As I drove in Vermont back in ’86 I thought a good deal about death. Some of it death in that family I had been probing and exposing even though I hardly saw any of them by this time – and I also thought about death way beyond the family, far more dramatic than in the family.
When I was living in Singapore at the end of the sixties, Max Vanzi, whom I had already known in Delhi and Hong Kong, was the UPI bureau chief there and one day he called and said he had a really easy story to do up in Kuala Lumpur and I should come along. It was an election in Malaysia, which was generally a very routine affair. The story was such an easy one that he had it written in advance. So we did K.L. night life.
But then later in the night there were shouts and the honking of horns. Open cars packed with cheering Chinese celebrating the election in which they had won almost as many seats as their numbers would have given them if the fix had not been put in by the British who left Malaysia with a constitution that gave a disproportionate share of seats in Parliament to the Malays who were so loved by the British who had apparently thought these least likely of English subjects could be turned into little brown Englishmen if somehow the more vigorous and numerous Chinese and Indians could be gotten out of the way.
Well, the Malays still had their edge. We went back down to Singapore the next morning in something of a post boozing fog, but when we got there we received word that a large group of Chinese had just started a parade through the center of K.L. singing "The East is Red," and the slaughter had begun. A real slaughter since, thanks to how the British set things up before they left, the Malays had all the guns.
Fourteen years later Max and I were in close touch doing a book about the Philippines under the awful dictator Ferdinand Marcos, a favorite of the Reagan government. It was a time of gruesome killings throughout those islands. We moved about Manila, sometimes in public and sometimes with underground opposition figures. And shortly after we got back, Max went on the plane from San Francisco with Marcos’s most formidable exile opponent, Benigno Aquino, when Aquino attempted to return. Max saw him dragged off by Marcos men at the Manila airport, where he was shot in the back of the head. Three months earlier I had spent an around-the-clock, three-day session talking with Aquino, who was one of those people who make everyone feel good when they enter a room. Our meeting was at a place he used when privacy was important, big old rustic lake house he had acquired in central Massachusetts just after his 8 years as a political prisoner of the Marcos martial law regime. And a pretty young girl just happened to appear at the lake.
That was a real death. I thought of it in this time in Vermont. Bodies around K.L. The stench from the overcrowded morgue. Thousand of unarmed Chinese shot in the streets. And in Manila the national police, the Constabulary, staging the deaths of government opponents. But it did not seem to me now that these family investigations were anything less important. That death is death, and the family deaths were closer than the political deaths, though I had avoided till now family matters in favor of what I considered crucial geopolitical affairs.