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.


  1. I love to read your blog because I always find out new things about you!! Didn't think that would be possible after 30 years!

  2. man, the pistol incident, save it for the screenplay adaptation... pretty intense.

    i remember the blue bus, the Mile High burgers, fries, the library music room, the matinees, the cardboard down the hill sliders. i went to STC and Maryknoll and you guys (Brent kids) were known to us as the Brent brats who smelled like american bubblegum and would sit front row in the theater demonstrating loud and "atrocious" manners and behavior. LOL! i was jealous and wanted to be part of the American kids' scene... i would sit on the blue bus with my siblings and be thoroughly entertained when other American kids would hop aboard. thanks again for sharing this, Mark.

  3. yes... write that screenplay and enter it in the sundance film festival. Brent is still the same -- you could shoot there with all the 70s costumes :-)

  4. Ay Mark ang ganda ng kwento mo - na-kaka-mis talaga ang Brent School. You've made me look back like 52 years ago! Gloria,with the children followed me to Brent in 1960. I went earlier late 1959 when I met Father Griffiths in Quezon City and Bishop Ogilby introduced me to him and asked if he could use me in Brent. Father Griffirths said, "You're riding up to Baguio with me tomorrow!" The was the beginning of my eight years in Brent! Wow, Mark I love your stories (tales?) and getting to know the "inner" you. This from me - the 81-year old man. Hehehe.

  5. Mark, your blog triggers a lot of memories for me. I remember that infamous John Hay shuttle, Mile HI, 19th Tee, and the movie theater. John Hay was little America to me. As a teenager I did not realize that ending up in the real America was part of my destiny. Do you every go back to Baguio? We were planning a trip this December but tickets cost $2000 a piece. No way will we spend this much for tickets!