A 2008 file photo of Thai kids playing table tennis on a homemade table under a highway bridge in Klong Toey slum in Bangkok. (Photo by AFP)
Why tell this story? Why make the effort to try and remember an 18-year-old street kid who drowned on the Bangkok side of the Chao Phyra River?
Even though dying and drowning were the last things from his mind, drown he did. Die he did. And it was kind of his own fault. What's that got to do with you or me?
Asleep, groggy, lying beside the river, a big wave washed up from a passing tugboat, which swept him into the water.
That shouldn't have been a problem because he was the best swimmer from his bunch of friends. He was the first to climb to the top of the bridge and dive the 20 meters into the river.
The problem on this day was that he cracked his skull hard on an abutment and didn't make it back to the surface.
If these street kids were for sale, they'd be cheaper than a soi dog with mange. That sounds unkind, but it's true. Mostly, they hang out under the old Bangkok Memorial Bridge on the Bangkok side of the river.
Lots of good folk would say his life was out of bounds.
He lived on the riverbank under the bridge and what good did he do for anybody? Did he ever do anything? Even for other street kids?
Depends on how you call it. Who makes a judgment call on this one? I guess the experts of the place are the pushcart ladies and the city bus drivers who park their busses there sometimes. Add to that list some of the retirees who live in the area, spending their days talking about the olden days. They see these street kids every day. They would know who is special and who isn't.
Then of course there are his peers. They'd judge him by street kid ethics and lingo.
By the way, his nickname was Jeep. He fancied wearing army fatigues and so the other street kids said that he looked like a guy who should drive a military Jeep.
In Jeep's 18 years on our planet, he hadn't quite finished what he had set out to do in life: get his older sister to take better care of her baby, and don't let anyone slip a bit of drugs, as a joke, into the baby's mouth. And she could be a real mum. They could be a family, like they never were. Maybe not really rent a place as that costs money but at least stay together on the street. And Jeep and his brother would protect their sister, so she didn't to talk to strangers and do embarrassing things.
Jeep's second goal was his little brother, to keep him out of jail, because in jail, they destroy lippy kids. His brother always acted like a wise guy looking for a fight.
And thirdly, to help his dad whenever he could. True, his father had abandoned the three of them, and their mum, but maybe deep down, dad was still a good guy.
And to become a monk, even for a short while. In that, he almost succeeded. Again, it depends on how you call it. He didn't actually become a monk. He died before he could but his 10 street boy mates became monks for him on his cremation day. "Na Sop" (before the body) as they say, to make merit for the dead. So, even though he didn't become a monk himself, when he drowned, his mates became monks for him, so to pray that his spirit didn't hang around but went to heaven. The kids said Jeep was always good at directions, so he would find his way to heaven.
Actually, they felt guilty. His death went down like this. Yes, he was washed in by a big wave and hit his head and didn't come up but before that, he played a joke on them.
He said: "Let's go swimming," and for some reason, his mates said, "Nahh, later." So he jumped in and then as a joke he hollered out: "Help me, I'm drowning."
They panicked, jumped in and pulled him out. Ho, ho, ho. His best friend had some drugs in his pocket, and they got all wet and ruined, miffing him big time.
Then about half an hour later, Jeep went to sleep next to the water in the place where he usually took a nap. And the wash from a tugboat passing by cut a big wave and knocked him into the water. No big deal. It had happened lots of times before.
But this time, he banged his head. He did cry once for help, but his mates said: "Ho, ho, ho to you. You don't fool us twice."
And five minutes later, he still hadn't come up. Yes, his friends saw him go down but they didn't see the heavy bruise on the side of his head where he had hit the abutment
When they realized something was wrong, they called our teacher at Mercy Center and the nearby Chinese Benevolent Society who rushed over with their divers. The current is not dangerous in that particular spot, and they had Jeep's body out in less than 30 minutes, but of course it was too late. Somebody phoned his dad, and he was there to see them pull his son's body out of the river.
Was Jeep drug drunk when he died? The street boys, who know of such things, say, no. The police came and the coroner verified he died of a head wound and drowning. No autopsy necessary.
They took the body to a nearby temple. The boys decided they wanted to become monks. The temple's abbot is a kind man and he allowed the ten of them to become monks for Na Sop.
They had to shave their heads, do no drugs and keep to the temple's rules. They were ordained 24 hours after Jeep died and stayed all that day and night. They slept in the temple and kept the fasting requirements. In the late afternoon of the next day was Jeep's cremation.
After sunset, they took off their robes and returned to their normal street clothes and ate a huge meal. They were not used to fasting.
The "Under the Bridge Community" held another ceremony the next morning. Everyone put in a bit of money and the monks came and blessed the area so to chase away any lurking bad spirits.
They also asked our teacher for religious medals of the blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus — just to be double safe.
What of Master Jeep?
School really wasn't his thing, but he did finish four years. He didn't graduate, but living under the Bangkok Bridge as a street boy, graduation wasn't really important. The reading and writing was what counted, and he could do that. Good enough to get along, read comics, count, play computer games.
He was just ordinary. Guess his only talent was trying to help out, whenever he could. Everybody liked him and he got along with everyone in his world of street kids. Not a big world, maybe 25, mostly boys, living under the Bangkok Bridge.
It's just so sad that he died at 18.
But as the other street boys said of Jeep, he wasn't a sad guy. He was usually happy and reasonably cool about drugs.
One more thing. A strange thing.
The afternoon before he died, our teacher was there — under the bridge in their normal meeting place. Jeep came, sat down and talked a long time about his whole history. Like he maybe knew about the next day. He talked about his mom and dad, and brother and sister. Like he wanted someone to know. Wanted his family's story to live on.
Also, he was not his normal ebullient bubbly self. Not sad but somber, so says the teacher. Jeep told her over and over how he loved her and she was his real mom, always there for him. Something he had never done.
What is happy about this story? Maybe Jeep knew. We all came. We prayed, made merit. Everyone loved him.
His life was a street kid success.
The next afternoon, the word went out that there was a free train ride to Hua Hin, some three hours away. So his street friends jumped on the train and spent some hours playing in the sea, celebrating Master Jeep's life. That night, they all slept on the beach. Next day it was back to Bangkok.
Father Joseph H. Maier, C.Ss.R., is an American Redemptorist priest who lives and works in the Klong Toey slums of Bangkok, Thailand. He co-founded the Human Development Foundation - Mercy Centre with Sister Maria Chantavarodom. The center is a shelter for street kids, an orphanage, a hospice, a home for mothers and children with HIV/AIDS, a large kindergarten and a community meeting place.