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Flying Tiger memories (continued)

© 2012 Pamela Woodward Happe

It was July, and after the desultory fogs of [San Francisco] Bay we escaped through the [Golden] Gate into sunshine.

In a couple of days the weather turned mild and it was a pleasure to begin mixing with our nearly 200 member "club" on the sunny decks.

Both our ladies - Jo Stewart and "Red" Emma-Jane Foster - had cabins isolated on the relatively small boat-deck. Though I was a shy, even timid fellow, American, age 23, without a university degree, I was nevertheless attracted by the ladies. Before reaching Honolulu I had joined the every-afternoon tea on the boat deck.

From Honolulu to Darwin (area) we were escorted by two heavy cruisers, one was USS Salt Lake City the other a sister ship - Northhampton. It was a singular honor that our single Dutch ship carrying only less than 200 of us was so escorted. Those two warships must have carried nearly 3000 men, and Japan was not yet in the war, though Holland was against the Germans.

The five weeks voyage from San Francisco to Rangoon was interupted only briefly at Honolulu, North Australia and Singapore. We had perfect weather all the way and quite a lot of nostalgia from those of us who already knew the nights of the Southern Cross of Singapore. Though I had known the Southern Skies from our search on the Lexington for Amelia Earhart in 1937, my touch with the people of the Orient had been confined to California and Hawaii.

Singapore - Singapore sang for me. The scents in the back alleys, the raucous noises, the playful kids - they all took my breath away. For me Singapore was Romance. "New World," "Great World," "Tiger Balm" - bits of Chinese ritual opera, hoof and hand fighting in the ring, taxi-dances where a lovely Chinese girl would say, "One night no, one month maybe." The tropical gardens, the stench of gutters, the chatter of Cantonese, the gongs and bells! I was never wrong about the appeal of the Orient!

Coming into the estuary towards Rangoon the early morning sunlight was gradually obscured by a low grey sky. Fingers of land lying at a distance off each side were low and colorless. Some motor craft and others of junk or Red Sea rig could be seen. But it was a couple of hours further towards Rangoon that the river traffic thickened and the tugboats appeared.

As the tugboats pressed us towards the docks, the excitement gripped us. The musty, spicy odors drifted out and fragments of sound. Ah! I'm home to the Orient. The womb of my imagination!

Some good conspiracy with the Burmese Customs and Immigration Authorities permitted our clearance onto a train before all the world was looking. (Nevertheless, a Japanese ricon plane was over our Toungoo airfield three days later.)

The great basin ranging from the sea on the south to Mandalay and Myitkyina in the north must be one of the most beautiful broad valleys in the world. The flat sedimentary earth was carpeted by emerald paddy. An occasional hillock broke the surface, as did here and there a copse of hardwood and palm and inevitably the rising spire of the temple. The village itself lies completely hidden, nestled beneath the trees.

At that time the harvest was only just beginning. With little work to do, the water buffalo ranged the sides of the canals. The people were attractive - if not gay, they were pleasantly placid. The children, as everywhere in the world of the well-fed, were boisterous and fun-loving.

All - women, men and children, were beautifully clad in colourful fabric handsomely draped over the hips. The ladies wore lovely blouses and gathered their pongees at the side. The men on the land were generally bare above their pongees which were gathered and directly tied in front of the genital region.

When bathing themselves, the ladies hoist the pongee and tie it above their breasts, then lather themselves within the modesty of their cloaks. In this way, I suppose both the body and cover are washed. I have noticed that in the tropical areas of the Pacific and in all the area of the tropical Orient, man keeps himself immaculately clean.

My own best memory of the few stations where we stopped emanate from the nose:- glorious, colourful scents - finally the East! The fragrance of flowers and the pungency of the spices. Sounds, particularly music, have a great capacity to inspire the recollection of memories. At the end, however, the nose probably recalls better than the other senses. Ugly or marvellous, sweet or pungent - they all yield memories.

(I recall now-thinking, recalling the odors-of a time months after Toungoo, in Kunming. An early hour of the morning. In a jeep towards the airfield. Driver Wayne Ricks, impatient, nudges one of the two honey-buckets pending by cord from the extremities of a four-foot bamboo which was supported over the shoulders of the honey gatherer. The honey gatherer was the focal-piece, the epi-center. So the other bucket floated in an arc towards the back seat of the Jeep where I sat. Probably three gallons of human excreta -- a quarter of the man's early morning work -- were deposited in my lap. My nose recalls it clearly now - 40 years later. Let it be known that it was for that reason that I am known as "Shitty" Woodward.)

At any rate our train journey expired. Gone the reverie. Gone the placid fields, the golden people, the hidden villages, the pagodas floating above the trees.


Actually, we masqueraded as civilians. Our passports listed us to be farmers, hardware merchants, pharmacists, etcetera. In San Francisco we were so secret that every merchant who sold us whisky, or pistols, or hunting jackets or two cans of dental powder would wink and say, " When you come back, please call in and tell me if the streetcars really run East and West in China."

[That bit about the streetcars is a sly joke whose point, I trust, will not be understood by more recent generations. -- Dan Ford]