Sterling loved the stories and the photos.
I even earned a bonus check. Sterling had spent a year stringing for Time magazine in Paris and sold the French rights to my Luang Prabang piece to the French weekly magazine Minute. We split the $150. I cashed the francs into baht and banked them in my Wat Bovornives scholarship account which grew to $375. Hemingway used the Kansas City Star to launch his writing career; I planned to use the Bangkok World.
Big Boris, meanwhile, had completed his Peace Corps service and Sterling had hired him to cover Cambodia for $200 U.S. a month – more than double our Peace Corps allowance. He had created his own romantic nom de guerre -- Bawon Botbanna. Sterling gave me a tour of the new photo-offset press the World had bought, and Narong again took me to lunch, pressing me to come on board full-time sooner. Dennis Horgan, the publisher, wanted me to be the paper’s roving correspondent for Southeast Asia. I was on top of the world.
I was proudest of the refugee interviews I did.
They told me their stories in soft, resigned voices. We sat around a wooden table in a dirt-floored room in the model refugee village of Ban Na Long, 46 kilometers outside Vientiane. Ten or twelve refugees, mostly middle-aged or elderly, were crowded into the cool thatched hut, sitting on their heels against the bamboo walls. Mothers with babies on their hips stood in the doorway and listened as we discussed what it meant to be a refugee.Sankhamseng, the puuyai baan of the village spoke Thai as well as Lao, so I could ask him questions without an interpreter. He looked and sounded bewildered by what had happened.
“What did you do before you had to leave Taesseng Sene Noy?"
“We were rice farmers.”
“Why did you leave your village?”
“We were afraid of the airplanes. They came every day, bombing the hills and the fields. We could not stay. We would be killed.
“When did the airplanes first appear over your village?”
In May 1964, as the North Vietnamese feverishly worked to improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos, the U.S. Government began flying what we called “reconnaissance” missions in Laos. The villagers had been dodging bombs for six years.
“Why didn’t you leave at that time?”
“It was dangerous then, but the planes only bombed certain areas. There were not many planes. Only a few. Now they bomb everywhere. “
“How many planes a day flew over your village?”
“We saw thirty to fifty planes a day.”
“Do you know where the planes came from?”
“Yes, they came from Thailand, and from South Vietnam.”
Sankhamseng told me soldiers fought near their village, but they weren’t afraid of those skirmishes. “They were shooting sometimes, but we were careful. We stayed near our village. They would not shoot us.” They were desperate to stay in their homes.
It was the massive, secret (to Congress) U.S. bombing that finally drove them to abandon their village, their ancestral homes and graves, to leave behind their fields and water buffaloes and memories. Their village couldn’t run and hide.
I was impressed with the sincerity and efforts of the USAID people running the refugee camp. They cared. They worked their asses off. They furnished the refugees with everything – pots and pans, clothes, medicine, rice seed, a school and medical dispensary, and even the title to new rice fields if they cleared the land and worked it for five years. They symbolized the American can-do spirit and the financial generosity of America. But we couldn’t put humpty-dumpty together again.
“Will you start a new rice field here in Ban Na Long?”
“No,” Sankhamseng told me, fire in his voice for the first time. “We will go home.”
The interview ended. It was noon – hot, dusty and still. An old lady brought me a pitcher of boiled water and a tin cup. After I drank it, I wandered outside into the blinding sun to look around the village. Little kids were scrunched up against the sides of the huts, playing in the shade. A chicken pecked in the dust at a corncob. Two little girls approached me and held out some paper money. Pathet Lao kip. Worthless scrip here in government-controlled territory. The villagers all had them, mostly 200 kip notes. One side showed a picture of a factory with workers turning out what looked like textiles. The other side showed Pathet Lao troops marching through the jungle towards ultimate victory.
Meanwhile, 600,000 people – almost one-quarter of the entire population of the country of Laos – were war refugees.
Damn the Pathet Lao, I thought to myself. Damn you, Ho Chi Minh. And damn you too, Richard Nixon. Just go home everyone, and let the people of Taesseng Sene Noy go back to theirs.
I finally understood what I hated most about the Vietnam war. The little guy didn’t matter – me, Sankhamseng, the kids on the water buffaloes in the rice paddies, Carl crapping in his pants in the jungle. The people with power and money did what they wanted to us – we were expendable. Like Bob Dylan said, we were only pawns in their game.
My mother’s side of the family was Scotch-Irish, mountain people. They pioneered Virginia, then moved to Tennessee. They didn’t like people telling them what to do. They didn’t trust government. They rooted for the underdog. I inherited that streak. Theology didn’t stick, but I left seminary with a burning idealism and a desire to help the meek inherit more than just heaven. Like Mencken, I believed the job of journalists was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”
I was eager to do some afflicting when I finished up “Meet Mr. Maitri.”