SIAM: Final Exam

(November 1973)  A cold November wind  blew as we climbed into the back of the Toyota Highlander belonging to Sompai, our Thai language teacher and head of the Nakhon Phanom Province education system. We were heading for Sompai’s home on the north side of Nakhon Phanom in order to take our final exam. I was with the 6908th Security Squadron, an intelligence gathering unit working for the National Security Agency. We were stationed at the RTAFB at NKP, about 12 miles west of the town and the Mekong River.

While I was in Thailand, the Yom Kipper War began when Israel was attacked by Syria, Egypt, and friends on October 6, which the Arabs lost. As a result OPEC placed an oil embargo on the United States. So we had to ration fuel at the air base and we did some walking.

The other two students were chopper pilots who flew together on missions over Laos. One of the pilots was Hamed and his family lived in Egypt.  And his buddy was Aaron, whose family lived in Israel. They got along fine, even when talking about the Arab defeat in class.

We arrived at the teachers house and he drove around back to a garage that was used for get togethers. His wife, a daughter about 10 and a young Thai woman named Lia were cooking over a fire and setting the table. We sat at the table and our teacher told us to eat all you want and when you’re through go upstairs and pick up a test paper, put your name on it and answer the questions. Then translate something from the newspaper, printed in Thai.

There was alcohol, including American whiskey, on the table. I decided to skip that but the two pilots were in a partying mood. All of us were talking to Lia, who was 20 and a school teacher. I forgot to mention that she was stunning. They don’t make women any better than Lia.

She told us that she went to high school in Richmond, Virginia and learned to speak English there. I could tell that when she brought around a plate of Thai chicken (the best) and stopped, looked around the table and said,

“Y’all have some more chicken.”

It broke everybody up.

I went upstairs first because I wanted to get back to the house I was renting a few blocks south and I needed to get up early the next morning. The first part of the Thai test was not too bad but the newspaper was very difficult.

Thai has 76 letters and I learned to read and write Thai but my vocabulary is limited. Thai sentences consist of every word jammed together. It looks like one very long word. You have to know when one word ends and the next begins. It’s ornate and looks very regal. There are no punctuation marks between sentences, just a couple of open spaces. Click to enlarge image.

An example of the complexity of the language is that there can be more than one version of a letter. There are four letters called s, but they look different. If used at the beginning of a word it is an s. But if it is used at the end of a word, it becomes a t. Once in a great while, if a letter hasn’t been used enough, it is dropped from the alphabet.

Well, I decided to write about a photo of a port-a-let on the front page. I had read that article in the English Bangkok Post earlier that day. Most of  the words I could understand so I wrote the article. I was about to leave when the two chopper pilots came in, a little “under” the weather.

Aaron picked up his test and looked at it. Then he turned it sideways, followed by upside down. I got them started with how to find the top and bottom of the paper and what was required on the test.

I wished them luck and left , said my goodbyes to the family and thanked them for the fantastic meal. And it was.

( I centered this story on the two chopper pilots and not the other students who were present. All the names were changed.)

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