Tuesday, February 11, 2014

War, refugees, Boom!, Leslie

In the spring of 1967 I was in what were called the “Hill Fights” (or First Battle of Khe Sanh), a series of battles along the Vietnam DMZ. I was in that deal for about a month and a half. I spent a few weeks of that time at Khe Sanh (which was kind of a rear), just kind of hanging out between operations.

Marine cleaning M-60 at Con Thien (not my photo) 
One day I was on the perimeter and we saw someone walking toward us. Nobody had ever done that before – just a person, alone, walking out of the forest toward the Khe Sanh perimeter. I’m guessing there were 30-40 automatic weapons trained on this person, and the claymores. We began to realize it was a man… a western man… a western man wearing a clerical collar. He was barefoot, with shabby clothes – maybe a cassock? I don’t remember. I remember he was a handsome young guy and his feet were pretty gnarly. He turned out to be a French priest and he was visiting us to talk about artillery and whatnot being careful of the villages he served near Khe Sanh.
Medevac Con Thien  (not my photo) 

I was impressed then, and remain so today, many years later.

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Leslie and I visited Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border around 1981-82. Bob Kramer, the beloved cystic fibrosis doctor at CMC, as well as some other doctors gave me a bunch of antibiotics and other medications to take. I had a sea bag completely full of good medications and to hide the goods I had one short-sleeve shirt folded on top of them – a few layers of cloth between the contraband and security. Sure enough, Thai security wanted to have a look in the bag. I said my first prayer in a long time and stood there trying to look bored as the man unzipped the bag, peeked in, and zipped it back up. Whew!

Khao-I-Dang refugee camp  (not my photo) 
I also had two sets of money – $500 or so dollars that had been given to me for whatever I wanted and several thousand dollars from various refugees in Dallas to give to relatives in the refugee camp (all mail was opened and all money stolen, so delivery was the only way to get money into the camp). I gave the drugs and part of the $500 to Pere (Father) Robert Venet. Pere Venet was a Jesuit priest who spent 50-60 years serving the poorest Cambodians and after the war, working in Site 2 and Sa-Keo refugee camps. Really a hero. It was pretty funny to show up unannounced at the monastery with cash and a bag of drugs. They were happy to see us.
Torture chamber Tuol Sleng - bed used as rack

We changed the money that refugees had given us from dollars to baht (yielding bigger stacks of bills). We didn’t want to attract attention so we went to different places to change the money – walking around Bangkok, changing $300 here, $500 there. I divided the baht into two stacks and put a stack on the bottom of each foot and a sock over it and then my shoes, which fortunately were lace-to-the-toe shoes. A tight fit, but it was only a 100 or so miles from Bangkok to Khao-I-Dang.

Mass graves at Choeung Ek
Before we got to the camp, we had to stop at Task Force 80 (the paramilitary beasts who ran Khao-I-Dang) and go into an office to have our papers examined. Uh-oh, it was one of those offices where everyone leaves their shoes at the door. So I’m walking in, kind of mincing-like with the stacks of bills crackling under my feet – Here come old flat-top, he come groovin’ up slowly. He got ju-ju eyeballs, he thinkin’ how he gonna do this shit? Come together. Right now!

Cave where bodies were thrown (near Battambang)
Pieces of fabric like prayer flags from sarongs from the dead
But all’s well that ends well and we got into the camp – beyond the hospital and clinic where foreigners were supposed to stay. We walked all over K-I-D with help from two young people who led us to the various people on our list of relatives of people who were sending money. I had a pocket of 100 baht notes, a pocket of 500 baht notes, and one of 1000 baht notes and we’d go into these little refugee camp hooches and hovels and do a pay-out and move on to the next place. In the end we were something like $50-100USD off. The extra money that we’d been given made up the difference and was also a nice payment to the people who helped us.

Khao-I-Dang hospital  (not my photo) 
We stayed one night in a two-story house in the countryside somewhere near the border. As far as I know, we were the only people in the house. Artillery rounds were exploding a mile or so away – Boom – and except for those flashes of light it was very dark. Leslie and I talked and I told her what tree to rendezvous at if we had to get out fast and were separated. She was just like, “Okay” – and I was thinking something like, “Incredible. What an amazing wife!” I remember there were lots of lizards on the walls and ceiling of the room we were in and I was reading a book about Edie Sedgwick, one of Andy Warhol’s tragically hip “superstars” who died way too young. I saw a weirdly brightly colored amphibian clinging to the wall of the shower (that we didn’t use). Boom. It doesn’t get much weirder than all this. I don’t remember if we were smoking at the time, but what a great time and place for a cigarette. I’d like one right now just reading this.
In the garden (outreach)

We stayed at K-I-D just a few days, mostly hanging out at the clinic, talking with doctors and nurses about providing healthcare for the Khmer people. That was our official purpose and I think we accomplished it. I wrote a report for Church World Service and for the US Dept of State – both of which no doubt pretty much ignored it. But more to the point, out of that visit and the work I was doing with refugees in Dallas, I was able to inform many people through articles I wrote for professional journals and presentations I made locally and nationally. LOL, I gave a consultation this afternoon.

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Leslie on bus in Burma 2007 and Leslie waiting for bus in Nepal 1978 
I’ve been with Leslie in refugee camps, spending countless hours on some mean streets and alleys and in too many seriously run-down slum apartments; I’ve seen her comfort women who’ve been raped, people in pain, people who are dying, people past the edge of grief, pain, madness; I’ve watched her work miracles – going up against The Machine and winning, time and time again; I’ve seen her go where no 60 year old western woman has ever gone – the back stairs of the Chungking Mansions; I’ve been with her on buses rattling all across Asia, on trains into the Vietnam mountains, on boats in the Gulf of Siam, in donkey carts in Burma, on Royal Nepal Airlines with the cockpit door swinging back and forth, on crazy bus rides; we’ve slept together in a little grass shack on the Gulf of Siam, in Burmese guesthouse rooms with walls that went up ~6 feet and then chicken wire, in a tiny low-ceiling room in Nepal sleeping on a straw mattress with a giant wool blanket and a wooden latch on the door, in rooms smaller than prison cells, in a brothel, in a little shack in Oklahoma with tornadoes roaring all around, in a really old hotel in a mostly deserted town in Nevada where we lived for a few months, on trains, boats, buses, all over the place.
Leslie at Butt Fast Foods in a hallway at the
back of Chungking Mansions

She would not go to Tuol Sleng or the “killing fields” – those places were done. She would have gone if people were there, but not now. Not just to see where they were and what they looked like.  

I’ll have some photos up in another few months. I’m going through slides atm and am struck by the sheer volume of what we did with Cambodian refugees and the incredible number of people who were served.


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