Browsing Category

Personal

Personal

Remembering Larry

November 5, 2013

A year ago today my uncle died. Although he was in his eighties, and had a few medical issues, he continued to drive himself back and forth for errands that on occasion meant return trips of several hundred kilometres. We had spoken on the phone a few days prior, and had rekindled our old ‘hobby’ of writing letters back and forth in the past year. And then…

He fell and hurt his back. He was taken to hospital in an ambulance, given some medication for the pain, and then… simply died in his sleep.

We never know where or when or by what means, only that it will come. Death happens. Such is life.

I was asked by my cousins – his children and grandchildren – to write about my reminiscences, a eulogy of sorts, that would be read aloud at his memorial in Southern Ontario. What do you say after all these years about someone who was more than merely an ‘uncle’, about someone who was really more of a father figure? It took me no time at all to find those words.

§ § §

You knew him as dad, or grandpa, or poppa, or Mr. Neil, or simply, Lawrence. I knew him as Larry.

I never bothered with the more traditional ‘Uncle’ Larry anymore than I did ‘Aunt’ Lillian, it was always just Larry and Lillian. I don’t know why, exactly. No one seemed to mind. And I was always just… ‘Randy’. Well, unless I was in trouble – a not uncommon occurrence. In which case, I answered to any number of ‘alternate’ versions of my name depending on what infraction I had supposedly been the cause of.

My relationship with Larry was unique. Although he was my uncle, and we all exchanged periodic London-to-Sarnia, Sarnia-to-London family visits over the years, I was lucky to have lived with Larry, and Lillian, and Virginia, and Barbara and John for several years in the 1960s. I was about nine-years-old.

I not only look back fondly at those years, I relish the memories of that time on Kim Street. Mostly, I remember him. Vividly. Doing… stuff.

  • Fixing the glass block in the foyer of the house…
  • Stringing antenna wire around the attic for my shortwave radio so I could listen to ‘The Beatles At The Beeb’ (BBC) live on Saturday mornings…
  • Cooking on the back patio, and summers filled with barbecues and homemade lemonade popsicles…
  • Travelling to hockey games at the old Detroit Olympia, and baseball double-headers at Tiger Stadium…
  • Hiding behind wisps of Amphora pipe tobacco as he read yet another book by Winston Churchill…
  • Towing a trailer as we all went camping at Bon Echo Lake near Ottawa…
  • Waking me in the middle of the night, telling me to get dressed, and then wandering together outside, bundled up against the icy cold, where I saw the Northern Lights for the first time…
  • Watching him eat breakfast that always consisted – always! – of oatmeal and The Globe and Mail. And then, dressed in a suit, departing for Chemical Valley in an old green sedan…

I remember that car well.

One day, Larry took Virginia and me on a trip downtown in that car. Neither of us wanted to go – we were convinced it was a wild goose chase of some kind, some ‘errand’ that required ONE person to accomplish. One adult – not three people, and certainly not two kids who had far more important things to do on a sunny Saturday morning.

We pulled into an auto mechanic’s garage on Exmouth Street. About ten minutes later, we watched transfixed as the mechanic installed the latest hi-tech car gadget – they were all the rage at the time. Later, we stopped for ice cream, and then drove home, this time securely in place courtesy of our newly fastened… seat belts.

Once every few weeks the bookmobile would come. It always parked right in front of our house. It was a big, lumbering turquoise mobile home containing floor-to-ceiling stacks of hardcover books on every subject imaginable. I thought this was the coolest thing in the world. But one day I was stuck. I still couldn’t find an idea for my school assignment.

I had to do a history project on a famous person of some kind, and I was having trouble getting motivated – I didn’t know where to start. Larry looked around the bookmobile with me, and then told me to follow him back inside the house. There were two sets of encyclopedias in the den – the Britannica and the Americana. He told me to go to the shelves and close my eyes. He said,

“Run your fingers along the spines – back and forth… then stop. Pick a volume and open it. Flip the pages back and forth… then stop. Point. Then… open your eyes.”

That’s how I met the ‘other’ Larry – Lawrence of Arabia. It was the first “A” I ever got.

When I was five years old I became the caretaker of a typewriter. A battleship-beige metal Smith-Corona portable in its own carrying case. A friend of my mother’s would come and visit occasionally from Toronto, and she would work on this thing for hours at our dining room table clacking away at who-knows-what. I took an interest, and she decided to leave it behind in my care. I could use it, she said, but I couldn’t abuse it. “It’s not a toy,” she said.

Best. Toy. Ever!

But we had no paper. Certainly not enough for my prolific output. I complained.

One weekend, Larry paid a visit with the family and brought me a present. A box filled with paper! Not just any paper, mind you – top secret documents from the covert files of The Corporation (hey – I was five!) He said I could use the blank flip side to practice my typing, that way I wouldn’t waste any paper. Recycling. He was ahead of his time.

One of my ‘practices’ was a letter to my uncle, thanking him for the box of paper. He responded. And then I replied. And then he responded. And so it went.

Until relatively recently his letters were always handwritten – mine, typed. Later, he would write his correspondence on a computer and print the letters out – on both sides so as not to waste any paper.

A few years ago during a move and a reorganization of my storage, I opened a large box and discovered those letters. Not all of them, certainly, but still, more than a hundred. The earliest dated letter was more than forty-five years old. It was a response to a letter I had sent to him from Expo 67 in Montreal. It seems I was very keen on the Soviet pavilion, poutine and a certain French Canadian girl.

I remember his moral compass, his ability to steer you – never force you – in the right direction. I remember advice sought and given. Places, sights, smells, tastes… experiences all made real because it was he who introduced me to them. I also remember the dialogue, the seemingly endless engaging dialogue – like the books, on every subject imaginable. He was the most amazing man.

I know I will always remember. Because I have never forgotten.

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 1

October 20, 2013

TEASER

Life is strange. One minute you’re sitting there, sipping your tea, reading the newspaper (remember newspapers…?), and suddenly a thought occurs to you… “I wonder what soandso’s up to these days…?” Then your mobile rings and it’s soandso on the other end wondering what you’ve been up to.
Coincidence, happenstance, fate, serendipity… synchronicity, if Jung’s your cuppa tea. It happens all the time. But sometimes there’s a subject, an incident, a story that you think has nothing to do with you, that seems completely inconsequential, that keeps resurfacing, over and over, throughout your life; an event that holds no more significance for you than a pocket full of small change. Except that over time, as it resurfaces like a nagging football injury, you start looking for connections, seeking the links. And wondering… what the fuck…?!
This is one of those.
This story covers a twenty year period. It begins outside a truck stop in Northern Ontario in the middle of the night, and ends at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. more than two decades later. And yet for me it really all takes place during the course of a couple of very entertaining evenings in Bangkok. Before I was done I would come face to face with automatic weapons, mercenaries, spies, secrets, a redhead and a handful of the most colourful characters I’ve ever met.
But let’s start where all good stories begin – at the beginning. Time to connect the dots.

§ § §

“You know the day destroys the night,
Night divides the day.
Tried to run, tried to hide.
Break on through to the other side.”
– ‘Break On Through’, The Doors

PART ONE

It’s the middle of the night in sub-zero February, 1982. My friend Steve is sitting at a table in a roadside diner on Highway 102 just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario. His wife is breastfeeding their newborn daughter while he chugs his third cup of blackstrap coffee to try and stay awake.

Steve recently got a job at a new television station in Vancouver. He was moving his family west dragging a U-Haul behind a beat-up old van containing their combined earthly possessions.

The diner was a nondescript eatery of the type you’d find anywhere in North America – likewise the patrons. It was their first stop, other than for pee breaks, since leaving Southern Ontario behind ten hours earlier. They were making good time, considering. Besides, it was nice to not be driving for awhile – to just sit still for half an hour.

The baby was asleep now, and Steve decided to step outside to the parking lot to retrieve a fresh diaper and have a quick smoke.

Realizing he’d left his lighter on the table back inside, he noticed a flatbed semi with U.S. plates, and the driver checking out the ropes and tarps. He had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, so Steve approached and asked for a light.

As the small talk ensued, Steve asked him what he was hauling. “I’d tell ya, but I’d hafta kill ya!” The trucker laughed, thankfully.

Never the introverted type, Steve kept up his side of the conversation and soon discovered they shared a fascination for military aircraft and air shows. Steve’s dad had been a commercial pilot, as had this trucker’s. They seemed to hit it off.

The trucker looked at his watch and said, “Gotta get back on the road. My escort bagged it for the night in Kenora. Gotta meet up before I call it a night. C3’s… gonna wonder where I am…” His voice trailed off.

“What’s C3?” Steve asked innocently, “And why do you have an escort…?”

The trucker looked around, perhaps realizing he may have misspoken. “You work in television, yeah? Are you a reporter…?”

“No – I’m a techie,” Steve said.

The trucker thought for a second. “Come here.” They walked around to the back of the truck and the driver undid a couple of the straps. He pulled back the tarp so Steve could see just the edge of one of the crates securely fastened to the deck.

“I’m not going to say what’s in the boxes. I can’t – even I don’t know,” the trucker said. “I just back the cab up, hitch it up to the trailer, grab my paperwork and hit the road.” He pulled the tarp back down, fastened the ropes and returned to the cab – Steve followed.

“Then I drop it off, collect a cheque – sometimes cash, and head back. Good money, too. Two, sometimes three times as much as I’d make hauling spinach.” Tapping the side of the trailer he said, “These ain’t vegetables.”

The remainder of the conversation unfolded this way: According to Steve, the trucker said he had buddies who did the same thing he did. That’s how you get hired on, he said, you gotta know someone.

One driver said they were transporting nuclear warheads (some crates bore the radioactive symbol). Some said the crates contained freshly printed hundred dollar Franklins. One guy had an accident when he hit a patch of ice in Oklahoma and spilled part of his load. A crate split open. Inside, he said, were packets of old 50s and 20s, wrapped with paper ribbons with the admonishment, ‘DESTROY’ printed on them. Each packet had three large holes punched in it. Old money headed for the incinerator perhaps.

But regardless of the cargo, it seemed there was another sinister element to these surreptitious midnight jaunts.

This particular trip had started in Tennessee and wouldn’t end until late the next night in a place called Mountain Home, Idaho. Oak Ridge, Tennessee is the number one nuclear weapons plant in the United States. Mountain Home, Idaho, was the location of a U.S. Air Force Base and home to a tactical fighter wing and ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) testing.

The trucker said that it wasn’t so much of a secret anymore – governments on both sides of the border allowed it to occur, mostly for security reasons. There’d been news stories, and a couple of truckers had been ‘caught’ with illegal cargo – dangerous, explosive cargo even. Residents of the areas where they were ‘caught’ went to the media. The media reported it and put local aldermen and provincial MPs on the hot seat, and in turn the politicians rattled their well-worn cross-border sabres at the Americans, chastising them for illegally shipping dangerous cargo across sovereign territory. After a few weeks the fuss would die down, and everyone would be back in business.

He said they all travelled at night, skipping past the weigh scales on the highway when time was of the essence, flying along back roads when trying to avoid urban centres.

Simultaneously, again according to what the trucker told Steve, there was, that night, a military convoy being transported by rail under heavy security across the American midwest destined for the same location. The difference between the two was, the train was the decoy… or maybe HE was the decoy, he never knew which and he figured that was the point. There may even have been a third decoy also, according to one of his buddies.

A little courier ‘sleight-of-hand’, the trucker said – did it all the time, always a different route, this time through Canada under diplomatic license – his words. There was an armoured unit only a codeword away via his mobile radio if he ran into any trouble. That unit was in an unmarked van loaded to the gunwales with everything required to ‘take care’ of the situation – again, his words.

This armoured unit was the ‘C3’ the trucker had referred to.

dangerous-courierVersions of C3 do exist – initially the brainchild of the Secret Service (Department of the Treasury) – and they don’t exist only in the United States. They have taken different forms over the years and served many diverse functions. But their prime task is to provide logistical support to the ultimate mission, whatever that may be.

C3 is an alphanumeric acronym which used to stand for ‘Courier Communications and Control‘. Its teams are mobile coordination groups assisting in the transportation and delivery of anything the government deems too ‘hot’ to be handled by the U.S. Postal Service or private courier. Sometimes it’s weapons-grade plutonium travelling from Hanford, Washington to a nuclear weapons manufacturing facility via lead-lined steamer trunks; sometimes coin dies for a new commemorative $20 gold coin hidden in an old valise destined for the U.S. Mint production plant in Denver; sometimes it’s human cargo – a spy or suspected terrorist – being transported from a safe house in New York City to prison in Leavenworth, Kansas (Gitmo is entirely an Army operation).

C3 teams are usually groups of no more than two or three people – retired Secret Service, FBI, CIA and/or U. S. Marshall Service personnel – posing as husband and wife or a small family or just friends on a golfing trip. In their luggage, however, is enough firepower and communications equipment to start a small war. They are the contact point for the person or group surreptitiously transporting the ‘goods’ from point “A” to point “B”. Their job is to remain in contact with the courier and stay one step ahead of them, supplying assistance whenever and wherever necessary and reporting back to headquarters on the progress of the mission. There are several, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of false apartments, houses, offices and warehouses across the United States that serve as contact points for the couriers. The tenants, usually members of the Secret Service, come and go at regular intervals so as not to arouse suspicion. Inside these accommodations is the materiel required to support any and all eventualities that might arise from a covert delivery. False walls hiding weapons and communications equipment, plus money, credit cards and disguises are only the tip of the iceberg.

Sounds like an episode of “Homeland” I realize, but I know of a building in Vancouver that the Combined Law Enforcement Unit (CLEU) used to run that’s now in the hands of CSIS.

The early media reports on 9/11 announced a complete “site lock down” by the CIA immediately following the crashing of the first jet plane into the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was before the second plane hit and before anyone had seriously considered the possibility that it was a terrorist act, let alone that the buildings would actually fall. In fact, the main reason was that the CIA had a C3 office in the WTC and they were very concerned that material – everything from secret files to weapons – could be compromised.

During the Reagan administration in the eighties, the President signed an Executive Order allowing the CIA to expand its counter-terrorism activities domestically. Although the activity of domestic spying on Americans is against the law – if you believe the Constitution – the Order remains in effect today. In fact, it has expanded greatly with the creation of the Office of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act as exemplified by the National Security Agency’s ‘warrantless surveillance’ controversy. As part of Reagan’s secret order, the business of C3 was apparently transferred over to the CIA, which administers a multi-agency version of it to this day. Its acronym now meaning ‘Communications, Command and Control’.

I got most of this story verbatim from Steve via a phone call the next night from Brandon, Manitoba – the rest of it when he arrived in Vancouver a few days later.

The World Wide Web as we know it was still many years away back in the Winter of 1982, but online tools for searching public library databases and private information repositories – WAIS, Gopher, and other tools – were available. I had a VUCOM terminal at home hooked up to an old teletype printer for screen dumps and a 300 Baud modem/data telephone combination the size of a Volkswagen. The research I was able to glean using Steve’s information as a starting point filled in the blanks.

I could never be certain whether what I was hearing was just a tall tale made up by Steve to pass the time during a long, cold, arduous trip across the country, or whether part of it was true and he’d embellished the rest just for my benefit.

After a while it all became just another interesting story and life took over once again.

I didn’t give the whole C3 story much thought again until I met Frank almost three years later in a bar on a beach in Thailand. That one little phrase, C3, dropped into the middle of an innocuous conversation over a few bottles of Kloster Beer set in motion the events of a night I will never forget.

End of Part 1 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 2

Personal, Television

Submitted For Your Approval

October 19, 2013

“…the strange arithmetic of television, which is very close to insanity.”
– Rod Serling

§ § §

We all have mementoes from our early childhood years – a baseball or a hockey card, a prized comic book, or a favourite doll. For me it’s my first rejection letter as a writer.

Rod Serling was one of the most brilliant writers to ever work in television. He worked his craft in early live TV in New York, primarily on CBS’s Playhouse 90. There he wrote Requiem for a Heavyweight for actor Jack Palance and won the first ever Peabody Award for a script. Later, it was made into a movie with Anthony Quinn in the lead role.

Rod, of course, is best known for The Twilight Zone, a mostly sci-fi anthology series that I and 30 million plus other viewers devoured each and every week. The show used original scripts, but also adapted short stories from some of the best American writers of the day. I had a teacher who knew of my obsession with Serling’s work, and suggested I try and write down some of my favourite episodes as I remembered them creating a form of ‘transcript’. The result each time was a sort of double reverse engineered short story.  That was my hobby at the time.

Years after The Twilight Zone had ended its initial broadcast run and entered decades of successful syndication – it’s still running somewhere on TV, even today – Rod went to work, this time for NBC on a series called Night Gallery. A friend of a friend of my family worked in the ‘business’ in L.A. (Universal Studios), and after pleading with her to get my own short stories onto the desk of “…somebody famous…“, she finally agreed – probably just to shut me up. She picked one story as being the most promising. ‘Welcome Home‘ it was called. It was a science fiction thriller about the first joint US/Soviet trip to the moon, and of course it had a ‘Twilight Zone’-style twist ending. Hey, I’d gotten an “A” on it in my creative writing class and had to read it aloud to the other students, so I already had a built-in audience, right?

A month later I received a postcard that had a picture of Grauman’s Chinese Theater on the front, and two things on the back:

Bingo!

and

NBC Television has your story in their development tray. Fingers crossed!

I had no idea what a development tray was, and I didn’t know that there were likely hundreds of other ‘stories’ in hundreds of other ‘development trays’ all over Hollywood. I also didn’t care – I was 15-years-old and I was in!

Or so I thought. Dreamed, more like it. I heard nothing… for months. Summer came and went. I forgot about the story and the development tray. Hollywood sucks!

Then one cold November day I received a large white manila envelope with ‘Universal Studios – A Company of MCA‘ embossed in black and gold in the upper left-hand corner. Inside I found my story, now with annotations in pencil (most of them indecipherable) along with an official rejection letter paper clipped on top. It was signed by someone named ‘Sally’, but it was her title that made my heart skip a beat – ‘Development Assistant’ (not that part, the next part)Night Gallery. Cool! I’d been turned down by a Rod Serling TV show. Life could be worse.

It wasn’t until two days later when I showed the letter and the story to my grandmother that she pointed out something I hadn’t seen (how had I missed this?!)… the handwriting on the back of the last page. It read:

“Interesting premise, but derivative. Weak character development.
Expensive FX. Pass. – Rod”

Rod Serling didn’t like my story. But he held it in his hands and he read it!

§ § §

A old friend passed this YouTube link on to me a while back. It’s part 1 of a long lost film interview conducted with Rod at his home in 1970. What comes across is his brilliance, his creativity, and his deep understanding of the television business and the human condition. Unfortunately, what is also evident is his love of cigarettes, which suffocated his pen at an early age depriving us all of his stellar talent.

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 2

October 18, 2013

“When you’re strange
Faces come out of the rain.
When you’re strange
No one remembers your name.”
– ‘People Are Strange’, The Doors

§ § §

PART TWO

In December 1986, I was well into my second month in Thailand. After a few days in Tokyo, I’d come down the Asian coast to spend a few weeks lazing on a hot, sunny beach to burn off the remaining angst incurred from having spent almost a full year working at Expo ’86 in Vancouver.

Downtime in a practically deserted beach paradise near the islands of Koh Phi Phi in Southern Thailand would also help me get back to research on a crime novel I was planning to write (Subduing Mara – another story!)

Through a friend who was also staying nearby I met with a former U.S. Army private named Frank Davies. He’d retired to the south of the Thai peninsula after the Vietnam War and opened a small beach bar and hotel.

At the bar over several bottles of Kloster (a beer referred to locally as high grade ‘cat’s piss’), he would tell me stories of the Vietnam War, Special Forces operations he’d supposedly participated in, the implications of the My Lai massacre and various other ‘indiscretions’, and why he stayed in Thailand instead of returning home. All of it was very entertaining and punctuated with references to other people, places and events… but it all didn’t ring quite true to me. I was never certain if he was just spinning yarns or telling the truth, or if his version of history fell somewhere in between. However, three incidents that I experienced solidified my belief in Frank’s stories and information… well, most of it anyway. Here’s the first.

I asked Frank one day why he decided to join the Army at a time when most kids his age were burning their draft cards, smoking dope and listening to The Doors. It was his father’s influence. Frank told me that his dad had been in the Second World War and seen plenty of action. After returning stateside he joined the Military Police, and then became a cop. He retired early because of a limp that developed due to a piece of shrapnel in his left leg. However, he was a good strategist and had a ‘nose for the bad guys’, as Frank put it, and his superiors were always looking for a way to keep him around.

Frank was a good storyteller and I was an avid listener. Then one shoe dropped.

His father’s last job was working as part of a small covert division of the Secret Service hardly anyone knew even existed. He said it was called C3.

Cat’s piss came out my nose. I apologized and asked him to elaborate.

Frank told me his father continued to perform this duty long after retirement since he could travel as a senior citizen with an older woman (also retired Secret Service – both using canes) and no one would be the wiser.

“I saw what my dad had become, what he’d managed to do for his country, and I wanted to follow,” Frank told me. “Besides, I was going nowhere fast in Louisiana.” Frank noticed the look on my face. “Yeah – no one believes that story. I got more stories you won’t believe either, if you want to hear them. But right now I have to check-in some new guests.” He got up from the barstool and wandered over to a folding card table in the corner that served both as the check-in desk and buffet, depending on the time of day.

That evening there were really only two options for after-dinner activities. You could head down to the end of the second beach and set off fireworks, or grab a chair from your bungalow and find an empty spot in the open field to watch a movie being projected on the side of a bed sheet. The fireworks were fun, but if previous nights were any indication it would deteriorate into drunken competition. The Thai festival of Loi Krathong was just a recent memory, so many who had missed the original decided for the instant replay. On the other hand, the movie was the same as the night before… and the night before that… and the week before that. Once you’ve seen Streets Of Fire dubbed in German with Spanish subtitles (Strassen und Flammen / Calles del Fuego)… well, you’ve seen it.

I found Frank in his nearly empty bar chatting up one of the local girls. I knew I was interrupting, but I didn’t care. “Let’s talk about C3,” I said.

The pristine white sand had retained its heat from a stifling hot and humid day. The flickers of the movie projector a few hundred metres away, and the bright flash boom of the fireworks a short distance in the opposite direction were the only sources of light – there was no moon. Sitting there in the sand Frank and I chatted about C3, and Frank related some of those ‘other stories’ he’d mentioned earlier. Our faces bounced out of the night with each flicker or flash, and for the first time I noticed that Frank’s face was just a little too shiny, a little too tight.

Frank had fought in the Vietnam War and been wounded twice. The last time, he’d taken shrapnel in the face from a Viet Cong RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) and spent a year and a half in a Thai hospital having painful reconstructive surgery. He spent the intervening time learning the difficult Thai language.

He decided not to return home after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and instead parlayed his savings and disability pension, not to mention his contacts, into the small bar and hotel on the beach. At the time he purchased, Kho Phi Phi, and nearby Phuket and Koh Samui were just a halfway oasis on the 750-mile overland trip from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was now the hottest holiday destination in Southeast Asia and Frank was making serious money.

Foreigners can’t take up permanent residency, own property or become ‘naturalized’ citizens in Thailand, Frank said. They can, however, live quite well, lease property and buildings and take what are called ‘visa sabbaticals’ from Thailand. The sabbaticals allow for the immigration people to re-stamp your passport upon re-entry for a further ‘work permit’ of six months. All just red tape of course, but Frank had a collection of red tape dating back years.

What this meant was that Frank had to leave Thailand every six months for a couple of weeks vacation. One of these vacation periods happened to coincide with my trip. So, after a week and a half in Australia he returned to Thailand via Bangkok and agreed to show me around the Bangkok that he knew and introduce me to a couple of his friends that might add more fodder to the research for my novel.

He called me at my hotel late one evening and asked me to meet him at a bar on Patpong Road – a notorious area of four-square-blocks where everything from shoulder-launched missiles to thirteen-year old boys and girls were for sale. This is the Bangkok no one wants to talk about. Unfortunately, it was the Bangkok I needed to research for my book. As a friend of mine who has spent much time in Bangkok put so eloquently:

“Never have I been in a city where I felt so much like a sinner without having done anything.”

The Patpong area is still ‘owned’ (that is to say, controlled) by the Chinese-Thai Patpongpanich family, one of whom is a General in the Thai Army. Although to outsiders Thailand has a King and Queen and appears to be run as a Kingdom, it wasn’t always so. Until the democratic revolutions (quiet ones) of 1991 it was run by the armed forces. All the ministers and lawmakers had military rank. One could do anything with any commodity that was available – buy, sell, trade and steal (some say even kill) with impunity as long as the right palms were greased. This was the Bangkok that I was getting all too familiar with as my time with Frank went on. He may have been American, but his years in Southeast Asia – over twenty at this point – and his mastery of the Thai language allowed him to haggle and deal with the best of them. It also allowed him to move throughout the darker corners unencumbered, so too those in his company.

At a large crowded disco 60s music blared from the huge ceiling-mounted speakers as scantily clad girls danced and plied their trade. Frank told me that a friend of his ‘from the old days’ was returning from Africa and he wanted me to meet him. Fascinating guy apparently. They’d “…executed covert recon patrols in-country during the latter days of the police action.” He actually talked like this and it became apparent to me over the weeks of my stay that those who stayed on in Thailand after the war all communicated in this anachronistic ‘Viet-speak’ of 1960s-70s occupation.

What Frank neglected to tell me was that this ‘friend’ was a mercenary and was returning from Angola where he had ‘hired on’ with the Cubans to help depose a rebel leader. I took that to mean ‘kill’.

At oh-two hundred hours Frank’s friend entered the bar. All 260 pounds, six and half feet plus of him. Still dressed in camouflage fatigues and with the remnants of battle paint on his face, he carried a specially outfitted (I was to learn later) AK-47 Russian assault rifle, sometimes referred to as a ‘Kalashnikov’. This last accoutrement didn’t seem to phase anyone but me – apparently he didn’t go anywhere without his ‘baby’. I was to see more of these weapons a few days later under less amiable conditions.

The attention he received upon arrival was preceded by almost dead silence. Then several of the dancing girls erupted into laughs and smiles and threw themselves onto him like he was a ride at Disneyland. He was obviously well known, entirely welcome and not considered at all out of place, even with the weapon.

The name patch Velcroed to his fatigues’ left breast pocket read: JESUS in Army khaki green on green. He had ripped it from his dead buddy’s chest after a particularly fierce fire fight near Da Nang in ’68, and ‘borrowed’ the name. He’d had it so long he’d practically forgotten his own. Besides, that was a life and half ago, he said. Friends were forbidden to utter the name in his presence out of respect to “…the best damn Marine I’ve ever known”. So, his friends got in the habit of calling him D.B. – short for Dash Board, I was told. Funny guy, this mercenary.

A short conversation with D.B., Frank and myself followed, but I could tell my scintillating company was no match for the entertainment promised by the girls, now numbering six, vying for D.B.’s attention. He seemed to take an immediate liking to me, however. Perhaps it was because Frank introduced us – Frank, apparently, didn’t like anybody I was to learn later. Perhaps it was because I was genuinely interested in what he did for a living and his ego was being massaged. All I know is that two nights later the four of us (my friend from Vancouver showed up and joined the party) decided to go to the Bangkok Press Club so that we could talk in less frenetic surroundings. D.B. promised to answer all of my questions that he could, but that there were others that if he “…told me, he’d have to kill me!” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase, but it was the first time it had been directed at me personally. I got the impression that this was a response he’d had personal experience with.

dangerously-dusit-thani-hotelThe Bangkok Press Club used to sit atop the Dusit Thani Hotel at the conflagration of King Rama IV Road – five major thoroughfares that converge into the most congested roundabout known to man.

The four of us arrived in the hotel lobby at different times – I arrived first to scope the place out. After the reception I’d seen given to D.B. at the Patpong bar, I was curious to see if his magnetism transcended the choking vehicle fumes of a few blocks away into a more upscale locale.

I was in for the second surprise in as many days. It was Frank, arriving in flowered shirt, drawstring pants and rubber beach thongs that aroused the staff of the hotel once he set foot beyond the immense revolving door. He could have been royalty – I’ve never seen such a fuss. Everybody seemed to know him.

Once the four of us had exchanged pleasantries, it became apparent what the commotion was about. The Press Club was closed for renovations. Too bad. I just assumed we’d move on to another bar, but Frank wouldn’t hear of it. Best view in the city, he said. D.B. didn’t have the patience that Frank appeared to have and as his voice got louder and less conciliatory, there were a couple of shoves, a potential fist in the face that never quite materialized, and, as an especially affecting exclamation point, several AK-47s pointed our way by slowly advancing army personnel.

Being a graduate of the less chaotic ‘table for four, si vous plait’ school of restaurant etiquette, I found myself on the verge of a losing battle with incontinence. Suddenly, the hotel manager who had been hastily summoned by a freaked-out bellboy appeared from behind the registration desk.

“FRANKLIN!” he bellowed, “This IS a surprise! How long’s it been…?” TOO fuckin’ long, that’s how long, I thought. Now, let’s all make nice – quickly.

The last time someone got in a fight in the lobby of the Dusit Thani Hotel was during an aborted military coup the year before, in 1985, when rebel forces within the army tried to overthrow the country. The flashpoint was King Rama IV Road, a local radio station, and, through sheer proximity, this hotel. One tank shell and several rifle bullets had pierced the plush velvet and rattan décor of the hotel lobby wounding three and killing Neil Davis, a famous war photographer and his sound man. At the time, Neil was Bangkok bureau chief for NBC News and, like Frank, had stayed behind after Saigon fell. In fact, the two were such good friends that Frank delivered the eulogy at Neil’s wake.

Neil was famous for any number of reasons, not the least of which was his bravery. He owned a very small Elmo 16mm movie camera and he was able to photograph much of his footage surreptitiously. But he will always be remembered for two short films that everyone the world over has seen. One was the crashing of the gates of the Presidential Palace by a Vietcong tank on the day Saigon fell. He was the only newsperson left in town when the North Vietnamese arrived. So impressed were they that he had the balls to stay when all others fled, that they arranged exclusive on-camera interviews with much of the so-called ‘enemy’ military once they’d secured Saigon. NBC ran those exclusives for weeks after and to this day remain the only first-person document of the period.

His other – his MOST – famous bit of footage made the cover of both Time and Life magazine. He was again the only photographer present during the interrogation of a captured Vietcong lieutenant. The ‘coercive questioning’ – no one liked to use the word torture – ended abruptly when the inquisitor, Saigon’s chief of police, pulled a pistol from his belt and shot the officer in the head. Neil was filming the entire time. Ironically, the police chief went on to become the new Ho Chi Minh City’s first mayor under North Vietnamese rule.

In September of 1985, Neil was covering another coup attempt and got caught in the crossfire when a military tank fired a shell at the radio station both he and his sound man were crouched beside. In fitting style, the final footage Neil shot was that of his own death as the camera fell from his hands and spun around to show his lifeless body being dragged away.

This incident was still fresh in many minds, and any argument in or near the hotel was met with pounding hearts and crystal clear memories. Frank introduced all of us to the manager, D.B. apologized to the manager (good move!), and then the manager said the words that solidified the veracity of Frank’s stories in my mind. It was the culmination of the first of the three incidents, as if D.B. arriving in full war paint wasn’t enough. “For you, Franklin, anything! ” he said. This from a guy who ran one of the most exclusive hotels in Asia, to a guy wearing flip-flops!

With that, the four of us were escorted to the private elevator that led to the Press Club. A padlocked chain was removed, the power turned on and the patio doors opened onto the wrap-around balcony that afforded the best views in Bangkok. Frank had been right.

End of Part 2 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 3

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 3

October 16, 2013

“Don’t ya love her madly.
Don’t ya need her badly.
Don’t ya love her ways.
Tell me what you say…”
– ‘Love Her Madly’, The Doors

§ § §

PART THREE

The manager bade us farewell, “Good to see you, Franklin. Enjoy your evening,” and left us in the company of an Army sergeant who proceeded to lay his weapon down on the bar and mix us drinks for the remainder of the night. A more surreal scene I could not have conjured.

At one point Frank excused himself to go to the ‘head’ and D.B. leaned in toward me in that way that can only mean one thing: I’m going to convey some information here that Frank would probably rather I not talk about… but what the hell.

D.B. told me that Frank had become quite the media source after his discharge from hospital those many years ago. Because he had been part of a Special Forces team and stayed on in Bangkok, the various news outlets sought him out for counsel whenever they ran into a dead end, journalistically speaking. The Army also realized Frank’s usefulness as an ‘un-named source’, as they call it. They would give Frank information that the U.S. government wanted released but couldn’t be seen as releasing through otherwise normal means. Sometimes it was factual data, sometimes it was a fabrication – disinformation. According to D.B., Frank never knew which. To that day Frank continued his uneasy alliance with the government that sent him to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, although the service he was providing ten years after the war had officially ended was anybody’s guess.

D.B. stopped and looked at me. “You don’t believe any of this shit, do you?” he said. “An open mind is a terrible thing to waste,” I answered.

Everything I’d seen and heard about Frank and his cronies in the last few days was shrouded in a healthy skepticism. I didn’t so much care whether any of what I saw and heard was fact, as much as I considered how I would utilize it in my story, which was fiction. But, if this was all some kind of elaborate game, being played out simply for my entertainment, I was quickly buying in.

Thus began the second epiphany of my relationship with Frank.

“Frank’s KIA, you know. He doesn’t exist anymore,” D.B. said.

As in any war, when your tour of duty was finished you either returned home or you were listed as MIA, Missing In Action, or KIA, Killed In Action. There was a third category that no one really talked about – it had no official sanction. It was DA, or ‘Don’t Ask’. The DA moniker was reserved for those personnel who decided after they arrived in Vietnam to become ‘conscientious objectors’, or, more in keeping with army-speak, deserters. There were over seven hundred American deserters during the Vietnam War, not including draft dodgers and resisters… where are they now, I wonder.

According to D.B., Frank was KIA. This needed explanation. I was about to question him on it when Frank returned to the table. Apparently he’d overheard D.B.

Frank suddenly became quite animated, like he was unloading information he’d kept hidden for years. He told everyone at the table that in ’68 when he went ‘covert’ the government erased all traces of his prior history – including his life. Okay, now we’re on to serious ‘Willy Wonka’ territory, I thought. But still, it made for a great yarn.

He told the story about how one rainy morning he and several dozen of his fellow regular army privates were gathered around a faulty camp stove drinking awful coffee and force-feeding themselves RTE’s, Army slang for food (Ready To Eat).

There was a ‘hiss’. Someone yelled, “IN COMING!” The RTE’s went flying to the ground as every enlisted man reached for his weapon and dove for the best piece of cover they could find from what was sure to be a mortar attack.

Out of the blue a black UH-1B ‘Baby Huey’ helicopter swept into the small clearing and landed quickly with a thud.

Frank said the helicopter was all black – no markings. The pilot cut the engine and feathered the rotors, just in case a rapid extraction was necessary. They were just 30 kliks (kilometres) from the DMZ and no one was supposed to know Frank and his cavalry unit were there.

Frank described what happened next as like watching Liberace take the stage in Las Vegas.

The side door slid open and a perfectly polished black combat boot came to rest on the chopper’s starboard skid. Then another. Standing there, looking at the rag-tag group of grunts, was a Special Forces colonel with a handlebar moustache. He was decked out with a pearl-handled .45 pistol, a white silk scarf and a black beret. The rest was regulation khaki. Frank told me that when he first saw the film Apocalypse Now and watched as the Robert Duvall character came on screen he laughed so hard the theatre manager wanted to throw him out.

The colonel shrugged, smirked and stepped off the skid onto the wet grass. No one spoke. No one even saluted this superior officer, so mesmerized was everyone in attendance.

He grabbed a couple of food boxes and placed them on top of a crate, then asked for assistance as he climbed atop his hastily prepared pulpit.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, in a deeply southern accent, as Frank recalled it.

“Cav units such as yours have a mortality rate of about fifty percent. Take a look around. That means that half of you ain’t gonna make it home to your cushy little beds. And while you’re waitin’ for some gook to put a pungee stick in your eye or a bullet in your brainpan, you eat shit, drink shit, live in shit… you ARE shit! Well, ladies, I offer you an alternative.” According to Frank, this colonel couldn’t have held their gaze any stronger if he’d been painted blue. The colonel continued.

“I run a small group of Special Ops into areas of this war that you don’t know about and into territories you haven’t even heard of. It’s secret, it’s dangerous, and it pays ten times what you shit-eaters accumulate for your family’s estate. I’ve been authorized to tell you that I’m recruiting and I’m in dire need of a couple of replacements – now, today. Come with me and I guarantee you’ll drink the best booze, eat the best food and fuck the best pussy this side of the lower forty-eight.”

The interest level of those in attendance continued to grow.

“But there’s one small thing,” he continued. “Our mortality rate is ninety percent! That means the odds of you living through this are one in ten. Agree to come with me now and the tour on this duty is six months… unless, of course, you’re stupid and die. In which case you’ll be home all the sooner.” He pulled an expensive cigar out of his fatigue pocket, bit the end off and lit it with one flip of his Zippo. “So, what’s it to be…? Rust, or blaze of glory?! You’ve got five minutes,” he said.

Frank had been ‘in country’ for almost a year and seen most of his friends die in combat – most of it vicious, some of it hand-to-hand. He hadn’t waited for the draft – he’d enlisted. He’d done his six weeks of basic, got handed a rifle and told he was going to Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy. Frank knew he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. What was he going to do when he went back stateside? What if the colonel was right and he was the next body bag filler?

The colonel looked at his Rolex President (Frank now had one just like it), turned and walked toward the chopper, and with a swirl of his hand signalled for the engines to start-up. Frank looked at his sergeant and then at the lieutenant who had been wounded earlier in the day. He followed the colonel to the helicopter and reached him just as he was getting in.

“What do I need to do… now, I mean?” Frank inquired. The colonel looked at him and sucked on his stogie. A couple of seconds later he said, “Where you from, son?” “Louisiana, sir,” came the less than regimental reply. Another second, then, “Gimme your gun.” Frank handed him the regulation issue M-16 carbine he’d had since basic and the colonel looked at him again. “You sure you want to do this…?” he asked Frank. Frank turned and looked at his cav unit. “Yeah,” was all he said.

The colonel threw Frank’s rifle to the ground and told him to get in. “You won’t be needing this where we’re going,” he said. The chopper was already airborne and turning into the wind when the colonel added, “…or these.” He ripped Frank’s dog tags from around his neck, chucked them outside and slid the door shut with a bang. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.

That’s the way Frank told the story that night at the Bangkok Press Club, almost verbatim, with asides from D.B. I tape recorded most of our conversations and transcribed them when I returned to Vancouver, so I have most of the story correct complete with the inflections Frank added.

Now, I didn’t know much about the American armed forces, but I knew that the purpose of dog tags was to identify you in case of death – the sole purpose in fact. It was said that if you had the option of losing your balls or your dog tags you’d choose the former. You’d have them personally removed by your superior officer anyway if you lost the latter and self-determination was the last thing they beat out of you in army!

Frank explained that the group he joined was so covert the government didn’t want any record of ANYTHING they did. So, if you joined this force, you ceased to be accountable to your original unit. Also, if you happened to be captured the enemy couldn’t use you for propaganda purposes if they didn’t know who you were.

This type of covert operational procedure, although not common, has a history dating back to post-war, OSS days (pre-CIA) and the reign of über-spy ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan.

The super-secret groups were colloquially known as SOG, or Studies and Observations Group. This was an innocuous little term that fit the acronym perfectly, but in fact obfuscated the actual role of the group. While sounding like it might refer to someone ‘auditing’ an operation, in fact SOG stood for Special Operations Group and ‘observing’ was the least lethal activity involved.

A recent TIME magazine article elaborated:

“If a soldier is assigned highly clandestine work, his records are changed to make it appear as if he resigned from the military or was given civilian status; the process is called ‘sheep dipping’, after the practice of bathing sheep before they are sheared.”

With the exception of two men who were seriously wounded and air lifted back to the United States, his entire original cavalry unit was wiped out in a booby-trapped village some three weeks after Frank ‘went black’. The dog tags that had been jettisoned from the helicopter were picked up by a buddy of his and pocketed for safekeeping. During the heated exchange at the village, this particular buddy was killed and the dog tags were found.

“I’m on the wall, apparently,” Frank said wistfully. “There are a lot of guys on the wall who don’t deserve to be there,” D.B. added, not so wistfully. Another story, perhaps.

The two warriors exchanged a long knowing glance that spoke volumes and I was just about to interject with, “I don’t mean to question your memory, but…,” when Frank jumped up and said, “C’mon, we’re leaving. ”

“Where to now, master? ” D.B. joked. We all giggled, the alcohol combined with the heat and humidity starting to take effect. Frank looked at me and said, “Wanna meet some real spooks…?”

dangerously-thermaeD.B.’s eyes widened. “The Thermae…?!” he said. “You’re takin’ them to the Thermae? Are you nuts?! I can’t be seen there, you know that!”

Frank continued to look at me. “When do you go back to Koh Phi Phi?” he said. “I don’t,” I said. “I go to Hong Kong in two days, then home to Vancouver.”

Frank looked at D.B. and weighed the options. “We’re goin’ to the Thermae. I’ll see you later,” he said pointing to D.B.

“Watch your back and don’t be seen smoking nothin’ funny,” D.B. said to me. “You know what I mean… funny…?” “I get it,” I said. But I didn’t. I still don’t know why D.B. couldn’t ‘be seen’ at the Thermae. Considering his line of work it could have been anything. I didn’t want to know.

I said goodbye to Jesus – not by name of course – nodded and smiled at the heavily armed bartender as we exited the press club, and then the three of us hopped into an air-conditioned taxi and headed out into the hot fetid extremes of the Bangkok night.

Most of the short drive was accomplished in silence, but I could see Frank was excited. He was riding shotgun. I leaned forward and said, “So, what’s the Thermae? A club or something?” Frank didn’t react, he just said, “Or something… you’ll see.”

End of Part 3 of 4 ~ Continued In Part 4

Personal, Politics, Spies, Travel

Nights Of Living Dangerously – Part 4

October 14, 2013

“Into this house we’re born.
Into this world we’re thrown.
Like a dog without a bone,
An actor out alone…”
– ‘Riders On The Storm’, The Doors

§ § §

PART FOUR

The taxi pulled up in front of a high-walled compound and stopped. As I got out I noticed a heavy black gate with a large golden seal of some sort affixed to it. It took a moment, but I soon realized we were at the American Embassy. Frank saw the look on my face and laughed. “Don’t worry,” he said, “no one’s home. They’re all over there,” he said, pointing.

He started to cross the busy street so we followed. Even at this hour in Bangkok traffic was congested. “Hurry up,” Frank said. “It closes to the public at midnight. We’ve only got six minutes.”

The building was a square box of a thing, comprised of glass and black granite. Only one story, but about half a city block big. My cameraman friend and I followed Frank around the side of the building and down some stairs. A couple of people were coming out of the basement through a heavy steel door. We rushed past.

By the time we caught up with Frank he was already exchanging pleasantries with a small Thai man dressed in a black tuxedo. He appeared to be a doorman. He smiled at us, checked his watch and waved us inside. “You just in time, friends of Frank. Come in,” he said.

The smell of expensive tobacco and cheap cologne filled my nose as I tried to come to terms with my new surroundings.

As my eyes became accustomed to the light, or rather the lack of it, the trappings of this basement bar became clearer: there were none to speak of. Mostly small round tables, wooden chairs of the type you’d find in any western restaurant where the word ‘family’ formed a part of the name, a short bar with various and sundry liquors lining the mirrored shelves, and men, mostly men, in suits with unknotted ties, wearing the aforementioned cheap cologne and smoking cigars. It was a small room with a particularly low ceiling. The fact that the walls and the ceiling appeared to be painted black didn’t help matters much. Who would do such a thing…?!, I thought. This room was not designed as a bar. Claustrophobic was an understatement.

“Frank – over here!” a male voice said. Frank turned to us to make sure we were in tow and ordered, “Follow me – don’t get lost. And if anyone asks who you are or who you’re with, just point to me.” Follow we did.

In short order I was introduced to ‘Jim’ and ‘Alexei’, another pair of ‘old’ buddies from the ‘old’ days. I only discerned their names through conversation later in the evening – there never were introductions. Strange, I thought.

We chatted with Jim, Alexei and a few other expensive but unkempt suits for about twenty minutes. I kept nodding and smiling like I was listening, all the while scoping out the room and taking note of the others in attendance.

There was something about this location, the Thermae, which I found oddly exciting – like I was being allowed to see inside a special place. Maybe it was the way that no one seemed to acknowledge anyone else by name – just a nod here and a smile there as they jockeyed for position around the bar, or the entrance to the bathroom.

Then I noticed something peculiar. I could make out another language being spoken in other parts of the room. But because of the constant din of conversation and the occasional raucous laugh, I couldn’t tell what language it was – but it wasn’t Asian-based. I decided all the drinking of the night had caught up with me and excused myself to go to the bathroom. “Don’t. Get. Lost,” Frank said – a little more seriously that I thought necessary. It’s such a small place, how can I get lost? I thought. I would have said this out loud, but the time and effort involved in forming a sentence at this point would have seriously cut into my much-needed peeing time. Off I went.

For such a small, dank little bar the bathroom had several unusual features. Aside from the garish fluorescent bulbs, there was only one bathroom and it contained no urinals – only Eastern-style stalls. No toilet bowls – just big holes in the floor with the painted outline of footprints on either side as a sort of ‘you are here’ directive – one not to be taken lightly, I assure you. These stalls were a cruel joke to those westerners who found themselves in need of one while inebriated! The mechanics of such a restroom (what a misnomer!) combined with its co-ed characteristic made the experience a highlight.

It also featured something normally found only in the ritziest of hotels – a WC attendant. Looking very much like the twin brother of the doorman, Lui also wore a tux – a white one in this case – and dispensed both fresh terrycloth towels and matches with equal dexterity. Individual matches, at that!

It was an easy connection to make – the matches with the proliferation of cigars. But I still found it strangely odd.

I must have been wearing my quizzical expression like a Benetton billboard, for I hadn’t made more than a few steps back toward our table when a distinctly female hand lit upon my shoulder followed by a distinctly female voice mere inches from my left ear asking, “So, how do you know Frank…?”

I turned and found myself looking into the smiling, questioning face of a beautiful, petite young woman with a shock of red hair. She was also wearing a business suit, but somehow her clothes just seemed to fit better that anyone else. Strange how you notice little things like that.

I’d made eye contact with her when we first arrived, because she was one of only three or four women in the place. But mostly because she was the only woman smoking a cigar.

“I’m a friend of Frank’s,” I said, offering my hand. She continued to look at me somewhat devilishly. “That’s not what I asked,” she said, not taking my hand. Regaining whatever composure I had left, I managed, “Yes, well, it’s so noisy in here I couldn’t quite make out what you were saying.”

“Oh, you ARE good!” she said, smiling even more, if that were possible. “Yes, I suppose – noisy and smelly.”

“All that cigar smoke and cologne, I guess,” I offered weakly, thinking I was actually making conversation.

“That’s not cologne, dear boy,” she said. “That’s testosterone.”

I made note of the slightly upper crust British accent. “You’re not American,” I said, continuing my perverse string of non-sequiturs.

Her smile continued a leisurely swim across her face. “Neither are you. Buy you a drink?” She turned and headed back to the bar acting as if the invitation had been entirely rhetorical. I had no choice but to follow. Apparently, I was choosing to evade Frank’s admonition of not getting lost. Too late.

As we devoured our iced concoctions of Mekong Coke – a deadly mixture of Vietnamese whiskey and cola that causes either unwanted hair or permanent blindness, depending on whom you speak to – she filled me in on exactly what the Thermae was, why names were never used and the mystery of the bathroom matches. She spoke fluent Thai, Cantonese, Spanish and Russian. Russian was the other language I heard.

One has to remember the temper of the times to understand the openness of the people I found myself associating with here. People who were known, famous even, for their obfuscation.

In the closing days of 1986, the face of terrorism was still that of a bearded foreigner spewing rhetoric in grainy videos. Al-Qaida and Bin Laden were still more than a decade away from becoming household words. Afghanistan was a place the Soviet Army had come to loathe and didn’t want to hear about anymore. And the Iran Contra affair was the latest ‘above the fold’ headline.

Less than a month prior, Reagan and Gorbachev had completed their ill-fated summit in Iceland. The Berlin Wall was only going to hold for a few more years and the dismantling of the Soviet totalitarian state had begun – ‘perestroika’ was all the rage – but the Soviet Union still flew the hammer and sickle. The cold war was in the process of warming up and former foes were now having drinks and talking about the ‘good old days’ of spy vs. spy.

That was precisely where I found myself at 12:30am in a basement bar in central Bangkok, Thailand – Christmastime 1986. And it was why Frank had asked me earlier, Wanna meet some real spooks…?

Spooks, in this instance, were spies. It’s what the CIA and the KGB used to refer to themselves as back in those ‘good old days.’ The Thermae was their watering hole, so-to-speak, situated as it was, crawling distance from both the American and Russian embassies.

It’s an unspoken, but well-understood concept in journalism circles, that if you are having a discussion in a press club that discussion is, as they say, ‘off the record.’ No one can quote anyone else on the matter or matters discussed. So, too, was the understanding here in this tiny, smoky, testosterone-filled basement.

The Thermae had been here forever, the redhead told me. Bangkok had been at the crossroads of much of the war trade since the French occupation of ‘Indochine’ during the fifties, and continued right through the American ‘police action’ of the sixties and seventies. The Thermae became an oasis of sorts – a respite from the day-to-day business of espionage.

No one remembers who started it, how it got its name, or even who suggested that American spies and Russian spies should have drinks here together. But, together they were.

“Take a look around,” said the redhead. “Everyone here’s in the business. No one’s undercover anymore – everything’s quite open. We just continue to meet here because… because it’s still fun. Our last little piece of… of… covertness, I suppose.” She paused, looking around the room herself. “It’s all ending, you know.” She sounded almost plaintive.

“No more James Bond?” I asked, trying to be humorous. She didn’t react.

“I was a good spy,” she deadpanned. “I don’t know what I shall do now….”

Her candor surprised me. But I didn’t learn much from her that night – certainly not her name, which in my book came a close second to her phone number… which I also didn’t get, incidentally.

She’d been on loan to the American Embassy in Bangkok from MI6 and was being “…recalled to Whitehall” she said. No more need for a senior, multilingual cipher clerk, apparently. She couldn’t have been much older than thirty, but I got the distinct impression that she thought her age was the problem. She’d missed the ‘good old days’ and she came to the Thermae to hear others speak about them. A little vicarious thrill – espionage by association, perhaps.

She did manage to explain the ‘Frank’ phenomenon to me though. Her version of it at least. She took me into her confidence particularly because I knew Frank, and as I had discovered earlier, Frank didn’t like anybody, so perhaps I was an oddity. Maybe my timing was just right.

Frank had kept his business and his contacts close to his chest once he became an informed, un-named source – his second career. He was the one everybody came to, either to get information from, or to have information distributed, to all and sundry. Apparently, he worked both sides of the fence. Information was the most saleable commodity during the war years, and he bartered it better than most. You want the home phone number of the new Australian charges d’affaires…? Get me a copy of the ship’s manifest for that Liberian freighter that just docked yesterday and I’ll see what I can do. That sort of thing. He was, as Graham Greene once wrote of Harry Lime, ‘our man in Havana’ – except Frank was deadly serious.

And so, everyone was Frank’s friend. You never knew just when you might want that little bit of information, that last piece of the puzzle. You didn’t want to piss him off, because if ‘it’ was attainable, Frank could attain ‘it’. And you never knew when you might want, or need, ‘it’.

Frank, it turned out, was part courier, part confidant, part source, part procurer (yes – he could even act as pimp if the job called for it) and 100% all-American spy! But he was the spy everyone knew. If you looked up the word ‘double agent’ in the Bangkok Yellow Pages, I imagined, there was Frank, all-smiling, all knowing. Underneath would be the line: “If I can’t get it, you don’t need it!”

The two guys Frank was talking to at the table were the big spooks in the room – the ‘real’ spies, if you will. According to the redhead, one was the CIA station chief in Bangkok (Jim) and the other was the Southeast Asian correspondent for TASS, the official Soviet news agency (Alexei). “But everyone knows he’s GRU,” she said – the Russian army’s secret intelligence service.

I was tired and my head was spinning.

At 4:30am, feeling as though I’d inadvertently stepped into a John Le Carré novel, I left Frank and his buddies to continue their reminiscing and began the long walk back to my hotel. It had been a day.

My redhead (possession is nine tenths of the law!) had excused herself to go to the bathroom and not returned. Was it something I said? Yeah, probably. God knows what.

As for the matches… Well, this was the part that really solidified my thoughts about Frank and his supposed life. Who makes up a story like this?!

Apparently, back in the early sixties Russian, American and British government types in Thailand agreed that détente would best be served if they got together to discuss the problems of the world once in awhile in a third-party, non-confrontational setting. The Thermae was it, and it became a serious and ultra secret venture known only to a handful of top diplomats.

It became standard for the inviting party to offer a gift of some description to the other party and this became the coded message, “let’s meet”. “Can I buy you a drink, perhaps?” might have been the question. It was understood that ‘drinks’ would be bought at the Thermae, which at the time had no bar, ironically. It was just a storage room in the basement of the Thai Military College with a few tables and chairs where the cadets played checkers or dominoes in their off time. This explained why there was only one bathroom.

Strict protocol had to be followed in these secret meetings. No recording devices of any kind (the room was swept for bugs by both sides prior to the meetings), no cameras, no weapons and only those involved in the meeting with their interpreters (if necessary – they weren’t always) were allowed access.

One day, so the story goes, a Russian diplomat offered an American diplomat a Cuban cigar during a meeting. This was a commodity the Russians could acquire by the caseload considering their close ties to Fidel Castro, and a much desired, but illegal perk for Americans.

The American went through the ritual snipping of the cigar’s end with a tobacconist’s guillotine he just happened to be carrying, lit his cigar with a metal lighter and then passed the lighter to his Russian host. The Russian mimicked his guest with the lighting of his cigar and took a special interest in the lighter. “Keep it,” said the American, “as a gift from Uncle Sam.” They both laughed as the Russian pocketed the shiny new keepsake.

Three months later the Russian was recalled to Moscow and spent his remaining days in a Siberian Gulag breaking rocks and recounting the day he was screwed by the American government.

The lighter had contained a transmitter and every conversation the Russian diplomat had for three months was recorded, transcribed and cabled to Washington.

Soon thereafter, another Russian called the American Embassy offering ‘drinks’. The Embassy was understandably wary and nervous of such a meeting – anything could happen. The offer was accepted nonetheless. Protocol dictated.

The American arrived first and was kept waiting. Just when he thought he’d been set-up the Russian arrived. But this was no ordinary Russian – this was the ambassador himself.

The American stood-up from the table and extended his hand, introducing himself in pitch-perfect Russian. The ambassador ignored the salutation and instead withdrew a box from inside a leather valise. It was wrapped in butcher’s paper and tied with string. He slammed it down on the table between the two of them, turned and stormed out.

The American was alone. Was it a bomb? A gun? Why would it be a gun?

Slowly he sat down. Instinctively he put his ear close to the package to see if it was ticking. It wasn’t. Carefully, he undid the string and unwrapped the package. It was a cigar box. He opened it, ever so gingerly. Inside he found, not cigars, but matches… it was filled with hundreds of individual wooden matches.

The story, true or not, stuck. And the Thermae became the legendary home to spies of all stripes. Meetings continued to happen, the affairs of the world continued to unfold, and eventually someone thought: “Hey, let’s put in a real bar!”

But names were never exchanged and cigars were always lit with matches, just to be safe.

And so it was that I found myself smoking my cigar, lit with a match, and sauntering along the boulevard as the percolating blaze of the sun began its daily ritual of burning through the thick polluted haze of Bangkok.

That sight held the threat of another hot and humid day, but was no sensory match for the dozen bald, saffron-robed monks and their alms bowls, engaged in their early hour quest for food. I leaned against a tree and tried to take it in – all of it.

§ § §

EPILOGUE

My third epiphany about Frank wasn’t to occur until sixteen years later, November 2002, while I was in Washington, D.C. on yet another research trip.

One day I decided to take the tourist trolley from Union Station to see the sites. It’s always fun to play tourist in a new city and the tour trolleys are frequently the best way to gain one’s bearings.

Around the White House, past the Smithsonian, slowing down long enough to get a good look at Lincoln, over the bridge and into the state of Virginia for a quiet trip through Arlington Cemetery to see the perpetual flame at President Kennedy’s resting place.

dangerously vietnam war memorialEventually, my fellow tourists and I found ourselves at the Vietnam War Memorial. The memorial is a long “V”-shaped granite wall cut into a grassy knoll on the Potomac River. The names of 58,229 dead and missing soldiers are hand-carved into its gleaming surface. But it didn’t take long to find it.

There, amongst the ‘Smiths’ and the ‘Joneses’ and the ‘Fitzwalters’, was ‘Davies’ – Franklin Boyd Davies. Frank. He was right, he was on the wall. It had taken awhile, but I’d finally come full circle. Frank was dead. Long live Frank.

READ THE FIRST THREE INSTALLMENTS HERE: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Erotica, Personal

Lust In Translation

October 11, 2013

“Her face is a map of the world, it’s a map of the world.
You can see she’s a beautiful girl, she’s a beautiful girl.
And everything around her is a silver pool of light…”
– “Suddenly I See”, K.T. Tunstall

§ § §

“You simply must read this,” he said, handing her a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The professor had given her the book so he could fuck her, of course. Which he did. He’d purchased many copies of Kundera during his tenure. But that was in the past.

Now, ‘she’ was preparing to sit in seat 19F, all blonde, and smiley, and freckles.

“I’m Maria,” she said.

Full of grace, I thought, but, “I’m Randy,” came out instead as I extended my hand. “Code name: 19G.”

She laughed. Pretty sure her eyes sparkled. No question about it: we had our entire future ahead of us. Life was good. Or maybe it was the mid-morning sun streaming through the ‘hospitality class’ cabin that, conversely, clouded my vision. Whatever. I was on a roll and we hadn’t even begun to taxi.

“Could you hold this for me?”

What – your hand, your perfectly shaped instep…? Ah – your book. She was reading Love In The Time of Cholera, a dog ear at roughly page 100. What did that make her? Nineteen? Twenty? Twenty-two, tops. Maybe twenty-five and newly single – nobody reads a Colombian romantic when they’re attached.

Yes, what did that make her? More than twice my age, that’s what. Hmm. Still, we were going to Las Vegas, and what happens in Vegas….

“What are you doing in San Francisco?” her freckles asked as she settled in next to me.

Oh yeah – right. Changing planes and going to Las Vegas, apparently. Thought it – didn’t say it.

“Transiting, unfortunately,” I said. “I’m going to Vegas on points. Rent a car. Drive through the desert. Clear my head, recharge the batteries, search the soul… insert cliche here. I need the break. You?”

She considered the answer. “Meeting my boyfriend. We’re having dinner tonight in North Beach.”

Ah-ha. Love In The Time of Cholera AND a boyfriend. Kids these days.

“I’m breaking up with him… actually. He doesn’t know, though.” The freckles dimmed slightly.

“I hope he didn’t pay for the flight!” It was the first thing that came to mind, I swear. The freckles went into full arrest, her right hand went to her breast and Maria laughed so loudly and suddenly everyone on the plane spun around to see who the comedian was.

Thanks – thank you very much. I’m here all week! Two shows on Wednesday. Try the veal. Thought it – didn’t say it.

“No!” she said, in a mock (I hoped it was mock) scolding manner. She regained her composure. “I’m surprising him.”

I’ll say. “Lipstick on the collar? Pictures on the Internet? The perils of a long-distance romance, perhaps?”

“No – nothing like that.” She paused and thought about what to say next. “He’s completely devoted to me. He’s charming, and sexy, and… interesting…” Sounds just like me. “But… well… he’s an older man, and…” Don’t you even think – “…he’s thirty-seven, so…” STAB!

My right hand went to my breast. “OUCH!” I said, perhaps a tad too loudly.

She placed her hand on my knee (short pants rule!) and tried to make amends for treating me so shabbily. The shoe was firmly on the other perfectly shaped instep.

“Oh no, no… I mean… I mean I’m twenty-three. I should be having fun, going to clubs with my girlfriends, meeting guys, and…” Don’t say it. Spare me, I beg of you! “Having fun. You know.” Ah, there it is: the “F” word – and not the one I had in mind, either.

“Yeah,” I said rather feebly. “The age difference… it’s an issue – I understand. Uh-huh.”

“I mean… ” She ‘means‘ a lot, this girl. “I think every young girl deserves an older man in her life at least once in her life.” She said this not looking at anyone in particular, gesturing with her hand for both punctuation and flair, part of the rehearsed speech she would be giving later. God knows I agreed with her. “And I’ve had mine,” she added, completely unnecessarily. Crash, burn, smoke, ashes.

I silently cursed the prof who’d sent her down the road to Jurassic lust in the first place. ‘Unbearable Lightness‘ my ass!

And then we were in the air.

Wait a minute, I thought. She’s had the prof, and this other geezer who’s about to get dumped. She’s already over-quota. Maybe there’s hope.

“I mean…” Here we go again. “There was this professor in college. He just wanted… All he wanted to do is ‘grade my papers’ coupla times a week, you know?” Uh-huh – I do. “But he doesn’t count,” she added. I could tell from the way she said it, he did.

We reached 37,000 feet and began to cruise south. She smiled at me, opened Márquez at page 99, and dove in. Said too much already, perhaps? She must wonder what I’m thinking. For what I’m thinking I should be punished.

Fifteen minutes later, at page 114 she closed her book. She stretched and stole a glance at my iPod to see what I was listening to. George Michael’s Freedom ’90 kicked in. Great – now she thinks I’m gay and play in the bushes! And too old! Batting a thousand.

She leaned forward reaching between her long Levi-clad legs to find her purse on the floor. The blue coloured blouse that only barely disguised the swell of her breasts opened slightly at the top and now it was my turn to steal a glance. Was it my imagination or was there a button missing? Was she taking her time…? The mix of shadow and light shifted slightly as she breathed, transforming Maria’s delicate cleavage into a dramatic – SHIT, busted! She blushed, connecting the freckles. I blushed connecting absolutely nothing of any importance whatsoever.

“All we have to see, is that I don’t belong to you, and you don’t belong to me.” George Michael said it.

I popped out the ear buds. “Red is definitely your colour.”

Thought it AND said it.

Awkward pause… a pregnant one. We just sat there looking at each other.

“Did I say that out loud? I did, didn’t I?! Sorry – that’s my outside voice.”

Maria smiled. “I forgive you. Besides, we are outside. Sort of.”

St. Jude would have been proud. Lost cause indeed – I’ve been absolved!

The first officer came on the intercom and announced we were on final approach. I wish!

I adjusted my seat belt. “You live in Vancouver?” I asked.

“Uh-huh – Burnaby, actually,” she said. “Skytrain it into town every day. Parking’s impossible.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I said. “What is it now… a hundred bucks or more a month for reserved in some places?”

She nodded and put Márquez back into her purse. “Nuts, huh?” We were changing the subject, apparently.

“Crazy,” I said. There was that nine-month pause again.

I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve been smitten in my life. Fallen in love – multitude. Desire – constantly. But this… I done been smote.

Staggering up the Jetway and into the SFO terminal we exchanged small talk as we made our way to Baggage Claim. I was thankful I had to change airlines in San Francisco. It allowed me a few more minutes with Maria before I dashed off to make my connection, and she got swept up in the end of an affair.

Like a merry-go-round strung-out on opium, our bags became mixed in with the unclaimed luggage from an earlier flight on the conveyor. The arrivals area was packed. Nothing was moving fast.

“What – does everyone buy their luggage from the same store?! I can always find mine easily,” I said sarcastically. “It’s blue and it’s got a handle! Fuck me!” There was that laughter again.

“You know what’s going to happen here, don’t you?” I continued. “I’m going to grab someone else’s bag by mistake, because I bought it at ‘Bags R Us’, same place as everyone else, and I’m going to get to my hotel in Vegas, throw it on the bed, and open it only to find a couple of fancy frocks, some frilly knickers and a box of tampons!”

Maria gave me the ‘tits-to-toes’ look. “I don’t know. You might look quite fetching in a Betsey Johnson evening gown.”

“I’m driving through the desert. I can’t be caught wearing a dress in Arizona – it’s a Republican state, for Christ’s sake!”

As we both continued to laugh I noticed my bag emerge sluggishly from behind the rubber curtains. It was blue and it had a handle… and wheels, I forgot that part.

I left Maria’s side for just a moment, giggling in her own pool of light.

Suddenly, she was waving frantically to someone else on the edge of the crowd. It hadn’t occurred to me the geezer would pick her up… but of course he would.

She turned and looked at me as I retrieved my suitcase. For the first time I saw all of her in one look. She practically glowed, I swear.

She walked towards me in that way confident tall blondes walk. The din of a million conversations reflecting off the concrete and metal of the arrivals level muted. The monochromatic stage was punctuated by the colours of Maria.

“It was very nice meeting you,” she said.

Let’s get out of here before your soon-to-be ex-boyfriend shows up. Thought it – didn’t say it.

“Yes it was,” I said. “I mean… nice meeting you too.” Real smooth, asshole!

“It was (fun)…”

“(Fun), yeah…”

I remembered the etiquette of our first introduction and extended my hand.

She grasped it, pulled me gently to her (God, she’s tall!) and kissed me on the cheek.

“Maybe we’ll bump into each other sometime,” she said.

“That would be nice, too,” I said.

“And fun…?”

“Guaranteed.”

She didn’t let go of my hand, and I was certainly in no hurry.

She looked down. “Are you sure that’s your suitcase?”

“Not entirely,” I lied. She laughed.

“I have to go,” she said slowly, her vowels tugging at my libido. She reclaimed her hand.

“Okay,” I lied.

The airport din faded back in. Maria’s lips mimed. Bye, they said. Bye, mine said.

I extended the handle on my blue, wheeled suitcase and rolled away, heading once again for departures. I watched the geezer embrace young Maria, and young Maria kiss the geezer. I couldn’t hear the question, but his expression said ‘who is that guy?‘ I couldn’t hear the answer but her expression said ‘my next lover.

Naw – probably not.

As they walked away hand in hand, geezer looked over his shoulder at me looking over my shoulder at him.

In that single glance he understood what I already knew. He’d always known. We always know. We just never know when.

Tonight, at some tony North Beach bistro, somewhere between the Squid-Ink Pasta and the Tiramisu she’d tell him. He’d smile, take it well, not try and talk her out of it (fool!), and then order a second bottle of Montepulciano.

There’d be tears, followed by break-up sex and then more tears.

Monday morning at the office back in Vancouver she’d tell her girlfriend, ‘Yes, I broke it off‘, and ‘Yes, the sex was great.‘ The girlfriend would laugh. Break-up sex is always the best, she’d say. Why do you think I can’t commit?! They’d both laugh.

And now, for the last 30 minutes I’ve been sitting in seat 14D, flying over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The seat beside me, empty.

Maybe we’ll bump into each other sometime….

Hormones. They’re not just for breakfast anymore.