I first heard about Laos in 1965, when I was fifteen and a student at St. Louis University High School. Our school library held three autographed copies of the books of Doctor Tom Dooley, an alum of our high school and my Catholic neighborhood. His books had been best-sellers when published in the late fifties, and their strong portrayal of the evils of Indochinese communism may have gone a long way to prompting Kennedy, also a Catholic, to get us involved in the fight against Communism in Laos and Viet Nam.
Dooley had started clinics in Northern Laos, and on this trip I was determined to visit the first. So when we arrived in Luang Nam Tha, I stopped by the local hospital. After struggling to get all my vocabulary ducks in a row, I had mentally prepared a little speech I could give, telling them I had read about this place fifty years ago, and had always wanted to visit the hospital the famous Doctor Tom Dooley had established.
Turns out they had never heard of him. No longer an isolated hamlet in the forest, Luang Nam Tha was now a thriving backpacker destination for those launching treks into the nearby forests. The hospital was modern, and although the three doctors I spoke to could give me a few minutes of their precious time, the only information I could get was that a German doctor named Gunter might know more about the history of the hospital, but nobody knew where he could be found.
So my plans for a glorious story of one man’s journey across space and time had come to naught. Just like our plans for what they call here “The Second Indochinese War.”