• South Lake Hotel Changchun
• Swiss-Bel Hotel Changchun
• Yatai Hotel Changchun
• Green Land Hotel Chengdu
Life and times spent in Asia can’t be ALL about women and fast wheels though I certainly give it my best effort. When reality becomes the focus many might be surprised to find that life in Asia can be very ordinary most of the time. For instance it’s Friday night and while I’m in Bangkok I’m not out with a beautiful girl, not out drinking, and not doing anything more exciting than sitting here on the couch with my keyboard on my lap writing yet another submission. Shocking? Perhaps, but for any expat it’s just reality. Weekdays are spent working, we all have homes to return to after work, and recreational activities revolve around the necessities just as they do for those still living in their home countries dreaming about moving to Thailand some day. So why live here if life is mostly ordinary? Simple, because when you do find the time and energy to hit the town and have fun Asia has some of the most fun places in the world with sanuk and games worth writing submissions about. These times have been rewarding enough to keep me here year after year. This submission I want to share with you an activity some of us stationed in Okinawa used to have a ball with and in the process reveal my “inner geek.” Bear with to the final paragraphs and I promise you an interesting ending!
Inner geek? Yep. I might not ever live this down but it’s time to come out of the closet and fess up. My name is BKKSW and I’m a Amateur Radio Operator. Not only am I a geeky amateur radio operator, but I’m an Extra Class which means I’ve achieved the highest level of Geekdom. For those of you in the know this means we have to understand electronics to a fairly decent level and be able to copy Morse Code at 20 words per minute. Can you think of anything more geeky than sitting home learning how to translate dits and dahs into real words and numbers? Back then I was known as a Super Geek so it only took me two weeks t achieve this level and pass the exam. Later there were those whining it was too hard, no one wanted to spend the two weeks to learn the code, so the FCC reduced this to 5 words per minute and when the complained about that recently eliminated this requirement all together. Heck, so now my two week accomplishment that allowed me to achieve great status in the radio world has been nullified and means nothing. Fun days they were, waving that license to the “lesser” geeks who had one of the lower licenses provided an substantial ego fix. Nope, we’re not going to stop with just the license. I’m going to illustrate exactly how geeky we were by sharing the interesting parts of three fox hunts.
Fox hunts? Yes, often a bunch of military guys out on the town would pursue the best looking women we’d call ‘foxes’ but this wasn’t one of those times, not nearly geeky enough. Amateurs operate radios and this often means they interfere with the neighbors television or phone and this can create ill will. To combat this we’d self-train to develop the necessary skills to detect and eliminate interfering signals and make a game of it. We called it “fox hunting.” The rules were simple. The “fox” would be the operator who would hide somewhere and transmit. This person at a predetermined time would transmit for a solid two minutes and then every 10 minutes transmit for up to 30 seconds. The “fox hunters” would triangulate the signal using home built but sophisticated directional antennas and receivers and pinpoint the location of the fox and then go find the fox. The first one to find the fox would receive a geeky trophy, a geeky plaque, and at the next event the winner would get to be the fox. Sounds fun? Just wait until you hear how the Japanese did it!
In Okinawa we had a JARL (Japanese Amateur Radio League) club that allowed foreign membership. The members were really nice and to show them respect several of us not only had Japanese reciprocal licenses obtained by applying using a US license and receiving the same class/level Japanese license in return, but also earned actual Japanese licenses by taking both theit written and Morse code exams in Japanese. Reciprocal licenses used call letters that let everyone know you were a foreigner. Japanese licenses used the same call letters for anyone who could earn one. A few of us who held the top licenses passed the tests and received our Japanese license and call letters and I’ll admit it felt pretty good, like we’d achieved something special. Our Japanese friends took it very seriously and to them it meant a lot. We gained respect and in my case when it came time for the local club elections I was the first foreigner ever elected to hold an office in the club. Those of us with Japanese licenses were also the only ones to get actual invites inside our Japanese friends homes as the Japanese routinely entertain outside the home and not inside the home. Only the closest friends and family get invited inside a Japanese home. Amateur Radio in the US and other western countries used to be a lot more popular than it is today but never reached any high level of popularity. In contrast the Japanese love amateur radio and besides for baseball and golf it might be their most popular activity. This is why their club and their activities were held in such high regard and why it allowed us to have so much fun. Every other Saturday morning nearly a hundred amateurs (sometimes more) would turn out for the fox hunt and the parking lot where we met would be packed with cars sporting weird looking antennas with excited geeks at the wheel! A typical fox hunt would last about 3-4 hours, the best ones lasted until dusk. The longer they went on after the three hour mark, the more the fox would transmit and try to help people find them. I was the fox a number of times so allow me to share with you three of the most interesting fox holes I created. I should mention that since this was a recreational activity we usually paired up with a buddy. My buddy was almost always Mike, an Air Force FAC who distinguished himself several times in Vietnam, a finer man I’m never met.
This would be a good time to mention that it was my habit to search out my ‘fox hole’ the weekend before the hunt and it would give me a good reason to ride my motorcycle all across the island in search of electrically unusual places. There were no geographical limits, the entire island of Okinawa was our playground. This day Mike and I had brought some alligator clips and wire with green insulation and some with brown insulation.. We were on top of a small mountain with a flat top where a baseball diamond had been built and today there was a game scheduled at the same time the hunt was to begin! Surrounding the baseball park was a high chain link fence. Arriving early and using the alligator clips and appropriate colored wire we electronically connected the entire fence making a horseshoe shaped antenna over 2000 meters in length which was on top of a mountain! The hunters would have no problem hearing our signal, probably there would be people on the other side of the ocean who could receive our signal. The hard part about this hunt would be attenuating the signal to such a degree that they could actually determine in which direction we were. After we connected the fence into the big antenna we laid down some wire from the fence to the bleachers and took our place to watch the game with a few hundred Japanese seated all around us. Even if they showed up in the parking lot the signal would be too big to know for sure where the transmitter was located and with us hidden amongst the baseball fans we wouldn’t be found until we became very obvious. Needless to say many made it to the top of the mountain, but no one could find us until the game was finished and everyone started to go home leaving us in the bleachers waiting to be noticed. This was a legendary fox hole talked about for as long as I was there, perhaps after.
On another occasion Mike and I found a cave entrance conveniently located behind some vegetation. We figured we’d ‘shotgun’ the signal out of the cave at a very low power which would be easy to detect with good equipment, but the hike in from the road was over 10km’s! We wanted them to work for it. Arriving that morning we went into the cave to set up figuring we could sit outside in the sun on folding chairs most of the day until they got close. Inside the cave for the first time we discovered it was a burial cave so we were very careful not to touch the artifacts which in this case were the physical remains of someone’s family long forgotten about. It took them over four hours to get close and once in the cave another TWO HOURS to find us and then only because we allowed them to. For some reason not one of the 50 odd people who were less than 10 meters from the cave, could see the cave. How we saw it that first day so easily must have been luck. We were teasing them by telling them what they were wearing, asking them to play Simon Says in return for more transmissions they could use to find us. We teased them mercilessly for over two hours and then got bored with their lack of progress and getting them to all line up start walking towards our cave, which from their perspective looked like they were walking into the side of the mountain. When someone finally parted the bushes and saw the cave entrance with the both of us sitting there with shit eating grins on our faces they were all ready to kill us. Fun times for a geek!
This last fox hole is the reason I wrote this submission. The memories to this day are just as strong as then. That Saturday morning Mike and I drove our bikes out to the north side of the island and hiked into an area we were certain no one had visited in a long time. We had reason to believe that the Japan wide annual fox hunt would be held in Okinawa and thousands of participants would be involved. We had been asked to be the foxes if this happened, so an extra special place was required. Walking in about 4-5km’s there was a lot of trees and vegetation and wild things and it was quite beautiful. With hills and jungle all around us you could almost hear the fighting going as over 50 years ago, having studied maps of the area we knew several major battles had taken place nearby and we were always on the lookout for artifacts. Little did we know today would be a special day.
Something about the trees ahead looked strange and I walked towards them not quite figuring it out until it was almost too late, what I was looking at were “tree tops” at ground level! How could this be? Approaching carefully we were walking through a lot of leaves and dead vines and stuff when right before us appeared a big hole. Looking around we estimated the hole to be about 30 meters from side to side and looking down about ten meters deep. It looked pretty rough down there, lots of dead vegetation mixed with what live stuff would grow, but mainly dead leaves and other brown and dry stuff. Mike and I looked at each other at the same time and started smiling, what if we transmitted from the bottom of this hole? Our signal would be extremely directional but very weak, the signal would go straight up and bleed over to the sides. We made plans and talked about how we would do it but finally made the determination we’d need to go down there and take a look to be sure it was safe and usable. On the day of the fox hunt we’d make sure to bring ropes and climbing gear with us but today we’d have to climb down the trees growing from the bottom. Selecting the tree closest to the side with a stout branch to get us over to the trunk we began our descent.
It was a bit hairy, back then there were no cell phones and with both of us needed to get down there if we had an accident or issue no one would know where we were. So carefully, limb by limb we descended into hole armed with only two flashlights we always carried in the packs we took on such jaunts. Sitting on the last branch we were about two meters from the bottom of the hole and were forced to jump. I went first and my feet went “cruuunnncccchhh..” Something was very strange about the texture and sound of the ground cover and I figured it was years worth of dried stuff. A moment later Mike landed beside me and as he stood up he gave me a funny look and commented on the ground. Shrugging we both took a few steps and stopped, the steps sounded something like “crack crack crunch crunch” and it felt like we were depressing the ground, in a way flattening it. Squatting down we brushed away leaves with our hands wanting to know more about these strange sounds and feelings. Mike must have reached some depth a moment before me because I heard a sharp intake of air and a grunt of surprise/fear followed by a “holy shit!” A few seconds later I experienced the same reaction but I think I said “sweet Jesus on a cracker” or something like that..
He was staring down at the dirty white of a thick femur, I was looking into the empty eye sockets of a skull! Now being very careful where we stepped we started brushing away leaves revealing many sets of remains, looking more closely we found bits of Japanese military kit including uniform fragments, a leather binocular case with rusted binoculars inside, canteens, and perhaps trash. We both wanted to look more after we found an old rusted sword, and I think our “private find” and the odds of finding good stuff and what we’d do with it once we found it flittered across out minds as we both looked at each other and said “nah…” We knew we’d have to report this one so carefully climbing out of the hole we marked a tree every so often heading back out to our bikes and rode back home in silence. We were pretty inexperienced at this stage in our lives but we knew we’d come across a mass grave and we could easily visualize soldiers standing at this hole tossing in body after body. At 30 meters across it would certainly hold a lot of bodies and from all indications it was pretty full. From our brief dig with our hands we figured there were at least 4-5 layers. Arriving home we talked about what we found and who exactly we should report this to. Not knowing anybody personally and having different chains of command we ruled out our military commands, besides we weren’t real excited about explaining our geek activities and being teased about it. We finally called the president of our local JARL club who was our friend and asked him. He knew someone who knew someone and the next day we were put in touch with someone at the university and made arrangements to take them out there the following weekend. We didn’t make it back for nearly five weeks as my command saw fit to send me elsewhere for a while, but on my return we led them out there and rigged some ropes because being the academic types they were I think they would have preferred an elevator and would never had made the tree climb.
They were only down there about 40 minutes before coming out and they were very excited and swore us to secrecy like we were really going to tell anyone. The coming months were spent getting funding and almost a year later they completed their work and we were invited at several stages to take a look at the artifacts. Some things were remarkably well preserved including a handful of very old samurai swords commonly carried by their officers. Both Mike and I commented on those, but he was especially taken with a sextant and compass. Eventually it was written about in several local papers and we both received letters of appreciation from the university and from the Governor of Okinawa delivered through our commands which was nice. We both were invited to a dinner honoring the team who do the excavation and in a very serious ceremony were both presented with a choice artifact from the site. I won’t say what they were, but in my case a paper was given allowing me to take it from the country and to this day it remains in one of my large gun safes in storage back in the states and will be passed down to my boys along with the other contents of the safes.
What started out as a fun but geeky activity as a way to kill spare time turned out to be some great memories of time and activities shared with friends who I keep in touch with to this day. My friends Mike, J.D, Mary, Tim, Hiro, Oshi, and others are in occasional touch as we exchange emails every now and then. Over 20 years ago we went for a hike in the jungle and climbed down a hole. Today a local museum has on display many important artifacts we were responsible for finding and on a wall with photographs and newspapers documenting the event is a picture of Mike and I rigging the ropes for their first descent and further down the wall another picture shows us at the dinner with huge smiles being presented or keepsakes.
Memories and old stories are nice enough, but this summer both my sons will visit me here in Bangkok and this will be the first visit to Bangkok for my oldest since a child, while my youngest has been here often enough to accrue enough frequent flier miles to earn him access to the VIP lounge and business class upgrades. I hesitate to go this much into detail, but my oldest son was born overseas and spent over a year with me in Okinawa with his mother before we parted for good during my second year on the island. Some day I might write a separate submission on the times we spent with just him and I alone doing father/son activities in Japan, our vacation together in the Philippines, and a weekend in Hong Kong, just him and I together. This summer however we’ll spend five days in Okinawa with his younger brother showing him our old home, the bike trails we used to ride together, visit the bases where I worked and the barracks my youngest sons mom stayed with me in, the beaches where we made our camps, and then we’ll be visiting the war museum and we’ll see if he’s paying attention to the pictures this time :Spring before last when I visited him for a week in Honolulu we took a tour of the now mothballed battleship Missouri on display at Pearl Harbor when a young tour guide came up quietly and asked me if I’d ever been stationed on the Might Mo. I told her I was never stationed on her but once during Desert Storm I’d been onboard for less than two weeks when my team staged from her decks. She took us both over to one of the many pictures on the wall and asked if that was me. My son found me in the picture before I did, somehow me and my team were snapped while busy laying out gear and we never knew.. and that picture is one of many the NGO who owns/operates the ship rotates around throughout the years. We were quite lucky to ever see it there, but I’m hoping to force the situation this summer in Okinawa when both my sons are there.
When young I used to shy away from pictures and I hate being in the spotlight. My mom once told me the reason she thinks I first started taking pictures was so I’d have an excuse to not be in them. She’s been gone a few years now and I’ve had a chance to think about her statement and as usual she was correct. Now that I’m older I have many memories in my mind and many memories recorded on film of my boys, friends, and family, but less than a handful in total of pictures with me in them. This summer will be the first time I make a conscience effort to not only photograph my sons, but to photograph me with my sons, so after another 20 years passes by and I sit down to write a submission for StickmanBangkok.com, I’ll have some decent pictures to include along with the submission.
Friends, I’m a professional photographer and routinely record history and memories for others, but have been seriously negligent recording my personal history for my family and sons. At the time I made excuses, told myself I’ll always remember, many types of excuses to avoid being in the pictures. As the years go by and especially when writing these submissions I’m starting to appreciate the value of my memories and how very much I find myself wishing I’d taken photographs along the way to share with family and friends today. I enjoy sharing my stories on-line, and I hesitate to become the old story telling codger telling the same stories over and over to my sons, but as I look back over just the last few years at the number of times my sons have asked me for pictures of myself doing this or that I’ve made a personal commitment to not be camera shy any longer. I’m going to make it a point to be in as many pictures with my sons and other family members as I can and I encourage all of you to do the same.
A few years ago both my parents passed on within months of each other from cancer, moving back to be with them was the reason I left Thailand the first time and I’m glad I did. There were precious few photographs of my Dad so I probably came about it honestly. Don’t wait until you’re passing through an old ship or museum hoping your children will notice you, take lots of pictures and send them to everyone important in your life and years when going through old things if you run across a picture of your Dad on a Navy ship and learn that he was stationed on the Missouri during the Korean War then you just might feel you’ve won the jackpot..
Until next time…
It might be only loosely related to Thailand, but for me, a fascinating read.