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After my visit to the refugee camp, the CIA pilot swiftly brought his stubby aircraft down from the sky, depositing me near the US Embassy car that late afternoon, scant miles away from the Khmer Rouge lines. Jeff, my State Department escort, welcomed me warmly.
“We rarely get American visitors out here,” he told me, sliding into the driver’s seat.
We soon reached our destination, a sprawling bungalow surrounded by trees, fronted by a beach sloping down to the placid waters of a very large lake, where we were to spend the night, before heading back to Phnom Penh next morning.
After settling in, we moved outside to a wooden table and benches, watching the setting sun while feasting on local delicacies Jeff had procured earlier. A tasty curried soup, followed by deep-fried and seasoned crunchy crickets. The natives, Jeff remarked, believed that regularly eating crickets promotes long life. I balked at the tiger penis and rice course, even though Jeff insisted that he understood the dish had great therapeutic properties for your sexual prowess.
I told Jeff about my time in the refugee camp that morning. Here, by our bungalow, it all seemed so distant, but was, in reality, only about 20 miles away from the Communist troops. Jeff seemed to be the rare foreign service officer who had little ambition for ascending the normal advancement ladder, preferring, instead, to work in remote outposts, far away from capital city embassies, steeping himself in local language and culture, but not going so native as to incur his supervisors’ wrath.
“Better than processing visas,” he told me, after our second glasses of Cambodian brandy from Battambang. After our third glass, he spoke of his Cambodian girlfriend, Chariya, who lived in a nearby small town. “Don’t tell anyone in Washington. The Department frowns on such liaisons. She might be a Communist agent, plotting to ferret out my secrets. Real secret is I’ve no secrets.”
“Those poor confused folks,” I said to Jeff, “ hundreds of frightened men, women, little kids, in their tents. They didn’t seem to get why other Cambodians were burning down their villages, taking away their young men, their animals, their grains. I tried to tell them, through the translator, that our country had provided the food they were eating. I doubt they’d any idea where or what the United States was. I was just some rich white guy, Mr. Money Bags, dropping out of the sky. I felt like a voyeur.” Jeff listened silently, grunting when I finished my sad tale “What do you think,” I asked, “will happen to those poor folks?”
“Nothing good, I imagine. This used to be a very peaceful backwater country. For Christ’s sake, don’t have Uncle Sam send in our troops. These folks would end up like their Vietnamese neighbours next door.”
Close to midnight, we hired a Cambodian fisherman, and staggered down to his wooden raft lit only by a dim lantern up-front. The elderly man poled our rickety vessel into the calm lake waters. Casting our baited lines into the blackness, we talked some more, quietly, about the refugees. “They’re not, technically, refugees,” he told me, “just desperate Cambodians, displaced in their own country.”
Silent for a long time, we caught not a single fish. Close to 2 a.m., our guide poled us back to shore. “Why do we have to have war?” Jeff asked in a low sad voice. “Why do these poor Cambodians have to fight their own people?”
“Tribalism, I’m pretty sure,” I said. “Just like the Vietnamese. Koreans.”
“The Irish too, “Jeff replied. “Tribes within tribes.”
“Yeah,” I laughed.” Like our own Civil War.”
At sunrise, we heard slim giggling Cambodian girls running down to the water from the bungalows near ours, where they’d spent the night with their French sailor boyfriends. For a
moment, many thousands of miles away from my girlfriend in Washington, I was envious of those sailors.
During the long drive back to Phnom Penh, slightly hung over, we spoke of Jeff’s possible future, perhaps to leave government service to return to his outdoor life in Montana’s mountains. After that return trip to our embassy – ships passing in that Cambodian night, neither of us able to foresee the final Khmer Rouge assault on Phnom Penh two years later, and the monstrous Killing Fields engulfing the Cambodian people soon thereafter – we never again saw each other.
Gerald Kamens has worked in a mental hospital, the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Most of his recent works are children's stories, essays, and short plays. His last acting role was in Chekhov’s The Seagull. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, Virginia