The C-130 bucked and rumbled beneath Jon’s boots. The skies were clear and cloudless, but the wind conspired against the plane as it descended to standard jump altitude. Nonetheless, Jon felt grounded against the fuselage floor: he was fully outfitted, carrying a parachute, rucksack, harness and rifle. This wasn’t a Hollywood jump. The jump masters on either side of the plane wrenched the two sliding jump doors open and an angry wind gusted into the cabin, ruffling Jon’s pants. They shouted get ready … outboard personnel, stand up! and he rose to his feet unsteadily, turning to face the forty-odd men climbing up from the nylon seats that ran down the sides and center of the plane. Inboard personnel, stand up! Taking the hands offered by their upright brothers, the men seated along the center aisle stood, too. Hook up! The jump master held his hand high, forming a crook with his index finger. Jon detached the static line clip from his reserve chute and slapped it into place on the steel cable overhead, pushing a safety wire through the sliding lock. Check static lines! Jon double- and triple-checked his line, then checked the line of the man in front of him. Equipment check! shouted the jump master, patting his chest with both hands, and Jon double and triple checked his helmet, reserve chute, rucksack and lowering line, and his rifle. Sound off for equipment check! A wave of ass-slapping rippled from aft to fore, okay! shouted into each man’s ear. The foremost jumper sounded off and threw up the universal OK signal, pressing thumb and forefinger together, and the jump master stamped the floor and echoed: All okay! The jump master kicked the side locks off the jump platform, grasped both sides of the jump door and forced his entire body outside of the plane. Several moments later he returned, wrenching himself back into the cabin, and pointed at the doorway: Stand in the door! he shouted to the first man, who obliged. The man stood in the door. He bent his legs and coiled himself as the jump master took hold of his parachute harness. The light above the door transitioned from red to green and the jump master slapped the man in the door’s thigh. Go! He was gone. The jump master carried on. Slap, go!, slap, go!, slap, go! Jon’s turn came and he took hold of the door frame, tensing, until the jump master slapped his upper thigh and he hurled himself out of the plane, right out into the crisp, whipping wind below. Stay tight, Jon thought to himself. Feet and knees together, hands on the reverse chute, head down, chin tucked. Count… one one thousand, two one thousand, three… The parachute yanked at Jon’s back as it was sprung from its pack, braking his descent, angling his back towards the ground for just a moment. Jon’s chute had fully deployed by four one thousand and he peered up at the green canopy overhead. No tears, no lines out of place. All was right, and the world fell silent; a stark contrast to the controlled chaos of the rumbling, roaring plane above. Jon tugged the parachute’s control lines down past his helmet and steered himself towards the drop zone below. He nudged his rifle aside—clear from his armpit—and bent his legs and knees together, put his elbows in front of his face and kept his hands level with his helmet as the ground came up to meet him. His ruck smacked the dirt first, followed quickly by the balls of his feet. Jon performed a quick, practiced roll against the ground—muscle memory by now—and clamored upright. He detached his harness and hurried over to the chute’s canopy, folding it most ricky-tick—before an errant gust of wind got a mind to carry it off. Back into its pack the canopy went, and Jon gathered up the rest of his gear to start trotting back towards his company. Marching orders: a quick double-time hike five miles back to base, debriefing, dismissal. Thursday was an off day and graduation was Friday. For now, Jon pined only for a hot shower and a cold beer. * * * Rounding out an early day, Jon took lunch at Fort Benning’s NCO Club. Benning Club was one of the chintzier NCO Clubs he’d visited, but the buffet was $10 and he had a mighty appetite today. He’d eschewed the complimentary Lunch Punch card; he’d be traveling to Bragg soon enough, where a buffet rewards card from Georgia wouldn’t help much. Sitting with Jon were three of his jump school mates: Chester, a scrawny fuck from Atlanta; Davie, a brawny fuck from Ohio; and Javier, a swarthy fuck from El Paso. The soon-to-be paratroopers ate and talked shop, and when the conversation turned towards their next postings, Jon became the center of attention. “You’re really headin’ off to Swick next, Walsh?” Javier asked between mouthfuls of coffee cake. “Looks that way,” Jon replied evasively, sipping on a glass of water. His plate was empty, and he hoped for a break in conversation so that he could slip away for a smoke. “Fuck, man, I’ve heard the Q Course is a bitch-and-a-half,” Chester drawled. “My buddy Mark washed out in selection. Shin splints.” “I’ve heard that,” Jon agreed. “You’re starin’ down the barrel of Ranger Orientation, though. That ain’t gonna be easy.” “The Q Course is harder,” Davie posited, to which Chester murmured a half-hearted fuck you, man. “Reckon I’ll figure it out,” Jon said, chewing on his straw as he sucked down the last of his water. Standing, he fished out his wallet and folded Andrew Jackson up beneath his glass. “Y’all leave a nice tip, now.” Before he could get roped into more banal chatter, Jon hurried out of the Lexington Room and into the parking lot, where he climbed into his truck and fished a half-crumpled pack of L&Ms out of his pocket, tucking a cigarette between his lips. Maybe one of these days he’d quit smoking and start dipping, like every other guy in the army. Today was not that day. Chester’s remarks tickled Jon’s anxiety reflex, and he dragged harder on the cigarette, knitting his brow. This time next week he’d be in North Carolina, girding himself for the Q Course at John Kennedy. If he passed selection, Jon would spend a year, maybe two, studying to become a Green Beret. The enormity of the task before him weighed heavily upon Jon’s shoulders—but he knew it was what he wanted. One six-month tour in Iraq was more than enough to push him towards a new career path. One more prestigious than playing glorified infantry in a sandbox. Something exciting. Despite his surety, Jon knew that SFQS would be—as Chester had put it—a bitch-and-a-half. But he’d always risen to the occasion before, hadn’t he? Keep your eyes open, mouth shut, and respond to each problem as it arises. Dwelling on his upcoming trials and tribulations would solve nothing. Jon cranked his truck’s engine and shifted into reverse, pulling out of Benning Club’s parking lot headed for the barracks.