January 1, 2014
Back in August 2006 for my column A Retiring Attitude in Chiang Mai City Life, I wrote an article on the different kinds of transportation we have here in Thailand. One way of getting around here of course is walking, and I mentioned my good friend “The Walking Man”.
“The Walking Man is a 77 year old German friend of mine who has lived in Thailand for the past 15 years. Every morning he walks up to 10 kilometers, much less than he did when he was younger. Then he sometimes trekked up to 50 kilometers in a day. Walking is the only kind of transportation he uses.”
My friend took his last walk today. Now at 85 years old and feeling the first onset of a dementia he dreaded, he set out on his usual walk halfway up Doi Suthep Mountain, his favorite walk. There, from a self inflicted gunshot, he ended his long journey.
We met the Walking man one day as he passed by our house when we lived behind the Chiang Mai University campus. Our place was on one of his walking routes. We had seen him before and this time as he walked by we waved hello. He was quite a solitary person so later when he felt comfortable enough to visit us often we were quite honored with his trust in us. The Walking Man had come on a long journey ending up here in Chiang Mai and when you hear his story you could see why he kept to himself for most of his life.
He was born into a Germany in the 1920s when the world was pretty much in chaos. The 30s and 40s of course became much worse. At 15 he was conscripted into the “Hitler Youth”, not something he was thrilled about but as he told it, it just wasn’t an option. It wasn’t an option either that towards the end of the war when all the Hitler Youth were ordered into battle for the Fatherland, the teen-aged Walking Man was included. That is as much as he would ever share about those times.
That phase of the war didn’t last long for him but the next one did. He was herded into a detention camp, basically for POWs, and remained there for years.
His clearest recollections about this time were about how hungry he always was. He said that when they were given potato peels to eat it was considered a very good day indeed. This experience remained with him all his life. Occasionally he would accept a lunch or dinner with us – as long as he could walk to where we were. We noticed that it was impossible for him to leave even one grain of rice uneaten on his plate. Every bite he took reminded him of those hard times when he was always hungry. So he never let any food go to waste.
We would see him walking on the Chiang Mai streets, often with his head down. He said that in this way he had found thousands of baht throughout his 20+ years of walking. Even though he never owned a cell phone he’d found plenty on the streets. He never listened to the radio, or watched TV. He was interested in trees and woods and would always pick up interesting pieces of wood that he found on his treks, especially when he went into the mountains. He spent his non-walking time turning these scraps of wood into sculptures and boxes – a few of which he presented to us.
One thing he did was listen to American jazz. He knew all the greats from the 1920s on. He liked Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. He had an ancient reel-to-reel tape deck that he listened to every night. I tried to get him a CD player and I told him I could convert all his tapes to CDs, but that was like asking him to drop an old and trusted friend. No way.
A few years ago, in a quite jolly mood, he asked my wife and me to come and see what he had just bought. He called it his “insurance policy”. It was a nine millimeter hand gun he had gotten on the black market. “It is right here where I can get at it.”, he said. “I’ll need it someday.” Then he used his fingers to pantomime using the gun on himself. He wasn’t thinking of the gun for protection from other people. It was for protection from what he knew as inevitable.
I made him promise me that if he decided on using it that he would talk to me first. It was a promise that he did keep.
Two weeks ago his landlord asked him to move out since the building was going to be used for commercial purposed. He started talking about using his “insurance policy” then. But a few of us got together and found him a great place to stay with a very loving Thai/American family whom he had known for a long time.
All the Walking Man’s possessions had been moved in to his friends’ house, and they were preparing for him to move right in. On Saturday morning, seemingly in a great mood after having coffee with his new house mates, he told all that he was going out for his daily walk. And off he went.
Our last conversation went something like this. “We’ve got this great place for you. You have friends and won’t be alone. And you are still in great shape, still walking all day.” He answered, “I’m not worried about my body. I can still climb the mountain. It’s my mind that isn’t working anymore.” he said tapping the side of his head with his forefinger. “I don’t want to end up a vegetable laying in some hospital bed.”, he said. “But look”, I said, “we have found a way to solve your problems.” He said that he would try it out at the new place. But then as an aside to me he whispered, “But really, as you know, I will be solving the problem myself sooner or later.”
My friend is now gone. We are saddened at his absence. But he went exactly the way he wanted to go. And his last view was looking down at Chiang Mai, his adopted home, from the place he loved most in the world.
Goodbye my friend. You’ve made us think about how our own journeys will end. May you have many long and wonderful walks wherever you are.