That’s from Marlon Brando in the movie Apocalypse Now. If my last article was brimming with optimism, this one is dredged in disillusionment and despair. “It’s judgement that defeats us,” also from Apocalypse Now. Remember, though, these articles are out of sequence, so I’m back to optimism, optimism, optimism. But the story must be told.
My new farm vehicle successfully performed its first truck-like task. It carried a whopping 3 lengths of steel tubing from the steel shop about 400 meters away from my apartment in Vientiane. These were to be cut into precise, varying lengths, and would be the receptacles for the greenhouse poles. Of course, these lengths are all wrong now that I’ve changed the location of the greenhouse.
I don’t have a chop saw, though, so getting these cut into the lengths I wanted at the time posed a problem. Luck being what it is, a house is being built right next door to my apartment building. You can see it in the photo above. Before getting the steel, I had consulted with the builder. Even though it was about 9:00 a.m. he was drinking beer at my table in front of my room. A very auspicious event, indeed. He invited me to share his beer and, in between sips, I asked where I should buy the steel I need and whether the shop that I bought it from would cut it to length for me. Just buy it anywhere, he slurred. And he offered to have his crew cut it for me. He waved off my offer to pay for this service as if it were a swarm of flies threatening his beer. Beer would also suffice as payment. Great, I thought, and later went off to buy the steel and hopefully have it chopped up that same afternoon. By the time I got back, however, he was so pissed he couldn’t manage his crew, so they’d all packed up and left. My hopes for heading to my land early the next morning were dashed. I waited for him and his crew to show up the next day, but that didn’t happen. He was recovering from his beer and the earful he’d got from his wife. Another day later he finally showed up with his crew. I was worried that his offer to me was lost in the fog of his drinking session, but this was not the case, so I finally got my steel cut up. The cost was 3 beers and almost as many days.
I’d been assured that the Cousin in Pakse, Ray, would be at my disposal. I suggested we give him some warning, so a call was placed. Ray had taken a job helping to build somebody’s house; he was very far from being at my disposal. I was determined, however, to get something done. The first such thing needing to be done was prepare an area at the bottom of the access slope, my nifty concrete strip road, so that I’d be able to bring materials down, turn around, and venture back up again. The idea was to get a load of crushed gravel in Pakse, lay down some used jute coffee bags to act as a geotextile, of sorts, and spread the gravel over them. Having reached Pakse, Ray was kind enough to guide us to the gravel yard. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t sell anything less than 10 cubic meters, and I wanted only 1 cube. Ray suggested a Thai coffee company up just past Paksong. This company maintains their own yard full of such exotic materials (crushed gravel is expensive; river gravel is used for almost all concrete mixing). The Lao yard manager would be happy to sell me some as long as his Thai boss isn’t around. Yes, the world needs more unabashed, pilfering yard managers like that. And so it was that I finally got my hands on what appeared to be a lot less than 1 cube of crushed gravel. I would have complained but the children he’d equipped with flimsy shovels to load my truck kind of pleaded with me with their eyes, “Can we stop now and go back to being children? Please?”
Everything about the next day was shitty, except the weather. Armed with my load of crushed gravel, I proceeded slowly down my nifty access slope. It doesn’t look nearly as steep as it actually is. Over the hum of the diesel engine I slipped quietly and entirely off the access road. As I did so, it occurred to me, almost as abruptly as the tires went from slipping to falling over the edge, that, shit, this could be pretty bad. The brakes had little effect but the lumpy bit in the middle of the rear axle found a home for the next few hours atop the concrete and brought me to a sudden stop. Now, Billy, the owner of the land, had already been paid to fill between and on the sides of the strip road. But he and Ray had had some sort of dispute about who was to do what. Meanwhile Ray had lost the money for the fill that was to be used. . . oh, never mind, that’s another story. The point is, it hadn’t been done.
Well, that’s disappointing, I said to myself with no small measure of understatement. True disappointment, however, comes when you have to shovel out the crushed gravel meant for elsewhere and use it to ever-so-gradually get yourself unstuck from somewhere you shouldn’t be in the first place. As hours were spent jacking the truck up and thrusting gravel under its tires, not to mention where the tires we likely to go later, I slowly failed to see the humor in it all. At an early point in the disaster it was decided that getting the tires back up on the concrete strips would lead only to greater misadventure further down the slope where things looked only worse. So it was up and over the left-hand concrete strip. Literally “off road.” This proved to be a good move as I only got hung up once more on a tree stump near the bottom. More jacking up and precise placement of gravel was done, and finally I made it to the bottom.
By the time I got to the bottom I was exhausted and there wasn’t much gravel left to spread on the jute bags, anyway. I did the best I could to turn around. I got out of the truck and paced around, keeping my eyes on the concrete strip road as if it were a former friend who had betrayed me. Billy had said something about my perhaps having the wrong tires for such situations. I looked at my tires. I looked at the concrete strip road. I looked into my own soul, and admitted to myself that I wouldn’t be able to make it back up. The strip road has a sharp turn near the bottom of the slope. The front left tire of my truck would have to be just on the outside left edge, otherwise the right rear tires would come off. And if they came off, the axle would be riding on the concrete again. I didn’t like it. So, this is what despair feels like, I thought. I’m a novice Hyundai truck driver. In the driver’s seat, you are actually sitting right on top of the front wheels. It takes getting used to, and I wasn’t yet. Even if I didn’t slip, I wouldn’t be able to negotiate that turn unless I went slowly and kept my eye on that front left tire. But to make it up the hill, I’d need a running start. . . Billy had already left. Perhaps he was afraid to watch. Determined to at least try, I got back into the truck. Then nothing happened. My rear wheels just spun, making noises on the flat ground that seemed to sound like high-pitched laughter.
To be continued. . .