Northeast Thailand, April 1967

One lonely, frightened rooster crows loudly from under the house. It is Saturday morning, no school. There is a grey mist rising over the Mekong. Samlee, my high school principal, stops his motorcycle at the house and tells me a phuyai is visiting a village in the countryside. He is sure it is Thailand's beloved leader, King Bhumibol. I get on the motorcycle, and we take a four-hour excursion on a dusty, gutted road to the village.

Government officials, American Seabees, and local villagers wait patiently as two helicopters circle and land. The door slides open on the second helicopter. The king is not on board. I am astounded when I recognize John Steinbeck. Embassy personal and high-ranking officials escort John Steinbeck and Mrs. Steinbeck to the village square.

I don’t know why, but I immediately think about a young Henry Fonda in the movie version of
The Grapes of Wrath.

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Fleeing the famine and misery of the dust bowl, he is in a rickety vehicle with family and friends. An older family member dies on Route 66. They are on their way to prosperity in California.

I walk up to the
Steinbeck party, introduce myself, and we talk.

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We drink some, maybe too much, of the home-brewed
lao-lao. Hours later, before he returns to the helicopter, I mention my desire to write. He is cordial. He gives me some advice. He coughs, and I can smell the lao-lao. We shake hands. He returns to his wife, and they walk to the helicopter.

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Soon in a whirling cloud of dust, the helicopter lifts off the ground, tilts sideways, and flies in a straight line for the distant mountain. Amazed at this chance encounter, I stand there in the settling dust. Samlee walks over with a full glass of
lao-lao. I am still very excited. The Seabees join us. After numerous glasses of lao-lao, the Seabees agree to come to the school and build a cement basketball court. The lieutenant guarantees it will be the first and best of its kind.

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My principal disappears with the motorcycle. I stay overnight. It is difficult to sleep. Not because of the heat and the mosquitoes and the grass mat. It is because of the grapes of wrath.

John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. On this trip to the village, Mr. Steinbeck is writing articles on the Vietnam War for the
Philadelphia Inquirer. Later I was informed he wrote seven concise paragraphs about me and my adventures when the Mekong flooded the region.

John Steinbeck dies a year later at the age of sixty-six
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