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Fear of flying

Sun, Jun 18th, 2000
Posted in

Monday, June 19, 2000

I met Don in the Philippines. He was an old Asia hand who had covered the Vietnam War for the San Francisco Chronicle and later edited a Sunday magazine in Hong Kong.

He had given up working what he considered a "real job", preferring the life of a youth counselor in a refugee camp. Located in Bataan Province on the island of Luzon, the camp of 18,000 people was a joint venture between the U.S. and Philippine governments. Indochinese refugees, primarily Vietnamese, came through the camp for orientation prior to being resettled in America. When I met Don, he specialized in helping Amerasian children whose fathers were U.S. servicemen. Many of the kids were alone by themselves in the camp.

Don didn't like higher-ups, bureaucrats, administrators and know-it-alls, sensing that they somehow interfered with the job of helping people. And he didn't mind telling anyone who would listen what was on his mind.

Brown haired and about five foot eight, Don looked a lot like Robert Mitchum, and like the actor was a chain smoking, hard drinking character. The first words he ever uttered to me, a new administrator, were: "And what is it, pray tell, that you do around here?" I laughed at him, which was not the normal reaction he usually received.

Don's gruff exterior masked a benevolent soul. This, coupled with his street Vietnamese made him an instant father figure with the unaccompanied kids. Although he was assigned as a counselor in the school, he did most of his work at night making the rounds of the "neighborhoods", the sections of the camp where the refugees lived. He was on a first name basis with just about everyone in this milieu, and there wasn't much he wasn't privy to.

It was there that he also met several Vietnamese war veterans, many of whom had spent considerable time in prison after the war ended in 1975. They would sit in a make-shift leaf hut restaurant, sipping cafe den, a thick, strong coffee, while taped Vietnamese music blared in the tropical night. And Don would listen as the men talked about their past lives, as well as their fears about their future in America. Many of them had endured tremendous hardship in "re-education" camps, while their families were subject to a life of ridicule under the new regime.

Don and I became great friends when we worked together on a study of these Vietnamese re-education prisoners. Many of them had been in positions of leadership in the military or government only to spend the last several years in Vietnam as official second class citizens. Several of them suffered from post-traumatic stress and had high expectations for when they arrived in the states.

During the Vietnam War, Don developed a fear of flying. Whether it was from being shot at while criss-crossing the country in helicopters, or from some other malady, he wasn't saying. He came to the Philippines by boat in the mid '80's, and, when it came time to leave in 1993, Don lingered on in Manila for six months before he could finally catch a berth on a ship heading for Hong Kong. That's where Don and I were re-united.

Don hung around Hong Kong for a few months. He took a boat trip to Shanghai and up the Yangtze. When he wasn't at sea, we would meet up for dinner at the Foreign Correspondents Club, a place he was familiar with from the war. It was there that he held court, reminiscing with old friends, enemies and colleagues. By then Don had stopped drinking, and was a mellower, gentler soul because of it.

There was never any question of Don's returning to the states. He had been in Asia over half his life and had no intention of going back now. He had spent a good part of his adult life in one foreign port or another and each time it was more and more difficult to make the effort to return home.

I once passed a message to Don from a mutual acquaintance, that turned out to be a message from his son. It was in this indirect kind of way that I first learned that Don had family, or even that there had once been a woman in his life at one time.

When I last saw him, he was off to Thailand by boat, only to settle in neighboring Laos, a country on the Mekong River that is sandwiched between China, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The last I heard he was the owner of a food stand in the capital, Vientiane.

Land-locked and slow paced in a saffron-colored Buddhist kind of way, the Elephant Kingdom seemed like the kind of place where a person like Don might stay put for awhile. The kind of place where time slows down and journeys end.

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