25 A Week In Sydney
26 Interview with the Widow - 1
27 Interview with the Widow - 2
28 Three Kings of Orient
29 1969 - Year of the Rooster
30 Summer in Europe
31 Bellybuttons & Maggots
32 Yes/No vs. Maybe
33 Blood, Beer and Warm Feet
34 Mine Universe
35 Hands off, Boots on
36 The Accidental Cure
37 It's the Only Thing
38 The Professor's Stable
39 Little House on the Highway
40 "9/11 is OK"
41 Suspected Child Abuse
42 Midlife Crisis
43 Where Am I Today - 1
44 Where Am I Today - 2
45 The Rosebud Period
46 Angular and Giddy
47 Sandin, N. A., Computer
48 Hot Trailers
(Ponograms #28 and #29 related to Pono’s two year plus stay in Bangkok, Thailand with coworkers Dave and Dick, and the birth of his son, JR. This Ponogram covers several other incidents, cameos, vignettes, memories and events that transpired during that time.)
BELLYBUTTONS & MAGGOTS
It was probably our first weekend at the pool since moving into our apartment in Bangkok. I hadn’t yet achieved my current girth, but I carried more weight than I needed. We knew none of our 11 neighbors in the building so we were on our best behavior. Smiles and how-dos were passed back and forth and we occupied a vacant table. It was hot (it was Bangkok) and I was anxious to get into the pool, so I did. Walter was the only other one in the pool. He was maybe 7 years old. I got in somehow – a graceless dive, a jump from the shallow end, or maybe even a cumbersome climb down the ladder. At any rate, the entry required that I display my body to the world. Walter observed.
I enjoyed a couple of laps and, nicely cooled, got out and walked back to the table. Walter was just ahead of me heading for the table occupied by his mother and sister and as I passed him I heard him say “That man has two bellybuttons!”
When I was about 7, I had an appendectomy. The surgeon may have been appropriate to his time, but he was a butcher compared to these days. The incision was large, the stitches failed to dissolve, the wound festered and required cauterization several times, it developed adhesions and the result was a cone shaped crater that, yes, resembled a second bellybutton. However, this is not something to which one calls attention to the entire pool crowd. Walter’s mother was mortified and saw fit to come over to apologize. I graciously accepted and asked them to join us. We got acquainted that day and developed a warm friendship.
Some months later, Doris and husband Walter, II had an invitation to a wedding in India and asked us to watch their kids, Walter, III and Donna, while they were gone. We were happy to do it – the kids were great and their maid would do most of the work during the day and we would just monitor.
The parents had barely gotten on a plane when Walter started saying he didn’t feel well. Our first reaction was that he was lonesome, or felt abandoned, or whatever, and that he would be OK with a little TLC. We brought the kids up to our apartment and had them stay with us to simulate the family atmosphere they were used to. Donna was a bit older and she was fine with Clae and the maids around, but Walter continued to droop. That night Walter slept with me so I could keep a watch on him. He had a fitful sleep and in the morning he still complained that he had abdominal pains.
One of our neighbors in the building was a retired doctor who came to Thailand to help the poor. He spent most of his time in the slums working with those who had no access to medical services. We asked him to look at Walter. He did a quick look (which took a couple hours – he was a talker and enjoyed company). He recommended that we have a doctor “preclude appendicitis”.
Walter’s father was retired military and had medical coverage with the military, so we took him in to the local facility. It was a little dicey since we were not his parents and since he was black and both of us were white, but we had paperwork from the parents and Hippocrates prevailed. Blood tests confirmed appendicitis and all that was needed was a parent’s approval. Attempted calls to India, BS, red tape, and finally a doctor with common sense said he would authorize the surgery, with or without a parent.
Walter came out of the operation just fine, his parents came back from India with an elegant gift for us, and I got to kid Walter about having two bellybuttons! If he could see me now, he’d think I had an entire navel fleet. (Do I need to explain that one?)
I wish I could remember the name of the Irish family who lived in our building. They had lots of kids. They were all short and red-headed and were very likeable.
The youngest kid is the one I remember the most. He was barely more than a toddler. I met the gang one day by the pool and nearly had a heart attack. The family seemed to let the kid do whatever he wanted around the pool without regard. I saw him run down to the deep end, climb up on the diving board, run to the end, and jump off! I was on my feet and ready to go after him and his father stopped me. As I watched, the kid went straight to the bottom, pushed off, came up and took a breath, went down to the bottom again, pushed off, came up again, and made his way to the end of the pool using this technique and climbed out via the steps! Turns out he did this all the time!
When we left Bangkok, this family accepted the sandbox I had made for JR and the MERRY CHRISTMAS letters I had cut from white foam for the patio railing.
Khun Wanna, bless his soul, had infinite patience with us as he tried to spoon feed us the Thai language. He came to our house 2 or 3 times a week in the evening, and Clae and I would try our best to get our American tongues and ears around tonality.
One exercise was to say “New silk won’t burn” in Thai. This phrase presented four tones in one sentence with identically spelled words! Wanna would say “Mai mai mai mai” with proper inflections. I would repeat *precisely* what he said. He would say “No, it’s mai mai mai mai.” I would repeat. He would say “NO, it’s…” I would detect a slight variation and repeat. After about 8 iterations, he would say “We’ll get back to that”.
One particular word that I remember struggling with was the Thai for “water buffalo”. After a few iterations with that, Wanna recommended that I never talk about water buffalos! Apparently with a slightly incorrect tone the word was very naughty!
After several weeks, I felt like I should be broadening my audience, so when I got in the car one night after work I told the driver “I want to go home”. He laughed so hard I thought we were going to get in a wreck. I tried to find out what I had done, but he insisted that what I said was OK – it was just the shock of Thai coming out of my mouth. I’ll never know what *really* happened, but it sure gave me pause!
We eventually learned enough to buy things and get directions to the toilet and so forth, but fluency did not arrive. Clae learned some kitchen Thai from the maids and did OK with them, but we didn’t even try to learn reading and writing.
We had just settled down for a long Bangkok night when out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Our apartment was on the top floor of a six story building. Only the maid’s quarters on the roof were above us.
I ran to the patio and looked down to see absolute turmoil in the street! Our little street (Soi Akapat – now Thong Lo 13) made the crossbar of an “H” with the larger Soi 49 and Soi 55 (now called Sukhumvit 49 and 55) as the legs. There were vehicles of all sorts clogging the street as far as I could see in both directions. Just below us was a huge formation of armed uniformed men. Hundreds of men without uniforms were everywhere yelling and screaming. None of it made any sense to me, but with so many guns around, I knew it wasn’t good.
Thailand has a history of violent overthrows of the government. There always seemed to be a government-in-waiting to step in and take over. The King was the only stable factor – he is revered and remains from one administrative takeover to the next.
But why a revolt on our street? I think it was our No. 1 maid who came down from the roof to explain. There had been a police crackdown on the corrupt practices of the taxi drivers in Bangkok and the drivers staged a strike in protest. All of the vehicles were taxis. The police commissioner had a house just across the street from us and the strike took place against him. Naturally, he called out a large police contingent to retaliate and we just happened to be witness to the dispute.
I have no idea what exactly took place to break them up, but suddenly all the drivers started running to their vehicles and took off. The armed police disbursed and we all went back to bed. I suppose it was covered in the Thai newspapers, but we didn’t subscribe.
The advent of JR was a change of life for me, for Clae, and of course for the maids. I guess that each of the four of us at least felt more responsibility if not more actual work! Although for the outrageous salary we paid them the maids were ours 24/7, Clae insisted on letting them go up to their digs after dinner and leave the babe in our care. That meant when he woke at night she or I was the respondent. It may surprise the reader to know that I actually took a share of these calls (probably while wondering why we paid these girls so much money). But each of us was surprised by some of JR’s actions and our reactions. Here are a few.
The maids did a marvelous job of keeping our place clean, but it was Bangkok, we did have doors and windows open most of the time (but screened), we did have a trash chute in the kitchen (mostly closed), etc., and bugs and “chingchokes” (house lizards) did get in.
One day when JR was crawling, Clae saw him put something in his mouth. She investigated and found him sucking on one of those 2” cockroaches prevalent in the country. She had a fit, but JR was simply “gaining immunity” and he had no problem.
Clae tried to get JR out in the fresh air and sunshine for a while every day, but wondered why he remained pasty white. It turns out that “white is wonderful” to the Thai, and the maids went to exceptional lengths to assure that not a single drop of sunshine ever touched his whiteness! Thais who work outdoors (especially females) cover every part of their bodies except eyes, no matter how hot it gets! Commuters or shoppers carried parasols and used them whenever exposed to sunshine.
JR, Clae, Pono with Leme, Daeng, their brother Bratyun and father in 1970
Recently I asked JR if he had any memory of Bangkok. He was pretty young when he left there, but he has a vague memory of his vision being obscured by a green fabric – no doubt the maid’s efforts to protect him. Although at the time we criticized them for doing this, in the long term it may have been very good for the health of his skin!
Clae heard some commotion outside one day and went to the patio to investigate. There was a small primate climbing around on the poles and wires between the building and the street. Several maids and residents were out on their patios as well and the mother of another child in the building was out there. She yelled up at Clae “Is that your little monkey?” Clae yelled back “No, my little monkey is taking his nap!” Pam saw fit to come up and apologize after the incident, but we all just had a good laugh!
With three women in the house, I’m not sure why I got involved in this one, but I did. Here are Clae and I with the latest solid offering from JR, actually examining it! There were inch long, ¼” round, mostly white with occasional black stripes, “objects” in the poo! My immediate reaction was – maggots. But how could that be – let’s get him to the doctor immediately!
We took a deep breath (while looking away) and talked it over. I got some equipment (a hazmat suit and gas mask) and started a closer examination. Turns out the maggots had no individual structural integrity. I couldn’t move a single one away from the mass and have it maintain its measurements. In fact, when smashed down it looked an awful lot like – undigested banana – a regular part of JR’s diet! The more we came down from our shock and fear and let rationality prevail, the more certain we were – yes, it was banana. We saved ourselves the embarrassment (and laughter) of an unnecessary doctor visit.
I have a funny feeling that this won’t be the last time you hear Bangkok stories. When we returned to CA after this assignment, my coworkers got to the point where they would cover their ears when I started a paragraph with “When I was in Bangkok…”. You may also!