Interviewsand Articles

 

The Coconut Monk

by Peter Hagerty, Nov 3, 2008


 

 


Peace Fleece is a mom and pop wool company in a small town in Maine. With every order, there’s a humble eight and a half by eleven page that traces their colorful story—from serving in the Vietnam war to a meeting a Russian entrepreneur during the cold war days to tending to a sheep farm in their own backyard.
     When I placed an order, I got one of those print-outs too.  The story is deeply moving.  Nobel Laureate Bernard Lown calls it "a story that should be told for generations to come" -  but what is equally impressive is the sincerity with which it’s offered. This wasn't fancy paper, didn't have any photos, wasn't edited - it  might even have had a grammatical error or two - and it wasn't trying to sell the reader anything.  None of that.  It was just, quite simply, their story.
     After 23 years of business, that story has now been transcribed electronically (thanks to Kanchan Gokhale!). Written by Peter Hagerty, here’s the story of the Coconut Monk... Nipun Mehta
(first appeared in November, 2008 on the Servicespace blog)

 
      It was early evening and the monks began lighting the thousands of Christmas tree bulbs that covered their island monastery - "So the American bomber pilots can see us" one smiles as he shuffled by. The Mekong River, a dull brown soup of mud with an occasional stick, slowly flowed by on its way south. Viet Cong patrols set up their night time ambushes somewhere on the opposite shore. It was the summer of 1970 and the Vietnam War continued relentlessly.
      "What if the clouds come in and the pilots can't see the lights," I asked in French.
     "God sees through clouds," said the monk as he shinnied up a tall pole to replace a light bulb.
      An American journalist had asked me if I would like to visit an extraordinary Buddhist monastery on an island in the Mekong River, the home of the Dau Ur or the ‘Coconut Monk.'
     I needed a break from my work in Saigon and readily agreed. I’d come to Southeast Asia as a ex-Naval officer who had refused combat orders. Having spent much of the previous year fighting in my own defense, I was now free of the military and able to spend time helping other American soldiers, now in an army prison south of Saigon, prepare for their day in court. For hours I listened to what the war had done to the lives of these soldiers and could only imagine what it might do to their future.
      The B-52s began their bombing run after evening prayers. The bombs shattered the jungle and made their way out into the river, marching like a giant water monster toward the monastery's lighted towers. Then they hoped the island and made their way toward the western shore. I lay awake for hours on my straw mat listening to the monks chanting, the waves lapping, waiting for the pilots to return.
     Sometime after midnight I heard a small engine pushing a dugout canoe arrive at the island. Four men in black pajamas and flip-flops stacked their weapons in the boat and made their way up the path to the monastery. These men were the Viet Cong.
     "Bon soir," I said in my schoolboy French.
     "Bon soir," they replied. 
     As we talked, I came to realize that these were the communist soldiers I had been trained to kill, with bayonets, with rifles, with artillery. They had come to see the Coconut Monk, their spiritual adviser. They were young, maybe fourteen. Had they been also trained to kill me?
      "Do you know the fate of Jose Rodriguez?" one asked. He smelled of wood smoke and his teeth were blackened from the nuts he chewed.
     “Who was Rodriguez?” I asked myself, a Cuban political prisoner rotting in some Miami jail, perhaps a leader of a California farm workers union? I was embarrassed and quickly growing afraid.
      "Je regrette…I don't know Jose Rodriguez?" I replied. "Who is this man?"
      "He is due to pitch for the Yankees tonight in the third game of the World Series, and your Armed Forces Radio says his arm is hurting."
      They were gone by the first light of the morning. We’d spent the night talking about baseball and girl friends and sharing photos, but didn’t mention the war. Though I would never see them again, I felt as if these four young men had changed my life forever.
      I met my wife Marty Tracy shortly after returning to the States. We moved to Maine several years later. By logging in the forest, heating with wood, drinking from Marty's pottery and wearing clothes made from the wool of our own animals, I tried to forget the past. Our first child, a daughter Cora, was born in 1977.
      One night in Maine, the winter of 1984, it was cold, very cold. The moon was full and filled my bedroom room with a blue light. Trees cracked in the forest. High overhead in the heavens a small blinking red light made its way through the stars. For a moment the light seemed to hesitate, stopping to look at what it had dropped. Then the night turned to day with a blinking flash. I saw the side of my farmhouse nearest the blast burst into flames, the rooms of my children engulfed in a firestorm. Then came the screams of pain, of fear, of dying.
     I awoke, gripping my bed sheets, yelling for my wife and children.
     Winter turned into spring and the nightmares gave way to a deep depression. It was 1984 and President Reagan was calling the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. The nuclear arms race was out of control. The local movie house was showing "Red Dawn" where high school students in rural America were mowed down by airborne attackers. Darth Vader had arrived, and he was Russian.
      I would talk with my neighbors about what we could do to stop this madness.
     "What can one person do?" we would ask each other, agreeing that it was beyond our control.
     Marty had just reminded me of my night on the Mekong. We decided I should take a trip to Russia.
     "Mr. Hagerty, it is such a pleasure to meet you."
     Dressed in a pin striped wool suit, Gucci shoes and an Italian silk tie, Nickolai Borisovitch Emelianov entered the door and extended a hand in greeting. He stood in contrast to the bare birch paneled walls and the portrait of Lenin by the window. I’d come to Moscow hoping to buy a small amount of Russian wool, blend it with our Maine wool and in so doing, make friends with a Russian that I could call when all seemed lost. With Emelianov's help we would make knitting yarn and call it “Peace Fleece.”
      "With all due respect," Mr. Emelianov replied, "this idea of yours is a bit crazy. We use all the wool we grow to meet the needs of the Soviet people. We have never exported wool to America. Why should I sell wool to you?"
     At a loss for an explanation, I began to tell him my story, my history of the war and my wife and children in Maine. "If you and I don't do something today, " I ended, "then the chance of my son or daughter growing up, falling in love, having a family of their own is greatly diminished."
     He turned away from the window to face me and said, "You sound just like my wife." He then picked up his phone and made a call.
     Five months later the first shipment of Soviet wool entered Boston harbor and Peace Fleece was born in 1985. Peace Fleece for me has been a way to move beyond the pain of the 60s, Vietnam and the Cold War. Our office is a sheep farm in Maine, a crowded family apartment in Moscow or the back of a pickup truck somewhere between Tel Aviv and Jericho.
     After we return from every trip, we appreciate the courage of our partners, many whom are in the midst of political, social or economic crisis, and some are living in a war zone. And we appreciate our own co-workers, neighbors and friends who make this part of America a wonderful place to raise a family and run a business. By working with people who sell wool or tend to livestock every day, we hope to find a common ground that can slowly lead to mutual understanding and interdependence, no matter how deep the hurt or how old the conflict.
     We invite you to visit us here in Maine, on the Internet or through the pages of our catalogue
  
 

About the Author

Peter Hagerty is the founder of Peace Fleece  

 

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