It was the time in my life when the days passed as a continuous sequence of adventures, like pearls on a string. Glory days. Prime of life. But those pearls of adventures were not like the perfect and uniform spheres that so elegantly drape wealthy old necks; some were big, others small; some were precious, others discardable; some were beautiful and some ugly.
This particular day, a Sunday in mid-October 1973, had me sitting in an early afternoon bus returning tired to Bangkok from a weekend at Pataya Beach. The adventures of Friday and Saturday had been of the sex-on-the-moonlit-beach-with-a-beautiful-stranger and the "Quick, under the bed! My boyfriend's here! He's a policeman!" type. They were the kind of adventures that become nostalgia and make for good stories at the right times, that produce uncontrollable private chuckles when remembered at odd moments later in life but can't be explained easily to the person you're with who asks, "What's funny?" so you just say, "Oh, nothing, really."
The adventure for that Sunday, however, was to be shared with an entire city. An entire nation, actually. It was the "I was there." type that writes permanently to history as well as to the personal story that is your life.
As the bus meandered into the busy outskirts of Bangkok, I noticed a large column of dark smoke rising high into the clear tropical sky from the downtown area. "Must be one hell of a fire", I thought, but my mind drifted off. The heat and general ambiance in Thailand don't encourage deep thinking or worrying; it's much easier to fall into a laid-back, take-it-as-it-comes mode, focused on the senses and experiencing the moment. "Mai ben lai." is my favorite Thai expression. It means something like "It doesn't matter. Don't worry about it.", where "it" is just about anything that might be a bother. You hear it a lot. In the land of smiles, it's not easy to get someone genuinely pissed off at you (but if you do manage it, be ready to run fast or fight for your life).
When I got back to my one-room apartment, my American neighbor was leaning on the second-floor railing outside the room of the motel-like structure. We'd never talked much beyond a civil "Hi. How's it goin'? "and I never even knew his name. It probably wouldn't have been his real name anyway.
Americans in Thailand seem to go through phases in their attitudes toward others of their kind. The tourists are all "Oh, you're American too? I'm from blah, blah and endless blah." The liberal non-tourist newcomers, on the other hand, tend to be embarrassed by their countrymen and avoid even looking at you, let alone descending so far as actually talk to you. They fancy themselves a part of the local society, which they've idealized as perfect and to which they are uniquely hip and appreciative. The 'old hands' who have been around quite a while, on the other hand, are usually busy in their lives, and your being a fellow American is no particular reason in itself to initiate a conversation. Neighbor and I were in that group.
That day, however, he spoke to me as I reached the top of the stairs. "Have you heard what's going on downtown?" I shook my head no, but mentioned having seen the smoke. "What's up?" I asked. "Student riots." He said. "People in the streets everywhere. I've heard the army helicopter gunships have fired into the crowds with the 50 cal door guns. Better stay away from downtown." He reported that with a complete lack of excitement. He was a few years older than me and had the clear demeanor of someone who's been deep in the shit himself more than once.
I went to my room and showered, put on a clean tee-shirt and headed downtown to the Chulalongkorn University hospital to donate blood. Of course Chula was right in the thick of it, being where the students first poured out into the streets in protest against the authoritarian military regime of the time. I hadn't thought about it or made any explicit decision to do so; it was just a matter of course for me, like a pool ball getting struck by the cue. My life has largely been a journey of sudden changes in direction, driven by a kind of cosmic Brownian motion.
Things seemed entirely normal at my local bus stop. I stepped up into the crowded bus and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Things were much different at the stop where I had to change buses. The sidewalks were full of people, as usual, but they were mostly just milling around rather than walking purposefully in both directions. Many of the downtown-bound buses were already full when they arrived, and did not stop. I had to wait quite a while before I was able to grab a tenuous hand-hold and toe-hold on the outside of the open back door of a passing bus. There were three of us dangling insanely like that for the 15-minute ride. No fares were collected.
I got off at Chula, where the crowds were thick and swarming, overflowing into the streets. There were signs and banners and angry students giving impassioned, exhortative speeches. Swimming through the crowd, I finally reached the hospital. The parking lot area just outside one entrance had been made into an extension of the emergency room. The medical staff members in hospital whites were busy and serious-faced. Some were harried and unsure, clearly not experienced in triage and the kinds and numbers of wounds they had to deal with. There were many student volunteers helping out. I inquired about giving blood or serving as a volunteer, but was told they had plenty of both already by a doctor who had no time to be politely thankful.
I drifted back out into the streets near the main gate of the university and listened to the speakers. I understood very little of what they were saying, but sensing the passion was enough. Some were passionate about their message, which was essentially anti-militarist-authoritarianism and pro-democracy; others were passionate mostly about their own activism and just being in front of an attentive and approving crowd. You could also see listeners who were passionate in their beliefs and those that were merely passionate for violent action, and those that seemed somehow different and were busy dispassionately observing and taking notes.
The people in the crowd that even noticed me gave me expressions ranging from a smile and thumbs-up to wariness and even hostility, all depending on who they thought I might be. I could have been an in-the-trenches foreign supporter of their cause, a biased press news gatherer, or perhaps an undercover observer from some government's intelligence community. I was not ignorant of how easily some soap-box orator could suddenly point to me, the only light-haired farang in sight, accusing and assailing me as an enemy and focus for the crowd's ire and urge to beat on something.
As I discreetly backed away from finger-pointing distance from the tirading activists, I got caught in a rip tide of people moving to board student-commandeered city buses. Being the curious lemming that I was, I went with the flow and ended up standing in the aisle of a bus so packed with people that breathing was barely possible and you really wished your hands were in your pockets. People in the window seats were half out of the windows, shouting and waving. I tried asking in Thai where we were going, talking to the top and back of the head of the guy in front of me, but hoping someone would answer. Someone did, but all I could understand from the longish answer were the words "soldiers," "people", "government" and "very bad."
The mercifully short ride left me excitedly curious and in serious need of a shower. We poured out of the bus into a very broad but already crowded downtown boulevard. I gratefully breathed in the hot, humid air. Evaporating sweat cooled me, and that, for the moment, was what dominated my awareness. The crowd of which I had just become a part was a conglomerate of people from all walks of life, urban peasants, laborers, white collars, monks in saffron robes, students, the full social gamut.
Then I became aware of the military helicopters circling above the buildings and remembered the neighbor's report about shooting. The image of 50 cal. machine gun fire raining down quickly formed in my mind. I'd been in Hueys whose guns were pointed at others, but now I was among the others. Then I heard the movement of tanks in the wide boulevard, although I couldn't see them yet. I moved up to the edge of the crowd to see. There were tanks and APCs moving slowly towards us and armed soldiers were walking along with them. There was no other traffic and the crowds stayed well away from the war machinery. Tanks vs. crowd.
Many people at the edge of the crowd were shouting at the soldiers from both sides. Some of the troops, generally the officers, had hard expressions on their faces, while most of the rank and file were visibly nervous and uncomfortable. Occasionally, a soldier would desert the procession and join the crowd, to be welcomed and draped with leis of fragrant flowers.
Then I realized that we were in the middle of the street and not along the curb. We were blocking the oncoming clamorous war machines and looking into the barrels of guns of all sizes. Now this was the kind of realization where the body groks the situation well before the reasoning conscious mind does, and lets you know things are bad by visceral movements, goosebumps and a general "Oh, shit." kind of feeling. It takes a moment for the conscious mind to register the situation and feel yourself moving backwards from the quiet wisdom of the body.
What happened next is utterly bizarre. This young guy in a student uniform of white shirt and khaki pants walks boldly out from somewhere in the crowd and stops about 40 feet in front of us. He's got a wooden baseball bat in his right hand and he's waving it in threatening defiance at the creeping tanks. He's shouting things that even we can barely hear. He then assumes a batter's stance, looking at the oncoming armored column like he expects to swing away at any bullet or canon shell that comes in his direction.
Now my poor rational mind was at a complete loss to handle this surreal situation. My body, luckily, knew exactly what to do. It turned around and walked quickly away, with the mind detached and still trying to digest what was going on around me.
The short-term result of the student and popular actions and the military government's bloody reaction on that day was that His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej exiled Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn and his senior cohorts and restored civilian government in Thailand. The events of that time came to be called "Bloody October", a small bit of history you may never read about in the books. If you do, though, this is what it was like when I was there.
The protests that are in the news on this very day are happening on the anniversary of the 1973 protests. In 1973, the King and Queen of Thailand were deeply and universally loved. The sad difference is that the current monarch of Thailand has lost the respect and support of many people and is also a target of the protesting in addition to the current military government.