Monday, December 28, 2009

Part 19: My Summer Vacation (aka Death Race 1972)

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
they have to take you in"

~ Robert Frost

"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country ... back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time"
~ Thomas Wolfe

Well, I had to go "home" sometime and that time had come. I knew that traditionally kids were supposed to hate school and love summer vacation but I couldn't help but feel like I was headed for prison. I knew it wasn't going to be pleasant but I wasn't expecting the onslaught of misery.

Picking me up at the airport my parents were surprised to discover that I had grown 6 inches. I came home clad in capris and a 3/4 length sleeve shirt, which was not a popular style for boys in the 70's. Mom looked at me and said "we're going to have to get some new clothes made for you". Dad exploded.
"We just bought him new clothes last year!"

Here we go

"When I was a kid we didn't get new clothes, they were handed down from my older brother and sister!"

So, did you go to school wearing your sister's old dresses? Or just when you did the chores?
(this I mumbled under my breath - I had been training to be a smart ass under the expert tutelage of Pat Dillon - besides I was out of arms reach)

Fortunately Dad didn't hear me. Mom said "He's the oldest. There isn't anyone to give him their hand me downs."
She looked at my feet and said "and he needs some new shoes too."
Gasoline on the fire.

"When I was kid we wore the shoes till the soles fell off! When they got too small we slit holes in the leather so our toes could hang out!"

I sat in silence, flabbergasted. Sometimes there was no worthy response.

Driving towards Tacloban we made a left turn at the Coca-Cola bottling plant as they had neglected to mention that we had moved from the Bethany Hospital compound to a house on the far edge of town. Our new house was at the end of a long dirt road, surrounded by fields and coconut trees. It was very quiet and secluded and I missed the hustle and bustle of Hospital life. Now, when I needed to get away, there was no where to go. No calamansi grove, no comote field. I missed the little hospital canteen, and the bakery across the street from our old home.

Somewhat smaller than our previous home, the new house had two bedrooms upstairs, a large one for my parents and one huge one for Auring, the girl college students and my brothers. There was a landing just at the top of the steps where my parents had their desk and bookshelves. The main floor consisted of the sala, the dining room, the kitchen and oddities of oddities, a stairway leading to a basement. This is where I would be sleeping. But where was my stuff? Like the proverbial kid whose parents rent out his room, any vestiges of my existence had been removed. I had only been gone nine months and there was nothing left. My books and toys were all gone. I felt like a guest in my own home.

That night over supper I eagerly tried to tell the stories of my first year at boarding school: Boy Scouts, plays, classes, friends. Two things became immediately apparent: Dad was completely disinterested, his only comment an occasional snort of disbelief. The second was that everyone else had a hard time relating to my experiences. Gradually I learned not to talk about it. Things were different. They didn't seem like my family anymore. I tried to fit back in to my old life, going to movies with Auring, Tony and the boys, but it didn't feel the same.
Was I gone that long? Had I changed so much?

When our new house was first built the basement flooded. The builder pumped out the water and just kept making the walls thicker until they stopped leaking, a full 3 feet thicker. This created a ledge all around the inside of the basement where you could lay or sit and look out the windows. On a hot night this was a cool place to sleep but you had to watch out for the centipedes. There were a lot of centipedes down there, big ones. On my first night there I woke in the middle of the night when something ran up my side. I exploded out of bed and discovered a 9 inch centipede. I now had a nightly ritual: take the bed apart, kill the centipedes that fall to the floor; remove the sheets and pillowcases and shake them out, kill the centipedes that fall to the floor; flip over mattress, kill the centipedes that fall to the floor. Remake bed carefully shaking out the sheets and killing any remaining centipedes. It was hard to get a good nights rest, I felt buggy all the time.

Shortly after I arrived I got my first letters ever and from girls no less! They would have to be answered. This proved difficult for me because erasable ink had not been perfected yet and there was no "backspace" key on my Bic pen. Spell check had to be done manually. Because I wanted the letters to be perfect, I had a trash can full of crumpled drafts.
"Don't you know
paper doesn't grow on trees!"

hmm, well if you don't count the trunk and the branches, technically I guess you are right.

Mrs. Hinakay showed up to measure me for shirts and pants and then we went to town to buy fabric. Dad decided that if I had time to get new clothes and to write I must need things to do, even if they really didn't need doing. The first thing he had me do was paint the new bodega that suspiciously looked like it had just been painted. Which it had, by Ric and Eddie only the month before. Then there was the daily chore of gathering the softball sized snails and dropping them in the corn sheller and grinding them up to feed the chickens. Another daily chore was pumping water by hand (even though we had an electric pump just for that purpose) into the water tower. Once that was done there was the job of making of seed sample kits. I really liked making them up and got quite fast at it. I kept making them till I ran out of bags. I think this was a job that Dad thought would keep me busy all summer, as there were hundreds to be made. It involved measuring out the seeds, inserting them into a small plastic bag with a typewritten slip of paper identifying the type of rice, then sealing the bag using a lighted candle. I think he was sorely disappointed when I had them done within a few weeks.

Because I was so industrious and ahead of schedule he decided to make a delivery of seed samples along with some fertilizer to the far southern end of the island. New roads had been built allowing him to drive there in about 8 hours. As I had missed out on the pleasure of his company for the last 9 months Mom decided I should go with him.

We left around 4 a.m. and made a quick stop just outside of town. Just as we were leaving, a chicken flew into our windshield and broke it's wing. Dad gave the owner ten pesos and we proceeded on. An ominous beginning to our trip. We had not gone more than a few miles when a pig ran out in front of us and we hit it too. Dad stopped again to try and find the owner. There was a melee going on around us, people running here and there, one carrying firewood, another carrying a long bamboo pole, others butchering the pig. No payment required, they were going to cook lechon. Dad gave them some money anyway. Back on the road, Dad was getting worried about our time table and glanced at his watch. That is when a dog ran out in front of our Land Cruiser and we hit it. And so it went the rest of the day, as we continued to rack up points and get further behind schedule. We finally reached our destination and delivered the fertilizer and seed sample packets. We had a quick meal and headed for home as Dad had a seminar to give the next day. We were way behind schedule, what with all the stopping to apologize and pay off the various animal owners. So far we had hit 3 chickens, 3 dogs, 3 pigs and a cat. It was getting kind of expensive too. Dad was running out of cash. The sun was beginning to set when up in the distance we see a dog sleeping in the middle of the road. Dad honks the horn and the dog does not stir. Dad honks again and keeps his hand down on the horn. We are coming up fast on the dog and just as he lifts his head to look at us, we ran him over. We don't stop. I slide down in my seat so I can't see out the window. It is very quiet in the jeep for twenty minutes or so.
"Dog must have been sick."

Later that night we hit a couple more dogs and pigs. It is late and Dad is out of cash, so he does not stop or slow down. We reached home around midnight, by which time we had run over a total of 14 animals. So ended
Death Race 1972.

One day in early July it started raining and it kind of never quit. Day after day, week after week. This was great because it drastically reduced the number of chores I had to do. We watched the water turn the fields around our home into ponds and then into lakes. The water rose up in the ditches, across the road, slipped under the gate and creeped up towards our front door. Tony, Rick & Eddy filled sandbags and stacked them across the garage floor and around the house. We began hearing reports of typhoons and terrible flooding on the main island Luzon. All roads to Baguio from the south were under water. Dad had some supplies to pick up so he decided to go with me up to Manila a week ahead of my scheduled release! I had served my time and won an unexpected reprieve!

So, armed with clothing that actually fit, I happily set out for Manila and back home.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Part 18: A Brush with Death

"Even very young children need to be informed about dying. Explain the concept of death very carefully to your child. This will make threatening him with it much more effective"

~ P.J. O' Rourke

"We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness"
~ Albert Schweitzer

"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."
~ Albert Einstein

Suddenly, just like that, the school year came to an end. In quick succession we had a couple of plays put on by students, faculty and parents, then we had Field Day, Sadie Hawkins Dance and final exams.

Months before, after the rains ceased, construction began on a theater stage addition to the back of the gym. Prior to that a temporary stage had to be built in the gym (or the small stage in the Auditorium in Amos Hall was used) and taken down again. The new addition provided storage for props and costumes, easy access to the lighting control booth and a new large locker room for the girls. It was completed just in time for simultaneous rehearsals of two plays!

Towards the end of April we put on a melodrama called "The Drunkard or The Fallen Saved" and Jaime and I had minor non speaking roles as "villagers". The audience was encouraged to "boo" the villain and cheer for the hero and heroine! I didn't have much on stage time, but I worked hard to be useful wherever I could.
This was my first time on stage and I loved it, but more than that I loved belonging to a group.

The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved is an American temperance play first performed in 1844. A drama in five acts, it was perhaps the most popular play produced in the United States before the dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 1850s. In New York City, P.T. Barnum presented it for a run of over 100 performances.

In the 20th century, the dated melodrama made it a target of parody. In 1934, a production of The Drunkard was featured to comic effect in the W.C. Field's film The Old Fashioned Way. The following year another film was released called The Drunkard, a comedy-drama in which two theatrical producers present the play as a farce with their needy relatives in the cast. In 1940, Buster Keaton starred in another film parody, The Villain Still Pursued Her.

Just a short week later was the culmination of theater for the year: a Kurt Weill opera, titled "Down in the Valley". It was an American version of Romeo and Juliet, with lots of songs.

Brack Weaver falls in love with a girl, Jennie, after an Appalachian prayer meeting. But her father wants her to go to a dance with his shyster creditor, Thomas, who the father thinks will bail him out of his money troubles. Jennie disobeys and goes to the dance with Brack. At the dance, the villain gets drunk and threatens the hero with a knife. The two fight, the villain dies, and Brack is condemned to be hanged. On the night before his execution, he escapes to spend his last hours with Jennie, before turning himself in to meet his fate.

The principal actors in this play were parents and teachers with the students filling the non speaking roles. I had another walk on role (as did my girlfriend) as one of the "children". It was a fun role reversal, the teachers and parents on stage, watching them struggle with their lines, missing their cues, getting yelled at by the director. They were just like us!

I loved the play, the sets were wonderful and I loved the music, especially two songs; Brack Weaver, My True Love and the title song Down in the Valley which still echo in my head.

Field Day was an annual, day long, school wide event with each class competing against the other: catch a greased pig contest, relay and sack races, pillow fights, pie eating contests and climbing a greased pole. Lunch was provided by the school and served on the Neutral. Our little class was quickly eliminated by the older, bigger kids, but that gave us time to take advantage of the free food and drinks. We had a lot of fun. The pillow fights were especially exciting as we rooted for our favorites. Parents would come to the school and sit on the hill overlooking the soccer field and cheer the classes on. The last event of the day was when eligible guys were placed in the middle of the soccer field and then surrounded by girls. At the sound of the whistle the girls frantically fought to grab the guy they wanted to take to the dance. It was kind of scary actually. I didn't give the Sadie Hawkins part of the day much thought, I was glad to have a girl friend and not have to worry about being chased around by Amazons like some of my friends. I was more worried about the dance afterwards and my two left feet. A local Baguio band played Colour My World and Samba Pa Ti which are two songs that to this day remind me of slow dancing at Hamilton Hall.

Unlike most of the kids I was not happy to be getting out of school. After a year of physical and intellectual freedom I would be leaving my new home and friends and returning to my family in Leyte. Just when I thought my vacation was over, a classmate invited me to spend a week with him after school was out. My sentence had been commuted! I changed my reservations and sent my parents a telegram telling them I would be home ten days later!

The last few days of school were busy, emptying my locker, returning books & desk lamps to the bookstore, turning in the bedding I had checked out from the linen room and packing up my few possessions. Some of my roommates were already gone, their mattresses rolled up on the metal cots, gravestones to remind us someone had been there. Here and there around campus there were tearful goodbyes going on between those students who would not be coming back. Some were graduating seniors, others had parents who were being transferred or furloughed. My girlfriend and her family belonged to the later group and would not return for a year. Some students would get home only to find out they were moving and we would never see or hear from them again. I wasn't sure how to feel about these partings. This was the life that I was used to, making friends for a year then moving on to a new life, another school. But for the first time they seemed more like family than simply school friends. I exchanged addresses with a few and then, on the last day after school let out, I said goodbye to my roommates and climbed aboard the USAF "Blue Bus" with my host and other schoolmates which returned them to their homes on
John Hay.

In 1972, the war in Vietnam was still going strong and the American bases in the Philippines were busy. All year long a steady stream of airmen and sailors on leave would troop through Baguio to shop the markets and on to Banaue to see the rice terraces. The souvenir trade was big business in Baguio and had been since the early 1900's. From hand woven place mats to table runners, hand carved wooden tiki masks, penis ash trays, headhunter statues and salad bowls, brass fertility pendants to silver napkin rings, tens of thousands of these souvenirs would be bought to grace homes across the continental US.

Much smaller than the megalithic bases of Clark or Subic, Camp John Hay was an R & R center for military personnel and their dependents and was well known for its golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
A little touch of stateside, the base was clean, orderly, well maintained and manicured. It was it's own self contained world, with restaurants, a bowling alley and a movie theater.

For my friends this base was Philippine life as they knew it, so different from my experiences and yet their life of frequent moving and new schools were very much like mine. It was great to be part of their world and it was strange at how
surreal their lives were compared to my life down on Leyte. Every morning was like waking to a dream: Real milk, Apple Jacks or Cheerios for breakfast, watching Captain Kangaroo on TV. I was experiencing a mini culture shock and gobbled up everything I came across. But underneath the Leave it to Beaver veneer was the strict disciplinary life they lead. Punishments were harsh and frequent for minor infractions. We never talked about it, that is just the way life was.

Every day we got up and grabbed a quick bite and then we were out the door to meet up with the gang. If you were a kid and you wanted to find someone on John Hay all you had to do was get on the shuttle. Sooner or later, all the kids would get on the Base Bus, Sue and Robert Huff, Matt, Diane and Alice Flick, Ron and Donny Davis and half a dozen other kids. Although you could take it to the PX, the bowling alley or the movie theater, it also was a destination unto itself. It was our sanctuary. Some days that is all we would do, just hang out riding around the base all day. All the kids would be in the back of the bus, talking, laughing, reading comics, some kids played cards. Some days we would head over to the library where they had a little room to listen to albums. We could expect to find Sue and Diana there and of course there would be Donny with headphones on listening to his hero
Donny Osmond. Donny's dad was the Golf Pro for the base and liked to demonstrate for us kids what an amazing golfer he was. At the driving range he would hit golf balls and bounce them off telephone poles. When he was a kid a firecracker exploded in his hand and he only had three fingers left. But boy he could still accurately drive a golf ball.

When we got hungry we might go over to someone's house, but most often we would head over to the Mile High for hamburgers, fries and a milk shake. The best fries. The best ketchup. I never knew I was craving an American style burger and fries till I started eating there. Donny might bowl a few frames, but often he would bowl game after game for hours, trying to beat the high score. One day he was there so long that he wore the skin off his thumb. It was swollen and raw and would no longer fit in the thumb hole, so he had them bore out the hole so he could get his thumb in there. Other days we might go golfing. This was not so fun. I wasn't a golfer so I might get stuck being a caddy for one of the older kids, which meant lugging a golf bag up
Heart Attack Hill. John Hay legend has it that a general had a heart attack going up the hill. It was an interesting hole because you couldn't see the green from the tee. You just whacked the ball and hoped it didn't roll back all the way down the hill.

Other days Robert, Matt, Donny and I would get cardboard and go sliding down one of the many steep hills around the base. Or head over to the base theater to meet up with the girls and catch a matinee. Admission was a dime and Cokes were a nickel. For a quarter you could watch a movie and have popcorn, a drink and a candy bar. We kids would all sit together, filling the front rows of the theater.

We all hung out together at night too. We would go over to one of the kids houses and watch TV or play hide n seek. One night some of the older kids started a game of
spin the bottle. I had never heard of this game before and was a little nervous every time it was my turn, but the bottle never pointed to a girl. After playing this for a while one of the girls suggested a game called 7 minutes in heaven. Having not fared well with the previous game, I hoped I would have better luck with this one. Then all of sudden I was sitting in a closet, in the dark with a girl! What was I supposed to do now? Fortunately she started talking to me and we spent the next 7 minutes chatting about her best friend, my girl friend. I was relieved not only to have escaped an embarrassing experience but especially not to be the only guy left out.

The next day we were over looking at one of my classmates impressive collection of WWII souvenirs. He showed us bullets and shell casings he had dug up around the base. He had quite a few larger brass cannon shells, some bayonets and Ka-Bar knifes too. He was acting funny, alternately animated then despondent. We talked about our own collections and then he asked if we wanted to see a real pistol. He left the room and came back with his dad's gun. He handed it around and we took turns holding it. I was surprised at how heavy it was. He took the gun back inserted the clip, chambered a round and slipped the safety off.
He began pacing back and forth, ranting about how much he liked this girl and how could we do this to him. Pointing the gun randomly at each of us, his face contort first with rage, then agony and then back to normal again. He turned away, took a few steps out of the room, then turned and stomped back in and pointed the gun at the others, then himself, then he pressed the muzzle against my forehead. His finger on the trigger, I watched him silently. I was surprisingly calm, sitting quietly watching his face through out the whole ordeal. Distantly I could hear the others talking, telling him to relax, to calm down. Finally, he went and put the gun away and came back to his bedroom. We all acted as if nothing had happened and soon went out to ride the bus. We never talked about that day and I never gave it much thought. Looking back I don't think I felt particularly brave, I just didn't know any better.

We are scattered to the four winds now. Some of us are dead and others have disappeared. We shared a common bond in the way our fathers raised us.
Learn to expect the fury and the wrath. The rod was never spared in our homes. Obey the rules and no talking back, break the rules and expect punishment. This was just the way life was and it was hard. Each of us learned to deal with it in our own way.