One of the great things about writing a lifestyle blog when you have retired is that you also have many memories to share. It is another hot, humid day in my garden so I thought some story-telling might be in order…
The Bus Stop is a story my husband told me years ago about his time in the Air Force when he was stationed in Thailand. The Vietnam War was raging all around him. He was in his early 20’s, trying to make sense of the whole war thing. This is one of my first creative writing projects and I would appreciate feed back. I decided to tell the story from his point of view. Please CAUTION… there is some profanity.
(Map of Thailand, from http://jacquioakley.com/thailand-map)
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It was 0500 hours as I started my walk to the bus stop. The air was cool by Thailand standards, only about 75 degrees, and the dirt road through Korat Village was dusty under my combat boots. I glanced cautiously around me, always wary of who might be about. I found myself that December of 1971, a sergeant serving in the U. S. Air Force, stationed at Korat Air Force Base, Thailand. The Vietnam War was still rearing its ugly head, and I was a crew chief working Transit Alert on the base. Every jet that flew sorties, I serviced and sent on its way to perform its required missions. I was there to do a job, and for no other reason than to serve my country.
Every morning, I took the bus from the village to the base and then back again each night. In good weather, the ride took about twenty minutes. There were no other people on the road that morning. The surrounding jungle was quiet and dark. It was strangely silent, and I did not even hear the insistent chattering from the monkeys. I could see the bus stop ahead. It was a roughly constructed bench with a bamboo top covered with banana leaves. The sides were enclosed, and during the rainy season, the bus stop was adequate to keep the rain and wind out. The enclosure was large enough to accommodate five or six people and would even shelter pigs or chickens if need be. Mostly, it just kept the sun off your head.
I looked around again and found it strange that there were no locals in the area. Our military superiors told us to be extra careful when living in the village because you could not tell who your enemies were. Saboteurs were everywhere and the Viet Cong traveled freely between the borders. Just last week, a sergeant had been stabbed in the village, and he did not survive. I was not taking any chances, and I watched where I was at constantly. I even sat facing the door whenever I was in restaurants and bars so I could always see what was going on at all times. I trusted no one.
I strolled into the bus stop enclosure and there, crouched in the shadows in the back corner, was an old man. Stooped in the classic flat-footed Thai squat position, he looked to be about forty-five or fifty years old, which is old for a Thai. He had almost no hair on his head and had a leathery wrinkled face. He was barefoot and wore a white silk shirt. His sarong was pulled up between his legs and tucked in, which was the customary garb for elderly men. I noticed that he did not have a walking stick with him. For someone of his age this was highly unusual, and I felt myself hesitate in the doorway. The old man did not move, and he continued to watch me with those sharp, clear eyes.
I was startled and felt my breath catch in my throat. My heart pounded, and I looked around for any other signs of human life. There was no one in the area of the bus stop in either direction. The old man continued to stare at me with that keen gaze, and our eyes locked. He spoke to me in his native Thai and said, “Sawae dee dong chow.” I was afraid and defiantly called out to him in English, saying, “Fuck you old man!” I then gave him “the finger,” which was my feeble American attempt to intimidate him.
The old man still did not move. He just sat on his heels looking at me with those sharp eyes, taking in every detail about me. In my alarm, I did not hear the bus coming, and it suddenly appeared out of nowhere. I actually smelled the bus before I heard it, and I swung myself onto the ancient vehicle filled with farmers heading to the local market on the way to Korat Air Force Base. Old women with teeth stained black by beetle nut spit red juice at my feet as I walked down the aisle looking for a seat. Chickens in cages and pigs strapped to the back end of the bus started to squeal and squawk as the bus slowly pulled away from the bus stop. I continued to stand on the bus, swaying back and forth while the rhythm calmed my heartbeat. I began to breath normally again. I looked all around for the old man, but he was still back there in the bus stop enclosure. He had not boarded the bus. We lumbered along in the bus, and I was safely dropped at the front gate to the base.
I worked with Thai civilians in Transit Alert at the base, and since I was still shook up from my incident at the bus stop, I knew they could help me understand what the old man was up to. The cultural differences between the Thai people and I were extreme. The majority of them lived in huts on stilts with their livestock sheltered underneath. They were farmers and lived off the land. In comparison, I had grown up in Southern California in an upper middle class neighborhood where I had been drafted by the Twins Baseball Club right out of high school. I pitched for them for two years before Vietnam came along. I knew nothing of cultural differences. I knew baseball and airplanes, and not much else.
My Thai civilian friends liked that I wanted to know about their culture. Their English was good enough that we could communicate and understand each other. I told them of the incident at the bus stop, and they asked me to repeat what the old man had said to me in their language. I told them that he had said, “Sawae dee dong chow.” I also told them how terrified I had been to see that old man crouching in the shadows at the bus stop. I explained to them that I did not know if he was going to jump out and stab me, or what was going to happen! I had been in fear for my life.
It was quiet for a moment as the Thai men looked at each other and then again at me. Their brown faces crinkled and their slanted eyes seemed to disappear in their faces from laughter! They pointed at me and held their sides as they laughed. I was incredulous! I could not believe they were laughing at my predicament. I had been scared, and they found this funny. Finally, Lang, who was clearly the elder in this group of men, wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes and explained that all the old man had said was, “Hello, good morning!”
I was appalled that I had not read the situation correctly. I had not been raised to treat people in this way, but war made me look at life differently, and I was afraid of what I had become. I knew then that if I was to survive in Thailand, or anywhere else, I needed to learn the language and the customs of the people so that I would not have misunderstandings like this again. I knew that I must never judge people based on my fears alone. I felt terrible and knew I had to make amends to the old man.
Lang taught me some of the Thai customs, and he explained that it showed proper respect to bow and fold your hands, as if you were in prayer, when you met people that you did not know in Thailand. He suggested that if I saw the old man again, I should bow and say the same thing to him that he had said to me, “Sawae dee dong chow.” That showed proper respect and was simply the nice thing to do.
The next morning at 0500 hours, I started out on the road to the bus stop much the same as I had the day before. Still cautious, I looked around and surveyed the road ahead. I was still guarded but kept my wits about me. Little dust devils swirled under my combat boots as I trod along the road. There were no locals visible again today, and I could see the bus stop up ahead. It looked the same as it had the day before. The dried banana leaves on the roof rustled in the light breeze. I approached the enclosure slowly and glanced inside. There in the shadowy recesses, just as before, crouched the old man.
I approached him with a smile on my face and bowed low to the ground, and said in my best Thai, “Sawae dee dong chow.” He looked at me with those sharp eyes and said in understandable English, “FUCK YOU!” and then he promptly gave me “the finger!” He smiled at me and I watched his brown eyes disappear in the creases of his face.
(Image from “Family Life in Rural Thailand and Australia,” http://www.memock.com/tag/history-of-ubon-ratchathani/) – A bus similar to the one my husband rode back in 1971.