The Braden Files
Curiosities of mathematics, history, parachuting, etc……

Lester

I

Once upon a time, dearly beloved, when the world was young, before the Leopard got his spots, before the Elephant got his trunk, and even before the Camel got his hump, the Middle Class of Honolulu could afford to live in modest homes stretching back and up into the Manoa Valley, St. Louis Heights, and Mount Tantalus. Lester Sagawa was an intelligent, earnest sixteen year old boy who lusted for adventure. He lived with his adoring and no-nonsense mother in the hills overlooking Honolulu. Mrs. Sagawa asked me: “Mr. Braden, I assume parachuting is safe?”
“No, Mrs. Sagawa, I wouldn’t say that parachuting is exactly safe. Lester will get banged up. But it is probably no more dangerous than, say, SCUBA diving.”

“Well then, Lester, I suppose”…she reluctantly said.

Lester was a good student and carried out instructions to the “T”, perhaps too literally. One day, I can’t remember the circumstances, I came upon a gigantic Air Force cargo chute, designed, if not for space capsule recoveries, then at least for light tanks or armored personnel carriers. I mean, the pilot chute alone would probably get you down in a cane field OK with a good PLF.
“Lester”, I said. “How would you like to make a free parachute jump?”
”Oh, yes, Mr. Braden!” he cried. “How?” “What for?”
“Lester, I, your friendly and omniscient jumpmaster, as well as my colleagues, would like to see how far 110 pound parachutist would drift when cut loose at 7500 feet under my new rig here.”
“Let’s do it then!” he said.

Somehow we shoehorned Lester and the giganto-chute into the Cessna and out he went, a mile and a half above the Kunia Golf Course, central Oahu. We were making book on where old Lester would land. Schofield Barracks? The Dillingham Polo Grounds? Hickam Field, perhaps? Pearl Harbor’s West Loch? Mililani Town? To play it safe we fitted Lester out with a Mae West just in case he made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It seemed to take that chute forever to open, there was so much material to it! Lester, a little tiny dot suspended under this orange-and-white circus tent, was having the time of his life. We followed him down in the plane. After drifting back and forth in a random-walk fashion, we saw that he was headed right into a newly-planted cane field, courtesy of the Oahu Sugar Company.

Now, cane takes two years to mature, and it has to be irrigated constantly. It takes seventeen tons of water to put one pound of sugar on your table, and concrete dikes crisscrossed all the fields. A five knot wind was blowing, enough to change Lester instantly from a windblown leaf into an unwilling land-surfer. He was having trouble getting his risers released, and got dragged headfirst through one of those concrete dikes! We saw that he was unconscious (or dead) and immediately parachuted out after him. Landing nearby, I ran over to Lester, thinking about how I was going to explain this to his mother.
“Lester! Lester!” I cried, shaking him a little bit, like they do in the movies. (Do I look like a neurologist?)
Lester opened his eyes and said “What happened, Mr. Braden? Where am I?”
Lester has never regained his memory of that jump. He recalls getting into the plane, and recalls seeing me bent over him with a concerned and no doubt terrified look on my face, but… in between? His memory of the event has (perhaps fortunately) been totally erased. He remembered absolutely nothing of his whole odyssey. Only his Bell Helmet saved his brain from total scrambibility.

II

Lester, with fortitude and a penchant for receiving instruction, was on his way to becoming a competent skydiver. One night, about eight pm, a terrified Mrs. Sagawa called and said “Where is Lester!!?”

“I don’t know, Mrs. Sagawa. We last saw Lester land in the middle of a cane field, and he waved that he was OK. I presume he just hitched a ride and drove back home.”
“Well he didn’t!” exclaimed the hysterical mother. It was obvious that we had to drive out to the country and try to find him.
“Lester! Lester!” we shouted into the night, cane all around us. Much to our amazement, we got an answer!
“Lester, what in *&!!#@ have you been doing out here in the middle of a cane field for eight hours? Can’t you walk?”
“I’ve been walking in circles for hours” he said. Go ahead, try walking around in a cane field sometime, with two parachutes. You never touch the ground. Lester, with his senses of incredible integrity and of private property, had never abandoned his gear.
“Lester,” said another jumpmaster. “Can you find the north star? Just follow the north star and you won’t walk in circles. And you’ll get out of any field sooner or later!” (The Jordan Curve Theorem might have something to do with this. Or not.)
“Well, I learned how to find Polaris in the Boy Scouts,” he said. “But I never knew what to do with it! “

III

Mrs. Sagawa, ever-doubting, refused to believe that her son was not engaging in an activity which was, at the very best, criminally stupid.
“Just come on out to the DZ, Mom, you’ll watch me jump and you can see that parachuting is perfectly safe! It’s not like you think at all!”
“I certainly plan to do exactly that, young man!” she said, her eyes narrowing, “and maybe have a talk with those lowlife jumpmasters of yours while I’m out there, too!”
She was no doubt prejudiced against us by this time for having introduced Lester to a biker bar out in Haliewa, and panatella cigars. I had also been teaching Lester the rudiments of flying, and spins in particular. Right when our engine cut out at three hundred feet over Kahana Bay, while we were “strafing” some fellow parachutists on the beach. But that is a different story. (By this time anyone associated with parachuting was ranked somewhere slightly above child molesters but only slightly below drug-dealers or United States congressmen in the woman’s mind.)

Of course, this was the day that Elizabeth Jones went into a flat spin over Dillingham AFB and didn’t have the strength in her arms to pull her ripcord. Liz hit the ground face-down and spinning, at a hundred and twenty miles per hour, right in front of Mrs. Sagawa. Liz bounced six feet back into the air. Poor Liz was killed instantly, of course (there were one or two fatalities out there every year.) The penultimate time I ever laid eyes on Lester Sagawa, he was being dragged into his mother’s car by his ear and saying “But Mom…!”

IV

Six years passed, and I was in the Faculty Room at Iolani School, running off a math test.

“Mr. Braden?” said a polite young man of Japanese extraction. “Do you remember me?”
“Lester! Lester Sagawa! Of course I do, Lester! My, let’s just look at you! A second lieutenant in the United States Air Force are we? All spiffy in your new uniform! And…and…and…Lester, are those navigator’s wings I see on your chest?”
“Yes Mr. Braden, they are” he said, beaming with pride. “Guess what? I just navigated a C-5A Galaxy from Castle Air Force Base in California all the way over here to Hickam!”
“Lester”, I said. “I can only guess that you learned what do do with that north star. And a whole lot of other things, too!”

I often think of Lester, this outstanding young man. He is probably a general by now.

(Note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

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