The Future Belongs To The Young
The Hong-Kong student protests have now been part of the daily news for 6 months or more. Stick’s policy directions, no opinion or statements of current political events in submissions. I respect that, safe for the subtle allusion in the title. No further comment on this. But it brought back memories from another student movement opposed to a giant nation in another part of the world many years ago and with an unexpected twist to Thailand in the later part.
Walter was a large kid in school. His abrupt and often rude manners, booming voice and imposing frame commanded respect especially from the less physically imposing classmates, and I was one of them. He became a kind of group leader and whenever trouble or mischief occurred he mostly was part of the troublemakers if not the instigator. In 1956/57, when Walter was barely a teenager, an important event took place in a country only a few hundred km away from where we grew up. Later it would become known as the Hungarian Uprising.
Perhaps boring to the younger generations but a very concentrated version of the situation needs to be given here. Occupied and later annexed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, Hungary was “liberated” by the Soviet troops in 1944. But it did not take long for Hungarians to realize that they were now just dominated and suppressed by another, new super power. As so often in recent history since the end of WW2, the vengeance or retribution started as a simple student protest, soon to be turned into a revolt in Budapest and the countryside around. The Soviets would not take that lying down, of course, and retaliated with large tanks parading the narrow streets of Budapest. The students and members of the population by now had joined the movement. But they had no weapons. So they created their own. The Molotov cocktails* also known as petrol bombs or poor man’s grenades.
Am I right to assume that even younger people will know what a Molotov cocktail is? For us teenagers and pre-teenagers at the time, it was something new and therefore exciting. We learned about it on radio and newspapers, no TV yet. Naturally Walter, the born rogue that he was, soon had an idea. He would make his own cocktail. After some unsuccessful attempts with Coke bottles that did not break up on impact, he used a large more easily breakable empty wine bottle. Filled with diesel fuel, the top sealed with a petrol-soaked cloth serving as a wick, he lit it – and this time it worked. But his timing was wrong. The petrol bomb exploded in his hand. The effect was devastating. The hand and part of his forearm was gone. Stern lectures by teachers, parents, educators were to follow.
Later when the remaining part of his arm had healed, Walter was fitted with a fairly basic plastic prosthesis. Walter didn’t like it and mostly left it at home. Instead he learned to write with his left hand. The accident also had another more positive effect. The erratic and often fickle boy turned into an industrious student. At age 19 he got his Matura or A-Level certificate allowing him to apply to a university or other institutions of higher education. That same year Walter also got married. By far the youngest of our class to do so. He was only 19. After that we lost touch.
We met again about 25 years later under fairly unexpected circumstances. On one of the yearly visits to my embassy in Bangkok, the gentleman serving me behind the counter seemed familiar. When I noticed the prosthesis now much improved on his right arm I asked him, Are you Walter? Yes I am and I recognized you too when I saw the name on the form you filled in on arrival. That led to some small talk and sharing of a few memories. But Walter had a job to do. We said goodbye but not before I asked him would he care to share Fondue with me over the weekend or any evening that he was free. He did and was pleased to do so. We met 10 days later at the Victoria Swiss restaurant, Soi 7, renowned at the time for various Swiss dishes. I had been friendly with the owner Peter or Pierre for quite a while. The restaurant has long since disappeared.
I believe this column is mostly read by Americans <Americans used to make up over a third of all readers, probably now Americans are more like 20% of all readers – Stick>. Like other people around the world they have some preconceived notions and images about countries. They think of Switzerland mostly in terms of mountains, lakes, pretty scenery and of course banks & bankers, chocolate and cheese. And it’s basically right! Not surprising then that the national dish is Fondue. It’s a cheesy broth in which small chunks of bread are dipped with a special Fondue fork. In its original form it is consumed with a prime Swiss white wine. Wherever Swiss people meet around the world they will sit together and consume Fondue if it’s available. Not a problem these days in Thailand where all big shopping centers offer it on its display. But Victoria restaurant was known for an authentic, homemade Fondue at the time and with Walter we spent several hours eating, drinking and refreshing memories. And of course talking about our respective careers since we left school.
Walters’s transformation from the careless young bungler he had been astonished me. Some folks are born a certain way and remain the same all their lives. Not so Walter. I had to ask him, How come that from the bully boy he was, he had turned into a versatile, handsome, intelligent, well-spoken young man. He only interrupted me once. We’re not young any longer but are now considered middle aged, he said. Don’t forget we both turned 40 not so long ago!
OK, but did his handicap bother him? Not at all, he replied. He fitted the prostheses an in morning and took it off when retiring at night. The only slight unpleasantness that remind was greetings, shaking hands. But he simply avoided it. And that was one of the reasons he liked Thailand so much. The wai replaced the handshake. He’d taken to it overall and everywhere. Even with farang.
We met again some weeks later and I suggested we enjoy some eye candy at one of the nearby go-go bars at Nana Plaza. But Walter was not interested. Embassy rules, I asked? Not at all, he said, it was his own choice. But no problem, he would be happy to visit a disco or upscale dance bar. Down to Siam we went and into the first appealing establishment. It may have been the Novotel Disco, popular at the time, but I can’t be sure.
Again, sipping on a drink curiosity overcame. What do you do about girls? The smile remind plastered on his face but all he would say was an Embassy issued card or badge that gave him free access to clubs and other private parties and gatherings with many opportunities to meet girls and other interesting peoples. Again he would not follow up or elaborate. Instead, his favorite topic seemed to be his unsuccessful marriage. Despite a sad and painful ending, he kept in contact with Suzanne and even helped her get a Thai visa to travel the land with a friend of hers. Over 20 years after the breakup he did not seem to be able to let go. On a joint car journey I remember he listened to Elvis’s “Always on my mind” over and over again.
We continued to meet occasionally and I was able to take advantage of his service whenever I visited the embassy. But our conversations were always around the same subjects; daily events, embassy business, world politics and of course Suzanne (Sue). So, I tried again. You must have a girlfriend? So many young, pretty and available girls in this town. I was badly burned by my first love. The wound still hurts. Don’t want to get burned again. His laconic response. Please don’t give up Walter, you’re much too young to throw in the towel, I advised.
So, no story-telling about cheating and lying Thai girls handing over daily earnings to their Thai boyfriends and other assorted Thai girl stories in this sub. No beautiful, sexy Thai girl – handsome farang portrayal to lighten up the narrative here. Nevertheless an encounter with two young ladies at an unexpected time and place.
We were sitting in our favorite Victoria Swiss restaurant. It was Friday and we were having Raclette. I remember because Friday was the only day Pierre served Raclette. Be assured I will not go into another lengthy description other than mention that it’s another of our own favorite dishes.
Two young ladies entered the premises and one of them immediately placed herself behind Walter. She proceeded to cover both of his eyes with her hands. For a long time. Maybe a minute. Walter did not move but kept smiling gently. Eventually he reacted. It’s you, Sue, he said. And it was. His ex-wife. He introduced the two girls and we all had a drink together. Later they left to sit on their own table and we were on our way. Walter in a somewhat subdued state of mind. How did you knew it was her, I asked. The odor of her. I’d smell it out of a million woman.
In later meetings with Walter I always teased him for having had his very own Rick Blaine** moment.
We met a few more times with Walter. Then the time for him came to leave. I believe embassy personnel, the ambassador included, have a maximum of 3 or 4 years until they have to move on to another posting. This time we kept in touch by email. Walter ended his career as a first secretary or right-hand man of the ambassador in a European nation.
*Molotov cocktails actually appeared first in ca. 1940. The name originates or was penned by the Finns (Finland) mocking the then Soviet Minister of foreign affairs under Josef Stalin after he had made some slanderous declarations about the Finns during the war.
** Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world she had to walk into mine….Rick famously said in a somewhat drunken stupor after meeting again with his Paris lover Ilse in his Café Américain of Casablanca in 1942. She was married now to an important figure of the French résistance. Few people at the time including Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman would have thought the movie to go on and be a great success let alone have an important cultural impact worldwide, not only in the film industry but remain iconic for decades to come.
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