The Fountain of Youth
It was almost 30 years ago when I first met Don. We were both co-opted to sit on an industry sub committee or technical working party, the purpose of which is long forgotten. Don was 12 years my senior and had recently acquired his Doctorate (PhD) from the local university; I had recently graduated and was beginning my journey up the greasy pole in the corporate world. Don was a highly respected engineer, an intellectual with a growing reputation and a string of published research papers to his credit. I was basically a hairy arsed foundryman who had gained a bit of an education. From that first meeting we immediately hit it off and a friendship began.
Although our paths crossed occasionally it was a further 5 years before we renewed contact. I was sitting the entrance exams for membership of our professional institute and letters after my name. The management and production engineering papers presented no fear but the advanced metallurgy terrified me. Don offered to tutor me through the process. With his help I scraped through and gained the letters and professional status I coveted. This cemented a friendship.
In the next 10 years I progressed through the management ranks of a leading engineering plc eventually becoming Technical Director of their aluminium casting operations. My company maintained a thriving apprentice training school, which was the biggest single source of students for the School of Engineering at the local technical college. When Don became senior lecturer at that college our friendship was renewed. We became pioneers in the promotion of careers for women in engineering. In 5 years Don helped some 12 students from my company’s training scheme qualify of which five were young females.
We also began attending technical lectures together at the local branch of our professional institute. When Don pioneered an initiative for a Masters degree in our specific discipline I sponsored three students, one of them a young woman who had progressed through the ranks in my organisation.
I left to work at the UK Casting research body as a consultant, which necessitated a considerable amount of travelling; this was followed by a year running a foundry in the USA, so for a few years we lost contact. On my return to the UK I attended one of our institute’s technical meetings. Don was there but I was shocked at his gaunt appearance. His wife had left him and he was currently in the process of a rather messy divorce. She had always been a bitch but the pain and anguish she was putting him through beggared belief.
It was another month before I saw him again and this time I was quite concerned at his appearance. He looked awful, had lost significant weight, his face was drawn and haggard and the light had gone from his eyes. An accomplished athlete in his youth, some of the injuries sustained from those days were now giving him great discomfort which showed in his appearance. In his mid 50s he looked 90. My overriding impression was the next time I would see him would be at his funeral.
In conversation he recognised his predicament and acknowledged the consequences if he did not do something. A change of environment was desperately needed. Redundancy gave him the opportunity for a fresh start elsewhere. With a reputation that was international he was not short of offers of employment. He had two solid offers, one at a university in the States and the other as an engineering consultant in Thailand. At the time although I knew about the USA I knew absolutely nothing about Thailand so could offer little advice. He opted for the Thailand option and was gone within a few weeks.
The next few years saw me have problems of my own, my career faltered, my marriage was failing and I all but lost touch with Don. I did however occasionally receive snippets of information. The young lady who once worked for me and had gone through college under Don’s tutoring had a father who lived and worked in Bangkok. She introduced Don to him. Her father cast half a watchful eye over him through his first year in a new country.
I renewed my contact with the young lady in question. I had mentored her through her training and Don had tutored her through the academic side. We became friends and I ended up being best man for her husband at her wedding. Her father came over from Thailand for the ceremony and I was introduced to him. An educated and urbane chap we became good pals. Phil told me the tales of Thailand but I was so preoccupied with my problems the delights were lost on me.
When my wife finally left me I was a mess. Phil was over in the UK with his Thai wife 30 years his junior. His exhortations to visit Thailand now met a more receptive audience but it was his daughter who actually persuaded me to go. She was the archetypal career girl to whom you would suspect Thailand would be an anathema, yet her enthusiasm for me to make the trip to the Land of Smiles was both genuine and surprising.
With my trip to Thailand booked I emailed my old friend Dr Don hoping to arrange to meet up with him. His email reply was brief. He was living in Chaing Mai but came to Bangkok regularly every couple of months to tutor some doctorate students at one of the Bangkok universities, but offered no information about his welfare or situation. We made arrangements to meet on my second week.
My first visit to the Kingdom I was the boy in the proverbial sweet shop. I was completely swept up in the salacious distractions of Suhkumvit and the hedonistic pleasures of Pattaya.
The second week I returned to Bangkok. With my current teerak in tow we made the assignation at the Huntsman bar in the Landmark Hotel. In his last message he explained the bar had the crests of all major English football clubs on the walls. He would either be sitting under West Bromwich Albion (my club) or Chelsea (his club). I entered the bar. It was dark and I then understood the significance of the crests as a viewpoint. I saw the West Brom crest but seeing a young fellow sat beneath it began looking for the Chelsea crest. I hear my name called; it is the young man sitting beneath the West Brom crest, maybe Don couldn’t make it so sent a young colleague to inform me. As I walked towards him this chap looked good, he was lean, lightly tanned with a white shirt, tan chinos and designer spectacles, there was a familiarity to him; he could have been be Don’s younger brother. I could not believe my eyes, it was my old friend Don!
He had recently turned 60 but would easily have passed for 40.
We had a fair amount of catching up to do. In the intervening 5 or so years he had been successful, doing well in Thailand, performing research again and had published a few papers and textbooks. I remark that at least half of the guys now in senior operational or technical positions in the UK Casting industry (plus a few in Africa and the Middle East) had studied under him at some point.
My enquiry about his personal life was greeted with a huge grin and the remark “I got married again”. He dug into his wallet and pulled out a photo of a breathtakingly beautiful Thai woman in her 30s. This was followed by a photo of a delightful young Thai girl of about 8 years old, who with pride he described as his stepdaughter. A third photo appeared of a 3-year-old girl with distinctive luk kreung features. With a smile that had it got any wider his face would have fallen in half, he exclaimed, “This is our youngest daughter”. Realising he must have been 58 when he fathered this child I had my epiphany of what a potential fountain of youth Thailand represented.
We chatted away on the subjects that had always interested us such as the foundry industry, mutual friends and football. Understandably these subjects held no interest to my Thai companion that evening. If my companion had been a western woman she would have expressed her boredom and voiced her disapproval in no uncertain terms. My little teerak however (once she had eaten her fill) merely put her head on my lap and went to sleep, allowing Don and me to continue our manly exchange for a further hour or so.
Four years later I married the girl who fell asleep on my lap that evening. Our honeymoon destination was Chiang Mai. The one evening we invited Don and his family out to dinner, which we took at a delightful restaurant on the outskirts of the city. We later spent some time at his delightful house in a gated community in the suburbs. His young daughters were polite, well behaved and enchanting. Don’s wife was as beautiful as her photo suggested and her welcome was warm and genuine. Both daughters of the Isaan our wives got on famously and we had a wonderful evening.
I looked at my old friend with his two daughters draped across him on the couch and reflect if there was a better advert for the therapeutic effects of the kingdom of Thailand or a happier man on the planet; I have yet to meet him.
Wonderful to hear such a positive story!