UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — It’s interesting to learn new stuff later in life because it’s nice to know that there are still surprises.
In this case, it was learning that a particular style of rappelling is nothing like Ranger School in the Army, or Tom Cruise jumping from a skyscraper in a “Mission Impossible” movie. And yet, it can still be kind of scary.
In the Army, Rangers fast-rope out of Blackhawk helicopters onto rooftops danger close against guys armed with AK-47s. In the Tom Cruise version, it looks like there’s a lot of leaping going on, like Spider-Man in tennis shoes. But this was not like that, thank heavens. It was something for vets and Veterans Day.
I signed in at a registration desk early Saturday at the Hilton Hotel at Universal City. That was where the “Over The Edge” fund-raiser for the Homes4Families non-profit group was set up. My employer, High Desert Medical Group, has been a key sponsor of this veterans housing initiative for several years now.
The Homes4Families project is building 56 affordable homes for veterans, with support from City of Palmdale and the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
The “Over The Edge” project recruits organizations to pledge money for donors and volunteers to rappel off the 25th-floor roof of the Hilton hotel at Universal City, Calif. So, you are poised 250-feet above the trams of the Universal City Studio Tours, and the traffic speeding below on the Ventura Freeway. Your assignment is to go “over the edge” hooked up to rappelling lines and drop down 25 floors to ground level.
My son fought with the Marines in the Iraqi hellscape of Fallujah a lifetime ago, so the Corps trained him to rappel when he was the age of a Special Operations Capable infantry grunt. In other words, he was a teenage Devil Dog not eligible to drink a legal beer yet. I told him what I had in mind, and he laughed — a lot.
“I can tell you, old man, rappelling was never something I would choose to do,” Garrett my son told me when he got done laughing. “I made it down every time, but it was never a favorite thing in my life.” His best advice, “Whatever you do, don’t look down.”
I understood that. Having notched 125 parachute jumps in the Army, and after, I know the best thing to do is keep your eyes on the horizon.
If you are standing in the door of a paratrooper transport like a C-130 Hercules or a C-47 Skytrain – the aircraft they used to drop paratroopers into Normandy on D-Day – you stand in the door, and you don’t look down. The horizon is always the best thing until you are blasted out the door and under a good canopy.
The Saturday morning designated for Over The Edge I picked at a light breakfast. Nothing to challenge the old gut, which had a mind of its own.
After registration, we climbed into our rappelling gear. The support team was encouraging. The gear is a harness, like a parachute harness, and it has carabiners the size of your fist made of steel that looks like it was forged for bank safes. So, that’s good.
Next was the elevator ride to the top of the Hilton. Exit the elevator and climb two floors up a fire escape, and you are “On top of the world, Ma!” It was breezy and cool up there, with more team trainers standing next to a steel tackle hoist with pulleys.
“You’re going to be great,” my trainer said, shackling me to the rappelling lines. “Now, climb over that rail onto the edge.” Sure. Easy.
Another rappelling volunteer, Jane Mineo, was all smiles. She wore an “Eagles, Hotel California” T-shirt and looked she was having the time of her life. My hat was off to her. I was wearing my M-42 Jacket, Field, Paratrooper with 8th Infantry Division Airborne patch. Seemed appropriate with Veterans Day around the corner. That was the whole idea. Support veterans. And climb over that rail onto the edge. Sheesh.
I am standing at the tippy top of the building on a 12-inch ledge. My coach tells me to sit back in the harness and plant my boots over the edge, on the side of the building of mirrored glass windows. Which I do.
My bride Julia, waiting far below, said it reminded her of trying to get a cat into a bucket of water. We are both professional therapists, and we know enough brain science to appreciate the little almond atop the brain stem, the amygdala, is screaming “Do Not Do This!”
Then it was time to let out some line, with a little left-handed device that looks like a joy stick, or a bomb “pickle.” The yellow line lets you down. The other line, the orange one, has a safety brake on it that catches if you start dropping too fast.
My son’s final advice was “You’re Batman. Take it one step at a time.” He meant paunchy Batman, Adam West, of Nickelodeon re-runs. But Adam West and Burt Ward – “Robin” – climbing ropes in hand were actually walking horizontally on a glass floor. Special effects.
In a C-130 or C-47, with your buddies, there’s a lot of noise, and shouting “Get ready!” and “Go!” and you’re like a football team streaming through the door onto the field. This rooftop descent was a lonely business.
A couple of feet at a time, twenty floors down, the only thing I watched was the line in my clawed, gloved hand, and the toes of my Size 9 jump boots stepping down the mirrored windows. Hands and boots, for 20 floors, and that seemed like a lot of huffing and grunting, until my feet slipped out under me. I dropped, and was dangling like a marionette five floors from the ground – a little more than 50 feet. That was cheerful. You spread your arms to let the rooftop crew know that you’re an idiot.
One of the DJs who narrated my aerial clown act said, “Look! Dennis is embracing the experience!” His DJ partner turned the volume up on “Blood Upon The Risers,” the paratrooper hymn sung to the theme of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Gory, Gory what a Helluva Way to Die … And he ain’t gonna jump no more!” Those DJs, what a couple of characters. A regular Hope and Crosby they were.
One narrator read from my biography sheet, “Anderson said he was a sergeant in the Cold War. Wasn’t that, like, a secret?” Keep it up, boys.
My coaches kept cooing at me through the radio until I figured out how to release the hand brake. In a few dozen seconds, I was on the ground. Knees wobbly. And the support team handler that was picking me up said, “Good for you. I was in the 82nd Airborne. Airborne, All The Way.”
One of the 101st Airborne mottos was from the mountain at Camp Toccoa, Ga., where the “Band of Brothers” of Stephen Ambrose’s book trained – “Currahee! Three miles up! Three miles down!” Mine was 25 floors up, 25 down.
The breathing stabilized, and adrenaline settled down. I knew what it felt like to be Airborne All The Way, but felt little interest at my late sixty-something age in seeking a Ranger tab. That’s a young troopers’ game. But we did raise about $40,000 from all the donors, including High Desert Medical Group, to get those veterans’ homes built. That was the big idea. Currahee, when all is said and done. And a happy Veterans Day to all.
Editor’s note: Dennis Anderson is a licensed clinical therapist at High Desert Medical Group. An Army paratrooper veteran he deployed with local California National Guard troops to cover the Iraq War for Antelope Valley media. He works on veterans issues and community health initiatives.