HEAR NO EVIL
On the Road
The Viet Nam War had neither dampened nor diminished my desire to “go international.” I wasn’t quite sure whether it would be international business or foreign affairs but it was definitely going to be overseas any way you sliced it.
As it turned out, it was international business. The idea of a career in foreign affairs, morphing into a State Department drone and spewing the party line was not going to happen. Four years with my federal Uncle had taught me that. Besides, there was no way that I would be able to keep my mouth shut. Hell, I had already proven that.
Within a year of my discharge I had made it back on the road. This time I was traveling Asia, Australasia, the Middle East and French-speaking Africa as a civilian salesman, marketing electronic equipment. Not bad for someone who couldn’t plug in a toaster on a good day.
The equipment pretty much ran the spectrum from phono cartridges, headphones and stereo equipment to microphones, Public Address systems and broadcast mixers.
My company had produced the miniature microphones used in Watergate. I thoughtfully suggested an ad campaign: “If it’s good enough for Nixon; it’s good enough for you.” My brief foray into the advertising world went thoroughly unappreciated.
Later on, Latin America was added to my turf. A few years after that, the world became my oyster.
On average, I added 6 to 10 new countries each year, excluding the 50,000 to 100,000 additional miles which I annually racked up. In a couple of decades, I had visited every continent except Antarctica, conducted business in over a hundred countries and accrued a few million frequent flyer miles, long before they had started the programmes. I was the ultimate traveling salesman.
No one can visit 100+ countries without encountering some unusual experiences. For once in my life I was not the exception to the rule.
Some of the experiences were wildly exciting. Some were vastly amusing. Others were downright scary, especially since I had begun my international sojourn in 1973 traveling Asia which was still on a wartime footing for the Vietnam War. Besides Vietnam, Uncle Sam maintained bases in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and the Philippines, while American and allied troops still tromped in and out of Cambodia and Laos.
On one of my early outings, I ended up in Bangkok after stopovers in Tokyo, T’aipei and Hong Kong. Since the War was still waging next door, the flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok took 8 hours instead of the traditional 3. The airlines carefully circumvented Vietnamese airspace to avoid being shot down by accident. Accordingly, they usually scheduled late afternoon or early evening departures.
I always looked forward to my visits in Thailand despite that fact that the U.S. was still bombing North Vietnam from local bases there and American soldiers still clogged the entertainment districts. Bangkok’s warm, smiling, cocoa-coloured natives, framed by their lush, opulent vegetation, gilded palaces and pagodas, saffron-frocked monks, cluttered canals and congested roads had always triggered in me the famous Kipling quotation:
“East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.”
For me somehow they always did.
Pleasantly, the plane was almost empty. That was super; it gave me plenty of quiet time to spread out, write up my sales reports and fill out my expense sheets. Sparkling and scintillating for the customers and clients 24 hours a day was vastly overrated and highly fatiguing.
Several hours into the trip, dinner was announced. While I was packing up my papers a fellow American traveler came over and asked if he could join me for dinner. He appeared pleasant enough though he was sporting a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a pseudo-military haircut. Despite his governmental grooming, I concurred. Somehow, he vaguely reminded me of my junior high music teacher.
The gentleman introduced himself and informed me that he was attached with the American Embassy in Phnom Penh. During the course of dinner, I politely queried him about his function at the Embassy. He just as politely parried my questions.
I then asked him about his education. On this topic, he was less reticent. He has gone to a New England University. Not terribly unusual for a diplomatic type. His major was: ‘Urban Guerrilla Tactics.’ Bells and whistles blew in my brain. It did not take a rocket scientist to figure out to which part of the Embassy he was attached and it definitely wasn’t cultural affairs.
We spent the balance of the flight discussing his turf and the deteriorating situation of the American-bolstered Lon Nol regime. I found the discussion terribly informative and firmly resolved, then and there, not to stop by Phnom Penh in the near future.
Sometime after midnight, we finally landed at Don Muang airport in Bangkok. We exited the airplane together, walking down the stainless-steel steps as the humid heat hit us head-on. He cleared his immigration through the diplomatic line; I used the normal one.
We finished at about the same time and rejoined one another as we left the terminal and wheeled our carts towards the curb. Several cars were lined up. My car and driver was waiting for me as was my companion’s ride to the American Embassy in Bangkok. His ride even sported diplomatic plates. Apparently he was to spend the night at the embassy and then catch his connecting flight on to Cambodia in the morning. We said our brief farewells and went our separate ways.
It was well past two in the morning when I finally got checked into my hotel after picking up the business schedule left for me at the front desk by my local distributor. I had been up for over roughly 20 hours and was dog tired.
I got to my room, paid off the bellman, threw my wire-rimmed glasses in the general direction of the desk cum luggage rack, arranged for an early wakeup call and hit the hay.
The following morning, I arose, dressed and headed down for breakfast. Afterwards, I returned to my room to round up my papers and other paraphernalia.
Naturally, I couldn’t find my glasses. They were prescription and tinted, so not optional; I was blind without them. Finally I tracked them down; they were hanging from the open-weave curtains. The wire earpiece had gotten snagged in the fabric.
As a result, I was roughly 20 minutes late to meeting my car and driver downstairs. We were first heading to the compound to collect my Distributor and then off to a major meeting with the Royal Thai Army Radio.
After working our way through the morning rush hour traffic, we finally approached the distributor’s compound, which had been cleverly hidden inside a hollowed-out city block in the old Chinese district. We rounded the corner and approached the entrance, marked by two massive teak gates.
Sirens blared and emergency vehicles flashed about. The two teak gates and their octogenarian gatekeeper were missing. I told my driver to continue on and take me back to the hotel.
My distributor and I had already arranged a standing agreement. Her family was extremely well-placed with various family members usually involved with the Royal Cabinet. We had previously agreed that if anything untoward happened, we were to sever all communication until it was safe to resume.
In the interim, I was to stay in the hotel and await her contact. The next couple days dragged on for ever. Finally, I received an unexpected invitation from a Latin American Embassy in Bangkok. I was being invited to a cocktail reception on the following day. Since I did not know anyone at the Embassy, I knew who had engineered the invitation.
On schedule, I arrived at the Embassy for the reception. The receiving line was amusing. I continuously thanked my hosts for their kind invitation and received blank stares in return. I cleared the receiving line and entered the reception room.
The richly paneled and genteelly gilded room was politely packed with an international array of tasteful cocktail goers and diplomats. The tone was subdued and multi-lingual. It was no surprise that I did not recognize a soul in the room. I wasn’t supposed to. I quickly parked myself in a corner and practiced my penchant for people-watching while I continued to discretely monitor the entrance. The view was stupendous.
Roughly 30 minutes later, my Distributor entered the Embassy. Everyone in the receiving line knew who she was. After completing her duties she worked her way across the room to me, acknowledging most everyone in her wake.
My distributor and I had immediately hit if off. We were of an age and as it had turned out, she had grown up with two Thais who had also spent several years at my boarding school. It had been a bit of old home week from the start.
She had 5 sisters and a brother. Like me, her father had died when she was young. She had been summoned home from abroad and had dutifully taken over the family businesses. I was like another younger brother.
As she approached, she broke into an enigmatic smile. She obviously knew something. I started the banter by asking which one of her siblings was currently in trouble. It was not an unfair question. An elder sister, well married into an extremely prominent political family, was currently in exile in T’aipei. Another sister held decidedly interesting views on politics in general and Thai politics in particular. Golfing, writing bilingual dictionaries and overthrowing the current national government were her passions and pastimes.
Her smile broadened with pleasure. She quietly stated that none of her siblings had done anything inappropriate this time. Furthermore, she said:
“What had I been doing?”
“What do you mean?”
She elucidated by asking me a string of questions:
“Did I have an interesting flight in from Hong Kong?”
“Did I fly in alone or did I fly in with someone else?”
“I flew alone.”
“Then who were you speaking with when you walked off the plane?”
“Somebody I had just met on the plane. Why?”
The smile vanished. She then proceeded to give me a very detailed description and account of my fellow traveler. It was downright eerie: someone or someones had been watching me and it sure as hell hadn’t been my driver.
To royally ice the cake, she informed me that I, not her or her family, had been the designated target of the bombing which had blown up the gates and gatekeeper at her compound.
I had been callously condemned unjustly by an unintended and unintentional association. However; condemned for any reason good or bad, is still condemned. There were no do-overs.
I picked my jaw up off the floor and tried to regain my composure as my mind attempted to digest the data.
I knew it! That damn guy had been Agency. I had been right.
Our prearranged system was already in place. We wrapped up our conversation and made our discrete farewells. I left first, returned to the hotel, packed, checked out and headed for the airport. It was high time to get out of Dodge. She would notify me when it was safe to return.
At the airport, I was told that I could not change my ticket. I would have to return to town to get a release from the original ongoing airline. They could not change it at the airport. I found this quite strange since I had previously been able to change flights at the airport.
I grabbed a different cab, returned to town and checked into a very different, less desirable hotel where they didn’t ask too many questions. To ice the cake, I joined a French tour group.
Having settled into my new digs and persona, I hightailed it to the airline ticket counter to arrange an exchange on my original outbound flight. The agents whom I knew from previous experience spoke English had apparently forgotten how. After much hassle and great to do, I forced my release and fled back to the hotel.
Once in my room, I began dialing for dollars, trying to get the earliest flight out of town. I was supposed to go on to Sydney, Australia. That wasn’t happening. Nor was Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Going south for the season was out. It came down to Rangoon or Kathmandu. Burma, besides being a dictatorship, required a visa so Kathmandu won out. The flight did not leave until early the following morning.
I spent a sleepless night in the fleabag and was the first one in line at the ticket counter the next morning. My equanimity and equilibrium did not return until the airplane’s wheels had lifted off the tarmac.
A week after my departure, the then current Thai government fell in a coup d’etat abetted by the Viet Cong. Suprisingly, my distributor’s sister had not been involved. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Bangkok had been abuzz before I had arrived. It wasn’t just me after all. Local politics and bad timing had also played their roles.
When I did return a few months later, I stayed for a week with nary a problem; but then again no foreigners especially Americans were being killed on Patpong Road either. I had learned to use that particular statistic as my barometer for the present political stability quotient. It was two years later before another attempt was made on my life in Bangkok. At least that time, I had received a well-placed warning and was able to change tickets at the airport.
Though scary at the time, that was part and parcel of international travel. Fortunately, those times tended to be few and far between. I even managed to make it through scores of countries with no attempts on my life at all.
On the exciting side of things, I was able to get involved in a lot of projects which would not have come my way in America.
In one instance, I procured, supplied, installed and ran the sound system for King Birendra’s coronation in Kathmandu, Nepal. Initially, I had been very pleased and honoured by the offer.
Accordingly, I itemized and tallied all the equipment and dutifully shipped it off to a secure, bonded warehouse in New Delhi with plenty of time to meet the deadline. I was rather proud that I had been able to accurately select the equipment and get it into the region in a timely fashion.
I was less than thrilled when I received an update from my distributor in Kathmandu. The Court Astrologer, after casting his chicken bones, had decided to delay the coronation until “the stars were more auspicious.” I really wanted to tell him what he could do with his stars.
The “auspicious time” finally arrived. I dutifully boarded the plane and after a boatload of hours and numerous flights, arrived in Nepal. I had forgotten how cold it was could get even in the warm months. I had thought that Mexico City was high up. It was nothing compared to Kathmandu. It took me several days to find enough oxygen to keep my brain functioning.
My distributor met me at the airport and happily informed me that all my equipment had been safely delivered from New Delhi. Nothing had been pilfered in the process. I was ecstatic.
We arrived at the site for the coronation and the situation decidedly deteriorated. Both of the electrical outlets were already in use. It is difficult to power electronics without electricity and none was readily available. Fortunately we had several days before the Coronation to rectify the problem.
A flurry of phone calls and 24 hours later, our planeload of extension cords arrived. We ended up running cable from there to Timbuktu. Kathmandu was littered with electrical cords.
The Big Day arrived and the jerry-rigged cables and sound system actually worked. No one pulled the plug or tripped over the extension cords. King Birendra, regally clad in a natty Nehru suit and spectacularly shod with satin brocade slippers, tastefully turned up at the toes, was duly crowned and delivered his inaugural address to the kingdom.
I wrapped up the cables and headed home. It had been a bit of a photo finish, but we had pulled it off. Not too many Americans get a front row seat at a royal ascension. It had been definitely exciting.
Another exciting experience took place at the Sydney Opera house in Australia. It had been similarly hair-raising, but equally successful. That time the sound system only became fully operational as the first performer walked on stage for opening night. International definitely had its fill of excitement
Some of the experiences were just plain amusing and made life enjoyable as well as unexpected. Japan took top billing this category.
Japan was like my second home in Asia. I was usually there on an average of 4 to 5 times a year. I loved the politeness of the people, the orderly congestion and the stiff work ethic. No one was ever late in Japan. At one time it became more convenient to keep a house in Nishi-Shimbashi, rather than pay the mortgage on my favourite hotel. Best of all, having shot up to 5 foot 6, I was considered tall in Japan.
During the course of these many visits, I made some good Japanese friends. As our schedules permitted, we would get together for a bit of fun and frolic.
One day one of these friends rang through and invited me to the opening ceremonies for a prestigious new yacht club. It sounded like grand fun so I accepted for myself and my translator.
The day of the opening arrived and my translator and I caught the Bullet train in Tokyo and headed for the port city of Yokohama. We arrived in ample time and found the Yacht Club without a hitch.
My friends and I had agreed to meet at the Club. True to the Japanese penchant for punctuality, they were there to meet us upon our arrival. After swapping pleasantries and introductions, we entered the Yacht Club and headed for the receiving line.
The clubhouse was a classic of good taste and awash in flowers. Massive floral wreaths and bouquets bloomed everywhere. It resembled a High Requiem wake for a New York Don. Exquisitely carved ice sculptures, bathed by subtle lighting, glowed in subdued splendor.
I was duly introduced to a myriad of major Japanese businessmen, who seemed a bit taken aback to have a Gai-jin present for their private personal festivities. However, since I was extremely well chaperoned and championed by members of the elite and sported the requisite solid black suit, white shirt and Dove grey tie, it was concluded that somebody must have known what they were doing when I was invited.
Having completed the receiving line, we all headed off to find a comfortable corner from which to watch the festivities. It did not take long for me to figure out that I was the only ‘Round Eye’ in the group. Naturally, this brought the customary speculations and stares.
The formal ceremonies consisted of numerous speeches and accompanying applause for people, places and topics about which I knew nothing or could have cared less. My translator kept a constant commentary buzzing in my ear. The pictorial presentation was interesting; I could understand that.
The longer into the opening ceremonies, the louder the decibel level. Alcohol flowed freely at an ever-increasing rate. Consumption kept pace. Everyone was obviously having a good time. The ceremonies concluded on a deafening high note.
My group was busy summarizing the high points of the ceremony to me, when out of the corner of my eye I spotted a little, wizened old Japanese man weaving his way with great determination and some difficulty through the packed room. He was headed in my general direction. As the only Westerner in the room it did not take me long to guess his destination. This was going to be good.
My militant, mini-prune managed to wobble over and stop directly in front of me. He glared up at me, squared his shoulders and stood at attention, reaching his maximal height of 4 foot, no inches. He shouted “Furo–Gai-jin”, and then spat at my feet.
The room went silent. He fired off several rapid sentences in Japanese which I did not understand, then spun around and staggered off into the crowd.
I turned to my group for enlightenment. I knew what “Furo-Gai-jin meant; it was a less-than-complimentary phrase for foreigners. My friends were mortified that a fellow countryman had behaved so badly to their guest and were reluctant to explain. I was intrigued and pushed for the answers.
They asked me if I understood “Furo–Gai-jin.” I told them yes. They were relieved not to be required to explain “nasty barbarian scum” to me. Then the bombshell dropped.
They informed me that my little detractor had been a Kamikaze pilot in World War II. My mind overloaded on the implications of that statement as question bombarded question:
You’ve got to be kidding!
What the hell happened?
Did he miss the ship?
Couldn’t’ve been terribly good at it. He’s still alive.
The questions just got better and better. I really wanted to know this guy’s story. Unfortunately, protocol dictated that I must ignore the incident and pretend to be a nice little Gai-jin guest.
I still want to know what happened. How many opportunities does an American get the opportunity to speak with a real, live Kamikaze pilot and live to talk about it?
The previous was just a brief sampling of the various types of adventures one can encounter ‘on the road.’ International travel would not exist without them; be it amusing, exciting or scary.
International travel came as a complete package. Cherry-picking was not allowed.
Somewhere during my international odyssey, the bloom had fallen off the rose. Year after year of frequent foreign flybys, flyovers, fly-tos and fly-throughs, logging 6 to 10 months a year on the road had taken its toll. Excessive travel does wear thin, even for the best of internationalists.
While I remained wedded to international, I decided it was time to head back home. I was looking forward to a lengthy separation from my luggage.
International travel does broaden one’s horizon and expand one’s mind. It also plunges one into a percolating potpourri of peoples and persons.
One cannot travel in over a hundred countries without encountering a vast variety of foreign folk, including some people whom the FBI, CIA, and other inquisitive entities would undoubtedly define as ‘persons of interest’.
It was no different for me. To make matters worse, it appeared that I had either acquired the knack or activated the latent genes which enabled me to bump into prime ‘people of interest’.
One time, I was actually accused by an acquaintance of ‘working at being different.’ I was stunned. After recovering from the accusation, I broke out laughing, and then replied:
“Oh no; I don’t have to work at it. It just comes naturally.”
It never dawned on me to go seeking ‘people of interest.’ They just popped up along the way, like my fellow passenger on the flight to Bangkok. It was just one of those things. It should be noted that I also met boatloads of normal folk, ‘not of interest’ to anyone, least of all the Feds.
Random flying mates turned into the Generals or politicians. By dessert, chance dinner companions evolved into spies or revolutionaries. At certain times, usually in times of turmoil, it seemed that they all came out of the woodwork at the same time. After a while, these encounters became normal; or at least not unexpected.
I strongly suspect that the governing Chakras in my body were seriously misaligned.
Cause and effect is a working theorem. From time to time, these accidental encounters caused relatively random meetings, usually with the Bureau boys, but not always.
Returning to home base after a particular flurry of flights south of the Border, U.S. Customs ambushed me at their counters in Chicago. I hadn’t had any hassles with them since my salad days in South America.
The American immigration personnel and I had long since arrived at a mutually acceptable relationship. They didn’t bother me and I didn’t bother them. They had just violated our understanding.
On this particular trip, part of the time I had been accompanied, part of it solo; part had been pleasure, part of it business. Accordingly, I had dutifully checked all four boxes on the entry card so there would be no confusion.
Apparently these four checks forced the floodgates. A barrage of queries bombarded me:
“Had I traveled alone or accompanied?”
“Had it been business or pleasure?”
“Family and friends.”
“Where I just arrived from.”
After these questions had been addressed, the Customs Agent picked up my passport and perused my previous entries and departures. This sparked another spate of queries.
“Had I been in Kathmandu on such and such a date?”
“Obviously, it’s stamped in my passport.”
“What do you think?”
Somewhere between the fourth and fifth questions, I quit commenting. I picked up my luggage, threw it on the counter and snatched my passport out of his hands.
I was totally ticked. I informed him that the walk down memory lane had just ended. If he wanted to discuss my current southern sojourn, fine; if not, the party was over.
I had been officially cleared by American Customs each and every time I had reentered the country from those trips. I was not going to either review them or relive them. He had two remaining options; inspect my luggage or not.
By the end of my diatribe you could hear a pin drop in the place. Most everyone remained mute and frozen in place, except for my poor porter who was cringing in the corner. He did not want to be condemned by association. I could relate to that; that had almost gotten me killed a couple of times too.
After a pregnant pause, the Customs Agent declined to inspect my luggage. I signaled for my porter, who scurried over, collected my luggage and scooted out the door. I was still steaming and strolled sedately out the exit doors.
I did end up calling the Regional Director for Customs to express to him personally my displeasure for the treatment I had received at his Customs Counters. We had been casual acquaintances for years.
My disposition had not improved in the interim, especially after I had learned that some of my family had been ungraciously grilled by Customs about me and my activities upon their earlier reentries into America from this same trip.
According to this Regional Director, White Collar Smuggling had blossomed into a burgeoning business. As a consequence, Customs was actually checking for contraband. Frequent flyers triggered red flags. It sounded to me like the Director had a personal problem. I told him so.
I figured if Customs could ‘red’ flag; they could also ‘green’ flag as well. I told him to change my flag and lose my passport number.
Apparently, it worked. American customs never bothered me again.
The experience had not improved my opinion of either Uncle Sam or his minions. I continued awed by the magnitude of his international ignorance and arrogance.
It was during this period that the FBI first began to periodically pop up on my radar. From time to time, they would drop by for a chat.
Initially, they had been quite interested in a trip I took to the Nordic north. Since the early days of the Vietnam War, Sweden had enjoyed a less-than-prefect, anti-American reputation. To make matters worse, the Swedes had also diligently dallied with their Baltic neighbor, the Soviet Union.
I had spent a decent amount of time there with my usual odd assortment of folk. This batch included an Anglo-Burmese rocker, a French electronics whiz and a variety of Vikings.
Since electronics had been our common denominator, the Bureau Boys were especially tuned in. Sweden was known for supplying superior U.S. technology, usually the forbidden kind, to the Muscovites.
They were also quite curious about some American expatriates I had encountered. This group had signed up for Stockholm instead of Saigon when their induction notices had shown up in the mail.
The scenario with the expats had been surreal. We had met by happenstance in a sixteenth century palace in the old part of Stockholm which had recently been converted into a multi-level, state-of-the-art discotheque.
It looked like Salvador Dali had designed the place on an off day. Chubby cherubs and renaissance women romped and glowed off gold-gilt mirrors as disco ball-warped strobe lights streaked across the starlight glass ceiling to the throbbing beat of heavy bass rock. It was like being in a baroque bacchanalia on the Battlestar Galactica. It overran the senses and played with the mind.
Somehow, someone in our group found a lounge which allowed normal discourse. This enabled us to continue our conversation from dinner.
The Cold War was currently in full swing. The recently American-named ‘Evil Empire’ was just a few hundred miles off the coast. In those days, not too many Americans worked that neck of the woods. I, as the one and only English-speaking, U.S. citizen in residence, was put on the hot seat.
Beginning with cocktails and dragging through dinner, I had been compelled to explain to my mildly belligerent foreign friends why Uncle Sam was insistent on deploying more nuclear weapons in Europe and building a star wars system. Sadly the conversation had been carried cross-town to the discotheque.
My arguments were not well received. My audience did not enjoy being the playing field for a nuclear battle between East and West.
I pointed out that since it was the Americans who were paying the bill as well as kicking in the troops and equipment which kept all of them free from Soviet servitude; the least they could do was supply an agreeable arena for the action. I also observed that had the planned battlefield been located in either Africa or Asia instead of Europe, we would not have been having this discussion. They did not appreciate my sang-froid on the subject.
During a lull in this never-ending debate, a non-accented, American voice broke in. It seemed quite strange to hear American spoken in these surreal surroundings. The subject suited the setting. The speaker and his foursome asked:
“Was I an American?”
“Had I served in the Vietnam War?
“How did I feel about those who fled rather than fight?”
“Did I agree with the Amnesty?”
After our never-ending Cold War discussions, my non-American mates were eagerly anticipating major fireworks. They knew a hawk when they saw one. They waited with baited breath.
The Vietnam War had ended a decade earlier. And yet, here I was, sitting on the other side of the world within spitting distance of Moscow, the same folk who had supported the Viet Cong during the War, in an antique Dali-esque den on the Malar, surrounded by foreigners, being questioned by ex-Americans, who had sought political asylum from America, about an American amnesty which had been issued by a popularly-elected American government.
Knowing I was going to get it from both sides I suggested that the expats join us. They did. I took that time to formulate my answer. After having been beaten up by my buddies for most of the evening for the cardinal crime of being American I did not want to be found guilty of delivering either a glib or callous response to my former fellow countrymen.
I first informed the ex-Americans that I had indeed served in the Nam War. I went on to explain that I had been integrally involved in the bombing of North Vietnam and had also been depressingly detailed to participate in the processing of the body bags of dead American soldiers who had died for their country.
I had decided:
What the hell: in for a penny, in for a pound.
I was not going to mince words or make it easy on anyone. A couple of the ex-pats winced. I was unimpressed.
It got quiet while they waited for my answer to their fourth question.
I began by saying that it was my firm belief that citizenship, any citizenship, was a gift to a citizen from his government. It was neither a God-given right nor a pre-ordained entitlement.
If any individual, whether native-born or naturalized, accepted American citizenship, he had to be willing to serve his country if called to do so. That did not mean that he should only serve in the military. There were other ways in which he could contribute to his country, VISTA and the Peace Corps to name a couple.
The ex-pats eased a little. They realized that I was not totally rabid on the subject.
Amnesty was neither mine to give nor mine to take away. A freely-elected, majority American government had duly decided to make the amnesty federal law.
They still pressed for an answer. For some reason, it mattered to them what I said or what I didn’t say; so I said it:
“Perhaps you should speak with any of the family members of the 58,000 men and women who did not come home alive from Vietnam. They have a better right to answer your question than I do.”
That pretty much terminated the topic. The ex-pats stayed to talk. It appeared that a couple of them had married and matriculated well into Swedish society. They were satisfied with Sweden. The others seemed lost in limbo, homesick for America.
My sojourn in Sweden had been a real eye-opener in many ways. I had never spent much time in the Nordic homelands and found it quite enjoyable but strongly different. Their languages were incomprehensible. Hell, I found Japanese easier to understand. Being further from the Equator, they were more reserved. For example, they never shook hands. They just walked up to one another and started talking. Shaking hands disconcerted them somehow.
And damn were they tall! After ten days in country I developed a serious stiff neck. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what caused it until my Swedish distributor reminded me that the average height for a Swedish male was six foot, forever. Talking up to them for hours on end had caused the crick. It was the reverse of Japan. In Scandinavia, I felt like a pygmy.
Every night in between the close of the exhibition and the rendezvous for dinner I stayed in my room glued to the television. Sweden received Soviet television. I was fascinated. It was my first exposure to the enemy since the Royal Regatta. The programming of the proletariat left a lot to be desired. Usually it was some poorly coiffed and attired woman sitting stiffly erect and expressly expressionless, while she spouted forth the party line. I hated to think what their ratings must have been. The Gong Show would have done better.
Finally, I finished up, rubbed my neck, packed and flew on to England. After a fortnight there I returned to the States. Soon enough, the Bureau resurfaced. They found my run-in with the ex-pats quite interesting.
It was sad to see. I would never understand why the Bureau was so keen about these guys. The idea of them cooperating with the Commies seemed so farfetched. Mostly, they just seemed out of place.
However, I was slowly learning that once Uncle Sam has something between his teeth he was loathe to let it go, like a dim-witted pit bull with a worn-out bone. Neither reason nor reality loomed large in his thinking process.
I had traveled the planet and jetted the globe. I’d basically been there and done that. During my sundry sojourns, I have visited Taoist temples, Confucian communes, Shinto shrines, Muslim mosques, Catholic cathedrals and Buddhist monasteries. I had found them fascinating, intriguing, sometimes beautiful and one, downright scary as hell.
The scare came at the Temple of the Snake in Penang, Malaysia, an open-air Chinese sanctuary and school. Upon hearing its name I had expected to see carved and gilded Cobras or some other snake like a scene from an Indiana Jones film. No way; while there were sizable statues of some of the traditional Chinese gods and goddesses with the requisite incense pots, there was no 20 foot serpent slinking anywhere. The scented smoke from the jumble of joss sticks softened the surroundings and smothered my vision.
Too soon I learned how the temple had earned its name when a snake silently slithered across the floor and slowly wrapped itself around my ankle. That got my immediate attention. With new eyes I surveyed the sanctuary. They were everywhere; hanging off the walls, nestled among the statuary, curled up in corners. One had even wrapped itself around the handle of an old-fashioned time-clock. Nice to see that the Priests had to punch in as well.
It seemed like forever before my Chinese friend finally finished his prayers and then casually unwrapped my serpentine companion from my ankle. We got the hell out of there; I went first.
Later on I learned that the snakes which had littered the temple were called kraits, a type of East Indian rock snake. I further discovered that they were extremely deadly, ejecting a vicious venom which painfully destroyed the central nervous system. It wouldn’t have taken much to trash mine, it was already in tatters.
Not once, not anywhere, especially in the Temple of the Snake, did I see God. I saw a lot of statues and graven images but no God. He must have been doing His bit somewhere else. Then again, it was not as if we were on intimate terms.