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The Parachute Situation
“Soldiers,” barked Captain Johnson’s rough voice over the heightening whir of the engine. “Today we embark on a mission.” The words spurted out of his mouth in short bursts two or three at a time as if every insignificant phrase required emphasis. Behind the soldiers in training stood the two Lieutenants who would help to instruct the cadets in learning to parachute safely from an airplane.
“The task before us,” he went on, stroking a finger across his handlebar mustache, “is not easy. It’s very hard. It’s meant to prepare you, the soldiers of the American army, for combat. Real combat.”
The Cadets nodded in agreement as the engine’s roar escalated and the plane wheeled around the last stretch of the runway. “Now, we’re training for real combat,” the commander repeated, “but we don’t train for real combat with real combat. We train, as you will see, with fake combat. There are a few reasons for that, but we’ll wait before we get into the more advanced—” he furrowed his eyebrows as he searched for the words—“stuff.”
Lieutenant Jacobs couldn’t help cocking his head in astonishment at the Captain’s blatant incompetence. How the man rose to such a rank he did not know. The officer struggled against an urge to glance anxiously out the window, suddenly unsure of his safety.
“Ordinarily there would be a briefing before such a drill,” Captain Johnson added with a dismissive wave of his hand, “but it’s best to learn in the real situation. Fake situation, that is. What I mean to say is that it’s best to learn in a situation, and by doing things, not by hearing about doing things. The army is really all about doing things in situations. Rarely, in fact, are we asked to do something that doesn’t require doing something, and even more rarely without there being some sort of situation. I ask you to keep that in mind during the training experiment—uh, the training exercise.”
By the end of this rant, the airplane had lifted a few feet off the ground and began to ascend. It tilted backwards and pushed the Cadets uncomfortably back against their seats. Lieutenant Jacobs noticed that their safety restraints had not been fastened correctly, but it was too late. The aircraft was in full throttle, and even Captain Johnson at the head of the plane lost his footing and stumbled back, only remaining upright by the firm grip his hairy arms held on the door to the cockpit. After a moment he steadied himself and began shouting over the noise.
“A common occurrence during parachuting from an aircraft, which you should all be familiar with,” the commander explained, “is air sickness. That’s not to be confused with sea sickness, which is more common in the Navy.” Lieutenant Jacobs glanced at his fellow officer to see if the man’s inane comments would draw any reaction from him, but his demeanor hinted at not the slightest uncertainty. Jacobs turned again to listen to Captain Johnson’s speech.
“Does any one know the symptoms of air sickness?” the commander inquired loudly. No one indicated that they knew. Seeing this, Captain Johnson mustered a deep breath and curtly shouted, “Heaving!”
The Lieutenant beside Jacobs stepped forward. “Yes, sir?”
Captain Johnson, now able to let go of the cockpit door, as the plane had ceased to climb, put his hands beside his back and marched rigidly towards the men, teetering every now and then on the airplane’s unsteady motion. Lieutenant Jacobs stifled a snicker to see the man’s ridiculous attempt at formality.
“Yes, Lieutenant Heaving,” he addressed the officer. “Would you kindly explain to these men the symptoms of airsickness?”
“Yes, sir,” Lieutenant Heaving agreed. “Well, heaving, and—”
“Yes, Heaving, you sir! Explain to the men the symptoms of airsickness. And don’t refer to yourself in the third person.” Captain Johnson scowled as he continued to stride sternly about the cramped compartment, taking no more than two steps before having to turn again.
“Well, I was, sir,” the Lieutenant replied. “As I was saying, there’s heaving—”
The commander stepped in angrily and waved his arms until the man stopped, all the while shouting, “No, no! Never mind then. I can tell them if you’re going to be difficult. The answer, as you may have guessed, is these two symptoms: the first, that you are sick, and the second, that you are in the air. Or rather, the first is that you are in the air, and the second is that you are sick, as you will go into the air before you become sick, and you won’t become sick until you notice symptoms of being in the air anyhow. Well, now that you are somewhat informed as to the disease’s progression, we can at last begin learning how exactly a parachute works.”
Lieutenant Jacobs’ jaw dropped open. “Are you telling me that these men have not yet been taught how to use a parachute?” he demanded. “Not even in theory?”
Captain Johnson shook his head wildly. “Of course not! They know how to pull strings, don’t they? Well, then they know how to work a parachute. Now they need only to learn where the strings are, which ones to pull, which ones not to, and in what order. Who’s first?”
No hands went up from among the pale-faced Cadets. The man closest to the Captain looked out the window as if he hadn’t even noticed they had taken off.
“Well in that case, I think I’ll give it a go,” Johnson suggested, pulling a parachute around his fat midsection and opening the door to the plane. Immediately the air current began rushing over the soldiers. It rippled their clothes and threw their voices far away. Lieutenant Jacobs marveled that he was the only one who did not stand by during this absurd show.
“No! Captain Johnson, you’re the only one who’s certified in the room! You have to be last!”
Captain Johnson hesitated on the edge of the plane, turning back to look at the Lieutenant, legs crouched in mid-leap. “What?” he cried over the sound of air rushing across his ears and the engine roaring all around. “I’m the only one who’s ever tried shrooms? Lieutenant, now is not the time to be bringing that up!”
“No!” the officer answered, determined to get the man back into the plane. “You have to be last!”
“I know it’s happened in the past,” the commander ceded. “This is not the time for it! Now please, let me jump.”
Lieutenant Jacobs was losing his patience. “I’ll be left here alone with the others!”
Captain Johnson turned back into the plane with a scornful expression. “You leave my mother out of this!”
Jacobs shook his head in frustration. “Captain, we don’t know how to use parachutes!”
Johnson nodded suddenly in understanding. He closed the door and faced the group. “It’s simple,” he explained. “Pull the string when you want to stop falling. Like so.” With that, the commander yanked on a string that came from his parachute, and immediately the parachute shot out across the compartment. It tangled among the soldiers while Lieutenant Jacobs and the commander tried desperately to gather it back together.
“Sir,” Jacobs suggested, “It’s probably best we repack this parachute while you give the process to the other soldiers in more detail. Then we can proceed with the exercise.”
“Absolutely not!” Captain Johnson commanded. “There’s no time to do things like that in battle, and we don’t have time either. I have one choice now, and that’s to jump.” He laid a hand on Lieutenant Jacobs’ shoulder carefully with a grim nod of his head. “I’m going to go jump out of the plane. It’s up to you now.”
“But—” Jacobs began.
“No,” Johnson interrupted. “There’s no time.” Then, to the Cadets, “Men, you’ve seen how it’s done. Just leap out and pull the strings on those parachutes you’re wearing once I give you the signal. I’ll see you all on the ground.”
Lieutenant Jacobs tried to yell to the Cadets to ignore the deranged Captain, but before a full word escaped his mouth, the door was open and they were pouring out of the portal without a second thought, starting with Captain Johnson clutching the parachute in a bundle against his chest. Even when Jacobs tried to step in front of him, they declared against the sound of the wind, “Orders are orders!”
A few minutes later, Jacobs shut the door after the last jumper, Lieutenant Heaving. He radioed in to the base grimly.
“We have a problem here,” the officer explained.
“Why?” the military base responded. “What happened?”
“Captain Johnson just told my entire crew how to perform the training exercise and to jump out of the plane with the parachutes they were wearing,” he explained.
“So?” the base prompted.