For three weeks in August of 1977, I had no name. I actually forgot I had one. My new assigned name was Charlie 173, and like Pavlov’s dog, that was all I responded to. During this time, I was a Marine attending the U.S. Army’s Airborne School at soon-to-be Ft. Moore, Georgia (at that time, Ft. Benning). The school is a strange and wonderful place oozing ghosts and military history where you spend three weeks learning how to parachute out of a perfectly good airplane. This is still done Normandy-style with a big cord tied to your back and the other end tied inside the plane to pull your ripcord, because well, they don’t quite trust you yet to pull it yourself. In the summer the school is at peak load, and hundreds of wanna-be paratroopers from all the armed forces and all over the country swelter in the Africa-hot oven and red dust that is Georgia in August. Instructors don’t have time to learn so many names over such a short course, so everyone just gets a letter and 3 numbers that is shouted to the world in big letters on your helmet.
The school is run by special drill instructors who all wear black baseball caps and are called Black Hats. They don’t have any names either. Every single one is just called “Sergeant Airborne.” (Don’t ask — it’s a whole separate thing.)
Now, many of these Black Hats are originally from Alaska, Iowa, New York, or Michigan, but something happens to their vocabulary once they get down there. In a strange sort of mostly subconscious Airborne tradition, most of them start gradually channeling a drawl like they are actors from Gone with the Wind. A’s and H’s tend to get dropped and E’s and L’s get elongated, as in “What the e-l-l-l-l-l are you doing in my Ommy?”
In the tough love environment that is the Airborne School, the Black Hats had a phenomenal ability to coolly turn any unplanned bad event into an instant school-circle teaching moment and put a positive spin on it. Limb injuries spouting blood were turned into a great opportunity to teach first aid. Another time a student parachuted off the extended arm of a 250 ft. tower, and contrary to instructions, steered left instead of right. His chute went directly into the tower instead of away from it, and he and the collapsed chute became a tangled mess of nylon lines and silk dangling precariously 180 feet off the ground. As two rescue Black Hats started climbing the tower to save him, the rest of us were gathered into an instant school circle to watch because, you know, sometimes the only purpose of one’s Airborne life is to serve as a warning to others. The Black Hat on the ground calmly pointed out how the dangling student really should slow down his breathing a bit, and after being rescued and doing many, many punishment push-ups, was most definitely going to have to change his trousers because of that spreading stain running down his legs.
On August 16th, I was working at the base of one of these towers helping other students go up and awaiting my own turn, when suddenly everywhere whistles started to blow, Black Hats started shouting, and everything on the entire base came to a stop. Once again, we were all called into a rushed school circle. A solemn Black Hat then approached and announced….
“ Weeeeeee …..are all gonna have a minute of silence, and remove our covers. Because The King…………(very long pause)….…………. Is dead.”
Standing there confused, fatigued, dripping sweat, fighting off heat stroke, and cut off from the outside world in an era before cell phones, it simply didn’t register. Huh? What? What king? The King of England…? No, that was a queen. The Netherlands maybe? Saudi Arabia? What king?
“Pleeeeeease remove your covers. We are now all going to have one minute of prayer for Elvis.”
Elvis! Elvis was a near-God in Georgia in 1977. Ok, got it. So, I liked Elvis too, but a few of us Yankees did think it a tad weird to be praying to a rock star on a Federal military reservation and stopping all training to do so. But… only for a second. All hats were duly removed, and all joined in for a minute of prayer for Elvis.
And then, the Black Hat segue speech that drove home the irresistible U.S. Army teaching point of all this.
We should have seen it coming…
“Preeeeeeeliminary reports are that Elvis died of too much sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”
“Now…. Elvis DID serve onnably in the United States Ommy, but he was NOT airborne school qualified.”
“You all ARE going to be airborne qualified, and you most assuredly are NOT going to die of too much sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
“Now, get your butts back up the towers.”
To this day, every time I come across a show or documentary that talks about the day Elvis died, I still flash back to that day and that speech and wonder, well you know, what if Elvis had gone to Airborne school? Would it have made a difference for him? Did his death make a difference for me?
On the other hand, there was another guy who went through the Airborne School too.
His name was Jimi Hendrix…..
Where were you the day Elvis died?
Timothy Aines is a retiree and AMAC member who has previously been published in the Military Times newspapers.