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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

The Gift

Life At The Edge Of The World

Ra Win was my hooch boy and at fifteen was only seven years younger than myself, but I found out a whole world away in many respects. Ra Win believed America was a mystical place where the streets were paved with gold and I could not convince him otherwise. He said his father called America the land of desires because what ever you wished for came true there. Ra Win shined my shoes, made the bed and took the laundry out in exchange for a small weekly fee which also ensured he would look after everything.

He had no shoes, so I gave him a brand new second pair of combat boots I had been issued. There was no way in hell I'd wear out the first pair in a year and it hurt like hell breaking them in. Ra-Win's English was about as good as my Thai. Thing was, we were actually speaking a dialect of Issan Pu Thai Lao. Seems when I arrived back in Bangkok on the journey homeward and spoke "Thai" one girl immediately called me a northern barbarian saying "I know where you been" and stomped off.

Little did we know the whole of northeastern Thailand, called Issan to which we were sent at Nakhon Phanom is historically part of Laos and the ethnic people who lived there strongly defined their culture, customs, music and language as Lao.

Most of them were not even strictly Buddhists but followed an even older Anamist spiritual belief system and combined the two together.  The Mekong River was historically the unifying "highway" through the center of the Mekong Valley Tribal communities rather than a border between countries. Small wonder the locals were sympathetic toward reunification with their heritage and extended family members on the other side of the river and might be interested in what the Pathet Lao relatives had to say all the way around. So of course the little booklet never mentioned the fact that "Thai"tribal communists surrounded the entire area.

The only accurate section in the booklet concerned the thirty percent ethnic Vietnamese who had fled there since the first Indochina War but they had no idea that Uncle Ho actually lived at Nakhon Phanom for several years. The so called "Uncle Ho clock tower" in the square was a gift from some returning Vietnamese in 1960.

When Uncle Ho died in November 1969, the locals in town had black drapes surrounding nice pictures of Ho with little altars beneath filled with fruit, incense and flowers. Hell, the girls who worked passing out beer wore black armbands in memory of Ho.

In 2002 a new ultra modern two story museum dedicated to the life of Uncle Ho opened across the street from his former home where he had resided only a short distance off the main road to Nakhon Phanom about a mile from town. A delegation from Hanoi officially reviewed documentation and conducted interviews of those who had served Uncle Ho during the time he plotted the overthrow of Vietnam while he resided at Nakhon Phanom.

Previously I mentioned the gift of my second pair of combat boots to my hooch boy Ra-Win. For several weeks thereafter he pleaded with me to come to his village stating that his father wanted to thank me for the gift to his son. It was simply not that easy to venture out into the local villages, but after a few weeks of continued requests I told him I would go the following Tuesday.

Somehow, I stumbled across another GI with access to a jeep we could "borrow" for a few hours through some arrangement he had made. So off we went in mid afternoon with Ra-win traveling a few miles through the jungle to a thousand years into the past.

When we arrived there was a great celebration "The Americans Were Coming!" yet it was simply two enlisted men in a jeep. A water buffalo was slaughtered; tied by it's feet over a huge tree limb with it's throat slit and beaten with stave's to tenderize the meat. I was told the water buffalo was raised off the ground so in the minds of the villagers they were not required to pay a tax to the local government.

While the buffalo was cooking a Thai Boxing match had been arranged, with even an elevated ring constructed which the villagers sat on benches facing. I'd never seen a real match in the jungle villages before, but knew it was going to be unusual when the contestants wrapped rags around they upper part of their knees as well as their hands, poured on wax and broken glass.

After the first round, they were both pretty much of a mess from what we could see sitting in the front row and I had been waiting for a change to get a light for my butt from a Thai Tiger Soldier strutting about with his M-16 smoking. So when I went over he told me in broken English "You brave GI, many Thai communists here!" Looking around at the benches there were a hell of a lot of unfriendly faces; who were evidently not to happy with Ra-Win's father who it turned out was village Chief.

Ventured back to my seat and informed my buddy quietly about the real situation; stating "don't look now but were surrounded by a hell of a load of Thai Communists and the only thing keeping them from killing us is Ra-Win's father so what ever you do don't piss off the old man." So of course first thing my buddy does is twist his head around looking at all the frowns behind him.

Well, the second round was about half way through at this point and the guy who had been loosing picked up and drove his opponent into the corner on our immediate right and pined him there driving his knees into his lungs. After a few more well placed kicks I figured he'd back off as it was evident when the guys eyes started to glaze over there was no contest. But he kept at him for at least another dozen finally backing away for him to fall face first gushing out a pool of bright red blood a yard square. They dragged his body off by the feet, there was no question he was dead. Killed for sport in celebration of the visitation of the Americans.

We ate in the Chief's hut, which as most Lao style houses was raised off the jungle floor about four feet to keep out the king cobras and various other dwellers in the area. The meal was a bit rough as no matter how small a piece of the ol water buffalo I munched there always seemed to be a bit of broken bone fragment in it. The booze with the local homemade hooch where they take rice and ferment it in handmade clay jars buried in the red dirt for a few months in a sunny location which turns to pretty strong hooch.

Dessert was even better. Little woven baskets of rice that had also been buried for some length of time; probably a few months from what I could get out of Ra-Win. They were about four inches across and four inches high. Popping off the cover, the consistency looked like a matted grey softball on the outside. The Chief dipped his fingers in and ripped off the hard outer shell so we did likewise. Inside it was white and sticky like wallpaper paste or Elmer's Glue but tasted sweet enough. Everyone ate it with the first two fingers of their right hand. I remember thinking if I don't get the shits now I never will. I never did.

Then we got down to the real nitty gritty. Seems the Chief liked me giving his son the boots well enough to figure I'd take care of one of his daughters also. So he announced the present and a cute young girl (looked maybe sixteen but probably older as Asian women look young for their age) stood up and opened her sarong so that only I could see her naked body. This is not a normal custom, and I knew it was to seal the deal without question. In Thai and Lao custom it is stricly forbidden to have any physical contact with the opposite sex never mind a full display of nudity. The old man was driving the deal home for his daugher to go to the land where the streets were paved with gold.

Ok, so now I had two questions to answer, one faster than the other. How do we get out of the village without being killed and how I get out of the village and leave the girl behind without the old man loosing face? If he lost face, I believe we would have been killed on the spot. Better us than him and if a lot of the villagers wanted us dead anyway he could not allow us to live if he lost face, otherwise he most likely would end up on the short end of any hopes for a long life himself.  On the other hand if I brought Ra-Win's sister out of the village and dropped her off somewhere she could never go back to the village and I would have ruined her life.

Maybe it was the hooch, but I stayed calm although my reply had to be quick it was a stoke of luck some would say, but it seemed like God helps you do the right thing if you want to so I smiled and thanked the Chief very much for such a gift that he cherished so greatly and told him I would be back for her as I had to prepare a place for her to sleep. This would be a normal response even in the villages as far as I could tell, or at least I was betting our lives on the fact it would be acceptable since it showed concern and respect for his daughter and his position.

We departed a few minutes later as night set in thanking all the village elders for their hospitality smiling and waving as we slowly drove out into the jungle darkness. A hundred yards around the bend, we floored the jeep and beat it back to the base. Who knew the gift of a pair of boots would kill one man and almost two more? Life is uncertain.

Follow Up: For the past several visits back to Nakhon Phanom I have tried without success to locate Ra-Win and the same small village. There were so many in those days 40 years ago that were the same approximate distance from the base. Ra-Win is probably dead. He was most likely a Thai Communist or became one as so many did who lived in the area and if so would have participated in the 1976 uprising there which was put down by the Thai military and never much reached the world press shortly after the American presence departed. My best clue is the dessert which seems to have been a specialty of that village as it is unknown to Thai's at other villages in the area today.


PCS: My Last Day

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