Kings Among Men
Several years ago I penned a submission titled “You Can’t Go Back Again, the Point of No Return” which created a bit
of controversy among Stickman eeaders and prompted all kinds of hate mail and even threats. It also prompted praise in equal numbers. The theme of the submission centered on the same way Thais can tell a bargirl no matter how much she tries to
cover it up, or how much time has passed, that the stench carries over to their Johns as well. The men who become involved in the bar scene are forever sprayed with an odor that sticks to them like the musky spray of skunk in a windowless room.
Denial is interesting. Those most in denial are the ones who react the strongest. We’ve all witnessed their behavior, they hate, they write nasty emails, pen response submissions on a third grade level, but it’s always their rationalization that gives them away in that it’s obvious to everyone but them when they rationalize. Many cliques of like valued individuals are formed in this way. It’s a “birds of a feather” sort of thing. Because they can’t smell themselves, they think no one else can either.
Taking notice of the denials in the hate mail I decided to spend the next few years observing specific related behaviors. The rationalizations we’ve all seen. A new guy with a visit or two to the sex tourist areas pens his first submission and the guys with 5-6 visits knowingly wink and nod at each other because their experience allows them to see through their inexperience and rationalizations. The guys with 5-6 visits pens a submission and the guys with 2-3 years as expats wink and nod. The guys with 2-3 years as expats pens a sub and the guys with 10 years as expats wink and nod. And let’s not even mention the know-it-all researchers.
With 23+ years in Asia I also decided to actively seek out the guys who were winking and nodding at my submissions. These will be the guys with real opinions I can learn from, in the same way those with 5-6 visits to the sex tourist areas think they’re teaching those with 2-3 visits under theirs when they write their own submissions.
Why do I care? I suppose it’s a sign of cognizant awareness. I realize those with significantly more time and experience can accelerate my understanding of the topic. This is why we attend university, right? So we can learn from those with more time and experience with the subject? Those who don’t realize this, or who limit themselves to those in like cliques, are showing their cognizant limitations. The ironic part is they don’t realize they’re doing so. They think they already know all. I’m sure there are plenty of you winking and nodding now..
Where would I find such men? Obviously it’s not strictly about how many years a person has spent in the Kingdom. (But there are those with limited cognizant ability already penning the obvious in a reply submission) It’s a combination of intelligence and experience among other things, in addition to time in the Kingdom. But we’ll start with those who have been here 30+ years and then find the smartest and most experienced of these men. Kings among men.
I found these men by accident. Or rather I’d known these men for a long time but I’d never thought about their experiences in this way. You see, these are men from our greatest generation. The men and women who came into their own during the times leading up to and beyond World War II, The Korean War, and Vietnam. These are men who served in these wars and didn’t invent a reason to shirk their duty. Most were very young men when they first came to Asia, and many never left. Some never left because they died serving their country, and some never left because they found a lifestyle in SEA they weren’t willing to leave. Others realized fitting in back home would be impossible. Some married, some caroused and consorted. All became subject matter experts on Thailand of the like most of us have never thought possible.
These are the men of VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). There are VFW chapters in Bangkok, Korat, Chiang Mai, Pattaya, and more. There are over 200 members consistently in the Bangkok chapter, perhaps as many as a 1000 such men in Thailand all told. Not all are from these wars. Many like me are from later conflicts. But many are, and if you take the time to sit and chat with them over a cup of coffee or lunch you can’t help but realize these men have forgotten more about Thailand, Thai women, and all things Thai than most have us have ever known. Not a draft dodger in the bunch.
And of course there are the veterans from other countries. Men such as Rod Beattie who is not only the owner, curator, and research director of the Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi , but he’s also the caretaker for the Commonwealth of Australia for the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, and the Chungkai War Cemetery. This is a man who has dedicated his life to documenting the history of one of the most notorious POW abuses of World War II, and in the process he brings peace to family members searching for long lost fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and brothers.. and helping them find and visit their final resting place. Next time you run across someone who thinks they know a lot about Thailand, think about men like Rod Beattie. They probably won’t compare.
And then there’s someone you have all heard about, our very own Chiang Mai Kelly. Several years ago I was hearing stories from this man I had a hard time believing. I suppose I could have been like some of the rabid dogs we’re all familiar with, the type who demand to see your passport and diplomas because they’re so insecure they can’t believe anyone has more anything than them. But that’s not me. Instead, I sent him an email offering to buy him lunch. He accepted and not long thereafter I was in my SUV heading to Bang Chang and the infamous Camels Toe Pub.
I walked in out of the SongKran festivities barely escaping a bucket of cold water, and the smallest man in the room sat waiting for me. It turned out he was the biggest man in the room. You’ve all heard of the legends, the guys the girls in the bars put before everyone else because they’re real and they’ve treated them as humans for as long as they can remember? CMK is such a legend, as we sat and chatted any doubts I had about his stories or exploits disappeared. The man was real, and he’s forgotten more about Thailand than any ten self-described “researchers” put together.
It’s time for a major mea culpa. I used to avoid these men at all costs. As children often do, I’d look at elderly men as almost scary in appearance and as someone who might start talking making my escape impossible. In the last decade, maybe two, I’ve come to more appreciate these men, but it only happened when I took the time to know them. One such man is Chet.
Chet is 92 years old, walks with a cane and a back hunched over from old war injuries and years of degenerative arthritis. Every day he walks with his cane from his apartment in On-nut to the bus which carries him to Sathorn Soi 1 where there’s a US installation which supports the local Bangkok VFW chapter. He stops by the retired military support office and chats up anyone willing to listen, checks his mail at the post office, and then makes his way to the cafeteria where he’ll sit there for hours eating lunch and trying to engage anyone who has the time in conversation.
For a long time I kept my distance, usually I was in a hurry and would be in and out of the compound as quick as possible. One day he looked sad, or maybe more accurately more sad. I asked if I could sit down and his eyes barely registered my presence, very unusual for Chet. I sat anyway and for a long time didn’t say a word. He was clutching an opened letter and he hadn’t touched his coffee. Eventually he looks up and me and starts a story which began in the 1960’s with his family asking him to return home.
He couldn’t. Arriving in country in the early 1960’s wearing the uniform of an Air Force Master Sergeant he soon married a local woman and decided to stay on after he was retired. Bringing home an Asian wife in the 1960’s was something you had to carefully consider and it just wasn’t done much. He chose to stay in his wife’s country and make Thailand his home. He hasn’t left Thailand in almost 50 years.
As he sat there telling me about his wife, how she died, and then about his friends and their wives and families I was struck with the realization he never said anything negative about the women or the local Thais. There were no stories about sick water buffalos or men being taken to the cleaners or cheating wives. There were only stories of solid loving families and the men who made Thailand their home. He pulled out an extremely thick and worn billfold, the type old people seem to carry, and I looked with interest as he showed me photograph after photograph. Each picture was associated with another story about Thailand, a story rich in history and often personal sacrifice or ultimately the sadness of a missed loved one or comrade in arms.
That day I spent hours listening to him and barely said a word myself. From that day on I stopped avoiding Chet and actually started looking forward to seeing him in the cafeteria so I could ask to sit down and listen to more of his stories. To say the man knew Thailand would be the understatement of the century. He brought pictures of him and his wife or family members involved with major political figures of the past, current royalty, and I very much enjoyed a pictorial history lesson. This man LIVED in Thailand, he lived the life you’ve only read about in thick novels, he lived the life we all dream about when staring at a globe and daydreaming of faraway places and beautiful woman. I’ve seen the pictures, Chet was once young and virile and as full of life and dreams as any of us. There is one difference though, Chet actually lived the dream.
No, I didn’t forget about the crumpled letter he was holding. He told me about it the last time I saw him, the week before I returned to the states. His son was killed in an auto accident, hit in the side by a drunk driver somewhere in Iowa. His last living relative wiped from the face of this earth in the blink of an eye. But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself, or telling me how alone he felt. I actually stuck my foot in my mouth asking if he felt alone.
He looked around the cafeteria and I noticed 4-5 other men like himself, eating their lunch, reading their mail, passing their day in Thailand. He looked back at me and told me he’d never be alone as long as he lived in Thailand, all his brothers (Thai brothers in law) were here, and so where his brothers in arms.
Sometime during our 4-5th talk he asked about me. I told him I’d lived in Asia going on 24 years and Thailand for over 10 of those years. I told him I was going back to the states for a while. He looked straight at me and asked “why?” I told him, but I now realize it was a rhetorical question. Did he see in me a fellow lifer?
I’m now back in America and I don’t regret my decision, yet I miss Thailand every day. I’m still a member of the Bangkok VFW Post 9951 and I’m still on their mailing list. I’ll remain a member. It seems like every month, an email hits my inbox with the final roll call of a fellow member. Our finest generation is becoming a memory. Recently I learned Chet passed. And with him an incredible store of information and history. And with him our brief friendship. Chet left instructions to be cremated and interned with his wife of over 40 years. Appropriate.
I never considered myself a “real” VFW member, after all those guys are old relics, old men people avoid talking to. They do silly things like take care of sick members, perform ceremonies on Veterans Day, help new members learn the ropes and file for benefits, and they bury their dead. But as they die off I realize the roster is dwindling, these Kings among men are leaving us. It won’t be long before young men avoid me as I make my way to the VFW compound to check my mail and eat my lunch. Someday I’ll need to step up and take my place by identifying with the VFW and fulfilling my inherited obligations. Someday I’ll know a lot about Thailand too.
Until Next Time..
There are a lot of VFW members in Bangkok, and around Thailand – and many have some great stories, as well as a lot of wisdom. You sure can learn plenty from them!
On the subject of Chiang Mai Kelly, here's hoping he's recovering after his recent illness.