In the glare of the afternoon sun, the fruit and vegetable sellers of Bangkok's Sapankwai (Buffalo Bridge) area gathered around the Thai driver and myself and stared as if we were from another planet. And, indeed, when none of the sellers -- not the middle-aged lady selling durian, not the old man selling mangos, not the elderly rambutan sellers -- remembered Seri Court or any American soldiers stationed in their area, I definitely felt as if I were from another world.
It had been the world of the sixties -- where for over two years beginning in early 1966 -- I had been stationed as a GI during the Vietnam War. American military personnel left Seri Court forever in 1970 and the war ended in 1975 but now, nearly 34 years later, it was my intention to try to find some of the places I had known in a very different and far more innocent Bangkok. Especially Seri Court.
Seri Court, on Patipat Road, had been home to hundreds of American servicemen stationed with the Army Security Agency's 5th Radio Research and Special Operations Unit (RRSOU) and, with its name change just before I arrived, the 83rd RRSOU. It was my intention to see what, if anything, was left of what had been my home for two years. While our counterparts stationed in Vietnam had been concerned about survival, we had been more concerned about whether we could complete our basketball games without fainting in the heat, whether the creaking swimming pool gate would keep us awake during afternoon naps, or whether, on our slim paychecks, we could afford to go into "downtown" Bangkok on the weekend.
During our off-duty hours, our sanctuary from the heat and humidity was our dayroom which we had named Club Keemow (Club Drunkard). Inside the dayroom was the welcome sound of the always smiling Thai bartender putting cold Singha beers on the counter, GI's arguing over card games or embroidering their latest nocturnal adventures on Patpong Road, and, at the back, the incessant whirring sound of three slot machines.
One day while several of us were, as usual, losing money to these slot machines, it occurred to me that we might take a small portion of the slot machine profits each month and donate it to a worthy cause. After some discussion with a few buddies -- you, dear reader, may have "friends" or, if quite successful, you may have "colleagues," but, in unwritten American law, GI's may have only "buddies" – that worthy cause turned out to be an orphanage on Sathorn Road.
Our fellow GI's not only agreed, but in their spare time, went down to the orphanage to cut grass, do some minor repairs and play with the children. In no time at all the money donated largely from the profits of Seri Court slot machines allowed the orphanage to build a wading pool for the kids and a medium-sized wooden building.
I had been transferred to Taiwan just before the completion ceremony but the sign placed on the side of the building had read something to the effect that the building had been financed by men of the 83rd RRSOU. A friend -- sorry, I mean, buddy -- had sent the article and photograph as they had appeared in the Bangkok Post, and there was our Commanding Officer, no doubt buoyed by the good works his men were doing and by the chances that his superiors would not fail to notice the favorable publicity his unit had achieved for Americans stationed in Southeast Asia.
So, now, thirty-four years later, I was off to Sathorn Road in search of the orphanage, expecting it would not be difficult to find a place I had visited so many times before. Over two frustrating hours later, I found myself in the hallways and driveways of modern buildings desperately trying to explain what I was looking for while my driver went off searching the area. No doubt I was perceived as a mad farang (foreigner), and, not unlike the Ancient Mariner, a bit tetched. But at last we learned the truth: sometime during the recent economic boom, the orphanage buildings had been torn down and the children moved into a new building somewhere else in Bangkok. I was standing not far from a half-built building where, to the best of my memory, the orphanage had stood. Still, our building had probably survived and functioned for nearly three decades. I could ask no more than that.
It was then I remembered that this was not the first time my past had been wiped out. In 1970, while at the University of Hawaii, I had lived in Waikiki at the Coco Palms Hotel, more of a hippyish, motel for laid-back college students and diehard surfers. When in 1980 on a visit I could find no sign of it, I asked a parking lot attendant if he knew where it was. He informed me that I was standing on it. As Thomas Wolfe said, "You can't go home again."
Still, I was not ready to give up. While a GI, several nights a week, in sweltering heat, I had taken a bus from Sapankwai, then changed busses, then finally arrived in an area close by the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Here, secluded from nearby traffic and noise, was Dr. Chalao's English School. Dr. Chalao taught at nearby Thammasatt University and was highly respected among students. During my year or more at the school, I had taught both adult and children classes and will never forget my first class of children, all on their knees with the palms of their hands pressed together, waiing me, their teacher. It was as if the musical, The King and I, had suddenly burst into life. And, if that wasn't enough, once a year the wooden rooms were disassembled and the yard became the venue for the Miss Thailand contest.
But when the driver pulled into the side street, my heart sank. Where the wooden school had once been, a large Thai-style concrete building had risen. I walked from the car and inquired about Dr. Chalao's English School. I already knew that Dr. Chalao had died long ago of cancer and now I was told that the school had been pulled down and replaced by -- if my rusty Thai served me correctly – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The orphanage and the school were gone; and now I was in Sapankwai, on Patipat Road, somewhere close to where Seri Court was (or had been) yet I could find no trace of it and no one remembered it. Finally, a very old woman with short white hair and nut-brown skin mentioned that Americans had been stationed at the Capitol Hotel around the corner. Only officers had stayed there but at least I now knew I wasn't mad. Americans had been here before.
It was late afternoon when someone on the street pointed down a lane and suggested we ask the teacher who had lived here for many years. After a great deal of knocking and dog barking, a late middle-aged Thai woman appeared. My driver spoke to her at length and the woman nodded. "Wong Seri, Madame Seri." Yes, I remembered! The court had been named after a khunying, an upper class Thai woman, who owned it. The teacher informed us that Madame Seri had died but the court was very close. She would take us.
Within five minutes, we had walked to the driveway of the court which curved to the right making it impossible to see what was now inside. She said she would leave us here and I thanked her profusely.
As the driver and I followed the curve of the wide driveway, we passed by women who seemed to be maids, and finally Seri Court came into view. We passed small rooms on both sides with curtains covering car parks and then passed under the four-story concrete structure which had served as rooms for American servicemen. The wooden messhall -- where we had pinched apples to give to taxi drivers in lieu of money -- had disappeared as had Club Keemow, as had the sleepy Thai guard and the wooden vehicle barrier. (The guard and barrier served less to check vehicles than to keep out young ladies who believed that one or more of the Cheap Charlie GI's inside had "done them wrong." )
But the three concrete buildings remained. Greenish-black streaks and blotches staining them like a horrible disease. Discolored with decades of dirt and partly overrun with weeds. Filthy, neglected, decrepit, weather-beaten; looking almost as forlorn and abandoned as the ruined temples of Ayudhya and Sukhothai. But there they were. And I could again hear the laughter of men waiting to get on the bus to go to our "site" in Minburi; I could feel the fear of not being ready for an inspection; and I could again see the tension in the Colonel's face when news of the Tet Offensive first reached us.
And the faces of those I would later transform into characters in the novel, Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior, came back in a rush: Hogbody, Butterball, Blinky, Bumbles, Whore House Charlie, Noy the Laundry Girl, Corporal Comatose, Boonrawd, Lieutenant Pearshape, Corporal Napalm and Agent Orange. Memories of men and events I had forgotten came back as clear as the events of yesterday.
And then I walked to the last of the three decrepit buildings where the Colonel's office had been. I walked up the stairs and I looked out over the top balcony upon a Bangkok that had changed forever. The Colonel's office was where I had been called to account for some infraction of military rules more times than I cared to remember. And yet, as I exited the forlorn building, I suddenly turned, stood at attention, and saluted. Why I did that, I'm not certain. It might have been a salute to simply acknowledge the joys and sorrows of the past, or an attempt to put the past to rest, or a gesture of respect to the men who had once lived at Seri Court, especially those who had transferred to Vietnam and never returned.
I noticed the Thai driver saluting also. He smiled. "Big Boss was here?"
I nodded. "Big Boss was here."
On the way out I enquired from one of the women working there if she knew a Boonrawd, long ago the Thai assistant to our sergeant who fixed things in Seri Court. She did. He still worked there but "He is very old now." I gave her my name card to give to him and then left. He would not know my name but he would know that he had been remembered.
As we again passed the small rooms with the curtains, I understood why the teacher had left us at the gate. And I noticed my driver's embarrassment. I smiled. "It's a love hotel now, isn't it?"
He smiled. "Yes. Love hotel. People come here to be happy."
And so the Sixties with the students' slogan of "Make Love not War" had come full circle. And here in Seri Court at least the ideal had been put into practice. I found myself chuckling; laughing. My driver laughed. And together we walked off into the growing darkness.
Copyright 2014 Dean Barrett
This story is one of the entries in my book entitled: Murder at the Horny Toad Bar & other Outrageous Tales of Thailand.
Click on cover to greatly enlarge
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