Wordcarpenter Books

Chapter Twenty-three 


The General & Sergeant Betel Nut


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.


"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.


"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.


"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.


Part One - Canada
1.      The Twin From the East Returns  
2.      The Sundancer  
3.      Waxing Gibbous 
4.      The Second Coming of the Messiah 
5.      The Sacred Twin Story 
6.      The Sign of the Pahana 
7.      Palongawhoya and Poqanghoya 
8.      Rainbow Thunderbird and Red Phoenix 
9.      The True White Brother 
10.    The Lost Louis Riel Notebooks 
Part Two - Hong Kong
11.    A Mixture of Revulsion and Pity 
12.    A Classroom of Scallywags 
13.    Illegitimati non Carborundum 
14.    The Distant Fire of Empyrean
Part Three - Burma
15.    The Monastery of Sacred Tablets 
16.    The Outpost of Tyranny 
17.    When the 12th Moon Comes 
18.    The Pigeon Left & the Crow Took His Place 
19.    Go North and Find Your People 
20.    Finding Orwell 
21.    Though the Monkey is in a Hurry, the Tree Branch is Not 
22.    The Castle at God's Toes 
23.    The General and Sergeant Betel Nut 
24.    The Tattooed Station Master 
25.    Reverend Crow's Life's Work 
26.    Yield Not to Adversity, But Press on More Bravely 
27.    A Bitter Cuppa Tea 
28.    The Thirteenth Tribe 
29.    When a Lamp is Lit You Must Expect Insects 
30.    John the Christian 
31.    A Guardian Angel Named Hanna 
32.    The Bar Car & Betel Nut 
33.    The Son of Light 
34.    Slipping the Karmic Knot
Part Four - Hong Kong
35.    The Tonsure Warning 
36.    The Phoenix Reborn 
37.    Touching the Empyrean 
38.    Joshua the Gatekeeper 
Part Five - Canada
39.    Lapsit Exillis 
40.    Thunderstones 
41.    The Time of Great Purification  

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