The year of 1988 was a hot, sticky, steaming summer in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Tall Pines, Cypress and Oaks stood around the Base, teasing us with shade while we practiced drills in the blazing sun. The ground was sandy and provided a good work out on the long marches we travailed while wearing standard Army issue camo BDU’s (battle dress uniforms) and black Army boots. There were times when the Drill Instructors would allow us to take off the hot camo jackets, which left us in our dirt brown t-shirts sporting various shaped sweat stains. At times, the temperatures became so overwhelming and the heat index so high, that we would be forced to take ‘shade and water’ breaks to prevent heat stroke. I was not surprised or weakened by any of these things. I signed up for Basic Training and knew in advance that almost immediately after graduating high school I would be spending the summer tackling all of the challenges the Army tossed my way. I knew some things would be difficult and intense. I didn’t know that I would have to face down a fear that I never knew existed – and accomplish it in front of not only my whole platoon, but the entire Company B (B for Bravo, ironically.) That’s around 250 people.
Army Basic Training requires you to pass many different tests, both physical and mental, before you can successfully complete it. I had fun with the bayonet training and all the weaponry training and tests. (Blood & guts make the green grass grow Drill Sergeant! Kill, Kill without mercy Drill Sergeant!) I passed the sit-ups, push-ups and 2 mile run tests with no problems. I marched through dense, jungle-like forests, shot M-16 rifles, threw grenades, bivouacked, went into gas chambers, learned hand to hand combat and basic first aid. The only obstacle that I found insurmountable came as a surprise. I discovered it after I did the ropes challenge and climbed to the top of Victory Tower. Once at the top, I was to rappel down – what seemed to me like a 100 foot wall (but I later learned that it was only 40 foot.)
To start rappelling, the Drill Instructors told us to stand backwards, feet on the edge of the wall, keep the body stiff, hold the rope in front of you with both hands and fall straight back off the edge. Next, you keep your legs stiff and straight while raising your upper torso into a sitting position. Once situated, you use your feet to kick off from the wall, maneuvering the rope so that you give it slack, thus sliding downward. You develop a rhythm doing this until you land on the ground. I watched others complete the task and deduced that it would be easy for me. But when my turn came to lean backwards over the edge, I froze. My mind refused to concede that my body could lean back into nothing but sky. Fear gripped my insides. I stepped away from the ledge to let the next person go down. I looked around frantically and noticed a steel beam that was part of the structure. As a Drill Instructor screamed at me to get back in line, I got down on my knees and hugged the beam tight. “I’m not going anywhere!” I had never experienced a fear of heights so extreme before. I decided I would rather feel the wrath of my Drill Sergeant than go over the edge.
I remembered that, as a child, I would climb up a ladder onto the roof of our house. It was always scariest when you had to let go of the ladder and move to the roof. But once that was done, I would be fine and could walk around on the roof, albeit gingerly, but I did it multiple times with no problems. This tower was higher up, but only 2 to 3 times higher, so why was I suddenly frozen with terror?
I could see that others were doing it with no injuries. We had ropes connected everywhere so that even if I let go of the rope I was holding on to the Drill Instructors would still have control and not let me plummet to the earth. But out on that ledge, leaning straight back into nothing produced a gut-wrenching fear inside me like I had never known. I gripped my beam tighter and squeezed my eyes shut, saying a prayer for God to magically remove me from my surroundings.
God didn’t say anything, but another Drill Sergeant did. “Hey Tipton, watch me!” We were known by our last names, a patch sewn onto our jackets to distinguish us from our identical uniforms. I opened my eyes in time to see the Sergeant running forward, yelling in excitement, straight off the ledge. He just ran forward down the wall to the ground amidst cheers from everyone on the ground. “See Tipton, it ain’t nothing, come on,” my Drill Sergeant said. I knew he was trying to encourage me, but I gripped the beam even tighter as fear pulsed through my veins.
The soldiers waiting below began yelling encouragement for me to go. I knew I had to do this, I couldn’t fail. I looked into my Drill Sergeant’s face and the terror must have been showing in my eyes because I could see a look of pity cross his face. He walked over to me, kneeled down and pulled a stick of gum from his pocket. Now, I don’t know how Basic Training is these days, but back then we weren’t allowed care packages or treats of any kind and it had been weeks since I felt the sweet, juicy goodness of a satisfying gum chewing. My mouth began to water as I eyeballed the gum in his hand. “Hey, Tip, will you go down the tower if I give you a piece of gum?” My Drill Sergeant’s hopeful look turned into a smile as I immediately let go of the beam and grabbed the gum, putting it into my mouth before he had time to change his mind. I stood up and went to the ledge, barely listening as they went over the instructions again. I was focused now on controlling my mind and getting this over with. I stopped thinking and just leaned straight back to start my rappel.
After kicking off from the wall my first time, I realized there wasn’t anything scary to it at all. “There you go Tipton, – you’re doing it! That’s great!”
I rappelled from the wall with ease and laughed, “Hey, this is fun!”
All of the soldiers below were whooping and clapping, cheering me on. I kicked out extra far from the wall and rebounded with a smile plastered on my face. It was over way too quick. I turned to the Drill Instructor at the bottom of the tower and pleaded, “Can I do it again?”
I felt a true sense of accomplishment after completing that near insurmountable task. Fear of the unknown can be disabling if you allow it to overcome you. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to stop thinking and just start doing. Since that moment in Basic Training I have never allowed fear to overcome me again. Anytime I begin to feel that crippling dread, I remember going over the ledge of Victory Tower. I did it. Once you’ve crossed the edge it’s easy. All life has its rough spots. You get through it, and go on living. You can’t live on the edge. But you can go over it and get through it.