Thailand, Day 6

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We started off day 6 by hiking through Hellfire Pass.

This was the actual location that the POW’s from WWII and general laborers from Burma worked day and night to build a railroad through rocks and jungle. They were forced to work very long hours with very little sleep or supplies. If the men were too sick to work, they did not get fed at all in the attempt to get them back to work. Many men got sick with various serious ailments due to the harsh conditions. Many died of starvation.

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The workers were treated poorly and punished severely if they didn’t work fast enough. One hundred thousand people lost their lives building the railroad. The fires lit at night made the workers think of hell, hence the name Hellfire Pass.

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We took a train ride on a part of the Death Railroad that was still in use. We left the train and explored a cave that was set up as a medical aid station during the war. A shrine is set up there now. If you explore the cave past the shrine, there are a lot of bats in it.

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We stopped at a waterfall. It was a slippery climb, but I didn’t see anyone fall.

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In the afternoon, we visited the elephants. This was not included in the trip. It used to be included as an option, but the tour company got flooded with complaints saying that it wasn’t humane to ride an elephant. Unfortunately, the elephants survival depends on tourists dollars.

Many years ago the elephants were not treated humanely. They were given amphetamines to work long hours clearing brush and doing heavy lifting. After this was outlawed, the elephants could not be released into the wild. They would die. They created a sanctuary for these elephants and their families. Tourists can go to the sanctuary and pay to feed the elephants. Or they can ride the elephants, go on a river cruise, and swim with the elephants.

I was very nervous about riding an elephant at first. Look at them! They are huge. I was worried about falling off. The little seat on top of the elephant was held up by a couple of ropes that I was concerned wouldn’t hold our combined weight. Going up and down hills, I felt like I was falling. It was big time out of my comfort zone, but I decided to do it anyway.

After riding the elephant, we took a ride on a bamboo raft up the River Kwai. On the way back down, we jumped in the water and floated down the river. I couldn’t see or feel the bottom with my feet. When we got back, the elephants were waiting for us in the river. I had a hard time standing up as the current was fairly strong and the rocks under our feet were sharp. The elephants themselves are very gentle but whiskery with rough skin. They were only soft on the tip of their trunk.

I was a little nervous in the water too just from the sheer size of the elephants. Paul had an elephant fall in love with him. The elephant kept touching his bald head with her trunk. They gazed into each other’s eyes. Animals love him. The elephant seemed to sense my nervousness.

It certainly was a remarkable experience. I’m really happy I decided to go there.

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There are a few elephants that live in the wild. Some people on our tour bus saw one as we were driving through the jungle.

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We stopped on the way back to see some wild monkeys that were fed leftover food from the market.

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We were not allowed to touch the monkeys. The tour guide had to close the doors on the bus so they wouldn’t get inside and raid our food. It was unbelievable seeing hundreds of monkeys out in the open so close that I could touch them.

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We arrived back at the hotel in the evening and decided to eat outdoors at the romantic table. It was gorgeous outside. The average high temps were in the 90’s and it didn’t rain once the whole time we were in Thailand.

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Nearby was a table with a large extended family. Two little girls from their table danced to American music that played through the speakers. Either we didn’t hear any music at all or it was remade American hits from a few years back made into elevator music sung by a mediocre female singer. She even sang a song by Nine Inch Nails elevator style. I wonder if they even understood the words. I don’t specifically recall hearing any Thai music on our whole trip. I thought that was rather odd.

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Today was our favorite day of the trip.

Grace uncommon, part 4

After the war, Aunt Grace and her brothers all returned home to help run the family business. Uncle Harold finished high school. My grandpa and Uncle Kenny got married. Aunt Grace and Uncle Harold moved back home with their parents where they lived for the rest of their lives. Grandpa and Uncle Kenny lived down the road. My grandparents had their only child, my dad.

Uncle Kenny and his wife were unable to have children. During the war, Uncle Kenny watched the bombing of Hiroshima along with other service men aboard a Navy ship. The exposure rendered him sterile. He passed  away from skin cancer a few years before I was born.

Out of the four siblings, my dad was the only child. I would like to say that after the war there was a time of peace and serenity. Perhaps there was for a period of time. My great-grandma was a very forceful woman. Before my great grandparents started a successful automotive company, my great-grandma was a school teacher. I suspect that she very easily put the fear of God into disobedient children. She put the fear of God into her own children. Aunt Grace and her siblings (my grandpa especially) spent a lot of time being disciplined out it the wood shed. My great-grandma was the family matriarch. When she passed away, she passed the baton to Aunt Grace.

My Aunt Grace and great-grandma were such a strong overbearing force not to be reckoned with. Grace not only had a strong personality, but she was physically taller than her brothers as well. She was about 5’9″ and her brothers were all barely 5 ft tall. There was a bit of fighting over my dad. Aunt Grace and her mother wanted to raise my dad. So one day my dad stayed overnight by his grandma’s and didn’t come back home. Days at grandma’s turned into weeks which turned into months which turned into a year. The only fault I could find in my grandma was that she was too submissive. She never stood up for herself. But after a year, she told my grandpa that he needed to bring their son back home where he belonged. This created a rift between my grandma and Aunt Grace.

Time trickled by like it tends to do. My mom and Aunt Grace became best friends. My mom viewed Aunt Grace as a mother since her own mother passed away while she was a teenager. My mom’s family was very large and lived far away. So Aunt Grace and Uncle Harold became “grandma” and “grandpa” to us.  They helped raise us. Aunt Grace favored my brothers Luke and Matt. My grandparents favored Mark and I. As a group, they helped my parents through some very difficult times. 

Grace uncommon, part 2

Aunt Grace only wore navy blue. She was a part of the Navy military reserves (WAVES) in WWII.

Aunt Grace, like me, was a firstborn with three younger brothers. They were also close in age like I am with my brothers. When her brothers all joined the military in WWII, Aunt Grace joined too. She joined in a time that it was uncommon and perhaps frowned upon for women to serve. But that never stopped Aunt Grace. She was patriotic down to the core.

She decorated her house with a nautical theme. She loved lighthouses, anchors, and anything with the Navy emblem on it. Strange enough, however, I have never seen her swim or ride on a boat.

Aunt Grace was proud of her time in the military. She bought everything that she could having to do with the WAVES. She bought mugs, shirts, and any military novels she could get her hands on. She wrote letters to the women that she served with, but I never had the chance to meet them.

When it was time for the WAVES 45th reunion, it was in our area so I went along. I was very young so I don’t remember a lot of the speakers or the meal. I just remember Grace smiling a lot as she drank her coffee. She bought us all reunion shirts. My grandma went out to eat one time wearing that shirt and a stranger paid for her meal with the note attached saying thanks for serving our country. My grandma never served, it was all Aunt Grace.

Over time, the WAVES group grew smaller and smaller. After Aunt Grace and her brothers passed away, my parents donated their uniforms to the local historical society. I never told her that I was proud of her, I was too young at the time to understand. I can’t remember ever meeting any other women of her time that served. When at events that veterans were asked to stand to acknowledge their service, Aunt Grace was always the only woman in the room that stood up.

Aunt Grace was uncommon.