Seminal events like the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 or the 1963 assassination of President John. F. Kennedy record themselves in our mental calendars. We may recall, not only what we were doing at the time, but other memories as well.
Word of the horrific Tsunami caused this observer to say a prayer for the people living on the island of Penang, Malaysia where, in 1967, this soldier spent an idyllic week on R&R. A computer search revealed Penang lost 52 souls, with five still missing. In comparison to the devastation of other nations bordering the underwater earthquake, the loss of life, while still tragic, was relatively light.
That is because the island is mostly mountainous with a relatively narrow fringe of beaches around its circumference. Georgetown, the main city, is located on the eastern side of the island, facing the mainland. The Tsunami hit the west side and the northern tip of the island.
After commanding an infantry company in Vietnam, I was due for R&R. I really didn’t care where. At the R&R processing center north of Saigon, I ran into an Army Chaplain who told me he was being reassigned from Vietnam to be the resident Chaplain at Penang’s R&R center. Figuring an Army Chaplain could keep me out of trouble, I signed up to go along with him to Penang. Talk about serendipity.
We flew from Vietnam to the U.K’s Royal Air Force Base at Butterworth, Malaysia. Back then, the only way to Penang was by ferry. Now, Penang is also connected to the mainland by a 13.5 kilometer suspension bridge. The longest in Asia, and the world’s third longest.
Our ferry load of GIs was greeted by the officer-in-charge (OIC) of the Penang R&R Center. Because the Chaplain and I were now buddies, I was serendipitously included in all the orientation activities the OIC had planned for his new Chaplain.
The Chaplain and I literally got the royal tour of the entire island. One of the many highlights was a bus ride around the narrow mountain road that circumscribes Penang. Our driver’s other job was as a member of Penang’s parliamentary delegation.
His English was excellent, so I got into the jump seat beside him and proceeded to learn all I could about the island’s history and how parliamentary democracy was practiced in Malaysia. Several times, we dismounted to visit some temples and shrines.
One temple was devoted to pit vipers. The vipers were festooned all over the temple in a writhing array of venomous critters. I kept looking down at my feet trying to make sure a stray viper wasn’t intent on wrapping itself around my leg.
But what that Penang R&R gave me, besides a chance to heal some wounds and rashes in the salty waters off Penang’s sandy beaches, was hope. Atop one of the most modern high-rise hotels I had ever seen was a pleasant watering hole. At sundown, the bar filled with Malaysian businessmen dressed in three-piece suits that looked liked the best of London’s Saville Row.
Their talk was of stocks and bonds and of a bright economic future for the region bordering the Straits of Malacca. I thought: Wow, this kind of nascent capitalism should not fall prey to the Red Chinese or North Vietnamese communists. That did not happen and Penang retains its reputation as the “Pearl of the Orient.”
We also witnessed a bitter-sweet moment. We watched as the British Royal Howard Regiment, the Green Jackets, marched from their barracks down Penang’s main street and into the ramped maw of a waiting Royal Navy troop transport. In 1967, they were the last British troops to be stationed east of Suez. We saw history made that day.
If you want to help the Penang islanders recover, vacation there, someday. A Tsunami cannot hit Georgetown on the island’s east side. Stay on that side. Meanwhile, I pray for my parliamentarian friend and his family.
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2004. William Hamilton.