Fitting In

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Frenchy, Knarley and Barbwire Johnny were guiding hunters on the Muskwa River for Elk and Grizzly. They had some decent guys to guide. The hunters had done a lot of hunting and were not complainers. This was important to guys who often worked in the dark, before the day’s hunt and after the hunt.

The best hunters were there for the hunt and not just to take a trophy animal. These guys measured up in the eyes of a guide, but one of the hunters stood out; he was quiet and didn’t try to make a joke of every little thing. He sat a horse like he owned it and asked intelligent questions about tracks and other signs of game. The other hunters talked of hunts and kills in exotic places, but this hunter talked of the places and the people who guided him.

His name was Bill Custis, he was a geologist, about fifty years old, and originally from the Dallas Fort Worth area. On the third night, after the other hunters had told their life stories, Bill had a small glass of rye and told us about a charmed life of survival and constant danger during World War II.

This was in the fall of 1965 and the war in Vietnam was beginning to heat up. There was only one person at the campfire who could find French Indochina (originally Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) on a map without looking all over Asia and that was Bill.

In 1939, he graduated with a degree in geology and his first job was consulting with a French Petroleum company, exploring the highlands of what was to become Vietnam.

In 1940, France was defeated by Nazi Germany. The Vichy government, a puppet government of the German occupation forces, was set up to govern France and consequently, French Indochina.

The Vichy government ceded control over Hanoi and Saigon to Japan. In 1941, Japan extended its control over all of French Indochina; although, control was dubious, there were few roads and most of them were seasonal. Beyond the cities, the peasants lived on a subsistence level and without the French plantation system there was almost no value in the jungles, plains, and mountains of French Indochina.

The United States became concerned with Japanese imperialism and set up embargoes on steel and oil to Japan. Losing the source for steel and oil was a threat to the war machine of Japan and forced Japan to become aware of the need to be self-sufficient. Attacking Pearl Harbor was inevitable if Japan was going to extend its designs of imperialism and empire.

Bill and the rest of his crew were indifferent to the Japanese presence in the cities. The Japanese let the French colonial system of plantations proceed normally; after all, they weren’t set up to exploit the country or its resources and the French already had everything under control.

Of course, the embargoes forced Japan to either end its wars or become self-sufficient in raw materials. Destroying the Pacific Fleet was one way Japan could assert its power over the entire Pacific and control its own destiny.

A few days after December 7, 1941, Bill decided to travel north and try and hook up with some allied forces in China.

Bill had served in the Tennessee National Guard Cavalry for four years, while pursuing his degree, during the 30s, and the idea of surrendering didn’t appeal to him. With nothing but a compass mounted in oil, a few inaccurate maps, and a 45 ACP pistol with 50 rounds, Bill bid his French friends, au revoir, and headed north. He had heard rumors there was armed resistance in the North and he figured he’d rather die with a bullet in his belly than have a katana slice through his neck.

Bill made it all the way to China before he found the resistance groups he was looking for. His clothes had rotted away and he had lost half his body weight to dysentery. He learned to speak Vietnamese with a measure of French. It endeared him to the peasants who were usually helpful towards the big green-eyed barbarian, dressed in traditional peasant clothes, who was traveling through the country. He would rest in different villages and learn the culture as well as the language. He treated the women with respect and made friends with the children and men. He was well liked and thought of as a hero in those early days.

The Japanese didn’t travel beyond the roads and the resistance was negligible in the beginning; although, there was resistance in the north to both the French and the Japanese in 1941.

Bill made it into China in late June of 1942. He found a Chinese nationalist group, the Dong Minh Hoi (DMH), which was committed to the allied effort against Japan. The group included Communists, but was not controlled by them.

Bill was interrogated at length, but his knowledge was little more than a peasant could offer. He retraced his trail as accurately as possible, but the peasants knew almost nothing of the Japanese occupation and he had nothing of value to offer.

It was during the interrogations that he met Ho Chi Minh. Ho had been released from prison in China because intelligence beyond the level of illiterate peasants was needed to launch campaigns. Ho was assisted by Western intelligence agencies, including the American Office of Strategic Services, and the Free French Intelligence service.

Bill was impressed with the soft-spoken Ho. He was extremely intelligent and spoke eloquently of the need for a free Indochina and of how their efforts to defeat the Japanese should convince FDR of the importance of helping rid Indochina of the colonial grasp of France.

Bill worked with Ho until the end of the war. He mapped the roads and plotted ambush sites. He moved like a ghost with one or two helpers. They observed convoys and Bill drew the topography. Bill continued his work with the resistance for three years, until the Japanese surrender.

In, March of 1945, the Japanese became suspicious of the Vichy French and imprisoned them.

The Japanese surrendered in August and a provisional government was attempted, but the French once again took control of Indochina in 1946, aided by ship loads of American supplies and munitions.

At the end of the war, Bill still had the 1911, 45 ACP and the 50 rounds of ammunition. During the entire war, he had never fired a shot. He gave the pistol and the box of ammunition to Ho as a present, while waiting to board a ship for home at Haiphong Harbor.

Back home, he watched as Truman became distrustful of Ho. There was a strong distrust of all Communists and the French were seen as a force that could keep Indochina from becoming a Communist country. However, the people of Indochina, from both anti-communist and communist groups wanted independence and
to be rid of French Colonialism.

Ho became disenchanted with the US, when they continued to supply the French Colonial troops with military surplus munitions and equipment. Ho depended on China and the Soviets to supply him with the munitions he needed to defeat the French and we lost a potential ally.

When Bill finished his story, the hunters were deathly quiet. Barbwire Johnny and Knarley were overwhelmed with the information, but Frenchy, was more intelligent than most, and he had a question.

“Bill, the US is sending Marines there now, how do you think that will play out?” Frenchy asked with his thick French Canadian accent.

Bill took another small glass of rye and drank it all down before saying a word. “That’s a tough question, but I will let you answer your own question. Remember when I talked about hunting lions with the Masai?” Bill asked.

Frenchy replied with his naïve honesty, “Yes, sir, I remember well, those Masai are some tough guys.”

“Yes Frenchy, they are much tougher than you know. I was hunting lion with a 30-06 rifle, not the biggest rifle, but big enough. Do you now what the Masai hunt lions with, Frenchy?”

“No sir, I don’t have any idea,” Frenchy replied honestly.

“They have four weapons. Their most lethal weapon is a five foot stick, they carry a long knife, they have a two foot club with a natural wooden knot on it, you would call it a type of mace, and a short stabbing spear, but when a lion is ready to attack their family or one of their cattle, they go after it with their stick or the short spear and they usually win. Can you imagine going against a mountain lion or a bear with a stick?”

“No sir, I don’t think so.”

“They have a completely different outlook on life, Frenchy. You know that humans and horses often live long past a practical age. With horses we put them out of their misery and we consider ourselves to be humane, but with humans, it’s a different story.”

“My guide invited me to a birthday party for his grandfather. It was to be a joyous occasion and I was honored by the invitation.”

“I arrived at the party and everyone was getting roaring drunk, especially the grandfather. He thanked me over and over for coming to his party. The liquor was fermented cow’s milk, so I didn’t really partake, but maybe I should have. There was a deep hole in the ground, about six feet deep. A reed mat was laying next to the hole with a pile of small boulders off to the side, each rock was about the size of a watermelon.. The old man became so drunk, I thought he laid down on the mat to pass out, but his grandson rolled him up in the mat and inserted mat and man in the hole with just his head above the ground. My guide, the old man’s grandson, picked up a boulder and held it above his head, before throwing it at his grandfather’s head with a great force. He quickly threw the rest of the boulders in the same manner, until his grandfather was completely buried under the boulders. The party continued well into the night.”

“Do you think you could do that Frenchy?”

“No, I’ll not be dropping rocks on anybody. No, that’s not for me,” Frenchy said.

“Nor could I, Frenchy, but you see, I went native in Indochina. I survived against all odds and many different types of ethnic people accepted me and protected me; because I adapted to their life, instead of expecting them to be like me. The US is headed for trouble over there, you can bank on that, because those people are like the Masai; they are not afraid to take the switch to the lion.”

A professional horseman for over 40 years, Skook continues to work with horses. He is in an ongoing educational program, learning life's lessons from one of the world's greatest instructors, the horse. Skook has finished an historical novel that traces a mitochondrial line of DNA from 50,000 years ago to the present. It goes to the copyeditor next month.

15 Responses to “Fitting In”

  1. 2



    @Chuck: Thanks for reading the story and for your kind words.

    When I was in college, my freshman English professor told us we could write about whatever we wanted and we would never need to say whether the stories were true. I was shocked when he asked, mid-way through the semester, whether a particular story was true. I reminded him of his promise and didn’t answer his question.

    From this story forward, I will write in third person and avoid the questions. However, more importantly, the story was written because of the abnormally large group of immigrants we have coming to America and Europe.

    In the US, our most successful immigrants assimilate, lose their identifying accents and become a major force in the American economy and cultural life. Those who resist learning English and speak with the thick accent of the barrio are usually left behind in the barrio. Those who are left behind often campaign to bring the detritus of the Third World into America; presumably, because they will feel more at home.

    The other migrational group we have is the Muslim. We assume he is fleeing a war and a wretched existence. Obviously, they fulfill the same two types of demographics, as our Mexican immigrants. Unfortunately, the detritus of their individual culture includes Sharia and customs for women and children that should have been left in the Dark Ages. Are we condemning our country to turmoil and chaos because we misjudged the character of some of our immigrants?

    Are we willing to accept this consequence as the cost of maintaining American values?

    We have one man making the decision to import hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Third World, should he be asking America its opinion or are we to trust his judgement above all others?

  2. 6


    @Skook: I sincerely hope my question was not taken to imply that I doubted its authenticity…. I would find myself in awe…sitting with my mouth agape!!…to be in the presence of such a man! What an amazing story…What an amazing life!! I am grateful for the honor of serving two tours in that beautiful country. It is also always interesting to hear eye witness accounts of the beginnings of our ‘adventure’ there.
    Highest regards for your thinking and writing skills!


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    Thanks everyone.@

    Poppa_T: I’ve talked to a number of people about the Masai; they seem to vary geographically. The weapons and their abilities are common among the different groups, but there are cultural differences.

    However, as an old Masai warrior told me: “Every time a tourist gives a Masai child a candy bar or a dollar, he creates a useless beggar and damages the Masai people forever.”

    They and their culture will be gone in a few years. Modern man’s silliness has almost destroyed the last noble primitive culture. Acting like Santa Claus does nothing to help primitive man.

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    @Chuck: I missed your second comment. I have written many stories and frankly, the stories about my own life are embarrassing, because they are packed with adventure and survival. Truthfully, I walked away from a few adventures and my hands were shaking, so I don’t think of myself as a heroic figure. Just a guy who lived life beyond the horizon and was extremely lucky. I didn’t end up rich or famous, but it’s been quite a party.

    After two tours and forty plus years of life, you are still kicking and in control of your mental faculties; you must admit, you have had a bit of luck as well. Congratulations!

    I don’t want to be anybody’s hero. I’ll settle for being Old Skook. The guy who was good with horses and managed to get an education against all odds and who has been around the world a few times.

    The life of Ho Chi Minh is fascinating. I heard rumors during those years, but I found them hard to believe. Now, I am learning the truth and some of those rumors were authentic and it is hard to understand how we could have misjudged the intent and integrity of one man and condemned so many.

    We saw the mistakes of the French and the ferocity of Ho’s forces at Dien Ben Phu, but we considered the French to be second class warriors and their defeat by a peasant army only emphasized their incompetence. However, this was the French Foreign Legion and the air borne troops kept jumping into that unbelievably bad defensive position, a position chosen by officers in Hanoi with no practical knowledge of the area. It was a humiliating defeat but an unbelievable show of heroism by French troops. A supreme effort to hold a piece of ground in the jungle with no strategic value.

    American pride was ready to pick up after a French defeat once again. Our fear of Asian imperialism, an idea that we had just defeated in a horrible war and our fear of the two Communist giants fueled our desire to destroy the Communist menace in its early stages, but was it necessary? Ho’s humiliation under French imperialism was a perfect petri dish to create a Communist. Not a homicidal maniac like Stalin or Mao, but an intellectual ascetic who lived a selfless life. He admired the US and its founding fathers.

    I am not a fan of FDR, but I think he understood the sincerity of the Communist who wanted to be an ally of the US.

    Thus Vietnam became the Poland of Asia. Their soldiers (plus airmen for Poland) fought and died for the winning side, against the Axis powers, but the two countries were given away as prizes to imperialist countries.

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    @Rich Wheeler: It is interesting how the Masai must wear red. I don’t mean to imply political significance, but it is different.

    I don’t think there have been many tribes like them in the family of man in all its time on earth. Extraordinary people.

  6. 11

    James Raider


    Great story, Skook, and an excellent narrative of the natural simplicity with which we could make decisions, while we seem to do exactly the opposite as we bring a smug complexity to everything which inevitably impairs our views, . . . a shortcoming that I suspect is founded in our insecurities.

    I’ve certainly not known any Masai, but a few extraordinary First Nations I have known have demonstrated insights and awareness rooted in ancient culture, that I know we could learn much from. Those Native cultures have not yet been completely snuffed out.

  7. 12

    Nanny G

    My favorite story about the Maasai is from science.
    It is recent and true.

    Researchers staged an experiment inside the Kenya Amboseli National Park where 1,500 elephants are located.
    The park is home to two tribal groups, a cattle-herding tribe called Maasai used to attack the elephants, and the Kamba tribe, which are considered as no threat to the elephants.

    They used loudspeakers to broadcast the voice of a Maasai man saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants coming.” When the elephants heard this, they huddled closer together and sniffed the air in anticipation for an attack.
    By contrast, when they heard the voice of a Kamba man saying the same sentence, they were relaxed. The elephants were also calm when they heard the voice of Maasai boys and women, who did not participate in the attacks.

    If even elephants can learn to get ready to deal with an attack by Maasai, so should we be able to learn to deal with the attacks we are already suffering from ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, al Qaeda, Boko Harum and all the others.
    It is just that our leaders, like the elephant leaders, need to recognize the threat as soon as it is happening, not wait and then start the apologist game of blaming the victim.

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    @James Raider: Aye JR, my early memories of the First Nations people are crossing the Sheep River at what is now the ‘City’ of Okotoks, about an hour from Calgary, as a small boy, and seeing 30 or 40 teepees set up in the snow. It’s all high end homes now and it will never happen again, but I remember, every time I cross the mighty Sheep River.

    It was the scene for the buffalo hunt in Cougar Cub of the Metis. I also remember seeing several families with Red River Carts traveling the high mountain passes above the Kicking Horse River. Those days are gone forever, but I would love to talk to those people today.

    Hysteria from fear is not always a screaming affair, but sometimes it prevents us from making a logical decision when we appear to have control of our faculties.

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    @joetote: I am glad you enjoyed the story.

    I just finished two days worth of work and the temp is 107 F. My customer is an old-time friend and polo player. He was impatient and said, “Thirty years ago, you would have done all the horses in one day (14 head).”

    I told him, “Those days are gone forever. Now, I am just glad to get them done in two days.”

    I thought you would get a kick out of that story.

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