If Ray Jobes had searched for the Thai woman he’d helped 26 years ago, he probably would have hexed the collision course they were on.
But Ray just quietly performed his good deed and tucked away the memory. It had nearly faded from his mind when she appeared.
“What a feeling of gratitude, knowing my one small gesture helped,” he says now, shaking his head in wonder at Mary Cameron. She quietly munches on shrimp toast, a specialty of Mad Mary’s, the Thai restaurant she opened 18 months ago with her husband and their partner in Coeur d’Alene - Ray’s hometown.
“When Ray told us the story, we all sat together and just blubbered,” says Mary’s husband, Tim. He’s a big guy who cooks a mouth-watering satay and treats Ray and his wife like family.
Sgt. Ray Jobes was 20 in 1970 when he was stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base in Ta Khli, Thailand.
Like his friends, he hung out on the G.I. strip that had sprung up near the base. It offered nightclubs, bars and call girls, but Ray was more interested in the restaurants.
He was dining at his favorite spot on the strip that August when he noticed Mary standing in a corner.
“She didn’t look like she belonged there. She looked scared,” he says.
Ray asked the owner about her. The owner discouraged his interest. This was no good-time girl, he said.
Ray called her to his table. Between her broken English and his broken Thai, he learned her name and that she’d come to Ta Khli to visit a friend. But the friend had moved and Mary didn’t know what to do.
Ray advised her to go home. But Mary had no money. She told him she’d heard girls made big money from the soldiers. He cautioned her to avoid the strip and find decent work at an Air Force base.
Then he told her he’d buy her a ticket home if she’d meet him at the train station the next morning. He was heading to Bangkok for a rest. He didn’t think she’d show. But she did.
“I wanted to go home,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone in Ta Khli.”
Ray took a picture of Mary before their train pulled out. When she left the train near her home, he gave her $15 to get the rest of the way and made her promise she’d find a good job. He thought about her occasionally for a few years, then she slipped to the back of his mind.
Until 1995. A Thai restaurant was opening on Ray’s mail route in Coeur d’Alene. He stopped in during the remodeling, greeted a middle-aged Thai woman in Thai and told her he was stationed in Ta Khli in 1970.
She said her name was Mary and she’d never been to Ta Khli.
The name nagged at Ray like an unanswered question. Mary wasn’t a typical Thai name, but he knew it meant something to him. It took weeks before he figured it out and dug out his old picture of Mary.
The resemblance didn’t immediately satisfy him. Still, he knew Mad Mary was his Mary.
He teased her for weeks, saying he knew her but not supplying details. She insisted she’d never been to Ta Khli. Then, one day she told him she’d worked as a housekeeper at another Air Force base near her home.
That information told Ray she’d followed his advice. He pulled out the picture.
“I said, ‘Do you remember the G.I. who bought you a train ticket?’ And she was silent and her eyes filled with tears. Then she threw her arms around my neck,” Ray says.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s him,’ and I cried,” Mary says. Then she chuckles at the mailman who’s become her favorite fishing partner. “I didn’t recognize him without his hair.”
Mary hadn’t told Tim about her brief excursion to Ta Khli. She didn’t want him to think she’d worked the strip. But she let Ray tell Tim the story. Then she told Ray hers.
Mary married a U.S. soldier and left Thailand for Louisiana in 1973. She divorced, stayed in Louisiana and married Tim, who had grown up in Wallace. Tim’s business partner, Bill Colacarcio, was another Idaho transplant in Louisiana. He was from Wardner.
In 1994, Bill and Tim decided to return home to run a business. Mary wanted a restaurant. They gave her one on Mother’s Day in Coeur d’Alene.
On Ray’s mail route.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo