Takhli - The Farside! Exercise Cobra Gold '97
by Jim Traywick - the "Mayor of Takhli"
I am writing this little piece to give everyone some idea of what the end of the pipeline looks like at Takhli circa 1997. And, some of the humorous and strange things I have had to deal with as the "Mayor of Takhli". Most of the unusual moments involve chow and critters.
Takhli was always considered the most remote base utilized by the U.S. during the Vietnam Conflict. Guess what? It's still just as remote and perhaps more so now with little or none of the creature comforts we westerners often took for granted. Things we had at Takhli to a greater degree and higher quality during the war aren't there any more. Clean water under pressure, an ice plant, swimming pool, busses to downtown, on base theater, gym, all gone.
CHOW First of all, upon arrival for Cobra Gold '97 we found the host unit somewhat in a confused and ill prepared state of readiness for the onslaught of U.S. troops, aircraft, equipment, and cargo. Because of the impending megaherd, my most immediate concern after close evaluation was the actual care and feeding of the personnel, both as they transited to other exercise locations and arrived to work. As it stood it appeared to be grossly deficient. The big events and challenges were being expertly managed with the standard professional logistical and operational techniques which are second nature to us at this point. Handling a C-5 and all that spills forth is kid-stuff. But, a "Happy Meal" in Takhli is a monumental enterprise, as was French Toast.
A local version of a fast food outlet from Chinat is a cross between KFC and Pizza Hut. Now, being good hosts the local planners brought the "fast food franchise" vendor to the base Cobra Gold Canteen to handle the western pallet, because they have "Bangkok training to cook 'malican foot' for the Cobra Gold." Well, that was debatable at the outset and confirmed later to be a misconception all together. But, I was patient and allowed the plan to unfold and watched it closely.
I suggested they needed to include some form of a canteen service in the passenger handling area. In the banter I overheard between the powers that be in the Thai wing I kept hearing the words "happy meal", over and over "happy meal". I soon found out what a "happy meal" was as I worked the passenger processing site and made sure they had what they needed to get the job done, flat beds, low boys, fork lifts and the like. Then I spotted a charming apparition. Standing behind a table in a shaded open bay building were two charming little Thai ladies in their early twenties and late teens, smiling and serving a small bag of food to the passengers. They sported uniforms of the fast food vendor and served up what was described as a "happy meal". Since this was the result of my working with the Thai planners to make something available at the passenger handling area, I bought one. It appeared to be a hefty serving of something but I just wasn't sure what it was until later. I moved to the barracks area to get the troops settled in and was waiting for them to arrive with their luggage as I tried the famous and perhaps now infamous "happy meal". Chicken leg. Right, I recognize that. Small loaf of garlic bread - that's okay. But, what's this?? I unwrapped the heavily scotch taped small bunned object and found the biggest gob of mayonnaise known to western civilization, in which was buried a piece of mystery meat. My van driver was looking at his with an expression of you-expect-me-to-EAT-this? The "happy meal" service closed with mixed reviews, mostly Pepto and Alka Seltzer. But, they tried.
As breakfast service opened the first day after my arrival I saw a load of Khaow Paht ( fried rice ), fried chicken, Pizza which resembled a large communion wafer with cheese and several Thai dishes of some curried meats and stir fried vegetables. At O'Dark thirty I was somewhat surprised at the tolerance of the troops for the menu. But, this wasn't to last. I had premonitions of mutiny in the chow hall and interceded. I talked to the vendor who agreeded to try some different American breakfast dishes and I made arrangements to teach them the next morning and that evening at their shop down town Chinat. That evening I went to the shop which was only around the corner from our hotel. They have a symbol similar to the KFC statue of Col. Sanders. It's a statue about the same size as the Colonel, but it looks more like one of the ghost masks from the movie "Beatlejuice", although it is supposed to be a rooster. I waited - they didn't show. I should have taken that as an omen, because they didn't show for their cooking lesson at O'Dark thirty the following morning either. I was there alone until the sun came up. They finally arrived but without the large grill which they had promised to buy to cook French Toast.
I kept my promise and had the ingredients to include cinnamon which I scoured both Chinat and Takhli to find. After many hours of searching every little "almost" grocery store, I finally remembered that it is a Chinese medicine and went to a Chinese drug store and selected a half kilo of cinnamon sticks from the selection of drugs such as deer antlers, pressed frogs and bats and other goodies. The "druggist" ground the cinnamon. Normally, I am not a cinnamon fan, but this stuff smelled really great. I was happy and knew it would make some great French Toast for the troopers. But, not that morning.
My next problem was the grill. I needed a large flat cooking surface and proceeded to Nakornsawan to look for the right item and found two large ones at a good price and brought them back down to Takhli. The next morning lesson one commenced and the troops were ecstatic over the French Toast and bacon. Unfortunately the vendor continued to step on his pork and didn't show up the following day for early breakfast for the aircrews. Last straw for them, and I cooked breakfast for the early troops.
Cooking next door was a very nice Thai lady, the wife of one of the Thai officers. She does an early breakfast for the Royal Thai Air Force. I had been over there on several occasions and liked her cooking. I asked the Thai Major I had been working with to allow me to ask her if she wanted the early morning breakfast business. She smiled from ear to ear and welcomed the opportunity. Next morning - you guessed it - Mayor Jim was back in the kitchen again. She was such a fast learner. I showed her one morning and she did it all the next and continued doing it. The guys loved it. Syrup was a problem, but we made do with some honey which was expensive, and I had some syrup made from a local course brown sugar. We later procured some from Bangkok and was able to find more as the exercise continued.
We now had an American breakfast at Takhli and the troops are happy.
CRITTERS James Thurber once wrote a poem about things which go bump in the night. Well, old Jim should have come out here. His inspiration would have been things which go creepy crawly in the night. I know THIS ol' Jim is most impressed!!! I have never seen the selection of ugly creepy critters before. I guess when we lived at Takhli we kept things cut back and sprayed so the real owners of the night life didn't get a chance to come close.
Among my many tasks as the "Mayor of Takhli" was to get to the bottom of infrastructure problems and resolve them as quickly as possible when it involves the areas where the U.S. troops are living and working. It was during one of these episodes that I witnessed the funniest event of the deployment and it involved a creepy crawly of most expotential ugliness. And it wasn't a snake.
The lights went out in one of the Python Huts. This is a six bedroom cinder block affair which the officers and aircrews occupied. I arrived as the Thai electricians did and went back in the darkness to the circuit breaker room to look at the situation. I had passed the residents with flashlights standing on the carport and exchanged evening greetings with a couple of added remarks about the power and getting it back on. As we were looking into the switch box there was such a commotion and yelling on the carport that I had visions of a snake cornering the whole lot of them. I went back out and found them kicking around an eight inch many legged critter with pincers like a scorpion and speed of a snake. Also, on the carport was a small yellow cat which was contentedly licking it's paws and paying no attention to the excitement of the bunch of foreigners speaking such a funny language. We're talking about a native Thai meowing cat who has no concept of "sic it Kitty - get it!!" As the guys were kicking this ugly thing around it would be upside down one second and up right the next. It was getting mad. Kitty still wasn't to be disturbed as those paws were really in need of a licking. But ugly bug had just about had all it was going to take and spied Kitty - the only stationary target available. With the speed of light and a bolt of lightning ugly bug nailed poor Kitty right on the butt - MEOW!! Flips and vaults were in order as pain raced to stars!! The cat was airborne and looking for the offender from the rear. He found himself looking into the face or faces of ugly bug and wanted no part of a fracus with that thing. Kitty retreated as did all the guys on the carport as eight inches of multilegged fury looked for it's next bite. The Thai electricians came racing out to see what was going on and became visibly concerned. There was much low guttural banter as the lead electrician dispatched the critter to bug heaven with five or six blows of a ballpeen hammer. Some of the guys reported the thing still moving the next morning. Kitty - well Kitty was still sore and licked his paws standing up and looking in a mirror.
As with Thurber, things do go bump in the night at Takhli as well. Especially some Majors. It was the wee hours of the first or second day on station for one of the Majors in the Python Hut. Such a night. He awakend to a virtual nightmare situation. There on the wall of his bedroom and just inches above his sleepy face was a huge spider as large as his own hand with legs as thick as his own fingers. Now it's fight or flight - flight it was!! The darkness of the Python Hut was rendered to daylight by the eyes of the Major which were now as large as car headlights. He screamed out of his room to the safety of the common area - "There's a big spider in my room - SPIDER!!!" The whole place was awake and mobilized. The critter was captured by a brave flight surgeon with a trash can and later sent to that big web in the sky with several cans of insect spray, repellant, underarm deodorant and anything else aerosol to displace oxygen under a trash can. Where are the animal rights activists when a poor spider needs them?
I could go on with more true drama and comedy of life at Takhli, but who would believe the green water or black water days?? Green slime from the shower heads? Hey, just another day in Takhli during Cobra Gold. We never did have a close encounter with Jake - as in Jake the Snake.
Jim Traywick Takhli Mayor, Cobra Gold '97
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25 aug 98