Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Colonel Stool

AUGUST is a time to celebrate. With a couple of friends undergoing operations and a bout of sickness here at Edmonds Towers, July was troubled. But now there's sunlight!
We enjoy afresh the many simple pleasures of life and rejoice in good health.
"How are your stools?" our Indian doctors here in Great Marton on the Fylde coast asked me over past days.
That reminded me of a rare character, Colonel Stool, met in the late 1990s exploring Vietnam with an old pal, now sadly late (as the Asians say).
The 'colonel' was in fact a retired major who had liberated Saigon from the Japanese. He still seemed to be living in the past, referring to Indochina, Tonkin and the natives as Annamites.
"Always asked the men how their stools were," the Colonel, as we nicknamed him, would tell us over a few local beers.
I was travelling with friend Howard Sunderland, a handsome tennis coach slightly younger than myself. We shared similar interests and rubbed along affably.
Like Colonel Stool, we were travelling leisurely and independently from Hanoi to Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if you prefer. As there was only one track of railway and the roads uncertain (war damage and remaining mines from the 'American War'), we kept bumping into him and sharing experiences.
The Colonel was knocking on 80 by then and not all there, as they say, but full of tales and cheer.
"Worst thing I did in '45 when liberating Saigon," he told us, "was to free the French Foreign Legion. Animals! In the end I had to release and arm Japanese to help us police the city. Thank God I'd secured the brewery!"
What an amazing journey that was with Howard, who was so enamoured he later married a Vietnamese girl and had a daughter with her. Sadly, he died of cancer not long after returning here with them - which makes the experience still more poignant.
I remember, in particular, sudden clearings and views on to a different, unchanging world along the beautiful coastal railway.
While I had Maria Callas singing Puccini on my headphones, outside were fishermen using cormorants on jungle lakes beneath distant mountains.
We organised a lazy boat tour of temples along the Perfumed River, with Howard and I the only passengers - in armchairs under a canvas shade - as our boatman's family grilled fresh tuna for lunch.
People couldn't have been friendlier and we had nights out in historic towns for the price of one American dollar - between us.
It was a beautiful country. No wonder Howard stayed many years.
I still have our old guide book, complete with a brief but amusing diary he kept in its last pages.
Odd entries catch the eye: "Ha Noi: Taking night train to Hue (overnight sleeper - good test for old Jungle Formula!)"; or, "Nha Trang: Dined unwittingly on dog; met beautiful girl."
Finally, he added a few translations for English words. This short vocabulary revealed our chief concerns, viz: 'Hello' (variations for old, young; male, female); 'Beer/food, please'; 'Excuse me - toilet?', and 'Thanks, see you later'.
The Colonel would have approved.
And see you later, too, I hope!

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