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

On the Steppes of Central Asia

Overhead, the two turboshaft TV2-117AG engines of our MI-8 helicopter howled. Vibrations from the heavy rotors penetrated every pore of our bodies, three thousand horsepower pummeling each of us into a sort of dazed insensibility. Russians go cheap on insulation but not on raw power, that’s for sure. My parachute harness was tight enough to cause real discomfort. Wouldn’t want it any other way. Just like a rifle sling. “If it ain’t hurting, it ain’t tight enough,” any gunnery sergeant will tell you.

The 84th Parachute Battalion, First Mongol Army, was cocked, locked and ready to rock. Feeling Good. Good To Go. Who are we? Airborne! How far? All The Way! Every Day! That’s us. Except me. It had been twenty-five years since my last jump; I wondered if it would be like riding a bicycle…

As we gained altitude, a misty sun broke free of the low hills surrounding our little valley, changing the false dawn into a real one. Now decidedly cool, in a few months this part of northern Mongolia would be locked into 30 below zero, and worse.

We were a group of twenty-three parachutists and riggers who had been invited, the first westerners ever, to participate in a Mongolian Army exercise. Just a hop and a skip from Siberia, twelve time zones out from New England and on the downwind leg of the first jump run of the day, in what the Mongolian Army was calling “Operation Chingis Khaan.” In less than a minute, seven Americans, two Canadians, an Englishman and fifteen Mongol paratroopers would be flinging their fragile bodies out the door.
Next stop, 1000 meters straight down. Unless you had learned how to pack a parachute. But that is what the 84th Battalion was all about. Parachute rigging. Simple. But you have to do it right. Every time.

“Noom khon!” (Stand up!) roared First Lieutenant Tombe, our jumpmaster du jour, not that we could hear him. I was number two in the stick, sandwiched in between a US Air Force colonel and a US Army doctor.

C-130 rollin' down the strip;
Airborne Rangers on a one-way trip.
Stand up and hook up and shuffle to the door
Airborne Rangers count to four...

“Khol bood!” (Hook up!) Each of us clipped his static line, an eight-foot long piece of yellow webbing, to the cable running the length of the helicopter. This act, literally, tied every one of us individually to the helicopter in an 80-lb breakable chain (160 lbs in the US Army, Navy and Marines) that ran from the inner thigh to the apex of the parachute.

I checked my watch. Hmm. 6:15 AM. But 6:15 PM yesterday back in New Hampshire. I wondered what people were doing. Dinner, of course. I caught a glimpse of a herd of cows, headed for our DZ. Holy cow! What were cows doing, headed for our drop zone? What if I landed on a cow? How would the cow feel were I to land on her?

At my back, some good men. Butch, with his plastic leg (his real one left behind in Vietnam) was a US Army Master Parachutist. Gabriel, who owned the largest bar in Montreal. Jim, a Massachusetts lawyer, who would surreptitiously take another turn of breakcord around the apex of his chute, making it a 160 lb link. Americans prefer that. Secure. No surprises. A friendly but tough-as-nails Brit sergeant whose name did not in any way match the one on his passport. (He could outshoot us all with the AK-47.) Lewis, the harbormaster of a large west coast port, also a major in the 10th Special Forces. Monte, with a Ph.D. in Pharmacy. Both of us had grown up in California’s dusty San Joaquin Valley, but twenty miles and ten years apart. So close and so far. (Seven years ago he and Butch had jumped onto the north pole with the Russian Army.) And I, a mild-mannered schoolteacher from a small New England boarding school. All of us had spent a great deal of time and effort, at some point of our lives, enduring nasty shocks of opening parachute canopies and a lot of sprains and fractures from hitting the ground. Fun-jumping. An oxymoron for most; a pleonasm for the likes of us. Jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and loving it. At age fifteen, enraged when my father would not send me to jump school, I jumped off the garage twenty or thirty times. Facing that situation, he said I could take flying lessons instead.

“Tokhorum to shalg!” (Check your equipment!) bellowed Tombe. I checked out Colonel Strobaugh in front of me, making certain that his static line was free and clear and not under his armpit, which would have resulted in a dislocated shoulder, minimum. I knew the good doctor directly behind me was doing exactly the same. In 1943, my father had witnessed an incident in which a static line around the neck decapitated a fellow soldier. After that the Screaming Eagles did not throw recalcitrant recruits from the door; they just quickly washed them out of jump school.

Trust. Good men at my front, Strobaugh and Tombe. Good men at my back. Good Korean parachutes. Good Russian helicopters. Looking good. We are good to go, which is what we would be doing in about thirty seconds.

“Khalg ni kha juud zogs!” (Stand in the door!) screamed Tombe. I was all but in the cotton-pickin’ door, and I still could just barely hear him. I began to regret the warm yak milk and all but inedible Mongolian trail mix upon which I had breakfasted two hours previously. Boy, if anyone ever says anything against American C Rations ever again…Below, a couple of my freres du nylon from thirty years ago in Hawaii were suiting up for the next load with fifteen more Mongolians.

Mongolians, all two million of them, live in an area three times the size of France, or four times the size of Japan. Sheep, goats, yaks, camels and cattle outnumber bipeds twenty-to-one. Composed of nine different races, they are both ferocious yet friendly, a very handsome people, both men and women. They pride themselves on individuality and are happy to be free of the Russian yoke. Not that the Russian yoke was always oppressive.

In the 1930’s, Mongolia was twice invaded by the Japanese. The Red Army hurled them back. What happened in Mongolia in the 1940’s very much determined the outcomes on beaches with names like: Gold. Sword. Juneau. Omaha. Utah. Salerno. Anzio. The United States Navy had a weather station in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, protected by none other than Mao Tse-Tung. Their reports let Nimitz plan his next move. Weather in Mongolia today, weather in the Pacific next week. Kwajalein. Bougainville. Guadalcanal. Tarawa. Leyte. Iwo Jima. Okinawa.

It amuses me to see the lists that pundits make of “The 100 Most Important People of the Century.” Is Georgi Zhukov on the list? No? Why read further? Ah. Field Marshal Zhukov, four times Hero of the Soviet Union, once Hero of Mongolia. Lived right there in Ulaanbaatar, a few hundred meters from our rigging school. Totally victorious against the Japanese. Hitler, screaming for the Japanese to open a second front against the Russians, all to no avail. Been there, done that. They would have to go through Mongolians first. No way. Not with Georgi Konstantinovich Zhukov about, they wouldn’t. Alexander Nevsky had to watch his back at Novgorod while repelling the Teutonic Knights back in the 13th Century; the Golden Horde was abroad in the land. Now the Mongols are on the Russian side. Stalin can release ten more divisions to wash against the eastern wall of Festung Europa.

Mongolians. The greatest exporters of genes in the history of the world. Exploits of Alexander, Xenophon, and even Rome all pale before the great Khaan named Chingis and his grandson, Kublai. Uzbeks, Ukranians, Russians. Armenians, Pakistanis, Tadzhiks. Persians, Manchurians, Chinese. Koreans, Kazakhs, Moldavians, Turkmen, Poles. The Moguls of northern India. Read “Mongols” of northern India. Serbs, Croats, Lithuanians, Latvians. Estonians, Tibetans, Arabs and Jews. All felt the terror of the Mongol Army and their tough little ponies. Japanese. Saved from the wrath of Kublai Khaan’s navy and marines only by a divine wind they still call kamikaze. Mongolian genes linger today in the streets of Prague, on the Budapest subway, in the houses and factories and schools of Bucharest and Yerevan and Tblisi, Samarkand and Kiev. The Finnish and Mongolian languages share the same linguistic group.

Mongolia. Its terrain indistinguishable from the cattle country of Montana or the paniolo country of Hawaii’s Big Island. The Mongolian language fits quite nicely into the Cyrillic alphabet with only two additional letters. Russian culture everywhere; I feel quite comfortable here, thank you, once having called Moscow home.

Mongolia. Stalin’s breadbasket. Stalin’s abattoir. Stalin’s industrial base. Stalin’s factories moved east of the Urals, thus to escape the meat-grinders of von Bock and von Leeb and von Rundstedt.

Mongols. Stalin’s shock troops supreme. Stalingrad. Kursk. First into Berlin, first to tear the very heart out of the Wehrmacht in their own capital, first to put their boot on the dying throat of the Third Reich. Eisenhower, holding Patton back in Czeckoslovakia, let the Mongols take the hits in Berlin. (Those hits exceeded our total casulties of Normandy and The Bulge combined). Toughest of the tough.

“Go!” yelled Tombe, slapping the colonel on the leg. Don made a good clean exit and disappeared from my view. “Go!” Tombe swatted me on the leg and I leaped horizontally from the helicopter, relieved to get away from the terrible noise and vibration.

One thousand!

Curled up in a fetal position, Russian style (when in Rome,) hands protecting my reserve ripcord, I had fallen sixteen feet and knew that the static line should have just ripped open the pack, yanking the deployment bag off my back and the risers should be straight and the suspension lines should be drawing from their canvas loops.

Two thousand!

The ground began to revolve beneath me as my body started to fall head down with a gentle roll to the right. I had fallen sixty-four feet and hoped that at this stage the canopy had been pulled out of the deployment bag, the breakcord had been snapped and the chute was just about to open. In another two seconds, I would be falling back-to-earth in an excellent position for a clean reserve deployment if this were indeed not the case. At “four thousand” I’ll pull the reserve…

Three thou….

KA-WHAP! If there is any sight more beautiful than a freshly-opened parachute canopy above your head, I have yet to experience it.

Strung out in a very tight line, our little contingent of the 84th Battalion drifted to the DZ. Smoke from the gers (the Russians call them “yurts”) in the small encampment adjacent to the DZ rose up into the chilly dawn, harbingers of the day to come. Half a mile away, a camel paused momentarily to eye us with disinterest before returning to its breakfast. The cows were not yet a problem, but would be later in the morning, because with the cows would come the wolves. The landscape was coming up all too fast. Forgot this part of the steppe is as high as Denver. Three hundred feet. Get over that ditch. Run with the wind. Two hundred. My right toggle is jammed and all I can manage are left turns. Get into the wind. Slip over that rock. Luke 4:10-11. Checklist time.

Feetandkneestogetherkneesslightlybenthandshighontheriserschintuckedineyesonthehorizonpreparetoland WHAM!

Back to earth once again. Collapse the canopy. Daisy-chain the suspension lines. By golly, it was just like riding a bicycle. Neural pathways die hard. Trundling across the plain was our Russian ambulance. The kindly female doctor who had given us our physicals was coming to pick me up.

Mongols. Ten years ago enemies, now friends. Mongolian archers had killed my great-grandfather out on the plains of Texas over a hundred years ago. (He knew them as Comanches.) Friends. Much better than enemies. Yes. Braden, why don’t you work on this concept from now on? I climbed into the ambulance, thanking the doctor. Friends. Why not. Leninism is all but dead. Amigos. Amis. Comrades. Friends. Much better, this.

These ramblings are thoughts of Lawrence Braden, minutes before, during and after his 291st parachute jump last August.

Larry Braden has worked as a dishwasher, oilfield roustabout, bodyguard, statistician, commercial pilot and for thirty years has been an FAA Senior Parachute Rigger. He has been a parachute consultant to the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor.

The last helicopter from which he parachuted belonged to the United States Marines and was on fire at the time.

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