My next three future/alternating posts address reasons for the Vietnam War, the fall of Laos from an insiders point of view and my family’s eventual exodus from our own country. Before you can understand my father's role in all of these events it is important that you understand who my father was and what my father did for a living.
In 2003, my father asked for my help formatting his curriculum-vitae which ended up being equal parts résumé, biography and family tree. This would be the first time I truly understood what his country meant to my father. With so much on his plate it also explained why I did not see him as often as I wanted to. It may also explain why I'm a recovering work-aholic.
PHOTO ABOVE: Thats me with my Dad in camouflage. Gun control proponents should note that 1. this picture was taken war time. 2. the gun is unloaded 3. its a Daisy BB gun — so no, my Dad did not put me in peril. And no, I have no idea why my father is wearing an ascot with his army uniform. ... ... ...
After our exodus from Laos, my father was often disappointed by the opportunities presented to him. It takes a lot for a man, who is used to helping a monarchy run a country, to swallow his pride and accept a job in finance. Though he always believed that there was nobility in an honest days work, I believe that my father thought he had disappointed the family by not planning properly — leaving our savings and investments behind. Clearly his family did not agree with this assumption.
When he was passed over for a promotion at Chocolaterie Cantalou, he opted for an early retirement. He seemed to be in a constant state of melancholy. I often gifted him with stick figure drawings of UN forces overthrowing the communist government that occupied Laos after 1975. These gifts of ink and yellow legal paper would bring a slight smile to his face. I stopped drawing them when they no longer evoked the desired effect. Only after years of living in France did he mellow, take to adopting cats and really enjoy living in the present. This did not mean he forgot about his country nor did he ever give up dreams of being able to restore the country of Laos to its former glory.
BIRTH Born in Vientiane, Laos on September, 1925 to Chao Saythavinh (father) and Mome Temkham (mother), of the house of Southaka-Souvannakoumar of Chaonoï Heng Nakhone-Phoueuane of the former kingdom of Xieng-Khouang.
EDUCATION He was educated at the Universities of Cambodia, South Vietnam and France (Paris-Sorbonne*) Under the auspices of the United Nations, he had internships at major law, economics and financial institutions in Switzerland, Holland and France.
PHOTO ABOVE: Dad, 2nd from the left.
Entered into a career in political administrative career in Laos, given the following responsibilities and functions:
Private secretary, then Cabinet Chief of his highness, Prince Phetsarath, Tiao Maha-Oupahat, Viceroy of Laos
Prime minister of the royal government of Louangpra-Bang to Hosanam Louang.
Political Cabinet Director of his highness Prince Souvanna-Phouma, Prime Minister of the first royal government of Laos, newly independent member of the french commonwealth.
Director of International Conferences to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Laos. Participated in the Franco-Laotian Modus-Vivendi, and in the first Franco-Laotian friendship and trade agreement, which outlined the limits of the treaty giving independence to Laos in the french commonwealth.
Director of protocol in the royal government.
Private secretary to his majesty, King Sisavang Vong.
Political Cabinet Chief of his royal highness, heir to the throne of Laos, Prince Sri-Savang Vatthana.
Secretary General of the Royal Palace of Laos.
Chief Director of Protocol at the Laotian Court.
Representative of the kingdom of Laos to the high commission of the French Republic in Indochina, Commander in Chief of the French Armed Forces in the far east.
Minister of Foreign Affairs to the royal government of Laos.
Laotian Ambassador to Vietnam (Saigon), to the Philippines (Manila), to Cambodia (Phnom-Penh), to Indonesia (Jakarta), to France (Paris), and to Israel (Tel Aviv).
President of the National Assembly of Laos.
Attache to his majesty, the king of Laos on his state visits and official trips abroad.
Represented Laos in the official ceremonies of the countries awaiting independence in Africa and Asia.
Participated in the Asian Union Parliamentary Conference, in the Global Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference, and the French Language Parliamentary Conference.
Member of the International Conference on Laos in Geneva in 1954 and in 1962.
Attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II of England.
POLITICAL & SOCIAL ACTIVITIES
Member of parliament, Deputy of the province of Xiengkhovang, elected for four consecutive legislative terms.
President and Founder of the Seri-Prachathipatay Party (liberal democracy), majority party within the parliament.
Actively participated in Global Inter-Parliamentary Conferences, twice re-elected vice president of the Global Inter-Parliamentary Union and Vice President of the Parliamentary Union of Asia, privileged member of the French Language Parliamentary Group.
Invited by the Parliamentary Union of Asia to their annual conference of october 1975, after Cambodia’s annexation and the invasion of South Vietnam, during Laos’ occupation** by the North Vietnamese Communists.
Council of the APU unanimously voted upon and agreed to a privileged motion, after six years of service, granting Mr. Chao Sopsaisana Southakakoumar an honorary life-long membership to the Parliamentary Union of Asia, which allowed him to continue participation in the successive annual conferences of the APU (October 8, 1975)
Managed several Laotian and French newspapers: “Youth Tribune, Liberated Laos, Echo of Liberty, Sieng-Seri (Voice of Liberty) and the Lao Hakxaxat (guardian of laotian patriotism).
High commissioner for Sports and Youth, he continued to handle the Youth movement and the Scouts.
President of the Youvasamakhom-Lao, he was elected a senator for the Asian Sector of the International Jaycees.
President of the Alliance Française for Laos;
President of the Rotary Club of Laos
Lawyer of the court, member of the Laotian Bar Association, often handling pro-bono cases
"You speak english very well for an illegal alien." That is not exactly what people said when I first emigrated to the United States but, thats what I heard. First of all I wasn't an illegal alien. I had emigrated to the US through the generosity of catholic priests who knew my father and offered to sponsor me. That's how I ended up with an open ended visa, a green card and eventually US citizenship.
It was surprising to me that in an internationally sensitive city like Washington, D.C. circa 1975-76 people were still amazed that a young laotian boy could speak english without an accent. Then again, they didn't know my assimilation to the American way of life and my ability to speak english started at the American School of Vientiane, Laos. ... ... ... IMAGE CREDITS: The image treatment is based on a photo illustration from blink.net.
"I used you kill fuckers like you in Vietnam,"muttered my neighbor at the urinal. I'm not sure the affect he expected his words to have on me — since it was not possible for me to stop mid-stream and engage in fisticuffs. I had already started to tune out his diatribe. I don't think he realized that during the Vietnam War I was in elementary school. I don't think he knew that my father was a hardline anti-communist and essentially military commander of the CIA controlled Laotian Hmong army. This part is debatable since many thought General Vang Pao was the defacto leader. Our family had supported American forces, not opposed them. While washing my hands in the sink, I looked over at him and said, "I'm sorry you still bear scars from the conflict." I have no idea if what I said was true. I'm not even sure why I said it. I don't know if it was my perfect english or what I said but he shut up — never breaking eye contact with me all the while. I exited the restroom and joined my fraternity brothers who were already digging into their dinner. (during my college years, 1985, Regency Mall, Richmond, VA)
The American School in Vientiane (ASV), Laos was an oasis of calm far away from the Vietnam war. The school had a eclectic mix of military brats, expats and the children of distinguished locals. Except for the fact that ASV encompassed kindergarten and grades one through twelve, it could have been mistaken for any typical American school.
We had athletic fields and corresponding athletic teams (except for football), cheerleaders, swimming pools, extra-curricular activities, the requisite clubs, dances and senior trips. In other words, your typical American school. If you took a page out of the Cobra's Tale yearbook (our mascot was a cobra) and compared it to any Southern California high school yearbook from the 1970s you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. I experienced none of the aforementioned because during this time I was in grade school. Though all the grades existed on a single campus, it was rare that the kids in high school ever set foot into the elementary courtyards and vice-versa.
I ended up at ASV because my Dad had tricked me into doing so. As my Dad tells the story, he had gotten a very tersely worded warning from the French Academy I was attending. The gist of the note said if I could not stay awake in class during the afternoons I would flunk out and readmission would be out of the question. It didn't help that they considered me a blithering idiot because I could never pay attention.
My Dad, concerned that his son would end up banned from formal education, asked me what the problem was. Specifically he said, "What's your problem?" I replied, "Dad its too hot." if you've ever lived or visited Laos you know it get to upwards of 35 degrees celsius (95 Fahrenheit) with 75% humidity during the school year. Its a tropical heat so you're always sweating. The French schools were unbearable and they had no air-conditioning. I was used to putting my head down on my desk and passing out. Thats how the teachers described it. I called it taking a nap.
Truth be told, when I was young, I hated school. Years later when I was tested in the US they surmised it was because I was bored — due to the fact that I was a hyperactive child who read three grade levels higher than his peers. I was considered hyperactive because the term Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) had yet to be coined or recognized as a condition. It didn't help that I was first introduced to processed sugar and foods at ASV. But, I digress.
My father gathered his wits and smiled broadly, "Are you telling me that if I put you in a school that has air-conditioning you'll not only stay awake but, you'll also succeed and excel in your studies?" I looked him straight in the eyes and said, "Yes." My father had called my bluff, just one week later I was waiting on the front curb in front of our house waiting to be picked up for my first day at the American School in Vientiane.
Once at ASV I absorbed the language easily. I already spoke english but, it was formal and stilted. I didn't have the right cadence, emphasized the wrong syllables and often used the wrong words or the right words in the wrong context. English sentence structure is different from french and especially Lao. I also had no grasp of idioms, slang or American pop-culture. All that was about to change.
Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]
... ... ...
My intro to processed foods, experiences at ASV and negotiating the school bus system: fodder for future posts!
Ethically, people are not born fully formed. They cannot be defined at the beginning of their lives the same way they can be at the end. Sometimes a moment can change things. Sometimes in an instant our choices are made for us. The betrayal of a trust. The revelation that our truths are ours alone. In the context of this truth my father cannot be judged or summed up by a single act. Yet in lives public and private, we see time and time again that a single moment can define what others think of us. Was my father rebuked at the end of the Vietnam War because he was not as accommodating to the CIA as General Vang Pao? General Vang Pao is considered a hero among the Hmong people. He was also identified as the mastermind behind the 2008 plot/coup to overthrow the current Laotian government. I tell you this because headlines like "Crown Prince Sopsaisana's Opium Bust" are not very flattering.
IMAGE CREDITS: The collage is made up of the head of Simon Pegg (Hot Fuzz), the poppies from a photo by Pierre Arnaud Chouvy.
ethics |ˈeθiks| |ˈɛθɪks| |ˈɛθɪks| plural noun 1 [usu. treated as pl. ] moral principles that govern a person's or group's behavior : Judeo-Christian ethics. The moral correctness of specified conduct : the ethics of euthanasia. 2 [usu. treated as sing. ] the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.
When I was younger, and we lived in Laos, our house was gated. I always assumed it was for privacy, in retrospect I imagine it was also for our safety. The exterior walls were concrete, three feet thick and the circular driveway ended in steel gates 10 feet tall. Maybe not 10 feet tall, they could have been shorter, but when you're nine years old everything is very imposing.
Back then I always noticed that people either loved my father or hated him vehemently. Maybe hated is too strong a word. I should say despised — in the way all politicians are despised. I could never understand why. He tried to explain it to me once. He explained how he had contracted with an organization much like Doctors Without Borders to provide additional support and healthcare for the Laotian people. Some of these doctors were Filipino. If you know how xenophobic most Asian cultures are, you know what is coming. The native Laotian doctors saw this as an afront, a commentary about how well they were caring for their own people. They became very offended. I'm making a generalization here, I'm sure many native Laotian doctors welcomed the help. Regardless, my father was used as a scapegoat, a whipping boy if you will. He was damned if he didn't get the needed help and he was damned if he did. Sometimes you have to make the shitty call.
... ... ... How long do you have to read this post? Seriously, I'm trying to save you some time. If you're not a reader and you just want something to scan while you drink your coffee skip this post. Or wait until lunch. This is what I meant when I wrote "long-form narrative" in the ABOUT page of this blog. Buckle-up because this one requires commitment. ... ... ...
It is very hard to judge this situation once you realize that my father was not doing this for personal gain but on behalf of the CIA. Does the end justify the means? Also, just because you may not believe this blog entry doesn't mean it didn't happen. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure my Dad's history was one of the possible reasons I didn't get that design job in '09 at Langley.
SOURCE I: Political Friendster provides this context: The Laotian prince, Sopsaisana, was the head of the Asian Peoples Anti-Communist League, the chief political advisor of Vang Pao, military commander of the CIA's Laotian Hmong army. The heroin itself was refined from Hmong opium at Long Tieng, the CIA's headquarters in northern Laos, and given to Sopsaisana on consignment by Vang Pao. The consignment made its way from Vang Pao in Long Tieng to Sopsaisana in Vientiane via General Secord's Air America. That, apparently, was an alternative Richard Nixon was willing to accept.
SOURCE II: Wikipedia has this short five sentence missive: The Laotian prince Sopsaisana was the head of the Asian Peoples Anti-Communist League, the chief political advisor of Vang Pao, Vice President of the Laotian National Assembly and military commander of the CIA controlled Laotian Hmong army. In April 1971 Prince Sopsaisana, then Laos's new Ambassador to France, arrived in Paris. After a tip-off, customs at Orly airport intercepted a valise containing 123 pounds of pure heroin, then the largest drug seizure in French history with an estimated value of $13.5 million. The Prince had planned to ship the drugs to New York. CIA stationed in Paris convinced the French to cover up the affair; Prince Sopaisana returned to Vientiane two weeks later.
SOURCE III: A more colorful retelling of the incident from the book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia by Alfred W. McCoy Published August 1st 1972 by Harper & Row. (isbn: 0060129018) The excerpt:
The Golden Triangle: Heroin Is Our Most Important Product "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN," announced the genteel British diplomat, raising his glass to offer a toast, "I give you Prince Sopsaisana, the uplifter of Laotian youth." The toast brought an appreciative smile from the lips of the guest of honor, cheers and applause from the luminaries of Vientiane's diplomatic corps gathered at the send-off banquet for the Laotian ambassador-designate to France, Prince Sopsaisana. His appointment was the crowning achievement in a brilliant career. A member of the royal house of Meng Khouang, the Plain of Jars region, Prince Sopsaisana was vice-president of the National Assembly, chairman of the Lao Bar Association, president of the Lao Press Association, president of the Alliance Francaise, and a member in good standing of the Asian People's Anti-Communist League. After receiving his credentials from the king in a private audience at the Luang Prabang Royal Palace on April 8, 1971, the prince was treated to an unprecedented round of cocktail parties, dinners, and banquets. (1) For Prince Sopsaisana, or Sopsai as his friends call him, was not just any ambassador; the Americans considered him an outstanding example of a new generation of honest, dynamic national leaders, and it was widely rumored in Vientiane that Sopsai was destined for high office some day.
My Dad in dress whites.
The send-off party at Vientiane's Wattay Airport on April 23 was one of the gayest affairs of the season. Everybody was there: the cream of the diplomatic corps, a bevy of Lao luminaries, and, of course, you-know who from the American Embassy. The champagne bubbled, the canapes were flawlessly French, and Mr. Ivan Bastouil, charge d'affaires at the French Embassy, Lao Presse reported, gave the nicest speech. (2) Only after the plane had soared off into the clouds did anybody notice that Sopsai had forgotten to pay for his share of the reception. When the prince's flight arrived at Paris's Orly Airport on the morning of April 25, there was another reception in the exclusive VIP lounge. The French ambassador to Laos, home for a brief visit, and the entire staff of the Laotian Embassy had turned out. (3) There were warm embraces, kissing on both cheeks, and more effusive speeches. Curiously, Prince Sopsaisana insisted on waiting for his luggage like any ordinary tourist, and when the mountain of suitcases finally appeared after an unexplained delay, he immediately noticed that one was missing. Angrily Sopsai insisted his suitcase be delivered at once, and the French authorities promised, most apologetically, that it would be sent round to the Embassy just as soon as it was found. But the Mercedes was waiting, and with flags fluttering, Sopsai was whisked off to the Embassy for a formal reception.
1971 Mercedes 280 4-Door Embassy Issue
While the champagne bubbled at the Laotian Embassy, French customs officials were examining one of the biggest heroin seizures in French history: the ambassador's "missing" suitcase contained sixty kilos of high-grade Laotian heroin worth $13.5 million on the streets of New York,(4) its probable destination. Tipped by an unidentified source in Vientiane, French officials had been waiting at the airport. Rather than create a major diplomatic scandal by confronting Sopsai with the heroin in the VIP lounge, French officials quietly impounded the suitcase until the government could decide how to deal with the matter.
Although it was finally decided to hush up the affair, the authorities were determined that Sopsaisana should not go entirely unpunished. A week after the ambassador's arrival, a smiling French official presented himself at the Embassy with the guilty suitcase in hand. Although Sopsaisana had been bombarding the airport with outraged telephone calls for several days, he must have realized that accepting the suitcase was tantamount to an admission of guilt and flatly denied that it was his. Despite his protestations of innocence, the French government refused to accept his diplomatic credentials and Sopsai festered in Paris for almost two months until he was finally recalled to Vientiane late in June.
Back in Vientiane the impact of this affair was considerably less than earthshaking. The all-powerful American Embassy chose not to pursue the matter, and within a few weeks everything was conveniently forgotten (5) According to reports later received by the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, Sopsai's venture had been financed by Meo Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army, and the heroin itself had been refined in a laboratory at Long Tieng, which happens to be the CIA's headquarters for clandestine operations in northern Laos.(6) Perhaps these embarrassing facts may explain the U.S. Embassy's lack of action. In spite of its amusing aspects, the Sopsaisana affair provides sobering evidence of Southeast Asia's growing importance in the international heroin trade. In addition to growing over a thousand tons of raw opium annually (about 70 percent of the world's total illicit opium. (7) Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle region has become a mass producer of high-grade no. 4 heroin for the American market. Its mushrooming heroin laboratories now rival Marseille and Hong Kong in the quantity and quality of their heroin production.
... ... ...
L-R: Samples of Heroin, A. W. McCoys two books, map of lab locations, Wattay Airport in the 70s (Wayne Knight), miscellaneous Air America artifacts.
In Laos, CIA clandestine intervention produced changes and upheavals in the narcotics traffic. When political infighting among the Lao elite and the escalating war forced the small Corsican charter airlines out of the opium business in 1965, the CIA's airline, Air America, began flying Meo opium out of the hills to Long Tieng and Vientiane. CIA cross-border intelligence missions into China from Laos reaped an unexpected dividend in 1962 when the Shan rebel leader who organized the forays for the agency began financing the Shan nationalist cause by selling Burmese opium to another CIA protege, Laotian Gen. Phoumi Nosavan. The economic alliance between General Phoumi and the Shans opened up a new trading pattern that diverted increasingly significant quantities of Burmese opium from their normal marketplace in Bangkok. In the late 1960s U.S. air force bombing disrupted Laotian opium production by forcing the majority of the Meo opium farmers to become refugees. However, flourishing Laotian heroin laboratories, which are the major suppliers for the GI market in Vietnam, simply increased their imports of Burmese opium through already established trading relationships.
The importance of these CIA clients in the subsequent growth of the Golden Triangle's heroin trade was revealed, inadvertently, by the agency itself when it leaked a classified report on the Southeast Asian opium traffic to The New York Times. The CIA analysis identified twenty-one opium refineries in the tri-border area where Burma, Thailand, and Laos converge, and reported that seven were capable of producing 90 to 99 percent pure no. 4 heroin. Of these seven heroin refineries, "the most important are located in the areas around Tachilek, Burma; Ban Houei Sai and Nam Keung in Laos; and Mae Salong in Thailand." (21)
Although the CIA did not bother to mention it, many of these refineries are located in areas totally controlled by paramilitary groups closely identified with American military operations in the Golden Triangle area. Mae Salong is headquarters for the Nationalist Chinese Fifth Army, which has been continuously involved in CIA counterinsurgency and intelligence operations since 1950. According to a former CIA operative who worked in the area for a number of years, the heroin laboratory at Nam Keung is protected by Maj. Chao La, commander of Yao mercenary troops for the CIA in northwestern Laos. One of the heroin laboratories near Ban Houei Sai reportedly belongs to Gen. Ouane Rattikone, former commander in chief of the Royal Laotian Army-the only army in the world, except for the U S. army, entirely financed by the U.S. government.(22) The heroin factories near Tachilek are operated by Burmese paramilitary units and Shan rebel armies who control a relatively small percentage of Burma's narcotics traffic. Although few of these Shan groups have any relation to the CIA today, one of the most important chapters in the history of the Shan States' opium trade involves a Shan rebel army closely allied with the CIA. (For location of these laboratories, see Map )
Other sources have revealed the existence of an important heroin laboratory operating in the Vientiane region under the protection of Gen. Ouane Rattikone. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics has reports that Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's Secret Army, has been operating a heroin factory at Long Tieng, headquarters for CIA operations in northern Laos. (23) Thus, it is with something more than idle curiosity that we turn to an examination of CIA clandestine operations and the concurrent growth of the narcotics traffic in the Golden Triangle.
While watching 'The Betrayal', the award winning documentary film by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, I stumbled on the most concise explanation for the Vietnam War I had ever seen or read. It also showed me ghost-like images of my father I never knew existed. Ghost-like because he had passed just days prior on the other side of the Atlantic. I never made it to his funeral.* ... ... ...
Gary Jules' rendition of 'Mad World', the single by 'Tears for Fears' has been used in an audio swap of the original soundtrack by Howard Shore. My apologies to the filmmakers and Mr. shore for bastardizing their work of art. The clip in its original form can be seen here.
... ... ...
In the process of piecing together my father's past, I realized how little I knew about the Vietnam War. Why it was fought. Why the United States was involved and just exactly how was my father caught up in all this?** Over the years, there were many stories told to me by family members both immediate and distant. Much of it was spoken to me in hushed tones. Was it a secret? There were rumors of his participation in aiding the CIA. Specifically aiding the CIA in the illegal, secret U.S. air-war in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict. I kept thinking, how could this be true? My dad was a diplomat, a politician, what good was he as an asset?
My research into answering all these questions for myself includes reading Robert McNamara's 'InRetrospect: the Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam', researching Air America***, watching countless documentaries, talking (or hoping to talk) to their author/directors and trying to make sense of it all. During the screening of The Betrayal, the 2008 award winning documentary, I was struck by how similar the real life protagonist's story mirrored my own — at least the part where he talks about his father during the first 10 minutes of the film. Imagine my surprise when the "b-roll" archival footage of the royal procession and Savang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, showed the familiar face of my father in the background. He can be seen at the 00:58 to 01:10 section of the footage. Imagine that someone you loved dearly passed and later that week you found that person present in the photographs of a stranger. Imagine that and you'll know how I felt at that moment. I had never seen this footage before and the fact that he had just passed from pancreatic cancer the week prior made it eerie.
I rabidly did a screen grab of the images in question and e-mailed them to my siblings living in France. I even posted the two minute clip on YouTube. I asked my sisters, my brothers and my half brothers,**** "Did you know this footage existed? Where did it come from? How come none of us knew it ever existed?" No one had any answers. We marveled at how young and driven he looked. He was so healthy and virile in the flickering images.
Unbeknownst to me, none of my siblings ever showed the footage to my mother. I believed they assumed that one of the other sisters or brothers would have shown my mother the footage, but no one confirmed this. She was here in the U.S. these past few weeks to attend to her brothers funeral.***** It was at this time that I showed her the clip for the first time.
When she watched the clip for the first time she was speechless. If you know my mother such a reaction is a near impossibility. She asked me rewind and play back the footage in slow motion, the fifth time she spoke. She was almost indignant, "This is not funny. Where did you get this footage!" she demanded. My mother believed I had compiled the footage and used my CGI contacts to pull a prank on her. I had to reassure her the footage was genuine, after which her tone became softer. Eventually, she asked me to purchase her a copy of the documentary DVD.
Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]
... ... ...
More on why I never made it to my fathers funeral in future posts.
Part of my fathers involvement is chronicled in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia a major, nonfiction book on heroin trafficking published in 1972, by Alfred W. McCoy. Although well researched, the portion of the book that deals with my father's troubles only scratch the surface of the situation in Laos at that time. It would be unfair to judge my father on just this one account.
Whenever I bring up this subject outside of my family, especially with people I have dated, I am often greeted with smiles as the person listening to my story always assumes I'm telling a big fat lie.
My father was equal parts sinner and saint and in our family there are nine children, that I know of. Of the four girls and five boys, two are half brothers and one is a half sister. More on our motley crew in future posts.
The Laotian people do not, in fact, try and die in clusters to make it easier on travelling relatives. 2009-2010 has just been a bad year in our family.
My father often indulged me, to the chagrin of my mother. This included seeing movies years before I was able to appreciate the story or the subtext. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, along with Cool Hand Luke, are the movies that stick with me to this day. If you've seen either of those films you already know why they would resonate with a boy who misses his father.
... ... ...
After we escaped from Laos* the days blended together like summer vacation when, as kids, you were allowed to roam the neighborhood on your bike — as long as you were in earshot of the call for lunch/dinner. This was not my existence. Mine was spent on a balcony of a Bangkok apartment calling out to people as they walked by. My only distractions were my younger brother Guillaume,** poorly crafted LEGO™ knockoffs and a Spiderman™ action-figure. It was on one of these sweltering summer*** days that my dad indulged me, in more ways than I knew at the time, in an escape from the heat and our current state of mind.
[ See links at the end of this post for a tribute video]
It was after the fall of Saigon and the Vietnam War was coming to an abrupt close. We were in limbo. A family without a country and no immediate plans for immigration. Even at nine years old I could tell from the hushed conversations between my parents that all was not right with the world. We had traded a life of privilege for one of survival. We essentially depended on the kindness of strangers. My father would work the streets of Bangkok looking up contacts and calling in favors, in an effort to acquire the paperwork and sponsorship required to relocate us to France. Towards the end of this process, there was a day when he came home in great spirits. He told me during dinner that he had a great surprise for me. My father was so excited he couldn't contain himself. It had been months since I'd seen him this happy. During his street travels he had come across a theater showing an animated feature of my favorite super-hero: Spiderman. This was a treat just for the two of us. My mother was staying behind to care for my brother who was too young to tag along.
The next day we walked the city of Bangkok as my father tended to his affairs. I can only imagine the difficulty of accomplishing this task with a nine year old, ADD-afflicted boy in tow. As the day drew to a close, we were hot, sweaty, and covered with the dust of the streets. It was then that my father unveiled his surprise. Imagine his disappointment when I bluntly informed him that the movie he thought showcased my favorite superhero instead starred the Thai equivalent of Mighty-Mouse. When my dad asked if I was still interested in seeing the movie, the ungrateful imp in me yelled, "No!" I'm sure that was followed with the characteristic whining of a tired, hungry child.
My father made an immediate executive decision and that is how we ended up in the only other movie showing at the theater. The movie 'Thunderbolt & Lightfoot' starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges was not exactly children's fare. Regardless, it got us off the street, into the air-conditioned darkness of the movies and filled my wailing mouth with a cold Coca-Cola. If you've never seen the movie the plot goes as follows:
"Seven years after a daring bank robbery involving an anti-tank gun used to blow open a vault, the robbery team temporarily puts aside their mutual suspicions to repeat the crime (after they are unable to find the loot from the original heist). The hardened artilleryman (Eastwood) and his flippant, irresponsible young sidekick (Bridges) are the two wild cards in a deck of jokers." ~ imdb.com • It is also a movie about, "The nature of freedom and loneliness. Youth vs age. The American dream - inverted (criminal as hero). It's the kind of movie that sticks with you. It is an unappreciated masterpiece." ~ orpheus44
This oscar-nominated movie subconsciously affected me in ways not obvious to me until I watched the film again years later. There is a running theme of honor (among thieves), genuine friendship and the support of family — no matter how unorthodox the family. I now realize that these are the same principles I applied to my current life-long friends and family members. These are people who will bail you out of jail, drive cross-country to come to your aid and loan you money without the expectation of being paid back. They are few and far in between. I am blessed to have more than my fair share.
To this day, though I own the movie on DVD, if 'Thunderbolt & Lightfoot' is playing on television I must stop to watch — even if only for a few minutes. That is all it takes to transport me back to that hot, sweaty, afternoon with my first friend and father.
Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]
* I'll go into more detail on the 'Escape from Laos' in future posts. ** Not his real Laotian, given name. ***Actually it was late spring, since summer in Thailand & Laos is monsoon season.
Originally written on the day after Father's Day 2009 — Republished 2010. I hope this missive is the prodding others need to realize that it's not too late to make amends. You can't choose your family but, you can choose to make the most of the time you have with them
.... ... ...
Forgiveness. Yesterday was the first time I didn’t feel guilty about forgetting to put a Father’s day card into the mail. For the first time in my life I didn’t need to make that call, to hear your voice, talk to you ever so briefly, before you would hand the phone to Mom — but, I wanted to. Thats why I'm compelled to write you this letter. I don't know how the universe works but, I have faith that you'll see it.
I had breakfast with friends in Ashburn yesterday, Dad. Then I drove over to Jack's and spent the afternoon playing with my niece and catching up with Diane and her family. We had a perfect summer meal of Maryland blue crabs, steamed corn, fritters, potato salad and hard cider. Later we gathered around the fire-pit and relaxed over glasses of Prosecco. Everything was great until Jack pointed out the big dipper in the clear Bethesda sky and I began to wonder. I wondered where are you now, what were you doing and if the after-life made up for all the regrets you endured while you were here on earth. Are you with my brother and your son, Monirak? I hope so. I hope you're in a place where people are honest and true to their word. I hope you're in a place where everyone is decent and looks out for their fellow man. A place without politics, religion, pride or prejudice. Maybe in the after-life we'll pass through a cosmic customs station, turn in our religious denomination passports and on the other side realize we've all arrived in the same place — regardless of faith.
Until I see you next, I'm grateful that we got to spend time together, to talk and reminisce. Though you were deaf in one ear, I'm sure you heard everything I had to say. But, just in case you didn't Dad, I'll say the most important parts one more time: Contrary to your own beliefs, you never disappointed me. You always thought you let me down and always wanted to find a way to make ammends. The forgiveness you sought was never given because there was never anything to forgive.
I loved that you disciplined and taught me by example, even if it took me longer than most to learn certain lessons.
I was never angry and I never had any regrets that you had sent me overseas to study at such a young age. The experience has informed me and made me everything I am today; independent, resourceful, tolerant and outspoken.
One of my happiest memories of you was when I lost your grandfather's Omega Constellation wristwatch. The watch you gave me after I graduated from VCU — the one in my possession for less than an hour. It had such sentimental value and meant so much to you. When I eventually told you, I remember you said, "Don't worry. It's just a watch."
It never bothered me that people either loved you with a passion or hated you vehemently. I know now thats how things are in politics. I know you can't please all the people all the time and you did what you thought best for your people. You never brought any of those problems home, to me you were just my Dad.
It moved me to tears that, even in your fragile state, you thought more about me than you did yourself. I still have the bracelet you gave me and I wear it often, my own buddhist talisman of happiness, health and prosperity.
I know you're gone but, here in my heart nothing has changed. I'm still holding on to you. I love you and I miss you.
Laotian Chronicles: A Life Story [ an excerpt from the novel I may never write ]