Preface

Udorn

The Klong

The Routine

The Monsoon Season

One More For the Ditch

A Disappointment

Samchai

The Morning After

Family

The Monsoon Season

 

When Thailand's southwest monsoon season begins, the clouds seem a welcome relief from the dusty, blistering sun of the hot season, but during the next four months as the rainstorms continue to threaten hour after hour, day after day, week after week, throwing deluges down from the sky at unpredictable intervals, boredom soon takes the place of relief and tedium breeds ennui. Near the middle of the rainy season of 1973, United States combat operations in Southeast Asia ended forever — a joyful circumstance whose joy was mitigated for the thousands of Americans at Udorn Airbase by the monotony of the rains and the futility of being eleven-thousand miles from home with months to go and nothing important to do.

Colonel Gus Cass, commander of the 621st Tactical Control Squadron, headquartered at Udorn struggled daily against the effects of the tedium on his unit's morale. It helped that the officers he depended on most were a close-knit group. Willie Dobbs, his deputy for operations, was a short, dependable, matter-of-fact lieutenant colonel with a penchant for pithy, if sometimes profane, aphorisms. Ben Green, commander of the local radar site was a powerfully-built, easygoing major who was steady as a rock on the job, but whimsically unpredictable away from it. Willie and Ben were trailer mates. Each lived in one end of a forty-foot trailer and shared the bathroom in the middle. The third member of the trio, Wilson Simms, deputy for logistics, was a short, round major, with thinning hair and a bushy mustache who hid an original mind behind a placid, comic-drunk manner.

As the rainy season proceeded and the monotony deepened, Ben Green's usually haggard face became even more haggard, his joviality less universal, and his trips to town more frequent and prolonged. During after-work gatherings at one or another of the trailers in the officers' cantonment area Ben would alternate between long, staring silences and manic antics Cass was sure were designed to cover impatience. When the party moved on to the officers' club Ben would disappear. Clearly, something outside the squadron social whirl had captured his attention. After a while everyone began to worry about him.

"I don't know," Willie said when Wilson asked him. "I can't believe he's dumb enough to be going around town at night alone, but no one I know is going down there with him. You're his best buddy. You know anyone who's going down with him?"

Wilson shook his head. "He stays down there all night?"

"Sometimes," Willie said. "Yesterday morning he came in while I was shaving. He didn't look as if he'd slept much, but he was smiling."

Wilson combed his mustache with his fingers while he thought. "He was smiling?"

"Yeah. And whistling."

"Maybe he's found True Love."

Willie scratched his head reflectively. "Maybe we ought to check it out."

The two of them had an early dinner and gave Ben an hour's head start before they hailed a taxi and headed for town. The night was hot and the damp air was full of the smells of flowers and pungent cooking. Downtown the sidewalks were crowded and hubbub was everywhere. The food vendors' fires cast a red glow over the customers clustered around their carts and splashed light on passers by.

Ben wasn't in any of the usual places. Wilson and Willie had a drink next to an amplified speaker in Caesar's Club and departed half deaf. The Sunny Club was noisier than Caesar's and so crowded that they'd had two drinks before they could be sure Ben wasn't there. The Domino Club was quieter but it also contained a two-drink crowd.

"He wouldn't be at the Paradise Pool this early," Willie said as the two of them struggled out of the Domino Club through a phalanx of girls guarding the door. "Let's try the Charoen."

"The Yellow Bird?" Wilson paused in the middle of the crowd. "Too quiet for Ben."

"Not if he's in love."

One look around the Yellow Bird lounge in the Charoen Hotel was enough to tell them that Ben wasn't there, but they sat down anyway and had a drink so they wouldn't appear suspicious.

From the Yellow Bird they took a samblao — a bicycle rickshaw — back into the main part of town. "Maybe he's been sandbagged," Willie said. "Maybe he's lying in an alley right now."

"Maybe he's found a girl with her own bungalow."

"He always insists he's a straight arrow."

"Who doesn't?"

They paid the samblao driver and got out in front of the Champagne Room.

Finally, at one-thirty in the morning, after spending an hour watching the late, late crowd mill around the bar at the Paradise Hotel pool, they gave up. "Maybe we should check the Siri Udorn," Willie suggested.

"There are a hundred-fifty rooms in the Siri Udorn," Wilson pointed out. "It'd take us till noon."

"Not the hotel," Willie said impatiently: "The coffee shop."

They checked the coffee shop at the Siri Udorn, but Ben wasn't there. It was the end of the line. They shared a big bottle of Singha beer and took a taxi back to the base.

The driver let them out on Friendship Highway and they walked the last hundred yards to the main gate. As they approached the trailer park Willie let out a yell and stopped so suddenly Wilson bumped into him. Willie grabbed at him to keep from falling and nearly took both of them down. "Look!" he shouted. "There's a light in Ben's window."

They covered the last few yards at a dead run, but as they ran up the steps Willie tripped at the top of the stoop and crashed into his door with a thump that rocked the trailer. He lay still for a moment and then began thrashing about, slapping his legs and sides. Wilson backed away, horrified, and turned to run for his own trailer to call an ambulance.

"Son of a bitch," Willie said.

Wilson came back. "Are you all right?"

"I can't find my keys."

"Can you stand up?"

"It's no use standing up if I can't find my keys," Willie said. "I can't get into the trailer." After a moment he sat up on the stoop. "I found them." He remained sitting and reached over his head, but before he could get the key into the lock he dropped the key ring. Wilson heard it fall through a crack in the stoop and hit the ground. "Damn!" Willie said in a loud voice.

"I'll get a flashlight," Wilson shouted, starting for his own trailer.

"If you think I'm going under there tonight, you're crazy! There are snakes down there."

"Why don't you guys shut up and go to bed!" a voice shouted from somewhere down the row of trailers.

"Why don't you go piss up a rope?" Willie shouted back.

Suddenly Willie's door flew open and hit him on the shoulder. Ben stood in the open doorway holding a book. He looked at them for a moment and then started to laugh.

"Quit laughing," Willie said. "I lost my keys. I can't get in."

"You guys have a good time?" Ben asked.

"We looked for you in every damn bar in town," Willie said, indignantly.

"I'd never have guessed."

"Where you been all night?" Wilson asked.

"Right here," Ben said. "Where else?"

 

Two nights later Willie and Wilson, this time joined by Cass, found out where else. After staying on base a second night to throw them off the scent, Ben disappeared again. When he didn't show up at the club for dinner, Cass, Willie and Wilson grabbed a cab and took off for Caesar's. In the middle of town the cab driver made the mistake of stopping for a stop sign and they were rear-ended with a crash. The driver got out and ran back to look at the damage. "Come on," Cass said, throwing open his door. "Let's get out of here before the cops come and everybody decides the rich Americans ought to pay for this."

Willie and Wilson hot-footed after him down the busy street. They ran for two blocks before Cass finally slowed to a walk. Willie and Wilson caught up with him as he was passing a tiny tavern shoehorned between two large buildings. "La Petite," the sign said.

"Let's hide in here and have a drink," Willie said.

They went in. The place was petite all right. It had a six-stool bar and three booths. Four of the stools were occupied by a group of celebrating Thai. One booth was occupied by Ben. He looked up as they came through the door and started to duck, realized there was no place to duck to, and shook his head. "How did you bastards find me?" he asked as they squeezed into the booth with him.

Wilson looked around the room. "Surely you don't spend the night here."

"Of course not," Ben said. "I spend the night on base."

"Where on base?" Wilson asked. "It's me. Wilson. I'm your buddy. Remember?"

Ben leaned back and hooked his arms over the top of the booth. "How come you guys are so interested in my nocturnal habits?"

"How can we help if we don't know what kind of trouble you're in?" Cass asked.

"Honest, Mother," Ben said. "I'm not in any kind of trouble."

"We want to help you head off trouble before it starts," Willie said. "We think you may be consorting with the wrong kind of people."

Ben drained a half glass of Singha, set the glass down, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm not consorting," he said. "I'm a straight arrow."

"Do we know her?" Willie asked.

"Oh balls," Ben groaned. "You guys aren't going to give up are you?" He thought for a moment. "All right. I guess there's no way out. You can come along."

"Along where?" Wilson asked.

"Don't ask any dumb questions. Just come along."

Ben led the way out of La Petite and started off down the street at a fast amble. The trio followed along, stepping wide over puddles and broken spots in the pavement and jumping an occasional open storm drain. At this hour the night was full of action: voices from crowds that thronged the streets, plaintive, over-modulated Thai love songs and tinkling Lao music from radios in the backs of stores, pavements splashed with fragments of yellow light from shop windows and the street-vendors' cooking fires, food smells, spices, flowers, green smells from the sewers.

"Where we going?" Willie asked.

"To get food," Ben said.

"We've already had dinner," Wilson said.

"So have I."

"Then why are we going for food?"

They passed a corner where a little boy and girl were hawking garlands of jasmine intricately sewn together with other small flowers. The boy's head barely came up to Ben's waist. He wore nothing but a pair of ragged shorts and he looked as if he'd been sleeping in the mud. His sister, barely above Ben's knees, was dressed in a pinafore that was only a little neater than the boy's shorts. She was thin to the point of emaciation and had a sweet face, with huge, smoky eyes.

The boy stepped in front of Ben and waved a grubby fist full of flowers under his nose. "Song baht. Song baht," two baht, two baht, he shouted in a shrill voice.

"Sawadee," Hello, Ben said, executing a little bow toward the children. "Nung baht. Nung baht." One baht, one baht.

"Mai." No. The little boy lowered his arm. "Song baht."

"Nung baht," Ben repeated.

The child put the flowers under Ben's nose again and shook them. "Song baht."

"Mai me song baht," I don't have two baht, Ben said. He started to walk on.

The urchin ran after him. "Okay. Okay," he shouted.

Ben stopped again. "Qui baht?" how much?

"Okay nung baht," the boy said reluctantly.

Ben took one lei from the boy and one from the girl and gave each of them ten baht.

The boy grinned. "Khawp khoon mak khap!" Thank you very much, sir, he said, looking at the ten baht note. He put his hands together prayer-like on his forehead and waied to Ben, bowing low. The little girl bowed too. Her hands were full of garlands and when she waied the flowers covered her tiny face and left only the haunting eyes. Ben waied back with an elegant bow.

"But you got him down to one baht," Wilson said as they went on.

"Right," Ben said. He stopped and held the garlands under the light from a shop window. Tenderly he fingered the delicate, fleshy blooms. "Look at the workmanship in that." He lifted the flowers to his face and inhaled. "The sexiest perfume in the world. And only ten baht." He stuffed the garlands carefully into his shirt pocket.

"A bargain at a tenth the price," Willie said.

"Venality!" Ben said. "You guys have always been loud, nosy, lewd and drunk. Now you're turning mercenary. If you keep it up, you'll have a corner on the deadly sins."

They were passing a food vendor's cart. The small, wiry proprietor wore grease-stained khaki pants, a floppy sombrero-style hat, and a Ho Chi Minh beard, and was stir-frying something in a wok that emitted a spicy smell. Ben stopped in front of the cart and the man smiled at him with betel-blackened teeth. "Sawadee," he said without slacking the scoop-and-turn motion of his slotted wok spoon. "Melican G.I. Me spik Englit."

"Khap?" Sir? Ben said.

The little man pointed his free index finger, bent politely so that the knuckle rather than the tip was aimed at Ben. "Khap, you Melican, mai?" You're an American, right?

"Chai," Yes, Ben said. "American."

"Meh-li-can," the vendor said carefully. "Spik Englit me. How you to-nise?"

"I'm fine tonight," Ben said. "Need some food."

"Ching?" Really? the man asked. "Why you ease Thai food?"

"Chaub khang khao Thai," I like Thai food, Ben said.

"Mai poot Thai, khap," Don't speak Thai, sir. "You Melican. Spik Englit me!" The man thumped his chest. "Me spik." He grinned proudly.

"Okay, I speak English you. Need food." Ben lifted six hard-fried meatballs on sticks out of a can of several dozen and waved them toward the vendor. "Monkey balls," he said.

"Dyelcon, khap," Wait, sir, the man said. He pulled a bowl out of the cart, scooped the contents of the wok into it, and set the bowl on the cart's table extension. "Pot het," he said, pointing at the bowl. "Watz spik Englit?"

Ben looked into the bowl. "Mushrooms," he said. "Fried mushrooms."

"Mutz-loom," the man repeated. "You want?"

"Mai, khap," No, sir, Ben said. "Aow khao." Want rice.

"Khao." The man nodded wisely. "Same lytze." He reached into the cart and brought out a small parcel wrapped in a banana leaf. "Lytze," he repeated, handing the parcel to Ben.

Ben lifted a corner of the green banana leaf. "Rice," he agreed. He looked into several of the bowls arranged on top of the cart and pointed at one. "Some of that fish too."

"Fitz." The man found a piece of newspaper and began to wrap the fish.

"And one of those," Ben said, pointing at a row of squid that hung from a rack on the cart. "Octopus."

"You're not really going to eat this stuff!" Wilson said.

Ben ignored him. "Me nam pla?" You have fish sauce? He asked the man.

"Fitt saut," the man said, nodding. He took out a small banana leaf and spooned some fish sauce into it. "Numba one." He smacked his lips.

The banter went on for several minutes while Ben collected a full Thai dinner, wrapped in two packages with broad, green banana leaves. "Qui baht" how much "for all. . ?" Ben asked the man, waving his hand over the collection.

"Hok sip baht," the vendor said.

"Sixty baht?" Ben asked in an indignant voice. He pulled a wad of damp bank notes out of his back pocket and peeled off a twenty and a ten. "Okay thirty?" he said, holding out the money.

"Sam sip baht?," the man said in a voice full of feigned disbelief. He broke into a wide grin and shook his head. "Nitnoy baht, khap." Not much money, sir. "Horty fie baht," he countered.

"Nitnoy food, khap," Not much food, sir. "Horty." Ben fished another brown ten baht note out of the crumpled wad in his hand.

The man laughed. "Okay. Horty baht. Okay." The vendor waied to Ben, then took four bananas off a rack and handed them to him. "For you. Numba one Melican GI. Spik Englit me. Me can spik"

"Chai," Ben said. "You speak good."

"Khawp khoon, khap," Thank you, sir, the man said. He pointed at his chest. "Me Kaliphot. What you name?"

"Ben," Ben said. "Happy to meet you."

"Happy meetz you," Kaliphot said, pumping Ben's hand. "Hab good time to-nise go town." He grinned and added: "Find pooying, get keemau, hab good time, mai?"

"Look at that," Willie said. "He's got him pegged. Find a girl, get drunk, have a good time. That's our Ben."

Ben paid the man and picked up one of the packages. "Carry that for me." Wilson picked up the second package.

At the next corner Ben turned down an alley that led to the market. The sounds and smells intensified and the hawkers became more insistent. A young wood carver dressed in neat slacks and a sport shirt stepped out of a cubicle in front of Ben and held up one of his carvings, a naked man in a barrel. "Numba one, khap. Only one hundreh baht. You buy."

"Mai ow, khap," No thanks, sir, Ben said. He brushed on past the man.

The hawker ran after him and caught his arm. "Eighty baht, khap." He tapped the barrel with his finger. "Numba one can do."

"I know what it can do," Ben said. "I've seen it before."

The hawker grasped the carving by its feet and slipped the barrel up its body. A huge, spring-loaded phallus popped up from under the barrel. "See," the hawker said, delightedly. "Numba one, mai?"

"Mai," No, Ben said, walking on.

"For you, one time spe-cial price," the hawker insisted. "Hifty baht."

"Song baht," Two baht, Ben said. The hawker gave up and went back to his stall.

They were nearly out on the street again when Ben stopped at a stall and bought a basket. He put the two food packages into it and they pushed on through the crowd. A dozen or so samblaos were clustered at the next corner. The drivers were crouched on their heels in a circle on the sidewalk, chattering to each other. As the four Americans approached, one of the drivers raised his hand. "Samblao, khap?" he said to Ben.

"Chai," Yes, Ben said. The driver stood up and Ben indicated by hand signals that he wanted to go about six blocks. "Qui baht?" How much, he asked.

"Sip baht," Ten baht, the driver said.

"Ha baht," Five baht, Ben countered.

"Okay," the driver said, mounting his bicycle seat.

The other drivers were on their feet, clustered around the other three Americans, plucking at their arms. "Samblao, khap?"

"Wait a minute?" Willie said as Ben started to get into his samblao. "Where you going?"

"If you want to find out, you'd better move fast," Ben said.

"Dyelcon," Wait, Cass said to Ben's samblao driver.

"Ba!" Let's go, Ben shouted.

"Dyelcon! Yeut!" Wait! Stop! Ben's driver had risen in his seat to set the samblao in motion but Cass ran around in front to keep him from starting. Behind him, Willie was haggling for a second samblao. "Get us three," Cass shouted at him.

"Why? We can all ride in one."

"He'll outrun us," Cass said.

In a minute the three were seated in separate samblaos. "I told the drivers five baht," Willie said.

"Sip baht" Ten baht "if you keep up," Cass told his driver, pointing to show him what he wanted.

"Sip baht," the driver repeated, happily, glad to oblige.

"Sip baht, you do same," Wilson said to his driver.

They started off down the street and almost immediately Willie's samblao fell behind. "You'd better tell him ten baht if you want to stay with us," Cass shouted at Willie.

"Sip baht," Willie shouted waving his arms to urge the driver on.

"Sip ha baht," Fifteen baht, Willie's driver shot back.

"It's a holdup," Willie shouted. "Ten baht is all you get." Willie's samblao fell farther and farther behind and because of the hubbub in the street he soon was out of earshot. As they passed under a street light Cass looked back and saw Willie still waving his hands. In a minute Willie's samblao began to gain on the other three and as Ben made a sharp left turn down a narrow street Willie caught up and fell into position just behind Cass.

"How much?" Cass asked.

"Never mind," Willie said. "Just turn around and keep Ben in sight."

They followed Ben through several more turns, going farther and farther away from the center of town into streets that became narrower, dingier, and darker. The rattle of chains in sprockets and the sizzle of tires against the pavement became practically the only sounds. Finally, Ben pulled up at the mouth of a poorly-lighted alley lined on both sides by battered stucco walls and pole fences, interspersed with run-down one and two-story buildings. The other three samblaos pulled up alongside with a squeal of metal brakes. "Sonovabitch," Willie said as the samblaos drove off.

"How much?" Cass asked him.

"Fifteen baht. For a five baht ride."

Ben started off down the alley. Following behind, Wilson tripped over a curb and nearly stepped into an open sewer that ran down the center of the alley. "Watch it," Ben said. "If you fall in there you'll dissolve before we can pull you out."

"Where in hell are we going?" Willie asked. "This looks like the Little Bighorn to me."

"Not so bad at night," Ben said. "It's scarier in the daylight."

Half a block down the alley Ben stopped and knocked at a battered door set into the side of a two-story building. In a moment they heard the sound of bolts being withdrawn. A worn-looking woman of uncertain age cracked the door and peered out carefully, saw Ben, smiled, and threw open the door to him. The other three followed him inside. The woman waied and bowed nearly to the floor in front of Ben. Ben set the basket with the two banana-leaf wrapped packages on a small table. "Khang khao," Dinner, he said.

"Sawadee, pi Ben," the woman said, using the form of address reserved for elders and people of higher rank.

"Sawadee, Pimbock," Ben said. He turned to the group of three men who nearly filled the tiny room. "Pimbock, this is Colonel Cass, our commander," Ben said, nodding toward Cass.

"Sawadee, Colnan," Pimbock said, waiing to Cass with another deep bow.

"I'm happy to meet you, Pimbock," Cass said.

"And this is Colonel Willie and this is Major Wilson." Pimbock waied again to the other two. "Is Sakuna asleep?" Ben asked.

"Chai," Pimbock said. "But she wake up now." She went to the back of the room and bent over a huge basket that was lined with bedclothes. In a moment she straightened up with a small child in her arms.

As Pimbock turned back toward the light, Cass drew a quick breath. The left side of the little girl's face was a huge red scar, her hair replaced on that side by a mat of scar tissue.

"Sawadee, Sakuna," Ben said. "Time for dinner."

Sakuna gave him a sleepy smile. "Sawadee, Pi Ben. Bainai, ka?" Hello mister Ben, how are you, sir?

"Dee mak," Great, Ben said. "Monee." Come here. Ben pulled one of the room's two small chairs up to the table and Pimbock gently put Sakuna down in it. Sakuna began unwrapping the banana leaves, squealing with delight at each fresh treat. "Ti ni," Here, Ben said to Pimbock. He pulled the remainder of the wadded bills out of his pocket and handed them to her. "This should get you to Bangkok with a little left over."

"Khawp khoon, ka," Thank you sir, Pimbock said. "We go… morning. Someday maybe I sank you, Maior Ben. Now no can." The shade was down behind her eyes and her face was blank, but tears were streaming down her cheeks. "Sakuna newah foget. Pimbock newah foget."

"I'll never forget either," Ben said. "You write to me when you get settled in Bangkok."

"Chai."

"We have to get back to the base," Ben said. He bent over the table and put his head next to Sakuna's. "Sawadee," he said. "I come to Bangkok. Visit you. Sometime, nitnoy," little one. "Ti ni." Here. He took the jasmine leis out of his shirt pocket and put them around her neck. "Lek dawk mai." A little flower.

Sakuna reached up and hugged him. "Sawadee," she said. "See you."

The other three men said good-bye to Pimbock and Sakuna in turn and the four went out into the alley. Pimbock closed the door behind them and they could hear her slapping the bolts back into place. They walked the length of the alley, back to the street, in silence.

Willie flagged down a passing cab and the four of them shoehorned themselves in. "Bai base," To the base, Willie said. "Ha baht." Five baht.

"Sip baht," ten baht, the driver said.

"Okay," Willie agreed, uncharacteristically giving up without a haggle. "Sip baht."

The cab took off through the still-busy streets and they were halfway back to the base before Cass said to Ben: "Okay. Tell us."

"Tell you what?" Ben asked, peering out the window at the pedestrians as they flashed by.

"Come on," Cass said. "Tell us."

Ben went on looking out the window. After a long time he said: "Sakuna got burned in a house fire. I found them begging on a street corner."

"That's it?" Wilson said. "That's all you're gonna tell us?"

"What else is there to tell? That's the whole story."

"They're going to Bangkok tomorrow?" Cass asked.

"Right."

"For good?"

"Right. Pimbock's got a job there."

"How… if she's here and Bangkok's there?" Cass asked. "I haven't heard of any nationwide Thai employment agencies."

"I called Jerry Kelly in Bangkok," Ben said. "He put out the word through the hotel-girl grapevine. You know those girls'll do anything to make Jerry happy. She's gonna be a hod carrier."

"Bullshit," Willie said.

"No," Cass said. "I believe him. I was at Ubon nine years ago when the buildup started on the base. Most of the hod carriers I saw were women." Everyone fell silent again. "You pay for the. . . apartment?" Cass asked.

"Yeah," Ben said. "It's not exactly elegant, is it."

"What about Sakuna?"

"Yeah. I paid her doctor bill. Pimbock was a minor wife. Her husband left her about six months ago when she got laid off at the BX. Then their house burned, about a month ago — just before I met her. She didn't have anything and the neighbors weren't all that sympathetic." Ben stopped talking and stared out the window again. Finally, he said: "I don't know if the doctors in Bangkok will be able to do much. Sakuna's never going to be pretty, but she may be better off than she is right now."

The taxi driver let them out on Friendship Highway just as it started to rain and they began walking down the approach to the base, past the closed shops which, in the daylight, sold stuffed cobras and wicker papa-san chairs. They passed a disheveled-looking woman standing near the bottom of the drainage ditch and she pulled open her light robe. She was naked underneath. "Aow pooying, GI?" Want a girl, GI?

"Sakuna's the same age as my littlest daughter," Ben said, without glancing at the woman. They walked on silently toward the gate.

"It's okay," Cass said. "If there's some way we can help, tell us."

"No," Ben said. "It's my problem." The gate guard checked their ID cards and saluted. They returned the salute and walked on, oblivious to the rain, which by now was streaming down their faces.

"It's finished," Ben said. "I'm going to miss them."

They went on toward the walkways that turned off in the direction of the trailer area. "It's early," Cass said. "Let's go on to the club and have a drink before bedtime."

"Yeah," Willie said. "It'd be good for our souls."

 

Aftermath

Massage

Sunday Morning

Housegirls

Sawadee (Hello)

The Island Paradise

The Drunk

The Christmas Season

Sawadee (Goodbye)

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