If the "CHUTE Doesn't Open

By F. Clifton Berry, Jr.



“If the ‘chute doesn’t open . . . turn it in for a new one.” Private First Class Chuck Barker felt the breeze and recalled First Sergeant James Johnson’s imparting that bit of wisdom when he sent Barker double‑timing off to start the 82nd Airborne Division jump school.

            Maybe the first sergeant meant it as a joke—he didn’t joke much—but it sure didn’t seem funny then. This was serious stuff. Barker had never jumped out of an airplane before then.

            Just a few seconds earlier, Barker’s T-10 parachute opened successfully on this, his fifth and qualifying jump for the Parachutist Badge. He looked straight up and smiled at the 35-foot diameter nylon canopy blossoming above his body. Its harness straps were tight, but he felt great. He and his fellow aspiring parachutists had just leaped out of an Air Force C-119 transport seconds before, at 1,200 feet altitude. Every parachute opened successfully.

            Now they descended at 21 feet‑per‑second toward the sandy soil of Drop Zone Sicily at Fort Bragg. No one was exulting yet. They still had to land successfully. Then they could yell, and give thanks to the Big Jumpmaster in the Sky.

            “Don’t look down. Watch the horizon.” The jump school instructors drummed that maxim into their heads from the first day. Barker jumped 20 seconds before this moment, and had about 30 seconds left before landing. His gaze sought the horizon. The mid-September noonday sun shone to the south. He felt the air get warmer as he approached the drop zone (DZ). The Carolina pines grew larger as he neared the ground.

            “Prepare to land.” Barker spoke another command to himself. His responses had become second nature: relax his legs, keep his feet together, and prepare to execute the parachute landing fall, or PLF. Again, nothing to joke about, but it surely seemed hilarious going through it and watching others land and roll about like clowns in a circus.

            THUMP! Barker executed his PLF and sprang to his feet as his parachute canopy settled on the ground. He yelled, “Airborne!” His fellow students yelled it back, some responding “All The Way!” as they rolled up their parachutes, stowed them in kit bags, and double-timed off the DZ to the assembly point.

            Barker and his classmates turned in their parachutes and lined up in formation. Major Traupane, the Chief Instructor, read the Division order that designated them as parachutists. Company commanders and first sergeants approached, carrying silver wings for the new graduates from their outfits. Captain Ted Serta of George Company pinned the wings on the chest of Barker’s jump jacket and congratulated him.      

            First Sergeant Johnson handed Captain Serta the wings for the next man, then congratulated Barker. “Well done, Barker. Your ‘chute worked, and you managed to turn it in, too.” He smiled and his handshake tightened.

            “Thanks First Sergeant,” Barker replied. What a moment!

            Johnson said, “Have a beer or two tonight. Tomorrow’s payday; after pay call, you can take off on your three-day pass.”

* * *

            Soldiers were paid in cash in the 1954 U.S. Army, usually at a table in the company dayroom. Each soldier stepped to the pay table in order of rank and surname. When his turn came, Chuck Barker executed the hand salute and proclaimed, “PFC Barker reporting for pay, Sir.”

            Captain Serta made eye contact and nodded. The pay officer, a George Company lieutenant, passed fresh bills to Serta, who placed them on the table.      “Seventy-eight dollars, Barker. “

            Barker collected the bills. “Thank you, Sir.” He stepped to the next table. First Sergeant Johnson sat behind the table. The four platoon sergeants sat in chairs behind him, having already collected their pay.

            A large glass mustard jar from the mess hall rested on the table. A wide slot bisected its cap and a bunch of dollar bills rested inside. Every payday the first sergeant set out his “collection jar” for a worthy cause. Troopers were expected to slide at least one dollar bill through the slot before leaving the dayroom.

            On a sheet of white paper taped to the big jar, large hand-printed letters read, “For the Widow of the Unknown Soldier.” Barker eyed the bills inside. There seemed to be more than usual. He pulled a dollar bill from his sheaf and slid it through the slot. Johnson nodded. “OK, Barker.”

            Outside the dayroom, freshly-paid troopers stood in groups on the company street, awaiting the command to fall into formation. They didn’t wait long. First Sergeant Johnson emerged from the dayroom and commanded, “Fall in.” Within seconds the troopers arranged themselves into the customary platoon ranks, standing at attention.

            “Company G present and accounted for, Sir,” Johnson reported to Captain Serta.            Serta returned the salute. “Thank you, First Sergeant. Stand at ease, men.” The troopers relaxed. “Your officers and I really appreciate your performance last month in all activities. We are proud to serve with you. I especially want to acknowledge the three new paratroopers who graduated from jump school yesterday: Barker, Heath, and Romero. Well done, men. Airborne!”

            “All The Way, Sir!” the troopers yelled in response.

            Captain Serta turned to First Sergeant Johnson. “First Sergeant, they are all yours.” They exchanged salutes and the officers departed.

            “Gather round, men,” the first sergeant commanded. They did so, clustering into a semicircle to await his usual payday exhortations and proclamations. He picked up the big mustard jar. Raising it high above, he said, “See this jar. You men put one hundred and fifty-eight dollar bills into it.” He shook the jar, causing the bills to flutter.

            “Now I want a show of hands. If you can identify the widow of the Unknown Soldier, raise your right hand.” No hands rose. He lowered the jar of bills and held it in one hand. He nodded his head.

            “I thought so. You’re idiots! It’s impossible to identify the widow of the Unknown Soldier. He’s in the Tomb at Arlington. No one knows who he is, let alone the name of his widow. She doesn’t know, either. You didn’t think before you stuffed your money into this jar.” He lifted it again.

            “Well, let this be a lesson for you. When someone asks you to give your money to something, you’d damn well better know where it’s going.” He held out the jar. “Since we can’t identify the Unknown Soldier’s widow, this money will buy magazine subscriptions for the dayroom. That new Playboy is one of them. You’ll get something for your money after all.”

            The lesson sank in and the troopers cheered.

            “OK, fall out . . . and remember, watch your money.”

* * *

            Barker returned from his three-day pass. After signing in, he checked the notices and duty rosters tacked on the company bulletin board. On the Kitchen Police roster for the next day he saw “PFC Barker, C.” among the seven names designated.

            At 0400 hours (4:00 a.m.) the Charge of Quarters (CQ) for George Company roused Barker. “Off you go to KP. Report to the Mess Sergeant by Oh-Four-Thirty.” The CQ moved quietly down the barracks bay, flashlight beam leading the way.

            Barker hustled to dress and make his bunk. He arrived at the mess hall ten minutes early. Mess Sergeant Stout greeted him. “Well, Barker, congratulations on your wings.” He shook Chuck’s hand. “You’re the first KP to show up. You get the Dining Room Orderly slot. The last guy to report becomes the Outside Man. He deals with the trash cans and the grease trap.”

            Breakfast chow went smoothly. The hungry paratroopers, fresh from the morning run, ate all the food on their mess trays and went off to the day’s activities. The cooks and KPs ate, then began the cleanup.

            The Dining Room Orderly’s job involved most of the tasks of a civilian busboy. The DRO swept and mopped the floor, wiped down the tables, and generally made everything clean and ready for the next meal. In the summer and early fall he took down the flypaper strips laden with flies and hung new strips. 

            A few people remained in the room at the end of the mess hall farthest from the kitchen. It was reserved for the company officers and noncoms (NCOs) from Sergeant and up. They went through the chow line after the troops and carried their laden mess trays to that room for consumption and conversation. Some of them still chewed breakfast.

            Barker made a final eye‑sweep of the main dining hall, then heard laughter from the Officer/NCO room. He approached the wide doorway and looked inside.

            First Sergeant Johnson spotted Barker first. “What’s up, Barker?”

            “Nothing, Top. I just thought you might want something.”

            “We’re OK.” He looked around the room. He pointed upward. “Hold on. These flypapers are damn near full. Better replace them now. Don’t you agree, Sergeant Stout?”

            Timothy Stout, the mess sergeant, said, “You betcha. Barker, there’s plenty of fresh ones in the office.” He pointed to the open door of his mess office.

            “Wilco. I’m on it.” Barker grabbed the dishtowel from his front pocket and approached the closest flypaper strip. He stretched upward and freed it from the hook on a crossbeam. He dumped it into the wastebasket in the corner. As he approached the second flypaper, First Sergeant Johnson stood up.

            “How long have we had the flypaper in the mess hall, Sergeant Stout?”

            “All summer. And the ones in the dining room have more dead flies than these.”
            “I’ve got an idea,” Johnson said. “Has anyone ever counted the flies?”

            “No. Who’d want to count flies?”

            “Us. Can you get another KP to help Barker?”

            “Sure. The pots and pans guy, Ellison. I’ll get him.”

            “Right. Get him. Barker, here’s the mission. You and Ellison take down all the flypapers in the mess hall. Before you chuck them into the outside trash, count the dead flies on every one of them. Get the total. Got it?”

            “Got it.”

            “You’re a good typist. When you get the total, use the typewriter in Sergeant Stout’s office. One sheet and a carbon. Put the George Company heading on it. Address it to the Battalion Sergeant Major. You know his name.”

            “Yes. Master Sergeant William Young. Four combat jumps.”

            “Right, one more than I have. For the subject, enter ‘Biweekly Flypaper Report.’ Type this: ‘During the period from 21 September through 4 October, the flypapers in the Company G mess hall trapped—put in the number—flies.’ OK so far?”

            “Yep,” Barker replied.

            “Type my signature block. When you’re done, bring it here.” He looked to the dining room. “Here comes Ellison. Get with it.”

            “Airborne,” Barker replied. He and Ellison started on the mission.

            Sergeant Stout brought a pot of coffee for the other noncoms. They heard the typewriter clacking for a while. Then it stopped.

            PFC Barker entered the room, papers in hand. He presented them to First Sergeant Johnson, who read the original.

            “Hmm, 12 strips containing a total of 687 flies. That’s a lot of preventive sanitation. Good work.” Johnson signed both copies, keeping the carbon and handing the original to Barker. “Off you go. Report back here. Airborne!”

            “All the way, First Sergeant.” Barker departed.

            The NCOs gossiped for a few minutes before the telephone in Sergeant Stout’s tiny office rang. Stout answered the phone. “George Company mess hall, Sergeant Stout speaking. Yes, he’s right here.” He covered the instrument with his hand. “Top, it’s First Sergeant Hall of Easy Company for you.”

            First Sergeant Johnson took the phone. “Hello, Willie. What’s up?”

            Hall’s voice crackled over the phone line. “Jim, Bill Young just called me. He wants our flypaper report. What the hell is this flypaper report?”

            “Oh, it’s simple. When you put up new flypapers in the mess hall, you count the dead flies on the old ones.”

            “Who ordered that ridiculous report? Battalion? Regiment? We never heard of it.”

            “Beats me, Willie.”

            “Well, hell. Reckon we’d better count our flies, too. Out.”

            Johnson set the phone in its cradle. It rang immediately. He picked it up and handed it to Stout.

            “George Company mess hall, Sergeant Stout.” He listened. “Yes, he’s here.” He returned the phone to Johnson. “It’s First Sergeant Zelinski of How Company.”

            Johnson went through a dialogue with Zelinski similar to that with Hall. He hung up again. And again the phone rang. Stout followed the same ritual of answering, listening, and then reporting. “First Sergeant Craddock of Fox Company.”

            While Johnson spoke with Craddock, Barker returned to the mess hall. Johnson hung up the phone again. “Barker, what did the Sergeant Major say when you gave him the report?”

            “Oh, he told me to thank you, Top. He said he’d call the other first sergeants in the battalion and tell them to submit their flypaper reports. He asked if you were in the orderly room, and I told him you’re down here. He said he’ll join you ASAP.”

           Barker spoke the truth. Sergeant Major Young was just entering the mess hall through the kitchen. He drew a cup of coffee from the urn before heading to the NCO/officer room.

            “Hello, guys,” Sergeant Major Young said. He surveyed the room. “Fresh flypaper, I see.”

            “Right, Sergeant Major,” Johnson replied. “I reckon you’ve read our report.”

            “Yes. I didn’t have a clue. I called the other first sergeants. They didn’t know. So I asked the Battalion Commander. Colonel Bentley drew a blank. We talked about it.  He’s calling Captain Serta while we enjoy our coffee.”

            “Uh-oh,” Johnson said, taking a gulp. “What’s up?”

           “Well, here’s what’s up. We all admire your initiative . . . and your commitment to proper sanitation.” He gestured at the fresh flypaper strips. “Colonel Bentley and I both think it’s commendable. Captain Serta will, too. The Old Man is telling your boss that he’s selected you to make the presentation at the monthly Officer/NCO Call next week.”


            “Yes, you. Your topic? You’ll tell all of us how an airborne outfit wages war on the common housefly, and its positive health factors. You can do it, can’t you, James?”

            “Well, it’s a helluva lot better than a reprimand. Sure, I’ll do it. Stout and Barker here will help with the training aids and handouts.”

            “Excellent. Tell me when you’re rehearsing, and I’ll come by.” He stood up to leave. “Oh, the other first sergeants and I want you to join us at the NCO Club after supper today. The drinks are on us. Airborne.” He departed.

            “All the Way,” Johnson replied. After the sergeant major left, he turned to the group in the room. “OK, guys. We lucked out, but let this be a lesson. When you try a prank, make sure you don’t walk the plank.”

* * *

            2nd Lieutenant Neville Sharp joined George Company in early October. He graduated from West Point in June, and went to Fort Benning to take the Infantry Officers’ basic course, followed by jump school. Now he was in his first real assignment. He became platoon leader of the Second Platoon of George Company, Barker’s outfit.

            During his first month as platoon leader, Lieutenant Sharp’s propensity for detail and incessant questions became evident. The paratroopers soon called him by the nickname of “Notso.” Not to his face, of course, or to anyone outside the platoon. But among themselves he was “Notso” Sharp.

            In mid-November, all in George Company prepared for the upcoming Inspector General’s inspection. The inspection supplemented the usual training activities, including a tactical jump on Drop Zone Holland and maneuvers in Fort Bragg’s piney woods.

            The Division’s Inspector General Office conducted an annual detailed inspection of every unit in the 82nd. The IG inspection covered all aspects of a unit’s existence, including documents such as the daily Morning Report and Duty Roster. The IG team checked every weapon and vehicle. The inspection also focused on the troopers’ well‑being, especially conditions in the wooden barracks built a dozen years before.

            This day was George Company’s turn for the IG. In early morning, the various parts of the company were deep in preparation. Lieutenant Sharp and Sergeant First Class Brandon Allen, the platoon sergeant, planned to make the “pre‑pre‑inspection” of their barracks at 0800. That gave time to correct any discrepancies before Captain Serta’s “pre‑inspection” at 0830. The IG inspection team would arrive at 0930.          

           Charles Barker was newly promoted to corporal, and leader of a fire team, one‑half of a rifle squad. He and his three team members were giving the place a final polish, chatting as they worked.

            As PFC Harwood polished the mirrors, he said, “I’ll bet Notso asks us a bunch of questions. I don’t think he’s ever been in this latrine before.”

            Barker replied, “What do you mean?”

            “I was cutting the weeds down by the motor pool yesterday when he came by. I put down the swing blade and saluted. He said I was doing a good job. Then he asked me the range of the 60-mm mortar.”

            “What did you say?”

            “I told him 2000 yards.”

            “What did he say?”

            “He said I was right. Then he asked how many eyelets are in a pair of Corcoran jump boots.”

            Barker smiled. “48, of course. Did you tell him?”

            “No. I didn’t know it then. He told me. It cost me 10 pushups.”

            “No sweat. Maybe we can teach Notso not to ask so many questions.”

            “Sounds good to me. How do we do it?”

            “Dash down to the mess hall; get a big glob of peanut butter, and bring it here.”

            Harwood returned with a paper cup of peanut butter. “What in the world will we do with this?”

            Barker took the cup. “Watch.”

            He dipped three fingers into the cup and coated them with peanut butter. He bent over the second commode. He dipped into the water, touched the white porcelain, and smeared streaks downward to the discharge hole.  

            “There, that’s done.”

            Harwood and the other two troopers clustered at the commode. They gaped at the smear, totally out of place in the pristine latrine.

            “We gonna leave that there?” Harwood asked.

            “Yep. Now let’s finish. Check for dust on top of the mirror frames. Brown, you line up the toilet paper on the rolls. Rios, give the commode handles a final swipe. They’ll be here any minute.”

            Sergeant Allen appeared in the latrine doorway. “All ready, Barker? Lieutenant Sharp is coming into the barracks.”

            “Ready, Sergeant Allen.” He and his team stood at attention between the commodes and the sinks.

            “They’re ready, Sir,” Allen greeted Lieutenant Sharp. “Report, Barker.”

            Barker executed a precise hand salute, proclaiming, “Second Platoon latrine ready for inspection, Sir.”

            “Thanks, Barker. At ease. Now you all watch as I inspect. We want everything right for Captain Serta . . . and the IG team, of course.” He entered the shower room, turned one shower on and off, and came out.

            Next, he scrutinized the sinks and mirrors. His forefinger stroked the mirror frame and came up clean.

            The commodes were last to receive Lieutenant Sharp’s scrutiny. He flushed the first one and checked the alignment of the rolls of tissue between commodes. He looked into the second commode. Then looked more closely.

            “Barker, come over here.” Barker approached.

            Lieutenant Sharp pointed downward. The brown streaks contrasted with the white porcelain and clear water. “What’s that smear? What’s in there?”

            “I’ll check, Sir,” Barker replied. He stepped to the commode, leaned down and swept his fingers across the brown smear. He stood to attention, stuck his fingers into his mouth, and licked.

            “Tastes like shit, Sir.”

            Sergeant Allen erupted toward Barker. Lieutenant Sharp stopped him.

            “Just a sec,” he said. “I’ll check.” He repeated Barker’s movements, and then stuck his own coated fingers into his mouth.

            “Barker, you are right. It is shit,” Lieutenant Sharp said.

            Barker and his team gaped, stunned to silence. Lieutenant Sharp pulled some toilet paper from the nearest roll, leaned down, and swabbed the commode clean. He flushed the toilet, wiped the commode handle, and aligned the toilet paper roll with the others. Then he wiped his fingers on a handkerchief.

            “Well, Barker, you certainly checked to see if I was alert. Well done!” He shook Barker’s hand. “Oops, better wipe that peanut butter off your fingers before the Old Man arrives. Airborne!”

            “All the Way, Sir,” Barker and his teammates responded as Sharp and Sergeant Allen departed, chuckling as they headed for the door.

            PFC Rios spoke first. “He caught on, didn’t he?”

            Barker replied, “He sure did. Guess we can’t call him ‘Notso’ anymore.”

            “How about ‘Razor’?”

            “That’s it! Lieutenant Razor Sharp. Lesson learned. Don’t make a snap judgment about a person. Test him first.”

            George Company passed the IG inspection with high marks.




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