We all sat on one side of the plane in some fold down seats made out of maroon webbing. The rest of the plane was either an ugly green, kind of like a pea green, the rest was good old olive drab. Some unpainted stuff was silver, the aluminum dull and grayish silver. We would look at each other but didn’t speak. It was too loud in there to talk, really, so we smoked cigarettes and looked at each other or looked at the piles of crap loaded up on pallets. There was all sorts of stuff; ammo boxes made of wood, crates, different kinds of equipments always painted army ass green. I didn’t know the other guys in the plane and they didn’t know me. We all came from different units, or that’s what I figured. Maybe they knew each other.
A loud buzzer sounded and we all looked at once to the rear of the plane to where the Air Force loadmaster stood. He wore a green jumpsuit and had a parachute on but it was only partly buckled up. He reached up and tugged a little lever and a whining noise started up as the back of the plane opened up . The air burst into a hurricane, whipping all around, making loose strap ends wave frantically. The air was cooler though, and didn’t seem as heavy as it did with the plane closed up. The door got wide enough we could see the ground below, seeming to be moving away from the door as we moved along. It wandered a little side to side too, which was a bit surreal. To make it weirder, the air wasn’t exactly clear, it had that roiled look you saw above blacktop on hot, hot sunny days back home.
The buzzer sounded again and the loadmaster signaled to us. We all got up and made our way down the plane toward him to the loaded pallet at the end of the line. Last loaded was first dropped. We all set to releasing the tie downs that clamped it to the floor and kept it from moving on the lines of rollers installed on the plane’s floor. The loadmaster folded himself up a little, backing into a nook and out of the way. He pointed to a pair of lights sticking out of a box high on the wall. One was red and the other green. The red one was lit up. I picked up a bag hitched to the back of the load pallet. In it was a parachute, S folded and stuffed inside. In a pocket, a smaller ‘chute was tucked in and I yanked it out. It was spring loaded and popped open like an umbrella. The big turboprop engines were roaring by the back and the reek of burnt jet fuel made my eyes water. But I still found my safety strap and hitched it to a D ring off to the side of the floor. If I fell out of the plane the others could pull me back in. I saw that the other guys had hooked theirs up too. The ground had been steadily coming up to meet us, and looking out the back I figured we had to be maybe a couple hundred feet off the ground, still at high power and speeding through the air. We were getting even lower though.
The buzzer sounded again and the lights on the box traded off. The green one came on and the red one shut off. I tossed the parachute bag and the spring loaded drogue ‘chute out the back of the plane where it waggled like a tail a few seconds. Then the bigger parachute came out of the bag and opened with a loud snapping pop. The strap between it and the load went taught and the load parcel fairly sprang out of the plane, it stopping cold while the airplane kept moving. We could all see the load as it dropped to the ground; a ground that was now maybe only thirty feet below us. It skidded along the in the dirt like it was trying to chase us, throwing up clouds of dust and ruined green or brown plant shards. We only had a couple of seconds to look and it was time to move to the next load to take it loose and roll it toward the back of the plane. One of the other guys grabbed the ‘chute pack this time and I got out of the way and watched. A bit higher now but still low, the plane banked, making a turn to pass over the drop zone for a second time. Somewhere during the last drop, the lights on the box had traded places and the red one glowed again.
In a minute the wings were level and the loadmaster was pointing at the light box. The guy with the ‘chute moved to the back and got ready to toss it, yanking the drogue ‘chute from its pouch. As I was watching him, he suddenly hopped straight up the the air, a surprised look flashing his features. He collapsed back against the wall of the aircraft, dropping the chute and deployment bag. The wind swept them right out and the load flew out behind them as surprisingly fast as the last one. I paid no attention, I was looking at the guy who was now cringing on the floor and screaming above the roar of wind and the loud whining engines. Blood was spurting and spraying from a long gash up the side of his leg, his pants ripped wide open and his leg besides. The other guys moved over to stoop by him and the loadmaster was yelling something. I couldn’t hear him over the rest of the noise but he was pointing to the other loads and looking pretty earnest. I got the message and ran to unhitch the next load, moving around it and popping the tie downs. One of the other guys had come forward to help, and he grabbed me by the shoulder and was trying to tell me something over the din. His hand on my shoulder, he kept shaking me and shouting.
My wife looked down at me. “Are you awake, Honey?” I looked around at my room and it seemed alien. Like I was supposed to be somewhere else.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m awake.”