By Carol Yost
When British Prime Minister Anthony Eden bombed the Suez Canal in late 1956, the United States, fearing an all-out Mideast war, ordered all American women and children in the Middle East to be evacuated to Beirut, Lebanon. I was living with my family in Damascus, Syria, and the very night we got the news my mother, brother and I were airlifted by flying boxcar—“19 minutes,” my mother would say over and over again—over the mountains to Beirut.
While we were in Beirut my parents separated permanently; my mother felt she could no longer live with my father because they’d fought constantly for years. My brother was placed in my father’s custody while I stayed with my mother. After about eight months in Beirut, instead of going back to Damascus, my mother and I followed an adult friend, Mildred Teasley, we’d met in Beirut to her next employment position in Bangkok, Thailand. Mildred worked for the U. S. government as a part of USOM (I never learned what that stood for). She’d been transferred to Bangkok.
Before Mildred left she gave us her convertible, and we marveled at how you could push a button and the whole top would roll back to rest on the rear of the vehicle. She’d nicknamed it Lapsy, for collapsible. Mother, whose full name was Frances Elizabeth Palmer Yost, sent a telegram to Mildred in Bangkok: “CAROL LAPSY I COMING ARRIVE FIRST.” By that she meant the first of the month; I can’t remember which month, but it was probably July. I remember celebrating my 12th birthday in August in Bangkok with American friends I’d met there and that one of my friends was named Nina Dabney. We attended an American school that held classes in buildings that were right over the water of the main river, and it was quite lovely. I was so petite that I was given the nickname Molecule.
The climate in Bangkok was tropical, of course, and it had two seasons—rainy and dry. During the rainy season you often couldn’t really walk up to people’s front doors; you had to walk on boards supported on cans, or whatever, and in the water you could see leeches floating, waiting for prey. You also saw fish. There were walking fish, too, that could walk from one puddle to the next. Where the water life went during the dry season I had no idea. We loved riding in boats on the klongs—canals—where we saw many merchants riding up and down with their many wares of fruit or flowers. We visited the spectacularly beautiful temples, gilded all over, with some of their decoration coming from broken china fragments that formed a beautiful mosaic.
When Mildred heard we were coming—Mother was very assertive and could just tell people we were coming somewhere with no warning, but apparently there was no problem—she went out and got a charming little teak house that was two stories high. In front, in a corner of the yard, there was a small stone house-like structure on a post; it contained little stone images of spirits that were supposed to guard the house. We never did anything to clean or restore them because we did not have religious beliefs in support of them; now I wish we had kept them clean and upright, out of respect for the culture of the people we were living among. On our second floor, because orchids were so plentiful, we had our own orchids; to Mother, that was a luxury.
We had live-in servants. The woman who did most of the work was named Pai Ling. As I recall, she lived with her husband in lodgings in the back of our house. She spoke little English and Mother spoke little Thai; but Mother improvised a combination of rudimentary Thai and English to tell Pai Ling what was needed for a meal. Pai Ling had little dogs for pets. I loved them. A friend of mine gave her two more puppies from a litter she had. When a darling little dog named Mee was hit and killed by a car in front of the house, Pai Ling and I grieved terribly. She rubbed the body and said, “Sleep.”
For Christmas we had no Christmas-type trees, of course, but we cut out green construction paper and put it together in the outline of a traditional holiday tree. We taped it to the wall and put paper decorations on it.
We listened to records of Broadway musicals, including Fanny and Li’l Abner. I remember Mother being tearful whenever she heard the song Love in a Home from Abner; she remembered her dashed hopes for the marriage that was doomed to failure from the beginning.
At some point, probably in the United States, we saw the movie The King and I. Although I’d been in Thailand, I didn’t realize then that Yul Brynner, a Russian, did not look at all like a Thai king—but he was mesmerizing.
Eventually, Mildred told us she was taking a vacation and going back to the States. We’d been in Bangkok about seven months, as I remember. Mother decided we’d go back with Mildred, to stay permanently. We returned to Albuquerque, New Mexico, our home, in 1958, and never saw Mildred again, although we corresponded for a while. It was in the middle of a school term, and I was disappointed. I had a small part in a play that a teacher had written for the students. I was part of the school music class in which we sang. My lines were based on the way the teacher saw me as a person—funny lines were supposed to represent me. It was an entertaining little play, and I certainly wasn’t hurt. I wasn’t sure, but maybe the lines did represent me. Nevertheless, I didn’t get to be in the play because we left before the semester was over.
I did get to take part in an earlier variety program that was held in Bangkok, however. We presented a skit about the United Nations. I represented the secretariat and had just a few lines about the responsibilities of that office. I recited the lines very stiffly. Before the program I joined some other kids as we lined up to get autographs from Marian Anderson who was in the audience; she’d sung in concert earlier in the week. Unfortunately, I was unable to get her autograph because I had torn the paper I was going to ask her to write on, not knowing that you never handed over a torn paper for an autograph! I felt very bad about that as I shared Mother’s admiration for this great singer.
When I set out to write this article, I had no idea I would remember as much as I have. A life abroad stays with you.