The Big Buddha Bicycle Race
31 December 1985 (The Present)--Falling Backwards
It must have been a hallucination. Sitting in a mountain cave along the winding road that led northwest to Luang Prabang, I could smell the incense floating in the air—pure, not burned to hide some weekend hippie’s marijuana cigarette—a dusky smoke perfume that had burned in Asia for a thousand centuries. The light was golden, an aura unseen in America since brigantines stopped bringing whale oil back from the Pacific….
How can I trust dream-visions that keep floating up from the murky depths? Hasn’t my memory been obliterated by drink and drugs and the passage of time? Why am I afraid to ask, afraid of being mistaken for a rambling derelict on an L.A. street corner?
Alone on New Year’s Eve in a bungalow atop Mount Washington, I snort cocaine and chase it down with Jack Daniels. Mesmerized by blurry car lights floating in the distance up and down the Pasadena Freeway, I can hear the voice of Ajahn Po—my first true teacher—calling to me, but I’m not sure I understand his words.
Would anyone believe that I was once a Buddhist monk who sat in Noble Silence on the rock floor of that cave, cushioned only by a thin straw mat? Deep in meditation, I recollected the painful days of my Irish Catholic youth when my heart wanted to love Jesus while my mind warred with Pope Pius and Martin Luther, with Saint Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and would give me no peace. When did my father, my aviator hero, become my oppressor? Why was he angered by questions about race and politics and faith? Why did he offer to help me with drums or flying lessons, but not with both? Was it a test? Did he already know the answer? Why did he never talk about his days in Florida, already a man at age eighteen, who turned English farm boys into the pilots who drove back the mighty Luftwaffe?
While candles and incense were burning on the cave’s stone altar I went into a trance so deep that the graceful bronze image of a Sukhothai Buddha, sitting in eternal serenity and wisdom, transformed into a television that droned with an endless loop of John F. Kennedy—young and handsome—giving his inaugural speech with unblinking, granite-chiseled confidence that made me eager to pay any price and bear any burden he asked of us. Deep in dreams and memories, I forgot I was a holy man and drifted in a cloud to those tragic days from high school to college when I lost my innocence but tried to cling to my ideals. I would pay any price and bear any burden to go to film school—that was how I would do my part to save the world now that JFK was gone. But when I meditated even deeper I had a troubling vision within my vision: Harley Baker was burning on a funeral pyre, his outlaw-bluesman’s heart and mind blown away with amphetamines, his hard, white body and redneck soul wasted with opium-tainted grass and BX booze.
I didn’t meet Harley until I stood toe to toe with Death. A warrior, an Air Commando, he taught me how to laugh at it and fear it and quash it away and never quite ignore it. Nothing in my Boston childhood had equipped me for the realities of Southeast Asia—the smooth, cool pages of National Geographic magazines stacked in our attic in the outskirts of Boston made Indochina look like Eden. It was Harley who prepared me for combat, accidentally preparing me for monkhood along the way. But in my vision I knew that Tech Sergeant Baker was as doomed as President Kennedy. And I could see my own soul, lost in the void, lost along the sidelines of the Big Buddha Bicycle Race.
My mind skids past fading memories I want to recall and lands in catastrophe on days past I have forgotten just as vividly as days I never lived at all. It must have been the whiskey. Or the red-rock heroin. How did we survive the plane crash? It seemed so real when the North Vietnamese took us prisoner. Why do I still dream of fire and fear a candle burning in the night? Who was Tukada? Baker survived two crashes, but didn’t he kill himself shooting up speed? Why aren’t I certain? What has happened to my mind?
I too walked away from the burning wreckage. I too survived a SAM missile’s direct hit—or was it a Strela? Harley looked off a thousand yards into the tree line when he talked to you, often rambling and unable to make sense. I needed someone to tell me that I had escaped the thousand-yard stare, but how did you translate that into Laotian? Had I survived the crash or was I a ghost trapped in my own nightmare, unable to escape even to the Buddhist samsara of endless rebirths, never-ending cycles of worldly suffering and delusion? Was I living in hell or purgatory or just the twentieth century?
Sitting in that cave in Laos, I could not erase my memory-visions of Colonel Strbik and Captain Rooker—the best damned pilots in the unit. I could see them burning, their faces serene like the face of Saint Polycarp, except there would be no miracle—streams of their own blood would not put out the flames. My visions were seared by burning wreckage and smoldering villages and I could no longer distinguish the mangled corpses of war heroes from beauty queens, of Asians from barbarian invaders, of friends from enemies. I was haunted by grunts like Pigpen Sachs, the door gunner, and Jeff Spitzer, my fellow cameraman, who dreamed of being held in the arms of college girls as they died—and called out for their mothers. Reporters said that bodies were being stacked like cordwood in Vietnam, but in Laos nobody was going to that much trouble. Human beings were being chopped down like the weeds the hill-tribe Hmong dried out by the side of the dirt road to make into hand brooms. Only nothing could be made from something so useless as a dead human being. Cremation was merciful in the jungle.
In the distant days between college and monkhood, in the days when I failed as a draft-dodger and failed as a soldier, I would have been satisfied waking up in the boondocks of Thailand with day lilies filling the vase that sat on the rickety rattan table next to my bed at Bungalow Ruam Chon Sawng. I would have been content with flowers that lived a single day, even though waking up with a tiny bar girl’s hand on my chest, whispers of “lovely, so lovely” alighting like soft petals, was what I really needed to put my mind at ease. In the boondocks of Thailand along the Lao frontier, Baker, Washington, Wheeler and Shahbazian usually got to the Corsair Club before me and I often went home from the bars alone because even in my days as a lover of whores I maintained certain standards. I had to know her name and where she was from and if her dad was a rice farmer or a sailor in the Royal Thai Navy, because whores were people too, just like GIs.
Vietnamese villagers prayed for us every September, wrapping the sculpted Buddhas that sat inside their pagodas with saffron to appease the souls of the unburied dead—the wandering restless souls of beggars, soldiers and prostitutes. But I fear those prayers were not enough. So many nights on the Lao frontier it was not until the first pink glow of dawn that I finally fell asleep, and even then it was not peace that came but my own private samsara. To this very day I ask: Will I wake up ten thousand times without awakening? Or will these cycles of rebirth become the path to my redemption?