The General & Sergeant Betel Nut
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
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.
pounds," he replied.
pounds," repeat Thomas, hoping the General's brow won't furrow so they were at
odds with each other.
do you go?" he ventured, knowing everyone in the car was watching them.
you from?" He thanked God he wasn't American or British for a moment.
comes his reply.
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
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.
old are you?
His eyes bulged for a moment.
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.
am train police," he finally said, pointing at himself and nodding.
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.
need help, you call me," he said as he stood up, putting his machine gun in his
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.