Isaan in the 1960s – A day at the races (part two)

Here is the second part of the essay “A day at the races” by Kermit Krueger, who was a United States Peace Corps Volunteer working at Maha Sarakham Teachers’ Training College from 1963 to 1965. Read the first part here.

2. THE JOCKEYS IN THEIR SILKS

[OK, so they’re mostly wearing t-shirts and gym shorts, and they cannot be bothered with saddles]

Although I was and am not a fan of the ponies, I do know that racing protocol requires most races to begin with a trumpet fanfare. This alerts bettors that “time is short!” Within minutes the horses, with their finely and colorfully clad jockeys, will be led into their “stalls.” Once all are in place, the parimutuel windows close, a hush comes, the starter’s gun is fired, and …

…Because the Mahasarakham Downs, was not as glorious as first-world tracks seek to be, it lacked such racing frills as trumpets to announce the coming race. Instead, trainers or stable boys silently led the horses and their jockeys onto the track and to each steed’s place.

Bildschirmfoto 2016-04-29 um 14.42.21

There was no need for a starting gate. A pole and an invisible line across the track worked well enough. The trainers (or stable boys) led each horse and jockey in to its place, The next turned the horses and jockeys in small circles until each was mostly aligned, that is facing more or less the same direction. When the trainers / stable-boys left, a judge in the main grandstand rang a rather large bell. The parimutuel windows shut, though one might wonder how – amid the din of that place where food concessionaires endlessly hawked their goods – the clerks could have heard it clang; but they could, and they did! And, as they did, on the track, ….

A reasonable skeptic might wisely ask, “Weren’t there a lot of false starts? After all, that would seem to be a fairly primitive system!” “No,” I am pleased to report, “on those afternoons I visited the track there was not a single false start! Besides, why quibble over things such as one or more magnificent steeds not quite aligned. The race is the thing. It’s only a game. Never mind tiny details!”

Meanwhile, in the grandstands, conversation, not the race, was the thing. Political and social rumors were shared and explored, and, most assuredly, appropriate resolutions foreseen. Standing at track-side, however, amid the milling throng some eating, others pushing for better views, there was great confusion and excitement, all of it race-centered. And, … if you sought an unobstructed, almost bird ‘s-eye view as the horses sped around the curve and out of sight, … ah, here that unique feature of the Mahasarakham Downs was offered to a select few, true, racing afficionados, or any big wigs who muscled into line. Eat your heart out, beautiful Hialeah!

3. THE VIEW FROM THE COCKPIT

Yes, you read that correctly. The subject of this tale, among other things, is: the view from the cockpit in the middle of the Mahasarakham Downs. To the best of my knowledge no other race track anywhere in creation has ever had the opportunity or temerity to embrace this innovation. And why, or how, did the good racing fans at the Mahasarakham Downs enjoy such a wondrous thing? Well, let me explain.

Ages and ages ago (during World War II), Thailand was nominally ruled by a foreign power, the Empire of Japan. The Japanese military saw strategic value only fools could miss in that part of Thailand which calls itself Isaan and is called by the rest of the world, “the Northeast”). Obscure locations – places in which no patriotic Thai resistance fighters would consider lurking – were identified. Mahasarakham was one such place. The surrounding land was flat, very flat. No paved roads led to or from it. The railway was 80 kilometers away. Can anything worth defending be found in such a place? Hardly! And so just a little outside that then sleepy, remote, provincial capital the

Japanese military built a landing strip to supply their occupying forces. They built similar landing strips in other equally unremarkable sites in Isaan, however, no airplane landed in any of them before the Japanese Empire collapsed and the war ended. For all anyone knew, though, somehow, someday, someone might need such places. In Mahasarakham, at least, the landing strip and nearby land were kept free of noxious weeds and/or other uses. Before long, some enterprising individual concluded one could have a race track that surrounded the landing strip without destroying the strip itself. Lo and behold! Mahasarakham Downs. Back here in the first world that’s called, “efficient land use.”

Unbeknownst to racing afficionados and local politicians, however, the landing strips built by the Japanese became features on the maps the United States Air Force (USAF) supplied its pilots should they be in that area. Of course, our aviators were not then flying to or from Thailand to bombard the Ho Chi Minh trail or other sites in nearby Laos and Cambodia. So why would they need such maps and strips at all? As late as the mid-1960’s commercial air travel was all but unknown in Thailand apart from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and few places in southern Thailand. True, some Aussies in nearby Khon Kaen had rebuilt its landing strip for use by their corporate-owned aircraft and although the US military was not in Thailand, it could not use that strip lest its un-presence be revealed to the world. While Khon Kaen’s airstrip was not to be found on USAF maps as an emergency landing site, as far as anyone knew, there was a perfectly good, nearby strip in Mahasarakham! Therefore, it was found on all of the USAF maps.

In August 1963, a month before I arrived in Mahasarakham, a small but distressed, or lost, USAF cargo plane, seeking an emergency landing site, selected the fine strip located at Mahasarakham. Alas, the long idle ground, by then soft from two decades of neglect and annual rainy seasons, enveloped the plane’s landing gear making it sink into the mire securely uniting the plane with the earth about it. “You may have our plane,” the USAF, according to local representatives, generously told the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF), “as soon as we’ve removed our secret things from it.” “It crashed,” the RTAF surely replied. “It’s no good. Why would anyone want it? Besides, besides, neither you nor it are to be found in this country! You take it away, secret stuff and all!”

Bildschirmfoto 2016-04-29 um 14.42.47Ah, the view from the cockpit of that ruined, never to soar again, ex-airplane. Even so, cockpit seats in it were very limited. At any given time only one or two lucky individuals could share its panoramic view. If you look carefully, there’s a fine view of a race in progress. So what if one horse is already ahead by several lengths (photo mid-right and a tad up)? It’s early. Even those far behind have chances to win. Ask anyone who follows the ponies and wagers on their abilities! There’s always the possibility than any of the fine steeds in the race with a rush of energy may pull ahead and win. Luck is as much a part of horse racing as is ability. Of course, wise bettors take account of what they believe to be their choice horse’s invincible ability compared to the rest of the field. But they never dismiss luck. In such an environment, why, even our en-mired plane might fly again.

Was it not truly providential that the USAF plane had so crash-landed that it in no way impeded the wondrous races at the Mahasarakham Downs, and that it so imaginatively enhanced the pleasure of racing fans? Ah, but we must not forget the secretive negotiations over that poor plane …

However, before you turn the page to that which you may hope perchance will bring you to the conclusion of this tale, I must inform you the next section (or sub-section, as it were) includes a rant, evidence to support the rant, and an explanation of the significance of the evidence. Of course, if you are in a rush to get this ended skip the next two pages and turn to the point wherein we consider haircuts – Yes, haircuts! – and where best to get yours. Still, the rant is worth considering since it is essential to the political context of this story. Haircuts can wait.

3 1/2. RANT, … JUSTIFYING PROOF, … THE BONG FAI EXPLAINED

RANT

In those days the USAF was not in Thailand, nor were our army or our navy! Just ask the Departments of State or Defense. Never mind the USAF presence near/at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport. We had no bases, forts or ports west of Vietnam! Our troops came to Thailand solely for rest and recreational purposes.

 It is, therefore, a mystery why and how USAF and CIA planes could fly east almost every day to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail and other targets. Bomb-laden USAF jets on their way to Laos or North Vietnam flew low enough to be seen (along with the bombs carried) from the ground. When they returned west-bound, now freed of heavy loads, they flew so high as not to be seen at all. But don’t take my word for that, the flights were so frequent local villagers near Mahasarakham crafted replicas of what they saw in the skies to better compete, they hoped, in their annual Bong Fai festival which honored Tan, the god of the rains. The USAF cargo-plane that crashed in the World War II era air strip was most likely a CIA plane returning from a mission to supply foods and/or munitions to “friendly” forces in Laos. (Of course, the CIA was even more not in Thailand than were our military and their equipment.) Such planes crash, but bomb toting jets seemed invincible, sure to impress

Tan. To the best of my knowledge the US government, 50+ years later, still refuses to admit to its military presence in Thailand in the early to mid 1960’s other than to participate in SEATO3 maneuvers. Villagers, however, knew better, and, besides, Never Mind! (in Thai, “mai pen rai”; or in Lao- the primary local tongue – “Baw pen yon” [baw pen yang].

image_pdf