1 - Thai VenturesHarvard sent Eddie Gillespie into the world without the foggiest notion of what to do with his life. Nor was he the only one. Befuddlement was endemic among the Lowell House seniors of 1994, who'd spent half their lives getting into Harvard and then doing the work it required of them. (Reinventing itself in the 1970s, Harvard hit upon an egalitarian way to separate the best from the merely good: give the little bastards more work than they could finish before dawn. To cop an A, Eddie had to read faster than anyone else in a class of fast readers--write more pages, express himself more clearly, and intuit quicker what assignments weren't worth the bother--then suck up to a teaching assistant who'd learned English as a second language.)
There were two solutions to the malaise that accompanied a Harvard diploma. You applied to graduate school, or you asked your folks for a plane ticket to some outlandish spot.
Eddie went to Thailand, where he trafficked in cotton anoraks with sufficient success to warrant a mention in Harvard Magazine. ("Edmund Gillespie is in the export-import business at Phitsanulok, north of Bangkok, where he welcomes visitors from the Class of 1994.") He smoked opium in a pipe, drank rum tonics with the Hash House Harriers, and tried to coax his partner Sankai into smuggling him into Burma, to see the country his grandfather had defended during the War--the great and glorious War, not to be confused with later mishaps in Korea and Vietnam.
So much the better that Burma was closed to overland travel. The country was so outlandish, indeed, that it had renamed itself Myanmyar and equipped its capital (Yangon to the junta, Rangoon to the rest of the world) with pedestrian overpasses, where soldiers could stand and shoot the people if they took to the streets. So Sankai told Eddie.
Sankai was a small-boned man with aviator sunglasses and a red Kawasaki motorbike. He arranged the sewing of the colorful cotton garments which Eddie exported to his sister at Duke and his mother in New Hampshire. To keep peace in their partnership, Sankai finally agreed to drive Eddie to Mae Sot, near the Burma border, to meet a holy man who traveled back and forth. It was not clear to Eddie what religion the holy man espoused, save that he was neither Buddhist nor Christian.
They set out from Phitsanulok at 5 a.m., riding through the misty dark in the company of bullock carts and a few buses, trucks, and automobiles, their headlamps dark in the Southeast Asian fashion. Eddie supposed that the drivers hoped to economize on gasoline or, more mysteriously, electricity. In any event, huge vehicles kept looming out of the darkness, often on the same side of the road as the Kawasaki. Eddie was relieved when daylight appeared, like a curtain thrown back. For an hour the morning would be cool, the mist beautiful and fragrant, and oncoming trucks visible in time for Sankai to steer around them.
Sankai did not speak on the three-hour ride to Mae Sot, except when they stopped for breakfast--fried dough and successive cups of coffee, tea, and hot water--at an open-front village restaurant. Like most Asians, he was a solipsist. Like an army truck in the darkness, if you weren't in Sankai's field of vision, you ceased to exist for him. It was a disconcerting trait, especially when you asked yourself what he would do if you tumbled off the back of the motorbike. Would he come back for you? Would he ever notice you were gone?
"What sort of holy man, Sankai?" Eddie asked as they washed down the coffee with tea, and the tea with hot water. Between pots, the waiter wiped the table with a filthy rag.
"Very holy." As the waiter brought each pot, Sankai poured the liquid into his chipped cup, and from the cup into the saucer. Then he blew on it. When the coffee or tea or water was tepid enough to suit him, he brought the saucer to his mouth with both hands and slurped delicately. "Him ancestor called Tiger. Singh make pagoda for him."
"A Flying Tiger? An American pilot?" Eddie wasn't sure how much Sankai knew about world history.
"All same shark."
"And his name is Singh?"
"Singh Kin. Burman," Sankai explained with the serene illogic of his race. "Very holy. We go now." Reluctantly Eddie straddled the Kawasaki's black banana seat. His butt was sore already, and they were only halfway to Mae Sot, after which they'd have to turn about and drive back to Phitsanulok, if Sankai didn't lose him on the way.
Singh Kin was about Eddie Gillespie's age. Smoking a green cigar, the size and shape of an ice cream cone, he explained that his ancestor had indeed been an American, stationed in Burma during the Time of the Japanese. He'd met and married an Anglo-Burman woman named Ils Bet--Singh's grandmother, now dead.
"This is amazing," Eddie said. "How did you come to live in Thailand, Singh?"
"The grandmother is walking."
"Who built the pagoda, Singh?"
"The father is building." This was Agweel Kin, whom Ils Bet had smuggled into Thailand for fear the Japanese would bayonet him for his taint of American blood. At Mae Sot, the headman sheltered Ils Bet and in time took her for his number-two wife, and the mostly white child as his foster son.
"Your father, Singh?"
"And his father was a Flying Tiger?"
"I'll be darned. My grandfather told me about them."
In time, young Agweel Kin was pledged to another mixed-blood resident of the village, the daughter of a Thai woman and an Indian soldier, evidently a deserter from the British army. Singh was the son of this marriage, making him (as he demonstrated with a stick in the sand) one part Burman, one part British, two parts Thai, two parts Indian, and two parts American. "That's cool, Singh," Eddie said. "You could be a United Nations peace-keeping force, all by yourself."
Agweel Kin had built the pagoda in honor of the American pilots who had protected Burma from the Japanese. Then he died, leaving his son to maintain it. "Will you show it to us, Singh?" Eddie asked. He'd lost all interest in crossing the border.
Sankai was skeptical but allowed himself to be persuaded, and the three of them set out on a track through the rain forest, hotter and darker with each kilometer they marched. Sankai suffered the most. Mosquitoes feasted through his white cotton shirt, translucent with sweat, and often he slipped and fell, betrayed by his leather-soled city shoes. Singh, by contrast, trotted tirelessly in thong sandals. For Eddie, wearing a tennis hat, Thai Ventures t-shirt, jeans, and Reeboks, it was mostly a problem of the heat, like having his head in a box that was oven and steam-bath in one hellish compartment.
They took an hour to reach the pagoda, which proved to be an open-sided teak hut with a bamboo roof, built around the wreckage of a Second World War fighter plane with (Sankai had been correct on this point) a shark's gaping jaw and baleful eye painted on its cowling. All that remained of the aircraft was the engine and the pilot's compartment, upside down, with the propeller cone buried in the black humus of the forest floor. Only stumps remained of the propeller blades. The same was true of the wings, whose roots were attached to the fuselage above (or beneath, if you preferred to think of the fighter in its normal attitude) the cockpit. Eddie supposed that the wings tore off when the plane careered through the trees--their trunks as thick as California redwoods--and that the tail was lost when the plane hit the ground and flipped over. "Son of a bitch," he said. "Curtiss P-40." As a boy, Eddie had assembled kit replicas of World War II fighter planes--Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt 109, Mitsubishi Zero, Curtiss P-40--Christmas presents from his grandfather, the sad old veteran who smelled of gin and pipe tobacco. They'd painted the P-40, which Gramps had called a Tomahawk, with just such a shark-mouth. It still hung from the ceiling of Eddie's bedroom in Exeter, New Hampshire.
Singh Kin prostrated himself by the pilot's compartment and banged his head against its plexiglass panels. Eddie hunkered beside him and peered through the cloudy plastic. Holy shit! The cockpit was occupied by a huge grinning skull in a leather flight helmet, upside down, hanging from a skeletal torso in a leather jacket nearly white with mildew. The torso was harnessed into the seat, but its arms and legs had fallen away, like the wings and tail of the Tomahawk.
All of which--the helmeted skull, the march through the rain forest, and his loss of blood--made Sankai exceedingly nervous. "We go now," he said.
"Ask Singh if this is his grandfather."
They held a spirited conversation, which Sankai in his irritating fashion translated as: "All same Flying Tiger."
"Not the grandfather?"
"A friend of the grandfather?"
"We go now."
Riding back to Phitsanulok, stopping only to buy gasoline from a vendor with a hand-cranked pump, Sankai ignored his passenger even more thoroughly than on the outward journey. His shirt was bloody, and beneath it his shoulders--narrow at the best of times--seemed to have shrunk further, as if Eddie had betrayed him by taking him to that haunted placed in the rain forest. It was not until after a dinner of rice and prawns, and a bath and the gift of one of Eddie's shirts, that Sankai would speak to him, and then only about the fax machine he hoped Eddie would buy for their office on Bumphol Street.