reading excerpt from his book "In Pharaoh's Army"
Author Tobias Wolff Recalls an Exercise Leading Up to His
Deployment in Vietnam
And then my year of grace ended. At the end of it, scared, short-winded,
forgetful of all martial skills and disciplines, I was promoted
to first lieutenant and posted back to Fort Bragg to await orders.
after I got there I was assigned to a training exercise being
played out in the mountains of Pisgah National Forest. I didn't
know any of the men whose temporary commander I became; I was
filling in for their regular team leader, who had other business
to attend to. Our job was to parachute in and link up with another
team and make a show of our expertise. ...
We gathered on the airstrip well before dawn. I tagged along
with the first sergeant while he made the equipment check, looking
on as if I knew what he was doing. It was still dark when we boarded
the plane. I sat with the others until we entered the forest,
then I hooked up my parachute and stood in the open doorway, trying
to follow our position on the map. There was light breaking on
the tops of the hills but the land below was still in darkness
and the map kept flapping in my hand. Our pilot was supposed to
flash a green warning light when he saw the smoke marking the
drop zone, but I knew better than to rely on him. We were moving
fast. If out of distraction or malice he was even a little slow
giving us the signal we could end up in impossible terrain, miles
from the drop zone and the men we were supposed to meet.
We were flying up a long valley. The slopes were awash in light,
the plain was turning gray. We passed a cluster of houses. I tried
to find the village on the map; it was unmarked, or I was looking
in the wrong place. In fact I had no idea where we were. As the
valley began to narrow, the plan descended and slowed. This was
the usual prelude to the jump, but the green light still hadn't
come on. I braced myself in the doorway and looked out. Smoke
was rising off the valley floor a mile or so ahead of us. Our
smoke was supposed to be yellow, and this was black, but it was
the only smoke out there. I turned to the first sergeant. His
eyes were closed. I looked back our the door and confirmed what
I'd seen. Smoke. But still no green light.
A decision was required. It was my duty to make it. I gave the
order to hook up, and as the first man came to the door I smacked
him on the rump like a quarterback breaking the huddle and shouted
"Go!" Then the next man, and the next, until everyone
was out but me, and then I jumped.
Sudden silence. Mountains all around. The eerie, lovely sight
of the other canopies, the men swinging below. My men. I'd gotten
them out in good order, and with no help from the pilot. ...
Then the men closest to the ground gave a shout and I looked
down and saw him hauling like crazy on his risers, trying to change
the path of his fall. The others started doing the same thing,
and a moment later, when I got a good look at what lay below us,
so did I.
We were not, as I had supposed, drifting down upon a field marked
with signal grenades, but over the expanse of a vast garbage dump
where random fires smoldered, sending greasy coils of smoke high
into the air. I caught my first whiff a couple of hundred feet
up and the smell got worse the closer I came. I pulled hard to
the left, making for a patch of ground not yet covered with junk.
I was lucky; being the last out, I was fairly close to the edge.
Almost everyone else landed in the soup. I watched them go down
as I drifted to port, and listened to them bellow and swear, and
heard the crunching sounds they made as they slammed into the
We were several miles from the drop zone. To get there took us
most of the day. No one spoke to me. It was as if I did not exist.
We maintained this arrangement until our part in the exercise
Two weeks later I was in Vietnam.