Monthly Archives: May 2015

Bangkok Thailand – Tourists in Uniform

Aside from seeking out the nightlife for which Bangkok was, and is, rightly famous, we also, as you might expect, did a lot of touristy things as well.

We visited Wat Arun, or “Temple of Dawn,” a spectacular edifice on the west bank of the river, opposite downtown. The 282-foot porcelain-encrusted central tower dominates the landscape, and actually glows in the early morning sunlight.

The square, ornate, and gradually narrowing central tower is accessible to climbers almost all the way to the top via narrow stone steps built into the outer surfaces of each side. Getting up wasn’t too difficult, but upon reaching the summit, I had to face the reality of getting back down. At that moment, I was standing in the open air, high above the safety of the ground, on a stone step which was not quite as deep as the length of my feet, with a couple of hundred such steps to go. I’m not quite sure why I went up to begin with – beyond the fact that all of my friends did – as I’m not all that comfortable with unsecured heights. Obviously, I did eventually make it back down, but it was a harrowing effort.

We decided to forego the speedboats for once and took a tourist launch to, among other places, one of the floating markets for which the city was, even then, quite famous. These exist in the klongs (canals) on the western side of the river. Entering the west bank waterways, we passed through the residential neighborhoods lining the canals until suddenly, we were in the midst of a “business district.” With restaurants and shops on the banks, the canal itself was jammed with what seemed to be a hundred small boats, many riding low in the water, laden with goods for sale. Others, sometimes just large enough for a single person, carried customers. The merchandise available, sold from boat to boat, was mostly agricultural products grown locally, and tropical flowers of every imaginable type and color.

On another day, on the eastern side of the river, we visited the Temple of the Golden Buddha, a not so large, but grand and ornate structure housing an enormous statue of the Buddha, made of approximately five tons of brightly polished solid gold. The Buddha was “discovered” by westerners during the colonial period, and was at the time encased – for safekeeping – in a gold painted layer of concrete. One day, a piece of the concrete was broken away, exposing the secret hidden within. Science confirmed that it was, in fact, solid gold, through and through.

We stood in awe of the beauty, and the majesty of the glittering gold icon, but what seemed most amazing to me was the openness of it all. It may be different today, but at the time, anyone could simply walk in and step up to the low fence which was almost within reach of the statue itself. There, one could leave an offering, pray, or simply stand and (respectfully) gawk at the altogether remarkable visage.

But most remarkable of all was a visit to the royal palace, and within the palace grounds, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This was itself a large structure, but contained no community of monks. This was, in fact, the personal temple of the royal family, and contained, high on a secure platform, within an even more secure glass case, the 30-inch high Emerald Buddha.

Named for its color, the “image” of the Buddha was actually crafted in 43 BC from a single, flawless piece of Green Jasper. Discounting both the artistic and religious significance of the Golden Buddha, its worldly value (as gold) could be easily calculated. The value of the Emerald Buddha, on the other hand, is said to be beyond measure.

I would have liked to taken my Instamatic camera onto the palace grounds, and into the temple. I wish I had pictures of the Buddha, and the many, many other really beautiful things both inside and outside of the temple. Alas, this was not permitted – particularly for Americans.

The ban was explained to us as follows. The King of Thailand, a young man at the time who, given Siamese history, rightly took his position seriously. Although Thailand was, and is, a great friend of the United States, the king had recently viewed Yul Brenner playing the King of Siam in a Hollywood movie. The king was greatly offended by two things shown in that movie. One, Yul Brenner, as the King of Siam, sat on a cushion on the floor, thus allowing others’ heads to be higher than his own. This was not allowed in real life. And two, when the movie king ate, he ate with chopsticks. It was pointed out to us that the Siamese of that period were a civilized people who had used spoons. It was those primitive Chinese who did, and still do, use chopsticks.

Bangkok Thailand – R & R

After three months of hard work, and no small number of sleepless nights repairing, rebuilding, or installing engines to keep An Thoi’s Swift Boats online, the Tutuila was relieved and assigned to similar duty near Cat Lo, at the mouth of the Saigon River.

But first a short visit to Bangkok, Thailand. We were already in the Gulf of Thailand, so Bangkok was a logical choice for a bit of R & R. The Tutuila weighed anchor and set a northeast course for the Bay of Bangkok. At the appropriate longitude, she turned and steamed north through the bay. Without pause, we continued up the Chao Phraya River to the city, about 18 miles from the coast. Our actual inland travel distance was about twice that, however, as we followed the many twists and turns of the river.

Finally, with Bangkok all around us, we anchored midstream in the swiftly flowing river, which was crowded with both small boats and chunks of vegetation – from various branches to portions of whole trees – which had been dislodged somehow from the dense jungle upstream and were now making their rapid journey to the sea.

This ancient Siamese capital of perhaps five million people was divided nearly in half by the broad and raging river, but incredibly, there were no bridges connecting the exotic, but relatively modern city on the east bank to the more densely populated, more traditional – and swampier – western sectors.

Consequently, along with the vegetation the river teemed with boat traffic of all kinds. Whether they were water taxis transporting passengers, or the waterborne equivalent of trucks carrying goods across the river and through the numerous canals, boats were everywhere. Prominent among the watercraft were a type of boat I’ve seen nowhere else in the world. Long and narrow, these boats were the hotrods of Bangkok’s waterways. Used I’m sure for recreation, these speedboats were also employed as an inexpensive alternative for transporting passengers – tourist and locals – from one side of the river to the other.

The most curious feature of these vessels was the propulsion system. Just behind the raised driver’s platform at the aft end of the boat was a V-8 automobile engine, mounted on a swivel post with a long propeller shaft behind and a control/steering bar projecting forward. The driver would rev the engine and tilt the engine up, thus dipping the propeller into the water and off they would go, leaping forward into the waves. Controlling the propeller’s depth allowed the boats to sometimes access very shallow water in the areas around the city.

It was quickly determined that this was how we were going to get about. Almost anywhere on either side of the river, it was easy to find such a boat waiting for passengers at the bank. For 50 cents, up to six of us would climb aboard and be taken on a rather exciting journey to wherever we chose to go.

Not only cheap and convenient, but great fun!

Viet Nam: An Thoi, Part Two

Despite the grueling work schedule, there were occasional lulls, and despite the near-total isolation of An Thoi, we did find a few diversions and some entertainment, in addition to the almost nightly movie aboard the APL – which we sometimes had time to attend.

Just south of An Thoi was a chain of several small islands. One of these, about a half-mile long, with two peaks and a low saddle in the middle provided two popular diversions. On the eastern side, at the low point, was a small but fantastic beach. It was to this perfect half-circle of white sand, bracketed by lush green jungle and crystal clear water that we would come, when circumstances allowed – and we could acquire a boat for a swimming party.

On the western side of the island, opposite the beach, was a tiny fishing village, so remote and insignificant, that it remained untouched by the war. A few hundred yards through the jungle, a somewhat overgrown path would take us to not only a different culture, but a different time. With the exception of a small boat with an ancient motor, in which the village leaders transported their cargos of dried fish to An Thoi, the village pretty much existed in an 18th-century environment. Here, we would entertain ourselves by watching the villagers work, and bartering for such novelties as the long, toothy, snouts removed from the sawfish that the villagers caught, and for strips of fish, sun-dried on bamboo frames, which were the principal product of the village.

By chance, I recently discovered on YouTube that same beach, which is now the focal point of a major resort, a popular vacation destination for people as far away as Australia. Although I almost certainly will not, I would like to visit that tiny island again and see how it is changed – but, in truth, I would really rather again see the pristine paradise that it was then.


Viet Nam: An Thoi, Part One

Not too much to say about Viet Nam actually. First, three months at An Thoi, home of PCF (Swift Boat) Division 101 and Coast Guard Division 11, located at the southern tip of Phu Quoc Island. The village of An Thoi was actually in Cambodian coastal water, but for some reason, the offshore border curved to the west, making all of Phu Quoc part of the Republic of Viet Nam. The patrol boat base at An Thoi was originally a US Coast Guard facility, with some South Vietnamese craft and a Thai gunboat for good measure. These were joined – almost a year prior to Tutuila’s arrival – by the boats of PCF 101.

The facility at An Thoi was officially designated as a “Coastal Surveillance Force Combat and Logistical Base” where, in addition to our shipboard duties, we occasionally supplemented the five-man Swift Boat crews. An Thoi’s boats – the 50-foot PCFs and the 82-foot Coast Guard Cutters, were responsible for stopping (or slowing) the water-born supply of men and materials to the Viet Cong from nearby Cambodia. Also for patrol and interdiction along Viet Nam’s Gulf (of Thailand) coast, from the Cambodian border, south past the city of Rach Gia and the U-Minh Forest, to Ca Mau Cape, the southernmost point of the country. In addition to the boat base, the area around An Thoi included a sizable community of civilian construction workers, a small airstrip, and a nearby prisoner of war camp. The island also included a surprising number of Viet Cong, given its separation from the mainland of Viet Nam.

Arriving at An Thoi to relieve the USS Krishna, the Tutuila anchored just offshore, rafting with an APL – Auxiliary-Personnel-Living, in Navy parlance – which served as both headquarters and barracks for the Swift Boat crews. There the “Toot” served as principal repair facility, not just for PCF 101, and Coast Guard Division 11, but potentially for all US naval craft on the gulf side of South Viet Nam.

Shortly after our arrival, some of us were briefly pressed into service as crew – coxswains, boat engineers, and bow hooks – as Tutuila participated in Operation Sea-Mount, an effort to clear enemy forces from the southern parts of the island, using our LCM (Landing Craft, Mechanized) landing craft to transport Army troops in four WWII-style beach assaults at various places on the Phu Quoc coast.

Of the activity at An Thoi itself, one of the things I remember most is an event which did not happen. A touring USO troupe, featuring Sue Thompson, a popular singer at the time with several hits including “Norman,” “Paper Tiger,” and the weepy “Sad Movies Always Make Me Cry,” was scheduled to perform for us (and the civilians) at the facility in An Thoi.

We were all very much looking forward to the diversion, the presence of the adorable Sue Thompson, and whatever additional girls might be part of the show. Alas, it was not to be, for around 3 am on the morning of their scheduled arrival, the airstrip took three Viet Cong mortar rounds, which caused no real damage other than to get the USO show canceled.

As to the war itself, there was an expression in the Army at the time, which may or may not have been true: “Nine out of ten times, it’s a walk in the woods.” Activities at An Thoi were something like that in the earlier days; though boats on patrol had occasional scary moments and the ship and the APL were always tempting targets for sappers, which required constant vigil.


Guitar Lessons

In the fall of 1964, Roy Orbison topped the charts yet again with “Pretty Woman”, Gail Garnet was singing in the sunshine, and Chad and Jeremy’s “A Summer Song” lamented that all good things must end. This was my mood as well, as I drifted along with the vaguely uncomfortable feeling of just waiting for what would come next. Despite looking forward to the coming change, and adventure I anticipated when I entered the regular Navy, I could not help a tiny feeling of unease at the thought of leaving Aurora and all that was familiar for what, at the time, seemed would be almost forever.

It was in this period that I met Andy, who despite being not much older than I, seemed infinitely more worldly wise. Andy had his own apartment on North Avenue, and importantly – to me anyway — played the electric guitar, and knew others who did so — quite well. Despite his age, Andy drank a bit, and my mother, night manager at the time at Stein’s Liquor Store and Delicatessen knew him, and his downtown friends, and disliked them quite a lot. Looking back, it must be said that deep down inside Andy was sort of a low-life. My mother saw it easily. At the time, I did not. Fortunately, I did not share in the drinking, and never met his seedier friends.

Andy quickly picked up on my interest in wanting to own, and learn to play, a guitar; in particular the rock ‘n roll electric version. At the time, my father’s nephew, George Philip – my cousin, although he was much older – owned a music store, then on S. Lake St. My cousin had “made his bones” with the accordion, an instrument that, with the exception of the Lawrence Welk Show, was from an earlier era. But one could go to his shop and purchase music lessons of all kinds, and of course the instruments as well.

But Andy assured me that he could provide the lessons, if I only had a guitar. So off we went to see my cousin who had, among others, a used cream-colored Gibson electric guitar which might just be within my budget — if I were to forgo virtually everything else on which I might spend my meager earnings.

I made a deal for the guitar, and Andy taught me a few chords and riffs — which oddly I still remember — but in truth I had neither the aptitude, nor the discipline to do what needed to be done to truly learn; that is to say, pay for professional lessons and start from scratch.

In due time, I revealed to my parents that I had a guitar and was learning to play. They listened to me proudly, but amateurishly, play the few things that I had learned. They seemed pleased at what I knew, and complementary, but nonetheless quickly sent me packing, guitar in hand, back to my cousin where I received a stern and disappointed look, along with a full refund of my deposit.