Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bette Parslow on "The Killing Fields" Dith Pran: Love, Tomatoes, Dogs, & Cats

Christal Cooper

Article 3,577 Words
Chris Cooper Interviews Bette Parslow On Dith Pran: Love, Tomatoes, & Dogs

            On March 30, seven years ago, the subject of the 1984 academy award winning film The Killing Fields, Dith Pran, 65, died of pancreatic cancer at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. 

       Born on September 23, 1942 in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Pran was educated in French and self-taught in English.  He also taught himself photography, which would prove useful in future endeavors. 

       In 1960, after completing high school, Pran was hired as a translator for the United States Military Assistance Command. 
       Five years later Pran was hired as a translator for the British film crew of the Peter O’Toole movie, Lord Jim.  He also worked as a hotel receptionist at the Angkor Wat Hotel. 

       In 1970, Lon Nol, backed by the U.S., seized power of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh from the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.  Pran and his family moved to Phnom Penh where he worked as a guide and interpreter for The New York Times journalists. 

       In 1973, he became assistant to The New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg.  

       In April 1975, the Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces overthrew Lon Nol’s forces, and the U.S. withdrew its troops from Vietnam.  Vietnam was conquered by the Khmer Rouge. 

       On April 12, 1975 all remaining U.S. troops left Cambodia and the American Embassy was evacuated.  Pran, aided by Schanberg, boarded his wife and four children on a military truck to safety. 

       Pran, Schanberg, and two other New York Times journalists stayed behind to report on the war.  The streets were bloody and the Khmer Rouge became more and more powerful:  three million Cambodians were forced out of their country and many others were slaughtered.
       In late April of 1975, Pran, Schanberg, and the two journalists visited a hospital where they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge and held for execution.  Pran convinced authorities that the foreign journalists were French Nationals and, as a result, they were all released.  The four sought refuge in the French Embassy.

       Within days foreigners were asked to turn in their passports and Cambodians were ordered to leave.  Attempts were made by Pran’s journalist friends to give Pran a fake French passport but those attempts failed.  Pran was then forced to flee to the countryside.  Schanberg and his two fellow journalists were one of those last to evacuate the French Embassy.    

       By the end of April, Pran was captured by the Khmer Rouge and sentenced to a Cambodian Labor Camp for life.  He endured beatings, backbreaking labor and a diet of insects, rats, snakes, exhumed corpses, and one teaspoon of rice per day.

       The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to murder all of the educated as well as anyone who exhibited Western influence.  They hoped to recreate Cambodia as an agrarian society.  The Khmer Rouge executed anyone wearing eyeglasses, perfume, makeup, or watches.  In order to survive, Pran feigned illiteracy, denied any American ties, wore peasant clothing, and posed as a taxi driver. 
       In November of 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge.  Pran traveled back to his hometown of Siem Reap, and found that at least fifty family members had been murdered.  His hometown honored him by asking him to become village chief but he sensed they knew of his American ties and fled. 
       Shortly thereafter, in September of 1979, Pran, along with two companions, set out on a 60-mile-journey toward the Thailand border hiding from bloodthirsty soldiers and avoiding the numerous land mines, which ultimately killed his companions.  On October 3, 1979 Pran walked across the border to Thailand alone.

       Pran and Schanberg were reunited one week later at the Thailand refugee camp.  By this time over a third of the Cambodian population had been murdered by the Khmer Rouge.  Pran coined the phrase “the killing fields” to describe the corpses and skulls he saw during the 60-mile-four-day-journey. 

       In 1980 Schanberg wrote “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

       Pran testified before the U.S. House and Senate subcommittees on East Asia and the Pacific.  In 1985, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees appointed him Goodwill Ambassador.  

       In 1986, Pran, along with his first wife, Ser Moeun Dith, became a U.S. citizen.  

       In 1997 he and his second wife Kim DePaul collaborated on a book of essays:  Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields:  Memoirs by Survivors. 

       Pran founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project, which is presided over today by his ex-wife, Kim DePaul.  The DPHAP’s mission is to “educate American students about the mass killing, and the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge.”  

       Pran’s survivors are his long-time companion Bette J Parslow; ex-wives Ser Moeun Pran and Kim DePaul; one sister Samproeuth; one daughter Hemkarey; three sons Titony, Titonath, Titonel; six grandchildren; two step grandchildren; and his best friend and colleague Sydney Schanberg. 

       His remains were cremated in a private ceremony and rest at a Buddhist temple in Washington D.C.
       The one thing that will never die is Pran’s story that of The Killing Fields, described by Schanberg as “The story he cared about the most.”
       Pran gave an interview while in the hospital two weeks before his death:  Please every body the world must stop the killing fields.  One time is too many.  If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy.”
       And Pran did have a happy spirit, especially since May of 2000, when he met English and American History teacher Bette Parslow, while he was speaking at her school.

“In fact, it was my birthday.  I stayed in the auditorium to sign late passes for my students. When I went out into the hall Pran was waiting for me. He asked my if I was gong to the luncheon. I said no, it was only for administrators and city officials, not for the teachers who had prepared the students. He said then you will come as my guest. So I did. At the luncheon he asked for my e-mail address. In an email he asked for my phone number. A few days later he called and asked me out for dinner. The rest, as they say, is history.”

       Throughout their eight years together Pran would continue to give speaking engagements.  To the public, Pran wanted every individual to remember The Killing Fields.  He wanted them to never forget how he was one amongst millions tortured by the Khmer Rouge.  He also did not want anyone to forget the three million Cambodians murdered by the Khmer Rouge.

       But this was his public persona, or rather, only the part of himself that he would willingly share to the public.  The other side of him he only revealed to those he was most intimate with and to those he trusted.  And perhaps the person he trusted the most was Parslow his companion of eight years.   Parlsow described Pran as so much more than just The Killing Fields.
       “He was a kind, funny, interesting man – almost childlike in his enthusiasm about life.  He was a very funny person – often without meaning to be.  He was a lot of fun and a constant source of joy and love of life.”
       When the two first started their romance Parslow had her two cats Slick and Annie and Pran had a Maltese named Rosee.

       She was the first pet he had ever had and he adored her.  When we had her put to sleep he cried.  I adopted Gabby because she needed a home and Pran needed a dog.  He did not like her at first because she is not really a Maltese and looks more like a terrier.  He said she has a pointy nose and doesn’t “attract”.  It wasn’t long before she won him over however.  We took her everywhere, including his son’s wedding.” 

       While Pran worked for the New York Times as a photojournalist ( a position he held since 1980) and Parslow taught English and American History, they shared a condominium together.  When they were not working, they sought refuge at their shore home located on a New Jersey island.

       “This island goes from packed to deserted in the weeks following Labor Day.  Pran loved it here.  After years of being in the public eye, he enjoyed the peace and the quiet.  We were here when he became ill in early December but stayed until late January because we knew once we left, he would never return although we never said that out loud.  We just knew."
Pran’s pancreatic cancer worsened and he had to stay in a rehabilitation hospital, which welcomed animals, enabling Pran to see Gabby. 
"Gabby and I met him at the entrance the day he was transferred there.  He cried when he saw her and for the fist time in several weeks was animated and upbeat.  There really is something to be said for pet therapy.  Gabby is usually a high energy little dog but when she was at the hospital she curled up next to him and slept quietly for hours while he pet her.”

       When Pran’s family learned of his illness, his ex wife contacted Parslow.   
       “He was estranged from them when I met him.  I decided to get them to reconcile.  When he was diagnosed his ex-wife wanted to come help take care of him.  I though it would be nice for them to have the last months of his life together to have some kind of closure.”
       With Parslow’s encouragement, Pran reunited with his family, who remained with him to the very end.
       “It was an unfair way to die but it was his fate.   At least I was able to bring his family together in the last years of his life and they were there at the end when it counted.”
       At his funeral, Parslow was saddened that her name was not mentioned.  She was even more saddened that those who spoke at his funeral could only speak of his past, back in the days of The Killing Fields.

       “I am really the only one who had daily contact with him the last 8 years.  He was a bit of a recluse.  I think that was part of the problem.   They had nothing to say new about him – just stories of the past.”
       Despite the pain of not being mentioned and not knowing the final resting place of Pran’s ashes, Parslow wouldn’t change any aspect of her relationship with Pran.
       “Pran and I were companions for 8 years.  I would not trade a minute for something more safe or traditional.”
In June of 2008, Bette was invited by Pran’s colleague, Marilyn Yee, to speak at his memorial at The Times Center in New York City.  After some hesitation, Bette accepted the invitation.  Her main goal was to reveal the major aspects of Pran’s identity that had nothing to do with just The Killing Fields.
“I waned them to know Pran as an everyday private person.  He was a lot of fun and a constant source of joy and love of life.  I miss him everyday.”
Bette, with their dog Gabby, walked on the beach for a few days, thinking of what to write, and literally wrote the speech in her head during those walks.

The only problem was how to end it.  My neighbor Maria was here for the weekend a week before the memorial.  She made that remark about never knowing any one like him again, and I knew I had my ending.”

My name is Bette.  Pran was my companion and best friend for 8 years until he passed away in March.  In my heart, he will always be my companion and best friend.
Many of you have known Pran longer, worked with him, socialized with him.  I wondered what I could share with you that you didn’t already know.  I decided to tell you about his tomatoes.
I have a house at the Jersey shore where we spent all of our summers and have lived most of the time the last two years.  The first summer he wanted to take over my flower garden to grow vegetables.  Flowers he said are a waste of time.  So we compromised, and I had a garden built for his vegetables in the yard behind the house.  It wasn’t enough.  The following year he convinced me to take down the overgrown blue spruce and put a circular garden in its place.  It also wasn’t enough.  Another circular garden followed but it still wasn’t enough.  There was no more room for permanent gardens so he announced he would solve the problem the Cambodian way – which means an ingenious, unorthodox, creative solution, 10 gallon storage boxes – 12 of them – scattered around the yard and driveway.  Last summer we had over 2 dozen tomato plants, 12 eggplants, countless peppers so hot they burned my hands when I chopped them to make salsa, cucumbers, and beans.  In other words we had a working farm.  He used to get up at 4:30 to tend his garden; weed, water, and make sure the tomatoes were secure in their cages.  Sleep, he believed, was a waste of time.  I could hear him outside talking to his tomatoes – You’re beautiful, he would tell them, You do good job, and his highest praise – You are very professional.
The tomato crop was epic – beautiful tomatoes from the small sweet cherry to his personal favorite, the mighty beefsteak, ripening daily by the dozens.  We ate them at every meal, chopped them up and froze them for the winter, made sauce, soup – there were too many.   We gave bags full to all our neighbors – there were still too many.  So, it was time for another one of Pran’s Cambodian solutions.  He began waiting at the fence for people walking back from he beach.  As they approached he would say, “Hello, do you like tomatoes?”  Their first reaction was wary hesitation but he always won them over with his disarming smile.  “Yes,” most answered.  “We love tomatoes, especially home grown Jersey tomatoes.”  “Wait here,” he would say, and disappear behind the house returning with a bag bulging with an assortment of ripe tomatoes.  Can you imagine the looks on their faces?  Disbelief.  They went off with their prize after a lot of laugher and thank you’s.  The tomato problem was solved – with good humor and generosity.
In the weeks after Pran’s funeral, our neighbors began returning to their shore houses on weekends.  Only Colleen and Frank knew of his illness.  Colleen gave Pran the famous buzz cut just before he went back to Woodbridge to be closer to his doctors and the hospital.  The others could not believe he was gone, and they were amazed to learn he was famous.  To them he was the friendly smiling neighbor who gave them vegetables from his garden, walked his dog Gabby to the beach at dawn to watch the sunrise, took long bike rides with Gabby in the special dog safe basket he ordered from sky mall, and cooked everything on his grill, including bacon and eggs.  Our neighbors Rob and Maria, like many others, rented The Killing Fields to learn more about the man Maria gossiped with over the back fence.   Pran loved to gossip.  Maria said, “Bette, what a life.  The things he’s done.  What he’s been through.  I can’t believe I complained about my in laws to him.”  Then she got very serious and said, “In my whole life, I will never meet anyone like him ever again.”  Isn’t that why we are here today sharing our memories?  We will never meet any one like him ever again.

       Since giving the speech, Bette reminisces even more about what made Pran the individual that he was and the memories they experienced together.
       “Pran loved to take road trips. We often got in the car with Gabby and set out for places like Valley Forge, Lancaster County, Jockey Hollow, Monmouth Battlefield, and Bull Run. He loved history and liked to explore places where history took place.  We were also planning to rent an RV and drive cross county with Gabby.
       The best Christmas we spent together was a few years ago. He was working that day. We went to Washington Crossing Park in Pennsylvania to take pictures of the reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware to surprise the Hessians in Trenton. It was a beautiful day but very cold. You would not believe the number of people that were out in the cold to watch history reenacted. On the way home we stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant and ate noodle soup, spring rolls, and lok lak.

       Every year in April we went to the Cambodian New Year celebration either in Philadelphia or Camden. There is traditional folk dancing, lots of food, and monks chanting in the temple. One year we stopped at the Camden waterfront and toured the battleship New Jersey. One of the best days we spent was at the Museum of Natural History. He especially liked the exhibits about primitive man and how they developed ways to cope with their environment. His comments always began with “How in the planet?  How in the planet did they know to sharpen that spear?  How in the planet did they decide to put that meat in the fire?  How in the planet did they make that dog their companion?”  And always with a sense of wonder and fascination. It was another one of those days that I'll always remember and smile.

       Pran was more than a genocide survivor.  He was a warm, funny, unique individual.  Even though Pran is gone he left behind a legacy of smiles.”
       It’s been seven years since Dith Pran’s death, and those few years have been bittersweet ones for Parslow.  Her house located on a New Jersey island, between the ocean and the bay, survived Superstorm Sandy, but she and her neighbors had to evacuate and were not allowed back to the island until four months later; and it took even longer to get the necessary utility inspections and restorations completed.  
       The most difficult loss was that of Gabby, the beloved dog owned by Dith and herself, who was attacked and killed by a pit bull while the two were taking a walk along the beach.  Even after two years, Parslow still finds it extremely upsetting, but she has hope.
       “Gabby is with Pran now.”

       Parslow’s life is full and she is now the caretaker of three dogs:  Sabai which means good health or good fortune in Khmer; Yoda; and a special needs dog,  eleven year old Tyson.   And of course her cat Slick.

       “The sad things that happened to me are no worse than the sad things everyone deals with.  Sadness is a risk one takes when embracing new experiences.  So I guess I will pass on the quotes from poets and philosphers and go with one of my favorite figtures in history, General George Patton, and soldier on.”

Photograph Description and Copyright Information 

Photo 1
Dith Pran, Bette Parslow, and Gabby
March 2008
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 2
The Killing Fields movie poster
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 3
Map of Cambodia
Public Domain

Photo 4
Lord Jim movie poster
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law 

Photo 5
Lon Nol
Public Domain

Photo 6
Jacket cover of Beyond The Killing Fields 

Photo 7
Pol Pot 
Public Domain

Photo 8
Ser Moeun and children Titony, Titonath, Titonel, and Hemkarey.
This photo was taken in San Francisco upon their entry to the United States from Cambodia
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 9
The Killing Fields move poster depicted the scene where the journalists are held by the Khmer Rouge.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law 

Photo 10
Dith Pran in February in February 1975
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 11
The Killing Fields movie poster and booklet
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 12
Map of Thailand and Cambodia
Public Domain

Photo 13
The Killing Fields
Public Domain

Photo 14
Jacket cover of The Death And Life Of Dith Pran by Sydney Schanberg

Photo 15
Ser Moeun Pran and Dith Pran at his appointment to Goodwill Ambassador
Public Domain

Photo 16
Dith Pran and Ser Moeun Pran being sworn in as United States Citizens.
Public Domain

Photo 17
Jacket cover of Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields  

Photo 18
Web logo photo for the Dith Pran Holocaust Awarenss Project webpage.
Public Domain

Photo 19
Dith Pran and Bette Parslow
March 2009
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 20
Bette Parslow and Gabby
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 21
Bette Parslow and Dith Pran at his son's engagement party.
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 22
Photos of the victims of the Khmer Rouge
Public Domain

Photo 23
Dith Pran and Gabby
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 24
Dith Pran and Bette Parslow at the wedding of his son Tony and daughter-in-law Vornidas.
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 25
Image from the brochure cover of the memorial of Dith Pran
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 26
Dith Pran and Gabby
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 27
Sidney Schanberg and Dith Pran's reunion in Thailand in October 1979.
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 28
The beach in Spring Lake, New Jersey
Attributed Nick Harris
CCA 2.5 Generic

Photo 29
Bette Parslow speaking at Dith Pran's memorial service in New York City
June 2008

Photo 30
Bette Parslow speaking at Dith Pran's memorial service in New York City
June 2008

Photo 31
Family and friends at Dith Pran's memorial service in New York City.
Far left back row Sam Waterston who portrayed Sydney Schanberg in The Killings Fields
Second from the far right back row is Sydney Schanberg
Second from the right in the white sleeveless blouse is Bette Parslow

Photo 32
Painting of Washington crossing the Delaware
Public Domain

Photo 33 and 34
Dith Pran with Gabby and his tomato plants
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow 

Photo 35
Tyson, Sobai, and Yoda
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow

Photo 36
Bette with Sobai
Copyright granted by Bette Parslow.