The Music Everybody Knows

Part 3, The Ozarks and New Orleans

October 28, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (4)

Tags: , , , ,

Because much of the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas is federal, all the campgrounds were closed, so we found ourselves checking-in at the Dogwood Motel in Mountainview (pop. c. 3000). The young man at the desk recommended a catfish restaurant and the Ozark Culture Center north of town.

Catfish needs no definition. Even anthropologists argue endlessly about culture, but at the proud little state park culture is about music and storytelling and broom making and copper annealing and dress making and wood carving and wool carding and weaving and cigar-box guitars and letter-press printing and quilting. You go from studio to studio where exhibitors show how things were done, as musicians in a pavilion outside sing old-timey songs. Bill Clinton visits here often, they say.

P1000630The printer caught my interest, the quilter, Pat’s. I was reminded how much work it took to hand-set type and justify it and make the impressions right. A printer apprenticeship was five years. The foot-treadle press must have been satisfying work because the printer, not the machinery, was in control of the speed and the paper feeding. The quilter showed Pat how to design and sew a “log cabin” patch, a square that has dark colors in one corner giving way to light colors in the opposite corner — like the cold side and the fire side of a log cabin.



Going In Peace

Part 4, the Natchez Trace


Tags: , ,

Thich Nhat Hanh teaches walking meditation. Early one morning in Hanoi he took a long line of us walking — slow and mindful, step by step, breath by breath — against the rush-hour torrent of 125 cc motor scooters, as government agents, no doubt, watched.  I am wondering how walking meditation would go over in the small towns of the American South, if I tried it.

The region is mostly Protestant and about one-third Southern Baptist. Our drive through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee on backroads left the impression that another third of the people attend non-denominational churches distinguished from each other by catchy themes. We noted signs proclaiming: Church of Divine Intervention,  Abundant Life Church, Life Changing Ministries, Free Will Baptist Church, The People’s Church and Baptist Ministry churches of New Zion, Old Jerusalem and New Hope of the Brethren.

I imagined many of these were solitary creations of men like Robert Duvall’s preacher in “The Apostle.” Take, for example, Jehovah Java in Lake Providence, LA. It is an excellent espresso coffee shop in a Starbuckless world, and it is part of a non-denominational church. It was created by a minister and his wife who love the Bean and the Lord. (more…)

Family In A Perfect World

Part 5, A North Carolina Holler


Tags: ,

Appalachian “hollers” (hollows) are perfect little worlds, or used to be. They provided everything a large family needed: timber, firewood and game from the surrounding mountains, grazing on the descending  slopes, farming in the fertile bottom lands, and even fish in the streams. And in almost every holler was a church and a cemetery next to it. The people were Baptists. They baptized in the water — total immersion. My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side were from the Appalachia’s of western North Carolina,  near Mars Hill, which now is a picturesque little college town.

The college was started by the Southern Baptist Convention, but in recent years it has turned to other sources for funding. The region is diversifying. Many of the rural churches look abandoned. They are eclipsed by McMansions on the hills. In one of these land coves north of Asheville, half way between the Blue Ridge Mountains Parkway and the Appalachian Trail, we found Calloway Road.

I knocked on the door of a modular home, arousing a large dog inside. A pretty woman about the age of my daughters hushed the dog and came to the door holding a soft warm cookie with a bite gone. I told her my father’s people came from around there. She listened carefully. I smiled. Finally, she said, “I’m a Calloway. Would you like a pumpkin cookie?” She left and returned with two in a Ziplock bag. Pat and I ate them later. They were spicy with flecks of dark chocolate but not too sweet.

Amanda took us down the hill to meet her mother and father, Charles and Linda (same names as my parents), a greying couple who were at work in their farmyard. They were stacking boards for a communal barn raising set for that weekend. They had a pet mule, some goats, a few beef cattle, a young border collie and a garden. There were other acreages nearby, and Charles affirmed most of the neighbors were family. His grandfather, of the same generation as mine and perhaps from the same river drainage north of there, bought the cove about 100 years ago. He lived into his 90‘s and raised a self-reliant family.

Linda, Amanda, Charles

Linda, Amanda, Charles


Free At Last In Washington

Part 6, the capitol grouds


Tags: , , , ,


P1000985 - Version 2In a time of militant religiosity, when “God Bless America” is the standard ending of most political speeches, it was encouraging to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, Washington’s newest. There is no “God” in the 14 quotations approved by his family to be cut in white stone.  How do you explain a memorial to a powerful minister that does not mention God? Certainly he was not Godless, this man of peace, liberation and non-violence. Suddenly it occurred to me that the divine presence there on the edge of the Tidal Basin on the nation’s spacious capitol grounds is universal Humanity.

One quote of the Rev. Dr. King says:

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation. . . “

No, the absence of the word God there requires no apology. Rather, the quivering politicians should be asked to explain their use — and I mean use — of God.  The slogan “God bless America” was invented during a time of war with God on our side. It is a declaration of patriotism, even an implicit directive to those who do not fear the Old Testament God. (more…)

Why I Love Black Walnuts

First Posted June 2006

October 27, 2013 in JOURNEYS,SOUTHERN JOURNAL | Comments (0)

Tags: , , ,

When I was a boy one of my father’s sisters gave him a tree, a sapling, and we planted it in the back yard in Denver. He said it was a black walnut from the mountains of western North Carolina, which are practically owned by the Scotch-Irish, his people. That gnarly stick of a tree survived from winter to Colorado winter, growing a few feet a year in the rich alluvial soil of our back yard.


Each summer I’d look for the black walnuts – a blossom, a green pod on a branch, a fallen clunker with a shell like a hand grenade – but the tree never bore. It needed pollination, I would learn. It needed to be back in Madison County, N.C., of which both my paternal grandparents were third- or fourth-generation natives. The little tree kept growing, and even after my father was gone it spoke to me of roots.


A family tree!


Better than the paper kind, I thought. You can’t taste a genealogy, can’t chop it up to put in ice cream or sprinkle on brownies. You can’t make fine oiled gun stocks or cabinets out of kinship charts. I didn’t care about doing the Alex Haley thing, which turned out to be fiction anyway. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to any backwoods Appalachian “holler.” I had grown up reading “Li’l Abner” and “Snuffy Smith” in the comics. I knew the stereotypes. TV brought “Ma and Pa Kettle,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” Festus on “Gunsmoke,” and so forth. Hey, I could relate to these comedy characters, but I didn’t want to discover we were actually . . . related!


Then came “Deliverance” by the troubled Georgia poet James Dickey, whose inbred, demented, violent stereotypes cast a shadow on the southern mountains in general. The movie with Burt Reynolds and John Voight was a blockbuster, and “Dueling Banjos” from the sound track was a hit. It was filmed on the Chantanooga River, which runs along the Georgia-South Carolina border, but that was a little too close to home, the “home” I had never seen, and would not see until. . .  (more…)

From The Uttermost Ends Of The Earth

Essays north and south

January 8, 2013 in Ends of the Earth | Comments (0)

Tags: ,

(The January Crestone Eagle features my account of a journey into the heart of the new Inuit state of Nunavut in Canada. Here’s a link for non-Crestonians:
The following account of a journey to Tierra del Fuego a year earlier balances things out.)

Darwin And The Yamana People

The fires of Tierra del Fuego are gone. The Yamana people, whose smoke signals announced Magellan in 1520, are gone. Their bark canoes carrying fire, gone. And nobody for now lives at Wulaia, which in a missionary’s dictionary of the Yamana language meant beautiful-sheltered cove (aia).

On a summer day in January we landed at Wulaia in rubber Zodiacs from the Mare Australis, a clean new expedition crucero of Chilean registry. For now, this is the only cruise through the restricted Murray Narrows south of the Beagle Channel, a passage from Ushuaia to Cape Horn.

View of our ship from Wulaia

On the pebbled beach, with the mother ship shining like an ice berg among the blue islands of the cove, we shed our orange life vests and took a guided walk. Except for the masonry hulk of an old naval station, Wulaia is graciously unimproved. Our guide said the cruise company has leased the site from the Chilean government and plans to restore the vandalized two-story building as a visitor’s center with dorm rooms for archeologists. They have dug in the strata of discarded mussel shells and concluded the place was inhabited for perhaps 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. (more…)

Saying Goodbye In Thai

Mean Streets, Peaceful River

April 24, 2012 in JOURNEYS,Theatre of War | Comments (2)

Tags: , , , , , , ,




by Larry Calloway (c) 2012

In the new Bangkok air terminal a long sculpture on the way to international departures depicts a tug of war, demigods v. devils, in the clean bright primary colors of Theravada Buddhist  temples. This moral chemistry, this dynamic equilibrium of unresolved issues that has gone on since the beginning is a fine Hindu creation myth.

In this story, “Churning the Ocean of Milk,” the Asuras and Devas pull back and forth on a rope hitched around a spindle. (The rope is a mythological snake, the spindle is a sacred mountain, and the winners will get immortality if they last, but we’ll never know.) From the disturbance of the Milky Way came a number of things, depending on the version. The version in my Western eyes as I departed – perhaps finally – was cosmic. It was creation via the slightest first tick of information in the ocean of Zen Emptiness, like Milton’s Satan crossing Chaos and leaving a track from which all organization evolved. The sculpture also is Thailand, where the nightclubs are as famous as the temples (and a whore would never touch a monk) and yellow shirts and red shirts hold staggered demonstrations and democracy alternates with military dictatorship and committees on national reconciliation don’t reconcile. Whatever, the reciprocating engine produces something wonderful like . . . life.


Secret Wars Have No Heroes

More on what Obama revealed and rued

September 10, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (1)

Tags: , , , , ,

A king at rest


(C)text and photos by LARRY CALLOWAY


Air America was created in 1959 to support covert operations in Laos, a landlocked country of no more than 3 million people then, caught between Vietnam and Thailand. Our man in Laos was Phoumi Nosavan, a diminutive general of the Royal Lao Army who became prime minister in a CIA-backed coup in December 1959, two months after death ended the 55-year reign of beloved King Sisavang. Phoumi was a close friend of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, his cousin and mentor, who ruled Thailand under martial law with the apparent consent of King Bhumibol. Sarit was ruthless and corrupt. But he had American friends like the Dulles brothers (Secretary of State John Foster and CIA director Allen).

Our backup in the war against communism was Vang Pao, a leader among Hmong hill tribesmen. The hostility between the communists of Laos and the Hmong minority was not only due to the Marxist enmity toward traditional cultures (and religion). The Hmongs, long ago driven out of China, had been on the side of the French in the anti-colonial revolution. American intelligence agents who remained in Thailand after the defeat of Japan helped organize the Hmong and other ethnic minorities in an alliance with the Royal Lao Army against the Pathet Lao, counterpart of the Viet Cong. John Foster Dulles called Laos a “bastion of the free world.”

During the 1960 American election campaign (Kennedy vs. Nixon) a former Royal Lao officer named Kong Le, who now sympathized with the Pathet Lao, occupied Vientiane. What alarmed the Dulles brothers was evidence that he was getting support from the Soviet Union. On inauguration day, President Dwight D. Eisenhower told Kennedy he faced war in Laos. Both men must have known the risk at hand because, unlike the nuclear sword rattlers, they knew war and were informed about Indochina. Early in his administration Eisenhower had authorized disguised American transport planes to supply the French army in its last stand at Dien Ben Phu in North Vietnam, and Kennedy had visited Indochina twice as a congressman before the defeat of the French in 1954.

Laos was far from the minds of most Americans, then as now, and so when the new president addressed the nation two months after his inauguration, he used maps showing the landlocked kingdom’s long border with Vietnam to illustrate his thesis that, in his words, “The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence.” (He mispronounced Laos, perhaps intentionally.) In June 1961 in Vienna Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared Laos neutral, a sentiment that was signed and sealed in Geneva a year later.

So in May of 1963, as I stepped from a Pan Am Boeing 707 into the tropical heat of Bangkok, the American setup against North Vietnam in Indochina was this: two Buddhist kingdoms run by cousins, (Thailand and Laos) a Buddhist kingdom run by a neutral prince (Sihanouk in Cambodia), and an anti-Buddhist Catholic autocracy run by brothers (Diem and Nhu in South Vietnam). But it was a fragile setup, a row of dominoes. Hanoi was reinforcing the North Vietnam Army troops that had never left Laos despite the Geneva accord. Kennedy authorized the CIA to arm and train 20,000 Hmong guerrillas. To facilitate this the CIA was building a secret city, Long Tien, south of the Plain of Jars and had scraped airstrips, code named Lima sites, for STOL aircraft on a dozen mountains surrounding the plain.

By the end of that year everything had gone to hell. A full scale war was beginning in Laos. Sarit was dead of cirrhosis, Phoumi was cowering, Diem and Nhu were dead in a coup gone violent, and John F. Kennedy was gone, assassinated in Dallas.

As I crossed the bridge over the wide Mekong to Vientiane nearly 50 years later, the setup was: Vietnam unified, Cambodia and Laos under its control, all three nominally communist, and Thailand again ruled (temporarily) by the military with the consent of the same king.

The Lao border bureaucrats were not necessarily friendly. The only words the officer had for me as he took my passport, photo and money at the gate and slammed shut the small tinted window were: “Sit and wait.” Which I did, for about half an hour, at the end of the bridge. Eventually another opaque window opened. My name was called, and a hand thrust forth my passport, which I snatched before the window slammed. When I looked at my elaborate visa glued to a full page I appreciated how long it took behind those dark windows to create it.

In Vientiane, a poor but modernized city, I first saw the famous Buddhist temple pictured on the visa. Next was the arch of

A Gift From The USA, Diverted

victory, where I climbed many flights of stairs to see what I could see. The story is that the huge monument was made from cement donated by USAID for construction of jet runways and diverted. Young monks on the street practiced their English with me. I saw the new and glittering 1,500-seat Vientiane “cultural hall,” a gift of China. I ate in a French restaurant nearby and wondered if China made such gifts to Vietnam, its historic enemy.

Transportation was by tuk tuk, a motorized rickshaw named in both Thailand and Laos for the sound it makes. While there were no automobile taxis in the capital of Laos, Nong Khai on the other side of the river was all cars. Thailand is a relatively rich country. Laos is poor. They can understand each other’s dialects – sawadee is hello in Thailand, sabaidee is hello in Laos. They practice Theravada Buddhism in both countries. The main difference is the modernization made possible by Western investment — that and, from a longer perspective, the line of remarkably adept Thai kings who looked West. Bhumibol, born in Boston when his father was studying medicine at Harvard, toured the United States in the Sixties to promote the war in English.

The tuk tuk took me to a sad little temple called Haw Pah Kaew, which is Wat Pra Kaew in Thai. Same name, translated as Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The solid jade Buddha now sits in Bangkok high on a throne surrounded by security devices, constantly watched. It is a Thai national icon. Yet, it spent more than two centuries in Laos before being plundered

A Gift From The PRC

by the invading Thais in 1778. Two warring Buddhist kingdoms: economically apart, close at heart.

The CIA exploited the current political and economic antipathy from the start in the war against communism in Southeast Asia. By 1960, according to University of Georgia historian William H. Leary, the CIA had trained 400 Thai police officers in helicopter response to communist insurgencies, and the U.S. provided the helicopters. Sarit sent the elite unit to help Phoumi in Laos. While the war was commanded by William Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador in Vientiane, most of the air operations came out of Thailand.

There is little information about the secret war in Laos accessible to journalists. (Leary’s authoritative history of Air America is sanctioned by its appearance on the CIA web site.) But due to a recent posthumous medal of honor and tireless research by the American POW-MIA group, one emblematic story can be told.



Early in the Vietnam War the CIA supported a sophisticated  navigational radar station called Lima 85 on a sheer 5,600-foot mountain in northern Laos. From 1967 to early 1968 it controlled one-fourth of the bombing of targets in and around Hanoi, about 120 miles east. The installation, with its rotating crews of American technicians flown in from Thailand by Air America, was top secret and, of course, in violation of the Geneva accord.

North Vietnam communists attacked it on Jan. 12, 1968, dropping mortars by hand from two Russian biplanes as two others circled high above. One of the mortar planes crashed into a ridge and the other was shot down by a CIA sharpshooter with a rifle in an unarmed Air America helicopter. The raid was ridiculed as something out of “World War I.”

Comedy became tragedy two months later. Several thousand North Vietnamese troops on the night of March 10 attacked along the 12-mile perimeter of the mountain while a specially trained team of 35 armed climbers assaulted the summit. Of the 19 men at the radar base that night only eight survived the surprise attack until they could be loaded onto evacuation helicopters at first light. And one of these died a few hours later.

He was Richard Etchberger, an Air Force master sergeant working under civilian cover, who chose to be the last man rescued from a high ledge. He loaded three wounded comrades into rescue slings before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and was pulled aboard the evacuation helicopter. On Sept. 3, 2010, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor, authorized by a special act of Congress, to Etchberger’s family. The 42-year lapse had to do with the “deniability” (a word associated with White House deception in the sixties) of the 12-year CIA war in Laos. His three sons had grown up believing their father died somewhere in Vietnam.

Americans were not the only casualties at Lima 85. The dead on the ground below included at least 45 members of an elite force of 700 Hmong and Thai soldiers under Vang Pao. He was commissioned by the CIA to defend the mountain along its 12-mile base perimeter long enough to enable destruction and evacuation of the radar site above in case of a ground attack. Outnumbered nearly 10-to-1 by the attackers, according to North Vietnamese reports now available, Vang Pao fought and retreated as planned.

The strategy would have worked except for a miscalculation by the CIA and Ambassador Sullivan. Air surveillance and infra-red photography made him aware weeks earlier that the communists were preparing to attack, but he did not recognize that the ground maneuver was a diversion. As Vang Pao held off the conventional forces, the special forces swiftly ascended the cliffs and assaulted the summit. Sullivan wrote in a cable to Washington, “It appears we may have pushed our luck one day too long.”

Most of this story comes from American POW-MIA volunteers with access to documents that were not available until 1997, when the U.S. first officially acknowledged the secret war. ( At that time a small monument was installed at Arlington with the legend: “Dedicated to the U.S. Secret Army in the Kingdom of Laos, 1961-1973.” About 35,000 Hmong soldiers died in the secret war. As Vang Pao put it, they either had to fight or leave the country. I compare them with the dispossessed Cherokees in Georgia who fought for the Yankees in the civil war.

Thousands of Hmong people left Laos in 1975, at the end of what some historians have begun calling The Second Indochina War, taking refuge in sordid camps along the Thai border. Slowly, Congress allowed some of the refugees to immigrate to the U.S. Most settled in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The Census estimates about 250,000 Hmongs and their descendants live in the U.S. But few Americans even know their name.



Two movies, Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” and Hollywood’s “Air America,” refer to the Hmong people. Eastwood’s 2008 feature film is a compassionate story of a Korean War veteran coming to terms with his new Hmong neighbors. “Air America” (1990) is a macho buddy comedy with lots of trick flying and a plot that indulges Hollywood’s unusual interest in drugs and conspiracy. Air America’s cool, fearless, drinking and whoring pilots fly opium from the fields of an ethnic general in return for his fight against the communists, and the opium in turn is processed in a heroin lab run by a corrupt CIA agent. The screen play was adapted from a 1979 book by Christopher Robbins, “Air America,” that in turn relied upon a 1972 study by Alfred W. McCoy, “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia.” McCoy charged that Air America pilots flew opium to Long Tien for Vang Pao.

Historian Leary relates all this in his history and concludes: “My nearly two decades of research indicate that Air America was not involved in the drug trade.” Still, he acknowledges, the CIA knew about it but did little until drug-use became a problem for the U.S. armed forces in Vietnam. (The sale of drugs to soldiers is a theme in the 2008 Hollywood film “An America Hero.”) Leary’s history makes the case that the secret war in Laos could not have been sustained without Air America. It was serious work. And, deadly. About 100 Air America personnel lost their lives in Laos.

William E. Colby, CIA chief under Richard Nixon, in a 1990 memoir of the Vietnam war, acknowledged that some Lao generals profited from the opium trade but “not Vang Pao or his officers, and certainly not the CIA or Air America.”

In 2002 the city of Madison, Wisc., which has a large Hmong community, withdrew the naming of a park for Vang Pao on the basis of a protest by McCoy, a University of Wisconsin professor. He repeated his finding that Vang Pao was among the generals who trafficked in opium with the complicity of the CIA.

The issue arose again in 2007 when the Madison school board proposed naming a new elementary school for Vang Pao. McCoy again protested. A mom began a petition drive for reconsideration due to the general’s “controversial” past, and the head of the teachers’ union expressed “concern.” The board withdrew the name.

By then the McCoy charges were enhanced by a federal indictment of Vang Pao and nine others in a sting operation in

Vang Pao In The Sixties

California. An ATF agent posing as an arms dealer had interested the group in purchasing weapons for Lao insurgents. (The cultural clash continues in Laos. A Hmong insurgency in the Plain of Jars region was put down in 2000.) Two years later the U.S. Attorney’s office in Sacramento withdrew all charges against Vang Pao, stating insufficient evidence, but the damage had been done.

Vang Pao died at age 81. In early February 2011 the Associated Press brought worldwide attention to his six-day funeral in Fresno, Calif. His body lay in the Fresno convention center, where CIA veterans paid their respects amid Hmong ceremonies for a hero. His family and representatives of the Hmong refugees in the U.S. petitioned the Pentagon to have him buried at Arlington National Cemetery, perhaps near the monument to the dead of the secret war. The Pentagon refused, with the rationale that the precious few grave sites remaining at Arlington are reserved for Americans. The Hmongs appealed to the White House. There was no response.


The Emptiness Of The Plain of Jars

A sidebar to President Obama’s Laos apology

September 6, 2011 in Theatre of War | Comments (5)

Tags: , , , , , , , ,






THE JARS  on the Plain of Jarres (French colonialists named it) are empty. The bomb craters from the secret war in Laos, pockmarks of a sick strategy called “madman,” are not empty. They hold the remnants of cluster bombs that popped open in the air and birthed out baby bombs in tricky patterns. The “bomblets” (military jargon) were designed to explode and fragment at intervals, and some were destined to explode years later like forgotten land mines.

“The use of delayed-action antipersonnel weapons on the Plain after 1967 made life above ground very hazardous,” a report by the Congressional Research Service found. Villagers lived in trenches or caves. They farmed at night. One fourth to one third of

Cluster Bomb Casings

the Lao population became refugees, it said. The casualties at the height of the B52 sorties from 1970 to 1973 were estimated at 90,000 including 30,000 deaths. Each B52 bomber could drop 108 500-pound bombs from an altitude of 18,000 to 30,000 feet.

Descending to the Xieng Khouang provincial air strip in north central Laos near the new town of Phonsavan (the old one was destroyed in the war) I could see the craters, lines of red pocks in a land that reminded me of the arid part of the Colorado San Luis Valley where I live. Among the greeters of the dozen passengers in the waiting room was a young guide named Suen, whom I chose intuitively. He worked for a five-room guest house by some rice paddies on an ugly highway. Bomb casings decorated the entry. A wall of the dining room displayed war weapons.


Baja California Travelblog

Turtles, Whales, Dolphins, Pelicans, Clams, Gringos

August 24, 2010 in El Turista | Comments (0)

Tags: , , , , , ,



There was a strange grey stone shaped and lined like a size medium Indian moccasin, right foot, the foot you extend first in yoga, Buddha foot, scout foot. We (my traveling partner Pat and I) first saw it on the six-mile walk up the shore below Todos Santos in south Baja California. It had been tossed high on the otherwise clean dry sand by the explosive surf. We kept walking in the cool wind – it was April – entertained by heavy grey pelicans gliding impossibly just inches above the sand like hovercraft and by hermit crabs of all sizes flashing to their safe houses. We ate nachos and drank margaritas and watched the surfers from a table at the gringo-owned Los Cerritos Surf and Beach Club (the club is private, the beach is public). On the way home, there it was again, the unlikely Buddha foot. We took it, packed it, flew it a thousand miles. It rests now on the right outside my door as if I have a one-foot guest who knows the Way. (more…)