Old Black Magic of Siam

Four years my friend, Pi-Noi brought his work crew down from Ban Nok to install an air-conditioning system in a Pattaya bar. The 400-kilometer drive gave them a healthy thirst and that night under my mango tree we drank a case of Chang Beer. Nearing midnight the bottles were empty, but the out-of-towners wanted more and I introduce them to cheap Russian vodka.

Aficionados of lao khao they downed the liter in minutes. The only evidence of being mao was the cranking up of our volume. Especially me and despite Pi-Noi’s claim that I’m the last surviving speaker of Neanderthal Thai, the vodka emboldened my tongue to disregard any linguistic failings and to my wife’s dismay I launched into a ghost tale.

“Phi?” Thais love ghost story.

I told them about a trip to Jamaica for an underwater photo shoot. LIFE had hired my friend to shoot the female lead of SPLASH. Bathing suits and bikinis. I was his assistant. I had never heard of her. She was the star of SPLASH. A comedy about a mermaid falling in love with a mortal man.

“Ngeuuak,” Pi-Noi asked with interest.

“Ngeuuak.” The mermaid myth was known to every sea-going culture.


“Suay mak.” Darryl Hannah was a blonde goddess. The photographer had the pole position to make a move. I explained to the Thais that I was his ‘thaat’ or slave. They understood this term, since all Thais had been slaves until 1095.

“We stayed at an old hotel. Hotel have ghost.”

“Pee ngeuuak?” Thais have scores of designation for ghosts; phee phohng ‘evil spirit’ phraai water ghost, bpee saat or ‘animal ghost’ et al.

“No, ghost old lady.” I continued how the actress had complained about a female ghost entering her room. She was barely visible. Her words were echos. Darryl was frightened by the encounter and wanted to sleeping my room.

“Sex with mermaid, good.”

“No, my friend is jealous. Says he won’t pay me, if I sleep with me.”

“Farang kee-nok.”

“Yes, he was bird shit. I get revenge by drinking rhum.

“I drink lots of Rhum.” 150 proof quelled the disappointment of not having sex with a movie star. “Mao mak. I go sleep. Someone touches my shoulder. I think it’s puying farang suay.”

I really did think it was Darryl Hannah.

Instead my visitor was a long-haired apparition of an 80 year-old woman.

“Mai puying suay. Phi gair. Phee.”

I acted out the part of an ectoplasmic old lady.

“Guah.” Pee-Noi and his crew shivered with collective fear.

“Not scared. Mao.” I dismissed the old ghost and fell back to sleep in a drunken stupor. The tale was meant to be funny, but at its end Pi-Noi demanded with a chill, “Ching?”

“True 100%. The ghost was as real as you or me.”

“You sex with her?”

“No way.” I was too drunk to do anything but tell her to fuck off.

“Mai shua.” He preferred to think that I had made love to a ghost.

A really old ghost.

His friends told it was funny, until I refused to open another bottle of vodka. Pi-Noi rolled his eyes.

“Didn’t you like my story?”

His face was set with anger. “You don’t make fun of ghosts.”

“They do in the movies.” Thais at the Big C Theater roared hilariously about headless ghosts chasing fools through the night. I laughed too.

“Not same. This your house.”

“You believe in ghosts?”

Pi-Noi shrugged, as if he take them or leave them.

I didn’t think so, but my Irish blood grants a special affinity for spirits and I don’t disrespect the beliefs of this or any country.

Every year thousands of Thais and tourists line the Mekong River to view the glowing gas balls floating into the air from the mythical Naga creature. Temple steps are often decorated by a representation of this serpent. Farangs tend to deride the Thais’ belief in creatures eating your intestines or a greedy man doomed to wander eternity with a worm-sized mouth without taking into consideration that 65% of Americans believe in guardian angels.

While not 100% convinced, I really did see a ghost in Jamaica and ten years ago during a visit to Isaan with my one-eyed girlfriend we drove to a mae-mod or witch’s house. The old crone’s house was located beyond the electrical grid. A score of women sat in the candle-lit hut listening to their fortunes, while men lingered nervously outside. At one point the oldest women were assembled in a circle. Lots were chosen and the most wrinkled of them was led into the jungle by two men.

“Where she going?” I asked Vee.

“Women had lottery to see who die so others live longer.”

“They’re going to kill her?”

“No, she picked every time. Other ladies never know or don’t remember.”

It was a scam, but a scary one in this setting.

The next morning a green potion was smeared on the rim of my glass. Vee said it was nothing and I drank some. We were both sick for two days. A year later we broke up and neither of us could leave the other. When I returned to the States for business, I didn’t sleep for three days and sweated out a fever. A Thai friend smiled knowingly. “Red-lum.”

“Magic?” Jack Nicholson had said the same in Kubrick’s THE SHINING.

“Red rum.”

‘Murder’ backwards.

He nodded. “At least she drink it too.

And like that I became a believer. Of course being half-Irish helped to convert me to waking at night to the slightest whisper, because not everything going bump in the night is a thief.

SEASON OF THE WITCH / Julie Driscoll and Trinity



The 1960s Space Race between the USSR and USA exterminated young boys’ worship of westerns. Cowboy hats, vests, guns, and holsters were retired to the closet next to toy boats and teddy bears.

During the autumn of 1962 I pleaded with my parents to buy me an astronaut costume for Halloween and my father answered my request with a gleaming John Glenn space suit complete with a visored helmet. My older brother dressed up as a green-skinned Martian. Frunk had fabricated a ray gun from a broken egg-beater. After dinner we were eager to trick or treat, but before leaving the house I purloined sunglasses from my father’s dresser without asking for his permission.

“You sure that’s a good idea?” My brother was better at following rules than me.

“Sure I’m sure. He won’t know anything.”

My father was leading my younger siblings around the neighborhood.

“Why do you need sunglasses.”

“They’re extra protection from your death ray.” I pointed to his weapon. I had seen INVASION FROM MARS ten times. The Martians’ main weapon vaporized soldiers into carbon.

“I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“We’ll be back before you know it.”

“It’s your funeral.”

“What can happen?” We lived in the suburbs, a land of two-car garages, good schools, and beautiful babysitters.

“I guess nothing.”

“Other than getting a lot of candy.”

“We left our split-level ranch house. My best friend, Chuckie Manzi, joined us on the lawn. He was a young Frankenstein.

“First things first.” He pointed across the street. Mr. Martini’s house drove truck for Arnold’s Bakery. His wife put out cake instead of candy.

The moonless night was dark. We climbed the brick stairs. There was no metal railing. My brother rang the doorbell.

Mrs. Martini acted scared and offered a selection of cakes. I chose orange spice. Chuckie and my older brother were grateful for chocolate cake. We thanked her with filled mouths. I slipped on my glasses and shut the visor, then turned around and walked off the stairs, smashing my head into the wall and mutilating my little finger.

I sat up in the flower bed. Blood all over my astronaut suit, but I was more concerned with my father’s sunglasses. They had fallen off, but luck was with me. They were intact.

My brother led me back to our house, careful not to let any blood drip on his costume.

My mother admonished my dangerous behavior. She had six kids. We were always in jeopardy. A band-aid stemmed the blood and my mother refused to let me leave the house again.”
the sunglasses

“One accident is more than enough for tonight.”

And she was right and since that Halloween I have only worn sunglasses at night when I can’t find my regular glasses and I still bear a jagged scar on my little finger from that fall, proving the Earth we fall, but no one ever fell in Space.

There was no up or down off this planet.

Especially boys from the South Shore of Boston in the fall of 1962.

The Ghost Of Pumpkin Trotsky

Two weekends ago thousands of New England college students converged on Keene, New Hampshire. The annual Pumpkin Festival ended in a riot. My nephew attended the celebration of the Jack O’Lantern. Eric told his father that he had left before the disturbances flared into violence. Paddy and I looked at each other. We had been young once.

In 1965 three friends and I had vandalized an abandoned missile base on a hill south of Boston. That skein of destruction had nothing to do with politics. We trashed the missile silos, offices, bunkers with a Hun’s delight and that same spirit ruled the blooding running through the veins of Pumpkin Fest rioters.

The euphemism for this outlaw behavior is ‘blowing off steam’ and William Osterweil of Alzaara.com pointed out this week that “the white college kids in Keene flipped cars and threw bottles at cops for the fun of it, the media called them rowdy booze-filled revelers and all sorts of other euphemisms. By contrast, when Ferguson protesters aggressively confronted the police, the media framed the actions in terms of rioting, thuggery, destruction of their own community and other harsh verdicts. The two incidents offered an object lesson in the media’s racial bias.”

I was not there.

I was not at Ferguson.

But I condone any resistance to the will of the police.

Ferguson or Keene.


Whose streets?

Juvenile Mobile Lock-Up

The Catholic Church promoted procreation in hopes that those of the faith would demographically overwhelm the other religions. My mother was a devout Catholic. She gave birth to six children through the 1950s. Our family car was a Ford station wagon and my father child-proofed the spacious car by affixing aluminum tubes to the windows. Other motorists regarded the pale blue vehicle as undercover transport for the Maine reform school system.

I stared back at them with prison eyes, even if my parents were taking us to Old Orchard Beach, the Pine Tree’s State playground by the sea. The other drivers’ expressions shifted from pity to horror, as they wondered what heinous crime had been committed by the children incarcerated in the Ford station wagon.

“The youngest convicts in Maine,” my grandmother joked every time we departed from her house in Westbrook and I sat in the back planning my escape. None of my attempts succeeded in gaining freedom. My father and mother were vigilant, but on one trip from Boston I wandered from the family car at a rest stop to go the bathroom. when I came out of the toilet, the Ford wasn’t in the parking lot.

Free at last and within two seconds I was near tears. I was seven. Kids my age were told every day to not speak with strangers and now I was surrounded by only strangers. Luckily a toll booth operator spotted me before a band of gypsies kidnapped me for the carnival. They waved from their Cadillac carnival.

Ten minutes later my father returned to the rest area at 100 mph.

Top speed for the Ford.

I was glad to see him and sat back in the moving cell with relief.

Freedom would have to wait until I was ready for it.

At age 11.

By then I would be ready to run away and join the circus.