On December 17, 2020, we published A Great Loss in the World of Knowledge and Espionage to recognize the passing of John le Carré that caused me to research whether his novel, The Honourable Schoolboy, which published in 1977, had ever been made into a movie. We, like many of you, were running very low on viewing options during the pandemic. Sadly, it has not been put to film, as most likely, no capable screen writer has the stamina to work through a complicated novel that moves back and forth across the world and different intelligence organizations. Therefore, I had no alternative but to purchase a paperback edition to re-read it for comprehension.
When I did so, I realized that I knew and recognized many people in the novel, if not in person, then by reputation. Moreover, Jerry Westerby’s character, as an MI6 field agent with a journalist cover in Asia, reflects aspects of my life during the Vietnam war days in that part of the world. However, I did not play cricket and I am neither British nor a make-believe journalist and have never met the author. On the other hand, many of our experiences were the same and the fictional Jerry and I both made it through that period in one piece, more or less.
The first third or so of the 600-page novel focuses on MI6 or the “Circus” which was a name coined by Le Carré based on a fictional building on Cambridge Circus. Having spent 16 years in His Majesty’s Service, he had perfect insight. Throughout the novel the “Circus” is continually at odds with the “Cousins” or the CIA. A real-life character, Richard Hughes, was a highly regarded Australian journalist who knew his way around most any intelligence service. Hughes or “Old Craw,” his nom de plume in the novel, was based in the Far East. Le Carré described Hughes as the “sort of journalistic” Eiffel Tower. Ian Fleming, shown below with Hughes, was once his former foreign news editor before Fleming moved on to create James Bond. Hughes was the fictional head of an Australian intelligence unit in the James Bond novel You Only Live Twice. Interestingly, I have a friend who heads another Asian news bureau and there is no doubt from her questions that she is in the intelligence game.
On page 300 of the Honourable School Boy, “Captain Rocky, a Laos mercenary” appears as the only actually identified character in the novel by their true name. A very patriotic Rocky with a necktie is shown in a Fourth of July celebration with my friend Fred. Whether it was Vientiane, Saigon or Phnom Penh during the Vietnam war era, at Fred’s house (rent paid by Esso), Rocky was a permanent guest given his spook PX (Post Exchange) privileges. Duty free is an interesting concept when the U.S. is not legally in two of the three countries. However, your own airplanes can always transport duty-free booze which was an essential commodity at “party central.” Remember the Air America business plan, “You call, we haul.”
Le Carré came to know Rocky at Fred’s place in Phnom Penh as the war was coming to a noisy end which is described in the novel. After the war, Fred came into my Exxon office in Houston and said “Let’s call Rocky” on what appeared to be a Corpus Christi, Texas phone number scribbled on a crumbled piece of paper. Someone answered and said he would get back to us which Rocky did very shortly. I became a bit concerned that Rocky was on my speaker phone when he declined to give his location but said he was laying low as he had laid two U.S. DEA agents to rest in Mexico while loading “cargo” to fly below the radar to a remote area of West Texas. Rocky’s explanation was, that in the midst of the gunfire, he thought they were “Mexican federales” when they started shooting at his “tail gunner.”
Rocky ultimately fled to a quiet spot on the Washington state/Canadian border and set up booby traps around his cabin in order that any unwanted guests would inadvertently give him a head’s up so he could slip across the border into Canada. He lived out his remaining years there and Fred and his wife, Dao, would visit him as they spent the Thailand hot season at their home in nearby Seattle.
Le Carré could have met plenty of other spooks at Fred’s place as the image below shows them going through the motions of removing the make-believe armor plating from a departing spook’s car in Phnom Penh. Nothing like a good reason to have a party though that was never really necessary. It was clear that there was a very blurred distinction between spooks, Air America pilots and “Esso civilians” as all had U.S. government security clearance though it would be difficult to find those documents in official records. The “fly boys” were accustomed to transporting drugs and guns in the illegal war in Laos. Accordingly, they continued their equally illegal professions in either South America or Africa. A more mature Fred, second from the left below, went to a number of dodgy places in Africa until Somalia got the best of him as it was not fun.
Once in Laos, Prince Sisouk Na Champassak, the Minister of Defense and Finance, invited me to his favorite cabaret in Vientiane as I had entertained him periodically in Bangkok. It was there that he introduced me to a Thai lady who was an accomplished singer. Over the course of the evening, she said she was looking for a safe passage to get home to Bangkok. I said she could join my Thai lawyer and me but we had to take a rather circuitous route entering through Northeast Thailand with a detour back through Laos for a brief visit with someone. Two days later, off we went crossing on a boat to Nong Khai on the Thai side of the river. Jerry Westerby chose the same Laos exit route from Vientiane in the fictional novel but he was smart enough to examine his taxi’s tires before departing on a dangerous night drive through the CT (Communist Terrorist) controlled Thai badlands. After two flat tires, our taxi driver started to pull over in an area covered in deep growth in the dark of night. I forcibly persuaded him to keep going on the tire rim until we came to a proper village to have the tires replaced.
Over the course of Westerby’s drive through Thai roadblocks, he came to know a Thai colonel in the Thai Communist Suppression Organization. Some of you may recall my old friend, Colonel Chang, in the same organization who carried a similar license to kill. The dialogue Westerby had with the colonel paralleled those I had with Chang though I doubt Westerby spoke Thai but Le Carré is entitled to take some poetic license. Back to real life, we made it to Mukdahan that night, crossed into Laos by a small boat the next morning with no identification, got nailed by the Lao border patrol, paid a “fine,” went to the Savannakhet airstrip, had our meeting and went back to Thailand.
Not long after that, it was my turn to rotate out of Thailand. Therefore, I was all dressed up in a suit and walking out of my office for the airport when my secretary called me back to take the phone call shown below. You may note that my cigarette in the ashtray is on the other side from the phone. You can also tell from my expression that the phone call was unexpected. However, it turns out my Laos travel companion needed some money which I was happy to address once the shock of her tracking me down slipped away. I think Jerry would have been a gentleman as well.
Just to close out the first chapter in Southeast Asia, we wanted to stop in Siem Reap, Cambodia for a couple of days before going on to Hong Kong. Unexpectedly, the day before the departure, Cambodian General Lon Nol overthrew Prince Sihanouk in a CIA sponsored coup. When asked about the safety there, Air France staff answered, “Take a chance. We will circle the airstrip and if it looks okay, we will land and you can hop off. Otherwise, we will proceed on to Hong Kong.” Now you know the origin of their name “Air Chance.” It all worked out well, though Angkor Wat was very quiet and a bit eerie. Five more years followed as a resident in that part of the world with countless time spent beyond that period.
The son and grandson of another close friend from that era asked why I have become so open in my communication about that era. My response was “What is anyone going to do to me now?” Henry, the grandson who actually did a short tour for us in Ho Chi Minh City a couple of years ago, said “At this juncture, you do not care.” Maybe that is the ultimate freedom—not to care and carry a gun in your back pocket at the same time in case there are bad memories or sore losers out there somewhere.
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