Mike McCone passed away a few months ago, a friend of mine whom I first met in 1966.
At the time, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sarawak, a state of Malaysia that is located in western Borneo. The nation of Malaysia was only a few years old, having been formed from the former British colonies of Sarawak, Sabah, Singapore and the Malaya peninsula. The Peace Corps was there to help the new government put together a primary school system in rural Sarawak villages where, previously, there had been no schools at all. My assignment was to find and train teachers for the upriver Iban tribal peoples and their new schools. I also trained those teachers and regularly delivered school supplies to them, upriver from the village of Betong.
It was hot all the time. I sweat terribly. The monsoons came and went. The situation was the most rural I have ever encountered, the rain forests upriver as thick and green as you can imagine. I traveled by boat to get to the upriver schools, and often by foot as well if I had to get from one school to the next by means other than river travel. I was always isolated when traveling. No one spoke English. This was duty for which you had to volunteer because of that isolation. I had a few American friends, other volunteers working in Betong. But when I was upriver, which was most of the time, I was alone.
Except for the Ibans, of course, who often found me to be a figure of comedy because I was so white and so large by comparison to them. They also assumed I was British. So I was able to take advantage of the fact that the Ibans liked the English, whom they felt had protected them during colonial times from what they resented as government over-reach on the part of the Malay-Muslim authorities. They also complained about Chinese over-reach on the part of every merchant they had ever met. The Ibans always paid me great respect, although I was just in my early twenties, and was certain that I did not deserve that respect.
Mike McCone was in charge of the Peace Corps effort in Sarawak at the time. He and his then-wife Nini were islands of conversational comfort for me during my occasional visits to the capital Kuching and when they would come to Betong to visit me and the other volunteers.
But for the most part, I remained alone. I had learned enough of the Iban language to get along well. They liked me, and I liked them. I was up and down the river on a regular basis.
But, after a little more than a year and half, I went way off-kilter.
I was suddenly awake one night. It was, as usual, excessively warm and humid, and I was sleeping on a cotton mat on the floor of my house in Betong, protected by mosquito netting. There were so many mosquitos (all the time, and especially when the river was high and overflowing its banks) that the very noise they made interrupted sleep. There were millions of them.
Suddenly awake, I imagined killing myself by jumping out the window. This was foolish, because the window was only about ten feet above the ground. But it was the desire for immediate death that had taken hold of me, and I was more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I got up, put on some clothes, and walked as quickly as I could to the house of a fellow Peace Corps friend who lived on the other side of the village. When I got there, I heard recorded rock ‘n roll coming from inside the house. It was The Beatles. I raised a hand to pound on the door, seized by the need for help. But then I imagined my compatriot answering the door, and my attacking him as though to kill him. I held back, and retreated to the pathway before his house.
I never saw him again.
I suffered through the night, seated beneath my mosquito netting and talking myself out of suicide. I had only enough money the next morning to get on the local bus that would take me to the major town of Simanggang, two or three hours away. I had to get to Kuching and Mike, for help.
The entire way to Simanggang, I was approached by Ibans wanting to talk to the young Englishman. Throughout that journey, I imagined taking the parang knife (a de rigueur tool for any Iban walking through the woods or traveling cross-country) from the particular Iban who so wanted to speak with me, and attacking him with it. His friends would then attack me, I imagined, and kill me, a consummation to be wished. Here too, I was able to keep myself contained, although at quite difficult cost to my emotional paralysis.
Finally, the bus arrived in Simanggang, at the central market. I was out of money, and had no idea how I could possibly get to Kuching. But literally as I stepped from the bus, I spotted Mike and Nini McCone, who were visiting Peace Corps volunteers in that town. My mind was racing with continuing electric images of self-destruction. I was entirely beset by terror.
Mike saw this right away, and he took me to a Chinese tea shop in the market. (Nini apparently realized the gravity of the situation, and left me and Mike alone to sort it out.) Over tea, I told him what was happening. Years later, he told me that he was extremely alarmed, enough to realize that I had to get to the American medical team in Kuching immediately. He shoved money into my hands and escorted me to the Chinese taxi station next to the market. At the time, the road to Kuching was gravel the entire way, and there were only four taxis in all of Simanggang. I protested that I could take the bus. But Mike pushed me into the car, still talking with me, still counseling me. He told the driver, who spoke some English, that he was to take me directly to Peace Corps headquarters in Kuching. I later found out that Mike then went to the government offices in Simanggang (where, he knew, they had a British radio telephone, there being no regular phone system in Sarawak at that time) and, shouting down the clerk who didn’t want to let him use the phone, he demanded to speak with the district officer. Mike then phoned the head Peace Corps physician and told him about my difficulties.
Still bedeviled by images of self-wounding, I got to Kuching and safety. Ultimately, I was flown back to the U.S., and Mike accompanied me on the flight. We’ve been friends ever since.
On those occasions when I thanked him for what he did, he always smiled and said that he was only doing what anyone would have done under similar circumstances. Maybe so, but I was lost, and I believe to this day that Mike saved my life.
Terence Clarke is the director of publishing at Astor & Lenox. His new story collection is titled New York.