Commander: ‘Lieutenant Taylor, Stay In Your Lane’

The phrase “stay in your lane” is military speak for “mind your own business.” It’s usually said when an enlisted man gets into officer business or vice-versa, or when one specialist tries to do another specialist’s job. In one particular case, it meant one battalion commander proving himself an ass.

On the ramp up for our mission in Iraq, my National Guard unit trained at Fort Hood. We were an armor division being reflagged as an infantry division.

I had been a company commander until the chain of command decided to break up my company and disperse it through the rest of the battalion. That’s when I was made the S-1 officer, a first lieutenant filling a captain’s position. The position is commonly referred to as adjutant and is responsible for handling personnel issues. The civilian equivalent would be human resources administrator.

I hated that position. The typical adjutant is the hardest working officer in the battalion. I felt like a fish out of water.

Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Hall, my battalion commander, had already told me he didn’t have time to teach me how to do my job, so it was well established I didn’t have the support of my chain of command. Besides that, the senior non-commissioned officer in my section, a staff sergeant filling a sergeant first class role, and I had our issues. To top it off, we were expected, as is usual for any of the military services, to perform mission miracles without the proper levels of equipment. Not even a roll of duct tape could fix our problems.

As a part of our training exercise, staff officers were tasked with preparing operation orders. Battalion operation orders, however, were based on brigade orders. We couldn’t do our jobs until the order was issued.

Nevertheless, LTC Hall wanted a preliminary order, an order that is issued before the actual order to give subordinate commanders (company level, in our case) a heads up about an upcoming mission. Of course, he had given us a deadline. I don’t remember the details of the particular mission – there were so many.

In trying to gather information regarding the operation we were pretending to prepare for, I paid a visit to the brigade adjutant’s office and started asking for information about the supposed order. They weren’t forthcoming with any information. In fact, I was told point blank that they wouldn’t release any details until the order was published. I did what any staff officer would have done in that situation. I paid a visit to the brigade operations office.

The operations office in an Army unit is the publisher of all operations orders. Each section sends their portion of the order to the operations office and they compile it then publish it. It works that way at every level of the Army.

One of the brigade operations officers was a captain who had been company commander previous to me in our regular garrison set up. His name was Paul Cerniauskas. He was a very approachable officer closer to my age and rank who had been helpful to me on a number of occasions. Based on our previous relationship, I sought to get some information. All he could tell me was the expected date the order was to be published. At least it was more than the brigade adjutant officers could tell me.

LTC Hall liked staff meetings. He had one every day, whether it was necessary or not. Under any other commander they would have lasted an hour. LTC Hall liked them long. The longer the better. It was not unusual to have a routine staff meeting run two or three hours.

When you are already expected to perform the impossible with limited resources and you spend half your day in a staff meeting instead of preparing the work you’ve already been assigned, it makes the stress levels rise a little higher. LTC Hall and I were not fans of each other as it was.

In one of our staff meetings, he went around the room and had each staff officer brief him and the company commanders on the progress of the preliminary order we were working on. It was all “busy work” and no one had any information. When it was my turn, I looked at LTC Hall and said, “Captain Cerniauskas in the S-3 office said the order would not be published until …” and stated the date Captain C had relayed to me.

LTC Hall’s response slapped me in the face like a cold, crisp hand.

“Lieutenant Taylor, stay in your lane.”

It was a typical response from LTC Hall. He liked everything done in a certain way, which was more often than not unstated. If you didn’t meet his unspoken expectations, he would cut you down publicly. He was known to belittle his officers and humiliate them on the spot. He had done it to me on several occasions. Building loyalty was not on his agenda.

I threw my notebook against the wall and rose to my feet.

“Do you have a problem with me, sir? Just say it.”

That’s what I would have done if I’d had the balls. Instead, I glared into his eyes, trying to figure out whether he was serious or just jacking me around. He squinted, the way a tiger would do just before pouncing on its prey. I wanted to jump the table and eat the tiger, a too-thoughtful musk deer who just wanted to get the job done and go home.

An officer against the war on principle, I felt stuck. I didn’t want to do a poor job and jeopardize the mission. That could cost lives. But I didn’t want to play games either. LTC Hall was concerned about one thing – playing king. He had his throne. I had my stool.

Eventually, LTC Hall would replace me as battalion adjutant. It was just as well. I hated the job.

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The First Time I Sold My Writing

They say you’ll always remember your first kiss. I’ve never heard anyone say you remember the first time you sell a piece of writing, but I do. I was in sixth grade.

The teacher split us into groups of four and gave us an assignment. We were to perform puppet shows. Each person in the group was assigned a different task – making puppets, writing the script, building the display, etc. My job in our group was to write a script.

We talked about what kind of play we wanted to present and I went to work. I was so excited I wrote the script the first night after receiving the assignment. I shared it with the group the next day.

By the end of the day, word had got around the class about my script. It included a stupid little jingle that went something like this:

Comet, it makes your mouth turn green
Comet, it makes you ugly and mean
Comet makes you vomit so buy some Comet today

Of course, the Comet referenced in this poem is the household cleaning product. What would you expect from an 11-year-old boy?

As events turned out, my group had another meeting and by majority rule decided to go in a different direction. So my script was out. That didn’t mean it wasn’t any good. We just weren’t going to use it.

A couple of days later another boy in the class approached me about buying my script. It seems that his group couldn’t think of anything to write about. He offered me $10 for my puppet show script. I took it.

The scripts were about two or three minutes each, so I figure I made a pretty good payload with $10, but I learned a good lesson.

After seeing my play performed, I realized that a script is just a script. Its true value lies in the interpretation. While I was glad that I was able to earn a few bucks (and no doubt purchased a nice collection of Hot Wheels with that money), I was not impressed with the rendition of my work that was presented to the class. That’s when I learned that after you write it and sell it you have to let it go. It’s not yours any more. It belongs to the world.

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His Scar Is My Scar

Dylan and his scarI’ve spent much of my life avoiding children. I didn’t think I’d be good at the “Dad let’s go fishing” game. But at the age of 37 I married a woman with three girls and one of them, while still a teen, was already a mom. I met Dylan when he was only three months old.

As life’s story arc goes, mine took its turns and landed me on a 52-acre farm in Adams County, Pennsylvania. My wife and I have lived here on this farm for eight years. The grandchildren, three of them now, have lived with us off and on.

Dylan was five or six when they lived with us last. My landlord often asks me to feed his cows for him if he is away on a trip and I happily oblige. There’s something about boys at the age of five or six. They like helping with the manly chores – chopping wood, feeding livestock, taking the garbage to the road. You name it. If it’s hairy leg activity, the want to do it.

I’ve never said “no” to either Dylan or Nathen when they ask if they can help. Nathen got to help me cut firewood for the first time just this year.

So it was cow feeding time and five-year-old Dylan was going to help me. I climbed into the hay loft and helped Dylan climb up. Then I cut the strands on the hay bales and threw them out the barn loft door for the cows to begin their meal time. When I was done, Dylan and I climbed back down out of the hayloft.

I was afraid if I let Dylan go first that he might fall and I wouldn’t be on the bottom level of the barn to catch him, so I stopped him when he tried to climb down the ladder.

“Here, let me go first, little guy,” I tapped him on the shoulder.

He quickly moved aside and I stuck one foot on the top rung of the ladder and both hands on the loft floor to my left and right. I knew I was doing it wrong with my back to the ladder, but it was easier for a man my size to do it that way. After leveling myself, I stepped off the ladder and dropped to the floor then turned around to help Dylan. Before I got turned around good, he had already begun to mimic me.

“Hold on, little buddy ….”

I was going to tell him to turn around and walk down the ladder backward, but he already had one foot on the top rung and his hands stretched out like he had seen me do. Except that his five-year-old arms weren’t long enough to stretch out far enough to reach both sides of the loft floor. He fell face forward.

There was a five gallon feed bucket a couple of feet in front of the loft ladder. It was empty. I’m not sure why it was there, but that’s where it was. Dylan’s nose made impact on the top of that bucket and he came up screaming.

He’d have been alright if it wasn’t for the bucket. Right away, I could see the blood. Dylan saw it too.

One thing about Dylan, he can endure a lot of pain, but he hates blood. He saw the blood streaming from his face and he screamed so loud my wife heard it in the house fifty yards away. He took off running.

“Wait! Wait a minute,” I yelled after him as he rounded the door of the barn toward the house. He stopped.

I grabbed his arms and steadied him so I could have a look. His nose was bleeding good, and fast. I took off my shirt and held it up to his nose to stop the bleeding. About that time, my wife came running out to the barn to see what had happened.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said and put her arm around Dylan’s shoulder. “Come with me and I’ll take care of it, sweetie.”

She did too. By the time I finished feeding the cows, Dylan had stopped screaming and stopped bleeding. I found him on the sofa in our living room with a napkin to his nose and his hand in a bag of chips. Today, he bears a scar on his nose from that fall. Every time I see it, I remind myself that life is full of surprises. What I should have foreseen has become for me a personal scar on my psyche, one that will remain until I can feed no more cows.

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You Can’t Punch Your Dad

Come on tough guy. Throw your punch.

I was 17 years old when I almost came to blows with my dad one day. At 39, he was a fairly stalwart man. Short, maybe an inch or two taller than me. I weighed all of 120 soaking wet, a pencil-necked geek if there ever was one. My dad’s lifelong employment in the blue collar sector, mostly as a truck driver but at times a manual laborer who used his muscles daily, gave him a distinct physical advantage. Taking his gut into consideration, he was nearly a hundred pounds heavier than me.

Years have past and I can’t recall what our argument was about. It was undoubtedly over something stupid. Probably something either he said or I said that the other didn’t like. That was usually the case.

The last thing in the world I ever wanted was a fight. I wasn’t the fighting type. My dad was. I think he’d have been perfectly happy as a lightweight pugilist. I’d have been more like a road manager, the guy who runs the business end of things. Suit and tie. Smart mouth. Hide behind the body guy. The whole works.

“You wanna take me on?”

The question came as a surprise. I wasn’t thinking any such thing. But I couldn’t – wouldn’t – let my pride get the rough end of the deal. Besides, I was tired of his shit.

We two hotheads stormed outside. Mom, at the sink washing dishes, tried ignoring it all, shaking her head, wishing one of us would come to our senses. I was the first one out of the door.

Jumping off the back porch into the yard of our rural 8-acre homestead, I was ready to go. I turned and squared off with my adversary, a hot-tempered redneck I referred to as “dad” — never “father” because that was forbidden in our religious tradition — and looked him in the eyes. They had a bulging fish-lens look, a little glazed and a whole lot flared up, much like a bull’s nostrils. If I wasn’t so angry myself I might have laughed.

There we stood, the overbearing father and the apple not far from the tree, dukes up, waiting for the other to throw his punch. I calculated my move carefully.

I knew. The moment I threw a punch, he’d counter it. Probably more quickly and with more determination. One punch to the face and I’d likely have been out cold, lying in the grass until the Texas sun baked me awake.

I’d already signed the papers to enter the military after high school. They called it the Delayed Entry Program. I thought, if I hit my dad and get in trouble with the law now, that will have serious consequences in the military. They might decide they don’t want me.

I was rationalizing.

“Come on, tough guy,” Dad moved forward, making his move. “Throw a punch!”

I wanted to. God, did I want to.

I’d never wanted to punch someone so bad in my life. But the thought suddenly occurred to me, you can’t punch your dad.

My arms dropped to my side. No matter how pissed off I was at my father for whatever he said, or whatever I said that he took issue with, I couldn’t punch him. I was a failure. A weak-willed wannabe. A fighter without a cause and a cause without a fight. Neither of us have ever spoken of that day since.

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Marriage Is Its Own Reward

I was a confirmed bachelor at 37. Until I hit my thirties, I had no interest in it. My parents’ marriage was no cake walk. It being the only real vision of marriage I had seen from the inside before leaving home at 18, it soured my view of the institution for a lifetime. I still get the jitters thinking about it.

Truth be known, I was tired of being alone by my thirtieth birthday. That’s when I began to search for a wife. I thought I had found her in a girl named Sue Glass (a fictional name).

Sue was a sweet girl, but damaged. I was no less so. Our relationship proved to be too volatile.

As our wedding day approached, Sue’s anxieties became more and more a factor. Her fears, her obsessions, and everything I loathed about being tethered to another human being rose to the top. I couldn’t handle any more.

I represented to Sue all the destruction of male aggression despite being a rather laid back kind of guy. Sue represented to me all the confusion of mental illness and lack of focus. One week before our wedding date, she grew so upset over the fact that someone might actually want to spend some time with her that she picked a fight and we spent half the night going over the same details over and over. I grew tired. I couldn’t think. I was sleepy, irritable, and annoyed. She was just hung up.

When she took the ring off her finger and held it out, saying, “Here, take it,” I did the only the thing I knew to do.

“If I take it,” I said, “You won’t get it back.”

She insisted. “Take it!” She pushed the ring into my face. I took it.

When she left, I turned out the lights and went to bed. The next morning, she called and apologized, wanting to get back together. I told her she needed to seek help. I told her she wasn’t ready to be married. Secretly, I was saying that about myself.

A few years passed and I decided it was time to date again. I went to a dating website and put in my order.

There is no perfect marriage, and there are no perfect people within marriage. I have learned that. But I have also learned that relationships are their own rewards. There are many obstacles to a healthy marriage and not all of them come from within. Some of the challenges are external. But the victory must come from a desire within both partners to see it through to the end.

My wife and I have been married for 10 years now. I’m anxious to see what the next 10 years have in store.

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How The Law Cuts, Both Shallow And Deep

I‘ve always been acutely aware at how the law can cut two ways. It can work in your favor or it can work against you. Sometimes on the same principle.

The law itself is blind, impartial. It cares not for your guilt or your innocence. It simply is. You deal with it in the grain of your temperament and the concrete overlay of your actions. We all do.

This hit home for me when I was on active duty in the Army. Stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington in the late 1980s, I had a mostly positive experience. I had aced Airborne School and was attached to the First Special Forces Group. In the two-and-a-half years I was stationed there, I participated in two field training exercises in South Korea and endured a month of cold weather training in Alaska (in the month of January). When I left the service in the summer of 1987, I had attained the rank of E-5, buck sergeant.

I remember entering the military and being able to drink any beverage I wanted. At eighteen years old, I was of legal drinking age in any state in the union simply by being a member of the U.S. military. No matter what the drinking age locally, I was legal.

In 1987, the year the military issued its directive to all base commanders to change their on-base drinking ages to match the state law where the base is located, I was 20 years old, just a few months from my 21st birthday. The legal drinking age in Washington state at the time was 21. It had been for a long time.

A friend of mine and I had been at a party off base. We weren’t drunk. I don’t remember why, but my friend was driving my car. I nursed a beer between my legs as I rode quietly in the passenger’s seat.

As we approached the base entrance, I slipped the can of beer between my seat and the car door to shield it from the gate guard’s view. That was a stupid move. The guard noticed. It was night time, but the gate was well lit. I honestly thought I had made the maneuver well before the guard could see what I was up to. It had to be a couple hundred feet to the gate entrance, but he was well-trained.

When we got to the gate, he told my friend to pull off to the side. A military police officer (an E-3, I believe) patted me down and then took me to jail. He let my friend go.

It wasn’t more than a couple of hours before my friend and a senior NCO arrived to pick me up. I wasn’t worried about Staff Sergeant (SSG) Belichick. It was Battalion Command Sergeant Major (CSM) McGuire who had me worried.

The next day, CSM McGuire called me into his office. As an E-5, I thought for sure I was going to lose my stripe and fall back to being a puny specialist again. As it turned out, that was not the sergeant major’s plan. Instead, he relegated me to a week of extra duty, which consisted of me mowing the battalion yard and picking up around the battalion headquarters. Though I didn’t like the duty, I was relieved.

Nevertheless, I did the one thing I could do, the one and only action I had recourse to do. I appealed.

I researched the format for letters of appeal and wrote one up, then I showed it to an SSG Belichick, who made a few suggestions. Then I submitted the appeal to the First Special Forces Group sergeant major. Unfortunately, or fortunatelY, he was traveling on military-related business, which left CSM McGuire, as the senior ranking NCO in the Group. He called me to the Group CSM’s office and flatly denied my appeal.

“Sergeant Taylor,” he said to me. “You clearly have some writing ability. You should do something with that. But I have to deny your appeal. After all, the law is the law and base policy is base policy. I can’t change those.”

I understood, and to be honest, I expected that to be the answer. I was sorely disappointed, more so by the fact that I had got in trouble than for any thought of injustice. I deserved it and I knew it.

That was my first lesson in how hard the bite of the law can be. It was also my first real experience with mercy. It felt foreign.

CSM McGuire could have been more harsh in his punishment. I’m thankful that he wasn’t. The experience taught me that there is no getting around consequences. The law is the only protection we have against the natural cause and effect of our own foolishness. When we butt up against it, we should expect it to burn. But when we need the warmth of its blanket around our cold shoulders, it’s a true and faithful friend.

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The Day Spike Busted His Nose On My Head

drunk and tough

I‘ve never been one to enjoy a fight. I’ve never seen the point. It’s a brutal undertaking, painful, a waste of time, and something that should be left for the ogres. But if I’m backed into a corner or faced with a fight-or-be-beat scenario, I’m going to fight.

Spike was a heavy metal guitarist without a band, a recovering junkie. We were unlikely friends.

I was a college student fresh out of the military. He was as uneducated as you can get and didn’t know much of anything about anything except heavy metal music, nymphomaniacs, illegal dog breeds, drugs, and fighting. The only one of those I had any interest in was the music. Otherwise, I was a book worm working on building a future in something, and a recovering redneck.

One night, we were hanging out at Fibber McGee’s, a country-western bar next door to the liquor store I was working at. Spike was drunk. I was enjoying myself.

I don’t know what started it, probably my smart mouth. I have a tendency to slam people’s lack of intelligence if they insist on putting it on open display for very long. Spike had had too much to drink and was being a pain in the ass. I remember that part. The next thing I knew, he was on me.

We had wandered outside and were tussling in the parking lot. Spike was stocky, a bit bigger than me, and stronger – when he was sober. I was at my peak physically, being fresh out of the Army, but still not big. At the time, I stood 5’7-1/2″ and weighed just over 140. Somehow, I ended up on top of Spike and had his shoulders pinned to the ground.

He reared his head back. I could see it coming. He was going to head butt me. I dipped my chin into my chest and closed my eyes. His nose made a solid impact on my forehead. I felt it, but it didn’t hurt.

Blood splattered everywhere. Spiked cussed. Laughing, I jumped up and pulled Spike to his feet.

“Let’s go in and get you cleaned up,” I said.

I walked Spike inside and sat him down then went to the men’s room and got him some paper towels for his nose. He was bleeding everywhere. As he nursed his nose back to health and sat at a table in the bar, presumably reflecting, I bought myself a beer and downed it before offering to take Spike home.

We got a couple of blocks up the road before either of us spoke.

“I don’t understand what that was about,” I said, “but it wasn’t real smart.”

That did it. Spike got mad. As I made a left turn from one busy street onto another, he threw open the passenger door and jumped out – right in the middle of the intersection. I freaked. Quickly, I ran through my mind for the proper course of action. I looked for a turnaround spot, but if I recall correctly, I had to drive several hundred feet before I could make a safe turn onto a side street, pull into someone’s driveway, and head back in the other direction on the main thoroughfare. I couldn’t find Spike anywhere.

I drove all the way back to Fibber McGee’s and didn’t see him anywhere along the way. I thought he must have thumbed a ride with someone and went home. When I walked into the bar, there he was, smiling ear to ear and drinking a beer.

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A Hark Back At My Two-Timing Days As A First Grade Lothario

I had more girlfriends by the age of 10 than I had all through high school. There are a variety of reasons why that was a significant year for me, but the result of it being such a momentous year is that I curled up into my emotional ball and took forever to climb out. Before that, life was fairly blissful.

There’s not a lot that I remember about first grade, but I do remember my two girlfriends – Stacey and Kathy.

Kathy is the one who stands out in my mind the most. If I recall, Stacey had a crush on me and I played hard to get. Kathy was my pick. I walked her home from school each day, partly because her house was on the way to mine so we were natural walking mates. When I was feeling gentlemanly, I carried her books for her.

I don’t remember where Stacey lived, but I do recall that she walked home with us on occasion. Not every day. And I don’t remember ever carrying her books, but I might have.

What I do remember is one day being chased by Stacey and cornered by Kathy so the former could kiss me all over my face. As boys do, I pretended not to like it. Secretly, I ate up all the attention. Still, despite Stacey’s advances, I had a heart-pounding preference for Kathy. Brady was her last name.

When we moved in the summer after first grade, I thought I’d never see Kathy again. To my surprise, I was in the lunch line in second grade and I heard someone call my name. It was her. Kathy Brady!

She had the prettiest smile. Being in different classes, we didn’t see much of each other in second grade, but when we did, I enjoyed seeing that smile.

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My First Act Of Parental Discipline

I’ve spent most of my life avoiding marriage and children. I didn’t want them. The truth is, I didn’t think I’d be good at it. So when I did get married – at the age of 37 – my wife had three children, all girls, and two of them were teenagers. The third one, Jearlene, was twelve. I was in for a shock stepping into that estrogen time bomb.

The two younger children lived with their father. The oldest, Elizabeth, lived with my wife.

One weekend, Leah and Jearlene were visiting their mother and I had them all over to my townhouse in Grand Prairie, Texas. The kids were playing with LEGOs on my living room floor. When they were finished, they left them lying, so I asked them to pick up the LEGOs. They didn’t think they should have to do that since I wasn’t their parent, but that quickly changed.

Theresa and I were not married yet, but we were engaged. I was not going to let them think they could just get away with not listening. I confiscated the LEGOs and put them away in a closet.

“You won’t be able to play with those for the rest of the weekend,” I said.

I wasn’t being mean, but I did stand my ground. Leah was the more accepting of the two. Jearlene was argumentative. Her mother backed me.

“He asked you to pick them up and you didn’t,” Theresa scolded Jearlene. “You know that’s not acceptable.”

We weren’t two minutes into the discussion when Jearlene burst out into tears. I felt sorry for her, but rules were rules. It sounds petty, but I really didn’t want children’s toys all over my living room floor the entire weekend. They could play with them, but when they were done they were to put them away. I thought it was simple.

“You always take his side,” Jearlene said, referring to me. Of course, that was the first instance of conflict we’d had, but that’s how little girls are. “Always” means right now.

My wife was firm and stood her ground. The girls should have picked up the LEGOs. I felt awkward but lived through it. Today, Elizabeth and Leah call me Dad. Jearlene sometimes calls me.

Update: My wife has informed me that this incident happened right after our marriage, about a month in. You know us men. We’re terrible with time spans.

What Happens When Your Parachute Collapses

The U.S. Army has two types of planes from which airborne soldiers jump. The C-130 is a cargo plane. The C-141 is a jet plane. They taught us in airborne school how you should exit the door, but I found out the hard way which way doesn’t work when jumping from a C-141.

I was a young soldier. With 10 or 12 jumps to my credit, and all of them from a C-130, I was used to making a vigorous exit. But I got aggressive once too often on the wrong beautiful spring day.

The protocol on jump day is always the same. You go to a briefing where the commanding officer tells you what type of plane you’re jumping from, the weather conditions, direction and speed of the wind, etc. It was all laid out, but when it came time to line up and jump, I completely forgot that I was in a C-141.

In a C-141, you have a jet engine right in front of the exit door. If you jump out too far, the jet engine will suck the air out from under your parachute, so you’re supposed to just walk out.

There I stood, hooked up to the static line, and when it was my turn to jump I made my usual vigorous exit out the door and right into the jet stream. I felt the chute open with a jerk then immediately felt my chin get squeezed into my chest. The parachute’s risers trapped my head. I choked on my heart when I caught a glimpse of the ground below careening toward my feet at record speed.

When you jump from an airplane, you fall at 100 feet per second. I had jumped from 800 feet.

Remembering what I had been taught in airborne school, I pulled the risers away from my head and looked up. The chute was flapping in the wind. Kicking my feet as if riding a bicycle, my body spun until the risers came untangled and the parachute snapped. Two seconds later, I hit the ground.

The balls of my feet made impact as I threw my body into a hasty parachute landing fall. It was sloppily executed, but it got the job done.

Immediately, I felt a gust of wind grab the parachute and it drug me about a dozen feet. Fumbling for the release located on my shoulder, I gave it a yank. Boy, was I relieved when the chute collapsed and the ride was finally over.