The Jim Thompson Mystery

I Remember Jim Thompson

Robert J. Rochlen

On Sunday March 6, 1967, a mixed group of Americans and Thais set out from Bangkok in Land Rovers and ordinary street vehicles for a remote destination north of the capital. The mission's stated objective was to photograph cave ceilings to be used for Jim Thompson's Thai silk prints. It was a motley crew to say the least. I, my sister, my mother, dad, who was the photographer assigned to do the job, Jim Thompson, Lisa Lyons, a Thai art expert, and a couple of Thai museum officials. My brother Roger, being academically inclined, chose to stay home. Jim had requested my dad take care of the photography. Though his current job description at the time did not include the designation of 'professional photographer,' he had previously taken photographs for Life Magazine, and was asked to aid on this trip because of his close friendship with Jim and Lisa, and because of his prior workings with Bangkok's National Museum.

My dad first met Jim Thompson in September of 1955. They had been introduced the very same month of his new diplomatic posting in Bangkok by Bob Lasher, an American working at USIS. At that time, Jim still lived in his house near the Dusit Thani Hotel. Over the next following month and two years, they became close friends and both my parents were over at his house frequently for dinner. After a year of intensive Thai language training, my parents were back in Bangkok for another three years from December, 1958 to December, 1961, as they continued their friendship with Jim. And they went on trips together, including one up the River Kwai. That too was in search of caves.

In August of 1965 Dad was posted to Saigon, and he would come to Bangkok every three of four months to visit the family, and it was during one of these sojourns that the cave expedition was consummated. I was oblivious to much of what was happening at the time, and I don't even know if the cave pictures were taken, though I feel with some degree of certainty that any such ceiling pictures never ended up on Jim's Thai silk prints. But I do have pictures from the trip, and certain memories of that day.

I remember that the street vehicles had to be left at a point away from the cave or caves, and that that was the purpose of the Land Rovers; to access unsuitable terrain. I remember climbing on rocks, a hot day, dirt, and dust, but the caves, if they existed, remain a mystery to me. I remember Jim saying he wanted to walk back ahead of the Land Rover, and we told him we'd pick him up on the way back to our starting out point. And as we rode back, we kept looking for Jim, and it was a long time, and many miles before we caught up with him. We found him, tired, exhausted, dehydrated, and sapped of energy.

Little could we have imagined that this was an ominous portent of events that was soon to unfold. On March 27, 1967, three weeks after our Sunday excursion north of Bangkok, Jim Thompson once again set a lonely sail into the wilderness. Was this a man coming to terms with his previous life as an O.S.S. officer? Was he a tired man on a rendezvous with his Maker? Was this world no longer his home? I don't know what happened on that day, but I can't help but think of a hot afternoon three weeks before as a man set off on trial run of what was to become his rendezvous with destiny.

Robert J. Rochlen

In March 1967 I was only 10 and slightly out of it. Jim was very thirsty and drank a lot of soda. I do remember my dad telling me that Jim never drank a lot of soda. That night Lisa Lyons and my parents had dinner at his house. My dad died in March of 1999, and I don't believe my mom rembers what was discussed at the dinner. I don't know if Lisa Lyons is still alive, and if she is, where.

Just a few more notes. Just got out of the hospital. I say this because there was a verb agreement issue in the last paragraph of the first piece I submitted. ("Was soon to unfold" should have been "were soon to unfold.") But I can always blame it on the brain tumor that they took out, and since I just came home Sunday I can blame the spelling error of "rembers" on that event as well.

It seems that those last few weeks were filled with things that were not typical of Jim's actions. The barbar shop episode. His walking on ahead of the group on my trip 3 weeks earlier. And others. I think these are suggestive of something weighing on Jim's mind. Exactly what we will probably never know.

Robert J. Rochlen

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Posted on 9-Aug-2006

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