Sneaking into school after dark for scraps led a desperate boy of seven to learn vital skills.
By Father Joe Maier
Published in the Bangkok Post, Sunday Spectrum, July 10, 2016
He's the slum kid who once boasted, "I can write my own name." And he learned how to spell. That was a while ago, when he was six. He's 20 now, and his aptitude and fine penmanship served him well during the 18 months he served in juvenile prison. He'd pen letters for prisoners and guards -- a skill and a favour earning him "an edge" in a place where edges save you.
His nickname, Lion Tail Ben, was an edge, also. Sounds totally wild. The fact he was born, bred and reared as a slaughterhouse Klong Toey kid, that didn't hurt either. On certain streets, and in prison, "slaughterhouse" is a badge of honour. It denotes a history that commands a slum-recognisable kind of immediate respect.
The real "baddies" behind bars might prance, posture, howl and roar; anything to keep themselves safe, but slaughterhouse kids have no need to grandstand. They are automatically "hands off". In mafia-speak you might say they are "made men".
Lion Tail Ben isn't the first "slammer" kid from the slaughterhouse, far from it. By the law of averages, this time tomorrow or the day after, he won't be the last. So, for us, it's a good thing that boys from the slaughterhouse are pretty much left alone in the slammer -- as long as they reasonably keep prison rules.
Young Ben's dad, who died years ago of a heart attack, was an emergency replacement dancer who lit the firecrackers in a small troupe of unofficial, non-registered ragtag Lion Dancers. These are the guys you ask to visit your house or pig holding pens to usher in good fortune and to chase away ghosts loitering there. The Klong Toey version is a rather formal ceremonial shake, rattle and roll.
In typical Chinese/Thai Klong Toey style, the troupe prayed loudly, with firecrackers to accompany the drums used to chase away the nasties. But more importantly, the Lion Dance wakes up the good spirits, the ones who might've dozed off. Sometimes they need to be reminded of their jobs: to bring into the home prosperity, good fortune and, most of all, good business. So troupes, like the Lion Dancers, chant the common blessing: "Good fortune -- good fortune. May you be wealthy. May you be wealthy (heng-heng -- ruey-ruey)."
During the festivals, the Tao Gae, which rents a pig holding pen, would often invite the Lion Dancers to its stove -- the one with the cement top holding the big steel bowl to boil the water in each pen. During festivals they present pig's heads, flowers, red candles, joss sticks, red soda pop, a glass of whiskey and local hand-rolled cigarettes.
This is also where they butcher about 35 pigs nightly in each holding pen. Yes, an open stove (nowadays gas powered, which is more modern than a wood-fuelled fire: a process requiring lots of boiled water).
As a little boy, Lion Tail Ben lived in the shack above the pigpens. Watching and often helping beat the drums when the normal drummer had to avoid the police for other "questionable activities".
Years later, he bragged about this in prison. He was genuinely proud to be the son of such a Heng-heng Ruey-ruey Slaughterhouse Dancer/Firecracker Lighter Shaman.
It's always been that way. Prison. Ben comes from a long family line of folks familiar with Thai prisons.
So how did he get involved with the lion's dance to bring freedom and prosperity?
By accident and on occasion, they needed a firecracker lighter/dancer and the Tao Gae called on his dad (who was not afraid of lighting firecrackers). Now, you must realise that slum-style slaughterhouse lion dance is fine, but it's still considered "low key" or unofficial. Our Klong Toey folks do their best -- nothing's faked. The belief is there and it's real. Some people do not believe in such ceremonies, but no one I know would scoff at religious events. Wouldn't dare.
Boyhood wishes of the Lion Dance don't always work out, but young Ben, even in primary school, did develop his talent for penmanship, spelling and beautiful Thai script.
A LION AMONG PIGS
That was the slaughterhouse part of Lion Tail Ben's life. We found him as a boy, awake most of the night helping wash pig guts and running errands for the men. Anything for a bit of money. At about three in the morning, when all was finished and the men had eaten and enjoyed a customary shot or two of whiskey, Lion Tail Ben would quietly go off to sleep with the pigs in the holding pen below his shack.
At age seven, he moved in with the pigs, mostly because he was all alone. Dad would be off chasing nasty ghosts, with a couple shots of whiskey under his belt, and forget about his son. And mum? Well, she didn't personally do drugs because she'd already had a taste of prison, but, according to the neighbours, she slept a lot here and there and seldom in the same place.
Now, you good folks who know about pigs know that pigs are feral and not very nice. They eat whatever is available and their bites are septic. But for some reason, they ignored this little boy. Let him sleep among them. One neighbour, a fallen away Catholic, said that the religious medal of the blessed Virgin Mary was what protected young Ben. Another said he was protected by the ceremony of the lion dance. Someone else said Lion Tail Ben didn't bathe often; he smelled like one of the swine. That could also be true.
Ben was afraid of the police from a young age because he feared being sent off to live in a government "boarding house" for abandoned children. And even if he ran away -- and he would -- they'd find him and send him back. So, to seven-year-old Ben, the pigpen was the only acceptable option.
That is until he discovered he could sneak into our slaughterhouse kindergarten at three in the morning. The large wooden shack had a closed door and a broken lock. He didn't have to break in or even coerce our Klong Toey guard mutt. Dog and boy already knew each other, were fast friends. There was no barking or growling.
Inside the school, of course, there were notebooks, paper, pencils, pens. For fun, Ben began to write and draw. Usually, there was some food left over. On nights when there wasn't, he could usually find something the cook lady had left in the garbage. So there was usually something edible for him, so long he wasn't fussy.
And so the story goes. With a place to sleep, scrap food to eat, a mutt for a roommate, and school materials that were routinely resupplied, young Lion Tail Ben found his traction in the muck of Klong Toey. In the slums this is what passes for "living large".
Each night he would run whatever errands he could for the men, and then go sleep in the school. A light outside the shack helped him to see his letters and drawings, and the crippled teacher with the rheumatoid rheumatism, wise now to their late-night squatter, would leave scrap paper out for him. Each night, until he fell asleep, he practised penmanship and drawing (he favoured pictures of lions and lion dancers in costume).
Lion Tail Ben began to hang around the shack kindergarten. Instead of leaving at dawn, the crippled teacher convinced him to stay and study. Put him at the back to sleep in a corner until the school opened. He was a quick learner and by the end of one school year, he could read and write, good enough. By now his dad was in prison (for theft of freshly butchered pork) and a policeman who grew up with the father agreed to look after the boy.
That meant bringing Ben to our Mercy Centre home, where he finished primary school with honours.
FINDING HIS MOTHER
By then, he was inquisitive enough to begin asking questions about his mum. He wanted to get to know her, so we all helped track her down. We found her serving food and drinks in a truck stop on the other side of the mountains, northeast toward Laos.
He began to help his mum at work. He'd wish every customer "Heng-heng, ruey-ruey" and, in short time, he became a popular fixture. Only problem was he began drinking the leftovers in the customers' drinking glasses and half-empty beer bottles.
In quick order he lost his job, he began fighting and soon was in juvenile prison, sentenced to 18 months.
But what might break lesser folk only strengthened and straightened Lion Tail Ben.
He walked out of the prison one morning a free man. Went back to look for his mum. She had moved on. One woman working here thought she saw mum climb up into a truck cab one evening with the driver and drive away. The boy never saw her again.
LIFE AFTER PRISON
Ben, fresh out of prison, had just enough money for the bus fare to Klong Toey. He arrived back in the slaughterhouse hungry and humbled. There was no strut in his stride, no swagger.
Out of prison. No mum, no dad, his old home was a rented shack above a pig pen, now rented by someone else.
He went back to the slaughterhouse and to the shack slum kindergarten. The mutt dog was some years dead, the puppies of her puppies were there. Slum slaughterhouse dogs are funny that way: they remember someone who is good to them to the second third generation. Really.
The granddaughter of the mutt nuzzled up to him, looking for food. So he went in the school at 3am -- went to sleep -- waited for the crippled teacher -- now older.
She said, yes, she would be his mum, but he couldn't live in the school now, as he was too big, but he must come often and teach the slaughterhouse kids how to write with beautiful penmanship and spell properly. Also always bring "goodies" for the mutt and family.
He doesn't call himself "Lion Tail Ben" any more -- just Ben -- but he will still draw a lion head for you. He will also write letters in beautiful Thai script, if you dictate exactly what you want, always with correct spelling.