Army Day

“Army Day.” That’s what us kids called it. I suppose for Air Force kids it’s “Air Force Day”, or in the Marines “Marine Day” – or maybe even “Daddy Day”, though in these days “Momma Wears Combat Boots Day” might be more applicable.  But in reality it was Armed Forces Day, a day to pay tribute to men and women who serve the United States’ armed forces.  But for us kids – especially us military kids – it was something different.  It was a chance to play with the toys of war.

All us kids would pile into the car – a Ford Grand Torino station wagon with it’s prerequisite nineteen-sixties V-8 (289 up under the hood; my dad didn’t know what he was doing). There was a backseat which would fold up or down depending upon the circumstances – allowing the back seat passengers to see where they’d been instead of where they were going. It was good for that sometimes. I often got tired of ‘seeing where we were going’ and would camp out in back of that station wagon instead – falling asleep while we crossed endless roads on our way out west to see our grandmas.

But this time it was “Army Day” – or as it is more appropriately called, “Armed Forces Day”. This is the day when the military invites civilians and their families – as well as all the military dependents they can raise – to come and see what they are doing with their tax dollars. And they were mighty fun – for some. Not everyone knew what they were getting into when they went on some of the rides. You might find yourself sliding down a wire in a parachute harness from a tall tower – or getting rattled around in some tank like a can of nuts in a paint shaker. You might get to shoot a machine gun or two; inspect weapons, climb around. There were always plenty of young soldiers to ‘give you the tour’ – whether that was assisting you in some tank or out of it. There were plenty of bumps and bruises to go around among the unarmed and uninformed civilians; us Army kids knew better. Tank rides were fun – as long as you held on tight to something inside. However, when the thing really got to moving – with about a dozen squealing children inside – because, you know, children can have much fun doing anything that is unique and special to them – the ride would get a lot rougher. We’d go pitching over those tank courses, everyone hanging on – and there was always one G.I. in there to keep an eye on us and yell “hang on!” over the tank’s roaring bellow and the clatter of iron against iron. The treads would spin – the tank would spin and rock on some hummock, or dive into a ditch, throwing us around – and then would launch itself in another new direction, turret swinging and motors grunting.

It was great fun. At least for us kids. But I know some of us came out crying some of the time. Sometimes they gave us helmets to wear – crew helmets, the big ones with the visors and things – but our heads were much too small, and their mighty weight kept our heads bobbing and wobbling like Weebles on steroids, independent of our own body and control.

The parachute jumps were the best; the most fun and one of the more popular things around.  First you’d climb up some tower where there’d be a line of kids (and some grownups) waiting. Then you would wait your turn – slowly shuffling forward, heels against toes, your own toes against the heels of someone else. Sometimes you had to climb a ladder; sometimes it was just footpegs set up a telephone pole. Sometimes the tower was a brace of telephone poles strapped together in a triangle; sometimes it was something else: a metal hut set way up high in the sky. Either way you’d come to the top eventually – your armpits sweating, the kids crowding close – their butts in your groin; their sweat running down on top of you, yours on someone else. The hot air was usually thick and cloying with the smell of canvas, rope and things. And then they’d bring the harness.

The harness was the same one the troopers used to parachute with, complete with all the rigging, sans parachute. You’d be given complete instructions on using the thing. Here is where the ripcord would go; here’s the emergency chute; here’s how to take it out, here’s how to know when. Here’s where your altimeter would go – you want to pull the cord at about 500 feet; no less, or else you might go crashing into the earth if your primary chute failed. There wouldn’t be time to open the other one it was tersely explained . . . but they made it clear: sometimes you could – and would – be opening come 10,000 feet, sometimes under 300 – it all depended upon the mission you were on. Later on it was explained to me (and this comes from some hidden – and therefore to me not credible – ‘recovered’ memory pile) – that we would be opening around 500 to 300 if trouble were to come. (This was later, overseas, in my different ‘career’ or perhaps even a ‘person’ inside of me.)

But these days . . . they were fun; hot and sweaty. We’d be in that tower, our static line all hooked up, nervously waiting – the kids all in a row. Instead of being connected to our parachute the static line was connected to our overhead harness – the one you normally grip while you are floating – and the end of the thing, instead of triggering the chute to open, was tied off to a pulley on a steel cable which was stretched from the tower’s opening to the ground. And it was a long way away.

We’d line up there – the kids disappearing one by one in front of me until it was my turn to go. Gritting my teeth against the drop (the parachute harness was always chaffing my legs; right in between them where the safety snap / harness would go) – I would hang on until the instructor instructed me that it was time to jump.

“Hang on!” he would yell at me. (The military spends a lot of time yelling and shouting and things; a very excitable group sometimes!). “Yell ‘Geranimo’ as you go!” And with that there’d either be a firm shove in my back – or as I later learned – to simply step out and get going.

I remember watching one of my friends – a civilian friend – take that leap of faith. It was his first time, and he was really nervous about the whole thing. Our family and his stood below to watch his first try, all of us holding our breath and guessing if he’d do this thing – but the thing was, once you started, there was no backing out. No climbing down the tower was allowed. You either went up and came down on the line (think ‘zip-lines’ nowadays, but in some ways it was quite different) – or you didn’t go up at all. Not one bit.

The thing was . . . Ben (that was his name) sorta wanted to try it – until he got up there all alone and found out what it was all about.

Funny how things look much taller when you’re on the top of them than when you’re looking from the ground. As my friend certainly discovered.

With a banshee like yell – one that drew the attention of the whole crowd – he leaped screaming into the air – legs kicking, arms flailing – then finding those cords – and hanging on for dear life. He rocketed down (you always rocket down; that’s what these things are made for – which is why you bend your knees at the end and hope to god you don’t run into the telephone pole at the end – which happened more than just one time. The thing is, these things were designed for grown men – and there were kids playing on them. As a result the ‘hill’ that you were supposed to be landing on (usually it was just a dirt mound) – was a little short of our little legs whereas a grown man would have had no trouble putting his feet down and ‘landing’ carefully – flexing in just the right position and rolling around like you are supposed to.

Instead us kids would go rocketing down – bypassing that hill by simply floating over it (legs flexed, ready to catch the ground that was coming, or flailing and unprepared) – and sail on by the G.I.s stationed there to catch us – and smack into the pole. Sometimes they caught us by the legs as we were coming down, throwing you into a twirl that left your head spinning, your guts caught in twisting straps, harness braiding itself in circles and some sweaty G.I.’s alternating between cursing between their teeth and holding their breath lest someone brain himself on that pole. It happened sometime. I remember once where some adult cold-cocked himself – just smacked into that pole like a lump of coal, snapping his head forward and smacking it with his face – mostly his forehead. He went down like a dead sack of meat, the harness all tangled around him. The G.I.’s rushed in to untangle him and revive him – I remember seeing him sitting there in one of those old folding steel chairs, sweating and looking sick and pale with a paper cup of water leaning in his limp hand. But it was no big deal to me. I just looked as I walked on by – in line. It was part of the fun; the military adventure. A bit of a taste of the real thing. And I’m sure it impressed some civilians. As for me? Unimpressed for the most part, it was just having fun. Like when the fair comes to town and you get to go. Only this fair was about army things and army ways – and how to use them.

We learned a lot in those days – I was five years old to ten years old, and we kept on going. I miss them some of the time – those military exercises, the tanks roaring around, everyone having a grand old time – seeing all the new weapons, handling the old; learning how to arm bombs, throw grenades, detonate mines (and how to make them!). We did a lot of those things . . . and later on perhaps some more. I really don’t know. Some of this stuff comes off the ‘recovered memory’ pile – some stuff that happened that I’m not sure about, including whether it happened at all. And I’m sure “Armed Forces Day” has tamed down a good bit (at least from what I heard). I guess the fear of lawyers got too loud. After all, some of those things were dangerous – but that was part of the fun. You were in the Army now – at least for one day – and seeing how it was done. It seemed only natural that there should be some risk in the thing – and we knew what we were doing. We were taking a chance and having faith that the G.I.s were going to protect us while showing us what they do. Which they did.

Time and time again.

Armed Forces Day: Saturday, May 19, 2012.

Mark your calendar.  Make some time.  Take your family.  Military or otherwise – if you live near a base you should visit to see, celebrate, and help support your troops.  Trust me – they guys (and gals) are happy to see you – and you help make their day.  I know.  I’ve been there, done that.  I used to love these ‘shows’ from both ends – when I was in the Marines and as a child.  So go see what your soldiers are doing; experience some of the thrills.  Take your kids.  I guarantee they’ll won’t forget it any time soon, and rest assured – these guys know what they’re doing, so you are safe.  Their job is to take care of you, and they’re good at their job.  You never know . . . you might just find you and your family taking an Apache ride – or coasting in a fancy new tank (I hear they’ve got shock absorbers on them now, LOL!) – or just learning more about the guys who have made your way of life possible – each and every day.

It’s your military – and a lot of young guys and gals – the ones who couldn’t ‘escape’ this duty – will be there.  Make their day happier, better and brighter by showing that you care.  By simply being there, taking an interest.  Ask them questions – not just about their jobs, but their lives.  You might be surprised to find not only are they just friendly – but they, too, are lonely some of the time.  And you being there?  Makes all the difference sometime.  Just knowing our citizens care.

Oo-Rah! Simper Fi and all that mess.  Now time to get some chow . . .