Archive | November, 2013

How to Make Two Little Old Ladies Happy: A Thanksgiving Story

27 Nov

How to Make Two Little Old Ladies Happy: A Thanksgiving Story

By Nate Thayer

November 27, 2013

When I was a young boy, between five and 12 years old, I had a second mother.

Her name was Reba Thomas and she loved me and I loved her.

We have not been in contact for decades.

A few minutes ago, I dialed a number and asked for Reba. There was silence on the other end.

“Who is calling, please?”

“My name is Nat Thayer.”

There was silence for a moment, and then an urgent, hushed whisper to someone nearby. “It is Nat Thayer! Mrs. Thayer’s son!”

Then Reba Thomas came on the phone, her voice full of vigor and love. It has been more than 30 years since we last spoke.

“Oh! Nat! How are you? Where are you? I have missed you for so many years!” And then her strong, animated voice became tender. “You are still my little boy. I love you. I have always loved you.  When are you going to come visit me?”

My mother messaged me yesterday saying she wanted to be back in contact with Reba Thomas. She was worried about her and her old phone number didn’t work.

My mother is 82 years old. Reba Thomas is 84.

Reba Thomas  worked for my family taking care of us in Washington, D.C., between 1965 and 1973. I remember the days when Washington burned down during the violent race riots of 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember Reba Thomas, a black woman, holding me, a little white boy, tightly in her arms, in my home. I felt so very comforted that I was not hated, but loved, that day. I was scared. I was 8.

Yesterday my mother messaged me: “Dear. Nat, As you are good at tracking people down I hope you can help me find Reba, and that she is not dead!  Her phone is disconnected. I have sent a letter to her address but no answer.  I am afraid she may be ill? Hope you can help.  See you on Thanksgiving?  Love, Mom.”

So, I spent a couple hours yesterday tracking down Reba Thomas. I did not know whether she was alive or dead. I did know my mother was worried about her. And I knew Reba Thomas would be happy to hear from me.

Yesterday, I found her property records which showed she still owned the same house in Virginia she bought in 1976. But her land line phone was no longer working. I found a slew of relatives connected to her and that address. I located the church of which she has been a devout member for many, many years. I found a couple dozen telephone numbers connected to Reba and her expansive band of offspring, in laws, grand-children and others who she had, no doubt nurtured and loved over these many years.

When I was a very young child, Reba Thomas took my hand and heart and tried to lead me towards being a good person.

Reba Thomas made sure I was loved, clothed, fed, comforted and protected, like all children should be and too many are not. She cooked my dinner every day and made sure I was filled with the nutrients of food and warmth and love and guidance.

She was firm in what I should and should not do, in the daily cadence of early childhood life experiences that are so vital and gently guided this child along the right, firm path towards happiness in life.

She hugged me every day. She comforted and encouraged me and loved me, always. She listened and encouraged a little boy.

Reba Thomas made a little boy happier, stronger, more worthy, taking me by the hand and nudging me down to right path in life.

She told me exactly when she thought I was being bad—as bad as little boys can be–which is not very, but also a crucial time to gently influence them, with however much loving force is required.

She always made sure I knew she loved me and made  sure that I would have no doubt that she thought I was a very good boy, no matter what I did.

Reba Thomas was both moral conviction, strength of character, and unconditional love personified. She was selfless in her abundant overflow of generosity, kindness, and self sacrifice for others.

But she had no reluctance to redirect me, when I veered off the right path, as all children do. She never was reluctant to share her loving words and touch, nor her very unmistakable disapproving gaze of ‘this is not an issue up for discussion or debate’, followed by a declarative statement of what I must do, not do, and not do again.

This was always followed by a hug, a smile and accompanied by Reba Thomas making sure that this little boy knew he was loved unconditionally. That combination of qualities has been a mantra, so deeply important to me, that I have tried, though too many times failed, to replicate in my life with others.

Reba Thomas has had a challenging life, of which she has lived gracefully and with dignity and charity and compassion.

I have know doubt she has suffered, unspeakably. But, also, I have no doubt she has been and is loved by many, many people.

I am one of them.

Her husband, Samuel Thomas, died, young, many years ago. She had 9 children. Some are dead. Others are in prison. Others have been luckier. All loved their mother, their wife, their grandmother, their friend, deeply.

She took solace in her devotion to the Jehovah’s Witness, an apocalyptic Christian sect/cult. It has worked for her.

Yesterday afternoon, I started to track down Reba, using the same skills and knowledge and tactics I have used to track down international organized crime figures, politicians, and various assorted others of news interest during my career.

Hi Mom,

I am sure I can find her status pretty easily. What is her last name or names? And her full legal name. And the names–first and last–of her children. Addresses, phone numbers, employers, former addresses, church, and any other details etc. Any of the above will be useful. I will, of course, use the info discretely without alerting any of the above that someone is looking for Reba. And, yes, see you on Thanksgiving.



My mother replied: “Thanks, Nat!  Her full name is Reba Thomas. Mrs. Samuel J. Thomas.  Her daughters name is Angel Thomas.  I don’t think she uses any other name.  Lester Thomas and Samuel Thomas, Jr. Are the two sons who I think are still alive.  Sam Jr. I think lives in Florida.  She did work at a hospital in Virginia for a number of years..I think it was Inova Fairfax but am not sure.  I am afraid she may have died!  Oh, yes, she was a longtime member of a church not too far from her house..I don’t think it was Jehovah’s Witness.  I remember that they do not celebrate Christmas. Wow!  Is this really all I know?  Oh, yes.  She owned the house, probably had a mortgage on it, and it may have been sold.  

Thank you, dear.  Love, Mom.  PS. no reason not to let others know I am looking for her.  Nothing secret about it…worried friend!!”

A few hours later I replied: “Mom: I have done some digging on Reba. She still owns the house under her name in Arlington. She is listed as 84 years old. There are a slew of people who are connected to that address. The most prominent of which seems to be Lester P. Thomas, her son, now age 61. But the official records show the house has not been sold in several decades. She bought it in 1976 for 52,000 dollars. It is now appraised at 550,000 and is not for sale. A number of phone numbers are no longer operative. But there are also a number of people who have connections suggesting they may have lived there. They include Samuel Thomas, Linda Crumity Nakia Thomas Michael Thomas Rowena Abdon Patrick Thomas Reba Thomas  Patricia Mahan Ashley Thomas Deon Crumity William Thomas Theodore Thomas and more. I think Angel’s real name may be Ashley.

One of the best ways to locate her, it seems to me, is through her church. I contacted the church in Arlington and the regional overseeing diocese. They will be back in touch. Whatever, I am sure she can be tracked down.

I think we can conclude that she has not died. There are no death records and the house is in her name. I think we can conclude her son, Lester, is still alive, as are a number of other offspring and grandchildren and in laws etc.

But I think the most important and easiest way is to determine which church she went to. Since she was devout, and these sort of churches are small and intimate, they would remember her. Or frankly, we can just go to her house. and knock on the door. It is a 15 minute drive away and that would answer all, or most all, the questions. The house remains owned by her. It has not been sold. If, by chance, she has died recently, her relatives would still live there. I suspect she still lives there.

I will let you know other info. I have several calls out which I expect to be returned. One way or another you will know by tomorrow.



My mother responds: “Nat dear…thanks so much!  You certainly unearthed a lot! Maybe you would be willing to go out there with me?  I admit to not wanting to go alone! And, you were always her favourite. ‘How is my Nat?  Is always her first question.’ Well, thanks again very much! Love, Mom”

Later, last night, I got a message from an author who is working on a book on organized crime in Cambodia. He wanted to talk and meet with me.

Hi Nate,

My name is Patrick, I wrote to you recently about Cambodia. I hope I’m not bothering you. I would really love to talk to you some time. I am writing a novel (it will be published by Grove / Atlantic) that is going to take place, partly, in Cambodia. Part of the book is about the manufacturing, and global trade of MDMA. I really want to talk to you, as you’ve been referred to me as an absolute expert in organized crime in Cambodia. Again, I hope I’m not bothering you, I know we’ve never met, and I know it might seem presumptuous to try and talk to you, but I really want to and I think you’ll like me if we get a chance to meet. 

Please let me know, as I’ve bought a ticket to go there in early January. Hope this finds you well.



PS, since my last email I also saw you written about in one of the history books I’m reading. Now we must talk!!!”

Patrick and I talked on the phone last night. Recently, he has worked as a private investigator, much of it on contract with various U.S. local governments. This gives one access to data bases of information that are often too costly to subscribe to or in that grey zone of legality for civilians to obtain.

I mentioned to him that I was trying to track down an 84 year old woman and old friend. He said he thought he might be able to help and to send him the basic data.

I sent him the following message: “Patrick: The elderly woman’s name is Reba Thomas or, sometimes, Mrs. Samuel J. Thomas. She has two sons Thomas and Samuel Thomas Jr. Her address is/was xxxxxx xxxxxx  Virginia. Her telephone number was. XXX-XXX-XXXX, but is no longer operative. I have other details. Anything you can come up with would make two old ladies happy.”

He responded within an hour: “Hi Nate, Great talking to you! Loving your articles. Try these numbers for Reba: 




Sam Thomas = (XXX)XXX-XXXX


Let me know if they don’t work out, and I can dig deeper.”

A few hours ago, I dialed the numbers. The first one came up disconnected. The second one was a machine. The third one, a sweet young voice answered.

“Is Reba Thomas there?” I said.

There was a pause. “Who is calling, please?”

“This is Nat Thayer. I knew Reba when I was a child.”

After a longer pause, she said “please will you hold on for a minute.” And there was a whispered but urgent conversation I overheard in the background. “It is for you! It is Nat Thayer! Mrs. Thayer’s son!”

And then a strong vibrant voice came on the line. “Oh! Nat! I have missed you for so many years! Where are you? I love you, Nat. You know, you are still my little boy! When are you going to come visit me?”

Honestly, I was weeping and it was hard to talk. I felt, once again, at 53 years old, like I was Reba’s little boy.

I was so happy to hear her strong, warm, loving voice. And she was happy to hear mine. And we promised to get together soon, very soon. And we promised to talk later this afternoon again.

Reba was, today, as we talked, at the bedside of her son, Lester, in hospital, who is dying, when she answered my call.

I will call her again this afternoon. I called my mother and passed on the news I had located Reba, that she was not dead, and she was very happy to hear from me and to know my mother wanted to know she was OK.

So two little old ladies in their 80’s are happier this afternoon than they were this morning.

And so is a 53 year old little boy.

My Thanksgiving has come early and with special meaning.

I am very thankful, as I am sure are many, for Reba Thomas to have been, and now again to be, in my life.

GRATITUDE: Thoughts on being born free

20 Nov




By Nate Thayer

November 21, 2013

I am, I think, most grateful in life for being born a free person. I know many–many of whom are my friends–who were not.

No government, no authority is less flawed than me.  And no person is more flawed than I.

For the most part, the successes and joys and the equally and, crucially, humbling number of failures and missteps I have had in my short life have resulted from my having been blessed with having free choices.

Choices that have allowed me to stumble.

Choices that have allowed me to fail.

Choices that have allowed me to be wrong.

Choices that allowed me to suffer.

Choices I have made that have caused others pain.

Choices that have made me weep in regret or shame.

God knows, I have made choices that have made me do all of these.

These fruits of being a free man allowed me to be able to be a satisfied, happy, fulfilled and, to a small, but important to me, modicum degree, contribute, in a very small way, to a better world.

To have been free to stumble, has allowed me to be free to choose to learn how not to stumble that way again, if I chose not to. I hadand still have that choice.

Choices that have allowed me to fail, have allowed me the choice to better move forward, to learn how to succeed, if I chose to. Failing has blessed me with success.

Being free to choose to fail, has made me free to understand the importance of empathy for others when they, like we all do, fail.

It has allowed me to understand the importance of accepting as a blessing the flaws in others, their different ones and the ones we all share.

To be free to have the choice to be wrong, to be mistaken, has given me the choice to know, better, what was closer to what is right. And then, later, a few times, free to have been right.

Choices I have made that I have suffered from have allowed me to have deeper compassion for others when they, like all of us, suffer.

Choices I have made that have caused others undeserved pain, have graced me with being the recipient of forgiveness and unconditional love.

And have allowed me, as a free man, to understand the vital import of being forgiving to others when they, like we all do, have caused pain to me or others through our choices.

Being free to have caused others pain has made me free to, and the importance of,  forgiving others when they, also, have trod behind me on that same path.

Choices that I have made that have caused me to weep with eternal regret and shame, have allowed me to be less judgmental of others mistakes or sins, to offer an intimate understanding with others in their darker or darkest hours.

This has allowed me to offer unconditional love because I now know better the special beauty of having received unconditional love has been to me.

If, like many in the world,  I had not been allowed to exercise a free mind and free choices, and the blessing of a political system that demanded and protected critical thinking and the rights of all flawed people to be free to be flawed,  I would never have been free to contribute to move, ever so slowly, in at least the right direction of a more perfect man, a better world, a happier child who has come after me.

The right to make choices for each and every one of us, especially the wrong choices, has and remains one of my greatest blessings of being born a free man.

Being free to be wrong has allowed me, occasionally, to know, at least better, what is right.

No government, no authority is less flawed than me.  And no person is more than I am.

Golf, Cambodia, and the ‘very cornerstone of morality’

19 Nov

Golf, Cambodia, and the ‘very cornerstone of morality’

An example of the often quite interesting, random range of incoming messages I get daily and my sincere reply. From this morning:

Dear Nate,

I have read your missives on Face Book with great interest. You are truly prolific and I walk in your shadow. I hardly ever reply to Face Book. I hardly get the time.

Due to our mutual deep friendship with XXX I am writing after all this time to let you know that I have an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times travel section this Sunday about golf in Cambodia, the substance of which I feel you might disapprove of.

All I can say is that it has changed dramatically since I was there twenty years ago. I understand that there are still large problems, least of which is not corruption. But they are trying. I think now that Cambodia is bursting at the seams with all kinds of opportunity. It is fragile but very promising.

So I went in May and played golf at some great courses. I met the people, visited the temples and enjoyed the experience, in spite of some of the memories that still haunt me.

I had lunch with Keng Vannsak in Paris in 1993 at his home in Montmorency. My French was very rusty but he managed to convey to me in no uncertain terms how things had spiraled out of control under the Pol Pot regime.

So Nate, I hope you may not judge me too harshly.

I love golf and I strongly believe that wherever golf thrives, so does character, humility, and the very cornerstone of morality – concern for other people.

We are strangers to one another but I sincerely wish you health, happiness and success in all that you do.

Kindest regards,


My reply:

Thanks XXXXX,

For the kind words and thoughtful message.

In no way do I harbor any disapproval for your trip playing golf in Cambodia, or your take on golf’s role in the health of people or society.

I can think of uncountable things that are a far more negative use of one’s time than playing golf. Killing innocent people, pillaging and looting valuables that belong to the nation, State, and the greater, common good for personal gain, an unhealthy fondness for domesticated cats, and related nefarious behavior amongst them.

Actually, my step brother has made a career professionally, and a damn good living and a good chunk of change on the PGA tour, out of hitting a little white ball across manicured lawns, for 30 years. As far as i know, he has done no one significant harm while he was distracted enjoying himself doing so, providing for his family, paying his fair share of taxes, providing harmless diversionary entertainment for middle age white people globally, and generally contributing to the greater common good of society.

I mean no snark in the above at all. The more golf in Cambodia can only divert those who can afford it and allow them to mingle with one another during their downtime from their primary focus of deriving their ill gotten loot acquired via the most crude ripping off of state assets and oppression of the commoners.

If those who have a piece of the pie of power can spend more time partaking in that recreation, and therefore avoid focusing their energy on their day job–ruining the lives of the people under their jackboot, I say God Bless golf in Cambodia.

To golf and morality, together, for a better Cambodia, I say two thumbs up.

Really.  I mean it.

I don’t have a better answer, myself.

I hope you remain well,


Fleeting Thoughts on the Death of Human Interaction in the Digital Age

14 Nov

Momentary Fleeting Thoughts on the Death of Human Interaction in the Digital Age

By Nate Thayer

November 14, 2013

I have had dozens of communications with people today–by text, by email, by Google and FB Instant Messaging, from all over the globe. I have been communicating with people for nearly 12 hours, uninterrupted.

But just now, my telephone rang, and for the first time today, I heard my first human voice.

It was a computer generated call: “Hello! The FBI reports that there is a home break-in every 15 minutes. If you allow us to put a sign in your front yard, we will install a security system in your home for absolutely free. To learn more, please push one. To be placed on a ‘do not call list’, push nine.”

I actually hesitated. Then I pressed nine.

I feel an even more cold feeling than I did before, even more isolated than I already do in this new wonderful digital world of borderless information that, I am told, is bringing the human species closer together, connecting the world.

I fear that the human voice, human interaction, facial expression, the nuance of humour and meaning and tone of the voice, human touch, the comforting sound of just another breathing and a beating heart nearby, the meaningful expression of eyes, are no longer considered important, little less the primary tool of human communication it was last time I checked.

Are we really becoming a global community? or are we isolating ourselves into billions of virtual cubicles, fibbing about our human essence, applying makeup to our universally shared flaws, creating a fiction of ourselves instead of celebrating and learning from the many differences we all have and should revel in?

I will not surrender till I see the whites of their eyes.

And Skype doesn’t count.

The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism: Excerpts from Sympathy for the Devil

13 Nov

The Night I Lived: Landmines, war and journalism. One close encounter with religion, death, and victory

By Nate Thayer

Excerpt from Sympathy for the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir from Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

(Copyright Nate Thayer. No reproduction or dissemination in whole or in part without express written permission of the author)

 Your Financial Support is Needed for the publication of “Sympathy For the Devil: A Journalist’s Memoir From Inside Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge”

Please excuse, in advance, the insufferable self-promotion seeking funding. Believe me, it mortifies me more than it will annoy you. This is a pitch for funding to bring to fruition my campaign to publish my book and related accompanying data and documents and videos of interviews with the Khmer Rouge leaders and and observations of the Khmer Rouge and modern Cambodian political history. The new realities of journalism are that individual investigative journalists must seek independent financing and engage in self-marketing as the institutional support of large media companies has evaporated. I, and my colleagues who share my belief in in-depth, long term investigative journalism, almost universally no longer have institutional backing or other means of income to pay for the considerable costs of our genre of investigative journalism. It is, indeed, expensive and time consuming and requires considerable resources. It is also, in my opinion, both endangered and vital. For those able to support the project financially, it is both needed and appreciated. Please go to the upper right hand corner of this blog where there is a Paypal button. This will easily walk you through the simple steps to donate. As well, at the top of this page is a link to a page on this blog detailing other methods of providing donations to ensure this book is published in both hardcover and as an E book sometime in mid 2014)

By Nate Thayer

It was after midnight, before I was to be picked up before dawn by Thai military intelligence to be escorted into Cambodia to accompany guerrillas on a mission to attack and seize a Cambodian district capitol town.

It was monsoon season. As always, I was carefully preparing my equipment. There was an art to fitting everything I might need into a light backpack with lots of pockets and readily accessible under pressure. There were separate Ziploc bags for different speed film, for each Nikon lens, my two Nikon camera bodies, a point and shoot camera (what we then called a “drunk proof” or “idiot camera”), for an extra pair of dry socks and other dry clothes, a small medical kit, notebooks, a flask of whiskey, a poncho, a hammock, extra pens, a carton of cigarettes to give away to grunts on the front line, tape recorder, extra batteries, and more. As always, I never knew how long I would be gone for or what I might encounter.

There was a knock on my door, and the manager of my small guesthouse where I lived in the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, a young boy of 17, entered. Ghung, who I had taken under my wing in the previous months, knew I was going to leave in a few hours on what might be a dangerous assignment. Ghung was very concerned.  I invited him into my spartan room and, with a very serious expression on his face, sat down. He opened his hands which clutched two Buddhist amulets.

“I want you to take these with you. Wear them around your neck. If you are respectful to them, they will protect you from danger,” he said. The one on the left, pictured below, is an effigy of a dead baby fetus. He warned me that I should not be afraid if it talked aloud to me. The powerful one, he said, was that image, the Kuman Thong. “This will make sure you don’t die”, he said, if I treated it with a reverence.

Ghung clearly did. “Only wear it around your neck and don’t be afraid. Sometimes it will talk to me.”

Philip Blenkinsop photo

Philip Blenkinsop photo

The Kuman Thong effigy is revered in rural Thailand and Cambodia by many Buddhists, but it is Animist, not a traditional Buddhist practice, more “black magic”, or necromancy. Kuman Thong was created centuries ago by surgically removing the unborn fetus from the womb of its mother. The child’s body was roasted accompanied by chants. original Thai Buddhist texts say making a Kuman Thong amulet requires removing the dead baby from the mother’s womb, followed by a ritual of the baby cooked until dry. This process must be finished before dawn.

“Kuman Thong” means “Golden Baby Boy”. They say if you have a good relationship with your Kuman Thong, you will not have very bad things happen to you.

Ghung’s heartfelt gift had not gone through such an involved process, but it represented. to him, the same power. They are widely believed, in rural Thailand and Cambodia, to be very powerful, protecting one from danger, even bullets bouncing off of you.

Ghung was a very sweet and intelligent boy and we had become friends. I thanked him respectfully, because I knew he was very sincere and serious, but I didn’t really believe him. But it was touching.

I wrapped the amulets in my traditional Cambodian scarf and wore them around my neck when I departed for the Cambodian jungle, before dawn broke, riding shotgun in an unmarked Thai military pickup truck.

We arrived at a secret Cambodian guerrilla base in the jungle just over the Thai border and hour later. The guerrillas were gathered, waiting for me, heavily armed and sporting a dozen brand new  CIA supplied Yamaha 250CC dirt motorcycles. They also had a new, powerful, secret weapon that the government was unaware of which had been clandestinely delivered to their enemies in the days before.

We left the guerrilla base before dawn for an arduous trek through monsoon soaked ox cart paths that snaked through the jungle, led by the convoy of  dirt bikes, one of which I was riding shotgun on. Advance teams of troops were ahead and behind us.

The guerrillas had two new weapons; the German made Armbrust 69 mm shoulder fired one time use anti-tank weapon and the Swedish Carl Gustav 84 mm anti-tank weapon. For ten years, the government had tank superiority. For a decade, once the government tanks broached the front line positions, the guerrillas had no effective weapons to stop them. For years, the guerrilla commanders had offered a 50,000 Baht ($2000) reward to any soldier who could destroy a tank prior to that day. Their only weapon was a B-40 rocket propelled grenade launcher, designed to take out concrete bunkers,which required one to get within 20 meters of the tank, from behind, crouch and aim upwards and so it hit the undercarriage of the tank and took out the tracks to halt its advance. More often than not, the guerrilla would be killed attempting to do so, and if he was lucky enough to survive, it was likely he would be wounded by his own shrapnel backwash from firing the RPG from so close.

This time was different.

We entered the first government held town and immediately destroyed three tanks. The German and Swedish weapons, covertly supplied through Singapore, penetrated the tanks armor but the round would not explode until it was inside the tank, vaporizing the 3 or 4 man crew instantly. I took pictures of their incinerated, burnt corpses still sitting in the drivers seat and manning the tank turret gun, the twisted carcass of the feared armoured T-54 Soviet tank smoking and twisted and neutralized.

We captured that town within an hour.

The government troops fled in sheer terror, the psychological impact and confusion of knowing they no longer had tank superiority changed the face of the war that day.

Within two hours we advanced without hesitation and had captured the district capitol of Thmar Puok.

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

My feet. Photo Blenkinsop

There, we destroyed 4 more tanks defending the perimeter of the sprawling city.

The guerrilla’s had a celebratory lunch in the former Vietnamese military headquarters, the former only school house in the city and the only concrete building. Graffiti spray painted on the inside walls read in Vietnamese Roman script: “Long Live the Communist Party of Vietnam!”

This was 30 kilometers from the Thai border, more than 500 miles from Vietnam.

It was the first district capitol seized by the guerrillas during the long 12-year war. Government troops, terrified young boys who didn’t care a whit about politics and were conscripted like all troops on both sides of the war, surrendered by the hundreds, along with their Russian jeeps and transport trucks and weapons.

We drank lots of whiskey in the mid day sun. The people I was with were very happy. Other people, not so much.

For the civilians, none were happy. They were satisfied, like most Cambodian’s,  if they did not die, their daughter was not raped, their life possessions not looted, and their water buffalo not stolen. Peasant villagers in Cambodia knew that no army or government, regardless of ideology, actually had anything to offer to make their lives better. It was the faction that wreaked the least havoc, who took away the least from their already meager lives, which they would least detest.

It was a big story, I knew. I had very good pictures and an exclusive eyewitness account.

We toured the new liberated zone of dozens of villages with no electricity, schools, running water, or hope. This stretch of real estate, for a very, very long time, only knew war.

Then, after 12 hours, we began the return trip towards the sanctuaries of the rear military bases straddling the Thai Cambodian border, as dusk began to fall, west, towards the Dongruk mountain escarpment far on the horizon marking the border.

The heavy, daily late afternoon monsoon rains had begun.

I was eager to file my story and pictures, which would be, still, many hours away. I still needed to cross out of the jungle, be transported back across the border to Thailand, and down 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet.

From there, I would call the Associated Press office in Bangkok and dictate my story by landline telephone.

Ghung, the sweet and cocky 17 year old boy, who had given me the Buddhist amulets late the night before, would always, for months now, push the button on a stopwatch and time my calls and charge me by the minute.

The undeveloped photographs, still on 35 mm film, would be given to the long distance bus driver of the commercial bus company which made a half a dozen trips through the day and night from Aranyaprathet to Bangkok. We would give him no money for fear he would then take the film and sell it to local Thai papers. In Bangkok, an AP messenger on motorcycle would be dispatched from the AP office and meet the bus at the bustling Moenchit bus terminal. There, they would exchange cash for film and he would return to the AP office, where the film would be souped and developed. A few pictures would be chosen and put on a roller and sent over telephone lines to Tokyo and New York. From there they would be transmitted to AP customers worldwide. To get story and pictures out from when they were taken to when they were seen and read could often be days.

But this day it didn’t work out, as it really never did, as planned.

We began the motorcycle ride on our CIA dirt bikes through the uninhabited savannah and jungle, headed west towards Thailand. Bombs and gunfire were everywhere. This area had been under government control when dawn emerged earlier that day. It was, in reality, now under control of no one, but the government had fled. The guerrilla’s had never been here before.

Then the motorcycle convoy of a dozen or so got separated. The dirt tracks were a meter deep in mud. We got separated. Then our motorcycle broke down. Dusk was rapidly approaching. One guerrilla stayed with me. We finally abandoned the motorcycle and began walking west towards the silhouette of the Dongruk Mountains still a dozen miles to the west. That was Thailand and that is where I wanted to be.

“Are there any landmines around here,” I asked the young guerrilla grunt.

“No. No landmines,” he replied

“Where are we,” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said.

What it feels like after not dying

What it feels like after not dying

“Well, if you don’t know where the fuck we are, how the fuck do you know there are no landmines? I asked, now tired, dehydrated, and hungry.

It had been 12 hours since we left the guerrilla base on motorcycles and seized a couple hundred square kilometers of territory. Many, many were dead. That didn’t much bother me. I had not eaten all day. That didn’t much bother me either. I was dehydrated. That made my mind fuzzy. But, mostly, I wanted to get my story and pictures, which I knew would be a minor scoop in the world news, out, safely.

We entered a thicker jungle and bushwhacked ourselves through by hand.  We did not know where we were. It was now dark. There were no longer front-lines defined. No one knew what territory was now controlled by the enemy or friends. As far as I was concerned, there were no friends and there was no enemy. I only wanted my pictures and story to get out.

Then we heard the sounds of trucks idling ahead in the jungle.

That was a very bad, frightening sign.

The guerrilla’s I was with—troops of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, did not have any trucks.

We halted. We moved slowly through the light forest and peaked through the trees and foliage.

There, idling on an oxcart path, were two Soviet Zil transport trucks with several Cambodians, in government military uniforms, carrying Soviet issue AK-47’s.

My lone guerrilla companion turned to me, after a long period of silence, and said: “I think they have defected to us.”

“What the fuck do you mean ‘You think they have defected?” That is not fucking good enough! They either have defected or we are about to be dead or become prisoners of war.” I was, honestly, ready to surrender if the latter was the case.

He had a look of fear and uncertainty in his eyes. That scared me even more.

“You wait here. I will go check,” he instructed me, failing in his attempt to give the impression he was in control of the situation.

He tried to be quiet as he pushed aside the forest brush and not alarm the armed men in government uniform in government military trucks.

I waited, crouched, decidedly not comfortable in the savannah. My guerrilla guide returned with a smile on his face. The armed men and vehicles had, indeed, defected in the previous hours.

I was ecstatic. It was dark. We were lost. Our motorcycles had broken down and been abandoned. It was rainy and muddy and hot. I was hungry and we had no water. We were in territory under unclear control. Now we had a truck and we would be back in Thailand within an hour.

I emerged from the jungle and was greeted warmly although with the concomitant, quizzical look that is directed towards animals in a zoo.

There were about a dozen troops in the jungle clearing with two trucks. Some were guerrillas and some were freshly defected government troops. We all piled into one truck. The driver was a government soldier hours before. Now he was a guerrilla. Three of us were in the front seat, myself squeezed in the middle, between the driver and an impressive fat guerrilla officer. About a half dozen troops were in the open back carriage of the 2 ½ ton Russian military transport truck.

We were laughing and giddy as we slowly negotiated the mud soaked, deeply rutted ox cart path, headed west, towards Thailand. The dim silhouette of the Dongruk mountain escarpment still visible under the moonlight about ten miles to the west.

I remember being scrunched up tightly between the fat guerrilla commander and the skinny young boy government conscript, now a defector, in the driver’s cabin of the Zil. I was sitting in the middle. I was in a very happy mood. I had great pictures and a great story and I was the only journalist there and I was now in a truck being driven towards a safe place where I could transmit them to the few interested around the world. I remember chatting to the driver, smiling and laughing. He was happy, too, mainly because he was not dead, a fact I am sure he was concerned about at the start of that day.

I loved this life.

We had been driving only a few minutes and then something–in an instant–terrible, something life altering, and for some, life extinguishing happened.

The sound was so profoundly loud that I could not hear it. My eardrums were blown out. The concussion of the explosion was so great my brain shut down. I remember the liquid in my body became so heated I could feel it simmering near boiling. I could hear my blood boiling, gurgling from what seemed like heat. I felt my brain being tossed around like a rag doll bouncing off the insides of the wall of my boned skull.

Our 2 ½ ton truck was thrown in the air several meters and, luckily, hit the side of a tree, and bounced back down, landing upright. Actually, I don’t remember that part. I saw it, afterwards. It looked like a shredded child’s toy Tonka truck.

We had driven over two Chinese anti-tank mines.

Specifically, our left front tire, which was less than 1 ½ meters from where I had been sitting.

This is very Cambodian. One does not need two anti-tank mines to blow up a tank.  One will do. But, for good measure, just in case, the guerrillas had placed one on top of another. The mines were placed by the guerrilla’s themselves. Because they had no vehicles—until that morning.

We had just driven over our own landmines.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious.

I do remember waking up that night, with clarity and vividness, that startles me in my sleep and jolts me awake, regularly, now many hundreds of nights and some days, to the present, years later, in a mixture of unspeakable fear and grief and confusion and sadness.

There was a severed leg lying across my face. I held the leg up and looked at it. It was not connected to a body.

I was in the remnants of the engine compartment of the truck, its tattered carcass spread meters across the muddy jungle ox cart path.

I needed to know whether it was my leg I was holding in my hand. But I was very scared to find out. I reached down and ran my hand over my left leg and it was still attached to me body. I did the same with my right leg. It, also, was still attached to my body.

I had no idea what happened. I looked around me.

A few feet away was the young Cambodian truck driver, moments before with whom I was laughing and smiling and chatting. Life, for both us, would be, from that moment on, very different. His would be much shorter than mine.

He was sitting up, with a look on his face of raw terror and amazement I will never, ever forget. He was holding tightly the stump of his thigh, eyes locked, fixed, wide open, staring at what was no longer there. He did not panic. He didn’t seem in pain. He cried—no he moaned–loudly, but in words profoundly mournful.

He only called for his mother.

“Mother, please help me!” he repeated over and over and over and over.

I extricated myself from the engine and went over to him and held him in my arms. “You will be OK,” I lied. “Everything will be fine.”

For perhaps ten minutes, he called for his mother, staring in utter terror and horrid curiosity, his mind racing over, I suspect, his brief past, perhaps his never realized hopes, and his now very, very brief future, while grasping tightly the shredded stump of his muscle and bone and meat in his hands, the end of what was his leg, now within easy reach of his clutching hands.

And then he died on this irrelevant, muddy jungle dirt ox cart path, in the rain, at night, far from his mother. Probably, no one, other than the half dozen of us there that night who remained alive, to this day, knows how and where he died. He just never came home.  There are millions of Cambodians whose loved ones simply never came home and they don’t know why.

We left him, dead, on the dirt path, in the dark, alone. I am sure, no one amongst us even knew his name.

The man who was sitting to my right, the fat guerrilla commander, before the driver died, was angry.

He had taken shrapnel to his head. It penetrated his skull. There was a gaping hole on the side of his skull, above his ear, leaking increasing amounts of blood and other, whitish, grey coloured liguid, mixed with chunks of solids. It was his brains.

I remember him cursing the truck. He got up and he kicked the side of the truck with a ferocious boot and yelled and blamed the truck. Who else was there to blame?

Then he died, too, falling on the mud path, on his face.

We left his body there as well.

After I had fled in slow motion the dying, legless driver, another man, lying down, prostrate,  who I thought was dead, bolted upright.

He jumped up and yanked his pants down and, terrified, grabbed hold of his cock and balls and inspected them to make sure they were intact.

That made sense to me and I immediately did the same. I later learned this is a common reaction to the freshly wounded in war.

I remember asking him: “What just happened?” I had no idea. I had no idea we had run over a landmine. I did not understand why, in the dark, and mud and rain there were people dying and suffering.

“”We hit a landmine,” he said, with no discernible emotion.

Then, strangely, I became obsessed with locating my film, my cameras, my notebook from the wreckage of the debris of the truck and human carnage littering this irrelevant jungle patch, which, really, was of importance to no one, save those of us who died, or didn’t die, there that night.

I became obsessed and started  sifting through the metal and mud, in the dark and the rain, looking for them.  I need to salvage a purpose, an excuse that I had a reason to be there. Two other surviving troops came over and helped me. We found my Nikons and lenses and film and small,little backpack next to the bodies and under the remains of the truck. They had survived unharmed. I was greatly relieved.

Most everyone that night was killed, but several of us were not. Two were severely wounded. We cut two tree branches and attached hammocks to them, and two guerrillas carried the badly wounded through the night, in the rain and dark, for three hour, for 7 miles, a silent, sad trek, everyone lost in their own thoughts, to the nearest guerrilla base.

There, 7 miles away, they had felt the earth shake from the explosion from the landmine that was planted under the dirt less than 2 meters from me that night.

We began a long silent, sad walk.

I didn’t know that bones were sticking out of my leg until I stepped in a mud hole on that walk and a jolt of pain went from my leg to my brain. I didn’t know that I had shrapnel in my head until I tasted blood dripping into my mouth and wiped my hand over my face and looked, in fear, as it was covered in bright crimson fresh liquid.

I didn’t know I had permanent brain damage. Or that my ear drums were burst, or that my sternum was broken. Or that my liver was dislocated. And other stuff.

I just walked. Because we had no choice.

We arrived, hours later, at the guerrilla base. They knew we were coming. They piled us wounded into the back of a pickup truck and took us to a CIA funded guerrilla operating theatre in the jungle. It had a gas powered generator to provide electricity for an antiseptic operating room. There was an air conditioner in it. But we were put into an open air thatch roofed room. The loud din of a chorus of frogs croaking in celebration of the heavy monsoon rains, along with crickets, was soothing, but was so loud one had to speak louder to be heard.

A dozen or so soldiers,  all on crutches, their freshly bandaged stumps of legs covered in bright red fresh blood, their legs and arms and some one or both of each, gathered and stared at us, the new arrivals to their new world.

I was placed on an elevated military cot. Next to me was the most badly wounded soldier. The kind eyed, French trained doctor spoke softly and touched and poked me, my badly wounded neighbor on the stretcher next to me, and one other severely wounded guerrilla.

Then two soldiers walked in with a chainsaw, headed towards me.

I had bones sticking out of my feet. I jumped up like an Olympiad on methamphetamines and screamed in at least three languages to get the fuck away from me. I was forcibly restrained and reassured that the chainsaw was not destined for me. It was for the man next to me in the stretcher. They were massaging his heart. His leg was attached by a few strands of ragged tendons to his torso. he was not conscious. The medics, who, in truth, only had training in amputating limbs,  cranked it on and cut his leg off with no anesthesia, two feet from me. I stared emotionless at this. I was drained of any reserves of emotion by then.

I watched, in retrospect, with a calmness fueled and mitigated, I guess, by the context of the evil of that night. He died not so long afterwards.

They took me to the operating room. They took pieces of metal out of my legs, my torso, and my head. They sewed it up. They did their best.

Honestly, I felt very little pain, even then. I had just been blown up I then walked 7 miles with bones protruding from my foot, dozens of holes in my body, pieces of metal embedded in my head my torso, my legs, my feet. I had several broken bones. But in the coming days, for weeks, I would not be able to move from the pain.

Despite the unpleasantry of the previous hours, I was fixated, oddly, on one thing–to get my photographs and story to the Associated Press office in Bangkok. I knew then I could relax, my job done.

I repeatedly asked to be taken back the 60 kilometers to the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet. I needed—not wanted—I NEEDED—to file my pictures and story. In the darkest hours before dawn, I was driven by Thai military intelligence in an unmarked truck back to my hotel.

I was bandaged. I was confused. My whole body hurt by then.

My good friend, Philip Blenkinsop, the photographer, was staying in another room in the sparse ten room ground floor motel. I knocked on his door. It was before dawn.

He opened the door and stared silently for a few seconds. Philip, who I love dearly, didn’t say “What happened to you? Are you OK?”

He said, and I won’t forget these words: “Don’t move, mate, Great pics. Let me get my kit.”

I felt comforted,  as if I was now home and out of danger and with my people. He took these, and other pics.

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

A long day just begun Photo Philip Blenkinsop

The young boy, Ghung, the 17 year old Thai hotel manager, came to the room a while later. He had  a serene and loving look on his face. He looked me in the eyes and said ‘I told you they would protect you.”

Ghung knew he had saved my life that day. And I was pleased he believed he did. His black magic dead fetus was still wrapped around my neck.

Both he and I were very thankful and quite satisfied with the day, for different reasons.

Later the commander and chief of the guerrilla army came to my hotel room with a dozen roses. I liked this man. He smiled and chuckled and said: ” I told them not to drive down that path” and he handed me the flowers.

But the memory since has never left me, and never will leave me with any sense of peace or conclusion. I am not sure this story can be adequately conveyed. But that is the best I can do, today, 22 years later.

Musician’s Protest Goes Viral: Corporations offer no payment in exchange for “exposure”

8 Nov

Musicians say Enough is Enough for being asked to work for Free: One mans strongly worded refusal goes viral on social media

A Familiar refrain: “They consistently offer musicians nothing for their work, instead suggesting ‘exposure’ as a form of payment.”

The issue of for profit companies trying to increase their profit margin by refusing to pay creative artists for their work has once again gone viral, creating a debate which has metastasized on social media. Today it is by musicians. The similarities to the debate and discussion sparked in march of this year on the issue of writers and journalists facing the same problem are almost identical. See

Whitey, aka Nathan Joseph White, a musician from London, is the latest creative artist to put his foot down and publicly confront for profit companies asking to use his work, but refusing to pay him for it. The latest request by a major corporation to do just that prompted him to write a strongly worded, resounding no, and then post the message on both his FB page and twitter.

“I want a loud dialogue started in the music press about this shit. I’m sick of these people. I propose a collective blacklist of companies that play this shabby angle, enough. I donate music all the time to indie projects, students and those who need it but cannot pay. But these people… ugh,” Whitey wrote on his Facebook page today

Letter from Musician Outraged One last Time at being Asked to Give His Music for Free to For Profit Company

Letter from Musician Outraged One last Time at being Asked to Give His Music for Free to For Profit Company

This approach is becoming standard, I see an epidemic of these cheap manouevres. The income of musicians has already been decimated by file sharing- and smelling the blood in the water, there is a cynical trend for companies to play upon that struggle for survival. They consistently offer musicians nothing for their work, instead suggesting ‘exposure’ as a form of payment. Well ‘exposure’ only worked when the masses actually bought music, or if it is attached to a prominent cultural event. This kind of exposure… might as well pay me in Monopoly money,” he wrote on his FaceBook page.

In 2004, Whitey released The Light at the End of the Tunnel is a Train which was lauded as a critical triumph, recognized on numerous Best Of Year lists worldwide. In 2007, his album Great Shakes was leaked onto the internet, and as a consequence was never officially released, resulting in Whitey losing several mainstream licencing deals. Whitey’s work has been featured on Grand Theft Auto IV and on episodes of The Sopranos, House, One Tree Hill, The O.C, Kyle XY, Entourage, Breaking Bad, and CSI.

In May 2012, Whitey condemned”….ludicrously one-sided offers, arrogant A&Rs and hammering on closed doors”.

In December 2012, Whitey successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund his seventh album as well as making physical releases on CD and vinyl available for all his back catalogue.

Yesterday, Whitey rejected a Betty TV request to licence his music for free and reposted the email online to begin ‘a public discussion… about this kind of industry abuse of musicians.’ The post has gone viral.

British musician Whitey has had it with being asked to donate his music for free to big for profit companies. After the latest email from British company Betty TV, Whitey, aka NJ White, responded. Here is his letter, which has now had thousands of retweets on Twitter and thousands more on FB. The beat goes on……..:

“I am sick to death of your hollow schtick, of the inevitable line “unfortunately there’s no budget for music”, as if some fixed Law Of The Universe handed you down a sad but immutable financial verdict preventing you from budgeting to pay for music. Your company set out the budget. so you have chosen to allocate no money for music. I get begging letters like this every week – from a booming, affluent global media industry.

Why is this? Let’s look at who we both are.

I am a professional musician, who lives from his music. It me half a lifetime to learn the skills, years to claw my way up the structure, to the point where a stranger like you will write to me. This music is my hard-earned property. I;ve licensed music to some of the biggest shows, brands, games and TV production companies on Earth; form Breaking Bad to the Sopranos, from Coca Cola to Visa, HBO to Rock star Games.

Ask yourself – would you approach a Creative or a Director with a resume like that – and in one flippant sentence ask them to work for nothing? Of course not. Because your industry has a precedent of paying these people, of valuing their work.

Or would you walk into someone’s home, eat from their bowl, and walk out smiling, saying “So sorry, I’ve no budget for food”? Of course you would not. Because, culturally, we classify that as theft.

Yet the culturally ingrained disdain for the musician that riddles your profession, leads you to fleece the music angle whenever possible. You will without question pay everyone connected to a shoot – from the caterer to the grip to the extra- even the cleaner who mopped your set and scrubbed the toilets after the shoot will get paid. The musician? Give him nothing.

Now lets look at you. A quick glance at your website reveals a variety of well-known, internationally syndicated reality programmes, You are a successful, financially solvent and globally recognised company with a string of hit shows. Working on multiple series in close co-operation with Channel 4, from a West London office, with a string of awards under your belt. You have real money, to pretend otherwise is an insult.

Yet you send me this shabby request – give me your property for free… Just give us what you own, we want it.

The answer is a resounding, and permanent NO.

I will now post this on my sites, forward this to several key online music sources and blogs, encourage people to re-blog this. I want to see a public discussion begin about this kind of industry abuse of musicians… this was one email too far for me. Enough. I’m sick of you.”

Here is the email on Whitey’s Facebook page.

As I did with a request by the Atlantic Magazine in March this year, in an almost blueprint equivalent of his case, Whitey makes clear he does not object to playing music for free. He told today

I don’t want payment for everything. I don’t even care that much about money, I give away my music all the time. You and I live in a society where file sharing is the norm. I’m fine with that.

But i don’t give my music away to large, affluent companies who wish to use it to make themselves more money. Who can afford to pay, but who smell the file sharing buffet and want to grab themselves a free plate. That is a different scenario.

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