I was stationed at Fort Lee, Virginia while I was attending rigger school. The army decided I would be good at parachute packing and maintenance and so they sent me to Virginia to learn the trade.
There’s a lot to rigging, actually. We were taught to actually build a T-10 style parachute, a copy of the Switlik canopies used widely in the service. But we were also taught about cargo chutes, massive canopies built to lower just about anything that could be stuffed into an airplane. Most cargo drops involved pallets of materiel, but occasionally we would drop trucks, jeeps, even tanks.
I remember one occasion where we went to collect up our equipment after a training drop. We easily located all of the honeycomb platforms that we would strap our loads to. They lay right there on the ground where they’d landed and the the unit whose equipment it was had taken their stuff away leaving behind a tangle of nylon, straps, ropes, tarps and just plain garbage for us to clean up. With a man on each corner, we lifted the panels from the ground and stacked them onto a flatbed truck to be carried back to the rigger staging area at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. The pallets were pretty lightweight, made up of aluminum honeycomb and we were making short work of retrieving them. Until we came upon one that no matter how many guys put their backs into lifting the pad, we couldn’t budge it. We finally brought out a big wheel lifter, a sort of giant forklift on giant tractor tires. We hooked it up to the pd with a series of chains and then watched as the lifter strained, its hydraulics groaning with effort. It pulled so hard that the back end of the multi-ton lifter was hiked up off the ground. The lifter suddenly dropped back onto its four wheels and the pd lifted about four feet off the ground. Still attached to the pd, but upside down, was a full battle tank. It’s twin parachutes failed to open and it fell tank down onto the drop zone. It hit so hard that the tank buried itself right up to the pad, thus giving the appearance of an empty pad laying on the ground. When we got the tank upright again, we noted that the cannon tube was flattened and contoured to the shape of the tank.
While in Vietnam, we would drop cows to forward bases and villages that Rangers and Special Forces occupied with their Montagnard allies. It was the only way to get fresh meat to the villagers and soldiers. Butchered meat carried overland would be rotted or septic after a single day of transport they explained. So we would hook up a cow in a kind of stanchion and watch as the wide eyed cows would moo in confusion as they were swept out of the aircraft by a drogue chute. The cows were put down before they came to rest. It was one of those bizarre aspects of war that you can never really get comfortable with, but it provided necessary nutrition to not just our forces, but the impoverished people who would have otherwise gone hungry.
But Fort Lee was an interesting time. Not just in learning about aerial delivery and its fundamentals, but in meeting new people and establishing new friendships. The rigger school was not just for the army. We had marines, navy and air force people in the classes as well. I hung out with an army guy named Norm and a marine named Mickey. We all hailed from the east coast and thus had a number of things in common based on locality. When time came for passes, we would go as a group. Thanksgiving came and all of us were issued three day passes. The passes confined us to a 300 mile radius, but ll of us decided that we would go home, traveling together to New York where we would peel off to our homes and families. I told my parents I was coming and they thought it would be great to surprise my sister who was coming home for thanksgiving weekend from Hollins College. Arrangements were made for her to meet up with our mom and dad at the home of my sister’s roommate. They lived just 30 miles from our home in Darien, Connecticut. I joined my parents in New York, meeting them at Grand Central and traveling by train to the suburbs. We’d been at the home of the Gold family for a mere fifteen minutes when we heard a car pull into the driveway.
“Quick! Through there!” pointed Mr. Gold, indicating a set of floor to ceiling draperies. Wanting to make a surprise entrance for my sister, I dashed through the curtains and crashed through three layers of sliding glass doors. I picked the one sport with glass, missing a 12 foot opening into the back yard. The impact shattered all of the sliding doors and bounced me back into the living room, the victims of more than 100 cuts.
My sister took one look at the bloodied catastrophe and screamed in horror. Of course, I said “Surprise! Happy Thanksgiving!” and passed out. It took the local hospital six hours to get the glass out of my hair, ears, eyes and mouth, and to remove a significant pile of shards that had punctured me like a well used dart board. My uniform was destroyed, even my spit shined jump boots were gashed and torn, which is probably also a good description of the relationship between families. The Gold’s felt that we should pay for the damage to their home and for cleaning up the glass and blood. My family thought that the Golds had a liability and should pay for their own cleanup and for my medical expenses and the replacement of my uniform. I’m not sure how the disagreement turned out, I just know that a couple of weeks later my sister’s roommate found another place and roommate.
I returned to Fort Lee wearing civvies and there was no hiding my less than serviceable condition as I stood in morning formation. And it let the cat out of the bag that I had violated my pass radius by seven hundred miles which effectively meant I was AWOL. Since I stood duty and refused to take light assignments or get out of guard duty, the company commander decided that my injuries were punishment enough and elected not to take any further action against me. At the PX I spent seventy bucks replacing my dress uniform and having the sundry patches and decorations sewn into place. Considering that was slightly more than my monthly take home pay, I was pleased that Norm and Mickey picked up my tab in our various off hours endeavors to enjoy ourselves. When I finally did get a paycheck, they refused to accept repayment.
I never saw Mickey again after rigger school. He went off and did whatever it was that marines did. Norm and I were assigned to the same rigger company at Fort Campbell where we witnessed the great disappearing tank debacle. I lost track of him when I volunteered for duty in Vietnam. I checked the online list of names from the Vietnam Wall but didn’t find either one, so hopefully they are living fruitful lives and perhaps every now and again think about our short months together at Fort Lee.