Odd Jobs, Barbed Wire and Noodle Soup

I once wrote a story about the oddest job I’ve ever held. At least, I think it was the oddest job. I’ve had some peculiar ones over the years, such as working in a shoe factory in Israel, house demolition in Hawaii, house-building in the Amazon, producing Barney DVDs. Barney was arguably one of the most mentally painful jobs I’ve ever done–I’m still scarred…I love you, you love me, we’re one happy fam-i-ly…wait, where am I? Who am I? Why am I dressed in this dinosaur outfit? Kill me now.

Anyway, back to the story in question. It was the late 80s and I found myself running a post office in a refugee camp in southeast Thailand. The Thai military and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees bossed the place, but setups like that are always parceled out to various NGOs–aid outfits, mission agencies, charities, etc. So, while the military runs the camp security and the UN runs overall funding and oversight, the different NGOs run the day-to-day operations, whether that be the schools, the clinics, food distribution, clothing distribution, the internal banks, and, last but not least, the post offices.

I ran the post office in the non-Vietnamese side of the camp. Our population was mostly Khmer, Hmong, Meun, and Lao, bounded on four sides by barbed wire, watch towers, the relentless furnace blast of the sun, rice fields on three sides, and a cracked asphalt road on the fourth side, stretching away north and south to Bangkok in one direction and Cambodia in the other.

My postal boss partner, a pleasant Thai fellow who had the curious knack of happily and healthily existing on several hours of sleep each night, and I had about thirty refugees who worked for us in the post office. We were deluged with mail each day from all corners of the globe. Each piece had to be recorded and then the details posted on long lists on the bamboo billboards just outside our windows. Refugees would hopefully gather, anxious to see if they had received a letter from relatives in Canada or Sweden or perhaps even a crumpled bit of news from someone in their long deserted home back in Cambodia or Laos. The adults would crowd in front of the billboards while their children would flutter about in the dust, hopping and skipping and still finding something in life to be hopeful for. They always reminded me of Solomon’s birds, cheerful and unconcerned with the day’s woes, while their parents read and re-read the lists, desperate for a familiar name.

Just as important as news from afar was the possibility of a letter containing money. Money meant a more adequate survival in camp. Even though the United Nations was supposed to provide sufficient food for their upkeep, things never worked out that way. Funds raised in the west had a habit of diminishing in quantity by the time they reached the refugee camps in the form of food. I don’t say that with any animosity against the UN. It just was the way things were.

At lunch time, I would lock up and head to the gate, show my pass to the bored Thai soldiers, and then head across the asphalt road to the Vietnamese half of the camp. There, in an open bamboo thatched pavilion, several enterprising cooks held sway over some open-air kitchens, busily cooking up rice and noodles, eggs and fish and meat. A dollar or so would buy a good meal for lunch.

I worked that job for six months and, even after all these years, my head is full of stories from that short time. I’ve only written one, a particularly sad and painfully true one, but I’ve misplaced it somehow. Blast it all. Do we misplace a great deal of our lives, through choice or absent-mindedness? I’m afraid so.

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