Stickman Readers' Submissions May 14th, 2009

A Story About Rolf

This is a true story. At least as far as I know it’s true. I wasn’t there when this took place and I never knew Rolf myself but I was told his story in detail by my friend Nicky whose friend in turn, Bobby, was right there. So as far as I know this is what happened and if it isn’t then it’s because Bobby told the story wrong to Nicky, or that Nicky told it wrong to me. But as far as I know the following is just what happened.

Rolf was from southern Sweden and at the time this story begins, in 1991, he was in his late forties. He was a simple man, a man with a simple life. He had lived at home with his mother in their small house until she passed away some years earlier and he had inherited the house, which he kept on living in on his own. We don’t know much about his schooling but he probably never went beyond the 7th grade, which would have been the minimum mandatory schooling in the days of his youth. We do know that he had worked construction all his adult life. He was one of the very most basic workers, just a man with a shovel, and he seemed to have no interest in changing this.

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Rolf was a creature of habit. He would bring his lunch box to work containing two sandwiches with cheese and two with ham and sliced cucumber on top, the same every day all week all year. He’d eat one of each for breakfast at 09:00 and the remaining one of each for lunch at 12:00. In the evening he’d eat hotdogs. If the weather permitted it he’d fire up his charcoal grill and grill his hotdogs outside otherwise he’d broil them in a pan in his kitchen. He’d eat five or six hotdogs with bread and ketchup and mustard every day all week all year.

Every Friday on his way home from work Rolf would buy a plate of beers at the state operated liquor store monopoly – “Systembolaget”. He’d buy the same brand every time and he’d drink twelve beers (33cl cans) on Friday evening and the remaining twelve on Saturday evening, every weekend. If the weather was nice he’d sit outside and listen to the radio or sometimes talk to the occasional visitor. If the weather was bad he’d drink his beer in front of the TV inside his house.

Rolf was appreciated by his colleagues at work and by the management of the construction company. He was always at work on time, he never called in sick, he always worked hard and he never complained. He was dependable and he did the kind of jobs most saw themselves in only temporary. You don’t build a company on men such as Rolf but every good employer knows to quietly appreciate those who do the grunt work and are content with it.

He was also well liked by his neighbours. His house was a small one in an area that was really a vacation home area where most of the houses were only used during summer time as holiday dwellings and sat empty during winter. To have Rolf living there all year round was appreciated as he saw who came and who went and what was going on, sort of like a human guard dog if you will.

Rolf spent his own vacation time at home in the summer. He’d get the legally mandated five weeks off like everyone else and he’d spend them right there at home. He’d do maintenance on his house, perhaps paint his fence, poke around in his garden, grill his hotdogs and drink beer on the weekends as usual. During the summers some neighbours would sometimes stop by for a chat and they would be welcome. If they wanted to stop by and have a beer on Friday or Saturday they would also be welcome provided that they brought their own beer. Rolf had just the twelve beers he’d need for himself that evening be it vacation time or not.

If there was one thing about him that contrasted his simple and frugal lifestyle it was that he bought a brand new SAAB every other year. He’d go to the same dealership and speak with the same salesman and get a good price on turning in his immaculately kept previous SAAB for a brand new one. His automobile was the only thing he spent any real money on.

I imagine you get a sense of what kind of a man Rolf was. He was not a stupid man and he was by no means mentally retarded but perhaps you could say that he was a bit socially retarded. And in the ways of the world he was certainly a bit naive. If there had been any women in his life no one new about it. There were some friends but not that many close ones. There was no apparent family since his mother had passed away. I guess a simple man is the most fitting description. A simple man with simple hopes and dreams who lived his simple life within his means. That was about to change.

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Bobby, the friend of my friend Nicky, met Rolf from time to time. He worked as a truck driver and had had his own firm and his own two trucks, of which he drove one himself. But that was before. At this point in time he just drove a truck on an hourly salary as he had sold his firm when he went to Thailand to live a few years prior. This autumn in 1991 he was back in Sweden working and living on the cheap to save up money, because he was going back to Thailand in the winter.

Bobby would tell stories to the construction crew during breaks about this marvellous place called Thailand. He’d tell them to anyone who wanted to listen. And if it was one thing Rolf was then it was a good listener. So Bobby would tell all kinds of stories and Rolf would listen and listen.

I have come to believe that this was in part what made Rolf break his patterns, these stories he was being told about adventure and excitement and exotic women. But another factor was certainly the banking crisis that hit Sweden like a nuclear bomb in late 1991. This banking crisis, much like the global one we face today, froze up credit from the banks and plunged the Swedish economy into a deep recession. Perhaps no sector felt the shock more dramatically than the overheated construction sector where orders for new construction simply vanished from one day to the next. For the first time in his life Rolf faced an uncertain future.

Union regulation prevented the company from cutting hours of employees or from reducing their hourly salary. Layoffs was a possibility but with his many years working for the company Rolf was well shielded as the “last in – first out” principle applied. What his company could do, and what they did, was to force him to use his accumulated vacation time. The thought of course was that they wanted their employees to use up their vacation time during the winter and hoped to have secured new contracts by summer, instead of the employees idling around with nothing to do all winter and then taking vacation in the summertime when there might be work to be done. A sensible approach, one must agree.

So this is how Rolf suddenly found himself with three weeks of forced vacation time in February, the vacation time he had earned since his last summer vacation in July but that he hadn’t planned to use until next July as per usual. These events plus, I assume, the lure of Bobby’s stories was what possessed Rolf to book that flight to Thailand that February in 1992. It was to prove a monumental decision, one changing his life forever.

The destination was Koh Samui, an island in the south of Thailand. Bobby had lived there for extended periods before, interrupted only when his cash ran out and reality hit him square in the face. He had had his problems and lived an unstable life that most would not have endured. He was, as he is today, a functioning alcoholic. By this I mean that he definitely had a big alcohol problem but that he managed to function socially and could even straighten up when forced to and function work wise. He got into trouble with money, lending or borrowing them, and he got into trouble with women. But Bobby was also a happy go lucky survivor type of guy, friendly and charming and a genuinely kind person. Despite his many flaws he was, and still is today, an easy person to like. But he was perhaps not the best guide and mentor Rolf could have used in Thailand.

I’ve not been told how Rolf got to Koh Samui. I assume he flew to Bangkok and managed to get on from there. Perhaps he had a ticket already booked or perhaps he managed this himself. I know he did it alone as I know Bobby was already there when he arrived. This must have been some adventure for someone who had never been out of his own country before except for a few short visits to neighbouring Denmark. What a contrast it must have been with Thailand compared to the dark Scandinavian winter he’d just come from. I picture him amazed and wide eyed, especially upon landing on Koh Samui’s small airport with its straw roofed airport buildings and its many palm trees and its little runways and cho-cho-train like baggage carts.

Rolf got to Chaweng Beach and met up with Bobby who took it upon himself to show him around. Bobby got him a nice bungalow close to the beach. They went down to the beach to have a look at the sea and to have an afternoon beer or two. They went to dinner that evening and then they went to Bobby’s favourite bar for drinks. It was here, on his very first night in Thailand, that Rolf met Nuang. Perhaps if he hadn’t met her his story would have ended very differently or perhaps he then would have met someone else just like her and the end result would have been much the same. The latter is what I believe, but we’ll never know.

Nuang claimed to be 35 years old but Bobby says she was more likely around 45. She was more a bartender than a bargirl, due to her age and due to the fact that Samui drew mostly young backpackers back then and therefore had few potential bargirl customers to begin with and fewer still who would go with a woman of Nuang's age.

Not that Nuang was old and ugly, she wasn’t. She was a bit rounded but had a shapely body. She had long black hair, a feminine face with almond eyes and a bright smile and she had a capturing personality. She captured the attention of Rolf as soon as he laid eyes on her. The first Thai woman to sit down and talk to him and he was caught like a fish on a barbed hook straight away, and then she reeled him in.

Rolf, being the creature of habit that he was, immediately settled into a daily routine. He would wake up, have breakfast and then visit the beach for a few hours. He would then go back, wake up Nuang and go have lunch with her. After lunch, about the time Bobby would wake from his slumber, Rolf would be ready for an early afternoon beer, and Bobby was equally ready for his breakfast beer, so they’d go have a beer or a few.

In the evening Rolf would sit in Nuang's bar, on the same chair every evening and drink. Nuang would lavish attention on him. She would play connect-4 or dice games with him, she would wipe his neck with a cold towel if he was warm and she would talk and laugh with him. And later in the night she would go home with him and share his bed.

Now this, I suppose, must have been an even bigger contrast to his regular life than coming from the dark, cold Scandinavia and arriving in tropical Koh Samui, trading cold frost for warm sand. To be coming from a life of perpetual solitude and finding himself in the warm embrace of an exotic woman who, and there can be no doubt about this, expressed her deep and undying love for him, must have been an even more resounding change. This must have fundamentally changed Rolf as a person and as a man. And as subsequent events will show he was indeed a changed man.

Because what Rolf did upon coming home was something very few could have seen coming, something that seemingly ran counter to his entire personality. It was a drastic and reckless course of action but it was also a focused and determined one.

He sold everything. He dismantled his entire life. The house and his belongings were sold without exception. He had no mortgage and owed nothing so all the money went straight into his pocket. He quit his job and while eyes were raised and questions were asked everyone knew there were layoffs in the near future and no one had any problems if someone voluntarily left their job. It was one less worker that had to be fired.

What was perhaps most remarkable was that he went to the SAAB dealership and exchanged his one year old car for a brand new one and requested financing on the difference. This deviated from the norm in two ways. First his car was only a year old and he shouldn’t have exchanged it for another year and second he asked for financing on the difference instead of paying it in cash as usual. But he was well known, held a steady job, as far as the sales rep knew, and SAAB was hit by the economic downturn as everyone else and eager to sell cars. No rats were smelled and no questions were asked.

Rolf promptly sold the brand new car at about 80% of the value and pocketed the money, his own share and the share he owed to the SAAB dealership. This was an action that does not seem in sync with his personality as we know it. It seems out of place. But it is a telling piece of information that he did this. It tells us he saw his break with his life as irreversible, he wasn’t coming back home, he was knowingly burning his bridges behind him. It was also, of course, stupid. Burning your bridges is what truly desperate people do or people who lack the mental capacity to look ahead and predict consequences or calculate probabilities and take precautions. But this was what he did.

In the early summer of 1992 Rolf was back in Thailand and back on Koh Samui and back to stay. He had a lot of money. We’re not really sure how much but a reasonable tally would put the amount at somewhere in the ten to fifteen million baht range. Perhaps more. It’s difficult to say for sure because while we know what he got for his small house (5 million baht) and we know what he got for the SAAB (1 Million baht) we do not know what he had managed to save during his many years of living with few expenses. And we do not know what money he may have inherited from his mother.

How he kept the money I never managed to find out. No one seemed to know. Was he sophisticated enough to rely on a blend of bank accounts, travellers cheques and cash? Could he hold money in a bank account without risking that the car dealership got a subpoena and reclaimed their money? Could they do this if they couldn’t reach him and sue him in person? Perhaps they did it? We just don’t know.

What we do know was that Rolf settled into his new life in Samui and soon got himself into trouble. Many refer to troublesome times in their lives as a rollercoaster ride they went on, meaning that their fortunes went up and down with sudden jerks and twists. Now, a rollercoaster may twist and turn and move with blistering speed but it ends at the same level it started. Rolf’s life in Samui turned out more like a bobsleigh ride. He started at the top and just went downhill with increasing speed.

It was the house he bought with Nuang. Of course he went straight back to her and of course she was happy to see him. Of course he wanted to impress her with his new plan for his life and of course she wanted to be there and share his riches, or to get her fair share of his riches, fair being as much as possible. So a house was promptly bought for the lucky couple to reside in. It was bought from a relative of Nuang and Nuang’s name was on the deed.

It moved on with the boat. Oh – man, the boat! Rolf, having only ever worked with the most basic tasks, suddenly thought himself an entrepreneur. His grand plan was to buy a speedboat and take tourists out with it. What a plan. How could it go wrong?

For starters he bought the boat from some Thai guy in Phuket and planned to have it sent over to Samui. Well, first they screwed him on the price. Then they screwed him for trucking and shipping costs to get it sent over, which he thought was agreed that they would do in the initial price. Then the boat that did arrive did so without engines and without a lot of the necessary electronic equipment. All in all he paid a terribly inflated price for a boat’s hull that sat on a trailer.

Now these, the house and the boat, were the two main drains on Rolf’s finances, as far as we know. And the boat debacle was a process that lasted the best part of a year. But during this time, and after, he had many people’s hands in his pockets fishing for smaller sums. A motorbike was needed by Nuang, and she had endless requests for spending money. Fellow farang on the sauce found a drinking buddy that could be trusted to be left with the check-bin at the end of the night. A loan here and a gift there, it added up.

Rolf’s progressive alcohol problem did not help matters. He didn’t just drink on weekends any more, far from it. In Thailand he drank daily and more and more. Gone were the visits to the beach and most other activities outside the bars and taverns and gone were the early mornings and relaxing afternoons. In their place the routine of a full fledged alcoholic materialised. Wake, drink, drink, drink, pass out at night.

The speedboat never even entered the waters of Samui. It never even became a speedboat. It remained on its trailer. Rolf’s attempts to revoke the deal were unsuccessful. His attempts were only ever limited to him pleading but he was of course pleading in vain. His lame attempts at fixing up the boat never bore fruit. He was simply not able to sort out buying engines and equipment and installing it or paying to have it done. In all likelihood he was better off not trying too hard as he would probably just have gotten ripped off some more.

Rolf became increasingly dissatisfied with his situation and increasingly spiteful at those he perceived to be at fault. He was always an optimist before and had such high hopes now that he was to live in his version of paradise. When he finally realised his dream was cracking he started blaming others. He cut off the money flow and people who had seemed his friends suddenly wanted nothing to do with him. He grew bitter and withdrew within himself.

Nuang got sick of him. Or perhaps she realised the golden goose had lain all the eggs it was to ever lay. Whatever her reasons might have been she kicked him out of her house. And as everyone but Rolf new already it was indeed her house. So out he went.

He moved into a shack and sought comfort in the bottle. He had already moved from beer to whisky and he started hitting the booze hard. He had some sort of accident where he cut his foot up and the sore was badly infected. He eventually managed to get rid of the infection after several visits to some local quack, but he was left with a swollen foot and a permanent limp.

Bobby saw him from time to time during these last months. He had tried to help out but he never really managed. Bobby was rarely sober and had enough of a problem taking care of himself, let alone someone else. He saw where Rolf was headed and he felt bad about it but was unable to do much to change things. He was the one person Rolf still regarded as a friend at this stage.

Rolf had been a simple man who had had a life. It was, perhaps, not a big life but it was a life he was content with. He had a job and a house and some friends. But he saw a vision of paradise in Thailand and he went for it. But what he made was a dramatic impulse decision. What he went for was a dream and what he instead found was a reality which he was not equipped to handle. Thailand chewed him up and spit him out. It took less than two years.

In the end there was nothing left of Rolf but a shell of a man. He was destitute and malnourished. His passport had been lost somewhere, somehow and he had no return ticket home and nothing to return to. He was left with nothing but broken hopes and dreams.

Now, Koh Samui at that time wasn’t as developed as it is today. Even today I don’t think there are many tall buildings and for sure there wasn’t many tall buildings back then. Hence Samui didn’t have a flying club like Pattaya does. So this was not an option, joining a flying club. But instead, in his last show of determined effort, in the spring of 1994, some time around Songkran, Rolf chased a bottle of sleeping pills with a bottle of Mekhong whisky. And that was that.


Stickman's thoughts:

Nicely put together. The sad thing is that Rolf is one of many.

What is a real shame is that there's so much good information out there….if only people would listen…

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