It was 1972 and the war in Vietnam had come to a standstill as peace talks took place in Paris. Both sides were supposedly putting down their arms waiting for some kind of truce to push through the rotting remains of past attempts at a peaceful ending.

Bob Kalish observes life from a placid place on the island of Arrowsic (motto: You’re not in Georgetown yet). You can reach him at [email protected]

At that time I was teaching at the International School of Bangkok and freelancing for Westinghouse Broadcasting Group W News. Even though on a map Vietnam and Thailand looked like they were near neighbors, life in Bangkok was a long way from a war zone. The only sign there was a nearby war going on were the busloads of American GIs in the Thai capital on R&R. A lot of Americans lived in Bangkok, so many that we were no longer unusual.

One morning I got a phone call from my friend Paul, who was the Westinghouse Broadcasting bureau chief in Saigon.

“I need you to check something out,” he said. He told me he heard that the Americans were reinstating their old air base in Takhli, ready to go when the treaty’s time expired.

“Could you find out what the scoop is?” The former air base had been used by American planes to attack Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia. Terms of the treaty stipulated that neither side could make preparations during the time the negotiations were in process. But both sides used the remaining time to prepare secretly for the war’s resumption.

I called the American Embassy and spoke to some bureaucrat who I thought could give me an answer.

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“There are no American air bases in Thailand,” he said.

“That’s what they say,” I said. “But my source said there was a lot of activity around the old airbase, like they were getting ready to reinstate. ”

Here is where it got strange. Because there was a “status of forces agreement” between us and the United States, the number of Americans allowed to stay in Thailand was kept under control by issuing visas limiting stays to three months. Working around this limit became a full-time job for many of the Thais who worked for American companies in Thailand. For example, the International School had an employee whose job was to renew visas of its staff. It was a perfect example of the kind of bifurcation needed to keep up the pretense of peace. No American troops were deployed from Thailand.

So, my friend Norman, a teacher of social studies at the International School, drove me through the countryside north of Bangkok. Norman was from New York, but had lived in Thailand for more than a decade, had a Thai wife and three kids.

“How we going to know; will there be signs?” I asked.

“Relax.”

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And about 100 kilometers later as the road curved and twisted through the dense rice paddies a sign appeared. A couple of boards nailed to a couple of stakes, black spray paint in English: “Harry’s New York Bar two kilometers.” In the middle of nowhere and nothing, down a gravel drive, the voice of Hank Williams blasting from a speaker pointed out the window. A C-30 cargo plane was landing, another in the air behind it.

“‘Guess what?” Norman asked a young man sitting on a stool at the bar.

“What?”

“You’re not here.”

“Then where am I?

“You’re at the Royal Thai Air Force Base Takhli.”

We sat down next to the soldier and bought a round of Budweisers and asked a lot of questions. The rumors were true.

Here’s the thing: I grew up thinking that our side was the side of good. Our side was the white hats, the good guys. Faith in The American Way. Our nation, right or wrong. Back home there were protesters filling the streets, switching their black hats for the white hats. They were the good guys now.

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