By Father Joe Maier
Published Bangkok Post, Sunday, Spectrum section, May 29, 2016.
Why tell this story? Why take the effort to try and remember an 18-year-old street kid who drowned in the Chao Phraya River, half snockered on drugs? So, even though dying and drowning were the last things from his mind, drown he did, die he did. And it was kind of his own fault.
What's that got to do with you or me?
Asleep, groggy, lying beside the river, the wash from a passing tug boat knocked him into the water. No problem so far; because he was the best swimmer in the bunch, the first to climb to the top of the bridge and dive the 20 metres into the river. The problem was, he cracked his skull really hard on an abutment and didn't make it back to the surface.
If these street kids were for sale, they'd be cheaper than a soi dog with mange. That sounds unkind, but it's true. Mostly, they hang out under the old Bangkok Memorial Bridge on the Bangkok side of the river.
Lots of good folks would say his life was out of bounds. He lived on the riverbank under the bridge and what good did he do for anybody? Did he ever do anything? Even for street kids?
Depends on how you call it. Who makes a judgement call on this one? I guess the experts of the place are the pushcart ladies: betel nut chewing folks, some retirees, the men who spend their days there talking of the olden days. City bus drivers who park their buses there sometimes. They see these street kids every day. They would know who is special and who isn't. And of course, his peers. Judge him by street kid ethics and lingo.
By the way, his nickname was Jeep. As he fancied wearing army fatigues, the other street kids said that he looked like a guy who should drive a military Jeep.
In his 18 years on our planet, he hadn't quite finished what he had set out in life to do: get his older sister to take better care of her baby, and don't let anyone -- even in play -- slip a bit of drugs into the baby's mouth. And she could be a real mum. They could be a family -- like they never were. Maybe not really rent a place, that cost money, but at least stay together on the street. And he and his brother would protect their sister, so she didn't to talk to strangers and do embarrassing things.
His second project was his little brother. To keep him out of jail, because in jail, they destroy lippy kids. His brother who always acted like a "wise guy looking for a fight".
And thirdly, to help his dad whenever he could. True, dad had abandoned the three of them, and their mum, but maybe deep down, dad was still a good guy.
And to become a monk -- even for a short while. In that, he almost succeeded. Again, it depends on how you call it. He didn't actually become a monk. He died before he could, but his 10 street boy mates became monks for him on his cremation day. "Before the body," as they say, to make merit for the dead. So, even though he didn't become a monk himself, when he drowned, his mates became monks for him, and prayed that his soul not hang around, but go to heaven. The kids said Jeep was always good at directions, so he would find his way to heaven.
Actually, they felt guilty. It went down like this: Yes, he was washed in by a big wave and hit his head and didn't come up. But before that, he played a joke on them.
He said, "Let's go swimming," and for some reason, his mates said, "Nah, later." So he jumped in. Then as a joke he hollered out, "Help me, I'm drowning." They panicked, jumped in and pulled him out. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" And his best friend had some drugs in his pocket, and they got all wet and ruined, and that miffed him big time.
Then about half an hour later, Jeep crawled out and went to sleep next to the water, where he usually took a nap. And the wash from a tugboat passing by cut a big wave and knocked him into the water. No big deal. It had happened lots of times before.
But this time, he banged his head. He cried once for help, but his mates said, "Ho, ho, ho" to you. You don't fool us twice.
And five minutes later, he didn't come up. Yes, they saw him go down, didn't see the heavy bruise on the side of his head where he had hit the abutment.
When he didn't come up, they called our teacher and the Chinese benevolent society (located nearby) who rushed over with their divers. The current is not dangerous in that particular spot, and they had the body out in less than 30 minutes, but of course, too little and late.
Somebody phoned his dad, and he was there to see them pull his son's body out of the river.
Was Jeep drug drunk when he died? The street boys, who know of such things, say no. The police came -- the coroner verified he died of a head wound and drowning, no autopsy necessary. They took the body to a nearby temple. The boys decided they wanted to become monks.
The abbot is a kind man. He allowed the 10 of them to become monks: "Na sop -- before the body." Shave their heads and no drugs and keep the rules of the temple. They were ordained 24 hours after he died and stayed all that day and night: slept in the temple and kept the fast and the next day, in the late afternoon was the cremation.
After sunset, they took off their robes (properly) and returned to their normal street clothes and ate a huge meal, because they were not used to fasting. In the morning, there was another ceremony by the "Under the Bridge Community" -- everyone put in a bit of money and the monks came and blessed the area -- to chase away any lurking bad spirits. Also they asked our teacher for religious medals of the blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus -- to be doubly safe.
What of Master Jeep?
School really wasn't his thing, but he did finish four years. Didn't graduate, but living under the Bangkok Bridge as a street boy graduation wasn't really important. The reading and writing was what counted, and he could do that. Good enough to get along -- read comics, count, play computer games.
He was just ordinary. Guess his only talent was trying to help out, whenever he could. Everybody liked him and he got along with everyone in his world of street kids. Not a big world, maybe 25, mostly boys, total, living under the Bangkok Bridge.
It's just so sad that he died at 18. But as the other street boys said of him, he wasn't a sad guy. Usually happy, and reasonably cool about drugs.
One more thing.
The afternoon before he died, our teacher was there, under the bridge, in the normal meeting place. Jeep came, sat down and talked a long time about his whole history. Like he maybe knew about tomorrow. Talked about his mum and dad, and brother and sister. Like he wanted someone to know. Wanted his family story to live on.
Also, he was not his normal ebullient bubbly self. Sober, not sad, but sombre … so says the teacher. He told her over and over how he loved her and she was his real mum. Always there for him, something he had never done.
What is happy about this story. Maybe he knew. We all came. We prayed, made merit. Everyone loved him.
His life was a street kid success.
The next afternoon, the word went out that there was a free train ride to Hua Hin, some three hours away. So they jumped on the train and spent some hours playing in the sea. Celebrated Master Jeep's life. That night, they all slept on the beach. Next day it was back to Bangkok.
There has been lots of international media coverage of the horrible fire in a dormitory in an all girls’ school the other night and rightly so. This is a top quality school founded to teach, especially, indigent Hill Tribe girls. It was a horrible fire that should not have happened. And like all these type of terrible accidents, the cause was a series of little mistakes turning into tragedy. The fire was in the Hill Country of North Thailand some 700 kilometers from Bangkok in a town called Chiang Rai, near the Laotian Border. The seventeen fire victims were girls from age 5 to 12, and one teacher.
We here in Bangkok together with our own slum children are terribly saddened although we did not personally know any of the victims. Nor are we connected with that particular school. However, to show solidary our own 2,500 slum kindergarten children in each of our 24 schools and ten work camps will write a letter from their class to speak of sadness , but also hope for tomorrow and prayers for the children’s families. We are not going to take up a collection, as that is not necessary, as many others are helping.
At the same time, this is a ‘wake-up’ call for safety for our own 24 shanty town old wooden school buildings. We cannot make them fire-proof, nor more than we can make the whole slum fire proof, but we can make them fire safe, meaning – IF there be a fire, our children will know what to do – they can easily escape, as has happened 3 times in the past 45 years. We have never lost a child, nor has there even been an injury. We are Blessed.
We shall write to you again soon, but this is urgent, and I do want everyone to know about this fire.
Prayers as always - my respect to you all from me and our children.
It’s a whole new strange and scary world. A world without mum or granny, and a world outside your own slum shack. A world where you are all alone, even for a little while. Your home, your shack where you live, yes it is a shack, but it’s safe. Also that’s where your pillow is, and where your teddy bear lives, the food is, and granny is, and everything that protects you, and you know you are loved. Whatever that means. Maybe this going to school business is okay, kind of, a little bit, because you walked maybe three minutes to school and granny holds your hand and you know the way home to your house just in case something happens and you have to run. Just in case. And you know some older kids – like 5 – 6 year olds who already go to school there.
Today our Thai official academic school year returns.
First day of kindergarten school in the slums – Wow. First day in school and slum kids cry & shed huge loud tears just like you and I did long ago. ‘Mamma, don’t leave me. Promise you will come back to get me. Promise. Promise.