GO! GO! GO!
I’m about the 10th jumper, and we had been trained to push the guy ahead of us, so everybody is pushing and shuffling to the door and yelling. Then we all go flying out and I started counting. One thousand, two thousand, three thousand. On the fourth beat I got the tug of my parachute inflating. So I looked up and there it was, fully inflated. I was floating and yelled out “Geronimo!” as my squad floated down around me.
It was 1974; I was 19 and straight out of East L.A. from the biggest varrio at the time: the Varrio Nuevo Estrada Dukes.
I had been arrested at the end of 1973 for assault and battery. I got caught beating up a kid in Montebello Park. I was loaded on reds and alcohol when the cops came around the corner and saw me fighting with the kid. I was hitting him with a branch of a tree, so I was facing a felony that I wasn’t going to beat.
On top of that, I was already on probation for under the influence, possession, and suspicion of sales of barbiturates (a.k.a. reds), so my probation officer recommended me for military service. It was looking like Uncle Sam’s army or Folsom Prison.
I went to the recruiter’s office. He told me about the 82nd Airborne and right there, suddenly, I wanted so badly to wear that famous maroon beret.
I thought I would look sharp with spit shine boots and the blue infantry rope and the French forager. It was the Vietnam era, and I was that rare thing – a volunteer. I knew when I signed up that it was like signing a death warrant. But I wanted to belong to the best airborne division, America’s guard of honor. The other division, the All-Americans, the 101st Airborne, had been wiped out in Vietnam and they were becoming an airmobile unit.
Deep down, I wondered if I had it in me to jump. I needed to know if I could go through it. I had once vowed I would die for the varrio, but unlike if I were to die for the varrio, I imagined that my family would be proud of me dying for the country. My cholo mentality was gone. I was going to serve for God, country, and honor, and I felt like a lean mean killing machine.
It took three weeks to prepare me to jump. As soon as I got off the bus the black caps were all over us, yelling at us, calling us dirty legs. I was in for three weeks of hell. I didn’t walk during the training. I ran. We ran everywhere. During the second week we ran four miles every day, and on the final week – jump week – we ran five miles to the airfield, then we climbed into the iron bird.
Inside the C-130 airplane, I was still cool, calm, and collected. But when the bird took off and we were high in the air, the green light went on and I started praying. Something like, “Heavenly father, hear my call for through the sky I will soon fall.”
The commands started.
I stood, hooked up and I shuffled to the door. I was praying hard by then. “For Your will, nothing less, nothing more.”
Then out I went. I heard the wind all around me. It was quiet. I saw the trucks and trees below, and they looked small. I was nervous but those crucial four seconds were the most important in my life up to then.
It felt great coming down. I was in God’s front yard. I steered my chute to the right, left, to the front, and back. Some guys were yelling but I couldn’t tell what they were saying. I felt as if I was riding a giant swing – a natural high. I felt closer to God’s house.
Then the ground started getting bigger. It was the greatest five minutes of my life, and maybe the scariest. I readied myself as the ground approached. Then I hit it, and I flipped to the side, my chute dragged me for a bit, and I got up and collapsed it.
I had done it! And I liked it. I knew that I only had four more jumps to go to earn my wings. I ran for the rest of that day’s training.
The next three day’s were similar. On Friday, we ran five miles to our last jump, and graduated later that afternoon. I had my wings and was on our way to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne and the Green Berets.
How I wished that my mom could have made my graduation. I received my wings on my uniform over my chest, where they seeped into my heart. It was the proudest day in my life up to that time.
I came home looking sharp in my uniform, feeling I had conquered fear. I was afraid of nothing. I wanted to go to the front lines and fight for country, honor, and duty.
I was once a proud member of one of the largest gangs in Los Angeles. Now I was a paratrooper from East L.A.