...on the Road to Mandalay.

Tin Htun
While exploring Myanmar, Tin Htun, our guide in Yangon, and I were talking about Rudyard Kipling's poem, On the Way to Mandalay. Kipling was at Mawlamyine, which was near the terminus of Thai-Burma Railway, which is better known as the Death Railway, used by the Japanese during WWII. Several years ago, I had been to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, which was its beginning of the railway. Therefore, both Kipling's poem and the railroad drew me to visit Mawlamyine.

There we were sitting late in the day discussing Kipling and Death Railway. Tin started to talk about Kipling at a very high level of knowledge. It turns out that he had studied a great deal of English literature while attending university in Myanmar. We got into a discussion about whether Kipling wrote the poem, On the Way to Mandalay, at the Great Pagoda.

The Great Pagoda at Mawlamyin

The Great Pagoda at Mawlamyin

There is a great debate among some literary scholars about where he wrote the poem. Aesthetically and artistically, I want to assume that he wrote it while sitting at the pagoda as some legends claim. When I read the poem, my mind sees him sitting there in 1890 composing...

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

I do not recall whether it mattered to Tin whether Kipling wrote the poem at the Great Pagoda or not. He was more interested in the fact that Kipling did not know much about Burmese geography. Kipling thought that he could go up the Thanlwin River from Mawlamyine to Mandalay. It had to be the Irrawaddy River if he was on his road to Mandalay. I mentioned to Tin in passing what Picasso said about art being "a lie that tells the truth."

Our discussion then morphed into my talking about Mrs. Davis, my homeroom and English teacher at Mt. Lebanon High School over a half century ago. Back then in the mid-20th century, we had to memorize several hundred lines of poetry each year while attending high school. I hated that assignment. Each week, students would come early before school started or after school let out to recite whatever lines we picked that week. Believe me; it was pure drudgery.

Even though I hated it that time, I am delighted that we had to do it. In the past half century, I can still remember many lines learned many years ago. I would pick poems or lines from short stories from the textbook.

In old days there were angels who came and took men by the hand and led them away from the city of destruction. We see no white-winged angels now. But yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, which leads them forth gently towards a calm and bright land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be a little child's.

However, we could use other sources, which I did. One of them was from my baby book. Will Allen Dromgoole wrote The Bridge Builder, which was used in my baby book that my mother got for me when I was born in 1943. Even at 71, I can still quote most of it.

An old man going a lone highway,
Came at the evening, cold and gray,
To a chasm, vast, and deep and wide,
Through which was flowing a sullen tide.

The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned, when safe on the other side,
And built a bridge to span the tide.

"Old man," said a fellow pilgrim, near,
"You are wasting strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day;
You never again will pass this way;
You've crossed the chasm, deep and wide-
Why build you this bridge at the evening tide?"

The builder lifted his old gray head:
"Good friend, in the path I have come," he said,
"There followeth after me today,
A youth, whose feet must pass this way.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."

I loved that poem as a small child and memorized it for Mrs. Davis in my senior year in high school. I told Tin about how we think that we know something and years later realize that we missed much of the impact of the message. I got the message of helping others when I was a youngster, but in the last couple of years, the impact of that the poem's message has truly affected me emotionally.

I shared with Tin my understanding of that poem far more intensely than I did for almost my entire life. I told him about Jack and Owen and their meaning to me in light of that poem.

Al with Jack and Owen

Tin questioned me about the issue of bridge building, because it seemed to have affected me greatly. I told him about dancing with death a couple of times a half dozen years ago and knowing that I am not immortal. Again, we all know that at a cognitive level, but we do not understand it at an emotional or gut level until the time that we are moving more closely to the end of our life. Unless you have danced with death, you cannot appreciate that truth. I did not understand that even a decade ago.

Tin still pushed me further to explain my closeness to that poem. He asked about other bridges that I have built for others excluding Jack and Owen. I have and will continue to help my adult children and older granddaughter. Nonetheless, building bridges goes even beyond my biological family. I try to build bridges for my college students. I got through school and do not want them to slip and fall needlessly due to some unforeseen problem facing them.

Then I started to think about where else I have attempted to build a bridge. I talked about another guide that we had at Inle Lake miles north of Yangon. Her name was Moh Moh; she too was excellent. She took us to a preschool where two of her children attended. Then we went to her home where her oldest daughter, Ti Ti, was. Ti Ti was 9-years old and home from school due to a holiday.

Ti Ti

Ti Ti was fluent in English and wanted to talk with us. I asked her whether she knew how to play Tic Tac Toe. Since she did not, I taught her, and we played it for a couple minutes. Ti Ti then wanted to play her game, which is a simplified version of Scrabble. She got a piece of paper and wrote down a word, and I added a word to her word and so on. On the margin of the paper, she kept score. After an hour of playing her game, she added up the score, and she beat me. She was delighted. She left that hour feeling good about herself. She could beat someone who was even older than her grandfather.

I told Ti Ti before we left her home that we will write regularly to each other. I emailed her the picture that I took of her. She responded that she will always remember me.

What will she remember? I do not know, but I hope that she will remember that some person from another country halfway around the world saw value in her as a person. Ti Ti was smart, loved to laugh, and was fun to be around. I assure you that I will remember her.

Ti Ti had a bridge built for her. However, I told Tin that while he and I were together for over and he was our guide in his area of Myanmar that he watched what pictures I took. It interested me to have a local observe what some foreigner wanted to photograph of that person's country.

Sure, I took photos of pagodas, statues of Buddhas, and markets. However, a large number of photos were taken of kids at various ages. I would take their picture and then show it to them. They would laugh and smile. Nevertheless, we will never see each other again. What did that finite moment of 15-seconds do for that child in a positive way? It did not cure the problems of the world or even address any of theirs, but it did tell that child that someone was interested in them. Some stranger saw value in them and wanted a picture of them to remember.

That may seem as something very unimportant at first glance. However, the truth that some stranger saw them as valuable is critically important. I hope that message will be stored and used as that child begins his or her journey in life. All kids will be exposed to far less positive reflections of them from family, friends, and/or society. However, stored back there in their little minds is the feeling that some person saw worth and importance in them. I did not build vast spans of a bridge for them. Nonetheless, I hope that they will all remember that they are valuable people in this world.

Those photos are very small bridges. I would rather build small bridges or have small bridges built for me than not to care to have bridges built.

This chasm, that has been naught to me,
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be.
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him."

We should all be bridge builders even though we might never see the child for whom we are building ever again. They will remember in the deep recesses of their minds that they are important...

This is Tin Htun's email address: and his website .

Burma flag

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Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death

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