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