Robert “Bob” French ~ Class of 1966
Departed ~ 11/1/2022
Lovingly submitted by Bob’s sister Peggy French ISB 1971
Bob loved life and would do anything he could to please, or help others. He was living in the state (Vermont) that he loved and wanted to buy a farm and have lots of dogs, a fabulous garden, raise Alpacas, and hike the mountain trails.
He loved to write and wrote some really fabulous stories about his his time in Thailand, especially his senior class trip riding a raft with his classmates down the river Kwai! If I can find his story I will repost it! He was an avid reader who would take out 20 books at a time at the library . He had a really good memory… he knew directors, actors and what they directed or acted in. He loved Song trivia and always tried to get me to guess something by saying “you will, know this”. Of course I didn’t and usually had to Google it. He loved The NY Times crossword puzzles, classical music, FOOD, and cooking. He loved good dancers… all kinds. He would send me YouTube videos of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers of old and the new ones like the Mayas who won Americas Got Talent this year.
R.I.P. Robert Mansfield French 1948 – 2022. Survived by his sister Peggy, daughter Alex and Alex’s husband Heath and two ex-wives, Linda (ISB Class of 71) and Cindy!
Rolling On the River Part One By Bob French. Class of 66
To say that my senior class trip was different is an understatement. In the spring of 1966 as a senior at International School Bangkok, Thailand, 55 classmates and myself, floated for 5 glorious days on large bamboo rafts down the River Kwai, (as in Bridge On the…). And one inglorious day when a storm so turbulent and wild almost capsized us and and threw us into the raging river; a fact that was diluted and watered down, (no pun intended,) for anxious parents when we arrived back home the next evening. Our journey started as we all gathered at the Bangkok Railway Station early on a Sunday morning for the 5 hour train ride to Kanchanaburi, a port on the river and home of the famed cemetery for the POWs (7,000,) who died building the Burma Death Train as it was called. At the time, the only thing left of the fabled bridge were the pylons with nothing connecting them. Now the bridge has been totally rebuilt and the whole area is a large resort area and premier tourist destination.
There we boarded narrow low-slung high-speed boats, where we had to sit one-abreast and raced up the river into a magnificent sunset and the isolated jungle of northwestern Thailand. These were not western boats— these craft were sleek and the propellor shaft alone was 10 feet long. As we raced along the river, I kept thinking how we were getting further and further from civilization, which was both exciting and scary. And this was mirrored by our modes of transportation: train to motorboat to bamboo rafts.
We arrived at our destination and clambered aboard the rafts. There were seven in all: three designated for us: The Playboy Penthouse, the Bunny Bungalow, the coed mixed raft, the command and cook raft and three families with all their belongings, moving down river. They were all moored together and we enjoyed a community meal and settled in. These rafts were not flimsy, 25 by 25 feet, built up on three levels of solid, sturdy, bamboo logs. But, bottom line, these were rafts, we were on a river, and we were going to get wet, really wet as it turned out. The first thing we noticed, almost all at once, was how utterly still and quiet it was; people were whispering, almost in awe of this phenomenon—no hubbub, no city noises, no nothing. And with only the stars, a campfire, and a few flashlights, the atmosphere was almost reverential. And the next morning our riverine journey began.There is something very therapeutic about floating on the river on a bamboo raft. It is quiet, peaceful, and talking about going wherever the day might take you. The mood was serene, the jungle exotic and the pace was languid. We had no way to steer, brake or accelerate; we were truly at the mercy of the river, and the calming effect was almost hypnotic. We had a Thai guide and a couple of long poles, like in Davy Crockett and Mike Fink in case we needed to shove off from a shoal, or avoid getting hung up in the limbs of low hanging trees. Otherwise, we just drifted along, wherever the current took us. At night they tied all the rafts together and secured them to the shore, but during the day, we just bobbed along at our own pace.
But it did not take long for trouble to find me. And I swear, I did not go looking for it. About midday, the three ISB rafts pulled in to a small cove featuring a small and scenic waterfall. We horsed around, climbed around, splashed around and many of us were diving into the pool off the edge of the falls. Truly heaven. Then Joanie Swanson, a good friend and I, went exploring a little way back into the jungle. We came back what seemed like a short time later. Joanie was a little ahead of me, and as we came to the waterfall, I saw her face blanch as she screamed, “They’re gone!” I mean, NO RAFTS! No sign of them or any other form of human civilization, whatsoever. They must not have taken a head count and assumed everyone was on board. And we probably couldn’t hear them because of the falls. But they left us, alone and defenseless. Talk about feeling bereft and unmoored; all we had were are bathing suits and wits and they were diminishing rapidly. We were stranded in the dense jungle of NW Thailand with nothing to guide us, feed us or clothe us. No food or water, nothing, not even a pocket knife or matchstick. Not a sound or sign of the rafts. There was only one thing to do, start walking, but which side, which way? I had been on Boy Scout survival hikes, but they were always with an adult and a compass and civilization nearby. And I could tell Joanie was starting to panic and I don’t think the immensity of it all had dawned on us. Then it occurred to me that the best way forward (for both of us) was to act confident (and of course as we were in Thailand, to whistle a happy tune.) And pretend that this was just one more big adventure. We swam over to the other side and started trekking. But as the jungle closest to the river was so dense, we quickly lost sight of it. I reasoned that since we were in the Northwest and Bangkok was southeasterly, we should keep the waning sun on our right and chart a roughly oblique course. Great idea except when dusk started to seep in and at times the jungle was so dense, we couldn’t see the damn sun. And the terrain was so hilly, it was easy to lose our bearings. After what seemed like hours and as twilight started to envelope the whole world, and our spirits were flagging, we crested one more hill, heard voices, saw firelight, burst out of the cane break, saw the beautiful river, and there were our beloved rafts all tied together and tucked into a small lagoon. But the strangest thing, instead of receiving a heroes welcome, we were greeted by a very somber group and treated like lepers. The consensus was that we had just snuck into the jungle for a quick roll in the hay, or in our case, jungle vines. I received a stern dressing down from Mr Henry as one of the female advisors read the riot act to Joanie. I am not even sure they ever believed we got separated all the way back at the waterfall, and should have been overjoyed that we trudged all the way through the jungle, with zero resources, and found them— the umbrage should have been on our part not theirs. How would they have ever explained to our parents that they had lost us. It is so easy to judge with hindsight; a few degrees in the wrong direction and we might never have found the river. And maybe it was a wakeup call; maybe it occurred to the adults that they needed some type of backup plan—and some form of communication. How would they have ever gotten together a search party —we could have been half way to Burma by then or worse. I wonder if they ever even had another raft trip after that…
Rolling on the River Part Two by Bob French
The rest of the trip was uneventful and perfect till the last day. We swam, floated, lazed, explored, snacked, played cards, hung out with girlfriends or boyfriends. We saw elephants hauling giant teak logs into the river, river snakes gliding across our wake, heard monkeys and exotic birds chittering and gibbering in the trees, wore as few clothes as possible and saw only one white person the whole week, a German tourist exploring the backcountry. We were about as removed from civilization as we could be. We had no walls, no roofs, no schedule, homework, responsibilities, chores, nothing but beautiful pristine lush and verdant jungle gliding lazily by us. We built campfires in the evening, told ghost stories, sang Kumbaya, and most of us slept right on the shore. And because there was zero light pollution, we felt like we could reach up and pluck the bright shining stars right out of the sky or their mirror reflection in the river. And no city sounds or white noise to invade your sleep, only the river lapping gently at the shore, an occasional plop from a jumping fish, or the muted cry of a distant wading bird. It was heaven on earth. Once we had a ferocious pitched battle with the mixed coed raft using our bamboo poles ala Mike Fink’s Keelboats, and cheered jubilantly when we managed to knock there outhouse into the river. (Actually just a four walled bamboo privacy enclosure) but we won. Which was a clear indication of our mental and physical superiority.
Everything was sailing along smoothly on what was meant to be our last day on the river. We were scheduled to float into Kanchabanuri about five PM, where we would catch the last train to Clarksville, I mean Bangkok, where our parents would pick us up. I sensed a kind of muted sadness as we realized this would be our last river day, although we were definitely looking forward to dry clothes, toilets and hot showers. Everything on the river was as special as usual, but there was a subdued energy field among us as we felt drawn by two different kingdoms, nature and civilization. As if sensing our mood, the river’s demeanor seem to subtly shift mid afternoon. The world seemed to grow still, the river slowed down, and the birds grew quiet. This was the proverbial calm before the storm. I think our Thai guides new what was coming as they signaled for us to converge so they could secure us together. We could see all the rafts then and watched breathlessly as they got two of the rafts tied together. We all huddled in the middle of our rafts, no one saying a word, but it was easy to tell that the adults were worried. Then a small wave gently lifted us up, and someone jokingly cried, “Surf’s up!!” And we were off. And it was every man or raft for himself. The river rose over a foot in one minute and all the daylight leached out of the sky as if someone had flipped a switch, and our calm beautiful quiet river became a raging inferno—it roiled, hissed, smashed things, raced and the sound was deafening. And it tossed us like a matchstick. We spun, we bucked, we screamed and we held on to each other for dear life. And we were actually riding one and two foot breakers in the middle of the river. Surf was up. And the river was still rising and moving faster and flooding the banks and you could not get your bearings, because we were spinning and the only time you could see anything, was when lightening flashed and then you could see the skeletal and jagged trees racing by. Which was actually worse, because then then you could tell how fast we were moving and how much was flooding. Whew! And then somehow one of our guides grabbed on to an overhanging limb and the world stopped spinning. All of the adults and a couple of us kids managed to haul the raft into a little protected area and secure it to the shore. We all heaved a collective sigh of relief and as if all our minds were on the same wavelength, we wondered,“now what?” Now what was right. We were temporarily safe, but the storm raged, the river raced, the rain pelted us, the winds blew, the riverbanks continued to flood, and the maelstrom continued. And what could we do? Nothing but pray and hopefully ride it out. Our little thatched roof had blown off long ago, and we were all soaked to the bone, so we couldn’t get any wetter. We couldn’t see, hear or talk while the storm raged. And not everyone was on the right raft, so we couldn’t even do a head count. We couldn’t see or hear any of the other rafts, in fact we couldn’t see anything. All we could do was pray that the other rafts were okay and everyone was on board. We all sat huddled in the middle of the raft shivering and white- knuckling it till well after the storm blew itself out in the middle of the night. There was a lot of hand wringing and hand holding, even among some kids that wouldn’t be caught dead being together back at school. The next morning dawned bright and crisp and the early morning sun started to thaw us out. We wanted to get moving so we could locate our companions. But the river had changed—it wasn’t finished with us—it was swollen, and brown and ugly and still angry and racing, with tons of debris floating dangerously by. As anxious, cold, wet and hungry as we were, we had to wait till the river slowed down, and for the water level to drop to a safe level. Especially as there was no way to steer or control the rafts. At first we had conquered the river, but then it had vanquished us.
Early in the afternoon we heard a shout, and here came the Bunny Bungalow, bedraggled and bruised, but intact and floating beautifully. There were shouts and cheers and pandemonium ensued; we were safe and they were safe and within an hour we had found all the rest of the rafts, each individually sequestered as best as they could in their own little safe havens. What a rush of emotions, to be scared witless for most of the night, and to be joyously reunited with the rest of our river family. No one complained about being wet, cold or hungry, all of us just glad to be safe and together. And everyone talking and cheering at the same time. Amazingly, beside being a little worse for the wear, everyone was okay, all present and accounted for. Full credit goes to our Thai guides and our adult advisors for ensuring we all made it safely home. We found out that, ironically, we were only a couple miles from our landing site but all of us were just glad to be safe and on firm ground. It was a very subdued train ride back to Bangkok and a low key reunion with our parents. I don’t know how much they knew—they may have just assumed we were tired. We found out later that the storm was the worst on the river in decades doing a colossal amount of damage upriver. We were fortunate to have survived the jungle and the river and probably have no clue how perilous the journey had been. My hunch is that there were no more raft trips after that year—just too many unpredictables. But speaking strictly for me, that was the trip of a lifetime and if you asked me about the inherent dangers, I would quote Alfred E Newman, “What, me worry?” Oh, the invincibility of youth.
A Steamy Night in Bangkok
by Bob French
One night in the summer of 1968, I interviewed a Thai whore. Back then, if you were to say the three-syllable phrase, “so-penny,” to the driver of the ubiquitous three wheel open-air samlor (taxi,) on a hot and humid Bangkok night, you would find yourself at a Thai brothel in 15 minutes. For whatever reason, I did this one night while on home leave after my sophomore year at Syracuse. This was something privileged, 19-year-old white college boys did; maybe part of “the Ugly American,” syndrome. But this time was different—I went back to the same place the next night and requested the same young lady and suggested that maybe we could go somewhere else for more privacy and to talk. Somehow, through broken Thai and English a deal was reached with the proprietor, and we taxied out into the night. I could tell from her body language that the young Thai lady must have vouched for me. Instead of going to a hotel as I had initially planned, it occurred to me that my father was stationed in Nam and Mom was upcountry, so I directed the driver to our house on Soy Sipsam.(13) Here we could use my room until my brother and sister, who were sleeping upstairs, would awaken.
Even looking back 53 years later, I am not sure why I did this, except that I wanted to get to know her as a person,and not just as a prostitute: what made her tick, why a sex worker, who she was apart from the brothel. So I got us a couple of drinks, we got cozy in my bed, and in spite of barely speaking the other’s language, we joked, giggled and talked for about 5 hours, almost like hanging out with one’s friends, except of course the part about being naked. One language that we did share in common was the universal ranking of #1 through #10. So-penny we agreed was #1, good Singha (Thai,) beer was #2, and so on.
“G.I. #10,” she said emphatically.
“Why, I asked?”
“They mean and no pay.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, thinking that the constant pool of servicemen on R’n’R from Viet Nam probably amounted to 90% of her income. Tough life. Probably where the standard retort of “no sweat, G.I.” came from. She told me that one reason she did what she did was that she had no education and was trying to help her family, especially a younger sister, who wanted to go to college.
“You #1,” she said.
“Oh, how come?”
She told me her name, that she was 25 and lived with her parents and two siblings and that her father worked as a janitor at university. Her grandmother who was 70, lived with them and spent most of her waking hours chewing betel nut, a mild narcotic, that leaves your teeth and mouth dark red, and is suspected of being very carcinogenic. Hundreds, if not thousands of food vendors line the streets and sidewalks all over the city, squatting down for hours with angry red mouths and yet, happy as clams.
“You go to college,” she asked?
“What you study?”
“Girls and beer,” I quipped, and we both laughed heartily.
“You funny,” she said.
And I said, “you’re sweet, to say so.”
She told me her brother was older and was off in Cambodia fighting the Khmer Rouge. I asked her why and she said the pay was good and some Thais were concerned, that if the Khmers, funded by the Viet Cong and the Communist Party of China, were victorious in Cambodia, they might try to annex Thailand. The Thais are fiercely independent, having been the only country in Southeast Asia to never be colonized, and not for lack of trying.
“Are you scared for your brother,” I asked?
“Yes, shot in leg, home 2 months.”
“What did he say about it.”
“Mai pen rai, and went right back to war.”
I had to laugh as “Mai pen rai,” is the universal Thai expression for “no biggie, or “no worries.” It used to drive my mother nuts when the little Thai butterflies, as she called them, would be waving their hands out their car windows, drying their fingernail polish, then giving you a big smile as they cut you off, and exclaim in beautiful singsong, “Mai pen rai, Mai pen rai, madam!”
This banter continued till about 5 AM, and I asked her if she wanted to sleep for a couple of hours and then I would get her a samlor home. So we did, just as if we were a normal couple.
At 7:30, I instructed our gardener to run down to the Main Street, to fetch her a cab, I gave her a generous tip and sent her on her way. When I came back in, the maid was looking at me with a knowing smile. I pointed upstairs, and said, “Madam,” and shook my head. She nodded and that was the end of it.
I had a rinky-dink little portable reel to reel recorder, on which I had taped some of our evening. Great fun to listen to afterwards. I even played it for a couple of my college buddies when we were in Frankfurt, on our way back stateside. They thought it was outlandish and hilarious—unfortunately that player is long gone.
I don’t remember if we had sex that night, and I never went back to another Thai brothel, but I will always remember that night with my new-found friend, a Thai whore. I still don’t know why I did it. Maybe there is a latent sociologist lurking inside me somewhere. I do know I wanted to get to know her beyond the confines of a brothel. Sometimes I wonder what she thought of this still wet-behind-the-ears college kid paying for a night of her service and taking her back to his own home and bedroom, and spending the night just socializing and treating her like a human being. I have also fantasized about going back to Bangkok and trying to find her, but that idea is probably a non-starter.
I have only shared this with one other living soul, and now you guys, so this book, Thai Whores and Loony Bins, will definitely be my coming out party.
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