My Father’s Son, A Memoir of an Incidental Life

June 17, 2012 1 Comment

Kru Mark, Vietnam and Laotian war hero, former Muay Thai Champion, well respected MMA/Muaythai Kickboxing instructor is originally from Laos. He now coaches at The Arena MMA Gym in Point Loma, San Diego, CA.

“A good teacher has to do more than just talk about it. He or she must become your guide.”

The co-author of this memoir, Boungnaphonh Makthepharaks, better known as Kru Mark, is a former Muay Thai Champion who has been involved in the sport, either as competitor or teacher for over 50 years. Like his father, Bounpone Makthepharaks, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Laotian army, Mark served in the Military, working with the U. S. Special Forces in Vietnam until his capture. After being held captive for six months, he escaped and later emigrated to the U.S. where he has been teaching his family’s style of Muay Thai ever since.

What sets him apart, makes him so interesting, is not just his performance in the ring, the war record, his teaching expertise, his writing style, but the fact he’s done everything so well. He’s a modern day hero who grew up in an environment like no other. Like the fictional heroes we see on the silver screen, he survived some dreadful experiences when his life meant nothing to his inhumane captors.

We know it must have been painful for Mark to revisit such a nightmarish past, but that’s just what he did.

In comparison, the terrain is very different in present day Laos. China has now become a major player in the country’s social engineering. Their influence is everywhere, from the deforestation of trees to the soon to be opened Mega Mall City near the capital city of Vientiane.

At one time, Laos was called the “Land of a million elephants.” Today, that number is thought to be under 1,500. The unfair snatching of villager’s land, followed by resettlement has angered human rights organizations. The radical changes of its people have the better educated living it up, while the peasants continue to make around $2 a day for their drudgery. The in-country sharks show no mercy.

This Laotian farmer looks out over his rice field in Luang Prabang, Laos. The current global rice shortage has seen prices of one of the world’s most important staples increase by 50%, triggering an international crisis with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders. Photo: Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images

The current leaders claim they want what is best for their people so they can turn visions into reality. At present, their roadmap appears to be self-serving.

With Kru Mark’s recollections we are taken back to a world that’s as close to hell as you can get. The Vietnam War was in progress and temperatures in this locale reached upwards to 114 very humid degrees. It wasn’t just hot, it was oppressively hot.

With the help of a friend, Jack Beddows, Mark takes us on a journey that comes without any sugar coating.

 My Father’s Son

A memoir of an Incidental Life

 By Kru Mark and Jack Beddows

~Preface~

My father’s name, Bounpone Makthepharaks, a name given to him by the abbot of the temple where he spent much of his early life, roughly translates to, “Warrior of Virtue protected by Angels.” After becoming an adult, he married a beautiful young woman by the name of Phèo Phanh and started a family. They named their first child, Boungnaphonh Makthepharaks. That would be me and to make things easier on you, the reader, you can just call me Mark.

Here is a photo of Kru Mark’s parents taken at a Military function in Laos.

Ever since my father enrolled me at Ecole Saint Cyr, a French military academy, my friends called me Mark. It was my father’s decision to send me to that school and it reflects the legacy of European influence so ingrained in the world I grew up in, the sometimes hazy world of Indochina. Of course, if you know me better from my professional fighting career, a choice I never intended, then most likely you know me as Kru Mark, “Kru” meaning teacher.

It’s wonderful to have plans. My father, a most careful and intelligent man, had excellent plans for me. Of course I had my own plans. While my plans were not always aligned with my father’s, they were nonetheless – I hope – both honorable and to his credit.

Often times, the most decisive, noteworthy moments in someone’s life are not defined by an achievement at a planned event, but rather by how well they react to an event that is unplanned. You might associate these phenomenons with God, the Devil, Chance, the Tao, or any name you choose. What shall we call them? Fate? Karma? At least that’s how I interrupt them. From the barbaric to the extremely wicked, I saw many atrocities that even now I can hardly believe. But of course, I was there to bare witness.

 

                                                                                       Chapter 1

                           ~Life in Champasack~

 

People rarely consider how geography affects their lives. Perhaps it is more common in America to neglect such considerations, as the advantages are so enormous they become invisible. Like a giant elephant to a bug, the bug only sees the elephant as sky. Therefore to understand my childhood, you must know a little bit of geography. Don’t worry! It’s possible you know much of the background already.

Maps and photos can be of great assistance as we take this journey together.

The peninsula of Indochina that juts out from the continent of Asia contains several close neighbors which include Thailand, Laos and Champasack, as well as Cambodia, and Vietnam. Champasack was at one time its own nation, and somewhat isolated in the region by its heavy identity with its Indian culture as opposed to its neighbors, such as Laos, who had closer ties to the Chinese. By the mid 1700’s, cultural differences notwithstanding, both Laos and Champasack were absorbed into the larger Kingdom of Siam and for over a century remained as such.

As time passed, it became evident that European power would spread throughout the world. Eventually, the competing colonial nations of France and England, came to Siam. Before long the relationships between the three nations became unglued. If you’re familiar with the storyline from The King and I, than you know. Or perhaps you’ve seen the more recent movie, Anna and the King. That movie is very much tied to the history of these colonial movements during one king’s pivotal reign. At one point, when the stability of his Kingdom was threatened, the King was forced to send his family into hiding. One of the regions that received the children of the king was Champasack, which in modern times became the borderland between the nations of Laos and Thailand, officially belonging to Laos, but culturally speaking closer to Thailand.

The largest portion of old Siam, known today as Thailand, was actually never colonized by the English, despite the fact they were very interested in the area, which typically meant the local population was about to have a crash course in all things British. Siam’s ability to resist the advances of the most powerful nation on earth was due in large part to the strength and vision of its kings, who employed survival tactics like keeping the British and French more interested in their own conflicts than in colonizing Siam. However, concessions were made, and the empire became fragmented. Certain areas of Indochina went to British control, and the regions of Laos and Champasack went to the control of the French.

The French control lasted for roughly a hundred years, starting in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and had a unifying effect on the two culturally diverse regions. However, the French weren’t the only people interested in the area. A century after the French gained control, other Imperial powers gathered steam from within Asia itself. The French control was interrupted for a brief period during the Japanese expansion that precipitated Emperor Tojo’s entrance into the Second World War. With all the resources available to them and so close at hand, Laos and Champasack quickly came under Japan’s control. Then, as usual, Thailand managed to secure itself with treaties and ploys to keep it autonomous, while its neighbors became colonial possessions.

As we now know from our history of the Second World War, this period of Japanese control did not last for long. After the dust from WWII settled, the French returned again to Laos. This second period of control was to be far briefer, as the French were forced to leave the region in the mid-nineteen fifties; a decade that saw many European possessions throughout the globe reverting to the hands of their native populations.

By this time, there were many forces afoot in Laos. The country became lawless and split into three factions vying for power. The respective parties included the Neutralists, Royalists, and Communists. This was the beginning of the Laotian civil war that continued throughout the Vietnam era. During this period, American interests replaced the French, largely in response to the fact that Laos had become host to a segment of the North Vietnamese supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, as well as the growing communist influence among the general populace.

Communist agents would sneak into the country to rouse up the farmers in the villages. They promised a worker’s paradise here on earth. In reality, they were recruiting uneducated peasants, hardworking, respectable but gullible people, to fight and die for them. Before long, involvement from both sides in this supposedly neutral nation, would explode. Being a part of Laos, the region of Champasack was also caught up in the dizzying political upheaval. It was unto this uncertain time, May 5, 1953 and place, Champasack, Laos, that I was born.

On my mother’s side of the family, I’m a descendent of one of the princes sent to Champasack for safety. So technically I am the great-great grandson of the King of Siam. Even though this reality hardly meant I was in line for the throne. Thank goodness my mother was recognized as a princess in Laos; perhaps this helped to attract the attention of the man who eventually became my father – the same man who became the commander and chief of the Royal Laotian military forces.

As you might imagine, my parents’ backgrounds had a huge influence on my upbringing. Though they are intertwined, who people are and who they become, they are no guarantees. The personal qualities of my parents, which could have belonged to any of a broad spectrum of people, were as influential in my life as their social status. And for both of my parents, one of the dominant forces that shaped our lives was Muay Thai.

 

Chapter Two

~Training~

I will say this about my own personal geography – being born into the heart of our nation’s military and all things that had to do with the life of a soldier, became as natural to me as breathing. You name it; I knew how to do it. How could I not under the circumstances? There was no point of protocol or task required by duty that I didn’t understand from a very young age. This included the hand-to-hand combat that had been taught to the Siam military forces for hundreds of years, the art of Muay Thai.

For those who are unfamiliar, this is a martial art that employs kicks and punches, but because it also has a heavy emphasis on the use of knees and elbows, it is often referred to as the eight-limbed art. It is a very powerful and direct fighting style proven to be effective in the modern world. It is currently in vogue as one of the main constituents of the rapidly growing sport of Mixed Martial Arts. Along with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Wrestling, Judo and Boxing, Muay Thai is one of the few traditional arts that has survived the restructuring of the various fighting styles. The majority of the high-level competitors in MMA have a working knowledge of Muay Thai, and many, including several world champions, have an extensive background in the art. Of course Muay Thai, a sport in and of itself, is hugely popular, especially in the part of the world where I was born and raised.

Here is one of the rare photos of Kru Mark’s father, Bounpone Makthepharaks, the former Commander-in-Chief of the Laotian army. Photo: Kru Mark

My father was a master teacher of a combat version of Muay Thai, which had been passed down through our family for centuries. As a child, I remember walking around the Muay Thai practice grounds where the soldiers, trained by my father, would perfect their skills. I was utterly amazed by their ability. I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. They were fast, strong, skillful and fearless. When I told my father how I felt, he sat me down and said, “No, my son. You will learn something even better!” At the time, I could hardly believe there could be anything better than what I saw from these athletes and warriors. Over time I began to understand what my father meant.

The style of combat Muay Thai I was taught was not readily known. The distinction between how a soldier was trained and how the young Muay Thai competitor was trained may have been oblivious. What the typical soldier and athlete learned was effective, no doubt about it. Competitive Muay Thai produces fierce athletes that can be devastating to an opponent. This is due to its roots which are in a form of infantry combat that has proven itself in the field of battle. In this sort of environment, if something doesn’t work, it won’t last. However, the problem with the typical training methods becomes the view taken by the individual athlete.

With the pressure of poverty, young men flock to train Muay Thai hoping for a shot at fame, fortune and most importantly, a way out from an otherwise bleak future. They are caught up in a grinding industry that sees each athlete as just another dispensable body. By the time they reach their mid-to-late-twenties, they’re already old, the result of rough, uncompromising, and unbalanced training. But how many champions can there be? And in the wake of a small handful of success stories, is an endless tide of broken bodies and broken spirits.

In contrast, the style I learned was not only designed to be devastating to an opponent, it was also intended to preserve health and longevity. Under my father’s teaching, I learned to take care of my body, avoid injury, and strive for balance. It was the rule and not the exception to remain fit and capable while living to be eighty, ninety, or more. As a youngster, I remember my great-grandfather at the age of ninety-five. He would go walking everyday and had good posture.

Of course with all the training I did, there was always the risk of injury, but less than you would think. As a child my training was more like a game, very light, and aimed at developing body awareness and coordination. By the time I reached an age where sparring was potentially injurious, I had received such thorough training, my chances of being badly injured were minimal.

Though training had always been a part of my life, I understood and respected the differences between our family’s style of combat Muay Thai, and that of sport Muay Thai. I never dreamt I would become a competitive fighter. As I said before, having plans is wonderful.

Even though I never intended to be a professional fighter, this is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching the competitions. I was immersed in all aspects of Muay Thai, The sport was so widespread. It was a part of ceremonies, cultural fairs, as well as the dominant attraction for the sporting public. I’d often attend the various competitions. I remember going to this one event with friends. I was 10 years old and it ended in a way I could never imagine.

The competition in question was a professional fight in a junior league. The scheduled fighters were in their mid-teens but already very serious. My friends and I were excited to see the match. As we crowded around to watch the start of a bout, we began to wonder why the second fighter had not taken his place in the ring. We shuffled our feet and began to get restless along with the rest of the patrons. Finally, one of the fight officials announced that one of the fighters had dropped out at the last moment. It was then, amidst the audible disappointment of the crowd, that my friends pushed me forward as a replacement. They screamed, “Here! Here! Our friend can fight! He’s not afraid! He trains everyday! Take him!” and so forth.

Looking across the ring at his opponent, young Boungnaphonh Makthepharaks (Kru Mark) couldn’t help but feel intimidated. His 15 year-old opponent was big, really big. Mark was 10 and terrified.

I was shocked and not at all pleased. I didn’t want to fight that big kid. But I didn’t have time to think of what insults to hurl at my friends for embarrassing me. All at once the crowd started yelling out their approval. They were thrilled at the prospect, at the thought they’d not be cheated of their entertainment, especially considering the apparent, humorous mismatch.

My opponent-to-be was 15. I was 10 and terrified. I gathered my wits and tried to bow out, but my friends wouldn’t let me, holding me until an official grabbed my arm with glee. Before I knew it, I was dressed, wrapped for the fight, and then pushed up into the ring to face the older and larger opponent.

A strange thing happened. Once that fight began, my nervousness faded and my training took over. I was surprised to see my anxiety vanish. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Despite our size and age difference, I had sparred countless times and certainly had more and higher quality training. How else could I have fended off the much larger opponent?

My adversary, who no doubt thought he was in for a cakewalk, began flashing these looks of frustration, disdain, as his initial attacks were not as successful as he had imagined. After I parried a few punches and hit him with a soft experimental hook, he sneered as if to say, you got lucky that time. As he became even more frustrated, I warmed up to the job ahead, moving from a more defensive to an offensive style. It wasn’t long before it became clear to both of us that I was both faster and more skillful. The round ended and my opponent retired to his corner, tired and disheartened, and I to mine, where my friends were screaming out their approval, along with the rest of the happily surprised crowd. The feeling of having people shout for me was yet another shock. Before I knew it, the next round had begun, and again I squared off against my angry and determined opponent.

However, neither his anger nor his determination, were of use to him, and in the second round the fight really began to wear on him. I was simply too elusive for him to land a kick or punch effectively. And since I was only ten years old, my kicks weren’t exactly power-packed. Still, they had enough snap that once I landed a dozen or so, my opponent’s leg began to lose its usefulness.

When the round ended, he hobbled back to his corner. As we sat there on our stools, it was soon announced that my opponent was unable to continue. I had won by technical knock out. The crowd roared their approval. It was the classic David versus Goliath tale worth repeating.

This youngster appears to be in much pain as the show’s fight doctor attempts to stretch the boy’s thigh and calf muscles to relieve the pain.

I couldn’t help feeling flushed with pride. To have people cheer for you is a glorious feeling, a dream for any fighter. Of course the older and wiser ones realize this feeling is something of a false seduction. The crowd, even your friends at times, will cheer for different reasons, and their admiration is fickle to say the least. But try telling that to a fighter who has just fought and won his first professional fight at the age of ten. Without ever having had a single thought of entering such a contest. This wasn’t the only time this sort of thing happen to me.

When hearing of my victory, my father was happy for me. He also went on to tell me that he didn’t want me to be a fighter when I grew up.

“My son,” he counseled, “you will be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher!”

I kept that in mind. When I was growing up, teachers were revered, on the same level as the other two worthy professions.

My father was adamant about keeping me away from the short and uncertain life of a professional fighter. Of course Muay Thai was an entirely different matter. The meaning of the martial art, if not the sport, was part and parcel of the philosophy my father imparted to me over the many long years of training.

Being a former Mixed Martial Artist herself, Kru Mark’s mom enjoys it when she accompanies her son to the gym.

I haven’t said enough about my mother to this point. It would be easy to imagine her as this gentle, docile woman with a demeanor that countered my father’s strong personality, envision her in a silhouette against a scenic background, engaged in a religious ceremony or other gentle art, while my father trained his men. It is a lovely image.

Though parts of that impression might hold some truth, it bears little resemblance to the memories I have of my mother. A mother who strode through the Muay Thai classes with her Sarong tied tightly between her knees to allow for freedom of motion, correctness of form and technique; all the while she’d be praising any particularly skillful reaction and chastising the moments of foolishness or inattention.

Even today, when she visits me, she insists on coming to the classes I teach. It is extremely difficult to get her to sit down for even a minute. It is also impossible to get her to understand that they are in fact, my classes and not hers. If she’s this active and involved while in her eighties, can you imagine what it was like growing up with her. I can tell you, it was hard to get away with much.

And so, this was my existence to be constantly under the rigorous guidance of both parents. At times, it felt like I was spending the entirety of my teenage years standing there in the center of this Muay Thai training ground, a training ground located in the middle of a military camp in the heart of a war zone. It was here that I learned philosophy as well as fighting from the man who, despite being the highest ranking officer, still took the time to teach the Muay Thai classes. For him, practice was a way of testing yourself through an opponent and striving always for improvement, to let the inessential drop away, and leave only what mattered behind.

 

Chapter Three

~Life Abroad~

Saint-Cyr Military Academy trains officers for the French army through a two-year course for graduates who have earned a baccalauréat and through a one-year course for selected noncommissioned officers. Former French president, Charles de Gaulle, who graduated with honors in 1911, taught military history there after World War I. And like Kru Mark, de Gaulle spent time in a Prisoner of War camp, two years and eight months, during which time he made five unsuccessful attempts to escape.

After my enrollment into the French Military Academy, I found the adjustments to be minor. With my upbringing, I was like a duck entering the water. My father decided to send me while I was still very young, so I could receive the highly regarded, European education. I would spend the next several years, traveling back and forth between these two nations, nations connected by ancient conquests.

As far as my academic and military obligations at the school, things couldn’t have been any easier. Knowledge of protocol, and attention to duty, were the principles of the house I was brought up in. The majority of the specific tasks required of me were also the same as what I had been doing since a child. So, my role as a student in the academy was assured. It was my social life at this school that came into question.

I was the only Laotian in my class; a class made up of the sons of French army officers, some rich, some snotty, and some plain mean. There was one boy in particular, who was a real pain in the ass. He was the biggest kid in the school, and he liked to throw his weight around by bullying others, the pint-sized boys in particular. Being on the small side myself, and also from of a different ethnic background, I quickly became the bully’s favorite target.

“Hey, Etranger!” he would call out. Then he’d corner me in the halls in front of a makeshift audience of other boys, some actively hostile themselves, some just amused.

Oh, how I wanted to hit him so bad. But it would have been utterly disastrous. It would surely end with that boy being injured and with me being expelled from the academy. This would have been deeply displeasing to my father.  So I had to hold my tongue and take the abuse.

To this day, I still have dreams of finding that man, wherever he is, and getting him into the ring with me. Inside the ring, I could properly teach him a lesson he would never forget. Just thinking about him makes me angry. But thoughts such as these are not healthy. Can you imagine the ironic twist of finally meeting my former nemesis, only to find he had become a Buddhist priest.

“Religion has saved you this time!”  I would yell.

Over a period of 43 years, much has changed at the Saint Cyr Military Academy in Brittany, France. Here we see the First Battalion of cadets of the 2004-2007 class from Saint-Cyr during Bastille Day, July 14, 2007 as they parade down the Champs-Élysées. Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

I continued to train martial arts while attending the academy, and all the while I remembered what my father had said, “My son, you never want to have people say of you, ‘Oh, he used to do Muay Thai.’ Or, ‘Oh, he used to be good.’ No! You want them to say, ‘He’s still good!’”

Which in practical terms meant, defense first, build up body strength, and avoid any unnecessary risk of injury. It wasn’t difficult to do, since I had started so young and the rhythm of fighting was entirely natural to me.  Also, the style of fighting my father taught me gave me a big advantage. From the very beginning I had been taught to fight from both sides, which is ultimately more natural than the typical approach of sport training.  In sport Muay Thai the general idea is to train for one side only, to quickly increase skill level and effectiveness for that one side, while completely ignoring the possibility of switching stances.  So my sparring partners at the academy had great difficulty with me, as I could very naturally switch back and forth, frustrating their techniques and tactics, and in the confusion take my opportunities as I found them.

Although my father had different ideas, it was at this point in my life that I decided I wanted to be a professional soldier. My father wanted me to pursue a safer career path, and to continue my education to work towards the more respected professions. But I wanted to be like him. And so, when the time came to finish at the academy, I decided to immediately join the French army as a Legionnaire – the French equivalent to the American Green Berets.

I was 17 years old when I moved to the military training base in the Pyrenees, where trainees were put through their paces. It was hard work, but work I could handle.

What got to me was the cold. I remember one long hike, up and down the slopes of the nearby mountains that we performed regularly with heavy backpacks. During the hottest part of summer, I managed better than most on this rigorous outings. But when we had to the same hiking in the winter, I wanted to lie down and die. I cried to myself, ‘a boy born in the tropics does not belong on a freezing mountain top.’

Even while training to be a Legionnaire, I continued to practice my martial arts. By this point my interest had grown in the other martial arts, to include Shotokan Karate, and the French form of kickboxing known as Savatte which translates to sandal. The French wore sandals while training.

Of course like many other countries, the French had been influenced by their exposure to Muay Thai kickboxing. This is one of the reasons why France is one of the strongest European nations in the sport. Still, Savatte was different and had a distinct form of its own. Since there was a small town next to the military base, it wasn’t hard to find a place to train.

Airbourne Ranger

Chapter Four

~The War Back Home~

After completing my training, I flew back to Laos. By this time the Vietnam War was raging-on in earnest, in my homeland as well as in the nations of North and South Vietnam. I made up my mind to enter the fight.

It was my father’s wish, that I should at least go through officer training so I could enter the fray on a safer military path. In retrospect, it may have been the saner route, but I was young, impetuous and wanted to prove myself.  My father was my hero and I wanted to show him I could be like him by putting myself up against the same challenges he had faced.

As a member of the U. S. Special Forces, the Green Berets, Kru Mark looked quite dashing in his Military uniform.

By this time, the French had long since removed themselves from the conflict, and so my status as a Legionnaire was not enough to secure the same position I wanted with the American military. And so it was off to Fort Benning, Georgia for more training. This time I would be taking a crash course with the Green Berets. This arrangement was more of the same. More of the same discipline and training that I had had since I was a youngster. But it was fun to practice the jumps with the Airborne.

Since they recognized my prior military experience, they had me on an abbreviated training program and it wasn’t long before I was returning home to South East Asia. This time, I was there to fight the growing spread of Communism in Laos as a part of the United States Army’s Special Forces.

By this point, the end of the war was fast approaching. This meant things were heating up, and the geography had become increasingly hazy in regards to which forces controlled which areas. It had become a debatable point, and unfortunately, this would have unhappy consequences for me personally.

From the outset, my unit saw fit to have me stationed on the front lines. Why? They claimed it was because I could speak Vietnamese. Still, I always felt a little rankled by this notion, especially after the first time I got shot. But no, there I was again and again, edging quietly forward into danger. I would think to myself, ‘Damn! Here I am again, stuck in the lead position!’

Even though I received two purple hearts in the line of duty, I was injured a lot more. It wasn’t the bayonets or bullets that had me scared. It was those infamous tiger traps.

This is a tiger trap, one of the many the Vietcong used to maim their opposition. A soldier steps on the board and then falls down onto the spikes. As soon as Kru Mark felt that stinging blow, there was no doubt, he was in a world of hurt.

In the point or lead position, I was always the one out in front of everyone and I’d often move along at a quick pace. On this one occasion, the ground suddenly cracked and gave way beneath me. While my heart instantly sunk like an elevator that’s had its cable cut, my body twisted to one side as I hugged the wall of this large dugout pit that was filled with the sharpened, bamboo stakes. These traps, traditionally used to kill tigers, worked just as well on humans.

Soon after falling, I felt the searing pain. One of the stakes pierced my groin and came out several inches higher through my abdomen. As I looked around to assess the situation, there was blood and urine everywhere. Miraculously, that stake didn’t pierce any vital organs or otherwise I wouldn’t be alive today.

I landed mostly between the stakes with my body and arms just missing several deadly points with which I had become intertwined. With my hands, I grasped two of the deadly implements as my arms curved through the poles. The whole thing seemed ridiculous. I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. Of course the situation was terrifying, but I was also flooded with relief at my good fortune of still being conscious, still being alive.

One of the other soldiers on point with me, shouted down into the trap, “Mark! Are you Okay?”

“Just fine!” I said facetiously, “But get me the hell out of here!”

Getting out of that trap was neither easy nor fun, but after surviving what I thought was certain death, I was in no mood to waste time feeling sorry for myself. Before long I was back on my feet and as quickly as possible I hobbled back to our rendezvous point and what I had hoped would be safety. I had gone through quite enough on this day.

In late 1968, Waverly Grearson, also a point man for his platoon, fell into a tiger trap. At the bottom of this trap were the sharpened bamboo sticks. When his buddies pulled him out, he had these 12 inch long stakes driven through his boots, into his feet and legs. He died three weeks later from tetanus. The VC had dipped these daggers in cow urine and dung.

Why, you might ask, would anyone put themselves through this much grief? Being young and wanting to prove myself was only a part of the total equation. As I said before, I wanted to be like my father, but more so than merely following in his footsteps.

At this time, the country I grew up in had been torn apart by conflict. Local powers were vying for control, but at the same time, they were being influenced by much larger, indeed, global interests. Beyond the vagaries of one’s birth, I, as a rational human being, believed I could still choose which side I wanted to see in power.

First, let me say this, there are excesses in every regime, whether it be Royalty, Communist, or Capitalist. At that time the Chinese had been pushing for control in the region, and they weren’t very gentle about it. However, it seemed Communism, a theoretical heaven for the working man, had been developing in the real world. But, it was heavily totalitarian, and often horrific.

If we look at Tibet, the only way to stop the push from China is to fight back. And who was going to do this, if it wasn’t me? Warfare is horrible, distressing, often times a traumatic duty to struggle with. For years, my father struggled with his duty and obligations to his country. This was the burden I felt. I was duty bound to share this burden with him if I was ever to be happy with myself.

So there I am, limping around at our pre-arranged meeting place, after fulfilling my sense of duty by being impaled in this beastly, vile, tiger pit. It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to a crystal ball, because believe it or not, things were about to get even worse.

The uncertainty in the region of Laos and Champasack was growing at an accelerating pace. Borders between political and military factions shifted faster than intelligence could report. The American influence had weakened, in these, the last few months of the Vietnam War; a conflict that officially wasn’t occurring in my country, but which nevertheless was being waged with devastating results for countless of my countrymen.

 

Chapter Five

~The Beginning of the End~

When the Americans pulled out of Vietnam and Laos, it sent shock waves throughout Indochina. The war had spilled over into every nation in the region. In Laos, the reaction was disastrous.

I had been home visiting with my father during the transition period, when he called to show me something.

“Look at this, Son.”

He then proceeded to show me all these crates of money, US currency, enough money for someone to live like a king for the rest of their life.

“What’s this?” I asked, “Is it ours?”

“Yes, in that we can do what we want with it,” answered my father.

My mother and an American Lieutenant, who was an associate of my father, were also present. At this meeting several fortunes would be decided. As it turns out, the money was among the last large shipments provided by the United States to support the war effort in Laos, and was originally intended to pay for the continued support of the Royal Laotian Army whose economy was strained by the corrosive conflict that had engulfed the country.  The only problem was that the army was falling apart.  Now the question was what to do with the money.

“Keep it!” My mother said, thinking only of the continued necessity to take care of her family in the face of an exceedingly uncertain future.

“You really should take it,” my father’s associate added. “Take it, and get out of here. Move somewhere far away and safe to enjoy your life.  The money is yours now and no one is going to ask for it back.”

At this point, I must admit, my own heart leapt with anticipation. The promise of money and escape from an increasingly hopeless conflict made a powerful combination, the lure of which would have sucked in almost anyone, anyone except for my father. My father just shook his head and smiled. “No, this money was meant for the Army, and if it can’t be used properly, then it will be returned.”

I was dumbfounded by his reply, and probably a little frustrated as well.

“Besides, this is my country,” continued my father. “I will not leave it when it goes down. I will stay to the end.” He did just that. After the communists came to power, my father was captured and taken to China, where he lives to this day.

Like I said, I was dumbfounded. But the more time that passes, the more I realize how wonderful a decision it was, despite the eventual consequences to my family. In any event, what else could I do, except return to my front-line post with the remaining forces of the Royal Laotian Army, such as they were.

As it turns out, the United States wasn’t the only power trying to maintain its influence by providing funds to the interested parties in my country.  Throughout the civil war, the Royal government of Laos had seen its rule steadily undermined by the Communist. They not only preached their steady diet of ideology, the promise of a worker’s paradise here on Earth, they also furnished the farmers with food, guns and money. Of course, the reality of what was coming would be something completely different.

Very much a part of the Laotian ‘Secret War’ was this non-existent airfield in Long Tieng, Laos where the U. S. could deliver arms, troops, supplies, money and leaflets to help in the war effort. Like the little boy who kept crying wolf, after the Americans got caught telling one lie after another, nothing they said could be believed and this base had to be shut down.

Now that the American presence and assistance was gone, the royal government simply gave up hope. But they never told the troops on the front line, the ones that were living in the string of camps along the often-shifting borders. Not once did they mention the word surrender. Why? They knew the troops would likely refuse. So they approached the situation differently.

To paraphrase the government’s official decree, ‘Now that the Americans are gone, we will have peace talks with our Laotian brothers. You are to welcome them into your camps, with your arms clearly down, and they will disarm the same as you.’

We obeyed our orders and put down our weapons to arrange for the first of what we imagined would be a series of negotiations. But the Laotian farmers, who had been trained to be a makeshift battalion of the ever-growing People’s Army, did not. They stormed into our camps brandishing these new AK-47 assault rifles and quickly took control.

“Hey, I thought you guys were supposed to come in unarmed for a peace talk,” I shouted to one of the soldiers.

“No! You are our prisoners now,” he barked back.

To say the least, I was very disappointed at this turn of events. It was more than just the trickery of the Communist, our own government had turned into traitors, backstabbers and sold us out.

After being ordered to surrender to our fellow countrymen, who had fallen under the influence, manipulation of the Communist, the North Vietnamese troops, who had been hanging back, behind their Laotian converts, suddenly made their appearance. When they entered our compound, it wasn’t long before they started assembling us for transport to what they called re-education camps.

 

Chapter Six

~Life In Hell~

 

In reality, we weren’t going to a ‘re-education camp’ we were going to a clearing out in the dense jungle to live out the rest of our predictably short lives under the hospitality of our benevolent caretakers. Not that any re-education camp is going to be a picnic, but at least the name suggests you will most likely get to keep your life, if not your dignity.

On arrival at our destination, which was nothing more than a wretched POW camp designed to provide misery and death, yet another level of betrayal was revealed to us. The thought of how the communists converted their followers by citing the unchecked greed of those in power in a capitalist regime, when they themselves ignored even the most basic tenets of respect for human life. These thoughts had me infuriated.

But I held back my anger, while assessing the new and horrific situation imposed upon me. One thing I noted early on was the fact the surrounding jungle was thought to be so perilous, that our captors had become cocky, overtly presumptuous to the point of complete arrogance that they had complete power over us. Of course they did have their weapons and food. The unspoken question that they wielded over us was, “Even if you could escape the camp, where exactly do you think you’ll be escaping to?” Their answer, “Straight into the bosom of certain death.”

And while we didn’t receive any ‘re-education’ at our camp, a blessing no doubt, we didn’t receive any food or shelter either. For six months I lived off the small fish I caught from any of the endless swampy water holes that I hovered over daily. My plan involved making a quick catch to make a minimum quota of daily caloric intake so as not to disappear altogether. The guards always had plenty of food, but they were never in the mood for sharing.

The name “Two-step Viper” was primarily used by U. S. soldiers in Vietnam. Supposedly, after being bitten, you could only take two but not a third step before dying. The scientific name is Trimeresurus alboll abris.

In addition, there was a more immediate danger than our systematic starvation, namely the nearly endless amounts of deadly vipers that constantly slithered into the camp from the jungle – Green, arrow-headed vipers. They dangled from the trees like vines and slithered on the ground in bunches. On a regular basis, the guards had us clear them away, which was a dangerous and frightening business.

I remember once, clearing away the vipers from this patch of ground and then looking up to see yet another one hanging over me. His murderous glare and tongue darted out at me.  These snakes aren’t like cobras or rattlesnakes, which, while deadly, often won’t strike unless provoked.  Green vipers don’t need a reason to strike. They do it because they like it. I jumped straight back about ten feet, while the guards laughed uproariously.  I was terrified and furious, but at least I was alive.

Others weren’t so lucky and during the daylight hours, they’d become careless, perhaps not paying enough attention while trying to catch a fish to eat.

At night, the makeshift huts, supported on stilts and made by the prisoners from what the jungle provided, became an attraction for the deadly vermin. These cold blooded creatures were seeking the heat of the sleeping bodies. Whenever you were bit, day or night, the result was always the same. There were the screams of agonizing pain that would last twenty to thirty minutes, and then silence. As you can imagine this particular worry made for very poor sleep for the prisoners who had to be constantly on their guard against this lethal peril.

Besides the snakes and starvation, the guards themselves were the third danger to fear. Suffice to say, there was no Geneva Convention observed in this camp, and as a result, I wanted as little of the guards’ attentions as possible. So, in the daytime, I did my best to appear broken. I smeared extra dirt and mud on myself, and shuffled about like my body and soul had both been crushed. After all, bullies are typically lazy. Why would they spend time breaking someone down if they’re already broken, when they can conserve their energy for the more healthy looking prisoners? So, during the night I’d exercise and train, and mentally prepare myself for what I knew was inevitable.

For the next several months, the days passed in a monotony of horror as I struggled to follow my three directives of survival. Search for food, avoid the snakes and have the guards avoid me. I would scramble to eat like a toad perched over a pond while realizing there would never be enough. And so, I weakened daily. To avoid the snakes, I never slept more than a few minutes at a time for fear of being bitten. I became like steel when listening to the screams of others dying. The early weeks of adjusting to the hunger were the worst. I even thought about selling my Cam Kahm to the guards for food.

I come from a tribal people, and part of their initiation rights upon growing into manhood include the wearing of a sort-of amulet if you will. It stems from an ancient tradition of wearing an armband into battle with magic spells of protection written on pieces of parchment inside. For many young men, this is still what they receive at their rite of passage, and the inscriptions on the piece of rolled paper are words of wisdom and protection to guide a young man through life. Since I’m from a warrior clan, the Cam Kahm, what I received was actually made of hammered gold. The inscription etched on this metal was rolled to a fine point, and inserted into my arm around the bicep. My brothers received theirs at 16 and 17. I received mine at 14. I was seriously thinking about squeezing it out of my arm to sell it.

The image of such a transaction was too horrible to contemplate. Plus the words of the inscription themselves prevented me. A straight translation is difficult but they include the concepts of a pledge to be truthful, to strive for wisdom, humility, harmony and all the virtues that will protect you … including death before dishonor.

Of course I hated this place. My anger was like a searing ball of white heat. I also hated the evil lies that had destroyed my country. I hated the people behind those lies. And more immediate, I hated the guards at that camp, who were nothing more than cruel bullies who had allowed themselves to be pressed into a gigantic gang that called itself a government.

The barbed wire was just the first of many obstacles to reach safety.

As the months passed, I was still full of conflicting thoughts regarding my escape. There was the barbed wire and guard barracks to contend with, along with the guards who were posted both day and night every 50 feet. Past these hurdles lie a jungle that stretched out for what seemed like endless miles with it’s deadly peril. Any attempt to escape was to risk almost certain death. On the other hand, to stay would merely kill me slowly. Still wavering, I bided my time, until eventually, my decision was made for me.

Chapter Seven

~Escape~

 

Here’s the typical boats that ferried the fisherman, the armed guard and Kru Mark out to the island.

In the following weeks, my fellow prisoners and I were taken on a daily basis to work on a nearby island. Along with a single guard, we were ferried one by one across the still water by a local fisherman. At first, I wondered why they trusted us, alone with the fisherman on this trip, when we could have easily attempted an escape by diving into the water. If able to dodge the ensuing bullets, perhaps we could make it to the farther shore and run into the jungle.

The world renown crocodile fish is a big eater. They dwell in areas where the sea floor is soft or sandy and their camouflage is most effective.

I didn’t have to wonder long. On my first ferry ride across the still waters, this monstrous fish surfaced which nearly made me jump out of my skin. The fisherman laughed, but then I noticed he was also a bit skittish and scooted closer to the center of the raft. It was a crocodile fish, a two hundred pound, prehistoric monster with armored scales like you see on a crocodile. They’re capable of devouring livestock, or for that matter, a man, those unfortunate enough to get too close. For this reason, jumping from the raft into the water, even if it could be accomplished without being shot, was an open invitation to death.

So we worked on the small island, cleared the foliage as we had done back at the camp and avoided the snakes that were present. This was one small blessing. The snakes were less prevalent here than back on the mainland. We did this work, so we were told, in preparation for the building of a dam to be designed by a Japanese engineer.

One morning, while following my regular routine for scraping through yet another day hell bent on survival, the booming sound of a jetliner drew my gaze upward to the heavens. As I watched that plane with its white billowing, smoke trail, I couldn’t help but feel jealous of the passengers going where they wanted.

I thought to myself, ‘That is really Heaven. I’ve been there, flying through the air, stewardesses bringing you beverages to drink, looking out the windows at the clouds below. Freedom, freedom from everything. And then in contrast, there I was, locked down in Hell.’

Not exactly the Ritz-Carlton but out in the middle of the jungle these huts were quite comfy.

The day they announced we were to make huts on stilts reminded me of those movies in which the villain makes the hero, at gun point, dig his own grave. We knew who would be staying in those huts. As bad as things were back in our camp, the thought of being trapped on this island, surrounded by deadly predators, predators guaranteeing a watery grave for our bones, bones being the only thing left after they finished chomping on us, this predicament seemed even more horrifying. On this isolated slice of hell, there would be no chance of escape, only the waiting game for our tragic, doubtless demise.

After being ferried back and forth to the island for several days, I suddenly found myself in panic mode. I didn’t want to become so anxious that I’d act without thinking carefully, but on a deeper level, the situation reaffirmed my resolve to escape while I still had a marginal chance. It was hard to be certain about anything, while working so hard, near starvation and melting in that hot sun.

One day, while on the island, I snuck off to talk to the fisherman who had come to feed the guards. Once again, I thought of my Cam Kahm, but only for a moment. Only under the most dire of circumstances could I ever consider bartering it away. But I needn’t have worried as the fisherman was kind and fed me part of what he was eating.  Which is to say, the food that was not yet rotten, but nevertheless, dotted with maggots.

Being a slight bit more finicky about my food intake, I did remove the small pests from my share. I couldn’t help but notice my benefactor was far less scrupulous. The way he swallow the maggots on his food left no doubt he had been doing so all his life. For a moment there, I was unsure for whom I should feel the most empathy, him or me.

The work on the island continued until the huts were finished and foliage cleared. Once this was done, we were returned to the mainland. It was easy to see why our captors chose the island for the new campsite. Escape from the mainland camp was prevented by the deadly vipers in the jungle, while escape from the island would be hindered by the body of water filled with these monster-like crocodile fish, plus the deadly vipers in the surrounding jungle. This meant, it was time to leave.

Over the next few weeks, the guards announced the names of the prisoners, one or two at a time, who would be leaving the next morning for a new ‘rehabilitation and reeducation camp.’ We all knew they were headed for the island. It wasn’t long, before, laughingly, they called my name to go as well.

In response, I knew I’d have to escape that very night or die trying. The time had finally arrived to fight for my freedom or lay down to these murderous thugs.

That night, I waited and waited while using the moon as a timepiece. In training we were taught the best time to escape is around three or four in the morning, this being the most common hour when guards start dozing off.  I sat there charging myself up while waiting for the hours to pass.  When the proper time arrived, I struck.

I quietly snuck up behind a dozing guard in the line and wrapped my arms around his neck and choked him.  Physically, it was easy for me. The guard was roughly about my size. With all my years of martial arts training, and with all the bottled rage within me, he never had a chance. After he silently collapsed to the ground, I snatched up his weapon and vest with ammo.

It was then that I noticed the next guard over was perking up. He wasn’t totally sure of what was happening, but he must have sensed something was wrong.

I could see my enemy clearly while hunkering down in the temporary safety of the shadows. Even a little bit of moon is strong light, when you’ve been used to straight darkness. He didn’t have time to scream to the other guards as I suddenly lunged at him. Again, my emotions and adrenaline ran high at this point. I don’t think I would have heard him anyway, as I charged at him with his fallen comrade’s bayonet. After that, it was too late for him to scream for anyone.

Looking back, I’m not proud of what happened. I only did what I had to do to win my freedom and save my life. At that moment, I felt so much hatred and frustration, so much anger for what the Chinese government’s influence had done to my country, my family and myself, that I had mad thoughts of killing more guards, stirring up a revolution amongst the prisoners, and taking over control of the camp.

But then I heard a voice in my head, my father’s voice, telling me, “This is a foolish idea. None of the prisoners are in any condition to fight the armed guards. You will throw your life away and for what? So that you might have the chance to kill a few of the lowest grunts in the Communist army? That’s no great victory. The real victory would be to defy them and live, to live your life to the fullest.” I knew my father was right, so I ran off into the jungle.

I thought even then, ‘These moments will live with me forever.’

Within minutes the dense foliage had closed around me. It was as if I had been swallowed up. Now I had to move fast to escape the guards who would either murder me in the jungle or drag my carcass back to the camp for untold humiliations before murdering me.

Moving fast, although dangerous, was still the safest way to remove oneself from the chances of being bit by something nasty. Still, I tried to be as alert as possible. I couldn’t see very well, but maybe that was for the best. I’m certain I passed a great many dangerous things without knowing it. If I had seen them, perhaps they would have thrown me off course.

For the next two hours, I made the best of my time by moving swiftly through the jungle. It was crucial time for sure as the rest of the guards might not notice anything until daybreak.

By early morning, I had broken free of the dense jungle and a beautiful sunrise greeted me. It was wonderful.  Even though luck had been shining down on me, I was hardly out of danger.  The guards would surely radio ahead about my escape, and soldiers would be looking for me.

About an hour’s walk later, I met a farmer. I saw him in the distance, and tried to make myself look as presentable as possible, while walking in his direction. Under the circumstances, I thought I did pretty well, but truth be told, I couldn’t have fooled a child.After greeting the man, he shouted, “Who are you?”

I responded with all sincerity, “I am an engineer, but I am lost. I’m a bit of a mess I’m afraid.”

“No you’re not,” he said.

“What,” I asked.

“Whose blood is that on your shirt?” he queried, waving his hand in the direction of my soiled, shirt.

“It’s mine!” I said. “I was injured when lost in the jungle.  It was horrible.  I’m so glad to be out of there.”

“No. You are an escaped prisoner,” he answered with finality.

I started to protest, but he quickly interrupted me with another fast waving of his hands, “It’s alright, I’m not going to turn you in.”

I began to thank him, but he merely continued, “But you can’t stay with me either! I’ll take you back to my home, and let you clean up, but then you have to go!”

I was exceedingly grateful for my good fortune in finding such a man. We rode together along the embankments of the rice fields in a cart that was being pulled slowly down by his large ox.

Then I spotted a soldier coming towards us. A part of me wanted to jump out of the cart and start running, but that would have been the wrong thing to do. So I remained mute, while the farmer did all the explaining.

“This man is my cousin,” he began in response to the soldier’s abrupt questioning. “He’s here visiting from the city, because of the recent death of our grandfather.” The farmer then bowed his head, and I quickly did the same.  As I peered up from under my tilted brow, I saw the guard shuffle his feet and then blurt out, “Okay! Move it along!”

Again, I was exceedingly grateful to find such a man as this.  I have to admit, his acting was even better than mine.  He was good to his word as well.  He took me back to his home and gave me a bowl of plain rice. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have thought much of the meal, but after the way I had been living for the past six months, that plain rice exploded in my mouth as a symphony of flavor.

After dinner, there was the quick wash, a change of shirt, my most heartfelt thanks and then my goodbyes to my lifesaver, my most respected host.

 

Chapter Eight-

~Life in Thailand, Chicago and Beyond~

After my long trek out of Laos, I discovered my new residence, Thailand, was officially neutral. Even though it was a safe haven, they did have a history of leaning towards whichever side was on top. Therefore, my long-term prospects did not appear good and I felt I should be very careful from the outset.

On the other hand, I wasn’t thinking so much about this, as I was about fighting back. I presumed under American auspices there were operations being discussed to turn the tide of the war so I could possibly join. I went straight to the American Consulate to meet with friends of my father, an Army Lieutenant and his superior.

Instead of telling me what I wanted to hear, they simply suggested I get to safety in the U.S. right away. That was hard for me to hear. I then spent the next four, uneventful months living in a limbo of indecision inside the consulate’s refugee camp with family friends. Their recurring message was clear, “Go to America. Keep healthy, keep training, be ready for action, and we’ll call you within the next five years.”

With the perspective of a 22 year-old, I thought, ‘Five years? I’ll be an old man by then!’ I felt the same way when landing in Chicago four months later.

My I-94 papers had me relocated to the Windy City from Thailand, and I was picked up at the airport by an agent who worked for a Colonel who was an associate of my father. The plan was to stay with him until I got my bearings. The Colonel took me to work with him at the Sears Tower.

From the outset it was clear, I wasn’t cut out for office work. Everyone was kind enough, and perhaps if I had been more conscientious, I could have progressed along that path.  But, it wasn’t to be.

As the five years turned into 10, reaching 27 and then 32 didn’t seem that old anymore. I began to suspect, I wasn’t going to get that call, and perhaps, they had told me what they needed to, in order to get me out of the country. By this time, I was so into training and taking care of my health that I kept it up anyway. At least I got that much out of it.  I wasn’t getting that much out of Chicago.

Bruce Lee was an actor, film producer and director, and the martial arts expert who founded the Jeet Kune Doe martial arts system.

At this time, the early to mid 1980s, several of my friends could see I was frustrated, unhappy. They recommended that I go to Las Vegas. They’d say, “More action for a guy like you Bruce.” To which I’d respond, “My name’s not Bruce!”

Bruce Lee, who died a dozen years earlier, was more popular than ever. Whereas before, the typical American might have labeled any Asian martial art as ‘karate,’ Kung Fu was now the rage thanks to Lee. The fact I was from Laos and practiced Muay Thai and Karate, did nothing to dissuade my friends from saying this to me constantly, “Hey Bruce! Show us some of that Kung Fu!”

Though it was most disheartening, I did listen to their advice and decided to save money to relocate to Las Vegas.

On my arrival in Las Vegas, I got myself a job as a busboy at the Freemont Hotel. So, in that respect, I was starting out like Bruce Lee. It wasn’t exactly glamorous work, but I was still trying to figure out what to do with myself.

After working a few weeks at the hotel, something dramatic happened to get me moving in a new direction. One night I came into a back room at the hotel when a buddy of mine was being threatened by fellow employees. My friend and I had become friends since we were both from Chicago.

Since I’d already determined these two mugs were nothing but trouble, I really didn’t have any patience for them.

“You’d better leave my friend alone or I’ll beat you both up,” I announced.

“Oh! So you’re going to get into it now, Bruce Lee?” said one of the bullies.

“We’re not afraid of you. We’re black belts ourselves, mother#####r!”

“Well then, let’s make it for money!” I yelled back.

“What are you talking about, Bruce Lee?”

“My name’s not Bruce! And where I come from, if we fight, we fight for money. What’s the matter? Are you afraid to bet?  You live in Las Vegas after all! Come on if you think you’re that tough, put up fifty bucks a piece!”

I wasn’t trying to be funny with them, I wanted to fight, but at the same time I wanted to get paid for it. I could tell they were surprised. Eventually they agreed. We then took it outside where the bigger of the two guys, well over two hundred pounds, started to brag about his Kung Fu expertise, and how he would fight me by himself.

The fight didn’t last long. I blasted his leg so hard that he quickly yelled, “I quit!” This was before we even got started. After that short display, his buddy decided not to take up the challenge.

So, I took the money from them, and then bought them all dinner. Ironically, after that fight, the two bullies became very friendly with me.

 

Chapter Nine

~Life as a Fighter~

 

Saul Tall Bear (C) currently lives with friends in Las Vegas. Over the past 10 years he’s been a bit of a nomad flittering around from Arizona to California and then back to Las Vegas.

It didn’t take long before the word got out about my fighting skills and how I used them to tame the bullies. From the notoriety, I began to teach. At first it was just out of my backyard, where we would train, and occasionally have an MMA smoker of sorts. Eventually, one of my students, the gentleman whose leg I had kicked earlier at the hotel, convinced me to come to his martial arts school. That’s where I met Saul Tall Bear, a fellow martial arts instructor who would be instrumental in getting me to compete professionally. Saul was a big man, a 250 pound Native American who taught what he called, Poison Hand Kung Fu. I still don’t know much about his fighting style but he was definitely a hustler.

A few months later, Saul insisted I come with him for the 1976 Annual Black Belt Association meeting hosted at the Aladdin Hotel. Although mostly populated by karate practitioners, this was more or less a general martial arts expo with experts from Kung Fu, Kickboxing, as well as other styles. As far as the competition went, it was all under the rules of full-contact Karate.  The big headliner of the evening was Eddie ‘Flash’ Newman, the 176 pound, West Coast champion. At the culmination of this expo, the organizers planned to have an exhibition match between Eddie and the East Coast champion. For whatever reason, the East Coast champion was a no-show.

No longer a flash, this giant of a man, Eddie Newman, is a 9th degree Black Belt who teaches classes at his Flash Academy in Holladay, Utah.

At this point, the show’s emcee addressed the audience, “All right everyone! Apparently our East Coast champion was unable to make it here today! So here’s your chance to step into the ring with Mr. Eddie “Flash” Newman! What do you say? Do I have any takers?”

In response there was this general hush followed by some murmuring, but not one person was willing to answer the call. Not one person made even the slightest shift in his seat. The West Coast champion had too awesome a reputation. No one said boo, that is until Saul Tall Bear opened his trap.

“Over here, Boss!” he shouted.

“Is that you, Mr. Tallbear?” the announcer asked. “Are you ready to get into the ring with Eddie? Glad to hear it! Step right up!”

“Oh no! Not me Boss! My friend Mark here! He’ll get in the ring all right!”

It was déjà vu; as if I was 10 years old again.

“What?” I answered contentiously, while everyone around me alternated between cheering or looking on my relatively small frame to snicker.

“Saul, what are you talking about? I’m not ready to get in the ring with him!”

“Sure you are Mark! Don’t sell yourself short, man!  I’ve seen what you can do.  You can handle this guy!”

Aside from being unprepared, I wasn’t happy about being volunteered for this particular duty. Between Tall Bear exhibiting all this faith in me and the cheers of the whimsical crowd, I soon felt obligated to participate.

So, before I knew it, there I was dressed in this karate uniform, no way my preferred outfit for competing, standing across the ring from the current West Coast champion who outweighed me by at least forty pounds.

Before shaking off my doubts and putting on my game face, I asked myself one last time, ‘How did I get myself into this?’

The spinning jump kick was Eddie’s bread and butter, and it wasn’t long after we felt each other out that he was throwing one at my head. It’s a good thing I was shorter, otherwise it would have been too difficult to dodge and he would have knocked me out.

Since this was an exhibition with no belt on the line, I was unsure as to what level of intensity was appropriate. After hearing the wind whistle above me as I ducked that first kick, it was clear Eddie wasn’t messing around. In my culture, touching people in the head is considered very disrespectful, and only an abbot or teacher would be allowed to do so without impunity. Even in Muay Thai practice, at least in Thailand and Laos, a student will ask forgiveness from his trainer before hitting the pads if the proximity of those pads are close to the head. In short, where I come from, kicks to the head are an insult. From that point on, I would not be messing around either.

Every game has its own rules, whether full-contact Karate, Muay Thai, Submission Wrestling, Pankration, and even MMA. Across the styles, the rules often overlap and sometimes conflict with each other. It’s hard to fathom the logic when in one sport you can blast someone’s leg, but aren’t allowed to strike the face, and in another, you can do a spinning back kick to the face but aren’t allowed to kick below the waist.

The rationale behind these rules is the same. They’re hoping to reduce the chances of injury by limiting attacks and imposing time limits. But even if you know that, it’s hard to play someone else’s game when you’re so ingrained in your own. So after ducking that first vicious kick to my head, I slipped and leveled a hard kick against Eddie’s femur. Right away he buckled. After making some distance, he was game to come back for more. I did the exact same thing again, and suddenly everyone from Eddie’s corner was shouting this was a foul. At that point, the referee stopped the fight as Eddie hobbled around the ring in obvious pain moaning, “Check under his pants man! He’s got something on his shins! God damn that hurt!”

After rolling up my pant legs, they of course didn’t find anything. Still, I was disqualified because in the rules of full-contact Karate there’s a particular rule that states the low kicks from Muay Thai are not allowed. This may have been the type of infraction where the fight would have been allowed to continue, but since Eddie was the champion, no one in his corner, a corner that had a lot more pull than mine, was going to allow this to happen.

Speaking of my corner, where did Saul Tall Bear go?  I asked my friend Stacey, my impromptu corner man, that very question. He then pointed to Saul in the crowd. There he was next to two gentlemen who were smiling broadly. Saul was stomping his feet and apparently cursing. I figured he had taken my disqualification very hard.

He then made his way back over to my corner to say, “Good job Mark, good job. Don’t worry about the d.q.”

I answered, “You looked a little upset, Saul. Sorry to disappoint you. I wanted to win.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” he replied, “I bet five hundred dollars that Eddie would knock you out in the first round. Damn you’re fast though!”

As it turns out, this would be the man who would represent me in my next couple fights.

As the expo drew to a close, Eddie came limping over to say hello to Saul, his former colleague.

“Tall Bear! How are you, man?” he asked while embracing his old buddy.

“Doing good. Doing good. You were looking good out there man! Just not fast enough though, huh?” Saul quipped.

“Yeah, well, where did you get this guy anyway?” asked Eddie, looking in my direction.

“Who, Bruce Lee over here?” asked Saul.

“My name’s not Bruce Lee! It’s Mark,” I interjected, while the other men looked bemused.

“Damn Mark!” Eddie exclaimed through the missing teeth that made him look a little like Leon Spinks. “I’ve never been hurt like that before, Man! You’ll have to teach me! Here. Come with me.”

He then took me back over to stand next to the ring where he lifted my arm up in victory and then picked me up in a big bear hug, while the expo fans cheered us on.

It was a nice gesture. Eddie’s warmth was genuine which made the applause from the crowd even more meaningful. As I glanced over to Saul Tall Bear, who had played on my vanity and threw me into this fight solely so he could make money, I should have realized that working with him would be problematic. With his self-centered attitude Saul would end up being my very own Don King. From the git-go it seemed so obvious, but that’s what con-men do. They appeal to whatever need you have in order to ingratiate themselves into your life. Saul was fun to be around, but as a manager he definitely had his own self interest at heart. It certainly wasn’t mine.

For good or bad, Tall Bear became my manager. At least now, after that experience with Eddie, he would be working off the premise that I’d be winning my contests and he’d be betting his money on me. At least I thought so.

The first tournament Saul entered me in was back in 1981, in France. It was called the King of the Hill. Fortunately it was similar to today’s K1 kickboxing tournament and like straight Muay Thai, it allowed the use of elbows and knees.  I had four opponents and four – first round victories. The prize was today’s equivalent of $50,000 dollars, which had me very excited. In the end, I saw less than half of it. Next, Saul took me to the Palais de Sport in Paris where I again was the victor.

And so it went. I never wanted to be a fighter, and neither did my father. But as he also taught me, when an opportunity arises, it’s important to take it. This was a way to make some big money, even with Saul taking a disproportionate share for his questionable expertise.

Over the next few years I fought 20 times, and made something of a name for myself. Muay Thai style rules had softened the restrictions of kickboxing in the U.S. and this no doubt lent assistance to my winning record of 16 knock outs, four technical knockouts (non-continuations) against no defeats. Another thing I enjoyed about fighting was that I’d often fight on the undercard of Martial Arts superstars like Don the Dragon Wilson and Benny the Jet Urquidz, who are still my friends to this very day.

Before long, the fight game started to wear on me. In my best fighting shape, I should have been competing at 135 pounds. Occasionally, a promoter would bump me up to fight a bigger man in the 155-160 pound weight class, which made my job infinitely more difficult. I felt like I was being used and abused and Tall Bear was not backing me up. It became so obvious. I started to believe I needed to find a way out.

One of my fights was down in Ensenada, Mexico, against a guy who thankfully was my size. Tall Bear was with me as usual, and it was then that I had a chance to see nearby San Diego. It was so beautiful, and the most like my homeland of anyplace I had ever seen in the U.S. This was back in 1984 and at that time, there was already a fairly good size Laotian community. Which was another bonus.

It was then that I met Vince Sobrano, also a fighter, not Muay Thai but kickboxing. He had this idea about the two of us opening a gym of our own. It was the inspiration I needed to get out of the fight game.

After finally freeing myself from the Saul Tall Bear constraints, I returned to San Diego, and Vince came to me with another Laotian, a former military man, named Vpone. They asked me my thoughts about opening a gym in a three-way partnership. Unfortunately, my association with Saul had left me with very little funds. So my end of the partnership was somewhat limited, which was only fair under the circumstances.

When discussing the name, we at first bandied about the simple idea of calling it “The Muay Thai Gym” or something like that. Then Vince remembered the tattoo on my forearm and said instantaneously, “Black Tiger! We’ll it call it Black Tiger Martial Arts!” I went on to teach my specialty at this gym for many years.

To make this my career and raise a family, I ended up teaching at many gyms throughout San Diego, and for the most part it has been a gratifying experience. San Diego is wonderful, my work is wonderful and my family is wonderful.

Occasionally, I will reminisce about my fighting days with Saul. But once that professional relationship ended, we lost all contact as if we had signed an agreement that prohibited the two of us from ever meeting again.

Younger version of Saul Tall Bear.

A few years ago, I went with one of my students, Kim Rose, who was fighting Kim Couture, the former wife of the world famous Randy Couture, in a woman’s MMA tournament. While in Las Vegas, I wanted to catch up with Tall Bear, who, despite our checkered past, I still felt a bond of friendship. I looked everywhere for him. Apparently, Saul Tall Bear had disappeared off the face of the earth.

 

Chapter Ten

~Denouement~

 

One of the most famous French writers of all time is Alexandre Dumas who was born on July 24, 1802. He is best known for his historical novels of high adventure. Two in particular have been required reading in high school, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a story of an innocent young man betrayed by the people close to him. He ends up in a jail cell on a forgotten island for 14 years, then miraculously escapes to later become a rich man.

In that second novel, Dumas along with his collaborators created this most memorable character, the Count of Monte Cristo, a man who had seen and overcome great adversity. At one point, he consoles a stricken young man by saying, “Maximilian, the friends we have lost do not repose under the ground. They are buried deep in our hearts. It has been thus ordained that they may always accompany us. I have two such friends. The one is he who gave me being, and the other is he who brought my intelligence to life. Their spirits are ever with me. When in doubt I consult them, and if ever I do anything good, I owe it to them. Consult the voice of your heart…”

It is much the same in my case, except that both men are one and the same. Unlike the precise social genius of the Count of Monte Cristo, I’ve made my share of mistakes, of that I’m certain. However, if I have done good, I owe it to that one person who gave me both being and brought intelligence to my life, in short, my father who is my teacher.

When my career as a fighter began to wane, I naturally settled into my role as a teacher. What I had to contribute was Muay Thai, the Muay Thai that’s been passed down for generations through my family. I have always been proud that I’ve been able to share at least a little of this treasure with the countless students I’ve had the pleasure to train over the years.

Though I’m now in my fifties, I’m still as fit and active as ever which is typical for my family. I try to live each day with great anticipation and appreciation. After all, on arrival, I was this dispossessed young man, from a far away country, who along with his family, his whole nation in fact, faced a near-total disaster. Together with my compatriots we were able to settle in one of the most beautiful cities in America, and make a living by way of an honorable profession. That, in itself, is something to be grateful for. As my father’s voice kept telling me while I was on the brink of either escaping or plunging back into Hell, this was the real victory.

When I was a young, my father would often tell me he was certain that someday I would become a teacher. At the time it was the furthest thing on my mind. As usual my father was right, and I’ve now been an instructor for over thirty years. It’s been a privilege.

When life presents challenges, which it often does, I look for peace from the voice in my heart; a voice that’s tempered with the presence of those that will always lie within me. This is at the core of all I seek to teach through the mixed martial arts. Nothing more than exhorting my students to consult the voices in their hearts and of course choose wisely who resides there.


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One Comments to “My Father’s Son, A Memoir of an Incidental Life”
  1. Anonymous says:

    I lived in Vientiane with a guy who called himself ‘Sid’. This was at his place in Phonxai, near the Australian Embassy. He claimed (and I believed him) His Father was then last General of the Royal Family of Laos.He showed me photos of the General Bounpone Maktheparak and even had the General’s cap.
    If you have any info re this …I can supply facts,

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