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

Quartered safe out here

Ship me somewheres east of Suez,
Where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments,
An’ a man can raise a thirst…

Dear Mom,

April is the cruelest month, certainly in Indochina. One of the hottest months of the year, breeding not lilacs out of the dead ground, but every wild sort of tropical flower out of the rice paddies. We lie awake on our cots at the parachute rigging loft at the 911th Battalion Headquarters every noon outside of Phnom Penh, sweating and staring at the ceiling. Enforced naptime…the entire Cambodian Army sleeps from noon till two; surely only mad dogs and Englishmen would do otherwise in this part of the world. In a few hours the blinding rains will come, a little earlier each day, until one day they will come and not abate for ten weeks. Sort of an Asian version of Seattle.

Dogs. Thirty percent of the local dogs are rabid, or carry the virus or whatever that will make them so. Thirty five percent of all cats, ditto. Our little part of the Mekong Delta has the highest rate of malaria in the world. Fully fifty percent of all the whores carry the AIDS virus in this benighted but beautiful land, which has yet to recover from the genocide of the 1970’s.

There are five parachute riggers in our group, all fresh from the Army’s Special Warfare Command in Lopburi, Thailand. Two days before we all earned our Thai parachute wings by jumping from a tethered ballon at 800 feet, which is equivalent of jumping off the 80th floor of the Empire State Building and falling to the 55th floor before our parachutes open. We trust our cute little Thai riggers; there isn’t really time to use your reserve. I was such a zombie after forty-eight hours without sleep I wasn’t even afraid; I knew I was in horrible shape because this is always a bad sign. No reflexes left; got dragged across a field and ripped open my arm. “Braden, roll down your sleeves” said Colonel Ragge as three of us ascended in the gondola, getting whipsawed back and forth in the gusty winds. “Forget it” I replied. “I’m hanging on for dear life here and besides do you think I am so dumb as to stick my arms out on landing, or what?” Ten minutes later I recalled what pride goeth before, as the medics worked on my arm. A German colonel broke his leg in two places the next day.

Upon arrival in Cambodia, we were greeted by the commanding general and his staff of colonels and majors and captains. We can do no wrong. We are here to teach the Cambodian Army the finer points of parachute rigging and freefall techniques. Always be nice to your parachute rigger. The general gave me a birthday cake in the officers’ club, shaped like a parachute. I objected to the big “58” written across the bottom in frosting; his aide took a knife and deftly changed the “5” into a “3”. I am helping a lieutenant compose a Khymer-English dictionary of parachute rigging terms. He is an army helicopter pilot, and in another life teaches history in a local high school.

Mines Millions of mines here. Russian anti-tank mines, Bulgarian mines, Chinese mines, and perhaps the most feared of all, the American “Bouncing Betty” which will pop up and explode at a height of four feet. These maim rather than kill, as tens of thousands of the Khymer people can attest. Armless people, legless people, blind children…at a young age my father told me that it is better to maim your enemy than kill him, because then he is useless to the war effort and a drag on the enemy economy. Mines dropped out of B-52’s, rattling down upon the tin rooftops, sunk into the paddies, nestling in the banyan and banana and coconut groves, patiently lurking in the mangrove swamps for the weight of an elephant’s foot, the labored tread of a water buffalo, the soft step of a child. Sewing the wind with dragon’s teeth. Surely a righteous God see to it that those responsible will reap the whirlwind. We learn to never venture out into the fields. An Airborne regiment from Okinawa cleared thousands of them back in 1997, but perhaps as many as a million or two remain.

Skulls…a whole skyscraper full of them, erected right in the middle of the killing fields. Thousands and thousands of human skulls, a poor man’s Belsen and Buchenwald. And the torture museum in downtown Phnom Penh, where every sort of atrocity was committed. Hardly anyone here speaks French. Surely the language of the colonizing country couldn’t die out in a generation. But it did. It was killed off.

In the poorer markets, dogs’ heads for sale, and girls selling dried cockroaches to eat. At the airport, I chose not to treat myself to a Cambodian hot dog, believing firmly in Bismarck’s dictum that “Those who have a love for sausage, or the law, should never see either one of them being made.”

The following is a list of Pol Pot’s do’s and don’ts for those incarcerated in the infamous SR-21 jail. It once was a high school. Out of its ten thousand inmates, only seven survived.

                      THE SECURITY REGULATIONS
1.  You must answer according to my questions - don't turn them
2.  Don't try to hide the facts by making pretexts of this and
    that. You are strictly prohibited to contest me.
3.  Don't be a fool for you are a chap to dare to thwart the
4.  You must immediately answer my questions without wasting
    time to reflect.
5.  Don't tell me either about your immoralities or the essence
    of the Revolution.
6.  While getting punished electrically you must not cry out.
7.  Do nothing; sit still and wait for orders.
8.  Don't make pretexts about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide
    your jaws of traitor.
9.  If you don't follow the above rules, you shall get many
    lashes of electric wire.
10. If you disobey any point of my regulations you shall get
    either ten lashes or five shocks of electric discharge.

What a nightmare of a drop zone…blow a spot in Hawaii and you land in the ocean or cane fields. Blow a spot here and perhaps you wind up in a minefield! I was landing into a bunch of water buffalos or cattle or the like…like the Cape buffalo, they look at you like you owe them money. Decided to land in a rice paddy instead. At least we had a brand-spanking new Russian MI-8 helicopter to jump out of. Love that machine. (This newest mod had more power than the one we used in Mongolia two years ago.)

Saw a cobra get the hell bitten out of it today by a mongoose; we were in one of those innumerable river towns. Rikki Tikki Tavi is such a sham…there is just NO CONTEST here. The mongoose even turned its back on the cobra and still deftly dodged its strikes. It was toying with this cobra, which was about four feet long and mad and scared.

The mongoose (believe it or not) will strike the mouth FIRST and rip out the two fangs, one at a time. Then take its time killing it, just as a tomcat will toy with a little mouse. I thought the contest would be a little more even, but it wasn’t. The mongoose hardly seemed to be trying, but a mongoose is at least three or four times faster than a cobra, although you bet I didn’t measure this sort of thing scientifically.

Thursday I’m going to a crocodile farm, and then take the train west to see the Kwai River Bridge (there really is such a thing) over on the Burmese border. It is steel, and the Japanese floated it up in sections from Indonesia. RAF B-24 Liberators took it out in about fifteen minutes…much more prosaic than the movie. But life is more prosaic than the movies, otherwise we wouldn’t go to the movies!

There will be a water jump into a resevoir in South Africa this December…over seven hundred guys made the jump last year, out of South African C-130’s. Hey, I’m there, if it is during St. Paul’s vacation.


Your loving son,


P.S. “Kwai” is the word “f—” in Thai. It should really be “Kway”, (rhymes with “say”) and in any event is just the word “river”. Hollywood just must louse things up.

P.P.S. Here is a (real, non-Hollywood) picture of the bridge after the RAF finished with it.


No Responses to “Quartered safe out here”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: