Reader’s Choice

So there you have it.  All of my overseas duty stations covered.  I suppose I could do the same thing with my stateside stations, but that might get a bit personal for the natives even though I retired from Skaggs Island, California way back in 1980.

I encourage readers to scan through my blog and pick out any special place they might like more details on.  I am sure I can supply things of interest for each and every one of them.

Just leave a comment and I’ll do my best.  With the nice spring season creeping up on us I might take a while though.  My camera is at the ready to capture some more bird/squirrel antics this year as they kick seeds onto the ground from the feeder and try to get into the cage with the suet.



Beautiful Thailand, Pt 5

One of the most entertaining (and wet) festivals I’ve ever been involved in is called Songkran.  Songkran is celebrated from April 13 to 15 (The New Year period) and consists of free-ranging people armed with buckets of water or power soakers.  No matter who you are, where you are, or how much you duck you cannot dodge a blast of water.

My introduction to this really fun fest was when I walked out of my bungalow and stood beside the road to catch the Baht bus for work.  A ‘lao-lao’ (literally – fast-fast) truck passed me but as it passed several passengers leaned out and pasted me with water.  In the background, I heard Nang go into hysterical laughter as I stood, dripping, with my mouth open.  My first reaction was one of rage, but, then I remembered Nang warning me several days ago.

Fortunately, the Marine utilities I wore dried off pretty fast in the heat.  Plus, the driver of the bus didn’t allow any water-throwing while in motion.  Now I understood why everyone was dressed in tee shirts, shorts and thongs.

I made it through the main gate of the base and stood my watch.  On my way home, I stopped by a friend’s room in the barracks and changed into my gym stuff.  Leaving the gate, I was primed to have some fun.

The next transportation to come by was another lao-lao truck.  I hailed it, dodged the water, and climbed aboard.  These trucks were a standard Toyota pickup, but was fitted with seats and a canvas cover in the bed.  This one had a big vat of water and spare buckets.  I joined in the general merriment as we waterbombed everyone along the way.

When I got home (thoroughly soaked) my friend Phupit, the taxi driver, Nang, and two other girls were ready to go out and soak some serious butt.  They’d located a pickup and filled a big plastic tank in the back.  Armed with huge water-soaker, pump-action squirt guns we headed for the center of town.  This video was taken in Bangkok but can give you some idea of the chaos during this New Year celebration much better than I:

– – –

The one good thing I liked to eat you can’t really get here.  That’s a nice juicy steak.  Very expensive restaurants can get it from Australia, but the little mama-sans and their charcoal braziers haven’t a chance.  What you can get, and is surprisingly good, is a water buffalo steak.  One weekend, myself and several of my neighbors planned and executed a block party.  Celebrations of all kinds always drew hordes of kids, and this was no exception.  To this end, we bought two hundred hot dogs to grill on our backyard grill.  We had two halves of a fifty gallon drum lying flat and covered with a cast-iron grill.

While we held off the kids with their hot dogs, we grilled a mountain of buffalo steaks marinated in teriyaki sauce.  Everyone on our street came to the event bringing lots of side dishes.  On my street alone, there were quite a few retired US servicemen and their families.  Add to this a bunch more active-duty types on their weekend, and we had a real party.

An actual Singha beer truck parked at the end of the street (since it was too narrow to turn around in) and we schlepped seven cases of beer down to be dumped into galvanized tubs filled with ice.  Add to that about six cases of assorted soda pop for the kids and a huge pot of green tea for those who didn’t drink either beer or soda.  We stayed away from the bottled napalm I previously mentioned.

By the time dusk arrived, lights had been strung and several local bands began tuning up.  One such band played professionally at one of the bars called The Golden Horse.  They were hugely popular and when they started their set everyone listened.  Their specialty was the current rock being played in the ‘70s; mostly from Deep Purple.  They did a version of “Smoke on the Water” that couldn’t be distinguished from the original group.  Well, maybe you could if you were half in the bag.

The bands playing American favorites were interleaved with pick-up bands of local Thai talent.  They were very good also.  One such band played a special tune that was composed just for our party.  It was done in the Mor Lam style I described in a previous post.  Somewhere I have it on reel-to-reel tape and I will find it sometime.

Parties, as opposed to festivals, run until everyone poops out.  Ours ran from Friday evening until Sunday morning; sometimes waning, but never completely stopping.  I don’t think I got more than three or four hours of sleep during the entire period.  We made a lot of friends during that time.  Nothing untoward happened because we’d also hired four off-duty Thai cops as security.  Nobody messed with them.  Tired, but happy, we just relaxed in the bungalow Sunday evening.

– – –

My tour of nearly thirteen months was coming to an end.  Nang and the housegirls were quite somber as they went about their duties.  Packers came and boxed up what items I did have to ship to California – my next duty station.  It was going to be very hard to leave this place.  I’d had so much fun and made tons of friends, but it was time to get back to my own family.

The morning of my last day, Nang hired four Monks to come and hold a brief ceremony.  It was touching to see all the girls sniffling as they tied yarn around my wrist.  This is a sign of respect and friendship.  By the time they and my neighbors had finished, I had a huge knot of threads on both wrists; and a lump in my throat.  I stood, made a small speech, and bowed over the food I’d given to the Monks and then walked out to the taxi for my ride to the air base and my flight home.

I haven’t been back since, but I would really like to do so.  I made a lot of friends over there.

Beautiful Thailand, Pt 4

While I was in Thailand, my current enlistment was nearing its end.  I’d already had twelve years under my belt and wasn’t planning on letting all that time go to waste by getting out so I put in a request chit to re-enlist.  It was duly processed and came back favorably.

Our personnel records were kept over in Clark Air Base (Philippines) so they could handle it, but I was offered the option of going down to Bangkok (Or, Krueng Thep as they know it) and getting re-hitched there.  This was my chance.  I’d always wanted to get back there after the wonderful time I’d had on Oxford.  Plans were made, and I caught a ride down in an old C-130 to the air base there.  Confident in my knowledge of Thai, I simply left the base and hailed a taxi.  What a mistake that was.

I had a hell of a time making my wishes known.  It seems that my diligence in learning Thai had turned out to be practically incomprehensible to the southern Thais.  I was immediately labeled a ‘hick’ because I spoke a northern patois called ‘Lao’.  Eventually, I found one driver who understood me well enough to take a whack at getting me to my hotel.  He did well and only passed the same intersection twice.

On our travels, which took around a half-hour, I spoke and he corrected me as best as he could.  It seems that for the most part I would have to pronounce all the “L”s as “R”s and vice-versa.  For instance, to pronounce the male honorific of ‘Khrap’ (Sir, or yes, or okay, or anything affirmative) I had to alter that to ‘Khlap’.  Down here, I really had to make sure of which gender I spoke in before opening my mouth.  It was possible, since I’d learned my Thai from Nang mostly, that I might slip out with feminine speech instead of masculine.  In their language, all you needed was to change the method of address to alter YOUR sex.  Very confusing; and it could net you grins at best – or worse.

The driver pulled up to my hotel and even before the paperwork at the desk was completed I was asked if I wanted female companionship.  This is a normal thing in a lot of hotels.  One is expected to act like most male Americans traveling by themselves and accept.  Married?  Smerried.  It made no difference to them.  I was firm, and said no; no doubt starting whispers behind my back as I went up to my room.

I’d come down two days early for the re-up ceremony and intended to make good use of it.  Armed with camera, several stashes of local currency, a largely unreliable map, and good shoe leather, I left the hotel.  Waiting for me was the cab driver that had brought me from the airport.  I asked him how he know I was going out and he said that he’d asked the desk clerk.  They knew because the hotel had no roving maids but, instead, relied on you telling them you were going out, plus they wanted you to drop off your key; hence, they passed this on to the cab driver.  Easy.

He named a very good price for an ‘all day’ fare, promising to show me the sights of Bangkok.  He did too.  We drove, walked, took Samlars, and even a miniature train to every tourist attraction in town it seemed.  Bangkok is sliced by hundreds of canals, called Khlongs.  Entire shopping areas move from one canal to another, selling wares from boats.  The boats themselves are kind of unique.  The waterborne equivalents of a taxi have a gasoline engine sitting in the stern with a very long drive shaft sticking out like a stinger on a bee.  To turn, they simply swivel the shaft out of the water and drop it back in at an angle.  The boat whips to the new course in an instant.  Among these are seemingly hundreds of slower and less agile craft.

These were pods of vendors selling all sorts of goods and they would bind themselves together and hire a tug to move them from one place to another.  For food, I ate some of the damndest things: A ball of rice with a small fish inside it, palm hearts (which are absolutely delicious), various types of smoked meats (don’t ask what they are), and other things for which I only received the Thai name (no translation forthcoming from my guide).  I drew the line at a big vat of huge water bugs.  He dipped in, pulled it out by it’s wiggly feet and downed it in one gulp.  I came close to barfing.

In one small two-seat “café”, I was handed a bowl of Pad Thai.  Now, I knew what this was and I spotted all the pepper seeds in it.  I’d always had a cast-iron stomach and had been eating the fiery food for months now.  The onlookers waited for me to spout fire and brimstone, but looked pleased when I asked for some more spices.  I couldn’t taste a thing for the next three hours, but it was worth it just to see their faces when I asked for more heat.

The most impressive attraction turned out to be Wat Traimit.  This is a temple and a very impressive temple but the sitting figure of Buddha, all done up in gold, took honors.  It stands nearly 17 feet tall and weighs 5.5 tons.  Nearby is another temple (Wat Pho) that holds the reclining figure of Buddha.  This is a huge statue that measure some 50 feet long.

We happened to be in the right place to catch the annual ‘turning of the royal barge’ in the Chao Phraya River.  It is a stately movement done in full regalia.  The barge is manned by hundreds of oarsmen who all stroke in unison.  The craft never leaves the immediate area of the palace though so my pictures were kind of fuzzy from a quarter-mile away.

– – –

It was time for my enlistment ceremony.  I got to put on my dress uniform for the first time in-country and was admitted to the office of Captain (USN) Werner.  We held up our right hands, and I repeated the oath for another four years.  The whole thing took about an hour.  Afterwards, I took my driver out to dinner in a restaurant of his choosing.  It turned out to be a place loaded with beautiful women and smiling men.  Before I had even been seated, two women had intimated that they were free for the evening and would enjoy my company.

I politely declined the first – although it would have been nice to at least ask her to dinner.  The second sidled over and as she began to speak, I received a subtle nudge in my back.  I listened closely to her speech and realized she was a he; very beautifully turned out, but nevertheless a he.  I guess after trying one of each, they all gave up and let us eat in peace.  The meal was excellent.

The next morning, my faithful companion, Vithoon, took me back to the base for my flight north.  I really hated to leave such a great place.  I’ve always wanted to get back there again but, so far, haven’t made it.


The Pharmacy

A nice, calm and respectable lady went into the pharmacy, walked up to the pharmacist, looked straight into his eyes, and said, “I would like to buy some cyanide.”

The pharmacist asked, “Why in the world do you need cyanide?”

The lady replied, “I need it to poison my husband.”

The pharmacist’s eyes got big and he explained, “Lord have mercy! I can’t give you cyanide to kill your husband, that’s against the law?  I’ll lose my licence! They’ll throw both of us in jail! All kinds of bad things will happen. Absolutely not! You CANNOT have any cyanide!”

The lady reached into her purse and pulled out a picture of her husband in bed with the pharmacist’s wife.

The pharmacist looked at the picture and replied, “You didn’t tell me you had a prescription.”



Beautiful Thailand, Pt 3

The next day we were taken on a tour of the kid’s school.  It wasn’t much, just three wooden and bamboo shacks stuck together with a fiberglass breezeway between them.  The more we were shown, the more somber we got.  One of us, a normally quiet guy, got really worked up and suggested that we do something to help them out.

We didn’t voice our ideas yet because we wanted to see what, if anything, we could do for them.  In the headmistress’s office, we broached the plan.  Our main concern was lighting.  They had no electricity so when it got dark they had to use oil lanterns.  All the adults were constantly on guard against fires accidentally started by rambunctious kids.  We had several other ideas also.  These were met with much enthusiasm by everyone in the room.  We were planning on writing letters to some of the souvenir slide companies to see if they had any damaged or not-quite-right slides they could give us.  These are the sides you see hanging next to cash registers at every tourist site.

They could also use a general painting and clean-up of all three buildings.  We didn’t mention it then, but another things we were looking in to would be piping water from the community well down to the school.  Plastic piping was very cheap in town – something like twenty cents for six feet of it.  I took copious notes and by the time we left all of us felt like we could really do some good here.

The very next payday, we held a little donation party and raised the sum of around $200.  A good, new, 5000 watt generator ran about $100.  The rest of the supplies, electrical cabling, switches, and light fixtures used up the rest of the money.  One of my Army friends knew a guy over at the facilities group that might be willing to wire the whole thing up for us if we invited him to our next ‘party’.  He found out later that work came before party.  He became a fixture on our subsequent visits.

Buying the generator was an exercise in stealth.  I had never ventured into the ‘industrial’ part of town, where various tradesmen worked so, right at first, Nang took just the housegirl down and found a shop that sold them.  She made two trips just to ensure the deal was made before we showed up to lug it off.  I could tell the shopkeeper was a little miffed that he’d been outmaneuvered by an American, but when I explained it was for a school darned if he didn’t slip in a really nice yard light.

– – –

Soon, we made visits almost every break we had.  In hardly any time at all the school was painted and some carpentry work done.  We’d installed two lights in every classroom (with the switches high enough so the kids wouldn’t play with them) and built a small enclosure for the generator.  Somebody found a big 50-gallon drum which we mounted on it’s side in a frame into which we would add a few gallons of gas for the generator each time we arrived.

A month into the project I was called down to the base post office to pick up a huge box that had arrived for me.  The guy wasn’t kidding.  It measured at least three feet long and two feet wide and about two feet deep.  I could hardly lift it so I called for more help.  The taxi driver got it into his cab and we carefully brought it back to my bungalow.

One of the slide companies had come through!  They had packed entire sets of slides from just about every tourist attraction in the United States into that box.  These weren’t faded or old slides, they were brand new!  Tucked into the middle was a very nice slide projector and five spare bulbs.  It was like Christmas in my house.  All the neighbors came around to look.  Our group spent three solid nights cataloging all the slides as to subject matter and area.  The snowy scenes were the hardest to explain to the kids.  They’d never seen snow in their lives.

The water supply turned out to be the hardest.  The school was down a road (cow path, actually) and there was simply no way to run the plastic pipe except on the ground.  The hooves of all the water buffalo tore up the dusty dirt pretty badly.  What we ended up doing was selling the plastic pipe back to the store and buying a hundred-gallon plastic water bottle and mounted it on a cart.  Whenever it needed filling, they’d uncouple it from the building pipes and haul it down to the well and fill it.

– – –

One day, the Mama-San came to me and said she was going to sell the bungalow I was living in.  She’d tried to tell the new owner that I was a good guy and deserved to keep the rent the same, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  My rent would double.  Nang went around in a funk for days growling something about moneygrubbers.  I tried to keep it philosophical, but still wondered if I could find a new place.

Across from my duty station was a television station.  No studios or anything like that, but just a relay station.  It was tended to by a technical superintendent and two helpers.  I’d already met the boss and taken the grand tour of the station.  Since I was a ham, I was able to make intelligent conversation about the equipment.  On a previous visit, I’d noted a small, nicely kept hut out on the grounds next to the front fence.

I went back and asked him about it.  He said it used to belong to a groundskeeper, but since they’d bought a tractor and mower, they didn’t need him any more and he left.  I made a pitch for the little bungalow and he accepted it.  I also offered to help around the shop making repairs and the like.

It was a great little home.  Three rooms, outside shower, two deep cisterns alongside the back wall with piping down from the roof of new galvanized steel, and a very nice charcoal grill in the kitchen.  It also had the usual food box set on stilts with their feet in large bowls of water to keep the ants out and an evaporative refrigerator.  Best of all, it had a telephone; which worked maybe twenty percent of the time.  It was hooked into the Thai telephone exchange which was modeled after Bell’s invention – about two weeks after he invented it.  You got used to hearing various squeaks, squawks, and garbles as intelligent speech.  Every time Nang used it, she grumble about the ‘peasants’ that ran the system.

I asked all the girls if they wanted to move with me but only Nang and one other accepted.  Moving for her consisted of gathering up a large bundle of items in a carrying tote over her shoulder and tossing it into the trunk of the cab.  My stuff took a little longer – eventually hiring a tiny little Toyota truck to haul it for me.

We got settled in quickly and I was surprised to find that I could wake up in the morning and be at work only a half hour later.  It sure beat the trip down and back from Udorn every day.  I certainly didn’t miss the sound of a flight of four F-4 Phantoms taking off with full bomb loads right overhead every two hours or so.  The noise from them was so solid that picture frames would be knocked off the walls when they shook.