Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A gracious and gentle people

Reading about Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Laos brought back vivid memories of a month I spent in that beautiful country four decades ago and where I celebrated my 25th birthday.

It was 1974 when I flew into Vientiane with my colleague Suresh Khatri. We were the advance team for the Initiatives of Change stage production Song of Asia with a cast of young people from many parts of the continent. Our job was to record the dialogue of the show, which had been translated into Lao, so that the cast could perform the scenes to playback.

On arrival we were given the facilities of the radio station and a team of local actors. Without understanding a word of the language we recorded the scenes, marking the tape so we could identify the sections. The first performance for a huge crowd in a stadium was so successful that many of the audience actually thought the actors were speaking Lao. (The second performance had a few frantic moments when someone accidentally kicked a cable, disconnecting the tape recorder that I was operating.)

At the time, Laos was coming to the end of a long period of conflict. The leftist Pathet Lao insurgents were allied with North Vietnamese and had taken control of the northern part of the country. The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 – about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeds the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II. Secretary Clinton pledged to help rid the country of millions of still unexploded bombs.

Song of Asia, with its dramatic sketches, dances, and songs portraying true stories of reconciliation and forgiveness gave a powerful message for a war-torn country. A Provisional Government of National Union had just been formed when the Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, who led the leftist forces, came together in a show of reconciliation.

Our chief host was Secretary of State Chanthone Chantharasy, who was committed to the principles of Initiatives of Change and was highly regarded for his integrity by many of the students who flocked to the performances. He arranged a special performance for the King and Queen in the royal residence. I still have the lapel pin given us on that occasion. 
In the summer of 1974 a hand-picked group of Lao students were sent by Chantharasy to Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change training center in India. Many of them had life-changing experiences. I roomed with a young man named Oukham whose father was a high official in the Lao government. Oukham was a rascal of the first order who had led a fast life with girls and drugs as on one of the privileged elite of his country. During the days in Asia Plateau he decided to get honest with his father about how he had sometimes “borrowed" his Mercedes, skipped school and spent days in a hotel with a girlfriend.

Oukham and I corresponded for a while after he got home and he told me how he had put things right with his dad. Then we lost touch. Sadly, the Provisional Government was short-lived. The communists took control in 1975, and Chantharasy and his family were forced to flee, finally making a new life in Australia. His life was probably saved by a warning from some of the young people whose lives he had touched.

I was glad to read of Clinton’s pledge to help cleanse the country of the massive and deadly residue of our military intervention. The Lao people are among the gentlest and most gracious on earth. They deserve a future of peace and safety. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

The promise of new life

Last month Susan and I became grandparents for the first time and Susan's uncle celebrated his 100th birthday. The wonder of new birth and celebration of a life lived over a century.

The van Dykes arrived in New Amsterdam in 1652. They helped found five Dutch towns and were part of the birth of this nation. John Richardson van Dyke (Uncle Rich) has seen two world wars, the rise and fall of fascism and communism, the invention of television and the jet engine. He worked at IBM and RCA at the start of the computer age. His energy and zest for life continue to astound the family. He has friends of many generations. 

Watching our son hold Lucy Hyde Corcoran, his newborn daughter, I imagined the million of bits of information being processed inside her tiny head as she gazed at him or surveyed the world around her while resting on his shoulder. What new wonders will she see in her lifetime?

Lucy inherits the genes of entrepreneurs, artists, writers, explorers, great homemakers, craftsmen, and fighters for social justice. What path will she follow? Where will she find her passion?

How will she and her generation face the challenges of this century? It will be a world very different from that of her great-great-uncle and she will likely see even greater changes.   

Toward the end of his life, my father-in-law, the playwright Alan Thornhill, became a close friend of Malcolm Muggeridge, the well-known British journalist and broadcaster. The notoriously cynical Muggeridge had experienced a surprising spiritual awakening in his later years, even joining the Roman Catholic Church. Yet he remained deeply skeptical and pessimistic about society as a whole. In his marvelous book, Best of Friends, Alan describes Malcolm with a grandson laughing and playing on his knee while he proclaimed doom and gloom for every aspect of our civilization: "At last I could not refrain from asking, 'What about Matthew in all this?' Tears came into the old man's eyes. Quietly he said, 'Matthew will be all right.' It was not wishful thinking or grandfatherly affection. It was his profound belief in and reverence for the wonder and sanctity of human life. He might despair of our society but he was utterly certain of God's care and love for every individual…"

Likewise, I believe that Lucy and her generation will be all right. Call me an incurable optimist but I believe in the unbreakable power of the human spirit. Hope triumphs over fear. Love vanquishes hate. And, as Alan Thornhill was fond of saying, evil ultimately over-reaches itself. Despite injustice, cruelty, and corruption, good continues to surprise and overcomes in the end.

Welcome to this world, Lucy.