How obvious it is, looking back from 55 years on, how the events of those brief weeks in the summer of 1964 shaped my life. Many other things contributed, of course, but how different my life might have been.
There is no way of knowing if it would have been better. There is always the chance that things might have turned out a whole lot worse, or maybe it would all have worked out just the same. Still, I think it is ironic, that I was accused of ruining that summer.
I told myself at the time, that the experience to which I refer, which I will relate a bit later on, was the sort of situation that could have a very negative impact on a person’s life. So I made a note to myself that I should remember not to allow it. If only things were so simple!
As I matured into adulthood, and adjusted to the carbohydrate-heavy diet of a British boarding school, my body took on a shape I didn’t at all care for. Until this point in my life, I had never been able to change anything that was happening to me. Then, I found, there was something I could finally control.
Fortunately it never completely took over my mind, but for a few months I had a serious flirtation with anorexia. Not that anyone had ever heard of it then. No matter how much weight I lost, I still saw a fat person in the mirror.
But then I was on the move again, and I guess that broke the pattern that could have developed. Though I still don’t like the way I look!
“Anousawari”, the Victory Gate, so-called, which stands in the middle of Vientiane. No one seemed to know what victory it honoured. These days it is at least complete.
photograph by Charles F. Keyes
Of all the posts my father took in Asia, Laos seemed to have the least going for it. Its location between Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Viet Nam and China, placed it strategically in the middle of the cold war. At the same time, various groups within Laos fought constantly to take control of the country. It was a recipe for utter chaos.
In better times, tourism could be encouraged, but no-one wanted to visit a country at war with itself. People who went there for the various sorts of profits to be gained, were happy to keep a low profile in grotty little establishments.
Vientiane was hot, dirty and disheveled. With so few visitors, there was no need for hotels or restaurants or even shops. The oppressive climate did little to encourage anyone to do anything the least bit energetic, and people seemed to just sit around, glumly, waiting for something to happen.
Little wonder that my father couldn’t wait to leave when his contract expired at the end of 1964. My parents intended to seek a new way of life in the West Indies, which is presumably why I was encouraged to accept the offer of going to live on Long Island with my aunt and uncle.
None of this was discussed during those strange few weeks of my visit.
I can’t claim to have no good memories of Laos. This is a picture of Lach. She was the tiny Thai girl my parents employed. Of all the “servants” we had in Asia, Lach was certainly the sweetest and I was very fond of her.
Although no-one wanted to be there, there was a community of embassy people and aid workers and yes, they may not admit it, but US military. And CIA.
There wasn’t a whole lot for all these people to do. There were embassy parties, but wouldn’t you get tired of meeting the same people and talking about the same things?
My parents were fortunate enough to have American friends that we had met in Cambodia, and they enjoyed being together again. It also increased their circle of friends, and sometimes they were invited to see movies at the American Embassy. Otherwise, life would have been really tiresome.
Maybe my mother thought I was bored, or that I should learn some social skills, I’m not sure, but I found myself invited to a party with a few of the younger folk. Not knowing anyone, I didn’t want to go, but I was collected and delivered to a house miles away.
I sat like a bump on a log for hours, hating it and feeling like a complete idiot. Then my ride home bailed out, leaving me stranded.
I would gladly have walked home, but I didn’t know where I was and at night it would have been dangerous. Hours later, I reached home after begging a lift with an intoxicated couple. I thought my mum would be waiting up, anxiously wondering what had happened to me.
Where would I get such an idea?
There were a few other distractions.
I used to lie in a sweaty heap on my bed at night, listening to gunfire up in the distant hills and I would wonder what I should do if the fighting ever got close.
Strangely, the house had a bath instead of a shower which was hardly convenient, but I thought at least if people started shooting at us we could lie flat in the tub. The problem with it was that the bathroom always attracted very large spiders and they give me the absolute creeps.
One night, though, I thought I was going to have to take my chances. The next door neighbor was a colonel in the Lao army. This particular night I heard gunfire nearby, and suddenly there was a lot of coming and going of jeeps next door as the place became floodlit.
Our house would have needed to be on fire before I could call out to my parents, and I thought they must be awake, what with all the racket, so I just lay there waiting to see what would occur. Eventually I must have dozed off.
Next morning at breakfast, I asked my parents what they made of all the commotion but they had not heard it, and when I explained, maybe they thought I was exaggerating or telling tales. My mum sort of said “well never mind, we’re going to the market”.
We went out to the road to hail a samlor, and climbed aboard, indicating where we wished to go. After a few hundred yards, however, the driver shot off his seat, turned the samlor around in great haste and jumped back on, pedaling for all he was worth, back the way we had come. He barely stopped to let us off at the gate before rushing on.
My father was still in the garden. “Well that was fast!” he exclaimed, puffing nonchalantly on his cigar. Meanwhile Lach had arrived and tried to explain in broken English what had happened. With no telephones, there was no way to get it clarified, so we waited for the evening radio broadcast. The BBC news from London, 7,000 miles away, had to tell us what had happened at the end of the road.
It was just another coup d’etat, and next day everything was as usual. The colonel still seemed to have a job.
Foreigners usually were not involved in these things but there was a sad case that involved a Philippino driver that was employed by the US military. He stopped one night at a road block and was shot dead without a word spoken. In the dark he had been taken for a Pathet Lao. At least that was the excuse.
It wasn’t just the military that shot at one another, though.
In Vientiane there wasn’t much choice when it came to housing, and in consequence my parents lived in the red light district, which looked, in any case, like everywhere else.
Across the road there was a “night club” called the “El Morocco”, whose owner employed the most unimaginative band in Asia. The used to play “Roll Out the Barrell” and tunes of that vintage, over and over. It drove my dad demented.
We were sitting cozily one night playing cards when there was a loud bang across the street and my father retorted “someone finally shot the bastard!”
I can’t say whether or not he was a bastard, but someone definitely did shoot him. Dead.
As far as I recall, the band played on. Perhaps not that night.
My parents were not heavy drinkers but they certainly enjoyed an evening tipple. I can’t remember when I was first allowed to partake, but I was certainly very young. Maybe I had related the story of the “titled gentleman” getting me blitzed in Phnom Penh and maybe they thought that was amusing. I only know that one night, my dad opened up a bottle of Chianti at dinner time. Neither he nor my mum really liked red wine so I was encouraged to help them drink it. In fact, I don’t like it much myself, but that night as my glass filled up, I drank it down.
No-one said “stop”, so I just carried on through dinner and until the bottle was empty. Whereupon, I remember lying on the floor under the dining room table and laughing a lot. My mother sat looking a little bemused but my father seemed to find it quite droll that his 16-year old daughter was drunk on the floor.
Whether it was that night, or whether I got a bit tipsy on another occasion, I don’t recall, but for some reason I dressed up in my mother’s long skirt and danced around the living room, making a spectacle of myself.
So maybe what happened was my fault. Should I have known better than disport myself in front of a man? But he was my father.
We retired to bed one night, and suddenly Dad came to sit on my bed. I can still see the look on his face. He wanted to take photographs of my breasts and reached out to them. He said I would be grateful one day, to have images of my youthful body. He sat there gazing at me with that look.
My mother was in the next room, silent.
After a while Dad got up and went to his own bed. My parents always slept naked. As determined as I may have been, not to allow this experience to affect me, I can only say that for the rest of my life, I have never been able to see a man sexually excited without the image of my father coming to mind. Which is a little inhibiting.
What could I say or do? My father was ill-tempered and I hated when he was angry, but I was sickened by what he seemed to think was permissible. I was sure my mother would be unhappy about it. Had she really not been aware? I couldn’t talk to her about it in case she wasn’t. But if she had heard my father’s words, did she think it was my fault? or that I was happy about it?!
Had I encouraged my father to approach me inappropriately? I certainly didn’t trust most men, but I didn’t think they had those sorts of feelings for their daughters. Maybe I was wrong. But there was no-one I could ask.
The remaining days of my visit are a blur. I remember my father becoming angry with me and telling me that I had “ruined the summer”, but in what way I did this, I really don’t know. I became myself bad-tempered, in my state of confusion and apprehension, and I suppose I was deemed un-cooperative?
I was certainly very happy when the time came for me to leave and to start my journey to a new life in America. It would be seven years before I saw my father again. He wrote letters to me, for a while, but for most of that time there was no communication between us. It was my mother who wrote to me weekly and there was never any discussion about my last summer in SE Asia.