by John Stiles

What is it about mothers that compels them to humiliate their young? I'm sure there are few of us without a mom in possession of that odd picture or two in the family album they just have to pull out when someone, almost always one of our close friends and most usually a member of the opposite sex we're trying desperately to impress, stops by the house. Don't get me wrong. My mother is a wonderful woman. But she has this penchant for putting some of my life's most embarrassing moments right out in the middle of the street.

And if she hasn't got a story to fit the occasion, she can always make one up. I'm quite certain that she probably has a bare-bottomed, infant photo or two of me stashed away I haven't seen yet , but even that would pale beside a story she just can't resist retelling to any and all who'll listen.

According to her, I called home in stark terror from the United States Army's Jump School at Ft. Benning, Ga., the night before my first parachute jump. She insists that Mrs. Stiles' oldest boy was on the verge of tears contemplating his first exit from an aircraft at 1,250 feet, which was to occur bright and early the next morning. Now, this is an incident only she seems to have recollection of. But that fact hasn't prevented her from recounting my alleged shame, every chance she gets.

To make matters even worse, as if that were possible, the first time I heard this sad scene set was when she decided to blurt it out to my then teenaged daughters at a family gathering. So, as if my mother's recounting of my supposed lack of courage wasn't bad enough, it had to come in front of my own kids, who in turn have the moment permanently etched in their memories as well.

Nothing, like making sure the humiliation survives another generation or two.

Anyway, I was back at Ft. Benning recently for a gathering of Vietnam vets. I and a few hundred other middle-aged men six sizes too big for their old uniforms and probably twice that in their recollections of the legends, were the guests of the U.S. Army and Columbus, Ga.

Why is it that when you see someplace you haven't been in 30-plus years it's never a fraction as big as you remember it? As a 17-year-old, snot-nosed kid the expanse of red Georgia clay that comprised parachute school seemed to go on for miles. But in reality, it was little more than a couple of square acres of wooden platforms, plane mock-ups, suspension harnesses and those damn towers. And the size wasn't all that's changed about Jump School. The atmosphere, which I distinctly recall being hell at double-time, never ending push-ups and that gender-altering experience known as ''suspended agony'' (harness-like devices used to practice chute guidance), has come down quite a few notches.

Now, instead of being chewed on by ''Black Hats'' (Jump School instructors) it's all ''Satisfactory'' this and ''Unsatisfactory'' that. We were told that today's Army has had to use a little more friendly persuasion and reason than we were used to. That's funny, I would have said that today's Army, most especially its Jump School, and the one that I attended were not only on different levels but different planets.

Why, they were downright polite by comparison. In my day, as I remember it, our three weeks at Benning were quite a bit different. As they used to explain it; the first week they separated the men from the boys. The second week they separated the men from the fools and the last week the fools jumped.

Firstly, I remember ''Black Hats'' spitting something I will, for the sake of the uninitiated in the reading audience, refer to as rather blunt motivational instruction about a centimeter from my nose 40 to 50 times every single day. Perhaps that's why the place looked so different to me upon my recent return. I can't remember a time when I didn't have an instructor directly in my face while the sun was up. It was the first clear view I ever had of the surroundings.

Oh yeah, and I also recall that every ''Black Hat'' in the place was related to every other one at the level of first cousin. Now, the reason I know this is because every time I fouled up, and I fouled up every 30 seconds, a different instructor was in my field of vision, a close-shaved whisker away telling me how his ''grandmother'' could do a better -- fill in the blank -- than me and ''she's 86 years old with two broken legs.''

Of course the odds of all of these tyrants having a separate 86-year-old, crippled grandmother are practically non-existent, right? At any rate, I took a good look around this time at Benning and I have to tell you it just didn't look scary enough to send a 17-year-old boy crying for his mother, even if it was the first time he'd been more than 10 feet off the ground in his life.

Then, they gave us the Jump School demonstration, which must have been some sort of mistake, as all the guys in the group at least had already served their time in this hell-hole cut out of the Georgia pines. Everything was fine until the guy directed our attention to the 250-foot tower, which is a lot like those rides at major amusement parks, only higher and without any cables running to the ground for added safety. The device is used to give a trainee the exact feel of a parachute jump without wasting the flight fuel.

So I look up, and up, and up, and up at this thing, which is just as big, if not bigger than I remember it. At that point, I leaned over to my wife and said; ''I wonder if I can find that old phone booth around here somewhere?'' Funny how your memory works, ain't it?

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 12, 2000

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