I fled the dusty street, holding up the long sarong I had tied around my waist. It was my day off and I was involved in my usual pastime in such situations: drinking Mekong Whiskey and lying up with a girl. In fact running out of Mekong was what had prompted me to walk across Soy Bruno to replenish my supply. It was a hot day in Thailand and life was very good; I was a buck sergeant in the Air Force and made four hundred dollars a month and lived like a frigging king, or at least how I thought a king would live. For example, a large platter of what the locals called “cowpot” was only a quarter. Now that is if you purchased it from one of the multitudinous little carts that lined the streets of Ban Chan, a small community midway between the base and the red light district. The vendor would take your order and set to work, throwing some precooked rice in the hibachi along with the meat of your choice, and peppers and onions and spices. When it was all heated up it was placed on an oval platter and garnished with fresh cucumber and spring onions—quite a delicious meal and for a pittance.
The street was called Soy Bruno because of the German restaurant at the corner of the main road and the street I lived on; it was owned and run by a retired Air Force Master Sergeant named Bruno Bitzenhofer who loved to cook German food. Before my flight I had been heading over to my friend across the dusty street who had the little store; sometimes I would go downtown with him and I always felt very safe. He always carried a pistol in his waistband under his shirt. “Buun” was the Thai word for pistol and whenever we went out he always made it a point to show me the gun. “No worry ‘bout robbers” he would always say and he had a point; there were lots of stories about airmen being robbed. One of the most dangerous places for such activity was down in the red light district; there were empty expanses of land between some of the clubs and these were typically inhabited by “katoys”, the Thai word for male homosexuals. One had to be careful about speaking negatively about the katoys, for they were not looked down upon by the Thai people; it was not that they were revered, but I guess they were just accepted. I had heard from several of the bar girls that the katoys’ mothers would typically make them up in preparation for their night’s work. The katoys would haunt those open areas where it was dark and try to lure G. I.s into the darkness. Invariably robbery was the goal; fortunately, anyone who had been around anytime at all had heard of them and were not lured into the darkness by the deep voice and prominent adam’s apple. I must say that I have seen some that looked mighty good. But the people that got caught up in this mess were always guys fresh off the plane and on their first foray into the district. I remember when I first got here that there was a large meeting of all the newcomers and they warned us about some things, like making sure that the girl you were going to take had an up to date V. D. card. The V. D. card was highly ineffective but I guess it made the powers that be feel like they were at least trying to do something. Here is how it worked; once a week the registered prostitutes went to one of the base doctors and were checked for venereal disease, being awarded a blue dated stamp if all were well, and a red one if they failed. Of course the fallacy of the whole operation was obvious; if you got the girl the very day she got the good stamp she could have turned a half dozen tricks from the time she left the doctor’s office until your drunken ass got hold of her at eleven at night. Suppose it was better than nothing, but not much.
The worst katoy story I ever heard was told by a friend of mine, a lifer master sergeant named Mel Jenkins from Alabama. He said a buddy of his arrived and in his zeal to get downtown and “sample the wares” wound up in a mess. The first thing he did was get roaring drunk, and the second thing was to get lured into katoy land. Mel was contacted the next morning and was told that the Security Police were holding a man who was telling them that Mel was his buddy. He had been found totally naked with no identification on the tin roof of one the bars. Fortunately most guys were more careful.
So I had run out of Mekong and since my new friend “Pen” and I were having such a wonderful time getting acquainted I decided to go get more. Pen was a tall girl, about 18 and fresh out of the tapioca fields. She had big teeth and lots of them; it looked a little crowded in there. I had slipped on flip flops and tied her blue floral sarong around my waist and headed out the door. When I was about halfway across the dirt road I saw several girls walking down the street. The short one in the lead looked familiar so I smiled at her and said “sawadee”, a Thai word that works about like aloha, hello and goodbye. There had been showers that day and she was carrying a short umbrella in her hand, the kind with a large plastic knob on the end. She received my greeting with a vicious scowl and gave a mighty swing at my head with the umbrella. It found its mark and at the moment of impact I remembered why she looked so very familiar. Seems a few weeks back I had been downtown and had gotten up with her, explaining that I would pay her the agreed upon two dollar fee the following day. Well, you know how things go and something happened and I didn’t see her the next day and then it was kind of easy to not worry about it and before you could say umbrella a few weeks had passed.
I raced into the little turquoise colored bungalow with the pissed off girl hot behind me. I tell ya, she was mad as a Jap. My little tapioca queen was lying on the bed with a sheet over her, but when the two of us burst in she sat up in bed and held the sheet around her. Then my attacker and she proceeded with a very animated conversation; I knew some Thai and could converse in a very rudimentary fashion, but they were speaking so very rapidly that I could pick up only a word now and then. I did hear some English words that I understood; the little girl with the umbrella, I remembered that her name was Urai and that she was Laotian, was pointing at me and shouting “number ten thousand G. I.” This is pretty self explanatory but I will expand on it anyway. When a Thai did not like something it was referred to as “number ten”, so you can imagine how serious number ten thousand was. I did know enough of the language to be able to count pretty well, and I heard Urai scream out “forty baht” several times. While all this was going on Urai took turns looking at Pen and shouting at her and pointing at my quaking ass which had taken refuge in the far corner of the bungalow behind a high backed chair. I figured I would take the high road and not get involved in this local matter between women.
I got to give my tapioca queen, Pen, a lot of credit; Urai was at least thirty five years old and awfully pissed off, but Pen just sat there, calmly interjecting a few words here and there. Hell, at one point in time during the interchange she pulled out a Si Fuen cigarette from her purse and lit it, blowing the smoke in the general direction of the angry Urai. This act did not go unnoticed and as Urai “rared back” with her little umbrella Pen quickly reached into her purse and produced a small caliber pistol and pointed it directly at Urai’s head. This act quieted Urai’s ass down real quick like and with a parting vitriolic look in my direction she departed.
“What all did you all talk about?” I asked Pen after my heart left my throat.
“”She say you son of dog ‘cause you no pay her two dong”, she said. In the local vernacular an American dollar was referred to as a “dong”.
“Well you two talked quite a while; there had to be more to it than that”, I said, looking at the tall thin girl with the beautiful brown skin and the plentiful teeth.
“I say I no like what u do either, but is over and tell her to get out of my house. She say no leave so I show her ‘buun’”, she said, grinning at me. “Then I tell her you my ‘poochai’, you my man”.
I had to think about this statement, and think about it at length, so I thanked her profusely and changed the subject.
“Let’s go get some food baby; you done wore me out this morning”, I said, and we both got dressed and headed out for food. She wore the blue sarong that I had been wearing at the time of the “assault” and I slipped into shorts and a tee shirt. We walked about thirty yards down Soy Bruno to where one of the “greasy spoon” carts was parked. Several tables and accompanying chairs had been set up adjacent to the cart so we sat down there and waited to order. The cook was finishing up with an order; “cowpot?” he asked when he caught our eye. Pen ordered for us; she knew that I always ordered the beef. She ordered beef also. I remember one day when I had ordered the pork and had offered her a bite; she had turned her nose up in the air and responded “my gien moo”, which in Thai means “I don’t eat pork”. Pen was of Maylaysian ancestry and thus was Moslem, so I learned something there, Moslems not eating pork and all. Seems like I read somewhere that Jews don’t eat it either, but I swear I had a Jewish girlfriend back in the states who would eat the hell out of some barbecue. Anyway, we ate and I paid the fifty cents for the two meals and told Pen that I was “gonna see that tailor down the street about those shirts I ordered” so she went on back to the bungalow to take a nap and I went down the street in the general direction of the tailor but before I got there I ducked into a little store and for “esip baht”, the equivalent of an American dollar, bought a cold quart bottle of Singha beer, the locally brewed beer that I liked a lot. As I said I could speak tolerable and could count pretty good. Noon, som, sam, he, ha, hoc, jed, bad, gow, sip was one through ten. Then eleven was sipet, and it continued to sipsom, sipsam, siphe, sipha, siphoc, sipjed, sipbad, sipgow, and then twenty was esip, thus esip baht was twenty baht which equaled a dollar and that is what I paid for the Singha.
I had made up the tailor story ‘cause like I said I needed some time alone to kind of sort things out, two things in particular. One was Pen telling Urai that I was her “poochai”, which means boy or man, and that kind of talk was a little strong for a relationship that was only going on it’s third day; the other was the appearance of the pistol, which surprised me every bit as much as it did Urai, the only difference being that it was not pointed at me, Thank God, but that didn’t mean that it couldn’t be at some time. I decided to deal with the “poochai” thing first, so I sat down on a chair there in the little store and watched the construction of a building going on across Soy Bruno. It was a four story building and they had scaffolding all around it; the amazing thing about that was that it was not the typical metal scaffolding that one would see in the states but it was bamboo lashed together with ropes. The bamboo was about four inches in diameter and the rope about three eighths of an inch, but if you looked at it closely, and I did because I walked over there and got a closeup, you could see that they knew what they were doing. There were workers crawling all over that scaffolding and it was standing rock solid.
As I watched the men stuccoing the exterior walls I was feeling less and less comfortable about what Pen had said about me being her man. Admittedly we had had a great time the last few days and a lot of alcohol had been consumed and a lot of “gangha”, or marijuana, had been smoked, but I was hard pressed to recall anything about me confessing that Pen was “my woman”. I had tried to play it smart in my year in Thailand and so far had fared pretty well, with the notable exception of the very recent umbrella incident. I had stayed with a very pretty Thai woman for six months, but I had always told her that there would be no trip to the states for her or any other girl. She understood and eventually mentioned that a previous boyfriend, a black lifer, was coming back soon so I took the hint and amicably departed. The Thai word for black was dum, or dum dum; the word for white was cow, like cowpot; I thought this interesting rice being white and all. The only other color I had learned was shampu, which meant pink. You always put the word “si” in front of the color, thus si cow, si dum, si shampu. Counting and colors was about it for me.
I figured that the “poochai” deal could be handled with a simple fleeing in the night scenario, but the appearance of the pistol was more than a bit disconcerting. Course I had only known Pen for three days, and they had been three great days, but oddly enough the thing that worried me the most about her was a trait that would usually be a very admirable one—how cool she had been when the irate umbrella wielding Urai had invaded the bungalow. “Somebody with that cool head might be able to pump a couple of slugs in you and just move on”, I thought to myself. I drank the Singha and watched the workers and ruminated on what my plan of action should be. I thought back to when I had been with the girl for six months and how early on a couple stayed with us for a few weeks, an eighteen year old airman and a thirty five year old Thai woman; they had been married for a few months. That boy may have been the most whipped worm I have ever seen in my life; his waking hours were spent waiting for orders from that conniving whore he had married. Man, she had it all figured out, how she was going to the states and if she weren’t able to leave when his time was up how she would be getting “her check”. Thank goodness they finally left ‘cause I was getting real tired of her overbearing ass and watching that wormy husband of hers grovel at her feet. But the memory of her made me wonder if Pen might turn out that way. I finally got tired of thinking about the whole thing and walked back to the bungalow; besides, the quart of Singha beer was gone and I knew I had plenty of Mekong whiskey and coke back at the house.
As I got close to the little bungalow I decided to give the obsessing a rest; sometimes when something was bothering me a lot I would just quit thinking about it and it would just go away. I am not sure that is a real good practice, especially when the problem includes a woman I don’t know very well, but I was willing to try. That tack lasted about a good five minutes. When I walked in the door Pen was sitting on the bed having a drink and I noticed there was something different about her. Her eyes were very glassy and she had a small knife in her hand; there were a couple of shallow cuts about two inches long going across the top of her left forearm. I knew what was going on immediately; some of the bar girls would take super strong “downers” and apparently it would make them feel numb all over. That was when they would cut themselves, I guess just to satisfy themselves that they were still alive. I had seen the scars on more than a few of the bar girls.
“Pen, why are you doing that?” I asked. She looked at me and smiled, but it was not a sweet smile; it was more of a haughty one.
“I think about what you do to that woman. I think about how you no give her two dong; make me wonder what you do to me. Maybe you do me number ten like you do here”, she said, slurring her words and mixing another drink from my Mekong bottle. Considering the gravity of the moment I mixed myself a large one as soon as she put the bottle down.
I looked to see where her purse was and saw it was still under the bed; however, there was no way to know if the gun had been taken out.
My mind was racing and I hit upon an idea; I ain’t sure if it was such a good one but I went with it.
“Pen, while I was gone I was thinking about you a lot and what you did for me when that girl came running in here and how you might have kind of saved my life. What if she had called the Thai Police and they had come and taken me. I would have been in a hell of a shape”, I said, making every endeavor to sound totally serious. Reckon it was working, ‘cause she looked down at her arm and when she looked back up she was smiling, but the haughty look was gone.
“So you no do me number ten like you do her?” she said, her dark brown eyes moist and vacant. It was then that I saw the small pistol poking out from the pillow beside her. It was time to change gears again so I went to the floorboard with it.
“Never, Pen, I was thinking that maybe we could get married and you could come back to the states with me; we could have a great life together and everything”, I said, going about as plaintive as I possibly could. She opened the drawer of the side table and pulled out two white tablets and put them in her mouth; I can only guess it was more of the downers she had taken. She took a big pull off her drink and smiled a big ol’ goofy grin at me and said “come over here and take your wife to bed”.
Well, that was exactly what I did, and I did it for a while. When we finished I just lay there quietly until I could hear her snoring. Then I reached under the pillow and pulled out the pistol, figuring that I didn’t need to be taking any chances. I slipped the gun in my pocket and quietly gathered my few clothes in a bag and headed out the door. Then I stopped and pulled two dollars from my pocket and put them under the pillow where the pistol had been residing. I walked quickly down Soy Bruno, knowing that there would be “baht buses” waiting down at the main road, ready to take me to the base for two baht.