Joyce Powers, a former cheerleader at Rutgers University, parked her car in front of the shoe store in the old fort part of that small town deep in the Southeast Asia countryside, got out and went around to the passenger door where she took her baby son who was being held by the maid.
It was 1980.
As the maid was getting out, Joyce bounced her child in the air, until the boy started to grin.
The maid passed them and headed across the sidewalk for the door to the shoe store.
The American woman, still looking at her son, started making cooing noises and nodding her head from side to side as she followed through the sidewalk crowd.
Suddenly… a dark swarthy Asian man grabbed her and the child, slinging them around....
Our home deep in the Southeast Asia countryside, a town where Joyce Powers once lived
... maybe he was going for her purse, maybe he was going for some of the jewelry she was wearing, and maybe he was trying to snatch the child. Whatever, Joyce – surprised – yelled, kept her feet and fought back.
They struggled, the man had his arms around the small woman, tossing her one way and then another. She was resisting as much as she was holding on to her son.
The people on the street were stunned. It wasn’t clear exactly what was going on. It all happened so quickly.
Within seconds the man dragged Joyce to the driver side of her car, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t get in, not with the way she was holding her son, so the man jerked her out into the middle of the street, stopping a small truck that was happening by. He had pulled a gun by this time and he waved it in front of the woman and then towards the crowd.
He opened the passenger door to the truck and threw the woman with her child inside, next to the driver. Brandishing the gun out the window to keep people at bay, he yelled at the driver to drive.
Two policemen on motor bikes arrived on the scene. The thug, leaning out the window, fired at them, hitting one in the leg.
All around people were screaming now and running for cover.
The maid made eye contact with Joyce briefly inside the truck. She was scared, but not in panic, and then she was gone, the truck weaving madly through traffic.
As more police arrived and took off in pursuit, the maid started running to the US Drug Enforcement Agency office, down the street from where the woman and her child had been abducted. Joyce Powers was the wife of the US DEA chief, Mike Powers, and the maid was sure that he would want her to tell him what had happened.
Mike was behind his desk when the maid burst in. He spoke the local language and after a minute to hear the maid out, he ran from the office, outside, where he could hear police sirens. He ran towards the sound.
The local police had cut off the escape route for the truck and the thug directed the driver down side streets in an attempt to get away, ending up in a dead end alley.
The truck turned around, but the police had the alleyway blocked. More and more police arrived with guns drawn.
In the cab of the truck sat the driver, next was Joyce still holding her son, and then the thug, with his revolver pointed at the woman’s head, the trigger cocked.
Mike Powers arrived, out of breath, took in the situation, and then moved to the front of the police ranks.
Speaking in the local dialect and using his hands he told everyone, “Jai Ten Ten, Jai Ten Ten (Calm down. Calm down).”
He turned and looked at the truck – no more than 40 feet down the alley. He looked at his wife who smiled, faintly. “Jai Ten Ten,” he said as calmly as he could for the sake of the thug, who was shaking, sweating, sitting close to his wife and his child.
As Mike turned back to the police, the driver of the truck opened his door and jumped out and rolled back behind the truck bed.
The thug yelled, but the driver was out of sight. The thief put his gun to Joyce’s temple again and yelled for the police to back up. Back up or the woman dies, he said.
The DEA chief, dropped to one knee and he asked the thief not to kill his wife. It wasn’t necessary, he said. “Please let us all calm down. Please.”
And the thief yelled for the police to leave. Then he yelled out and asked to speak with his “imam,” a holy man. The DEA chief asked if he could come down and change places with his wife and child. He would be the hostage. No problems.
And the thief yelled, “No.” And the DEA chief asked if he could come down to the truck and get the child, who was crying. “Please,” he said, “let me get the child.”
And the little boy started to cry louder, screaming almost, the thief said come down and get the kid.
The DEA chief left his pistol with one of the police officers and showing his hands, he walked down to the driver side of the truck.
The window was open and he bent down and looked in at his wife who tried to show a strong face, but tears were running down her check. Beside her, the thug’s face was covered with sweat and trash and as he yelled to get the police to move back, he was spitting. He had a crazed, tortured expression on his face, his eyes were wide.
Mike Powers reached his hands in as slowly as he could and he took the little boy from his wife’s hands and he cradled him to his chest.
The thief sat watching every move, his pistol pressed to Joyce’s temple.
Mike turned and walked away. As he reached the police line with his child, the thief, now talking to himself, changed the gun from one hand to the other and in getting the slack out of the trigger, the gun went off, blowing off the top of Joyce’s head.
Almost immediately the police opened fire, killing the thug instantly.
The DEA chief, squeezing his screaming son, watched in horror.
I had heard about the 1980 incident as I was processing out to that same town on a counter-narcotics assignment. But it seemed to be more a sad DEA matter, different from what might apply to me and Brenda. It was not clear what motivated the thug; reports at CIA headquarters indicated it could have been a street crime gone horribly wrong.
However once we arrived in-country, we realized how relevant the incident was to our situation. I was working counter-narcotics, in a similar way to what the DEA chief had been doing. Brenda had all intentions of moving freely on the local economy and we did have two children, Mim, 14 years old and Joseph, 13.
In fact everyone in the small group of westerners working in this area of southeast asia were conspicuous. Brenda especially stood out because she was a tall beauty who stood a full head above the downtown crowd. It was as if we lived in fish bowl.
It was ultimately her decision, once we got upcountry whether she stayed with the kids or relocated with them either back home or to a safer area nearby. She decided to stay. And one reason was the people she met in the local expat community. There were four or five Australian families, a few Brits, a Chinese gal who had gone to school in Australia, some former Rhodesian farmers supervising the bulk tobacco industry and the DEA corps. There was Nid, a very cultured local lady, married to a British professor at the local university and Noi, a wheeling dealing business lady, married to a roustabout on an oil platform in the South China sea. Didn’t see him much, but their daughter became our daughter’s best friend.
And then there was Ampai, who at first lived with a Rhodesian and then with a Brit. Both alpha animals. An enormously handsome Asian woman, Ampai gravitated to the strongest and the most powerful.
These expats and the local that made up this tight nit group told Brenda, almost every one, that staying alive here, totally emerged in the local culture, was doable. We’d all stick together and it’d be OK. We’d be safe. And we’d have a pretty good time of it too.
Also – and this is a little off the point – but another deciding point was Boon Sai. We stayed at the Royal Orchid hotel when we first arrived until Brenda found a great house on the Ping River almost across from the US consulate. And she asked Nid, and Noi and Ampai and others for recommendations on good people to hire to work in the house. The name Boon Sai kept coming up. Almost everyone said she was the best around, she could hammer out the local fare like no one else but she also cook up a classy French or American meal in a pair of second. There was only one problem. She didn’t like most people. Hadn’t worked for six months or so, not taking any jobs offered. Pretty damn picky.
Brenda asked Noi to invite her to the hotel lobby for an interview and when they showed up and started talking, Brenda realized she was the one being interviewed. But it was OK. Made even more OK by the fact our two children, who are ethnic Thai and half-Thai, showed up and Boon Sai liked them. Both.
She was there when we moved into the house and stayed with us, really as a member of the family for two years. After supper at night, she would usually go into Mim’s room and brush her hair as Mim (left with Bon Sai) studied her homework from the local missionary school… Mim was one of two people in her class.
We partied with our expat group either Friday or Saturday night. Venue changed. People didn’t so much. We had crazy hat parties, we had shirt parties (in which that was all you were allowed to wear), we had a change of gender parties in which a lot of ugly, ugly, ugly people showed up. But not Ampai. She was a pretty damn handsome looking dude.
Change of gender party
nce after a pretty trying week, Brenda and I decided to decline the standing invite to the expat party and we went to bed fairly early. About 10 o’clock that night the whole group came into our house and jumped up and down on our beds until we got up and joined them.
Now understand that Ampai was not a prime mover in our circle, but she was always there, sometimes looking over the crowd like a predator. It was as if it wasn’t that every party was an incident, it was an opportunity. A hunt. Or so her look said.
My wife has an extra ordinary sense when it comes to other women. If she thinks a woman poses any type of threat to her man, and that would be me, then that’s it. No smiles, no re-considerations. Never once in our 45 year marriage has she ever changed her mind on someone she thought was after my sorry ass.
But she had no problems with Ampai. Don’t know why. Like I said, she was a world class looking gal with sultry, come hither eyes.
Ampai ran a beauty shop in old part of town. I was in getting a haircut one day, getting ready for my surprise 40th birthday party that Brenda had unsuccessfully tried to keep secret from me. I’ve had gray hair most of my adult life and I was telling Ampai that here I’m turning 40 and I didn’t want to be gray. So she asked what color hair I wanted – showing a full shelf of hair dye. I went with brunette and when she finished I looked good. Well OK, not good. I looked younger.
Went outside in the sun and my hair turned orange. I think Ampai put on too much dye. So I soon cut my hair back pretty short to lessen the Orange fruit effect, and in time thankfully that beautiful gray hair began to dominate. But then Brenda and the kids went back to the states for her sister’s wedding and the group had a Halloween party, so I had some green golf pants, had Boon Sai dye a tee-shirt green and put green food coloring in my hair and went as the Jolly Green Giant… thinking food coloring won’t be anything like Ampai’s brown-orange. No! It dyed my skin on the top of my head green.
Steve A. and I had to go down to station to brief some visiting congressmen like a week later. I can’t re-dye my hair – it’s my skull skin that’s green. Can’t wear a hat into the US Embassy. Can’t suddenly turn Jewish. So I went to the shower and I scrubbed and scrubbed until my head hurt. And it was still green. At the briefing, some of the Senator aides kept staring at my green head during the briefing. – most of the senators were nodding from jet lag. I was on first. Steve when he came up next, apologized for my green head – without giving any reason why – and everyone turned and looked at me… like, what type of people do we have out here running things?
Anyway I went from a gray head, to a brunette, to an orange head, to a skin head, to a skin head with a slight gray fuzz to a green head, all in about 4 weeks. I think the Senators maybe were right to question the sanity of the people working counter-narcotics.
I was replaced by a guy named Dave but known mostly as the “Bear.” A big, forceful, straight forward CIA case officer, he had spent thousands of days living dangerously. He wasn’t married but he moved into our house when we left. Boon Sai stayed on. Although he wasn’t a party guy, he went to a few of our expat parties.
And Ampai saw him.
And she made her move.
And they became an item.
And then one day Dave said he and Ampai were goin’ to get married.
And his boss told him that Ampai was an opportunist.
And Dave told him to go fuck himself, that he’d marry who he wanted.
And they got married and eventually moved into a nice home on the edge of this small town… and by all acc’ts from Nid and Noi and others who we’ve stayed in contact with, they had a solid loving marriage. Ampai was a caring, attentive wife.
All that time at the parties she was looking around… when we were there… she was looking for Dave. She just didn’t know it yet.