COMRADES OF NIGHT: River Kwai

Travel Notes, Feb. 4, 2000, Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand: Morning mist unfurls at Wat Phu Takiang while walking slowly, very slowly, down pathway, holding Father by an arm as he keeps pointing to long low hump that veers west through jungle thicket. Old rail bed, he says. Takiang. Does he remember? Yes. Is he sure? Nods, and continues down path shaded by flat-fingered fronds, matted ferns underfoot and splintered bamboo, insects cricketing with muted, hollow sound. A series of depressions appear parallel, evenly spaced, where wooden sleepers once lay but rotted and decomposed decades ago, leaving behind faintest impressions, only visible at certain times of day, in certain angles of light–early morning is best–and it’s first moment of journey that feels real, to see something that hasn’t been trussed up for tourists. So far, it’s been part pilgrimage, part joy ride with at least one minor detour into Heart of Darkness. Morning elephant ride down track into muddy waters of Kwai was ridiculous–are you kidding?–clinging to black hairs on enormous head, almost slipping into river while someone on movie crew–Matthew?–shoots video as if we’re characters in TV reality show. Father sits in plastic chair on far bank, watching, waving.

There were more than forty camps between here and Thanbyuzayat. Now there’s almost nothing except the ghost tracks swerving away from river, cutting through chalky hills, back to the river again before vanishing among weeds. This is what remains of 150,000 dead and their dubious achievement: 415 kilometers of track through impossible terrain.

Driver takes us further north, up Rt. 323, to outskirts of village that used to be Rintin, near 200-km marker, south of Khao Laem Resevoir. Father totters down path descending through high-feathered Lalang, only inches at a time, me clutching his hand, looking for more artifacts through dusty light, curious about wild orchids. Poor Dutch buggers, Spring 1943–or earlier?–on our way back from Burma, he says, but all seems peaceful now as if nothing ever happened, just lianas dangling and strangler figs, pitcher plants, blooming Raffelesia, and my Father’s shirt soaked with sweat. Cholera, he says and gulps more water which only makes him have to pee again. Japanese built a small, makeshift hospital nearby but they closed it down, burned the bodies, abandoned the camp and threw everything into the river. No birds to be heard, no cicadas in underbrush. 
 Rintin turns out to be the place of eerie stillness, the quiet, haunted place.

Stumble across diary entry of Scottish M.O. named Hardie, written at Takanun, not far from here, mentions Father by name: September 13, 1943: The rail-laying party reached this camp six days ago and has passed on upwards. The track is now being strengthened and titivated. Captain Gordon of the Argylls, who walked down here the other day from a camp 10-12 kilometers higher, passed three skeletons and two decaying Tamil corpses on the way. Scan through rest of diary but can’t find another mention of Captain Gordon, just the single, fleeting glimpse, stunned by such an appearance and wondering why Father was walking down the line like that, a character in someone else’s narrative. Who were the decaying corpses? Who were the skeletons? (Learn later that Hardie was gathering facts about atrocities, keeping secret count for International Red Cross and eventual War Crimes Tribunal.) Had to look up “titivate” which means to make neat, smart, or trim, and afterwards dream of Father walking through Valley of Death, limp bodies draped in aztec mounds, and all I want to do is get the fuck out, wake up in strange room, 4:30 AM, perforated blocks, green paint. Where am I? Sit up in bed, switch on light and read from little book of proverbs provided by Buddhism Promotion Centre of Thailand. Pull yourself up from the slough (of passions) as an elephant pulls itself up from the bog, uncanny and apt considering I’d been riding elephant same day, mired in slough of my own making. Next morning, at breakfast on terrace, I write note to self: Resist Nothing.

We’d arrived a few days earlier at Bangkok International teeming with pungent humanity, no air conditioning, flight from Tokyo four hours delayed, endless lines at immigration but kindly Thai official greeted us and pushed Father’s wheelchair through labyrinth of back rooms, all the way to minivan waiting at curb. Shroud of smog hovered over city, jammed with rush-hour traffic on 50th anniversary of King Adulyadej’s reign, main avenues blocked for procession with elaborate krathongs and Bai-sri flower arrangements hanging from trees and street lamps. Billboard on one corner had giant likeness of King’s face, geeky, pouting, wire-rimmed specs, crawled down Watthama Road to elevated expressway, between unfinished high-rises hanging precariously over edge. Father nods asleep as we pass Buddhist temple with fluorescent lights hanging at crazy angles and dragon with scales the size of flip-flops. English-language radio station (Wave FM 88) blares report of rebel insurgents crossing border from Myanmar, taking hostages in Ratchaburi, not that far away, driver shrugs and says situation under control, not to worry. Stopped at checkpoint by Army officer with ugly, pockmarked face, sack of green onions dumped onto pavement, brand-new stereo pulled from box with Styrofoam puffballs. Surge of paranoia but we’re soon waved north, past rice paddies and canals, traffic signs no longer bilingual, families standing along edge of highway, hand-made shacks, pretty young women straddling motorbikes clutching plastic bags stuffed with vegetables. Pull into bright, modern gas station near Pak Raet, help Father into men’s room, buy bottled water and chocolate, stroll through picnic area with children playing on edge of klong, miniature roadside temple, pink and ornate, with travel deities (I assume), plastic flowers, fruit, candles, pop bottles, burning incense. I say prayer for Father and safety of journey. Route 323 veers north at Boek Phrai with blinking lights and exclamation marks. Big POW transit camp was somewhere near here. Banpong? Fresh report on radio from Health Ministry announcing 800 civilians held hostage at Ratchaburi Hospital by so-called Army of God led by charismatic 12-year-old Htoo Twins with magic powers to change shape, dematerialize, make bullets pass through flesh without harm. First sight of Kwai on left, simmering with copper streaks and flecked patterns on surface, twisting and turning through low-lying farmland,  past Lat Bua Khao and Phong Tuk, following same route that Father took on 65-mile, barefoot trek in 1942. Sun slings low in sky as highway skirts edge of river near Tha Maka where I can see barges filled with teak pulling against current.

Feb. 5, Amphoe Muang: Dragons are energetic, short-tempered, stubborn but also brave, honest, sensitive, eccentric, and “soft-hearted” according to cheap little Chinese calendar I buy at souvenir stand near Bridge. I am Dragon, so is Father, and we are both compatible with Rats, Snakes, Monkeys, and Roosters. Mai khaen grows in clusters along slippery embankment at Wampo. Ironwood? This is where Father lay for several weeks, he’s sure of it, near edge of river, sandy embankment, sick and gazing in delirium at distant hills, volcanic shapes like Ming Dynasty landscape etched into subconscious released again, somehow, sixty years after fact. I approximate place where he lay on crude map–something that a child might have drawn for a treasure hunt–that shows rail line branching off to encampment with sleeping huts, cookhouse, medical hut. (POW’s were allowed to swim in river here until cholera outbreak.)

Rebuilt section of line operates for tourists now and we cross a viaduct made from rough-hewn logs, semi-vertical baulks lifted into place by the scarecrow men. Father looks pale and wobbly himself so I ask him to sit on bench in shade of cave in side of hill. Buddhist shrine in back, strewn with flowers and incense–another world altogether–and from there, overlooking river, he makes a sudden and unwanted connection to past: Five fellow officers were executed on the spot, near cave, and he was forced to watch, thinking how it might have been him if he hadn’t been weak from fever and unable to join escape party. God, how benumbed and broken I feel in shadow of his War, like the child to his looming presence and survival stories at dinner, in Princeton, around big mahogany table with silver bowls, nauseated by so many scenes of torture and hanging, burning bodies, can you pass cranberry sauce? Old friend of mine says all periods of history press down on us at same time, including present and future–How strange it is, to be standing leaning against the current of time (W.G. Sebald)–and I can see how time is pressing against Father’s chest and shoulders, almost crushing him into the floor of the cave, forcing him to relive that day in 1943.

Movie crew’s still setting up afternoon shot so I stroll down Saeng Chuto Road, happy to be on my own again, wander among little shops and food stands of Amphoe Muang, devouring big bowl of tom yum goong with prawns and wild mushrooms, boy selling strips of spicy chicken on stick, down Pak Praek, past Talat Sot and modern highway bridge, long-tail boats, ruea hang yao, painted with dragon eyes, nestled onto mud banks.  I turn down Songkwae Road skirting river to point where all three branches converge: Meklong, Kwae Noi and Kwae Yai. Run into mob of workers from some suicide factory in Southern Fujian who’ve been bussed in for cheap holiday but don’t understand what to do with off-time except mill back and forth across Bridge in packs, barking in Hokkien dialect, pushing everyone out of the way, eager to enhance their single day of leisure. Woman carrying newborn baby and birdcage has no problem negotiating precarious passage, tiptoeing over open  ties while still taking photos, spitting, bouncing baby, and never being crushed by train that crosses every five minutes. Has she even seen David Lean’s movie or read Father’s book? (Doubtful.) I attempt to walk in opposite direction, against primary flow–from Kanchanaburi to Tamarkan, instead of other way around–but get stampeded, almost shoved into river, before turning back. Entry scrawled in notebook that afternoon: Never, ever, try to cross Bridge on River Kwai, Chinese New Year, Year of Dragon!  Allied flags hang limp over gateway to JEATH War Museum next to Wat Chaichumphon, like miniature version of Bridge, and while called “museum,” it seems more like freak show. (“JEATH” stands for Japan, England, America, Thailand, Holland with Japan getting first billing.) I walk past fake guard tower into long bamboo hut with attap roof and sleeping platforms, very hot inside, fan blowing against photographs stacked haphazardly along walls with scenes of pyres, starved men lifting logs, captions misspelled. Display cases hold war memorabilia, spent shells, rifles, bayonets and something called “True Map of Death Railway.” A blue-and-red steam engine in yard once pulled freight along same Death Railway and there’s also a boxcar with naked POW behind iron bars like monkey in zoo. (Revenge of formerly oppressed?) Another gallery has life-sized figures of POWS in plaster, crumbling and painted over with murky flesh tones. Group of tall Norwegian tourists file out of bus, look at torture scenes, shake heads, get back on bus and go to Sai Yok or some other package deal: river rafting, eco tour, elephant ride, waterfall. River Kwai is just another pop destination, cheaper than Phuket, and why not? Auschwitz has its own kind of atrocity tours. Once a year there’s Disney-style son et lumiére at Bridge with smoke and laser beams, strobe lights, pyrotechnic explosions and sound effects to recreate Allied bombing of 1945.

Father was never clear about where he’d come from, what made him who he was. He’d patched all of that together after the war with the help of my mother. The first chapter of his own book was called “Death House” and it referred to a bamboo hut at Chungkai where he was taken to die along with others who were beyond hope. The yellow glow of the makeshift lamp gave enough light for me to see my comrades of the night, he wrote. They were ten dead men dressed in their shrouds of straw rice sacks. It was hard to tell they were corpses. They might have been bags of old rags or old bones. He survived against odds with help of friends, faith and an amazingly stubborn will to live, but a part of him never left the place with the corpses and rice sacks. It took him several years to understand what his new life, his calling, was meant to be, but it began here, on the banks of the Kwai, at least that’s how he used to tell it, and sometimes I think of him suspended in this nether world, deep in the river valley, amidst vague outlines and purplish light, a ghost among other ghosts. Faces come forward and then recede. Tell them not to worry, he says. My end is not as bad as they fear.

Photo on left shows E.G., January 21, 1942, aged 26, three weeks after being shot by a 7.7mm Ariska machine gun in northern Malaya (then British Malaysia) and a month before capture by Japanese. Photo on right shows same man aged 84, Allied War Cemetery, Kanchanaburi, Thailand, February 5, 2000, two days before he collapsed from stroke. 

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This is the second in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.
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RECONSTRUCTING MY FATHER’S PLANE CRASH: 1936

                   FINAL APPROACH: “The beast flies up in them.”

I remember him saying in the most offhand way that he’d crashed an airplane into the House of Lords. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke, but it turned out to be true, almost true. His plane stalled and lost altitude over Parliament Bridge but swung away, just missing Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster on a foggy evening in November, 1936. He managed to follow the wavering line of the Thames towards an RAF base in Heston, but the engine sputtered and conked out completely as it glided over Borehamwood, quiet as a sparrow. An elderly resident of Broughinge Road contacted the police after she heard loud splintering followed by an earth-trembling thud behind her cottage in the wooded end of Meadow Park, seventeen miles north of London. She hurried outside but felt too frightened to look up. “Surely, no one will have survived,” she said to the constable who arrived ten minutes later. The fuselage was crumpled vertically among the saplings, sticking straight up, aileron and elevator sheared off, propeller and engine scrunched into the cockpit.

I missed the sign on A63 but took Welton Road and circled back past housing estates, a fish-and-chip shop called Medici, past Barclay’s and Morrison’s, to the intersection with Skillings Road and turned left across the railway tracks to the old RAF aerodrome. God knows, it’s not a place you’d ever think to go on your own, in rainy Yorkshire weather, driving a rented Vauxhall Astra up slippery M1 to M18, east on M62, through Goole towards Hull, but it’s a part of history, his story, a missing part that I wanted to see for myself.

The original 1930s Aero Club is still in tact with white stucco walls, recently restored as a commercial complex. The airfield’s a pleasant pasture with wild flowers growing in clumps here and there among red boundary markers. A paved runway looks much the same as my father’s day, lengthened considerably but still branching off the river at a 30-degree angle. The old clay pits have been turned into a bird sanctuary and a concrete pillbox stands guard at one end of the property, last vestige of war, painted in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern. A collie races up the footpath that separates the river from the airfield. “The drums of war were beating and someone had to respond. I did. Not with enthusiasm but with a grim sense of duty,” wrote my father fifty years after the fact. He’d seen a notice in the Student Union calling for young men to train as pilots in the Royal Air Force.  The Hawker Hurricane was just off the assembly line and the Spitfire made its maiden flight at Eastleigh. But while drums may have been beating, they were distant drums. Actual war was another three years off so it wasn’t so much a grim sense of duty that drove him to the recruitment office on Dumbarton Road that day, as a humiliating lack of funds to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow. His father didn’t have the 24 pound to pay the next semester’s tuition, thereby interrupting his plan to become a missionary doctor in China, as inspired by Eric (“the Flying Scot”) Lydell, the great track and rugby star who’d won Olympic Gold but renounced a life of athletic glory to work among the peasants of Tientsin, China. If my father couldn’t be a missionary doctor in China he’d be a dashing pilot in the RAF. He signed up in the Fall of 1936 and went for training in Hatfield, Hertfordshire at the De Haviland School of Flying. (The RAF was still farming out its training to private flying schools.) They felt his pulse, drew blood, peered down his throat, poked something up his ass, told him to blow into a rubber tube and  hold his breath for sixty seconds. They tested him for balance and color blindness. They tested his night vision by making him sit in a darkened booth with a restraining collar around his neck naming various shapes that popped up on a screen.  He’d expected a  regimented and Spartan routine but Hatfield was more country fair than air force base. It had a fancy restaurant, swimming pool, squash courts, putting greens and “en-tout-cas” tennis courts. (“Riding lessons and hacking can be arranged at the Aerodrome.“) In fact, it was operated as a country club and RAF trainees were given temporary membership, but a few weeks later my father was posted to No. 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School), in Brough, Yorkshire, not far from Hull and moved into   a damp Nissen hut near the gasworks and railway bridge. In the morning he did physical training and in the afternoon he attended lectures on navigation, aircraft recognition, Morse signaling and air gunnery. He flew his first solo in a Blackburn B-2 “Lizzie” with dented metal fuselage.  An afternoon haze hung over East Riding as he flew east above the Humber, singing to himself,  over a  bend where the river split around a knuckle-shaped spit, silver light  slanting off tidal markers, riffles, wind streaking the water a gray willow hue, reed warblers flitting over salt marsh and brackish lagoons.

The other trainees continued to Goole at the confluence of the Ouse and Trent Rivers and further out to the foothills of the Wolds, but my father turned and banked the B-2 over a line of shadowed mounds made by Roman ruins, suffering a headache after late night at Ferry Inn, same crowd–Ratcliff, Langford, Mackenzie–but an unpleasant buzzing “at the roots” of his eyes. (He’d had two strange falls the same week, scrapes on both elbows and a gash on his knee.)  Colored specks, miniscule angels, clustered in the retina, were occluding  his line of sight and he had the premonition of himself and his fellow pilots falling from the sky, their unholy lives on fast forward, as if flickering through the broken projector in the Officer’s Club, all racing to their graves. And they were. Four died before final training. Another eleven perished by the fall of 1940, which made fifteen out of the original twenty-four. (My father would have been number sixteen if he hadn’t been so lucky.)

He could see where the river narrowed and made a natural crossing–the Romans called it Petuaria–where fingerling sandbars stretched out from the banks as he continued his descent over tidal swales, drainage canals and dry sedge. The landing field came up abruptly at an angle after the heiroglyphic outlines of Welton Waters, an abandoned clay pit where fragmented pools of water glistened with oil and puffy, iridescent reflections.

Above the door of the so-called Pilot’s Hall hung a rather Masonic looking insignia hand-painted with wings and bull’s-eye above a billowing explosion (or was it a parachute opening?) with zigzagging bolts of lightning and a seven-pointed star gleaming from the top.  Inside, Dr. Ingle, M.O. from Hull, was having his tea wondering if he should have grounded A.C.2 Gordon, just as A.C.2 Gordon completed a near perfect three-point landing and taxied up to the corrugated hangar. He waved at Goudie, the welterweight engineer from Inverkip, and waited for some sign or compliment but got nothing. Goudie was distracted. Goudie was enraged. He threw his monkey wrench and kicked the landing gear of an old Shark Torpedo Bomber, screaming “Fucking Fucker’s Fucked!!” loud enough so that everyone in Brough, even dead Romans, could hear.

I couldn’t see my father in this place, no matter how many times I walked the perimeter of the field and tried to imagine him gliding over the mud flats on his final approach. He was clumsy with tools and all things mechanical. He had trouble putting up a Christmas tree or changing a lightbulb. He was surprisingly clumsy, beyond the normal big-man clumsiness, and whenever he fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase or cut his hand on the lid of a can, it was extreme, with curses, blood, stitches and bruises that often took weeks to heal.  I just couldn’t imagine him operating one of those machines.

In the late 1990s I stumbled upon a box in my parent’s attic that contained a manila envelope stuffed with RAF memorabilia: letters from the Air Ministry in London; a “Certificate of Competency” (No. 11002,) bound in blue leather with a silk tassel issued on November 14, 1936, stating that my father was certified to fly any type of land plane except for “public transport or aerial work flying machines.” There was also a ragged shoulder patch with silver wings and the RAF emblem as well as a photograph of twenty-two trainees posing in front of a De Haviland biplane. It must have been early in the program because they were still dressed in civilian clothes. My father stands taller than the rest, over on the left, wearing an old jacket that’s too tight over a turtleneck sweater. He seems a bit baggy and unkempt compared to some of the others who look like proper Oxbridge gents, entitled, dressed in tweed jackets, club ties, neatly folded pocket handkerchiefs, hair waxed and parted. My father was the son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper, not highborn, dropped out of university, played rugby, joined in the occasional pub brawl, and still spoke with a broad West Highland accent.

All the pilots had signed the back of the photograph, each in his own stylized script: D.G. Ractliff, A.B. Landgford, D. Mackenzie, T. Krikwood, and Freddy Langford who wrote his name with an almost Elizabethan flourish and wore his hair brushed back in a casual wave. A few of them were “spoiled sods,” according to my
father, especially Ratcliff and Harvie who acted like public school boys.  Henry Hind was not a snob and considered the most talented pilot in the squad. (His father was someone high up in the Air Ministry.) Harry McDonald was an odd-ball loner, tall and gaunt, who spoke  like an Englishman but came from a middle-class background in Glasgow.  In the photograph he stands stiffly next to my father with a pale face and eyes shut, an uncanny premonition of things to come.

I was shocked when I found the photograph of the wrecked plane taken at night in the lurid flash of the Fox Photos camera. How had he survived? All the branches and saplings must have slowed his descent and softened the final impact, gashing holes through the wings and fuselage. He hardly ever talked about the crash because it didn’t fit with the rest of his war narrative. It hadn’t ended well. His head slammed into the padded console and four of his front teeth were knocked out, punching through his upper lip.  He fractured his skull, broke his collarbone and spent three months at the RAF Officer’s Hospital in Uxbridge where he lay around in a plaster cast, smoking, reading magazines and flirting with one of the nurses. In one account he wrote that the plane suffered “metal failure” but it seems clear that he either ran out of fuel or blacked out. (One of the letters from the medical board inferred  as much.) Whatever the cause, the Air Ministry made it clear that he wasn’t welcome back in the program.  The photo appeared in the morning papers along with a sensational account of reckless RAF pilots, no names mentioned, and how “they” endangered public safety. (There’d been a fatal crash a few weeks earlier in Slough.) Upset about the bad publicity, upset about the loss of an expensive plane, the Ministry released my father as “unlikely ever to reach the standard of fitness required for aerial duties in the Royal Air Force, and they (the RAF Central Medical Establishment) regret that it is therefore necessary for you to relinquish your appointment on account of ill-health,” suggesting that he consider trying for a different branch of the armed services, signed Your obedient Servant, J.M. Wright, Air Ministry, Adastral House, Kinsway, London, W.C.2.

After leaving hospital in Uxbridge he was allowed to renew his pilot’s license but repeated pleas to the Air Ministry went unanswered. Some of his fellow pilots were discharged like himself, others died in training or went on to become heroes in
the Battle of Britain. (Only a few would survive the war.) He rather morbidly and methodically recorded their fates on the back of the photograph from 1936, writing the event and date in his own miniscule script beneath each name: Crashed. 16th Nov. 1936, below his own name while under his friend Harry McDonald he wrote simply: Killed. 11th Sept. 1937, with no further explanation.

I drove out to Uxbridge from London on a rainy Saturday but arrived a month too late. The old RAF base had already been decommissioned and the wreckers were making way for a shopping center and housing estate. There were no dashing young pilots lounging about in silk scarves lighting one another’s cigarettes, nothing like that. In fact, there wasn’t much to see at all, just a decrepit hangar and a few of the original brick barracks laid out like a borstal  school. Windows were boarded over and the concrete steps leading up to the old hospital had caved in. I walked across the rain-splattered tarmac wondering why I’d bothered to come.  Like any son, I always wanted to hear about my father’s adventures but I also wanted to know about his mistakes, his troubles, not just the heroic parts.  He had a hard time admitting failure and tended to turn everything in his life into a kind of Biblical allegory.  I certainly don’t want to add to the allegory, but whenever I think or dream of myself in his shadow, whenever I think or dream of my own son, I imagine a continuum of sorts. I  see my father’s crumpled plane and the northern wildness in his eyes. I see myself and I see my son. Perhaps I’ve come out here to find a moment when he was mortal and grounded just so I can walk through that ineffable break in space and throw my arms around him.

This is the first in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.
See also: