Peter Montalbano - Dec. 1984
          How do you speak of the “Kennedy Era” and not appear either corny or disillusioned?
          We should be proud to be Americans, said our man in ’61, in “an hour when America stands as the only sentry at the gate, when we can see the campfires of the enemy burning on distant hills . . . ” This a lot of us bought, and some still feel a nostalgic twinge at those words, even though we were to cringe, eons later, at Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric.
           More important to me than the truth or untruth in the brash chiaroscuro of JFK’s words to me is what it pushed me to do. Before Kennedy, there had been no Peace Corps.
           When the thing came along I jumped at it. How many places can you get paid to learn a language, travel to a wild place, and work peacefully for social change? Before I knew it I was flying halfway around the world to Thailand, then 500 miles by train to the banks of the Mekong River, and finally bumping 30 clicks along a red dirt road to a small riverside town where—I suddenly truly understood—NOBODY else spoke English. For nearly two years, then, I woke to patriotic music and Thai pop distorting through the rusty P.A. atop the town hall, to files of saffron-robed monks walking the streets at dawn begging food from waking humanity, to the bright smiles of classfuls of cheery kids and their unison “GOOSE MORNING, TEACHER!!” and having to smile myself, no matter how fuzzy my brain, rough my mood. After work, hangin’ with the gang, my Thai teacher buddies . . . weekends sneakin’ across the river in broad daylight to explore the dusky markets of Laos . . . gorging on flaming hot food at the continual and endless feasts thrown by my life-loving hosts, only to dash, predictably at 3 AM, from my bed in a converted classroom to the locked toilets 100 feet away.
           No matter what romantic notions or obscure purposes had brought me there, the experience did reach into my soul and seriously shake things around inside. This, even though when I came back to the S.F. Bay Area I put it out of mind for many years.
           Maybe on return here I got too caught up in the sex, drugs, & rock’n’roll of the time. Maybe finding my niche in the U.S. was too consuming a mission. For whatever reason, I started thinking too selfishly to remember and care about the folks back there who had cared for me. My life turned inward, and for what seemed a lifetime I never thought to leave these 50 states.
           Then, quite unexpectedly, fate had me traveling again. And when fate plunked me down in Venice with a nice chunk of cash and enough free time to lollygag anywhere in the world, there was suddenly nowhere in my mind but the quirky, steamy, timeless civilization of northeast Thailand.
           And what a glorious rush it was, that fall nearly twenty years later, looking down through the clouds on green rice fields cut by jigsaw ribbons of dark water, patches of jungle dotted with golden temple spires visible even from this high.
           When I finally got to Nongkhai, I wondered, would Suriyon be there? Toshiro Mifune-like Suriyon, who’d used to dare me to chug more Mekong Whisky, and joke about my long-nosed ancestors. My surrogate father over there, my mentor, whom I had acknowledged by not so much as a postcard these 17-plus years . . . was the guy even still ALIVE?
           Skip Bangkok, though it greeted me like an old friend, slow to recognize but full of warmth once the flame rekindled. Slide over the slow walks through Buddhist treasures, pilgrimages to old riverside haunts, the quick reawakening of the Thai language like a second soul within me. Desire for these things alone could have brought me back here. But more important were my friends, and that raucous Northeast culture.
           On the upcountry overnight train I relaxed with a Singha (pronounced “sing,” rising tone) beer and fried rice while relearning the “twenty questions” game any “farang” (Westerner) has to be willing to play, especially if he knows some Thai. The Thais, friendly and curious as new kittens, have an eminently predictable set of questions which anyone they’re meeting for the first time has to answer. “What’s your name? How old are you? Which is better, Thailand or America? Do you have a Thai girlfriend? What religion are you?” Memorize Thai responses to all twenty and they’ll call you a linguistic whiz. My new friends and I hung out chatting till late, and in the lulls I would look out across the darkening central plain with as much wonder as on that first night, long ago, on that same train, answering those same questions. Then I’d been scared of the new future, rushing at me so fast. Now I was filled with feeling for the past, while loving each minute and looking forward to the next.
           Slowing through the red-orange dawn we pulled into Nongkhai, end of the line. A lonely breakfast at a riverfront restaurant, wondering if anyone I knew was nearby, or, if they were, if they’d even care I was there.
           I gazed across the Mekong into the newly-forbidden land of Laos. I’d tried to get a visa into that cold-war country where I’d once enjoyed so much freedom, but had been shown the bureaucratic door. I was to hear from Thai friends that Laos was turning into a Vietnamese colony and was no fun anymore, at all. Back when, the Mekong had been more a highway than a barrier, bearing constant and wild assortments of skiffs and cargoes to the other side with barely the hint of a formal border-crossing. Now, watching for an hour, I saw only two small and nearly-empty passenger boats cross, each clearly marked with a national flag.
           After breakfast in the muggy morning heat, A patient search managed to turn up Amphon, the long-lost friend I’d had an idea was teaching at some school or other around town. We had a long, laughing reunion, and then the inevitable:
           “Teacher Peter eat rice yet?”
           “Eat already.”
           “All right, go eat snacks together.” And, willy-nilly, it was on to the restaurant.
           “Mekong Whisky, or beer?” There was no third choice.
           The heat had become something powerful. And the experience was getting intense in other ways, too. Somehow Amphon had let the word out, as friends, old and new, began dropping in. It seemed most all I did in the next days was eat spicy food, sweat, and drink beer. This, and scramble to keep up with the Lao/Thai dialect that buzzed incessantly. And through it all, I was made the center of attention: a homecoming of sorts for a local hero, however undeserving.
           Eventually, a question I had to ask: “What about ajaan (teacher) Suriyon?”
           “Oh, he’s dead already.” (rather off-handedly)
           “Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. He used to drink a lot,” I said. By now Suriyon would’ve been 68 or so, and with his lust for zest, or whatever, unless he’d reformed, well . . . .
           Before I’d known him, Suriyon had been headmaster at our school in the sleepy town of Tha Bor, which lay 20 miles upriver, until—I’d pieced this together from rumors—an illicit love affair had forced his demotion. However, in spite of any looseness in his lifestyle he’d had the love and respect of most everyone in town. He had helped me feel at home in this strange world, taking me to the long-boat races, to friends’ houses on Buddhist New Year, teaching me Lao phrases I could use as keys to a smile anywhere from Korat to Luang Prabang. At home I still had his picture on my wall.
           The table chatter continued. After a while Amphon said, casually, again, “We’re going to Tha Bor for the funeral tomorrow. You’ll see everyone there.”
           “What funeral?” I asked.
           “ajaan Suriyon’s.”
           “What?! When did he die, anyway?”
           “A few days ago.” This was a shock. If I’d cut short the Bangkok visit, I might have seen him alive. I drew back from the conversation as my mind did cartwheels.
           That night there was duck sautéed with chilis, hot green papaya salad, and sticky rice at the house of Amphon and Lamduan, his beautiful wife. His colleagues and his (and my!) former students sitting on mats, chewing the fat. Lizards and moths doing their dance around the fluorescent ceiling light. Feeling amazed at being here at all, as though transported conscious to the center of a dream. Drink, drink, jabber and babble, in that melodic Lao. Memories of the later part of the evening are dim, but somewhere in there I promised one Khun Pratjan to do some English teaching at his school in a couple of days. That felt right.
           I rode to Suriyon’s funeral shirtless, in the back of a pickup truck on a dusty riverside road, a new road showing no familiar landmarks but much feast for the eyes: houses on stilts before lush greenery, fields rich and full, huge white-and-gold Buddhas shining through the palms and banana trees. After an hour or so, my ears began to pick up the sound of monks chanting through the occasional feedback squeak of an overloaded P.A.: we were getting close.
           A familiar strangeness washed over me as we entered the temple compound: 19 years before, it had been a fixture of my daily landscape.
           This was a small town, but here were more people than at the biggest funeral I’d ever attended, at Grace Cathedral for Earl “Fatha” Hines.
           Shirt back on and sleeves rolled down and buttoned, I sat quietly with the others under a huge awning and sipped soft drinks offered by uniformed schoolgirls looking just like those who had brought me their homework way back then. and then came the truly familiar faces: Phong-in—I’d been part of his wedding! Pitakpong, Playboy of the Eastern World, having just taken, they said, a seventeen-year-old bride. There was “Thin tiger,” and Somkhuan, and now-white-haired Ong-ad, the uptight headmaster who had deposed Suriyon. Then there was the contingent from the other side of the tracks: Somphaat, looking syphilitic and phaatbellied as ever, leering and waving my way.
           Speakers came to the mike to praise Suriyon. Someone hurredly added my name to a roster, and I was called up to present a robe to the temple monks. Within a few minutes it felt as though I’d never left.
           “Your letter came on the 9th,” Pitakpong told me, after the funeral. “Ajaan Suriyon died on the 9th.”
           Coincidence? Conscious in a dream, again.
           No farewell from Suriyon could have been more poignant than his death on the day my letter got there and the situation of his funeral smack in the middle of my visit. I felt he was lecturing me, more sternly than he’d ever spoken: “Don’t neglect your friends. Life is fragile: respect it. Keep in touch with your past.” Under the picture now still hanging in my room I can barely read the Thai script which translates as “I hope you don’t ever forget Tha Bor School.” No experience I could imagine could have been a stronger reinforcement of that hope.
           That evening a bunch of my—and Suriyon’s, and Amphon’s—former students came over, and we had—what else?—another party! Like New Orleans: after a death, celebrate life, turn to the future. As the last ones left there was a big thunderstorm, the kind common in Southeast Asia, where clouds like vast upended buckets dumped, amid the sonorous cracking of the heavy night, a good half-hour of warm, pure drenching. Amphon turned out the lights and closed all shutters before going upstairs to bed. when he was gone I opened them again, sucked in the damp air, and watched the end of the storm.
           The morning was brilliantly hot and clear when Khun Pratjan came to pick me up on his Honda 90 and we rode off to my first day to enter a Thai classroom in eighteen years. There it was, too, just the same: all together, class, “GOOSE MORNING, TEACHER!!” What better way to start a working day? The hours slid by quickly, with the kid version of the “twenty questions” game, same twenty from each class. “How old are you? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What sports do you like? Can you eat Thai food? Do you know a Thai song? Sing it. Do you know an American song? Sing that!” Expecting to be exhausted at the end, I felt, oddly, refreshed.
           I spent another weekend in Thailand. The beaches of the South are something to experience, the underwater sights of the Andaman Sea teeming with brilliant and unusual coral, rock lobster, sea-turtles, feather-frilled turkeyfish; but these moments of pleasure were overshadowed, yet in some ways deepened, by the experiences of Nongkhai/Tha Bor.
           I think now of Amphon and Lamduan seeing me off at the train, tears in our eyes . . . my prize student Narin waiting at the station in Udorn with a farewell gift . . . did I deserve so much kindness?
           Whatever the answer to that question, I had seen the staying power of the Peace Corps experience, its ability to reach out with strength over the years. Wasn’t that, after all, the hope of the “New Frontier” dreamers when they dreamed up the thing? Is it corny to say that? It isn’t disillusioned, anyhow. Forget about politics, the ‘60’s criticisms of the Peace Corps as just a “tool of imperialism” on the one hand or the “Kiddie Corps” on the other. What’s important is that there’s this story to tell, and that I’ve grown from it. Is there a message in there for the world? I think so.

Dinner on the first night at Amphon's house. Now that's livin'!