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Excerpt from Prophecy Seekers

The General & Sergeant Betel Nut

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The sun trumping the frost with a melting smile, Thomas ushered himself into the untamed day, crossing the railroad tracks to the platform where sleeping Burmese covered by their blankets were beckoned to rise by the loud shouting of the station master. The train north to Myskyina was the milk run and the only seats available were in steerage but it didn't seem that bad since it was the last stretch north to get to where he needed to go. So he bought an ordinary class ticket to ride to the end of the line, and muttered: When the flowers die, time will not come back.

When the train arrived he boarded the steerage compartment and chose a corner seat where he might have some degree of privacy. Just as he settled in, a man in army boots, khaki army uniform, and worked-in leather jacket walked into the boxcar with a dozen soldiers surrounding him. After a few minutes the General, as he called him, approached Thomas in the corner carrying a large machine gun over his shoulder. The General sat beside him and spoke choppy English.

"What do you weigh?" he asked. His weathered face and posture demanded attention and commanded respect. Thomas knew he had made a mistake but he was compelled to give him an honest answer rather than be regarded as insubordinate.

"180 pounds," he replied.

"What?"

"180 pounds," repeat Thomas, hoping the General's brow won't furrow so they were at odds with each other.

"Where do you go?" he ventured, knowing everyone in the car was watching them.

"Myskiyna."

"Where you from?" He thanked God he wasn't American or British for a moment.

"Canada," comes his reply.

"What company?" Instinct told him not to tell the General he worked at a univeristy because it was too high-brow for a face like his. Sometimes the truth could be dangerous.

"UHK," he answered, which was the acronym for the university. After the rapid-fire get-to-know-you chat, Thomas volunteered some information. Courage only happened in an instant. "Tourist," he said, pointing at himself. And then he offered him a betel nut. He declined but looked impressed that Thomas partook of the betel juice.

"How old are you?

"40." His eyes bulged for a moment.

"30?"

"No, 40." He relaxed a moment now that the small talk was out of the way, and in his posture showed they were on good terms. They sat together for a minute or two with the entire passenger list of the car looking at them. Even the way the General sat beside him, close and in confidence, showed a presence that Thomas reacted to with a certain pride. It said to his countrymen that he wasn't cow-towing to the foreigner. He balanced himself in just the right mixture of cordial relation and stern authority.

"I am train police," he finally said, pointing at himself and nodding.

"Yes," was the reply. Thomas thought it was his chance to give him what he wants and what the General, as his elder, deserved. "Many people here clearly respect you." He said it clear enough that he understood, and looked at Thomas just for a split second to see if he has making fun of him. Guys like the General could discern a false tone. But it was a hit. He changed the angle of his body to the car and nodded at him but facing away, like someone too cool to make it obvious. Thomas understood this language and knew that he was now on his team and under his protection. For a moment he wondered if it was because his teeth were red and had happy reek of betel nut on his breath.

"You need help, you call me," he said as he stood up, putting his machine gun in his left hand.

"Yes sir." They shook hands and the General barked orders to his soldiers who had been watching them. For those on the train in doubt of Thomas's intentions or of his character, he was given at least a temporary reprieve from further inquiry or nasty looks. The General could trust him in the corner and didn't have to worry he was a spy working for the CIA. Being a philosopher, he was reminded that it was the thrill of risk that was the vital element in living life.

When women and children began to board the train into their end of the boxcar, the General stood up without hesitation and shouted at them. Motioning with his arms he told them to go to the other end of the car. Only the Buddhist monks and Thomas were allowed to stay in his section of the car along with his army boys. The far end of steerage was already standing room only but their end was spacious.

When they finally departed, Thomas could tell that something was up with the General and his men. He barked commands and they scurried around, picking up a bag and clearing a section, or moving groups of people even farther into the other end. Soon, when they arrived at the second station after departing, ten of the General's posse jumped off the train and began hauling fifty-pound bags of coal from the trackside into their section of the car. One after another, the General's soldiers carried unguarded bags of coal into the train in a frenzy of lifting. But what was strange was just as they started to leave the station, the train mysteriously stopped and slowly drifted backwards to where they had been, as if pulled back by gravity. When back to the same place on the tracks, the army boys jumped out again and threw more bags of coal to a point man who Thomas called Sergeant Betel Nut. He directed the bags under seats and piled them up against the wall, yelling orders to his lackeys who obeyed his commands. His teeth were beet red from betel nut.

The boys stole ten more bags of coal from the trackside each time the train stopped and fell back to where it was. The boys dumped them in the aisles, corners and under the seats of everyone in the car except Thomas. Sergeant Betel Nut threw one under his seat but Thomas made a gesture that he understood, indicating he didn't to spend the next 20 hours with his legs cramped up like a pretzel. Perhaps he saw it in his face when he was just about to stand up and bark at him. Instead he chucked the bag under another seat so Thomas had his legroom for the journey. Sergeant Betel Nut was a brute. He didn't take any lip, but Thomas didn't think he wanted the hassle from his buddy the General so he played it safe. But not being outdone, the sergeant directed one of his lackeys to slip a bag under the seat in front of him, which was almost as bad because he couldn't stretch out his legs. When they have eye contact it was important Sergeant Betel Nut knew what he thought, Without verbalizing it, Thomas thought: Bastard. It gave him the satisfaction of one-upping the foreign usurper.

Many more times the train moved forward and then stopped, drifting slowly back to the station. And again the same guys jumped out to grab more coal. After more than a half-dozen false starts, and now covered in coal dust, the General's boys had worked up a sweat looting coal reserves piled beside the tracks that were mysteriously unguarded. The General's entourage, of which he was now part of but not on heavy labor detail, worked like dogs for him. Thomas would be hard-pressed to come up with anyone who he had ever met who had such a commanding presence. The deep baritone voice boomed from his weathered throat, his face pockmarked, complete with broken nose and sun-dried wrinkles. It was the army boots with tucked-in khakis that did it, not to mention the semi-automatic machine gun he held like it was a toy. One word from him and bystanders reacted by giving him his space. He was power incarnate in modern Burma.

Sergeant Betel Nut, now with ripped and sullied shirt, screamed at his fellow soldiers to tighten up and hide the evidence as betel juice splattered on people below him. It was his caustic manner and sharp tongue that were the hallmark of the Burmese army. Tall and big, not from protein but from junk food and greasy fare, he looked miserable and mean, but competent. The General showed faith in his abilities to get the job done. Despite Thomas's dislike of the betel nut-crazed thug, he managed the carnage with poise. The remainder of the General's regiment were young and eager, ready to serve their venerable leader.

They finally did leave the station, bringing with them about fifty 50-pound bags of coal, stacked at the back of the car so that no one could use the bathroom for the rest of the trip. Thomas curtailed his water intake and stuck to the betel nut to cope with it all. He wondered how the car will survive almost twenty hours without a bathroom but he didn't let it rile him. It bounced off him like water on a raincoat.

  
  

The Tattooed Station Master

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The mayhem subsided when the train began climbing the Himalayan Mountains. Thomas enjoyed the freedom of his view through the window, letting his arm dangle over the windowsill and savoring the breeze that pushed the hair off his forehead. The train stopped in an endless parade of stops, and at every station, the General's deputy, a young uniformed apprentice, stepped out to talk to every stationmaster. From what he could tell watching him, he was a natural. The deputy had what it took to shoot the breeze with all personality types and still appear to be having fun. Smiling and with the gift of the gab, he had excellent rapport with each stationmaster he met. He was a good choice as the General's mouthpiece and PR man.

But with the journey hardly underway, Thomas was already uncomfortable. A dominating aspect in steerage was the dazed, vacant staring he got from passengers. With his back against the very corner of the car, he felt as though he was on display for all the Burmese who had never seen a foreigner before. But more than this, the rock-hard wooden seats seriously lacking any ingredient of feng sui cause him the most grief. Finding a comfortable position was impossible. Trying to convince himself that this was a sacrifice so he could get an inside glimpse of the inner sanctum of a difficult-to-access country in the third world and find the sacred stone that had been hidden in this country waiting for an identical twin to discover, Thomas feared he was actually participating in a domestic black op with a General who had befriended him. He popped another betel nut and moved uncomfortably on the wooden seat, unable to alleviate the pain in his ass.

At each stop, kids swarmed the cars scavenging for food passengers have left behind, no matter how small. Aggressive, loud, and high on betel juice, they were the opposite of meek.

Then, after a few hours along the milk run, the train stopped and a stationmaster entered the car to inspect and to ask for tickets. His forearms were completely tattooed with black markings and symbols, as was his chest that Thomas could see under his open shirt. When he saw the bags of coal, he pointed at them demanding an answer. The General explained about the coal but the stationmaster exercised his seniority over the General and shook his head, not accepting the line the General fed him. When the General spoke again, the stationmaster raised his voice, gesturing at the hidden booty under the seats. His anger showed. That was when Sergeant Betel Nut spoke up, offering another explanation to quell the standoff, but this time the stationmaster reacted angrily by raising his voice another octave and jumping on top of the bags that obstructed the aisle. He took his pad and paper and jotted down notes, showing a fair dose of courage and causing the General to sink low in his seat and remain quiet. Clearly, the shipment of coal was illegal.

At this point all the passengers in the car fell silent. Then, just as the stationmaster was finishing his tirade, the General had his most classic moment. Clear as day in his booming voice, the General's two-word comment caused almost everyone in the boxcar to laugh. The tension, which had been so thick only a second before, dissipated in an instant. For an intense moment the tattooed stationmaster didn't stand down but it was clear that whatever he said now, nothing could be done. Any authority he thought he had was nothing in the face of the General and his uniformed posse. Realizing he was facing a larger and more powerful adversary, he bowed down and left the train. The boys beamed at their Lord and Master, who had the power and backbone to overcome and defeat this pencil-neck administrator so they could complete their task.

Soon the boys were back in a frenzy, preparing to unload their stolen plunder. Now in the flush of night the betel-chewing fraternity of young men, Thomas included, hit their frenzied peak. There was an unmistakable bluster of testosterone-fuelled Burmese soldiers spitting betel juice as they swaggered over the bags of coal. Laughter heightened to a feverish pitch, there was an element of maudlin that revealed cracks of immaturity. With teeth stained as red as theirs, Thomas thought of helping them with the bags, but the hysterical moments in the ebb and flow of semi-rational men-boys made him think twice about putting himself in harm's way.

That being said, with no lights in steerage and with it way after dark, it was Thomas who held candles as his teammates piled the bags up by the door so they could push the coal out quickly and undetected at the next step. Holding up two candles in the pitch-dark so they could see was the least he could do for the boys and the General to accomplish their illegal operation and be paid their rightful share. They were the sons of military commanders in a country run by the military and where law didn't really exist, at least to this roaming tribe of soldiers. At that moment he felt safe and secure knowing the General had his back. The irony wasn't lost on him that he was safer breaking the law being an accomplice in the coal heist than to not be, in this land where the military was the law.

Besides, standing there with the candles in his hands sure beat sitting on the wooden seat.

The train station they approached was on the Irrawaddy River, a strategic location because it was the only place where the railway crossed the river in the north. With separatist insurgencies still armed and active in the area, the Than Regime protected this bridge as if gold. It was the outer boundary of Burma proper over 1000km from Rangoon before crossing into the unsettled and hostile north. With such agitation in play, the long-stretching bridge was heavily guarded with lookout towers on both sides of the river, pillboxes poised on both flanks of the bridge.

Arriving at Moguaung train station, a great fury of unloading commenced despite the fact that the other half the car was trying to sleep. Being part of the team, Thomas remained on candle duty. The General stepped off the train with his deputy and disappeared into a darkened café adjoining the station, as a flurry of movement in the dark loaded the unaccounted-for bags of coal off the train on the other side of the tracks. Standing there with candles in his hands giving his team members the light they needed to get the job done, the military presence was palpable in Moguaung. Sergeant Betel Nut in his element, they didn't have the same amount of time at this stop as they did when they first loaded the bags, so the voices were louder and the commands crisper. Very quickly the bags piled up right outside the entrance of the compartment but it didn't seem to matter; they just wanted the bags off the car regardless of how neat the pile was.

A few minutes later, the General appeared just under his window where Thomas saw the General take out a large wad of bills and give a fair slice of the profit to his uniformed deputy. With the bags now out of the car, Sergeant Betel Nut lit a cigarette and talked briefly to the General, who handed his sergeant an even bigger wad of bills. When they separated, the General retired quietly to his seat, literally merging into the darkness.

But just as the train was about to depart, a large man with a drunken gait walked out of the café where the General had been and yelled out with authority towards the General's seat. Because he was hunched down and now incognito, the General didn't answer. The uniformed deputy appeared beside him and said something to the drunken man to quell his anger but it was met with another ejaculation of words. He stubbornly pressed for a reply but was met with the same silence. The deputy then said the right thing that caused the drunken man to turn his attention away from the General altogether and accept a cigarette from the deputy. Being right there, it had all the makings of something ugly. The General had chosen his uniformed deputy well.

Not all the passengers had closed their windows so the night air of the Himalayas made the steerage compartment as cold as a refridgerator as the train climbed farther north. Despite the severe pain of his ass from sitting, Thomas dozed off. When he awoke he was frozen to the bone, with his neighbor fully sprawled on his shoulder and legs asleep. They arrived at the end of the line at the wee hours of the morning.

  
 

  


  
 
Note About the Excerpt 
 
Thomas is heading to the end of the train line to the far north of Burma where he is trying to find the sacred stone of the East, but when he settles in the fourth-class steerage car he is approached by a Colonel in the Burmese army.
It is taken from chapters twenty-three and twenty-four of Prophecy Seekers.
 
 
  

 
 

  
 
 

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