Like It Is
In 2019 I returned to Yangon and found the city in on the ASEAN hustle. China is coming and planned projects to expand Yangon are massive. But will they get made? After decades of abuse, corruption, and neglect, the wheels of change do turn but it may be a while before Yangon resembles Phnom Penh, China’s newest gemstone and much longer to mirror Bangkok. Until corruption recedes Myanmar will stall under the pressure of military dominated monopoly. Civil wars around the regions far from Yangon guarantee it. For example, the current unpublicized slaughter and displacement of Arakan Buddhists in Rakhine State is every bit a miserable affair as the displacement of Arakan Muslims in 2017. Take a drive to Bogale at night and witness the roving nighttime gangs of police terrorizing civilians in the Ayerwaddy Delta where the lawless grip of totalitarianism is still glued to the throats of ordinary people. All over Myanmar, stolen farmland and natural resources, methamphetamine production, child labor, human trafficking, all terrible issues, continue unabated while every aspect of life in Myanmar is wrapped and bow tied with corruption. Even the World Food Program in Kachin State is so corrupt that more food goes to payoff local strongmen than reaches the IDP camps. Yangon still remains famously corrupted all the way down to very basic civil services. The top Generals and cronies keep monopoly over everything except doing good for fifty-million plus of its citizens. Today, Yangon’s people aren’t starving as much as dying in their homes under extreme heat while lengthy power outages rival the ones during the “pre-reform” days. The power gets cut three times a day, for two hours, every six hours in some of Yangon’s townships.
The new Yangon draws thousands of people monthly from far off townships and villages. Evidence of this migration first rests with too many taxi drivers with no clue of the roads. They’ll ask me how much I’ll pay to reach my destination. Often they smile, wiggle a hand that means Ma Ho Boo (I don’t know) and drive off. Some try, I get in, they call for directions. Or, I assist them, teach them routes and how to use a map on the phone. I know the city well. My estimate is that I know my way around Yangon better than thirty-nine percent of the taxi drivers. For two years I had a car. I went everywhere with it. But the car gave me nightmares. I’d estimate sixty-one percent more than my usual nightmares caused by a lifetime of afflictions and flashbacks. Driving a car increased my stress by about eighty-four percent. Also, the car made me a target for scam drivers who pulled in front and braked hard or cut me off. I felt as if I was in Miami, Florida. I was also weary of hitting stuff like trishaw’s, pedestrians, beggars, sellers, pushcart sellers and assorted animals which, in much of Myanmar, all inhabit roads. I went back to taxis and walking. I’d estimate that my stress level reclaimed was only fifty-two percent.
I once walked all of pre-reform Rangoon for hours at a time, day and night. Late night was the best time to wander, it was quiet, seductive, subversive. The streets were alive, fruit sellers, homeless, trishaw drivers, druggies, streetwalkers, and the whole lot of the night time people living life hung out, about, or partied with a transistor radio or a guitar and bottles of beer while sitting atop plastic crates. What scarce cars there were on the streets were silent taxi’s. Car horns, once illegal in pre-reform Burma, used to be a polite tool to alert pedestrians or trishaw drivers to the approximate car. As for animals, particularly dogs, few taxi drivers I’ve hired ever swerved for a dog. I learned that dogs howl and yelp like they’re supposed to when hit. Nowadays, the vehicle horn is a wicked curse used by power mad drivers in two-thousand pound machines. Noisy, careless, and aggressive, Yangon’s drivers are abusive. With five years of practice they’ve managed to get worse, along with air and noise pollution. Pedestrians, like street dogs, have no value and are objects to honk at, swear at, or run over if they they fail to give way to the authority of machinery. Within two months I’ve seen three bodies fly after a collision. A horn blasts, a deep thud echoes, a body several feet off the ground falls, the thwap sound of human hitting pavement echoes. I also witnessed a deadly collision. A van broadsided a car in the center of a small intersection. There was no traffic light. And if there was there’s no guarantee it worked during a power outage. The passenger side door opened, a body leaned over, slumped out only to stop halfway, hung by the seat belt like a marionette on one string. Blood dripped from a young woman’s mouth, hair fell over towards the ground, arms hung down, motionless. Too much blood, no movement for a while. Dead. Fluids hissed and steam rose over the van and car. Glass, plastic, and car parts littered the road. The drivers behind the van in the collision hit their horns, swore out the window and aggressively drove around the scene from both sides. One after another, no one stopped. My taxi driver told me not to get out. It was my first instinct, to help.
In suburban townships like in San Chaung where roads were made for pedestrians and trishaws, it’s even more dangerous. Drivers impatiently speed, often side view mirrors bash arms of people walking. I’ve been hit this way at least six times during the past several years.
Pedestrians also get clogged up in people jams while cars block a street. Some insolent drivers blast a horn non-stop, stubborn drivers refuse to move. The narrow passages between the cars allow for a slim single file pathway – if one dares. People in sleep inducing heat stand still. Yelling ensues. The scene gets narrowed down finally to who will allow another to pass.
Gone now from downtown streets, and most of Yangon, are the idyllic roadside tea shops with pre-school sized plastic tables and chairs. They are memories that once stretched from curbside to the second traffic lane until dawn. Tea shops were a place to meet, talk, scheme, read, hook up if that’s what one wanted, snack, enjoy strong beer, or play a guitar with friends on sing-along. Political intrigue and social suppression added zest to the lifestyle. Eyes surveilled, ears recorded, pragmatic gestures and glances conversed. Sadly, in the new fast pace of Yangon, cars need space to roll and park. Downtown curbside tea shop culture, what’s left of it, is rare.
As welcomed social change enters Myanmar and evolves, options for activities evolve as well. One of them is to ingest the smartphone serenade of bullshit, texts, and selfies. Yangonite addiction to online games, streaming music, movies, and social media is as frenetic as the traffic. People rush around immersed in the digital zombie revolution – you know, the one in which they walk crooked lines, head down, staring at phones, mumbling, thumbs twitching and tapping. The brain dead carcasses bump into live humans, light poles, walls, trees, and traffic. How digital zombies survive a week in Yangon is a question greater than explaining a black hole, which became more interesting recently.
Close your eyes and listen and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in any modern city in Asia – but only for a moment. (I paraphrased that line from the opening of the movie The Quiet American. The movie was adapted from the first novel I completed, by Graham Greene. It’s still my favorite.) Yangon isn’t quite modern yet. Repair of infrastructure creeps aling, done mostly by semi-skilled labor with a shovel and basic hand tools.
Though in all fairness, there is progress and success. Central downtown Yangon is a splendid example of what the future Yangon might be. It’s the most personal and welcoming of all the mainland South East Asian major city centers I’ve seen. The large square between City Hall, Sule Pagoda and Monument Park, once the exact location where soldiers massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of student protesters with inherited British Colonial precision and affect was at past times ghostly. The soldiers began the butchery at midnight with rifles and machine guns. When they got bored with that, they drove trucks into and over humans caught mobbed on the streets. During a recent memorial for the massacred students I walked the square with one of the 1988 Generation leaders, Ko Jimmy. Jimmy’s eyes watered as he described minute-by-minute details of the event, where he was at midnight, how the crowd moved, and he revealed descriptions of the brutality. It was a bone-chilling conversation and yet, as horrible as they event was, Ko Jimmy and many who were there forgive all and they believe Myanmar will one day be a prosperous and Democratic nation. The square is now the scene of grand art shows, concerts, more protests, civic holiday celebrations, New Year celebrations, and rallies for many causes. Indications are strong Myanmar will remain a military led authoritarian state. I’m sure Aung San Suu Kyi is working to change that outcome.
Simply walking the roadside curb in much of Yangon is oddly safer than navigating crowded sidewalks where legs, knees, feet, and balance are imperiled by gaps where cement plates crumble into the sewer and potholes trip the unaware. Power outages, still, often occur away from the central downtown shopping malls. Stable electricity is rare during summer and dangerous during wet season. In fact, electricity is cut off daily for several hours. Elderly and the sick suffer, no doubt some die under the intense heat. (This sort of progress is typical of the way Myanmar often works, two steps forward, one step back and a half step to a side.) All over Yangon wires hang from lines and poles and some of them are hot. In wet season scores of people get electrocuted from walking into rain or puddled water made deadly by fallen wire. Transformers explode with regularity. Yet all around Yangon new or refurbished buildings add to the appearance of progress. Giant blocks of land are prepared for equally giant developments. I imagine as in Bangkok that Yangon will soon have more than enough shopping malls. Also with its tiny streets, there’s little imagination left for traffic plans. It’s just build and cash in and to hell with common sense or environmentally friendly options.
Like It Was
I loved more the old Rangoon. The old Rangoon was deliciously charming at night due to the electricity shut off to keep people oppressed. Imagine a chance to use electricity only between 2AM to 5AM. You had to awaken, flick on your water pump, cook, clean, wash, and account for any reason to take electricity. Children, students, anyone with need to read or write must have done so in daylight, under candlelight, or await early morning to use a light bulb. Most had no access to generators. City views at night were framed by scattered lights, blackness, and shadows. Lovers nestled beneath umbrellas or alongside the jungle of brush that reclaimed every open space, or they cuddled in any discreet dark place. There was often a calm and content feeling in the city center when the Buddhist monks or nuns chanted in prayer, a Mosque called their faithful to pray, Hindu temples rang out for their faithful to pray, and the various Christian bells rang. I think there is no where else on earth where faithful harmony exists as peacefully as it does in Yangon.
Pre-reform Burma was indeed harsh yet I enjoyed the period in spite of the trepidation that lurked beyond sight and sound. Burma was lawless and in many places social chaos loomed. I could not change the way things were so I lived in the moment with everyone else. Local people survived in spite of the brutal treatment donated by the Dictatorship and their army of abusive cronies. Burma’s less fortunate meanly persevered because that’s what people do under all circumstances. Knowing that, I have no shame admitting I loved the quiet Rangoon at night when blackout conditions gave the city a desperate and expectant edge, not confrontational, but inclusive of mystique and anticipation competing for mood. Something was going on, but who knew what? The shadows had speechless voices. And life in the blackness wasn’t all seedy or dangerous, though there was generous of that if you sought it out. Or, if it found you out. The dark was the attraction. It exhaled stoic urgency. Curiosity drew me in and pulled me down a different street, then another. It was magical, confused me, disappointed me, and often frustrated me for the long sweat soaked walks to find another dark street with yet another splinter of light that craved attention like a small raft at sea. Then, at times, the splinter revealed a treasure, an all night tea shop, a cafe, a bookseller, a hideaway bar or even a rare invitation to puff an opium pipe eight dark stories high in a dark space lined with labyrinthine pathways with curtains for walls. Away from downtown the suburbs, or townships as they are called here, were crude and rough places though the people were friendly. The roads there were thinly paved and generously potholed, and then there were checkpoints. Driving a dark quiet road, window down, the stars, cool night air, a checkpoint appeared, backs stiffened and then, stop the car, don’t hesitate, answer questions. On the occasion my taxi driver had beers I’d slip him some cash to spend for easy passage. Two thousand Kyats was the norm.
At the nighttime tea shops a conversation had more meaning, words got twisted with code, few people used real names, and muted words or silence meant undercover police hovered nearby. Waiting on someone for hours was usual since few people had mobile phones. There was no way to warn another of tardiness so time on the watch was quite flexible when the meeting was unique. Under the cover of dark all around there was always something to do. It was as if human life was encrypted, no one knew anything for sure unless they saw, or were told, what occurred.
In 2009 a local person who orientated me in preparation of a sponsored project said that, “You can do anything you want day or night in Rangoon, just don’t get involved in politics.” Being somewhat dyslexic, I heard the opposite message. Discretely, clandestinely, mindful of not putting myself in front of anything or anyone, I witnessed the undercurrent of a simmering democracy movement headed to full boil. Thankfully, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and full boil was averted. She further cooled the boil and insisted no uprising would occur. Suu Kyi said she believed the past uprisings no longer influenced the future of the movement.
I devoured time with ex-political prisoners, human rights workers, journalists, taught journalism, and met the famous and unknown provocateurs central to the 1988 Generation Revolution, the 1996 Uprising, and those too from the 2007 Saffron Uprising. I learned of their means of communication, their history and key events, what drove them to remain active in politics, and got to know many well. The final few years of pre-reform Burma was a galvanic period as we noticed the softened response to activities that usually instigated bold investigations, or resulted in one’s detainment. We held Poetry of Witness events, educational forums, and attracted large crowds for welcoming newly released political prisoners even though law prohibited more than five people from gathering for a political event – unlawful association is another gift from the British Colonials that is still used to crush dissent in Myanmar.
In Burma I was not invisible. People tested me, questioned me as if they were just curious students, teachers, or ordinary people. At the American Center there were student spies, Military Intelligence, and Special Branch Under-Covers (UC’s) who wished to be known and those who were anonymous. Unlike most Americans I knew I never lied about my self. The questioning wherever I went was annoying or inconvenient, but I required of myself to participate rather than raise suspicion. I assumed at times the inquisitor wanted only to speak English, I had no way of knowing. The UC’s were only doing their job. I thought it better to be, in essence, somewhat like Edgar Allen Poe’s The Purloined Letter and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Though less dramatic than good literature, I knew that when notes about me were compared the information they showed was consistent. I hid nothing and for that I was no threat to those responsible for my actions. After all, that is what mattered.
One time on a return trip from a no-go region of Mon State in early 2010 I was detained at a checkpoint. I had no official permission to be there and I left my passport in Yangon. I went unnoticed to Mon State with student activists. While they planned to stay several weeks I returned after a few days on a public bus with one friend. A double bad situation brewed. A higher level uniformed person appeared and I was carefully questioned for thirty minutes by him. An hour later I was sternly told to never again leave Yangon without my passport. No threats were made, no fine was levied and I offered no tea money. Since my background checked out well I was put on the bus to resume the trip. Several people walked over to my seat and rubbed my arm and shoulder, “For good luck” I was told. They didn’t expect to see me on the bus again. They at least expected I would have to pay a hefty sum at the checkpoint for the inconvenience of getting busted. It was clear to my investigator I was just a teacher, after-all, and in Burma/Myanmar a devoted teacher is a highly respected person. Even so, I expected to be deported at any time after that incident. From then on I kept with me cash, passport, and my Mac in a bag on my back.
As for my peers during the pre-reform years, many of them lied during their inquisitions. I’ve known several who were deported and blacklisted. Some, upon first meeting them, seemed level-headed and confident but then grew evasive or psychotic from being watched or followed. One, a USAID contractor in 2012 accused me of attracting UC’s to the American Center at the same time he was hiding in a blacked out room showing Burma VJ to teenage students. Burma VJ was sold on the street by then so there was no secret to keep. He tended to dramatically overplay his role at every opportunity. Then there was one expat who lost all of his marbles. I heard he tried to sell security products to the Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy. A decision was made to alert the local Special Branch Police that he was to be deported – by the Americans. Special Branch claimed he was unknown to them, then they began to follow him.
What was most strange during that period was that my chief antagonist was not a UC or even Burmese, it was a lazy, deceitful, duplicitous, lying, and under-qualified Director of Courses who learned management skills from watching reality shows like Survivor Island. She conspired with another to make my professional life at the American Center miserable. They sabotaged my work, my classes, blocked me from intranet, excluded me from event announcements, the email list, and much more. For a while I had no idea she was doing any of that. Later, I found she disparaged me to other’s in the expat community, and even went so far as to give me a poor reference to a top tier international school that recruited me. Incomprehensible, doing that to someone. One day following the third time she cancelled the student council elections in 2011 due to the evidence that the political activists were about to win out over the elitist students with no interest in politics, my journalism students conducted an opinion survey on the thrice cancelled elections. The Director accused me of stirring up the students. I spoke with her about her complaint and the Director told me, “I’m fucking with you because you’re too popular with the students.” Yeah, that really happened. Two years with her lurking in her windowless office, reflective of her mind, was like that – despicable she. It was all properly reported but the damage was done. And I didn’t even care since it was a unique time in my life. I knew the students I guarded were important to the future of Myanmar. I was doing my job. Just a Teacher.
Prior to my Burmese days, I was blind to creeping totalitarianism in America. But I’m no longer blind since learning about what Christopher Hedges referred to as, “inverted totalitarianism .” Inverted Totalitarianism makes more sense when I compare Burma with America. Before the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, most Americans, including me, had no idea they were not as free as they believed they were. Yes, totalitarianism in America is not the same as in Burma, but the effect on people is the same. As for millions of people once living under the harsh totalitarian conditions in Burma, expertly detailed in Christina Fink’s book, Living Silence, to which I can attest was word-for-word accurate for its time, and remains so in some ways thereafter, distrust of fellow citizens, informing on one another, cowering, anger, and revolution seethed beneath the hardships endured. Today people fifty years old or more who I’ve known since reforms now understand the great extent and damage to the decent lives they were deprived from living. Recently, in an Ayerwaddy Delta town a pissed off old man walked up to me as I passed his old clapboard home, with smartphone in hand, he complained to me about how he lost so many good years of his life due to the dictatorship. I supposed his evidence was online. He cursed the Generals again and again. Then he asked me to tell President Trump to fix Burma. In 2009 I often heard similar complaints. Totalitarianism in Burma was (and in ways remains) a decades old way of life – normalized. It seemed at times that any kind of order other than oppression caused confusion or fright in most people. Many self-censored or were pressured into public censorship. Even today British colonial laws are used to silence journalists, critics of politicians, public figures, and even government policies.
As reforms began and freedom seemed all but certain in mid 2012, somehow, my contact information made a list and I was asked to be a non-journalism fixer. I steered a human rights academic from Harvard University abutting a dead end, and I helped several educational organizations seeking to land projects with activists. I also fielded a revolting request by a documentarían who made a film about women who were raped during the long Guatemalan civil war. I once trekked for a month around the Yucatan to Mayan archeological sites, including a long trek inside Guatemala in and around Tikal. The word “Guatemala” in her introductory email got my attention. However, when she requested of me to provide her with, “Women who were political prisoners raped in prison” who would give interviews about being raped in prison, I declined her request. I know many women from Burma who were political prisoners and not one of them ever affirmed to me, or to others I know and trust, that such things happened to them. The practice of such a crime was absent in the daily life of Burma’s political prisoners. That doesn’t mean it never happened. It just didn’t happen on the scale as the story teller was hoping to find.
In fact, rape stories in Burma that immediately preceded, possibly lit the fire of the August 8, 1988 uprising, but by no means were the reason for the uprising as some in Western media claim, were fabricated but reported as fact by a young BBC reporter to the people of Burma. The police desperately appealed to Burmese people via radio broadcasts and vehicle mounted loudspeakers that the BBC reports of mass rapes of detainees was a hoax. They told the truth but their credibility was fog by that time. It’s also a well known fact that most police and Army troops supported Aung San Suu Kyi and the student protesters. The young women supposedly raped practiced their stories and reactions before the duped BBC journalist interviewed them. The rapes did not happen as claimed.
I wasn’t at all interested in assisting people with a dubious intent to invent issues. Anyone who knows a thing about Myanmar knows real Journalism is a risky business here. It’s not in anyone’s interest in Burma, now Myanmar, to fabricate news. Yet, it happens. In 2009, long before reforms were remotely probable, I took photos on the streets, and everywhere, I was never hindered from doing so. At the same time in 2009 a CNN journalist made a report about how the Myanmar people were frightened to death of the government. He reported from the back seat of a moving car, hunkered out of sight, and filmed between a crack in a cardboard box laid out over the rear window. I showed the report to students and they laughed hysterically at the irony. I understood his fear, sure. But his reason for the stunt was obvious and it could have landed his driver in prison. Yes, Myanmar people feared the undercover police, but only in terms of causing hardships to their friends or family. Otherwise, political activists made a decision to put themselves on the front line, especially those who spent time as prisoners of conscience. They were unafraid of re-arrest. If the CNN journalist had instead tried to report such bravery, instead of making himself the story, he might have not looked so ridiculous to my students.
Few of my journalism students feared arrest, especially those in 2010 who published fourteen monthly journal issues without submitting to the official censor. As far as I know it was the only widely distributed publication that was allowed to publish without a Censorship review. Without question, journalism in Burma, now Myanmar, was not, is not, a profession without danger. Journalists go to jail, get harassed, intimidated, or killed. I feared for my students often in 2010. Many told me, “We are not afraid so don’t be afraid for us.” One of Aung San Suu Kyi’s book title states, Freedom From Fear, and that was the attitude of her supporters, then, and now. By the way, I’ve met Aung San Suu Kyi enough to know that she had no halo. So, a note to all of those bandwagoneers and uninformed reactionaries who copied or plagiarized the original and very well done Su Kyi lost her halo story – she never lost one ‘cuz she never had one. Also, Suu Kyi is graceful. She hasn’t fallen from her grace, or lost it, whatever that means. She’s always had grace and she always will be one of the most graceful world leaders in human history. Instead, she is a politician and should be questioned and criticized when it’s done fairly, and with original thought. The Globalist’s campaign to discredit her is fatuity. They seek to harm progress in Myanmar but Myanmar is not going backward – ever. However Myanmar may remain backward compared to the developed world the proverbial cat is out of the bag (and in some cases into the curry). Aung San Suu Kyi’s goal was to put Myanmar on the road to modernization and Democratic governance. That’s all.
I began teaching Leadership Training at the American Center in 2010. By early 2011 Suu Kyi was working closely but privately with many of my students from the American Center. One day she remarked that she was surprised no one had invited her to an event at the American Center. Before she was swept up for worldwide recognition Suu Kyi was aware that at that time the American Center was ground zero for democracy activism, in great part due to my students from The Cultural Impact Studies Club. I proposed forums and other events for the purpose of inviting her but prior to Ambassador Mitchel’s arrival all of my requests were ignored. At cost to my career and professional opportunities following my posting at the American Center I managed, taught, and successfully defended the political students them from the Director and other detractors who hated the democracy activists.
Following the time freedom arrived, by 2013, the topic of Leadership was all the rage. Organizations of all kinds rushed into Myanmar with Leadership projects, forums, trainings, and courses. There were a limited numbers of authentic leaders available. Tight knit groups of activists that once secretly huddled in rooms burst out of their confines and splintered about in search of opportunities to make themselves leaders of their own organizations. The well known Democracy activists and leaders, overwhelmed by demands for their time began charging money as a repellent to requested interviews and their participation in time consuming meetings. They quickly learned many sought to use them to raise money or get attention while others sought to get inside with them to make demands and steer their mission. By then the movement changed as everyone was energized and free to pursue their own political ambitions. Many of my former students began their own organizations, schools, and won seats in Parliament. Political Myanmar shifted in monumental ways as it does so today.
Eulogy – Part I
For an extended time I was away from Myanmar, mainly at home in Worcester, Massachusetts, birthplace of one my childhood heroes, Abbie Hoffman aka Barry Freed. I was with my first hero, my Dad. For five months, every minute of every hour of every day, to the end of life during his battle with cancer at age eighty-three I stayed with him, took care of him. Dad wanted to die at home, in peace. My promise to him in the months following my Mom’s passing in 2009 was that I would make sure he went out on his terms – at home. The experience left me adrift for some time after he passed. I put my book on hold, put work on hold, I put almost everything on hold, I awoke each day to silence, the sky always seemed gray, and at times for a long while I felt turned inside out. Eventually, I accepted that my experience with Dad changed me in good and bad ways but not evenly so.
Equally life changing, or, more accurately, life diverting, were the actions of one of my siblings, her husband, and a niece. Dad got deathly sick two days after I returned home to be with him. He begged me not to tell my sister and her husband because he wanted nothing to do with them. The mere presence of them during Dad’s final weeks upset him to no end. Four days before he passed he stopped talking to them. During my time with Dad he explained why he upset with them. I promised Dad not to say anything to them while he was alive and we agreed that once he was gone, what difference would it make as we went our separate ways. I had no plans to say a thing, as promised. Even so, they wound up defendants in a criminal courtroom for acting thievish but more so for betraying the family. They did what many others survivors do when the last parent passes, they tried to get Dad’s social security checks, open credit card accounts in Dad’s name, and hacked his online bank account. They changed Dad’s address to their own to pursue those nefarious tricks – all as he passed. I never knew people did such things. Never-mind that in our family they appeared to need money the least. I was so naive. My parents wrote me in as Executor for their Will in 1987 and when Dad passed my dear sister made insane claims about me to friends and relatives. It was all a shock and too bizarre to my brothers and I, so, I took them to court. The judge saw evidence of their stupidity and quickly figured out what was up, said so, but ruled against proceeding further. I was satisfied. People in the courtroom, who no doubt awaited more serous matters before the judge, were not. They groaned in disapproval and some even booed the judgment.
For far too long afterward I spent time in the Hidden Hills of Western Mass, kept to myself. I took on a couple of short projects then retreated into hills again. The most recent winter arrived and a snowstorm hit, then another, and another, then one morning in less than three seconds my snow shovel broke, I slipped on ice, twisted an ankle and banged my face on my trusted old Saab as I fell. I checked the Saab for a dent then went inside and bought a ticket to Myanmar. I never bought a new snow shovel and I still own the Saab.
Meeting Anwar Sadat
When back in Yangon one day Khin took me for a walk, without my leash, and we wound up down Annuytha Street, near 38th Street, for a lunch of Dan Boht. Near 35th Street. Since we needed a second set of keys we stopped and met an old man named Anwar Sadat, “The same as President Sadat of Egypt.” He said it as if President Sadat was still in office. During the tooling I asked Anwar how long he’d been tooling keys. He said, proudly, “I have worked here seventy-two years.” He then looked at me for my reaction. I asked, “If you don’t mind answering, what is your age?” He said, “I am seventy-eight.” Anwar has spent his entire life, almost every day of his life, making his living as a key tooler. Then he added, with pride, “And I have done it all by using my own brain. No one told me what to do.” I was in awe of such stability.
Eulogy – Part II
The surprise and amazement Myanmar gives are endless. Anwar made me think about my father and his will to live, to fight to the very last moment. Dad grew up almost an orphan to an alcoholic mother and never knew his father. He fought with the 187th Airborne, an original Rakkassan, and made two combat jumps during his eighteen months in Korea, the last six months as a Forward Observer – a death sentence occupation. It was his punishment along with that of his childhood friend who together took an unapproved extended two-week leave on Okinawa. They borrowed a jeep and toured the Island. He told me that they assumed they would be killed during their final months of combat so they cared nothing at all about the jeep or extended leave. One day they drove up to some MP’s and surrendered as they were ready to return to combat. They went back to work. Dad’s friend survived too but he took a knife in his leg that almost killed him. My Mom turned him around after he spent a few years wilding when he got back from Korea. Love changed his life forever. He became a great Husband and a great Dad. He never complained about a thing. He kept his war experience to himself until towards the end of his life when he shared it with my brothers and I. We compared our relationships with him and discovered that he shared different aspects of his life with each of us. We decided he did so based on our different natures and our personal relationships with him.
Dad was generous to a fault. He helped anyone who needed assistance, great or small, any time, day or late at night. Dad was loyal to the American Legion, and he was a respected leader in the Teamster Union as well as a deputized Sheriff. I learned later in life that Dad was like a father to younger men, veterans from the Vietnam War, who had no father or lost their father early in life, or who were alone. I found that poetic, knowing what I know about him. He was a man as tough as nails but and kind as soft snow. I was the only one of his children that he whacked. He always felt bad about it but I wished he’d whacked me more to guide back into place. My brothers feel the same way. But Dad hadn’t the heart to inflict pain on anyone unless they threatened his family or his life. So be it. At the very end of his life, which he loved and fought for, he lifted his head, looked around the room, then saw me, stared into me, reached into me in a way I had never been reached, and I was with him as he lived his life to the very last moment, at home as he wanted it. He never quit on himself, never quit on his family, and he never quit on anyone else. Though Dad rarely worshiped in church, unlike my Mom who was always in church, I know he prayed. I once saw him pray when I was about ten or eleven years old. I watched in awe, silent as he bowed before God, then he stood in reflection. I backed away quietly and never told him. The memory is comfort, and a lesson I’ll never forget. If there was only one memory I could have of Dad it would be the strength of his humility during prayer. I am my father’s son in many ways. We have always said that. So, what more can I ask for out of life? I have precious love. I understand faith. I live wanting more of nothing and I have everything to give. Then, what will it matter when I’m gone?