From my book “Journals From the Edge”
I’m settled in my seat on the Pan Am Clipper and recall what Dad told me about the
Clipper that landed off Maui in 1936. This aircraft is no longer the seaplane that had stopped
back then to refuel on its way to the orient. Dad’s high school yearbook celebrated that seaplane
as Maui’s transition into the modern world. Thirty-three years later, I’m flying in great comfort in
a huge jumbo jet with hardly any people onboard.
I’ve been so excited about this trip and told everyone where I’m going—but no one knows
where Bali is. They say the same thing I first thought, “Bali? Like Bali Hai in ‘South Pacific?”’
I told them, “Next to Java.” And still I got blanks faces. I quit trying to explain something
I don’t really know myself.
We stop in Fiji on the way and I check out the islands I can see from the plane window—
they look like a jeweled necklace stretching across the turquoise sea. What an adventure this is
going to be.
Mike has arranged for me to stay overnight in the Indonesian capital of Djakarta at the
home of his friend Joe Galloway until the following day when I’ll complete the last leg of my trip
Having moved around for the last eighteen years does little to dull my enthusiasm. I try to
tell myself that this is just going to be one more place I’ve seen in the world.
My flight lands at Halim airport in Djakarta. This airport seems small and dingy for a
capital city. Right away I can tell this isn’t just another country, like Canada. The air is hot and
humid like the southern U.S. But instead of tobacco, the exotic smell of clove cigarettes permeates
the air. It’s very hectic, with an overwhelming crowd of people and their accompanying din. All
this has a disorienting effect on my already jet-lagged body.
Baggage boys in orange jumpsuits walk around with their arms draped over each other in
an innocent child-like way and giggle as they stare at me with eyes like dark pools. I think about
“The Wizard of Oz.” They’re munchkin-size in height but very slender. I don’t see any fat people.
My own look is Levi jeans, a sweat-soaked Gant shirt, and Bass Weejuns—a prep school kid
very far from the prep school world.
No one speaks English even though they nod their heads as if they understand what I’m
saying. Their glazed eyes tell me they don’t. I keep repeating my mantra of directions to Joe
I see some bicycles with small carriages on the front and point at one.
A wirey man with legs like steel cables answers my silent question.
I nod. These vehicles appear so cool and airy—perfect for me. I ignore all the taxi drivers
who tug on my shirt as I jump into this small bicycle-powered cab.
It’s a mistake. My betcha driver peddles our vehicle so much faster than I think possible,
but not fast enough. The merging of speeding cars and these slow throw-backs to another age
make for a constant succession of near misses. When I manage to suppress my fear long enough
to look around, I see ornate statues and memorials dominating each intersection. They give an
impression of wealth, which is a weird contrast in this city with acres of tin roof slums. We pass
over a bridge and I see people below using a smelly canal both as a latrine and a laundry.
My focus shifts to the shirtless back of my driver. His sun-leathered skin is stretched tight
over his ribs. He says something to me in his own language and I shake my head while I repeat
Joe’s address. I’m thinking of my new favorite movie, “Cool Hand Luke.” We have a failure to
communicate and I know how that movie ends.
I might be able to handle this skinny guy but what if he takes me to some poor part of the
city and a hundred of his pals descend on me like rats? How could I be so out to lunch?
Somehow my mantra works because suddenly we’re in a nice neighborhood. I arrive at
Joe’s soaking wet from heat and fright. My feelings for my driver change instantly and I feel guilty
for not trusting him. His face beams as if I have just changed his life when I give him a five dollar
Joe Galloway is friendly, with a slight Texas accent. The only thing Mike had told me
about him was that he was the head of UPI so I ask him about his job.
“Now I get to do stories like your brother’s rock concert fiasco.”
Mike hadn’t let me in on this. What am I walking into?
Joe grins at my lack of information.
“He didn’t tell you about that? Well Mike and his musicians posted a no-show at a concert
ticketed for around 50,000 fans. The crowd did show, the band didn’t, a riot ensued, and
the fans ran amok. That’s the word in this country that describes chaos. Amok. I did an
interview with him before he got blacklisted. Turned out to be a very interesting guy.”
“Blacklisted? So he’s not on Bali?”
“Oh he’s back. He’s a very resourceful guy who knows how to land on his feet. Don’t
I settle down and glance at a map of Southeast Asia on the wall. Push-pins dot several
action areas in Vietnam.
“You’ve been there?”
“Quite a bit. I have a friend who’s a photojournalist for Time magazine. I’d like you to
meet Sean. He’s just arrived from Vietnam for a little R&R. I’m going to try to talk him
into flying to Bali to spend some time with you and your brother. He just went to the
market and should be back soon.”
After a well-needed shower, I rejoin Joe. A tall guy with movie star looks walks into the
house with the swagger of a fighter pilot.
Joe introduces me to Sean and I listen to their passionate but easygoing conversation about
developments in Vietnam. Both men are journalists, a profession I hold in very high regard.
Vietnam has become such a huge issue and listening to firsthand info from these two experienced
men is an inspiration for a news and history buff like myself.
The conversation turns towards my brother and his wild times with his rock group.
I mention surfing and Joe lifts his eyebrows at Sean and points to me.
“These guys know how to have fun.”
Sean gives me a conspiratorial grin.
“You know, I’m jazzed on surfing. Grew up in Palm Beach with my mother. The surf deal
always flipped my switch but I never got to do it much.”
Something about him makes me like Sean right away. I tell him he should come with me
Sean and I arrive in Bali, which is much less busy than Djakarta but like Djakarta, it’s a
world of contrasts. The airport is adorned with Hindu art and the entrance of the road to Kuta
has a large white marble statue of a Hindu god charging into battle on a chariot. Our chariot is a
vehicle called a bemo. It has a noisy three-stroke engine that sucks exhaust back to where we sit in
a passenger bed consisting of two opposing bench seats with a half round of sheet metal over it.
The combination of pot holes and lack of shocks creates the impression that the bemo has square
We drive by several road crews where women labor with enormous piles of crushed coral in
baskets balanced on their heads. A few men sit comfortably in the shade, directing the women
while cigarettes dangle from their lips.
We’re eager to escape our gas chamber and jump out at ‘bemo corner’ at the head of Jalan
Pantai, (beach road). Sean points to a hanging wire with a light bulb at the end in one of the small
warongs that surround the intersection.
“Just like many little villages I saw in Vietnam.”
Past the shops, the road is dirt and there is no more electricity or commercial operations.
We walk the remaining mile through the sleepy fishing village of Kuta, toward what Joe told us is
Mike’s home near the ocean. The only sounds on this road are crickets and soft voices speaking in
an unfamiliar cadence. Large trees drape over the road and the smell and haze from burning
coconut husks hangs in the windless air.
Mike startles me when we walk in. He’s skinny and doesn’t look fit. I give him a strong
hug and Sean introduces himself.
Mike beams when he meets Sean.
“Joe has told me all about you. Stoked you’re here.”
I keep staring at Mike and he notices.
“I’ve lost a little huh?”
All my expectations of seeing my brother are rattled and I don’t reply.
“Here, try this, it’s durian.”
My finger pokes at a football-size nut pod with woody spikes around the outside shell.
Mike pries it open along fracture lines and withdraws the creamy yellow fruit. He sucks the
custard off the seed.
I try a small piece while Mike fills me in.
“Only tigers and humans eat this. It’s full of protein.”
“Protein? Looks like you could use some.”
Mike checks out his rib cage.
I nod, grin and start devouring more durian.
“Don’t OD on that stuff Bill. It’ll give you bad dreams.”
“Man, you turn me on to this and it’s like our grandmother’s eight layer cake. One bite?”
“You guys want a smoothie? Bill looks like he wants to eat me.”
Sean says, “Sure.”
Mike leans out a side window, pushes a giant banana leaf aside and half whispers towards
the fruit stand that neighbors his house.
“Genik, minta tiga smoothie. (three smoothies please)”
Moments later we hear the whir of a blender.
Mike tells us, “I bought Genik that blender and a generator. It’s the only one on this
Soon Genik, a beautiful Balinese woman, walks in with our smoothies and smiles at Mike.
Mike nods and then Genik turns toward Sean. She barely gets the smoothie into his hands
before she blushes and runs away.
“I’ve never seen a Balinese woman react that way with a western guy but then you are Sean
I feel like I’m missing out on part of the equation.
“What don’t I know about Sean?”
“It’s one of those things I don’t bother telling strangers but now that you’re going to be
watching me in the waves maybe it would be good for me to have you know I’m the son of
Mike chuckles and says to Sean.
“Well, we’re the sons of Captain Bligh.” And turns to me, “But yeah Bill, this is Errol
Wow, it seems incredible enough to have learned that he is a photojournalist for Time
magazine—but now this.
Mike continues to Sean, “We were big fans of your father’s films.”
Sean says, “From what I’ve heard, your stories would rival anyone’s.”
I’m interested to learn about Sean but can’t wait to see the Indian Ocean.
“Hey let’s check out the surf.”
We walk down to a white sand beach and see that it stretches for miles in either direction.
It’s empty except for a few naked western girls.
Mike sees me lift my eyebrows.
“Euro chicks. They backpack through Asia and end up here.”
“That’s it? No surfers?”
Crystal blue waves peel offshore as if carved by a machine lathe.
Mike points towards a consistent section.
“That’ll be a great place for Sean to start.”
I size up my emaciated brother.
“Well where are you going to start?”
I place my leg in front of his and push Mike down in the sand.
“You don’t look like you could handle baby waves at Waikiki. What the hell have you
been doing to yourself?”
I jump on Mike and playfully but energetically rough him up, pushing his face into the
“You guys play rough.”
I tell Sean, “This is just pay-back.”
I finally let Mike up gasping for air.
“That’s how it’s going to feel when you go over the falls.”
Mike takes our tussle in stride.
“Sean, he’s right. I deserved that, especially from him. I brought him down here to get my
sorry ass back in shape.”
Mike sizes up Sean.
“You look fit.”
“I’ve just spent a good amount of time out in the jungle with the special forces, hucking a
big pack full of camera gear. Don’t know if it’ll help for surfing but I’m ready to try.”
I’m staring at Mike who needs way more help than Sean. My jet lag is getting to me and I
need a workout.
“Let’s get started.”
We take off for a jog down this never-ending beach. I could live here. This really is
The beach calls each of us for a different reason. Mike needs to get in shape, Sean tells us
how he’s unwinding and I’m pinching myself every time I see the waves.
Our days begin with an hour of intense yoga followed by a beach run-swim-run. It makes
me happy to see Mike resurrect his fanaticism about getting fit. Swimming in the clear water
revitalizes the three of us. After a few weeks of this regime we’re swimming like Johnny
The surf comes up and I break out my quiver of Dick Brewer surfboards. Sean’s picking it
up fast, I’m in hog heaven and Mike is still working on his take-off timing. We’re all buzzed from
being in the ocean.
When we get back to the house Made, our main houseboy, hands me a chilled young
coconut with a straw. Mike has different people to do our laundry, cook, and shop. I wonder if
we’re living like our grandparents did when they were stationed in Haiti. In restful moments I
read Melville and get stoned. Human activity around Mike’s house stops by five thirty in the
afternoon. This is the most peaceful place I’ve ever experienced.
Sean is out sightseeing with his camera.
Mike grins at me.
“Man, for a guy who thought high school would be boring, you sure had a ton of shit to
“You sure didn’t. I never heard from you after I wrote about your pal.”
“That did set me back. So bummed. Wrote to him in Khe Sanh a few times and invited
him to come here. Got one short letter. He wanted to check this place out.”
“Man, he would have flipped for Bali.”
“Well at least you’re here. You’re saving my life.”
“I had no idea what you’d been doing. Writing you felt like a one-way street.”
“I’ve been in a tail spin Bill.”
“Yeah Joe told me about the no-show.”
“And that was just the end of a long stretch of crazy theater. Things just spun out.”
There must be more to the story than that, but for now I let it pass.
“I think I know what you mean.”
“Hey that letter about Dad seemed heavy. What happened?”
My hands cover my face and I try to get everything straight in my head before I start
talking. I take a deep breath and think about what Mike has just told me about being spun out.
How much should I say?
“You know Dad is going to be fifty next week… amazing how he cheated death a few times
in the war. All those battles he fought. But now he’s got one more.”
“Well Bill, finding happiness is a battle for everyone isn’t it?”
“Guess so. Just seemed sad to me. Now that he’s finally gone back to Maui I don’t think
he feels like it’s really his home anymore. Plus—his career has dropped him into retirement
a tad unprepared. Maybe he can make a new start. You’ll see soon enough when he gets
“Yeah, we’ll see. So that was it? You call that intense? Man, you haven’t seen nothin’ yet.”
“Well that was just…”
I don’t finish. We look up and see Sean stroll in the door. Mike is distracted and I drop
the subject. I’m not sure if I even want to finish. Why? I think I’ve just about covered it without
the heavy details. We’re having a great time. Why ruin it with a bummer?
Workouts, surfing and fat joints of Thai grass give us tremendous appetites. The three of
us are eating a huge dinner out on an expansive lawn by the ocean and watching another beautiful
sunset. The only irritation is an ever-present pack of feral dogs that surround our table.
I ignore the dogs and ask Sean.
“How did you come to this part of the world from Florida?”
“My mother was an actress—Lili Damita. So even though I didn’t see my Dad much
growing up, acting came my way. I quit college and went to Spain to star in a remake of—
can you guess?”
We are pretty stoned so he fills in, “Captain Blood. Yeah ‘Figlio del Capitano Blood.’”
He shakes his head amused by his own story.
“I was twenty-one then.”
“Was that the only movie?”
“No. Do you remember Zorro when you guys were kids?”
“Well I did “The Sign of Zorro,” caps, masks and all. There were a few other B movies for
me in France. I had money, Porsches and chicks. Couldn’t be happier, right?”
Mike interjects, “Yeah I know that one. Just went through a year of heroin use, rock and
roll and groupies.”
I snap out of my haze.
“You were a junkie? No wonder you were so screwed up. Jeez.”
I think about what I remember was clean living for Mike in Lahaina, as well as his
description of his life when he first arrived here. I can’t imagine how he fell off that path.
I jab him in the shoulder.
Mike points his thumb at me.
“He’ll have his tests someday.”
Sean says, “That’s it isn’t it? It’s those tests that make us who we are. I burned out with
the movie thing and wanted to taste some real life. You know my father had connections
all over the world and wherever I went it invited uncomfortable comparisons to him. I felt
empty and wanted to do something I could really test myself with. The same year Joe was
dodging bullets at the battle of Ia Drang…”
I interrupt, “Joe was at Ia Drang? Wow.”
I’m shaking my head in amazement.
“Yep, he was there. Anyway, that same year I went to Africa to start a career in journalism.
That gig didn’t pay well so I went to Singapore to do another movie and make some
dough. The action was heating up in Vietnam so I popped over and got signed on as a
UPI photographer. You know all that background with movie camera work really gave me
an eye for what I thought was a good shot. Got lost in the jungles and mountains with the
Special Forces for some long stretches. It was pretty wild.”
He pauses and reflects.
“But I’m jazzed to be here now and learning how to surf, shit, this place is…”
Mike interrupts, “Let’s start calling it home. Bill and I were just talking about this. We’ve
moved around quite a bit growing up and this feels like the place to make our power spot.”
Sean nods in agreement.
The dogs wait until our conversation turns so consuming that it distracts our attention
from the food on the table. At that point they rush in, grab some ahi and race away before we can
react. We begin to pile coral rocks next to us to keep them at a safer distance.
It’s so hot and humid in Mike’s house that we remain on the beach into the evening after
dinner. There is a slight cooling breeze out here where we can soak up the stars and talk into the
night about Vietnam, Indonesia, surf and girls. We don’t drink alcohol but puff away on powerful
It’s a different world here. I’m not even thinking about TV or anything else I ever did in
the evenings at home, wherever that was.
Things go quiet during marijuana minutes when we lose focus on the conversation. In
these moments of short-term memory loss, we watch the lanterns of the small fishing boats just
offshore bob up and down. When they disappear behind a swell approaching the shore, we can
forecast rising surf.
Tonight Mike tells me that we are going to a barong dance but won’t say any more than
“Just watch and figure it out for yourself.”
Since I’ve been here he’s told me a few times that he’s tired of me asking so many
questions about this place and what Indonesian words mean.
We smoke a joint and join the few westerners hanging around the boundary of the action.
The arena for the dance is the dirt street that runs through the village. It’s common to see
people in the cool evenings use the street as a community center.
I can tell the barong isn’t meant to be a tourist event like the hula dances I’ve seen at
Hawaiian luaus. Almost all of the people gathered here are village people, dressed in ceremonial
batiks called sarongs, wrapped around their waists the way I wrap a towel around myself after a
Wow, what a sound. Across from us are simply dressed musicians playing an instrument
kind of like a xylophone. It’s the most enchanting sound I’ve ever heard. The musicians sit in the
dirt smoking clove cigarettes. They appear as stoned as we are. A light haze floats like magic in the
air on this windless night and I feel like I’ve gone back in time.
A moment of doubt enters my mind that maybe we shouldn’t be eavesdropping on what is
a serious ceremony for these villagers. But I relax seeing young smiling children kneel in the
musician’s laps soaking up the ritual performance along with us. I laugh to myself when I think
about fidgeting in church when I was their age.
A different note from the gambang kayu (xylophone) and a change of tempo startles me. A
colorful dragon with bare feet enters the arena followed by dancers in ornate costumes with gold
trim. The dancers’ faces are made up to look very intense and alert, as if they were on a hunt—or
maybe they are the hunted. Their hand movements are very intricate, even more than any hula I
ever saw on Maui.
We hear a terrifying growl and dust rises from the street. A hideous Medusa-like witch
stomps into the arena and begins a fire and brimstone speech in a language I haven’t even heard
the locals speak. Maybe they’re speaking in tongues like Pentecostal church devotees. The
children across from me look scared. I am too. But in the next moment the witch is making a
different sound, like a belly laugh. Is she laughing at us?
My attention turns to the right. A man with a white hat, the only one among all the
colored hats everyone else is wearing, is splashing blood on the faces of another group of dancers.
A few people turn their heads to look behind us and I’m sucked into doing so myself. A headless
chicken body is still twitching on a chopping block. I’m stoned but I know these guys are way
farther out than I am. I’m guessing this white-hat guy is a priest of some sort.
The dancers must be entering a trance-like state after being baptized in a chicken blood
bath. Their trance appears way more extreme than a marijuana high, more like an acid trip.
But these trippers have gold daggers at their sides when they enter the arena. They’re
dancing around the witch in aggressive postures. Oh shit, now they’ve pulled out those daggers
and are pointing them at her.
This is getting wild. They’re stabbing out into the air towards the witch but without
contact. She booms out more fire and brimstone and the dancers fall back. The crowd also falls
back and now I realize that there is no difference between the crowd and the dancers. I’m not a
spectator any more either. This whole event is breathing in and out as one body.
The dancers begin moaning with sounds of frustration. Oh man, now they’re sticking the
blade points into their own cheekbones and chest. The blades bend dangerously. There, one of
the daggers breaks without penetrating the skin of the dancer. And now another. It’s all getting
very freaky. Their actions and results are defying reality as I know it.
There’s no time to space out on this unbelievable sight. Everyone is running. I turn and
run with them. There’s a western tourist on the other side of the street from me who is walking
with a cane. The crowd knocks him over and he disappears from my view.
God, this is like a crash at an air show.
We return to Mike’s house. I start to talk. Mike puts up his hand and emits a rushing
exhale. Without any discussion of what just happened, I crash into a restless sleep of weird
Mike and I are driving to Denpasar, the main city on the island, to extend our visas. I’m
thumbing through the book on orchids that Mike had me bring from Hawaii.
He asks me, “So lay it on me. What did you think of that theater last night?”
“When we went to bed I couldn’t stop dreaming about it. It seemed like there were two
opposing characters but neither one came out on top. Were they like good and evil? Then
there was that disturbing suicide deal they couldn’t pull off.”
As soon as I say it, I’m staring at Mike for a moment and wonder if he is thinking about his
past—because I suddenly am. I don’t want to get into that and try to move on before he goes there.
“But those breaking daggers, man that was wild.”
“Your dreams are from too much durian Bill. But good and evil? Those are western
We pass a rice field and Mike points at a huge VW bug size volcanic rock in the middle of
“Well what were they?”
“Just forces, opposing forces, like that lava rock in that field. See that volcano way over
there? It’s called Agung.”
I see the cone shape on the far side of the island and nod.
“In 1963 that baby threw that rock all the way over here. This island has many natural
forces at work and these people just want harmony so they can pull off their next rice crop.
They do it by acknowledging the existence of both sides of nature so that those forces don’t
feel neglected or spiteful. Hopefully things return to some sort of equilibrium. Dances
occur after disasters like flood, drought, drowning, disease, or a volcanic explosion.”
Mike shakes his head in wonder.
“But sometimes things go haywire, like last night.”
“So are things balanced now?”
We arrive at the immigration office and wait for three hours to get in to see the Chief. I’m
staring at a gold Rolex watch on Mike’s wrist I’ve never seen him wear.
Mike tells me, “These guys were forced to sit and sweat it out with the Dutch for years.
Now they have their own country and this is pay-back.”
“But this shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
“Shit, I don’t know Bill. This is my first time in this office since I was blacklisted. Some of
my oil pals in Singapore snuck me back into Indonesia through Balikpapan this last time.
Those guys don’t even use their passports in this country.”
“Yeah. It’s a big oil town in Borneo.”
Balikpapan? I can’t even fathom or pronounce the places Mike has been the last two years
since I last saw him. He’s pretty adept at getting around these uncomfortable corners of the world
and smoothing them out, even if he did stray off of what I think our path should be. My job is
going to be to keep him pointed in the right direction. We’re brothers after all.
But here in this immigration office I’m worried that our stay here could end soon. I
remember the rock concert fiasco Joe told me about and wonder if we’ll be successful after this
long wait. My experience is that long waits aren’t good and Mike will have to pull a rabbit out of
his ass to extend our visas.
We’re finally led into the immigration office and Mike taps my arm carrying the orchid
book. I take my cue and present the book to the Chief. He smiles and sets the book aside without
opening it for even a short glance. I’m disappointed but he points for us to sit. Is this a good sign?
Mike begins a long speech in Indonesian and there are toothy grins on both sides. After
several minutes I follow their lead and rise from my chair. Mike flashes his best smile and locks the
Chief into a long handshake. He maintains this cheerful eye contact while I dare only a quick
glance to see him slide the Rolex off his hand onto the wrist of the Chief. What a move. The
Chief directs us out and his secretary stamps our passport extensions.
We’re driving back to Kuta and I’m trying to figure out how things work.
“Mike, are all these guys corrupt?”
“Corrupt? Corrupt is a matter of perspective. An official like him doesn’t make that much
money. But his position gives him the opportunity to receive a private tax of sorts. Do you
have a say in where all that tax money goes in the U.S.? A bribe just serves to prioritize a
situation. No matter where you are in the world, grease makes things happen and that was
only minor grease pal.”
I mime Mike’s move with the handshake.
“I can dig it. That was a pretty smooth move Mike.”
“Subtle, that’s the key. Some people complain about it but maybe they’re just too cheap to
do it or lack the cool to pull it off. It’s gotta be cool or you can get yourself into trouble.
But yeah, it’s a way of life here, just part of the cost of living.”
I’m thinking Mike has it wired.
“Well whatever you have to do it’s worth it.”
“Fucking A it’s worth it. We’re here with a few euro backpackers and hardly anyone else is.
This is like hitting the surfer jackpot isn’t it?”
Mike flicks me in the chest with the back of his hand. He has a huge grin on his face. It’s
great to see him so proud of himself.
We’re surfing every day. I think Mike has forgotten how he had told me in Lahaina about
there being more to life than surfing. Our daily routine is now totally dedicated to riding waves.
When we aren’t in the water we’re eating healthy or training hard.
“Hey Bill, today let’s shine the food.”
The reminder of my one-day fasts for the POW pilot brings back a fond memory of my
time in boarding school.
“Sure man. But I remember the last time I did this, you asked if I was a monk.”
“Well now I can dig it. That’s what we are. Surf monks.”
We’re exploring more surf breaks around the coast of Bali. Sean spots a little pocket beach
that has huge palms and exotic plants that make it appear as if it has been landscaped for a
Cleopatra movie set. He calls it Cecil B. DeMille cove.
I overhear Sean tell Mike, “Yeah, let’s buy that piece out on the cove. I’m ready to live
here for the rest of my life. I just have to go back to Vietnam for one more piece for Time.
It’s going to be big and I’ve made commitments to a friend to be there with him for this
Mike and I are enthusiastic about future plans with Sean and establishing a base here on
Bali but I’m concerned about his immediate future.
“Don’t you worry about going back into the line of fire?”
“Yeah, you have to keep on your toes and I’ve had my share of close calls. But it’s
intriguing at the same time. One thing I have going for me is that correspondents have
been recognized as such in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese have been informed that the
war is reading well for their cause in the U.S. media. So generally they have had a handsoff
policy towards news guys. I have some pals that were captured and they ended up with
intimate interviews with the VC and NVA regulars. Their reports exposed how Spartan
these guys lived and their dedication. Then they were released. Sure, it is scary but even if
you get captured it isn’t the end of the world.”
Mom and Dad arrive and Mike puts them up in a private bungalow on the beach. I’m
wondering how Mike and Dad will get along in the world that Mike has created.
We all go to the beach and take in some bodysurfing. Dad looks happy. When we talk it
seems like Mike and Dad have put away their past mental swords and they miraculously get along,
just like he and I did after the gun incident on Maui.
Dad works up an appetite after a long swim and bodysurfing in the crystal blue waves off
Kuta. Mike sets up a huge spread for us at a restaurant on the beach. Dad tells us he loves this
regime with fruit in the morning and one main meal with huge platters of ahi and veggies.
Mom and Dad are also pleased to meet Sean. When Sean leaves for a moment, Mom asks
us, “Wasn’t his father a spy?”
Dad puts a finger to his lips, which I think is a much kinder way to tell her to keep her
mouth shut than he used to use on us.
But when Sean returns Mom can’t control herself.
“Isn’t it interesting that your father was in Spain with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil
war against Franco and now you’re a reporter in Vietnam.”
Mike and I are cringing because we know how Sean dreads those comparisons with his
father. But he’s gracious with her.
“Maybe we both needed to test our wills in conflict and record the sacrifice men and
I’m amazed to notice Dad nod approvingly.
“The code the Naval Academy drilled into midshipmen was sacrifice, duty, honor and
I notice Dad’s eyes lock on Mike for an instant before he diverts his attention back to Sean.
But Mike doesn’t notice. He’s ordering more food from our waiter.
Sean asks Dad, ”You served in WWII?”
“Yes. When the war broke out I was on the heavy cruiser Northampton.”
“Your sons told me you were a pilot.”
“Yes, later on. A carrier pilot.”
“I met some carrier pilots from the Oriskany. Great guys.”
Sean mentioning the Oriskany turns Dad into his best Smilin’ Jack personna and his
answers to Sean’s questions become much more detailed. Mom tries to have a separate
conversation with Mike and me. We know that bugs Dad and we take Mom back to their
Sean catches Mike and me in private two hours later.
“I thought you said your Dad was a prick? He’s great. Man, he was in every engagement
across the Pacific, from Guam to Leyte Gulf. I could talk with him for hours.”
“What can I say? It’s like he’s a different person.”
“I think I understand, although for me it’s lucky you guys had a father around at all, no
matter what happened. My parents were divorced soon after I was born.”
I realize that Sean doesn’t know what happened to my brother and me and it would be
impossible for him to gauge that fallout. We really haven’t figured it out ourselves. Our Dad, who
is only a few years younger than Errol Flynn, has impressed Sean as a real-life warrior.
Mike rubs his face.
“It makes me wonder if what we thought happened growing up was real.”
I think, wait a minute, it was real and I’m not ready to forgive or forget. I know it’s still
real from the judgmental look he was ready to lay on Mike at dinner. He’s been behaving himself
since he’s been here, fooling everyone, and I know why.
Until now I’ve thought I would keep Dad’s breakdown to myself. Why bring up the whole
thing that had been born back when Mike had trouble with that same Colt .45 as a thirteen yearold?
Mike didn’t seem to be standing on solid ground when Sean and I arrived in Bali. Even
though he has improved since then, I haven’t felt like hitting him with the hard facts of Dad’s
breakdown right before he arrived. But the impressions Mike and Sean have just discussed upset
me. I’m not going to forget the past just because Dad has physically lost his edge to inspire fear.
Added to that, I remember the guilt I felt about keeping Mike’s breakdown to myself when Dad
was pressing that same gun into his temple. Perhaps that gun ended up in Mom’s inheritance
because of my keeping that secret. I’m thinking that secrets are bullshit.
The barong dance with all its suicidal suggestions has invaded my dreams too many times.
Maybe Mike and Dad wouldn’t have really pulled the trigger and were just going to the edge like
those barong dancers. Me? I was there having to witness and carry the weight for both of them. I
don’t want to carry it any more.
I blurt it all out to Sean and Mike; the blow-up about the college tuition costs when I came
home for Christmas, the story of his war experiences from Mom, contemplating life from the top
of Haleakala and making the Navy a lifetime career, my putting the case away and not telling
anyone about it in 1961, then discovering the empty case seven years later, searching for Dad and
talking him down from the brink.
“He’s gutted. That’s why he’s so polite. But I’ll tell you what, he hasn’t forgotten about
your discharge from the Navy.”
I tell Mike all this in front of Sean and don’t mind his hearing it now. We both respect
Sean and I don’t want him to think I’m some whining kid complaining for nothing about his
upbringing. He needs to know the real nitty-gritty.
Sean and Mike sit silently for several minutes after my bombshell.
Finally Sean says, “I’ve seen soldiers in Vietnam that were just hollowed out, exhausted,
mentally ruined. Some so bad they killed themselves. It’s like some kind of shell shock.
Have you ever considered that your Dad came out of WWII with battle fatigue?”
Chills go down my spine. I’ve heard that word a few times before but now I flash to when I
had told Mikey what I had learned about shell shock from our grandfather.
“Papa Bace told you war stories?”
“Yeah when we were crabbing. He knew tons of stuff about war and fixing soldiers.”
“Yep, Papa Bace knew everything.”
“Nope. He told me there were some things he couldn’t figure out.”
“Something invisible that soldiers get. But I’m glad no one we know has it.”
Someone we know does have it. Dad.
“No I hadn’t considered that. I guess it makes sense—the stress of night flying, the intense
thunder of warfare, the loss of good friends and any of the hundreds of unknown events
that he experienced and will never tell us.”
“For him, coming home to family life was maybe too much of a gear shift to handle.”
Mike has tears rolling down his face.
“Don’t feel bad about that gun. If he hadn’t had that one it could have been something
I stare at Mike and think maybe, but that was the gun that was accessible to him. The
image of Dad pressing the barrel into his temple had seared into my mind’s eye.
These last few days it seems like my revelation about Dad has put a damper on Mike’s
spirits and disrupts our routine.
“Listen Bill, Sean has to go back to Vietnam and I have a business opportunity. Maybe it
would be good for you to head back to Maui with Mom and Dad. We’ll definitely do this
again after you finish school next spring.”
I feel a little guilty about dropping such a downer on our good times. Did I make a
mistake dumping all that stuff about Dad? I feel like I’ve pried enough already and don’t ask
about his ‘business opportunities.’ Maybe that’s just an excuse anyway. I figure he might need
some time to figure things out without anyone around.
“Yeah, no sweat.”
Mike pops me in the shoulder.
“Can’t believe you’re going to be a college guy now.”
We say our goodbyes to Sean, who promises to return to Bali next June or July, maybe for
good. We privately think he’s nuts to go back to Vietnam. But Sean seems bigger than life to us
and we’re reluctant to express our negative feelings. He’s so confident. From what he’s told us,
it’s like the seas have always parted for him as he walks through life. We say nothing more to
change his mind.
His parting words are, “My father told me this. If you really like to do something, do it
That sounds like he’s bound and determined to return to the land of surf. I know I’ll be
Mom, Dad and I are leaving in two more days. Mom reports to Mike and me in private.
“Your Dad is having some headaches and uncomfortable dreams. I don’t know if it’s this
new diet and all the exercise. But I think it’s shaking him up.”
I know Mike can’t blame Dad’s dreams on durian. He won’t touch the
Mike tells Mom and me, “Don’t worry. It’s well known among travelers that Bali is a place
I add, “Maybe it’s the warm humid air because I’ve had a few of my own.”
Mom asks, “Do you wake up screaming?”
I returned to Bali again the next season but Sean wasn’t there. He had entered the
extension of the war into Cambodia and was captured and eventually killed. Like many travelers
to Bali my experiences were a stark contrast of exceptionally great times and challenges of the
highest magnitude. Grand dreams were created and destroyed.
From my book “Journals From