The Memoirs of Sgt. Robert Wheatley, USAF Security Service
"Going Native" ~ Experiencing the real Thailand....
The tour I spent in Southeast Asia was the experience of a lifetime. There were some bad times, some tragic times, but the bad was largely offset by good experiences. The Thai people were genuinely happy to have us there, and I made many good friends among the locals. We were treated almost like gods by most of them. It was helpful that I spoke Chinese, since many of the people of northern Thailand were of Chinese ancestry. I was able to converse quite fluently with them in their native language. I had also picked up enough Thai to get along in most situations. Non-coms were allowed the privilege of living off-post, if so desired. For the last few months of my tour there, I took advantage of the privilege and rented a bungalow in Udorn. I commuted by taxi or the Air Force bus to Ramasun for work. Doing so gave me that much more of an opportunity to experience the real Thailand.
I had a Thai girlfriend, a "tee-lock", who shared the bungalow with me. It was one of those classic wartime stories where two people are thrown together in the middle of a war, share a short time together, then, just as suddenly are parted, never to meet again. Noi had quit her job in the bath-house to come and live with me. She had been married before, but after two short years, her husband was killed in an automobile accident. After that, she had to go to work to support herself. Her parents were poor, and they couldnít afford to take her back in. As was the Thai custom, her marriage had been arranged. And she said, though she cared for him, she never loved the man. On the other hand, she was absolutely devoted to me. She had fallen hopelessly in love the first time we met.
That night, after an evening of bar hopping, I had decided to go to the bath house for a bath and massage before retiring to my Udorn bungalow for the night. I saw she was a new face there, so I picked her from among all the other girls waiting for customers. I was in a pretty "relaxed" and cheerful mood from the alcohol Iíd consumed earlier in the evening, and I guess I was smiling and chewing pretty enthusiastically on a wad of gum at the time. I know this only because she mentioned it later. She had found it somehow charming. I lay down on the massage table and smiled at her, saying between chews, "Chan nit noi kee mao!", meaning, "Iím a little bit drunk!" She told me later, she had thought I was cute to begin with, but the way I was smiling and chewing that gum, and the way I said to her in Thai, "Iím a little bit drunk", just stole her heart.
I was attracted to her for her sweet innocent manner, for she was not like some of the more "hardened" ladies I was used to dealing with at the bars and bath houses. She confided in me, a friend had gotten her the job there when her parents had refused to take her back in after her husbandís death. With the American presence there in Thailand, work in a bath house could provide a relatively lucrative income for a young lady. It was something which required little training, and an attractive girl could make a good deal of money in a relatively short time. She wouldnít need an apartment, as the girls lived right there on the premises. Desperate, and with nowhere to go, she took the job, which was immediately available. She had been working there only a couple of weeks when I met her. On my second visit there, I asked her if she would be my "tee lock" and she accepted without hesitation. She quit her job at the bath house and moved into the bungalow with me the next day. That same day, she obtained several months worth of birth control pills and began taking them right away. Being young and ignorant of such things, neither she nor I realized the the pills would not become effective for a month or two.
As time went on, her love for me grew. I remember, the last thing she would do at night before sleep was kneel and pray to Buddha to bless me and watch over me and keep me safe. Then, still on her knees, sheíd turn to me with palms together in front of her face and reverently bow to me before getting into bed. She was forever singing me love songs in Thai. I still remember part of her most favorite one...
"Chan lock tuh
Nanon, my mee wanai
Lock tuh talot bai....."
"I love you
It's true, it will never change
I will love you forever...."
Often on those warm summer nights we would lie there in bed, just talking and watching the geckoes, "jing-jee-oak", she called them, as they scurried across the ceiling overhead, snapping up the unwary mosquitoes that lit there. She explained they were the re-incarnation of their ancestors, and they were thought to bring good luck to the residents of the household. I remember she had been quite alarmed when I first found their droppings in the kitchen, assumed they were from mice, and suggested I would get some poison to get rid of them. After she explained they were not from mice, but from the jing-jee-oak, I was willing enough to put up with the droppings, if for no other reason than I knew they ate their weight in mosquitoes every day! Then too, poisoning one's ancestors would, after all, be quite unforgivable!
Sometimes in the evenings after supper, we'd take a stroll down the streets of Udorn, stopping to get ice cream or some other treat. Other times, we might take in a movie, or we might just drop in on our neighbors to share a glass of iced tea and to spend an evening talking about the war and other things long since forgotten. She was my lover and my companion. We shared many good times, and I did care for her a great deal. But I honestly didnít love her, at least not in a marrying way. Iíd made it clear to her from the beginning that when my time to return Stateside came, I would be returning by myself. I mistakenly thought that being honest and "up-front" about it from the beginning would allow me to leave with a clear conscience when the time came. I never was so wrong about anything in my life. She believed what I told her and accepted it. She said all she wanted was to have me for the time that I was there. Even so, it was heart breaking for her when the time came for me to leave, and I felt like the lowest form of life on earth in leaving her there. It was one of the hardest things Iíve ever done. And it taught me a lesson I would not forget for the rest of my life.
The last hours we spent together were an emotional train wreck. I must have turned her life inside out. With two months left in my tour, she had gone to Bangkok to visit her parents and tell them about me. I'm not sure why she chose to tell them. Perhaps she harbored a glimmer of hope that I would take her with me when I left. It did not go well for her. In Thailand, as much as they might have liked Americans, "good" girls just did not take up with farangs (foreigners). Her parents reacted badly and disowned her when she told them she was living with an American GI. She had brought dishonor on her family. Any children that she might have brought into the world as a result of her love of a farang would be half breeds - the lowest of the low in Thai society. Meanwhile, I had received the orders that would curtail my tour of duty by a full six weeks. I had only a few days to prepare to leave, and I had no way of contacting her. The day before I was to depart, I had packed everything up and was preparing to leave the bungalow for Ramasun. I had left a message for her with the land lord, explaining what had happened. I was just ready to go out the door when her taxi pulled up in front. What was to follow was painful for both of us, but looking back on it now, I'm glad I at least had the chance to say good-bye and explain it to her in person.
I stood on the front porch, looking down on her as she waited for change from her taxi. She was obviously already upset by her visit to Bangkok, but when she looked up and saw me, her eyes lit up with the joy of being reunited. I waved and attempted a smile. I saw she had stopped at the marketplace on the way back and had bought coconuts and other things for a special dinner that night. Her joy in seeing me was short lived, for as she came up the steps to the porch, my facial expression quickly gave away the fact that something was wrong. When she saw I was leaving, she must have felt like her whole world was crashing down around her. I tried to explain to her what the orders meant and how they had come suddenly and unexpectedly. Still, I felt like a thief in the night, caught fleeing the scene of the crime. I stayed with her and spent that night there, but next morning, I had no choice but to go. Orders were orders. My feelings were the ultimate in ambivalence. On the one hand, with active duty military obligations fulfilled after those four long years, I was elated to be returning home to the States for good. At the same time, I felt guilt that I should be so happy, while she was so devastated. And I was the one most responsible for her devastation. There's no other way to describe it - I deserted her. And my desertion of her was symbolic of the way America would later desert all of the people of Southeast Asia. I think for that reason, I would later subconsciously take all of America's guilt upon myself. It was a heavy burden to bear.
Iíll always remember my last sight of her that morning, as I waved good-bye from my taxi. Having cried through much of the night, she stood there in the doorway, finally resigned to what was to be, wearing a bleak, empty expression on her face. Here was a young woman once again all alone in the middle of a war, with no job, and this time, with all her family ties severed. Iíll carry that guilt with me the rest of my life for what I did to her. You just don't play games with someone's heart! Knowing how she felt about me, I should never have allowed it to develop into a live-in relationship. Instead, I took advantage of the situation. I had used her for companionship, and yes, for sex. I had made her dependent upon me, both financially and emotionally. Then, in effect, I tossed her aside when I was done with her. I had looked upon our relationship as a mutual agreement, benefiting both in certain ways, yet conveniently temporary. But it was much more than that to her, and deep down I knew that all along. Yes, I had warned her of what was to come, but that didn't keep her heart from breaking in the end.
In hindsight, I suppose I could have asked the chaplain to marry us at the last minute and arrange to take her out with me, though that sort of thing was officially strongly discouraged. I know she would have said "Yes!" in a heartbeat. But it would ultimately have been wrong for both of us. And another wrong would not make the first one right. In a practical sense, the best I could do for her at that moment in time was to leave her some cash to tide her over. I left her with $100 U.S., a lot of money in Thailand at the time. It would give her means to live until she got back on her feet. But the money did absolutely nothing to assuage the guilt I felt for having wrecked her life. I can only hope she eventually found someone who loved her and gave her a good life. And I hope she found it in her heart to forgive me for what I did.
We wrote one another a couple of times after I returned home, but we lost contact after that. She never answered my second letter, and I never attempted to write to her again. Our lives, after all, were on widely divergent paths. Iím sure she realized that as well as I did. Iíll never know what became of her, nor she of me. And I'll never know what became of the child that she told me she was carrying on our last night together. I sent her $150 from the States, so she could get a proper, safe hospital abortion, if she so chose. It was her decision of course, but I wanted her to have the option. Still, I donít know whether she exercised that option. I still think of her from time to time and wonder what she's doing and if she ever thinks of me. And I wonder now if I have a son or a daughter, perhaps even grandchildren over there whom I will never know.
Nearly a year before that poignant farewell, when I had first entered the air space over South Vietnam, I had been wishing it was all over with - that I was on my way back home. When the time came to leave, I found myself torn. In the ten months I spent there, I had developed a genuine closeness with the Thai people. I came to love them and their country. Just as many "in-country" vets had been unable to avoid falling in love with Vietnam, so had I fallen in love with Thailand. I surely didn't anticipate such a thing - it just happened. Had I taken the offer to extend my enlistment another four years, I would have requested and surely been granted another tour there. If I had, the story of my life would undoubtedly be very different. But I didnít want to make a career of the military, nor did I want to press my luck.
On October 15, 1968, I was honorably discharged from active duty at Travis Air Base, at "convenience of the government", after 3 years, 10 months and 16 days of service. I'd made the conscious decision, that chapter in my life would now be closed, and it was time to move on. Returning home a civilian, no longer a player in the war, and no longer privy to "inside" information, I would thereafter be forced, like everyone else, to rely upon newspapers and TV for reports of the war. And I would follow its progress closely as the months and the long years of the war stretched into the future, the future became the past, and still the war dragged on.