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.
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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.
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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.