Part of the job meant getting out of the office and wandering around Thailand to meet the end users. They comprised of such upstanding fellows as the Navy, Air Force and various other departments in the employ of the government.
Visiting the Navy always ended up being a long day out and we never returned to Bangkok before the following morning having enjoyed the offered hospitality in the delightful setting of Sattahip by the sea. To get to Sattahip from the Mango, you point
your nose eastwards then keep going until you reach Pattaya, (Sin City). Travel for another 30 kilometres or so and you will begin to see ever increasing amounts of military activity. You have then arrived.
Being the Navy headquarters, Sattahip, (U Tapao), is a huge area of land and for the first few visits many an hour is wasted wandering around trying to find the place where you are expected. I would point out that this was where we're going only to be told we had to see, ‘so and so’ first. Used to drive me wild that did – but they ground me down. Welcome to Thailand. Yen dii, Yen dii.
Generally we would aim ourselves at one or two of the three sections that we dealt with, the Supply Centre to pick up details of new tenders and to enter our bids for previous ones, Maintenance and Overhaul for me to inspect sundry aircraft engines and what not, to try and get an estimation for what was required, and, the Air Wing, to see what was needed to keep the somewhat vintage fleet of aircraft serviceable for the next few months. Of course, once the paperwork exercises were completed the real business would commence, generally in the Officer’s snooker club as half days seem more or less to be part of the contract in the Navy.
On one particular day my wife had her day off and decided to come along to see the Navy setup at work, after all there had been an Admiral in the family at some point so perhaps she had a vested interest. (But there really ARE more Admirals in the Thai
navy than ships, and or, boats, count them.)
At the usual early hour we piled into the Landrover Disco then headed off, the early morning air was cool, Nu driving and dispensing instructions, Mem with the paperwork and contracts, myself with Pla who would try to look interested whilst I poked around with engines and rotor blades. Being a Thai female, if there’s a seafood dinner at the end of it my missus will put up with most things, especially if it’s free.
At our usual stop an hour out of Bangkok, the ladies voted the President and Vice President to go find provisions our vehicle, so stepping into the chill of a 7-11, Nu headed for the fridge and beer while I scooped up sarapow, dim-sum
and munchies for the ladies. The Thai habit of drinking beer at 10 in the morning takes some getting used to, but with practice can be mastered. Perseverance is all it takes.
We duly arrived at Sattahip and hanging a right, pulled up to the guardroom on the main gate. The sentry on seeing the I.D. stickers on the windscreen snapped to attention then presented arms before waving us through into the complex.
“Why do they do that for us?”, she asked.
”Do what”, I said.
“Do that with the gun”, she replied.
“Oh- we have the status as officers here, you see sweetheart”, I answered.
Pla went quiet and the gleam in her eye told me that she was thinking hard.
We rolled up to the Supply Centre and as Nu and Mem went in to sort out some bids Pla and I disembarked to sit under the trees to watch a bunch of Marines run up and down the hill in full battle order. As I sipped slowly at the ice cold beer, I remarked that being a defender of your country was all well and good, but not running up and down a hill in a 40 degree heat carrying 25 kilos of kit. Pla snickered then commented that I was getting old. It was lovely and quiet there apart from the distant yells and grunts of the Marines so I suggested we walk to the canteen that was set behind us a hundred metres or so. Mem and Nu would find us easily by using the simple tactic of asking anyone where the farang was hiding.
The canteen was basically four corner posts with a roof and some fans to stir the air around and was half full of sleepy enlisted men with a few officers wasting some time over a bowl of noodles and some beer. The normal stares met my arrival, after all, foreigners don’t just wander around military installations – I could have been after plundering all the beer or grog supplies for all they knew. That would be serious.
After we sat, I waved to the owner who smiled in return then came across with an iced bottle of Chang beer and two glasses. She also sat and mentioned that it was nice to see me again and was the young lady a new employee? I laughed, then said that she was my wife which caused the lady some surprise before she gave Pla a sympathetic look before saying the Thai equivalent of, ”Poor you”. (Sia dtye). (‘Regrets……’).
Soon they had got up to speed and were involved in the usual opening gambits of who knew whom where and were working out which cousins were mutual to both families. Thai family trees seem to stretch back into infinity; Sooner or later everyone is related to everyone else or has married into each other’s families. Weird.
I sat, enjoyed the heat, the cold beer and the discussion, noted that the noise from the Marines direction was becoming muted as exhaustion began to take its toll on them.
A shout disturbed our chat and on looking down to the Supply block we saw Mem waving us back to the motor and our next port of call.
Once on the move again it became apparent that our next stop was to be the Air Wing and as we passed the Navy Prison my wife nudged me, then smiled…….a lovely smile. A Thai female scary smile.
As we left the motor at Air Wing Engineering, the heat hit us like a shovel. It must have been hitting 41-42 degrees by then, but with no wind to move the air, it was rapidly generating the sort of climate that can induce bouts of insanity.
The guard by the entrance was standing fully exposed to the sun, dressed in full webbing, tin hat and was supporting an M-16 with fixed bayonet. He stood stock still, staring directly ahead, no doubt fantasising about char grilling officers. Especially officers who worked in air conditioned offices. But he was a Marine. He was tough. He could take it. As we entered the building the sentry snapped his boots together as he came to attention and thrust the M-16 erect in the ‘present arms’ pose.
Once we were passed him the salute was reversed as he returned to ‘stand easy’, the butt plate of the weapon striking the concrete with a ‘Clack’.
All was, ”Harro’s”, when we entered as our old Naval mates looked forward to a free lunch and the chance to catch up on the news over a cooling beer or twenty. I introduced my wife to the chaps and hoped that nobody minded her coming
along to see where her tax money went, and naturally the Navy being gents to a tee had no objections at all, and, indeed she was immediately issued with a temporary I.D., card.
“There you go Sweetpea – you are now acting Sub Lieutenant Nutchanat”, I laughed. She smiled in return, the glint once more returning to her eye.
We duly all walked into the hanger where I had some rotor blades to look over for delaminations or cracks which would take all of fifteen minutes, then to an engine to match the serial numbers with the paperwork. Then, I would be finished work for the day which was just fine by me. Pla had a quick glance around the cavernous hanger full of aircraft engines and components and having decided that this was of no interest to her gave me a tap on the shoulder then asked for the keys to the Landrover.
“What do you want to go out there for?”, I asked, ”It’s hot”.
“I forgot my bag”, was the reply, so I got the keys from Nu then handed them across before continuing with my blade inspection.
She was back in a few minutes smiling as though at peace with the world, (which she probably was), when the smile suddenly left her face as she said, ”My purse.” My suggestion that her purse was probably in her handbag was ignored. She did a quick ‘about face’, and was promptly out the hanger once more.
The blades were o.k., so after taking a careful note of the serial numbers, I pronounced them fit to ship for overhaul. (Not that anyone would substitute another set would they?) I moved along to the engine and began to rub the crud off the engine data plate to check the serial and was aware of Pla returning behind me. Once the number was clear I began to check it against the worksheet to notice, ‘her who must be obeyed’, disappearing out of the building once more. Nu caught my eye: I made a, ”I don’t know either”, shrug as I signed the sheet. I got finished, washed my hands, walked into the office to cool down to listen to the gang sort out the important bits of the itinerary; the eating and drinking bits that is.
Pla reappeared and handed Nu his keys as she grinned hugely to herself so I asked what the secret joke was. ”Nothing”, she replied but her eyes were fairly dancing with laughter. We all arranged to meet up in the mess for lunch so after handing in our IDs we left the building and as we did so the sentry slammed his heels together to lift his weapon in salute. As we walked past I noticed that he seemed somewhat grim with his jaw set in anger as his eyes followed Pla’s form to the Landrover.
It sort of clicked then, that this poor sod conscript on his 50 dollars a month salary had been leaping to attention every time she exited and entered the building. And boy, was it ever hot! Once on the move again and heading seawards I turned to Pla
then asked her,”What were you winding that sentry up for? Poor sod standing there in this heat with a tin hat on his head boiling his brain and you running in and out like a headless chicken….." Took a little time, but we worked
out the meaning.
“Well”, she replied in a sort of hopeful way.”How many times do you think that someone is going to salute me in my life?”
“Valid point”, I thought, ”So”, she continued, ”I just thought to use the idea while I can”.
I laughed and looked through the windscreen to the sea shimmering turquoise under a bright blue sky. Then thought of the year my Missus spent in Oz learning confidence. Actually, it was an English course in Perth!
Then I put my mouth to her ear and whispered a game that we could play that involved uniforms and giving orders. Maybe I whispered too loudly, as both Pla and Mem roared with laughter, Nu remaining impassive as he turned into the car park beside the mess.
As we walked towards the doorway, Pla smiled then said, ”Is there a soldier here as well?”
I laughed, said, “You really want to be shot don’t you?”, and then we entered for snooker, lunch and beer overlooking a lovely turquoise sea framed by palm trees. Just another day at work……
The poor sentry…