Of Course You Realize This Means War
Like many others of my generation, I spent a fair amount of my misspent youth watching cartoons. I especially enjoyed those classics made by Warner Brothers. Arguably their most famous character was that “wascaly wabbit”, Bugs Bunny. Old Bugs was not just a bit of ink drawn on cellulose. He was, and remains, one of the 20th century’s iconic figures. Bugs was not some goody, goody like Mickey Mouse. He didn’t suffer fools gladly, and woe be it to anyone to whom he uttered the immortal words, “Of course you realize this means war!”
I think I’ve told you all a time or two what a loveable teddy bear of a guy I am at heart. If given a choice, I will always go out of my way to avoid confrontation. Maybe I have a wayward Thai gene or two in my genetic makeup, because I generally do try to cultivate a jai-yen, or “cool heart.” I forget the song, but I remember Michael Jackson saying to Paul McCartney in one, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” That’s me, old Sawadee, with a smile on my face, and a song in my heart.
That does not mean however that I am a doormat. In Thailand I have learned to pick my battles carefully…and how to wage them even more carefully. Sometimes you are well and truly screwed and the best you can do is shut up and take the injustice being dumped on you. It doesn’t matter that you weren’t speeding when a Thai cop stops you and has his hand out. You are a Farang, and it is an axiom here in The Land of Smiles that “the Farang is always wrong”. Protesting your innocence is pointless. Raising your voice is definitely not an option. In the end you hand over the cash…which goes directly into the cop’s pocket, and you slink away without having received a written citation. Does it make you feel better that this guy will be enjoying a round of Changs tonight at your expense? No? Well just close your eyes and begin the mantra of your choice. Your blood pressure will be the better for it.
Sometimes however…that being when your life isn’t endangered by it, you have to stand up fight. Hey, are you a man or a mouse? This brings me back to Bug’s famous line, and how I’ve gotten myself into an epic battle with one of my neighbors.
This fellow, who I will refer to as Somchai, doesn’t live in my housing project, but directly behind me along on a back road. He’s a trim little guy, and judging by some pictures taken of him in military uniform back in the late 60’s, was a handsome devil. He says he served in some capacity with U.S. troops in Vietnam. When we first began building our home, we became quite friendly with him and his family. His daughter is my wife’s age, and has about a little boy about the same age as our Sam. His wife is a very nice woman who prepares curries to sell in a local market. Whenever Somchai saw me, he always called me over for a few beers or a ‘whisky-soda’. I in turn often brought over something that I had cooked. When he mentioned he liked the Stones, I burned him a few CDs. Everything seemed hunky-dory. I was the “good Farang”. All that changed in the blink of an eye. My “good buddy” became my implacable enemy; or rather I should say became his implacable enemy.
It happened like this. Anyone’s whose spent time living in Thailand probably knows that Thais have only two volume settings on their stereos…ridiculously loud and loud enough to cause your eardrums to bleed. It turned out that Somchai had a third volume setting. This one is fully capable of setting off earthquakes in a geologically active zone and/or causing fatal brain hemorrhages.
Somchai loved to party, and being a “generous” guy, he thought it was his duty to “share” his party music with everyone, say, within five kilometers of his home. He had a stack of speakers that could do the job easily, and having the requisite equipment felt compelled to use the damned stuff frequently.
Our home is close enough to his to kick a football right over his front gate without any problem. I should mention that at my age, I can’t kick one all that far! When Somchai turns the volume to setting # 1, every window in our home begins to shake. At setting # 2, the teeth in my head begin aching. At setting # 3, I feel the urge to bang my head against the wall. Perhaps I can knock myself unconscious. I would welcome the oblivion, because it’s the only way I could ever possibly sleep.
If this bedlam happens during while I’m home during the day, I simply get in my truck and go for a ride. Generally, halfway to Chiang Mai seems far enough away! The problem is when the sun goes down and I desperately need to sleep.
One fateful night a few years ago, Somchai decided that volume setting # 2 was not quite loud enough for him. He had no choice but to ratchet it up to # 3. Like many Thais, Somchai has no mitigating filter in his brain. He simply does whatever comes into his head, without regard of the consequences of his actions. “I want to go. Do I need to stop at his red light? No, I want to go now!” The next thing you know, you are swerving to avoid a fatal collision…and the SOB refuses to even make eye contact with you…or even more infuriatingly, gives you a dirty look! Welcome to the Land of Smiles!
This being a weeknight, I had to get up early for work. I really needed some shuteye, but by nearly midnight, it didn’t look as though I was going to get any. Even my wife was tossing and turning, and she my friends can usually sleep through the ride of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! With reluctance I decided that enough was enough. I got dressed and headed over to pay a midnight call on Somchai. I didn’t go empty handed however. Being of a diplomatic frame of mind, I brought over a bottle of whisky to sweeten my polite request a bit. So, here is old smiling Sawadee, bottle in hand. With a Thai smile on my face I asked Somchai if he could please turn down the volume…just a little, because I needed to sleep. Pretty please with sugar on it?
Did my polite request have the wanted effect? Ha! You would have though that I had just: spit in the face of his sainted mother, pissed on the Thai flag, and insulted the king while I was at it. Suddenly, now and forever, I was “The Dirty, No Fucking Good Farang”. I had done the unspeakable. I had asked a Thai to turn down his music. So what if it was midnight? So what if everyone else in the neighborhood was stuffing hot candle wax in their ears in a vain attempt to sleep? He wanted to play his music his way. Anyone who thought differently could very well just go to hell! Somchai eventually did turn the volume down after his long suffering wife asked him to do, but it was clear that life in the neighborhood had just permanently taken a turn for the worse. In his mind he had lost face… and he was bound and determined to exact his “pound of flesh”, one way or another.
Shortly after this incident, my wife was tending our garden, when Somchai sauntered over to tell her out of the blue that our fruit trees were, “endangering the neighborhood”, and needed to be cut down…immediately.
If you haven’t read an earlier submission I wrote, Living in the Garden of Eatin’, you might want to. In it I detail the myriad of fruit trees we have growing in and around our yard. I should mention that there are two strips of land bordering a small canal between our home and Somchai’s. This land belongs to the municipality of Lampang, and like hundreds of other folks, we planted fruit trees on it…including Somchai. According to Somchai, the roots of our trees were going to damage the concrete lining of the canal. This was of course utter nonsense. The root systems of our trees were growing steadily downwards and not going anywhere near the canal. I have checked this carefully. I water my trees in such a way that the roots, that even if they were to spread outwards, would grow away from the canal. What was damaging the canal were hundreds of aquatic plants that were growing in the rich layer of accumulated silt.
What about Somchai’s trees? Apparently they were perfectly acceptable, since they had been there before the “no-good Farang” settled in the neighborhood.
I am of course hearing all of this second hand from my wife. Somchai wound never demean himself to tell me this to my face. Instead he chose to take out his anger on a quiet young woman. My wife didn’t know what to think, except pass on the essence of Somchai’s rant to me. After calming her down I told her to simply ignore this guy who is obviously an idiot. We are not going to be cutting down anything!
I promptly forgot about the entire matter. I simply went on with my life, which included taking care of our little orchard. Part of my daily routine is to water all of the trees thoroughly. I do this using my own metered water. I have never used any canal water. In addition to giving my little darlings a nice drink, I fertilize them monthly. The result of my TLC is that our trees are large, healthy, and bear bumper harvests of ripe fruit. Somchai’s trees are in contrast, scrawny, blighted twigs which never seem to produce much of anything. Somchai’s wife, who remains on friendly relations with us, told my wife that he is jealous of what we have managed to grow. “How dare that dirty Farang do a better job than me?”
To this day, at least once every few weeks, Somchai comes over to harass my wife. She dutifully reports his latest rant. I in turn tell her to ignore this lunatic. He occasionally tells her that he is going to call the police. If does, I tell her, why not call one of the several policemen who live in our neighborhood? I am referring to the cops who have their own fruit trees growing not far from ours! I can’t imagine any policeman showing up at our door soon with an official complaint…but if one does, I have a nice crisp 500 baht note with his name on it! Sometimes, you do have to take the Thai approach to problem solving!
So now here I am everyday, hose in hand, going about my business quietly. When Somchai glares in my direction, I studiously ignore him. I deliberately do not wear a silly smile on my face. I have no doubt that this guy has a gun or two in his house, and have no intention of provoking him. Still, I also have no intention of knuckling under to a bully. Instead, in typical Thai fashion I share our sweet bounty with our neighbors. Somchai’s wife has no problem in accepting a basket or two of fruit. Hmmmm…I wonder if he knows where that mango he is eating came from?