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Fifty Years of My Life (1939 - 1990)
A Memoir by Jeff R. Noordermeer

Our Burmese Friends

Our New York life insurance agent friend invited us for a picnic in the foothills of West Virginia where he had bought a small summer cottage. Most of the people at the picnic were Burmese. There was one American family with six children and Lu Lu and I noticed that they were playing with Burmese children and also talking Burmese. It was funny seeing these blond-haired American children talking in Burmese. Since I was the only Caucasian on the picnic ground besides that American family, I walked over and introduced myself. When I found out that they had lived in Burma several years I called Lu Lu and told her that I wanted her to meet Baird and Pat Helfrich and their six children. Somehow all of them fell right away in love with Lu Lu. When they found out that Lu Lu was a Karen they became very close to her. During the time they lived in Burma a Karen lady had lived with them and taken care of all the children. The story that the kids told me was that this Karen lady was their second mother. They had to leave her behind when they left Burma. I could see on the kids faces when they talked about this Karen lady how sad they felt that the Burmese Government didn't allow her to come along to the U.S.A.

I asked Baird how he got involved with the Burmese society. This is what he told me: Just before World War II started he went to one of Chicago's Law schools and received his law degree. During World War II he became a major in the U.S. Army and joined the Merrill's Marauders who deeply penetrated into the Japanese operations. Baird always told me that he was fascinated by the Burmese people and the country. After the war was over Baird went back to practicing law again. He told me how he met his wife. He said as a young lawyer you have to get in with the top lawyers as quick as you can. His wife came from the King family which, in the Chicago area, was well known for the best lawyers around. His wife was a graduate of the very well known Smith girls college. It was one of the best in the country. During World War II Pat had joined the Navy. During her stay in the Pacific she decoded many of the Japanese naval operations. After the war she met her husband, Baird, through her father who had become very friendly with this young, energetic, handsome lawyer. Of course the father wanted Pat to marry Baird. As they got married the father gave them a slow boat trip to China as a wedding gift. After their honeymoon Baird and Pat settled around the Chicago area where Baird worked as a lawyer. Things were not going bad for them as in a few years he was able to invest his money by buying a small farm. Baird and Pat never worked on the farm; it was just bought for investment. Baird and Pat were too much involved in politics. His very good friends were Adlai Stevenson, former U.N. Ambassador, and congressman Paul Douglas from Illinois.

There were so many more influential politicians Baird was involved with that he himself became interested in running as a candidate. His biggest problems were finances, and that is one reason he moved to Burma. He saw great opportunities for himself to start a free enterprise system after Burma got its independence from the British. What he had hoped for was to make a lot of money real quick, and come back to the States again. Around 1955 Baird decided to move his family to Burma. As I was told, he sold his farm and closed his law business and took $50,000 cash to Burma. The first few years he lived in Rangoon he did very well. He went into a co-partnership with a few Burmese army officers who were in an export business. His closest friend in the business became Bo-Let-Ya. (The work Bo is used for respect, and recognizing his officer's status) Four of his children were born in the U.S. but went to Burmese Christian schools. His last three children were born in Burma. Baird's objective started to work very well. He had contacts with an Iranian freight company who had supplied him with a freight ship which he used to export logs and teakwood. Baird's business was doing very well and his family enjoyed their stay in the city of Rangoon. Then on March 2, 1962 Ne Win swept himself into power in a nearly bloodless coup. U Nu, the prime minister, and most of Ne Win opposition leaders were put in Jail. Ne Win's first move was to appoint a Revolutionary Council made up entirely of military personnel. The Council published its manifesto titled: "The Burmese Way to Socialism." Foreign businesses were nationalized, and the state took control of everything including the banks. The army was put in charge of commerce and industry. All of this put an end to Baird's dream of a free enterprise system in Burma. Instead of returning back to the U.S.A. he moved with his family to the Shan State. He settled in a small village and lived in the same primitive conditions as the natives lived, sharing in their daily agricultural duties and even taught them how to grow corn, which before Baird had arrived they were not doing.

Using the same facilities as the natives did, Baird and his family built their own bamboo house. They lived far away from civilization; it was a fun life for the younger children as they adapted to their new environment, but for the older ones without schooling it became a waiting game hoping General Ne Win's military government would soon fail. All of this Baird had hoped for. That's one of the reasons Baird had moved his family to the Shan States. But as the years went on with no change inside the Burmese government, Baird became the talk of the American Embassy society, how an American with his background could live under these primitive conditions. Pat and Baird had become alcoholics, and drank any kind of homemade drinks the village had to offer. Of course, under those conditions the children suffered a lot because they lived with their parents. Stories of their primitive living and their drinking habits got back to their family in Chicago, which was very embarrassing to them. With his drinking habits and his stubbornness, Baird would not bend to the American Embassy on moving back to the U.S. I talked with former American Ambassador Byroade who, at that time, was in Burma. He said he tried his utmost to get that family out of there, but how can you beat a smart lawyer like Baird. I always felt what kept Baird in Burma was his pride... he had failed, and he didn't want to face his family and friends in Chicago. After a little while there was no hope for Baird and his family to stay in Burma any longer, as things were not going to change as Baird had hoped for. All of his children needed proper schooling facilities, and that was not available under the conditions he lived in.

CONTINUED: The Opinions of our Vietnamese Friends
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© Copyright  - Antonio Zamora

- Foreword
- Old Rotterdam
- World War II
- After the War
- Coming to America
- Washington, D.C.
- Southeast Asia
- Philosophy of Life

- Book Index