Thai Legacy of an American Warrior

Once known as Siam, Thailand is a magical kingdom in the tropical far east. It is a land imbued with ancient mysticism abstracted into deities and Thepphanom — mythological Thai versions of Greek Nymphs — along with a gleaming capital city where you can rent a Ferrari. Thailand appeared as a bucolic paradise offering me an easy, decadent lifestyle, irresponsible, unattached and without a care. A meeting with a Thai Monk, however, became the culminating event driving me toward commitment and responsibility.

In an earlier story, Ying, I wrote about how a pandemic encouraged a deepening relationship with Bua Khao, my business partner and her children. Serendipity then unveiled that the children might be the grandchildren of an American soldier killed in action in Vietnam. It is still inexplicably confusing to me why that possibly changed me. Call it a sense of patriotic duty, or perhaps an affinity and comradeship for brothers in arms. Whatever the empathetic trigger was, I went searching for confirmation that these kids living under my roof were the grandchildren of an American war hero Joseph T Baker, and indeed they are.

I learned about the kids lineage when Bua Khao discovered that her former mother-in-law had been collecting a widow’s pension from the US Treasury since 1973. Beyond that, grandma offered little help in providing details. In typical Thai fashion, the old woman kept making appointments to speak with me only to cancel. Thais do not like to say no, it’s a cultural, face-saving thing, hard for westerners to wrap their head around. After the third cancelation, I presumed Grandma Baker did not want to talk about her deceased husband Joseph.

Joseph’s eldest son Frank Baker is the father of Bua Khao’s three kids. Frank also has four other children in addition to Bua Khao’s. Frank is now living with his third wife. Frank was four years old when his dad Joseph gathered his uniform, got on his Harley and drove to Camp Friendship in Korat, Thailand from Bangkok, never to be seen again. As you can imagine, given the family dynamics I’ve described here, having lengthy chat with Frank was not the best approach for me to solve some unanswered doubts and questions about Joseph T Baker’s veteran status.

Bua Khao and I traveled to a beautiful temple on the outskirts of Bangkok near the Gulf of Thailand: Wat Asokaram. We were seeking an audience with Joseph T Baker’s other son Gary.

Monk Gary Baker had a difficult childhood dealing with bullies that targeted Gary’s American surname and Caucasian appearance. Gary grew into adolescence hard and mean. He was a fighter, attracting the negative results of aggressive delinquency in a culture where saving face is prized. Seeing a maladjusted, fatherless teenager, a kindly Phuhiban — village leader — stepped in and suggested Gary seek the solace of a one year commitment meditating as a monk. The humble existence of a cloistered Buddhist Monk became Gary’s life vocation.

Approaching the opulent Wat Asokaram, I had low expectations of discovering details about Gary’s dad. Gary was only three years old when his father Joseph died. While it was not likely Gary would have any direct memories of his father, I hoped he might provide me with family stories confirming his father as a fallen United States war veteran. He did.

Monk Gary Baker remembered his father’s American Army comrades presenting a folded American flag, along with Sergeant Joseph T Bakers’s ribbons and medals, to Gary’s mother. Gary’s memory, no doubt, was preserved because Grandma Baker reveres the American symbols of her husband’s sacrifice, proudly displaying them still in her home in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Gary also solved the source of my lingering skepticism toward his father’s story. I could not find a record of Joseph T Baker on the many databases of US soldiers killed in action.

Joseph T Baker was an American from California; his mother was an American Indian. Joseph came to Thailand as a very young man and was fluent in the Thai language. The US Army recruited Joseph from Thailand. When Sergeant Joseph T Baker was killed in 1973, he was married with two children. Joseph owned two houses, one in Bangkok and another in Korat near his Army Base: Camp Friendship. Joseph had a big motorcycle, probably a Harley, and a gated house in Bangkok with scary guard dogs. Joseph also possessed hand guns, something not very common in Thailand. Camp Friendship in 1973 was a cauldron of clandestine activity as well. While I have not found a specific answer as to why Joseph T Baker is not listed on the database of Americans killed in action, I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the information contained in this paragraph.

I am no longer seeking; I have all the information I require. Monk Gary Baker provided me with enough stories to confirm his father’s status as an American war hero. However, during my one hour conversation with Gary, something more fundamental occurred, something inexplicable and wonderful, a kind of cathartic experience I have had only a few times in my life. A window of wisdom opened for me.

Monk Gary Baker invited Bua Khao and I into his humble cottage with a traditional Thai style roof, on stilts in a delta jungle, contained within the Wat grounds. Gary sat on a folded, woven pad while Bua Khao and I sat facing him on the floor.

I have practiced and taught yoga for many years. So I have developed an eye for noticing very subtle physical states not readily apparent to most. Added to my yoga teacher’s perspective was the fact that Gary and I spoke different languages. I would ask Bua Khao to relay a question and simply sit watching the monk respond. While I understand a little Thai, my lack of ability to completly processes this man’s verbal communication unconsciously deepened my perception of Monk Gary Baker’s physical state. We are all, throughout cultures and languages, at root, physical beings. That is what we all have in common. Language, thoughts and cognition are but an abstraction of our physical experience. Our sensory perceptions are ancient, atavistic, non-negotiable mandates of our physical reality. We can only understand consciously a very small fraction of our connections to the world around us.

Just prior to meeting with the monk, Bua Khao revealed her excitement to be seeing her former brother-in-law. With a giggle, Bua Khao described the Monk as very smart and handsome in a coquettish fashion never present when talking about Gary’s brother, ex-husband Frank. Having now met Gary, I concur.

Within moments of sitting down, my questions about Joseph T Baker were resolved. I relaxed into my position sitting cross-legged on the floor watching Bua Khao enjoy chatting with Gary. With a limited understanding of the Thai language, I could discern only the general gist of their conversation.

Thai Monks focus on detachment, learning to be more of an observer than a participant in life, even their own lives. I was intently looking at Gary, a man the same age as my eldest daughter, feeling oddly paternal towards him and thinking about how different his life might have been under the guidance of a warrior father. At one point on hearing “Joseph Baker” I asked Bua Khao to please tell Gary I was sorry that he lost his father when he was so young. Gary paused, focusing his large brown eyes on me with a sad smile. I then told Gary not to worry, I would make sure his father’s grandchildren were cared for. The soft smile remained as Gary wiped away a tear.

There have been only three times in my life where I have experienced whatever it is that happened in that moment in the humble home of a Thai monk. The first time was watching my youngest daughter emerge from her mother’s womb in 1978, an experience that profoundly changed my attitude and the course of my life. Another such psychic break occurred on a rooftop of a slum tenement in New York City when I was among a team of Firefighters that snatched a woman from eminent death. A well known, fatherly professor of comparative mythology, Dr Joseph Campbell, resolved my agitated and confused state after the dramatic rescue by defining it for me. I had “…a psychic break and realized that you were one” with the rescued woman.

A third such extraordinary psychological phenomena occurred in 2005. I was training to become a yoga instructor. The training was intensely physical and demanding. During a very intense yoga session, without me seeking or expecting such a thing, I forgave the men who killed twenty of my personal friends amongst three hundred forty three FDNY colleagues and thousands of neighbors on September 11, 2001. Forgiveness was not an idea, a thought or a request. Forgiveness simply manifested itself through the physical experience of yoga. I can not explain it any other way.

Toward the end of my conversation with Monk Baker, Gary commented on how he was impressed that I could comfortably sit cross legged, something many westerners find difficult or impossible. I smiled and pulled myself into Lotus position, a more difficult version of sitting cross legged. Gary smiled approvingly and pulled himself into Lotus, showing me he could achieve a much deeper presentation of the posture. I was pleased to have, perhaps mischievously, brought out from under the three decades old practice of a detached monk, a competitive ass-kicker who wouldn’t take shit from the kids at school dissing his father’s name.

My life will change little with the commitment I made to Joseph T Baker’s grandchildren. It has been gratifying over the last four years for me to witness Bua Khao’s children change from insecure and detached children into more confident young people simply from living in a secure home. All I need now do is keep doing it.

I am blessed.

Click here for a companion video to this story on my YouTube channel.

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Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.

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Charlie Hub

Former FDNY Lieutenant, 911 Veteran, Writer, Vlogger, living in Bangkok.