Saturday, July 01, 2006

STORY: Thailand in the Sixties - First Day

Today, Sherman, we'll set the way-back machine to June, 1966...."
I have no conscious recollection of the flight from Ben Hoa, RVN. Mainly because I had gotten seriously drunk the night before the flight to Bangkok, there at the barracks they had us in and so was comatose most of the flight. I was awakened by the smells of Thailand, wafting through the newly-opened cabin door of the 707 and the rather loud sounds of about 150 soldiers - each as horny as a three-peckered billy goat - who were being told we had to wait another hour to get near enough to the terminal building to unload. (For those who may not know, that year the entire terminal was that one building that has "Bangkok, Thailand" in neon on the taxiway side of it.)

About ten minutes later, an enterprising fellow in the ground crew wheeled up a set of stairs, the doors were fully opened and we all rushed out into the bright sunlight of the early afternoon of Bangkok. The smells of frang-pangi and jet fuel mixed into a combination that still to me says, "You're in Bangkok". An interminable time later, several Army buses came for us, those few (officers) who had more than an AWOL bag they carried on the plane got their bags and the officers were whisked off to whatever hole in the ground they got to go to. We, the elite enlisted fighters of Uncle Sam's baby-killer branch, got to listen to nearly two hours of dull boring "orientation" lectures about Thailand. The only parts that stuck were: (1) Stay in your own part of town unless a Thai takes you elsewhere; (2) It's not necessary to rape anyone, they make their livings bonking you.

Another endless bus ride and I found myself looking out on a street that wasn't quite finished. The sidewalks were dirt and the street itself was only about one full lane and a wide shoulder paved. The rest of the street was - right the first time: dirt. (Later - perhaps years later - I found out this was "New Petchburi Road" or as the Thais call it "Petchburi Dhat Mai - 'New Cut'".)

The bus pulled into a startlingly modern hotel, about six or eight stories high, pulled around to the back and our military guide said, "This is where you boys get out. Don't forget: six days from today, we're coming back for you and if you're not here .... well, you want to be here." At which we all laughed. We got out, formed another of those inevitable lines that military life brings, and waited our turns to check into the back desk of the Olympia Hotel. (Nowadays, I think it's been called the "Modern Hotel" or something, but it's still there, just down the block from the Morokot Hotel.)

Finally - with a bellhop struggling with my AWOL bag containing four changes of underwear, socks and tee-shirts plus a shaving kit I hardly ever had to use apart from the toothbrush - I entered my room. There were two twin beds, only one person (me!) in the room, nice bath and windows. I gave the bellhop 20 baht (we had changed a bit of money at the orientation centre) and took the room key. The room key was a normal size, but it was attached to a wooden or plastic rectangle large enough to use as a "boogie board". I suppose they were afraid we'd steal the keys, else.

The bellhop left, I locked the door behind him. Tore off my khaki uniform, pitched it and my underclothing onto the floor, turned on the hot water in the shower and showered until I looked like a prune. I dried off, wrapped a towel around me, and went and took the badges and other crap off my uniform. I put the badges and brass into a drawer under the large mirror that faced my bed, called Housekeeping and finally got someone who understood "laundry". A tiny Thai woman picked up my khakis, underwear and the worst of the clothes I had brought with me. I returned to the bathroom, filled the tub with the hottest water I could stand (sit in, actually) and promptly fell asleep. When I woke, it was dark outside. My laundry had been returned while I slept and was clean, neatly folded and put away into the drawers of the dresser. The khakis were pressed neatly and properly, my badges restored onto them, and they were hanging on a clothes hanger in the closet/wardrobe, with my spit-shined low-quarter shoes underneath them. One of the two civilian outfits I had brought with me - both quite unique: blue jeans, white tee-shirt, coloured short-sleeved shirt, and white socks - was laid out on the empty bed next to mine. Mine had the covers pulled back, there was a fresh pair of large bath towels on my pillow, and they had stocked the little refrigerator. A note on the top of the 'fridge told me that I didn't have to pay extra for what was in it. I got my clean underwear on, turned out the lights, crawled between the cleanest sheets I had seen in over a year, savoured the air conditioning for the thirty seconds it took me to fall back to sleep, and woke up about 10:00 a.m. the next day, refreshed and ready for the delights of the City of Angels. I was 19 and that was a very long time ago, gentlemen and ladies, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.


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