In revisiting writings of my days and events of Takhli, I believe I failed miserably in presenting a most important facet. The people and friendship aspects of my year at Takhli have not been offered. All too often I find the discussions of Thailand veterans wrapped in the trappings of night-life, borderline fantasy and the all too powerful work that we did to support the Vietnam war effort. We're sometimes much too clearly fixed on those events and do not spend enough time talking about the people of Thailand we knew. I'm no angel in paradise - I did my share of running the bars and did my job on the flightline! However, there was someone in my first year in Thailand who insisted that I see and get to know THAILAND! The real Thailand, and long ago he taught me that it was and is indeed AMAZING THAILAND! Something he was teaching years before it became such a popular contemporary promotional slogan.The Traywick Connection
Arriving in Thailand in 1969, I was like most every other single, red-blooded American male of the times. I had a fiancée at home and she was the light of my life. I was convinced there was nothing in Thailand which could ever interest me. Not the country, people or history. All I wanted to do was serve my 365 days and go home to the land of the big BX! Little did I know what life had in store for me beyond that first introduction to Thailand in the Asoke Building where we processed into country. After being taken from the commercial contract carrier at Don Muang and bussed across what appeared to be a vast city, we were given a very cold scented towel to clean the perspiration from our faces and a cold eight-ounce bottle of Coke as we entered the building. We were subjected to the cultural briefings, and given flight information to our bases up country. We were shoved into a bus and summarily dumped out down town at the Vienthai Hotel, a roach infested hovel with brown water and four guys to a room. I never slept in that place! And I heard that it burned down some years later. After a fantastic first night in Bangkok, which could in itself be an entire story, I managed to make my way back to Don Muang with my duffel bag for the C-130 flight to Takhli.
It was a most uneventful flight to Takhli and blistering hot bus ride to the CBPO where we were processed and then turned over to the squadrons. My luck of the draw was the 333rd TFS - the Lancers! I had spotted the red and white color scheme of the buildings, saw the ramp rats from the bus and liked what I had seen. I was finally collected by a two striper, who drove me to the orderly room and processed me again. I was then taken to the barracks. He showed me my bunk, and told me who the guys were in the area. Two of the names near my bunk seemed very familiar. But they weren't present naturally because they were probably two of the shirtless tanned bodies I had seen slaving on the ramp of Takhli in the withering heat of midday. Several night shift personnel in the far bay were stirring, but few people other than the house boys were in evidence.
As the day wore on a flighline truck arrived and a young Buck Sergeant showed up to take me to the "office." This tropical inferno looked like forty square miles of flat concrete and steel walls, populated with the most massive fighter aircraft of it's time. The F-105 Thunderchief. This enormous military industrial complex of war was to be my home for a long time and I was overwhelmed with the sheer tempo of the activities I could see there.
As it turned out there were indeed two old friends from basic training and technical school already there. They had engineered my bunk assignment as soon as they heard my name mentioned by the Buck Sergeant who had picked me up. As we talked and renewed old friendships they were most animated in their description and genuine appreciation for someone they called Taweep. An evening was planned out on the town, but I begged off for jet lag. I promised to do it later and they understood.
Within a few days the downtown green-bean tour was conducted and I was "victimized" appropriately by my old friends. Along with us was Taweep. A rather distinguished looking Thai man, who was as it turned out a Master Sergeant in the Royal Thai Air Force. He like so many other senior Thai NCO's moonlighted as taxi drivers in the evening to make money to supplement their meager salaries. All evening Taweep was with us and watched carefully as we had our good time, and tried to drink our way to the very bottom of the Boonrawd Brewery. While we were convinced it could be done, Taweep always knew better and was the adult supervision as I later learned who kept us out of trouble most often. I genuinely liked this very quiet dignified man with the low chuckle and knowing smile and immediately formed a great deal of respect for him. Yes, he took us to the bars as we asked him to do. That was his job so that he could make a little extra money. While he did that he also offered much more.
Not so many weeks after my arrival to Thailand Taweep asked me and another airman to visit Ayutthya. I had no idea what the place was or any history of it, but the other airman was a little more familiar with the country and recommended that we take Taweep up on his offer. Best advice I have ever been given!
On the Saturday we traveled Taweep was very talkative and tried very hard in his limited English for such subjects to tell us the history of the former capital of Siam which was burned in 1763 or so by invading Burmese. I was minimally interested and just glad to be getting away from the base for a while. So I listened and enjoyed the ride.
Entering the ancient capital, I was astounded by what I saw there. Ruins of past ages seemed to be every where I looked. Taweep stopped the car by a very beautiful massive pinnacle of a gray stone chedi with some headless figures standing guard on each side. He pointed at the near vertical steps up the side of the structure. We mounted the steps and climbed a leg numbing distance to a walkway around the structure and found two little urchins guarding the entrance and very willing to rent their flashlights. We handed over the baht coins and stooped over and entered the dark passageway. The entrance was a down slope and then up into the main chamber. We looked all about in the spirit of Indiana Jones and marveled at the antiquity of where we were. After a close encounter with a few disturbed bats we exited and returned the flashlights to the little people wearing what had to be several days of dirt on their body. The only thing that seemed to be clean on these two kids was their genuine smile. Obviously a couple of paddy kids who were moonlighting when they had a chance. Our descent down the near vertical steps produced rubbery legs as we returned to the car. Taweep had mounted and descended with us, but he seemed far less worn for the experience than we were. He looked at us and had pity.
Our next little stop was a refreshment stand in the park and we had some water and then a large Singha beer. It was good just to let the legs become flesh and bone again and loose the rubberiness of the climb. He chatted with us and when we were finished he took us to a small souvenir shop. We looked at the "artifacts" they had on display and didn't think they could ever be anything but genuine articles. I "purchased" two Buddha's which interested me and we left to hit the road again. As I left the shop with the two Buddha's in a brown paper bag I entered the back door of the car and slid the Buddha's under the seat. No one saw me do this. We departed for our next tour event - the Elephant Corral!
As we pulled in to the parking area, we exited and began snapping photos of an empty but massive corral. It was obvious it could handle the huge beasts. Very large wood fence posts standing close together encompassed the huge square with a small elevated house in the center. The posts were a dull red color and looked formidable. But without the beasts being there and milling about it wasn't an area which held our interest too long. We walked back to the car to find Taweep under the hood working on it. Something was wrong and he couldn't quite make something work as he wanted. As we returned to the car he fired it up as I entered the back door. Taweep spotted the brown paper bag almost under the seat, which he knew held the two Buddha's I had "purchased." He became a little excited and I had my first religion lesson in Thailand. He became animated and my friend was able to follow his agitated mood and what he was saying.
"He wants you to know that Buddha's are never kept at a low level, like at your feet and you sure as heck don't sit on them."
"I didn't know. Can you tell him I'm sorry?" I was really embarrassed.
"Tell him yourself. He'll understand." My friend returned to his side of the car and left me standing alone in front of Taweep. I had never felt so humble in my life. Even standing in front of my father on report card day and a poor grade faded into insignificance at that moment. I made my apologies, turned and placed the bag on the rear window shelf above the seat and looked at Taweep again. His tan face with a frown suddenly beamed in a genuine smile of accepting my apology. We got back in the car and moved on toward another place Taweep knew about.
We rummaged around other ruins for a while as black and ominous rain clouds were forming. We started out on the road hoping to out run the rain. It wasn't to be and the rain began to fall. Taweep decided to stop at a small road side store. It was a small wood scrap and corrugated tin affair. We left the car and ran through the increasingly heavy rain into the store. It was a noisy affair in there with the sheets of blowing rain falling on the tin roof. There was only one light, a yellow incandescent bulb glowing over the place where the shopkeeper was standing behind his counter. Taweep ordered up a round of Cokes and we sat down beside the door on what resembled a bench seat of planks and stumps. On the counter was several glass jars containing paper wrapped candy and other Thai confections. One resembled the round patty peanut and caramel brittle I liked when I visited my Grandfathers service station as kid. I wanted to try it and went up to purchase one. Taweep smiled and helped me buy it, then sat down to watch me try this new experience. I was surprised - it wasn't sweet! It was a hard peanut and coconut flavored sugarless thing with an extraordinary flavor. It was good and I have never been able to pass up a bag of them since then.
As the rain continued to pound down and cascade off the tin roof, I sat close to the door and looked out. I spotted the figure of a shirtless man wearing only a pair of blue shorts and rubber sandals making his way to the store almost as if he had magically appeared from the bush. He had a piece of cardboard over his head and came in through the door chattering to the shopkeeper as if he knew him. He was drenched and the water ran from his hair and shorts. The cardboard had done little to protect him from the rain. After he entered the shopkeeper handed him a rag for a towel and he began to dry himself off as he looked at the two falongs with obvious curiosity. Animated conversation shouted over the noise of the rain on the roof was definitely about us and Taweep was a very involved speaker. He was smiling as he explained who we were and where we had been that day. The rain soaked man smiled and seemed to approve of our being there. As he finished drying off he moved toward the door and sat on the other plank and stump seats across from me and crossed his legs in the tight footdown manner of Asians. He was unashamedly looking at me directly. Once he had spent a few minutes at that he stood up and went to the counter and brought back a small bottle of Mekong and some glasses. There and then was my baptism by Mekong! Straight!! Taweep was enjoying this - I kept looking at him with that "rescue me" look, but he just smiled and elbowed my friend who was also enjoying this experience, but at a distance. I got no help or sympathy from him!! I was on my own with the old farmer and the bottle of Mekong. I was glad he only got the small one. When he wasn't looking I took a drink of Coke to cut the aftertaste. Taweep was dying with laughter and my friend was giggling every time I managed to get a drink of Coke. They were loving this!! I wasn't sure if Mekong tasted like jet fuel or dry cleaning fluid at that point. And my vision was beginning to get a little unstable, along with the rest of my body! It wasn't MUCH whiskey but it was whiskey drinking straight and a little FASTER than I was accustomed to. That was my mistake I found out later. When I emptied my glass the old man filled it again, as is the custom. I felt obligated to drink it as is my custom and he filled it as is his custom and it snowballed on me!! I should have sipped it I was told - as long as there was some in there he wouldn't fill it, but let it go dry and it's got to be filled. As we sat there and formed our international bond of friendship sealed with Mekong our attention was suddenly riveted on a big frog outside the door who was having a tough time finding a place out of the water. He was struggling to get up on the plank walkway which was itself in danger of floating away.
The old man looked at the frog and pointed at it. Then he made a motion of patting his stomach, pointing at the frog and giving me a thumbs up sign. Obviously he liked frogs! Then he showed me in sign language how he would slice open the frogs stomach, shake out the guts and grill that bad boy! All the while rubbing his stomach and licking his lips in appreciation for a fine frog meal!! I was getting green! Every stolen glance toward Taweep and my "former" American friend let me know they were in ecstasy watching my misery!!
The rains ended as suddenly as they began and we departed the store, my new farmer friend and headed back to base. Just before we left the store Taweep had purchased some things wrapped in banana leaves, road food! As we sped along toward Takhli, Taweep handed each of us one of the leaf wrapped items. I opened it and it looked harmless enough, but in the fading light of day I couldn't quite make it out. But being somewhat inebriated and frog grossed I wasn't going to let a little piece of whatever this was overcome me - until I put it in my mouth. To this day I have no idea what that was!! Being in the back seat I was a little more able to remove it and send it roadside and not be observed - which I did!! There was NO SWALLOWING THAT STUFF! The only way I can describe the taste is to say it looked, felt and tasted like a big chunk of uncooked pig fat! When we got back to base and said goodnight to Taweep, I had to ask my friend how he could eat that stuff?? And three of them?!?!?
"What? Rice and bananas?? That stuff is great!!" He went to his bunk and left me standing there.
"Rice and bananas? Rice and bananas?" Had the Mekong killed my taste buds? Would I ever be able to taste again? That wasn't rice and bananas!
Taweep continued to be the mentor for many of the young Americans who were guests in his country. I don't know of anyone who didn't enjoy traveling with him on his road trips. I made many more with him to a number of places. Never once did this man ask to be paid for his kindness. We all simply took care of Taweep whenever we were with him and he made sure we had an opportunity to see THAILAND!
After so many years of wondering about Taweep and where he might have gone and how he might be, my question was answered in 1997. We were having our Cobra Gold end of exercise party at the Officers Club on Takhli Air Base. I had mentioned Taweep to several of my RTAF counterparts during the exercise. As the party went on, I was told someone was waiting to talk to me outside by my van. I left the festivities to find Taweep himself standing there - looking not one day older than the last time I saw him some 26 years ago! We had a good evening and several more followed. I took him and his wonderful wife, a dedicated school teacher of so many years to dinner on the river in Chinat and we shared many memories. Oddly enough the night we had dinner on the river, it rained cats and dogs and we were constantly moving the table to avoid the leaks. No matter - it was a fantastic evening! The kind enjoyed only in Thailand.
I'm very glad to have met Taweep so many years ago. He introduced me to THAILAND and I've never left it since. I write this out of respect for him and in humble appreciation of his genuine friendship for all these years.
A true Thai friend and personal hero - Taweep Choomchoy, Master Sergeant, Royal Thai Air Force, Retired - Takhli, Thailand.
by Jim Traywick
14 Nov 01