The Sunday the issue hit the newsstands, I was celebrating at the newspaper when Sterling passed me the phone. Kevin Delany was on the line, and he wasn’t calling to congratulate me.
“Come to the Peace Corps Office right away,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “We need to have a talk.” I suspected Delany had somehow discovered who wrote the stories he read in the Bangkok World that morning with his coffee.
“Something wrong?” Sterling asked.
“Not sure,” I replied. “Gotta go.”
Throttling through traffic on my bike, I tried to think. I had vetted Bill’s photos before we turned them in to Sterling. None showed me – or at least not full face. In the rice drop story, I was sitting in the shotgun seat of the Air America plane. But the photo focused on the rice bags, and I was only quarter-profile to the camera. Other than that, nothing. Some Volunteers, like Kathy and Ernie and Sam, knew the different pen names I used. Maybe someone mentioned them to Peace Corps. If they did, I was in deep trouble.
Delany was waiting for me when I arrived at the Peace Corps office on Soi Somprasong. We took a walk. He didn’t look at me when he talked. He knew who “Thomas Farthing” was, he told me. I had done an incredibly stupid thing. Imagine the communist propaganda headlines if something had happened, the plane went down, and I got picked up by the Pathet Lao instead of the good guys. How about “CIA Plane Carrying Thai Peace Corps Volunteer Downed Outside Luang Prabang.” I felt sick to my stomach. My selfishness and stupidity could have had disastrous consequences.
“I’m separating you from the Peace Corps and sending you home,” he announced.
I know I deserved it, but I didn’t want my Peace Corps experience to end that way – ignominiously terminated for an exhibition of immaturity far topping the cashiered James and his brownies. James at least never put the Peace Corps at risk.
“Kevin, I’m so, so sorry,” I said, “God, I really am.” He could tell I meant it. “I didn’t think it through. I just knew it would make a hell of a story so I went for it.”
Delany had to understand the adrenaline rush. He started out as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, and worked as a correspondent for CBS News in Hong Kong before a fellow Irishman, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, got elected President and challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you: Ask what you can do for your country." Kevin Francis Xavier Delany answered the call and applied for a leave of absence to work for the Peace Corps, but I knew he remained a journalist at heart and would return to the newsroom when he was done in Thailand. I could see him wavering.
“I swear to God – no more rice drops, no more Air America, no more crazy stuff,” I pleaded.
He shook his head in disgust. “That was so dumb…” He finally looked at me. “OK, but if I ever catch you doing something that stupid again, you’re gone.” I could tell he meant it.
“You won’t,” I promised. I thanked him and drove home. I needed to stay out of trouble for six more months. Then the TV programs would be done, my debt to Peace Corps would be paid, and I could head for Laos.
I really intended to.