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July 1, 2009

A Reunion

Tom McLaughlin

Kuala Pilah, Malaysia – My friend Dzul urged me to return to Kuala Pilah, a two-hour flight, for a reunion with his class. I had started teaching in 1974, just after his group had left; but some had returned for the next level of education (form six). The best and the brightest, they scored the highest on their exams. These were the former students who remembered me after 35 years.


They have since taken their place in a developing country. One, an advisor to the prime minister, works on the problems in south Thailand. Another practices neurosurgery. Still others continue to develop the economy. And a lady named Salma who teaches biology. I am so proud of them.


Some of the teachers I had worked with also returned. What surprised me, none of them had gained any weight. Here I was, with a nine month pregnant gut, and the rest are slim and trim.


Okay, I did tell you I lost several kilos over here, but I gained it back while spending a month in the states. Several of my local friends could not understand how I could possibly expand so much; but eating tons of breakfast meats, plus heavy on the pastry packed, it on. I am back on my veggie diet and I should start to reduce.


As most know I wear a bangle on my right arm. This piece of stainless steel has not been off for over 30 years and is a tribute to some close friends who are Punjabis, the guys from India who wear the turbans.


I am not sure if any of you have greeted a close friend who you have not seen in a long, long time. A person who has often been in your thoughts but for reasons of distance or just the progress of life, a meeting was just not possible.


It happened to me. I recognized Sukdev Singh right away. I had no trouble recognizing my friend. Several people greeted him and I waited patiently and threw my arms around his shoulders. I am sure he thought “Who the hell is this white guy hugging me?”


“It’s Tom, Sukdev! It’s Tom!” I exclaimed. He looked at me and I don’t think I have ever been squeezed as hard against anyone’s chest as he did to me. Three times. “Oh, my God!” he exclaimed. Then “My God, have you gained weight! You were so thin!” Then the tears. We sat down and talked as if it were yesterday and the years had not intervened.


In 1975, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon. The city was in chaos with images of helicopters whirling above the embassy evacuating people. I walked into the teachers’ staff room that morning and all conversation stopped. They all looked at me, being the only American around.


My other Siek friend, Kul Dip, put his arms around me said: “The killing is over now and there will be peace.” The teachers went back to their normal activities and not another word was said about the defeat. The rest of my stay could have been very awkward had it not been for his actions. Malaysia, also fighting a communist insurgency at the time, had problems in the region where I lived. People were concerned.


I will have my old new friends over to Sarawak where we will enjoy talking of old new good times. I am looking forward to that.


Life is good.


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