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Men Who Don't Fit In

There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain's crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don't know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they're always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and the new.
They say: "Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!"
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs,
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It's the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that's dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life's been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He's a rolling stone, and it's bred in the bone;
He's a man who won't fit in.

                - Robert Service 


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The Bar Car & Betel Nut


The train swayed south to the capital, the au naturale expanse of teak and palm groves and distant mountain ranges was how it had been intended to be during the times of Eden. The undisturbed and tranquil jungles of Burma looked as old as time itself. Rustled by wind and nourished by light, it slept and grew while man burned out long before like shooting stars.

But his enjoyment of the scenery was marred by a man in a bomber jacket on the other side of the aisle who gawked at him like a zoo animal. Thomas made a feeble effort to convince himself that he might not be a target, but it was entirely possible that this man could be spying on him because the authorities had found the hole in the church wall and had found his name and seat number in the train log, though he comforted himself that for a domestic agent of Burmese intelligence he didn't appear to have the minimum degree of subtlety. Amid the orchestra of clanging metal along the uneven tracks, boxcars shimmying and parrying with vigor, he wondered about the danger snowballing in Myskyina.  If he were a messenger then how was he worthy when he failed the third Kachin proverb? Can a flawed man be the right choice for such a noble and holy task?

"If you sit in a fish bowl, don't resent people for staring," he said to no one.

He recognized the town outside where the General had dropped off the fifty bags of coal. Across the river there was a fort complete with canons still intact along a wall made of grass. The fort had been dug into the earth and the guns are still perched on earthen walls covered with camouflage.

He bought some betel nut from a vender through the window and was relieved when the man in the bomber jacket left. More comfortable now, Thomas sank into his soft seat and drifted off to sleep. He dreamed he was in a vast labyrinth of vertical corridors. After fighting gravity for so long, he let go and fell freely, bouncing off walls as he descended deeper and deeper into a bottomless void, believing he was falling to his death. But he suddenly believed he would land safely. It wasn't knowledge but faith. So he conquered his ingrained fear of heights and enjoyed the free fall down an intricate complex of corridors letting the welling-up in his belly thrill rather than frighten. The fall went on until he was just about to land safely when he was awoken when a drunken man bumped his arm walking down the aisle with his friend.

They were loud and drunk. Sloppiness in the dragging of their flip-flops but it didn't rile him because he figured there must be a bar car on the express train. Invigorated and aware of a surreptitious return to his cavalier ways, he made sure his bag was secure, took his backpack with the stone and walked down the aisle in the direction where the two drunkards had come from. Passing a man between cars smoking who looked familiar, he swayed to the rhythm down four cars to an old pair of wooden salon doors.

The rocking of the train didn't appear to affect the men sitting with beers talking at tables as the countryside rolled past them. Sitting at one of the two-person tables in the corner by the window, the barman came by to take his order.

"Mandalay beer in the bottle." He returned with a big bottle of Myanmar Lager, placed it on the table and opened it but Thomas stopped him before he poured it into a glass. It was his way of trying to keep at bay the Burmese killers such as cholera, jungle rot, dysentery and brush typhus, the last being a spicy indigenous number. Looking around at the faces staring at him, he raised his bottle and nodded, adhering to the unwritten code of mead hall etiquette. He drank deeply as the half-dozen metal fans roared overhead.

The bar car was the epicenter of the train, and an experience apart from the crowded aisles of steerage and the soft seats in first class. Rustic and weathered, simple yet functional, the bar car played host to men of appetite. A meal, a beer and a smoke with a package of betel nut was the opening bid. It was the place for those who felt at home with other breadwinners of their ilk, and where one could endure the ache of the hammering steel wheels in peace together rather than alone. Escaping the concerns of the trip, he very quickly experienced the brotherhood with the other drinkers as they rambled south to the Indian Ocean.

Looking out the window at the land of a thousand pagodas and putting on his jacket, he smiled at the man at the next table. There was no reaction so he stood up to offer him and his friend a betel nut. He accepted and gestured for him to sit down at his four-man table in the middle of the car. His friend declined the betel nut but accepted the cigarette he offered. The one who took the betel nut leaned closer to him.

"Where you from?" All it took was one guy with a bit of broken English to translate until there were a half-dozen guys sitting at the table. Such little exposure these isolated Burmese had to foreigners that he felt he was speaking on behalf of an entire continent to clarify and destroy the government-created paranoid myths of evil foreigners who were obsessed with cheating others and robbing the Burmese people blind. Soon Thomas was passing out betel nut like candy, and smokes like chocolate eggs on Easter Sunday. Even the most skeptical of the bunch found reason for a full-bodied guffaw at one of his exaggerating antics. No doubt the fair drooping moustache had something to do with it and the burgundy beret bespoke a certain cool acceptability in the army culture of Burma. Despite the choppy language going back and forth, it was a chance for them all to share the pains of injustice and melt away unfounded fears. Just the proximity and acceptance helped heal festering resentments and undecided opinions that ushered in a renewed faith in themselves to stick to what they had always thought but had been told not to believe. Sitting together was a revelation for all, sitting at the worn-out linoleum tables under the noisy fans and chewing betel nut between the tobacco-stained green walls.

    Soon attendants began to retire from the day's service and took a seat at the table. Some with tattoos and with looks of doubt and caution were soon taking the cigarettes out of his hands and wrapped narcotics from his endless baggie. They laughed at the way he drank, the way he used his hands and arms when he he communicated, and the way he spat out betel juice. They even laughed at the red-stained teeth every time Thomas smiled. But it was okay; the Burmese had given him what he had come for. These descendents of Manessah had enabled him to become the twin messenger to bring a holy relic back home to North America that might have the power to heal, not just the Métis, but of all four races of mankind. That thought in itself filled his own scarred heart with healing medicine.

When the train slowed because workers were fixing the track, the guy across from Thomas threw out some cigarettes at the workers. The workers waved back and yelled thank you as they picked up the freebies and lit them. He joined in and threw clusters of cigarettes through the window except his throws were harder than theirs. This generated laughter, soon the cigarettes were whipped outside like darts.

There was one guy nursing a thin moustache who sat apart in the corner giving Thomas a rude look, looking like he didn't want to join the fun. He recalled an old Chinese proverb: rudeness is the weak man's imitation of trying to be a strong man, so he thought he could help him with some good-hearted posturing. He bought two Mandalay beers and went to his corner leaving the others to continue laughing at his ways and celebrating their new insights. When he offered him betel nut, he declined but Thomas noticed that he had the betel-red teeth so he insisted. He looked tired so I left the baggie in front of him and looked out the window to give him some space. That was when he reached out and took one, and that was when he gave him the Myanmar Lager. They had a toast with Thomas saying a few mispronounced Burmese words. He took a nut for himself and smiled, purposely showing him his blood-red teeth. That was enough to bring a smile across his face. After a few more quick Chinese toasts of Gam Bai, he loosened up nicely.

He put his finger to his upper lip and then points at Thomas's moustache and nodded. It looked like he simply didn't have the raw material to establish any substantial presence on his upper lip, so Thomas nodded back and began to twirl his droopy moustache at the sides, which really gave him spark. Using beer as moustache wax, he made the handlebars stick out. It was this that brought him into the fold and soon he was at the main table with everybody.

Thomas wondered when the last time was this guy had swigged a cold beer to seep away the aches and pains of dead-end thoughts after a long work shift.

When the sun downshifted from orange to red, the entire populace of the bar car sat at the table listening to a foreigner with betel-stained teeth speak choppy Burmese, which was enough for some youngsters to consume at a more rapid rate. It wasn't what was said that they will remember, but how they felt when it was said.

And it was his unconditional acceptance of them as Burmese that they will remember long after the evening is over.

It took stamina to indulge with gusto, so like all good things Thomas knew it would come to an end when the attendants, who slept in the bar car at night after it closed, began to lie down across the seats and make their beds for the night. He stood up when there was still a robust level of enthusiasm, gave away his last cigarettes and betel nuts except for one of each, and then said goodbye with handshakes and high fives. Four hours in the bar car was enough to get his mind off the pressures of the trip and the stress of getting the sacred relic out of the Burma.        

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