Bangkok Forever? ... Part XV

Back at the Oriental Hotel

Between Part XIV and Part XVI

July 18-23, 2000

Tuesday, July 18, 2000

Death by smoke:

[from the International Herald Tribune]
1950: Smoke Damage

PARIS - Three separate reports read before the International Cancer Research Congress in Paris concluded that heavy cigarette smoking over a long period of years is conducive to cancer of the lung. Professor Alton Ochener, director of the American Cancer Society, said that although cancer may be due to a multitude of causes and there is no certainty that smoking is one of them, "there is no doubt that the inhaling of cigarette smoke stimulates cancerous growth in the tissues of the lungs." All three reports attributed the increase of cancer in the United States and Great Britain to habitual smoking.

Death by fire (water, too):

Symphorosa and Her Seven Sons
DIED 120

The widow of St. Getulius, and their seven sons. They lived in Tivoli; and when Hadrian built his villa there, the pagan priests told him that it was unlucky to have a bereaved Christian family living so near it, continually insulting the gods in their prayers. So the woman was hung up by her hair and drowned in the Tiber, and the young men were burned on seven stakes set up around the temple of Hercules.

NEWNES rummaging about in a niche:

And, then reaching for really weighty tomes:

Death by gas (bullets, too):

The Onion was there:

"God Sports Perish With Dignity, Manners"

With the British Armies in France - At 5 o'clock in the evening, the horizon of the Western Front glows a dull red, silhouetting Private Donald Derby, age 17, as he peers over the tops of sandbags into no man's land. "It's over the top for us tonight, mate," he says, sipping a hot cup of tea. "There's nothing quite like a spot of trench warfare to get your tucker up. Biscuit?" he asks, proffering a crispy shortbread.

Private Derby is a typical British fighting man. It's all "Right-O, old boy!" and "Can do, sir!" for these plucky doughboys. Although they emerge as barely audible squeaks, Derby still forces the words, "It was a pleasure, sir. Cheerio!" as he chokes on a cloud of mustard gas later that evening.

Jolly Good

Now, the 7th Royal Welsh Guards are enjoying a refreshing tea, swapping merry trench tales before tonight's assault on the German position near Cambrai.

"Remember the row we had last month, mates, in the woods near Grenonville? Now, that was a scrap," says one soldier.

"Aye," pipes up Private Willy Boggins, a cheeky Cockney lad of 19. "Old Brewster 'ad both 'is arms shot clean off, but 'ee kept a-runnin' right with us over the barbed wired. 'Take more than two bullets to put me down, mates!,' 'ee shouted, until he took one more in the noggin. Daft old dodger, that one!"

Suddenly a mortar blast goes off nearby, and a stray shard of metal whips through the air and lodges squarely in Boggins' chest. He falls instantly, downed by the cat-sized shard, which has cut him nearly in two. He wheezes briefly and manages a short, "blast my rotten luck," before passing on.

The soldiers share a concerned look, then lift their tea cups to their fallen comrade. A fellow with lieutenant's shoulder-pips pops his head out of the underground bunker. "Let's tidy up the trench a bit before we go off, boys," he says. "So much nicer to come back to, eh?"

The men busy themselves about the trench, shaking greasy rats out of the cooking pots and pushing the loose limbs of rotting corpses back into the muddy fortifications. Suddenly a rumble of distant artillery is cut through by several high-pitched whistles and pops. The Brits pull their gangrenous feet out the knee-deep slime of the trench floor and scramble up to the firing step.

Yellow trails of gas are floating over the scarred landscape toward the British lines. "Lovely patterns that phosgene gas makes, don't you think?" asks Lieutenant Bertrand Woolsey, 18, enjoying the view while leisurely unstrapping his gas mask. "And a nice, lemony sort of scent, as well. Not bad at all."

The lieutenant turns to face his masked troops. "Well, now, lads we don't want the Hun to get the jump on us tonight. Off we go, through the gas and over the barbed wire! God save the King!" A tendril of gas snakes around the unmasked lieutenant's head. He topples down into the mud, a smile frozen on his face.

The Brit boys shout a muted "hurrah" through their respirators, affix bayonets to their rifles, and vault over the sandbags into the yellow cloud. A terrific barrage of machine-gun fire answers their gay shouts. Fully half of the battalion is riddled with lead the instant they clear the sandbags, their bodies crashing back into the trench. The rest disappear into the gas, laughing and singing.

Airplane accidents bring it all out, don't they? There's no holding back the death tools when a 737 buries itself and its riders into a Calcutta slum ... with the saints and with the doughboys it was being burned at the stake or choked with mustard gas; and drowned in the Tiber or slowly smoked to death for the rest. But with a fast faltering Boeing, the Grim Reaper throws everything he's got at the machine. Fire, smoke, gas ... even water ... they all share center stage.

Except for the bodies!

That's what we see .. or don't see ... when we read all-about-it in Our Hometown News. Smoldering seat cushions ... Yes, lots! Billowing black smoke ... For sure! Twisted steel stuff ... It's all over the place! Fireman's hoses ... Squirting away like mad. Bodies ... Where are they?

They're there. But we just don't see them in Our Hometown News. However, the breakfast edition of today's Bangkok Post proved that people were in the plane that "... first hit a tree and dashed over a mango grove damaging its wings and the upper portion of a house before crashing into two nearby buildings with a huge explosion."

Wednesday, July 19, 2000

Of course! He must be honored. The entire thrift shop industry owes everything to him. His lesser known accomplishments include the Congregation of Lazarist Missionaries, the Order of Sisters of Charity, and the first home for foundlings.

But, far more colorful happenings were taking place in a little shop down the road:

Justa and Rufina
DIED 287

Two sisters in Seville who made fine pottery for a living. One day some loose ladies wanted to buy a pot or two for use in the cult of Venus. The sisters proudly refused to sell their handiwork for any such purpose. The ladies lost their tempers and broke all the dishes in the shop. Whereupon Justa and Rufina retaliated by breaking an image of Venus. The outcome of all this was that the sisters were condemned to death: one died on the rack and the other was strangled.

Because of the bright-coloured beauty of the Giralda, the Moorish minaret in Seville, it seems quite fitting that these lady-potters should have become its official heavenly protectors - though it is the ruminant of a heathen temple, and they were so rigorously Christian.

In the Great Market at Patpong everything is for sale. At times it seems that only the girls are for real; and even then, that too is an illusion.1 But, most people come to Patpong for the fakes: the Rolexes, the Nikes ... the AnyBrands.

1 Reread my May 25th journal entry, but just the paragraph from "Video Night in Kathmandu." The core sentence is; "Look into a bar girl's eyes, and you'd see nothing but the image of your own needs; ask her what she wanted, and she'd flash back a transparent 'up to you.' Everything here was in the eye of the beholder; everything was just a trick of the light."

The movies are a good buy! How long has "The Perfect Storm" been playing back in the US? Perfect StormI know that it wasn't in the theatres when I was last in Florida (end of April). When will it be available at Blockbusters? After that, when will it be on the shelves for sale? Late fall? Beginning of winter? In time for Christmas? Not until the New Year?

It's here now. Packaged in Video CD format, it plays on any machine anywhere. There is no need to check the zone on the back of the album cover to see if it'll play in your part of the world. No need to wait until the theater showings have milked dry the live audience market. No need to pay full price. The only things you have to suffer are the Chinese subtitles.

[from the International Herald Tribune]
1925: Soul Music

LOS ANGELES - Mr. S.R. Kimball, rich and elderly rancher, does not intend to miss his bedtime tale broadcast by an Eastern radio station, even after he ceases to be of this world. Mr. Kimball has just ordered a steel coffin costing $1,200 which will be equipped with a radio receiving set. He says that he is convinced the soul lingers near the body until Judgment Day and that radio will keep him posted on world affairs.

1950: FBI Arrest

WASHINGTON - J. Edgar Hoover, Federal Bureau of Investigation chief, said that the FBI had arrested in New York "another important link" in the Soviet atomic spy network in this country. Mr. Hoover said that his men arrested Julius Rosenberg, an American-born engineer, on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage. He charged that Mr. Rosenberg had supplied another American, David Greenglass, who also has been arrested on espionage charges, with "classified information on the atom bomb." [Mr. Rosenberg's wife said that she was Greenglass's sister, the Associated Press said.]

How will it start? Will those legendary Thai smiles begin to stiffen when I'm around? Eyes averted ... gaze unmet ... presence unacknowledged? Perhaps I'll be 'accidentally' bumped while walking in a crowdno murmur of apology? Maybe, a not so quiet whisper? A nasty epithet hurled from across the street? Next, a rock? A surly crowd outside the gates to The Oriental? Overturned cars and burning tires ... inevitable? It will start with the kids ... it always does. They hear it from their parents. The parents get it from the newspapers:

One of the above four is the headline in this morning's edition of The Nation. The NationYes, the last one! By the time the reader reaches the second paragraph he knows that three-year-old Phanupong Khaisri is in the middle of "... an Elian Gonzalez-like international tug-of-war ..."

And, like in Elian's case, American immigration officials are on one side, while a lawyer representing "Thai activists" is on the other side. All parties agree that mom and dad are not the greatest: "Phanupong's mother is a drug-addicted prostitute in Bangkok, and his father, who had HIV, committed suicide ..."

As the toddler's name is more difficult to spell than that of the Gonzalez kid, American print journalists may soon weary of the story. CNN reporters are never happy with unfamiliar vowel/consonant combinations. And, once dropped by the press the whole thing will go away and I can go back to my comfortable life in Bangkok. That's how I hope it ends.

Thursday, July 20, 2000

The 'Terrible Twins'!

Do you remember them? Luther and Johnny? The cigar smoking Htoo brothers? You must! Cast your mind back to June 11th, the cusp of the Feast of St. Barnabas. When the Bangkok Post got a hold of them they were living in a Karen Christian village about 35km from the Thai border; fresh arrivals from a strange foray into Thailand from their native Burma.

The New York Times picks up this bewildering tale in a remote jungle camp, somewhere on the Thai/Burma border.


By Seth Mydans
New York Times Service

BANGKOK - The rains have come and the spirits are a little low for God's Army, the rag-tag Burmese insurgency that draws its inspiration from twin 12-year-olod soldiers.

Coughing, scratching themselves and seeming a little bewildered by the world around them, the boys met in a jungle camp recently with an American journalist and complained that they were short of food and supplies.

Swinging short machetes, the boys were helping to build bamboo and thatch huts in a clearing when the journalist, Jason Bleibtreu, having trekked through the mountains, arrived to photograph and film them again as he had in April.

Despite their claims of supernatural powers, the boys, Johnny and Luther Htoo, seemed as passive and childlike as ever, relying on a sort of nanny named Rambo to help them answer questions.

Mr. Bleibtreu: "What are your plans now?"

Rambo to Johnny: "We still have our plans. Tell him."

Johnny: "Now? We still have our plans."

God's Army made headlines in January when 10 of its members staged a suicidal raid on a hospital in the Thai border town of Ratchaburi, holding hostage more than 800 patients and medical workers before being killed by security forces.

Since then, remnants of the group of no more than 200 fighters have been on the run from both Thai troops and the forces of Myanmar, the former Burma, where they are a splinter faction of an ethnic Karen insurgency.

But they told Mr. Bleibtreu that the little camp where he met them in a remote stretch of mountains was in fact just inside the border of Thailand. It seemed for the moment that even their pursuers had lost interest in them.

A number of the fighters apparently have drifted away to refugee camps along the border that shelter Karen civilians fleeing the conflict inside Myanmar. No more than 30 fighters - half of them teen-age boys - accompanied the twins in their jungle camp.

Dressed in military-style fatigues but looking frail and undernourished in Mr. Bleibtreu's videotape, the boys spent most of their energy smoking fat cigars. At one point, Johnny sucked alternately on two of them, one in each hand.

On his previous visit, Mr. Bleibtreu met only with Luther. This time, with both boys present, he said he detected a hint of sibling rivalry.

"Luther was moody and looked like he was a little bit upset that Johnny was getting the attention this time," Mr. Bleibtreu said.

"Between the two of them, Johnny is a brighter bulb, more talkative and outgoing," he added. "When I started paying attention to Johnny, Luther got up and left and was in a bad mood."

More than once when he was filming Luther, Mr. Bleibtreu said, the child raised a machete at him in what seemed to be a threatening way.

Johnny also seemed edgy about the attention his brother had received.

"What kind of weapons do you like?" Mr Bleibtreu asken him.

Johnny to Rambo: "Did he ask these questions during his last visit?"

Rambo: "He asked."

Johnny: "What was the answer?"

As with most of Mr. Bleibtreu's questions on both visits, there never was a coherent answer. It was not clear that the boys had much of an idea what the journalist was doing there or what an interview was all about.

The uneducated sons of a peasant farmer, they have been venerated as the reincarnations of ancient Karen heroes since they were small boys and their words are received as the wisdom of oracles.

They, or their followers, claim the boys command 400,000 invisible soldiers, and that they can change shape, predict the future and walk through minefields unscathed.

It is a strange life for a small boy to be carried everywhere on the shoulders of armed men and handed a lit cigar whenever he murmurs, "I want a smoke."

It seems a lonely life as well.

"Of course, we would like to see our parents," Johnny said.

And he looked on listlessly from his regal perch on Rambo's lap as a group of armed boys raced through the campsite, playing a game of tag.

"What games do you like to play?" Mr. Bleibtreu asked. "I don't know how to play," he replied.

Friday, July 21, 2000

When my father was a kid he had to walk to and from school every day. His father had to do the same; but it was uphill both ways. His father's father crawled both ways up even steeper hills carrying his little paraplegic brother on his back. His father's father's father ... well, you get the point.

The same thing is true with saints. Not only do they get decidedly stranger as you go back in time; the entrance requirements for sainthood get stricter. Yesterday and today nicely illustrate these phenomena.

July 20th reveres 3rd century Margaret while today venerates 14th century Thomas. Though only a party wall on today's liturgical calendar separates them, look at what Margaret had to suffer in order to be on the fast track to God:

Margaret of Antioch

Margaret's father was a man of great consequence in pagan Antioch, and when he found that her nurse had brought her up as a Christian, he put her out of the house. She became a shepherdess; and there in the meadow her loveliness attracted and excited a high official, who wanted to marry her if he could, that is, if she were free-born; if not, to buy her. She replied that she was marriageable, but already married to the Lord Jesus.

The Devil came to her in prison and subjected her to nightmarish trials. First, in dragon-form, he swallowed her; but she crossed herself; and the sign of the cross, or her body as a whole swelled and swelled until the dragon's body burst and she lay on the floor in its blood. Then, reappearing as a man, he tempted her with the pleasanter aspects of a woman's experience; and she resisted him no less firmly. The news of her imperturbability made such thousands of converts in the town that the authorities found it necessary to kill her. She herself, before her death, pointed out the similarity between her experience with the dragon and that of childbirth, promising to help women who appealed to her when in labour.

She was one of the Maid of Orlean's two supernatural women-friends.

Tom pretty much yawned his way into the Maker's house:

Thomas of Civita-Vecchia

A wealthy lord who became a friar and even went without food himself, to feed the poor.

NEWNES doesn't say if Mr. Lambert did anything else to make him worth of an entry. Independent research shows that he was English and that he died at age 39.

Some years later, in America:


Annie is still in Bangkok, though you would never know it from the paucity of sightings. Early on a telephoto lens found her at the breakfast buffet. Several days later a security camera in the fitness center recorded her squash game with Cam. A clandestine available-light device once found her at rest.

If you look closely ... allowing your gaze to ricochet off the mirrors ... you probably won't see her hidden behind Pui.

Carefully scrutinizing the pedestrians in front of the Bossotel Inn, she remains hidden behind someone.

Saturday, July 22, 2000

The contenders at the night's main event weighed in at 131 pounds. But for seven of the eight boxing matches, Kick Boxingall the players were listed on the program as being less than 115 pounds; and most were at just ounces over a hundred pounds.

Last night Annie, Cam and I went to Lumpini (Lumpinee?) Stadium. Three times a week it's the forum for Thai kickboxing, a really popular local sport that doesn't seem to travel well. Most of the boxers looked like there were in their very early teens ... so, my guess is that foreign immigration officials look at the sport as being something of a mix between teen slavery and child beating. Though I've never gone to a boxing match in the USA, I think that the fans at Lumpini could cozily share a skybox with those at Madison Square Gardens.

Annie took most of these photographs ... all of the good ones are hers.

Sunday, July 23, 2000

Yesterday, Mr. Wescott worried himself about Mary Magdalen's declining years. Miserable though they were, they fell easily on the shy side of the usual prerequisites for early saints. Being first-century, she should have ranked high-up in the directory of decidedly odd and wretched lives. Her teasingly playful teen years ... and her happy-go-lucky twenties ... were but one endless procession of lazy lunches, carefree pillow fights, long bubble baths and girly shopping whims. But, her calendar quickly turned bleak (but not totally black) after meeting the dour Christ and his shielding mother. Fun went out the window. Long years of remorse followed: Wescott puts it this way:

... spent the rest of her life in a cavern in the hills - clothed, perhaps in nothing but her hair - mourning her dead Lord and the sins she had committed before she met Him.

The sixth century, as well, witnessed many suspect lives that were nudged into sainthood on just a nod and a wink:

Redempa, Romula, and Herundo

An aged spinster and two girls who lived together, exceedingly poor and extremely virtuous. St. Gregory the Great knew them personally, and gave an account of the heavenly celebration in Redempta's honour: A sweet and strange odor filled the house one day, and the girls heard singing. Four days later, two choirs came and sang all around the house, one of men and one of women, answering each other; the scent grew very strong; and the old woman died - scent and sound fading away.

It's all about the Pak Mool dam. The dam has nothing to do with it. Who to believe?

Like clumps of typescript flotsam, it has floated and bobbed all around the daily papers with no real place to go. Murky and boring, I haven't given it a proper read. Perhaps I should have given it my attention, as it now looms disturbingly large.

Today, "it" made the headlines of The Nation.

Clashes Point To Wider Unrest

Academics and activists fear the Kingdom may be drifting towards a situation such as that which led to the October 6, 1976 massacre, when right-wing forces violently crushed democratic protests and plunged the country into a dictatorship.

"The violence committed by the state and the harsh words coming from the state's mouth have been witnessed and heard before in October [1973] and May [1992], Headlinebefore Thais started killing other Thais," Kasian Tejapira, political scientist from Thammasat University, said yesterday at an urgent meeting at Chulalongkorn University to seek a solution to the Pak Mool dam conflict.

Kasian said he feared that ethnic politics and hyper nationalism were being played up.

He said he had seen a report in Thai Rath, the largest-circulation Thai daily newspaper, quoting special-branch police commissioner Yothin Mattayomnant as saying that there were Laotian infiltrators among the Pak Mool demonstrators. Other newspapers have alleged that Japanese non-governmental organizations are funding the protestors.

"The state wanted to make Thai people mistrust each other," Kasian added. "This is a repetition of the past."

Jaran Ditthapichai, a lecturer in politics at Rangsit University, said he feared that if the protestors were not satisfied after the cabinet resolution on Tuesday, the situation might lead to a seizure of Government House that could turn nasty and violent.

Next: Bangkok Forever, Part XVI

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