Tuesday, November 25, 2008


When I went back to Bangkok in ’76, after those seven in-between years, it was hard to sort out what was there at this point and what had been there before. The place had had another ten boom-town years, so different from the devastation in nearby Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia. Thailand seemed more than ever to be all glitter.

I headed off to a dark bar I used to haunt – a seedy place still, despite the overall glitter, filled with grim Western spies and very un-grim Eastern girls. It was the place where ten years back I had met up with Sunisar, who wore gold lamé gowns and was more or less a singer. It had the unlikely name The Dew Drop Inn, like the name of some mundane beery place in American where lithe girls would never be found.

On my way to the bar I looked in on what had been a shiny new hotel seven years back but by now looked old and shabby. In the lobby there was a florist shop, which I remembered because I had brought girls flowers there. This time I saw a tall floral arrangement with a card on it that said “Amranand” in Western letters, and below it something else in Sanskrit. Amranand was a name known in Bangkok where not everyone used last names. When I was in Bangkok the first time around Prock Amranand, a Thai economist who worked for UNESCO, had asked me to be the English language PR man at the World Fellowship of Buddhists annual conclave, which was being held that year in the relatively cool, flower-scented northern city of Chiengmai. I had then quickly asked a Burmese guy I knew at Reuters to get Bonnie Beaman credentials for the conference as a special Reuter’s correspondent – really shrewd, for Bonnie and I were on the verge of being an item now that Sunisar was no longer living in the airy house I had rented across the river in Thonburi.

Not that the end of the Sunisar period and the beginning with Bonnie meant any decrease in sexual tension. Or any other kind of tension in this place where, along with the frenetic night life, assassinations by spies chasing spies seemed to be a daily occurrence, and every foreigner seemed to have some sort of undercover role with some national or factional intelligence service. Bonnie had come to Bangkok originally with one of the contract CIA people who were everywhere that year in this boom town city of temples and elaborate massage places (which were blessed by legions of Buddhist monks when they opened), and very big temples with gold leaf in their sweeping roofs, and cavernous nightclubs, also cozy bars, all full of girls, and also palaces whose denizens were a mystery. She had started from Tokyo, where she had gone on a teaching job via Antioch College’s innocent work-study program. She had abandoned the program for a job standing in a low cut evening gown that showed off her tanned bikini-ready figure at the door to an expensive Tokyo nightclub, she the bait waved in front of rich Japanese men. It would have worked for me if I were a rich Japanese man.

We went to Chiengmai in a special plane for the conference in which, as on many regular flights too, two monks were placed at the front so as to ward off air crashes. In Chiengmai we moved fast from being fake journalist colleagues to being lovers on a tryst. We spent the bulk of our time in bed at the compact new Railway Hotel. The first time we ordered from room service from the their new Western menu – Western food being a big fad in Thailand that year – half a dozen people burst into our room and formed a semi-circle around our bed, including two guys in chef’s hats who poured brandy over a sort of brochette dish and lit it to the applause of several boys and girls in white uniforms, the girls looking like teenagers disguised as French maids for Halloween. The room was full of dead bugs because we had left a door to a small balcony open while we were at a Buddhist conference session. And we were naked under a thin sheet, though after that first time we would get dressed before the food arrived.

Before I was finished with Southeast Asia that first time around I wrote enough of a novel about that time to get the book sold right afterwards in New York. What I did not put into the novel were family factors whose importance alluded me. I edited out that the reason I knew Brock Amranand was that he was the husband of a royal Thai lady named Pim Sai, who had been to boarding school in England with my ultra-white sister-in-law Rosemary, who was send to England for boarding school by her father who was with the India Army in Malaya. My sister-in-law was there in Bangkok my first time around along with my twin brother Peter, subject of a childhood rivalry that never ended.

I was writing hack books full of sex that belied the fleeting but intense intimations of innocence I had with Bonnie at first – the feeling that now, at 31, I had a chance to redo my early years.

Peter was there with an ominous Defense Department agency, part of the Johnson war escalation, the agency’s main goal apparently to teach the Thai army up-to-date ways to kill peasants. In my novel a character named Mickey was exactly like Bonnie, and two charactyers, Andrew and Simon, were meant to be exactly like me, Andrew them full of alcohol-fueled romantic swagger, Simon had low self-esteem. In the book there was no Peter.

Some time after I saw the floral arrangement near still seedy bar, I discovered it was indeed for the Pim Sai house. Pim Sai had just been killed, slashed to ribbons by a gardener who for some reason ran amok.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 51 - GOING BACK

As I drove up and down Vermont, I was sometimes 30 years or more back in New Hampshire, and sometimes I was back in the places with which I had replaced New Hampshire - places of war and beauty and love and hatred, sex and life and death, ships and planes and trains, chasing adventure, includinig adventurous girls of all nations, but often alone, moving about Asia and Africa and Europe and seas that contained islands - almost, but maybe not much, like the man I had dreamed I could be.

One day while driving I was thinking about a time I went back to a familiar place not in my head but literally. I had returned to Southeast Asia – these wild and/or languid tropical places, so full of sex and comfort and danger or adventure – back after seven sometimes dark years away. I was back and I was all over the map, just as I had been in those earlier years out here. I had been everywhere back then, usually with a drink, which could be beer or could be rough rice whisky
– and even with the sort of throbbing hangovers that feel terminal I had had so much energy in those past years – and yet it was nothing like the sudden bursts I experienced when I returned.

Just before leaving New York I had stopped drinking after 22 years of drinking which I had told myself unconvincingly was not so bad as that of my alcoholic literary heroes – from Fitzgerald to Kerouac by way of Hemingway if not Mailer. And here I was heading into the old scenes – just like in a novel, scenes of happiness and excitement in exotic places. A few days before leaving I had gone to a single AA meeting in a dark church basement on the Upper West Side, and I had had coffee afterwards with a wet blanket sort of overweight guy who said he had just canceled a bus trip to Louisiana to see his family for it would put his sobriety in peril. No new relationships for at least a year was the rule, he said, and no travel either. Everyone in what he called “the rooms” knew that.

But I knew he was wrong. I knew it. So I would travel, which was something I was good at, and maybe, with luck and by design there would be a new woman to love – and the sooner the better. I had come back to Southeast Asia with what was meant to be a hot new book contract, and some almost adequate advance money, to do two books. I was kidding myself that I really wanted to do these books – journalist type things – one on American ambassadors and the other, more congenial to me, on American expatriates. To supplement the advance money, which more and more clearly was inadequate, my editor had gotten a ticket to Bangkok for me from someone at SAS who owed him a favor. And then I had talked a nice lady who flacked for Intercontinental Hotels into giving me free rooms everywhere on the verbal understanding that the hotels I used could be mentioned in these books (something I suspected I would not honor).

As I moved about, old characters and new ones came into the story as, for a start, I moved through Singapore and Thailand and Indonesia – and I was thinking that this was where I was meant to be. I was thinking this in part because I had spent some of those seven years away based in Beirut, which was noisy where Southeast Asia was silent
crowded and pushy where Southeast Asia was free flowing and polite and graceful – violent where Southeast Asia, despite its wars, seemed pacific – Beirut with its pretensions and false Frenchness and its assassins and militias – the Middle East in so many aspects as ugly and fake as Southeast Asia was beautiful and, with some effort my part, as erotic and exotic as a free-flowing fantasy. And the years away had not just been in the Middle East, though the only part I reallyi liked has been brief trips to Latin Countries.

It was in this time that my novel came out and its publication was surprisingly depressing for me. Since Beirut I had been living partly in a musty hotel near the sorry old State Department in Washington, the world’s most mundane place, and partly in a cheap room I rented in a condemned Upper West Side floor-through inhabited by sixties hold-over Maoists and Soviet Communists and Anarchists.

But now I was back in worlds of excitement – first Bangkok which surely I had immortalized in that one published novel (which I had thought would give me safety) and other published books – published, my God, which was what separated me from the crowd, though I was not convinced of it - no more safety than from the hack books I did, including horribly genteel school library-type books and also soft core porn. Yet I was back now in that part of the world I had so longed for in dreary, hazy times in the Middle East and l Washington, and also New York, which was an unrealized place for me this time. I was back, and I had never felt so alone. For one thing, the guys I had known had mostly married, mostly to lovely Asian girls, while I had been away, and I had turned forty and serious romance was deep in the past. I felt as if the seven years was a lost time, lost to booze and places and people I had never loved.

I did not make any family connections with anything – neither the mysterious blackness that could overtake me, neither that, nor anything else. I had not, for example, quite pinpointed such a grim matter as how the anti-Semitism in Beirut’s Western press corps was of a piece with background bigotry when I was growing up in family times and family places about which I had never written and had almost succeeded in putting out of mind.

I was exhilarated and also lonely and bereft now as I was traversing old ground looking for what had been there. By the time of this return, I had not been in love in seven years, not even to the point of faking it. And, that time away – it just felt like lost years now. Not that this was the first time I was lonely, but for the first time now I was ready, almost, to admit it.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


On good days when I was 22 it seemed as if I had come a very long way from early times when I was at the bottom of the heap, and a few more recent times in circles run by bullies and potential bullies – as in a boisterous rich guy in our summer exchange group in Holland when I was 17 – and later some encounters with Republican jocks at Princeton – but for the most part I thought I was as far as you could be from the horror of my early days – the sadistic camp counselors, the militaristic society kids in that year we spent in the city – those times, like at the start in boarding school, where it was as if I were so far beneath contempt that anyone could do anything they wanted to me – as it seemed sometimes too in the bosom of the family in Connecticut. But it also seemed I had come so very far from those times as to be forever safe.

I had had my summers in Europe. I had had this amazing girlfriend I met in the White Mountains. I had spent a large part of my college days away in various part of New York not inhabited by dumb, Republican Princeton people, and certainly not by people from the family. And in the months since then I had been so very far out in the world – I was in Indianapolis covering right wing politics for United Press, dealing with the one-time Klan people who ran the state including a dapper senator named Jenner, who had been passed the mantle of the recently disgraced Joe McCarthy. And I was having the time of my life, getting into every corner, things licit and illicit, of that city that was so far out of my experience – me on my own now, all preordained family and school things behind me.

Four separate railroad companies ran tracks from Indianapolis to Chicago – it was that easy to get out if leaving Hoosiers behind was your goal. On weekends up there I was in the beat world I had read about, and I had Second City, the College of Complexes, jazz and strippers and South Side blues, and Hopper at the Art Institute – and girls sometimes, and also a society of people from the old left United Electrical Workers. On my own, paying my own way and exhilarated by it. Some mornings I would wake up in my brick rooming house, where I wrote an unpublishable novel, and find myself wildly angry at the far away family that no longer paid for me. Then I would step out onto North Pennsylvania Avenue and head down past the old Claypool Hotel, which smelled of cigar smokes even from the outside, and then gypsy storefronts to the Indianapolis Times building in the midst of one of the city's skid rows, and the world would seem light and bright.

But the darkness was not always at bay, and finally came in almost to consume me. I would wander the streets all night – past the Neuremburg-like back marble eagles and pillars of the two-block-long American Legion headquarters, and the old raidroad station, and the stockyards, and the little hotels that filled up with wonderful young whores when the legislature was in session – wandering through the night feeling harsh and hopeless. And there was a night when – my draft notice having arrived in Connecticut (as I was informed in oddly prissy tones on the phone with my father) – I got on a plane to Miami at 2 in the morning, and from there switched to an empty Air Cubana flight to Havana, where tanks were in the street and everyone knew now that Castro was alive down in the Sierra Maestre. But I got caught on the edge of the mountains by sweaty fat government men with tommy guns, and so did not get to Castro, but made my way back to Havana for three weeks drinking and much more, in dance places and brothels, with especially fine girls in rooms above the waterfront bars – and dangerous nights with fisherman from Cojimar in small boats out of sight of land, once landing a shark who seemed to have the advantage, but not failing to stop at a little harbor island girl place on the way out into the Gulf of Mexico. This was living.

The moment I got back to Connecticut I was in a depression so deep I did not have a word for it – a black time of hopelessness way beyond anything I could imagine. Indianapolis had never existed, Cuba was a dream, so were the girls, and so was my wire service e career, and so too my projected life as a novelist. So since nothing mattered I did go into the army, lined up in Bridgeport for to Ft. Dix, and from there a train to Ft. Benning.

Before then, as the induction day drew closer, some fear did penetrate the blackness. All the descriptions I had read of basic training and the rest of that military idiocy – as in James Jones – seemed just like descriptions of my worst times in summer camp and school.

But to my surprise, almost to my horror that the army might be responsible, the moment I was on the army bus the blackness lifted.
I was top of the world here in basic training, as if, though I would not admit this, nothing could be better.

I almost wished it would be the expected James Jones world, but it was actually a good time, a lively group of draftees, officers who feared us more than we feared them since it was between wars and many were being asked to leave the army and might well have to go to people like us while looking for civilian work. Everything was still there to make it just like school or summer camp, but the army never had the power of those deep past places. Much of the time we sat around smoking so as to be kept out of sight, we uncaring and slovenly reluctant draftees, from touring delegations of foreign offiers in fancy uniforms broughg to Amrica because of the grim Eisenhower/Dulles allilances – SEATO, CENTO, a pumped up NATO – for American hegemony.

Ocasionally we put out our cigarettes and would be brought back form hiding. Every once in a while we would actully line up to do calisthenics. I would not rise off the ground in the pushups part. The harried officer leading us yelled “What are ya doing Poole, social exorcises?” And the laughing crowed was on my side, not his.

Others were, however, on the bottom of the heap here as I had once been elsewhere. And we had in our company a bully who reminded my of the raw sadistic hockey players at boarding school who would spit insults at me as one of them twisted my arm till I thought it would break. And this army bully was like the camp counselors when I was 8. And yet this wasn’t terrifying for me, though it was for some. They were picking on a fat momma's boy sort of guy who really could not keep up, and I stepped in and told them to stop, and the did! It seemed the most natural thing it he world – not scary the way facing the enemy down had been when I was younger and not on my own. The army in the deep South, my version, was very tame compared to an Episcopalian boarding school in New England.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 50 – ROYALTY

As I drove through those places of my childhood, I thought of when in adolescence I became so interested in so many things – politics and poetry and dangerous adventures and European trains, and wilderness camping and really appealing young women – I wanted to be on top of events like my grandfather had been as an early Socialist working on exposés in Chicago with Upton Sinclair, and living in the heart of New York’s lower East Side when he was with the settlement house movement, and actively organizing for the Socialists, and then being reported lost and feared dead in the Kerensky phase of the Russian Revolution, which was more moderate than the Lenin phase but also chaotic and idealistic and dangerous.

I though of how I had tried hard to put that together with the man I knew to be often kindly but also so often tired, ill or angry, and who would emerge from his fabled writer’s study not with new chapters but with something he had learned from a stock tip sheet called the Kiplinger Letter which he thought would help him revive the tidy fortune he had lost in the stock market crash before I was born, and had kept him busy ever since trying to be his own stockbroker. And then that final year up in the mountains after his final stroke.

For it took me a long time to see that nothing was exactly how it seemed in the world I came from – especially the New Hampshire part, which consumed only the summers until I was in a New Hampshire boarding school in the winters. The summers remained the officially important time, even as I came into my own in the winters. The summers in those grand and formal family houses in the mountains, clearly the base for the people from whom I came and hence the people who, I could not help thinking, might in the end provide a margin of safety for me – the way my grandfather's Pulitzer was taken as providing safety for all of them.

In books, people who went to these stiff colleges, and lived in these big formal places with such ease that they called them cottages, in books such people were confident in their privileged state. And sometimes it almost seemed that way in life. Here in the White Mountains they spoke with what seemed to be English accents even though they were not from England. The only one who had lived in England for any time was my seductive Aunt Betsy, who had married a young architect there who went into the RAF, and was killed early in the war, before America was in it, supposedly fighting in the Battle of Britain but actually killed in a drunk flying accident when he and a buddy had broken into an air field and tried to take up a flimsy trainer plane. But she had his new RAF wings made into costume jewelry which she wore with showy pride. She had been pregnant at that time of the air crash, and she told her son when he was old enough to understand that he was the son of a war hero. And no one up there in New Hampshire said otherwise. In fact, they backed her up.

In retrospect, they were not confident people, Ivy League club members who traveled life with ease. In retrospect they were not so confident as they seemed to me. In retrospect, I should have looked closer at the people they made fun of.

When I was in college, I once took along to dinner at my grandmother’s place on East 66th Street my roommate, a young man from upstate New York on his way to a successful life at the top. Her sister, my Great Aunt Katherine, was there. She was a bubbly, still pretty, woman who had been married to an alcoholic playwright who had had some Broadway successes, then chased a bevy of girls to Hollywood and was never heard from again. At dinner she talked about World War I when she entertained the boys, as she put it, gave them merry times, performed French songs. I was surprised when my roommate turned out to be so enthusiastic about her – this intelligent and charming woman, he said – for in the family she was dismissed as lightweight. As was her current husband, who in retrospect gave me more than I had realized – Uncle Jehan, Jehan Sesodia, son of a maharaja, they said (in circles where black men were fine if they were from far away cultures and bore titles, such as his, which was "Prince," Prince Sesodia, as Aunt Katherine was Princess Sesodia – often referred to by non-family people simply as the Prince and the Princess). The beginning of stories I must write now. The Prince and the Princess being in retrospect the most charming people in the dramatic personae of this family.

I tried to think for a time that Uncle Jehan and Aunt Katherine were something very minor and silly, for that was the sort of thinking upon which this family staked its place in the world – not least because my grandparents lived not among writers and artists but among the pedigreed summer people (real people, they said) of the White Mountains, whose little, restricted communities were as far away from Kerensky or the Lower East Side, or real war heroes or saucy French songs as you could get.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Living here in this Catskills town, Woodstock, that in so many ways really is what its enthusiasts claim it to be, a colony of the arts, from way, way back when a major art colony was founded here, right up through almost every good thing connected with the sixties being found here – the music, the politics, some of the spiritual movements, the painting, matters hallucinogenic and matters in that new world of sex.

Living here I found that not everyone was enthusiastic about all this. When I got into local politics, I saw the other side come out – the people whose families have always been here, and who work in excavation or building or services such as the maintenance of septic systems, men who do exactly what their fathers do – and could be considered the enemy. I didn’t want this divide, but it was there, as I found when involved in caucus fights and was part of a committee aimed at saving land that the old guard badly wanted paved over. This other side, local people who had never left for bigger worlds, acting as if there were some point to making this place as bad and profitable as Florida. But still, that part, that old guard part, could be seen as little more than a subculture in the more than a century since the artists settled here in force, almost half a century since the name Woodstock became synonymous with art and freedom. Maybe.

Recently I went to pay a bill at Paul’s Auto of Beaverkill, the best automobile service place for many miles around, just outside Woodstock in the Catskills, run by a frequently jolly fat guy named Paul, who does the important work himself but supervises other mechanics too, and his homey wife Sally, who runs the office and handles the accounts, sometimes with the help of a very pleasant grown daughter who sometimes stays with them in their apartment above the garage.

I had rarely seen Paul and Sally outside the garage. I did see them appear once in our town’s library, where so many of the local writers get assistance, for a vote on the library budget. They were clearly among the local righted-wingers who never enter the library except to vote against budgets. They walked in steely eyed and uncommunicative, but that was not how they usually seemed. Generally their eyes showed good humor and usually they were garrulous.

I hadn’t seen Paul and Sally for some time because money was a problem and we were overextended with them. But I expected a fine reunion now since I was carrying cash to pay with interest what we owed them. Yet they were not at all friendly. Worse than that day in the library. They looked at me with hatred. Not looking me in the eye, but rather with their eyes fixed on my Obama button. And I realized that there were Obama and Obama-Biden bumper stickers on the back of our little Toyota, and another that said "POLAR BEARS VOTE DEMOCRATIC", and the front bumper had a bright “YES WE CAN” sticker.

It began to seem like the harsh divide in the New Hampshire of my youth between the people from bigger worlds and the people who had always lived up there in the beautiful if stark White Mountains. I had thought that here it was different from New Hampshire, for in Woodstock the newcomers tended to be free-wheeling artist sorts, often living in houses they had made themselves by hand, while in northern New Hampshire the people from the city lived in huge formal houses, and tended to out-Republican the locals. Both sides agreed on such crucial matters as the dangers of Roosevelt and the need to keep Jews away – but otherwise the sides never came together except when the local people were providing services to the well-do-do summer home owners.

But maybe that was not the whole picture up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. On a recent trip there Marta and I went to the old maple sugar store that I used to delight in when a child. It had for some time now been a bustling, mostly outdoor, pancake restaurant catering to tourists who passed through. But it was still run by the same families, the Aldrishes and the Dexters, who were the area’s main retail merchants. Sitting by the cash register was a very old man I recognized as Mr. Aldrich, who, when I was a child and he was running a small grocery store, had seemed to me already very old.

There was something new here, however. In front of the counter was a display of small self-published books Mr. Aldrich had written. I, feeling, I fear, condescending, purchased one of them. It was about life and lore here in the White Mountains.

When I finally opened it some week later what I came upon was a history that pinpointed another place the two groups I had found so separate, the summer people and the local people, came together. Kindly rich men from the city often bedded their maids, old Mr. Aldrich says in the book. He says that if you look around, you will notice how so many of the local people and the summer city people look so much like each other.

I now, in the rare times I am up there, search for my own face.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 49 – BRAVERY?

Sex was looming despite the restrictions of the time – late forties and early fifties – and despite the place, this old-line, all boys boarding school that, nonetheless, was a bare hour away from a sister school, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains. There were rare times for fraternizing, an occasional get-together for a dance, or for a joint glee club concert (to which I went as a spectator), or something entailing cold weather sports, which I could not do at all, though for the sake of female company I could sometimes bluff it. And young Janie Doolittle from St. Mary's, as young as I was, showed me things that were at that point beyond what I knew but not so far beyond that I could not catch up. That was what happened in one compartment of my life. In another, my roommate moved out on me. I became the only boy in the school without a roommate. It was as if my unpopularity were a contagious disease.

But I had found Keats and Wordsworth, and I was writing romantic poems of my own, mostly about situations with girls I had met only in imagination, but some about my actual life – which would soon include my great love Kitty from the summers in the mountains. But each night when I appeared in my dormitory, they would set upon me, and the most vicious, Hector, a raw hockey player from Massachusetts, would come in when they threw me down and he would twist my arm back demanding I surrender – just like Murdock, except this school was my whole world, there was no Park Avenue mother to walk in. Eventually, each, night, as the pain became worse than unbearable, I would shame myself by surrendering.

But there was also more on the plus side than poetry. I had started taking part in debating, and the coach who was also the English teacher and my first real world non-family mentor, told me I would have to deal with the fact that, contrary to what I had been told in the past, and really believed, I was at least as smart as, maybe smarter than, my so far uniquely talented twin brother, who in the family was the chosen one, and the families position had been ratified by all three schools we had by by now now attended together. And I began to win debates – would be on the varsity and bring home debate trophies while still 15 – but the reality of those victories did not overwhelm other realities. They were still going to kill me.

Each boy in the school has a job to do in the kitchen or on the grounds or in chapel or the gym or the building we called the Schoolhouse. Mine at that time was to sweep up at night in the Schoolhouse, the musty old building where we had our classes. It had once been an actual New England one-room schoolhouse. Classrooms now circled the original big room, which was now the assembly room and recently for me the place I had to go at night for compulsory study hall, which was only for boys who could not keep up. Now I had suddenly passed everyone with good grades – something that had never happened before in any other school I had been in. Before this time I had rarely had any idea what any teacher was taking about.

Alone at night in the Schoolhouse, sweeping up, I sang songs I got from movies – especially Ole Man River, which was about a suffering man on the Mississippi. I sang even though I had been denied entry to the glee club, told I would never have music. I sang loudly, in a time my voice was getting lower day by day, and when I sang I could almost forget what awaited me back at the dorm.

Then one crucial night I suddenly decided that I would not surrender no matter what they did. My arm would break, and blood would spurt from me, but I would not give them the satisfaction of seeing me give in.

There must have been something about the way I walked into the dorm that night, for they did not jump me, and Hector not twist my arm that night, and in fact never did it again.