Getting there was only half the story. In 1974, the biggest airline for international travel was PanAm, and I was on PanAm 1 from Honolulu to Bangkok with stops in Tokyo and Hong Kong. While air travel was much more pleasant in those days, there were still hitches. Our flight took off two hours late, introducing timing issues all along the way. In Tokyo we were on the ground for one hour but not allowed to leave the gate area. Guess that doesn’t count as my having been to Tokyo. In Hong Kong, we were not allowed off the plane – even worse logic for my having ever been to Hong Kong.
This trip was the first international leg of a consulting contract. In 1973, the U.S. government decided to initiate a study to determine the extent and type of substance abuse that was going on within the American military at locations worldwide, and to put together a strategic plan to fix the situation. At that time I worked for a large international consulting firm and we won the contract to develop and administer the study, and analyze the results to provide recommendations. A key aspect of winning the contract involved partnering with a business based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Our team consisted of the president of the small business, A, his girlfriend, T, another outside consultant, C, and me - a team of two men, two women - two white people and two black people. It was 1974 - we attracted attention wherever we went.
The flight arrived in Bangkok, where it was Sunday at 1:30 a.m, although for me it was Saturday at 8:30 a.m. My destination was Nakhon Panom (abbreviated by the military as NKP and affectionately dubbed Naked Fanny), to work on an air base which was another three hour flight from Bangkok on Monday. Checking for messages from A and T who had arrived the day before, about the time of our flight on Monday, I found none and got to my room at 3:30 a.m local time. The phone rang at 5:15 a.m – it was A telling me to be ready, in the lobby in 15 minutes. Apparently the hotel lost his message from the previous night.
Miraculously, some of us made the 7 a.m flight to NKP, which is located in the northeast part of Thailand, on the Mekong River border with Laos. However, our questionnaire materials did not. Since this was long before personal computers and the internet, the means of collecting information was a physical paper questionnaire, filled out in pencil by members of our armed forces. The teams carried cases of questionnaires and pencils all over the world.
The condensed version of the story is that we had to abandon C in Bangkok to locate and bring the materials as fast as possible since the Air Force had gone out of their way to schedule our participants by changing their work schedules. None of this worked out well – commercial flights to NKP were only once daily, military flights were unavailable since they were on combat alert, no private planes could be chartered since owning a private plane in Thailand was illegal, and driving the fourteen hours was ill advised since the roads in the north were heavily pitted with mines.
When we arrived in NKP, minus C and our material, we were greeted by an irate base commander. He did not want civilians, he especially did not want women and we had entirely messed up his routine. It turns out NKP was a classified forward fire base, and the closest US Air Force base to North Vietnam. This meant personnel were very secretive, there were numerous “off-book” missions, and we were subject to threats of air strikes daily - so definitely not a vacation destination.
The area around NKP was hot, dry and brown. There were woods, but they looked completely withered. This was partly due to base personnel clearing away everything where an enemy could hide, but also due to the regular bombing. We were not allowed to take any photos and discouraged from going to the town because of anti-American activities there. So as soon as we were able, we set off for the center of the Village of NKP – after all we had been discouraged, not forbidden. The ride on the Baht bus (about 10 cents) took 45 minutes. It was swelteringly hot. The sights, sounds, and even smells were all new to me. We drove through areas where the homes were grass shacks surrounded by mud and rice fields. The only other traffic was “kwai” – the local water buffalo. There were no cars because it was not safe to be in a car for fear of attack by Communist guerrillas.
The village of NKP was tiny and consisted of little shops that had been opened to cater to the servicemen – massage parlors, little eateries and sundry shops. It was filled with curious locals and the mangiest dogs I have ever seen. The locals were used to seeing military personnel, but no civilians, no women and definitely not a black woman. I had decided by this point that a measure of wealth in Thailand was the condition of your dog. The majority of which were dirty, ugly, and had all sorts of strange injuries. The temple dogs were clean, brushed and beautiful though.
We stood on the banks of the Mekong River, looking over at the mountains of Laos and a Communist Village. The river was larger than I expected, about the size of the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey. There were many small boats offering to take us across the river to Laos. Apparently it would cost about 10 cents to go across to Laos but it would not be likely to get a boat back at any price. One of the men at the base told us, maybe for $100 American but more likely we would be kidnapped and held for ransom.
We bravely picked a “restaurant” and had a passable meal. Only one member of the team, T, got sick. T and I shared a trailer – bedrooms at each end and a bathroom in the middle. She spent several days in the bathroom vomiting and declaring that she was dying. While I am sure she was sick, although it was hard to know since she was also always dramatic and complaining about absolutely everything, the extent of her illness was unclear AND it meant she got out of all the work at NKP. Even her boyfriend commented that he wished he had left her in Atlanta.
Somehow we achieved our work goals amid daily bomb threats, trips to the shelters, angry management, recalcitrant personnel, and extreme heat. At the end of the week, we thankfully got back onto the Thai Airways prop jet and took the three hour flight to Bangkok.