Lightning webbed the midnight sky. Rough air threw paratroopers against each other as we hooked static lines to cables that ran down either overhead of the Hercules C-130. My U.S. Army Special Forces Group was parachuting into jungle DZs (drop zones) at either end of the Panama Canal—both a training mission and a show of force. Each man carried nearly 100 pounds of weapons and combat gear.

Don’t land in the ocean—sharks. Nor the trees—the jungle was brittle and would impale.

Wind filled with rain blew off the land toward the ocean. ODA-213’s DZ lay just off the beach.

Green lights above the door flashed on with terrible presence. Twelve men disappeared in a shuffling rush out the doors into the black wind. It always stunned me how fast a stack of paratroopers exited an airplane.

I hurtled earthward through wet darkness so complete I heard the rustling pop of a parachute opening near me, but could not see it. My ‘chute ripped from its pack and jerked me up hard in the wind, snapping my legs. An angry flash of lightning blinded me momentarily.

Hanging in the wind, feeling the slash of rain, I waited for the next blaze of lightning to reveal the DZ. I glimpsed a small grassy clearing surrounded by high black hills and jungle on three sides and abutted on the fourth by ocean whitecaps. Howling winds pushed me tracking at full speed toward the sharks.

Another lightning strobe revealed the swarm of my teammates’ parachutes around me, like a bed of flying mushrooms searching for a way out of the dark. All were tracking toward the sharks.

I climbed my front risers like a monkey to spill air out the canopy’s back side and push me against the wind. The parachute lost lift. I hurdled through the air, coming in hot. It was my only chance of hitting the DZ and avoiding a swim with fish.

I sensed rather than saw ground rush. Having yanked toggles almost to my knees, I snapped them free at the last instant. The ‘chute grabbed air before dropping me into a drainage ditch that cut around the perimeter of the DZ. It was almost waist-deep full of water.

Inflated with stormwinds, the parachute became a runaway horse. It dragged me spluttering and coughing through the water-filled ditch.

Unable to gain my feet because of the ‘chute at my head and my heavy ruck dragging from its lowering line, I fumbled with wet hands for the parachute quick releases.

Just as I released the left riser to collapse the runaway parachute, a Panamanian from the reception party somehow grabbed it and held on. The strong wind dragged us both. He was drowning me.

“Turn it loose!” I yelled between gulps of water.

He wrapped the riser around a passing tree. It jerked me up like a roped calf. I scrambled to my feet in water up to my belt.

Adonde fue el pajaro?” I asked in disgusted Spanish, giving my rescuer the pass phrase.

Lightning rippled. The Panamanian looked sheepish. A howler monkey roared from the top of a jungle giant; he sounded like a jaguar.

ODA-213 was on the ground.


“If we understand the mechanism of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”A THOUSAND YEARS OF DARKNESS by Charles W. Sasser