It was sometime in the mid-1970’s. I was sitting on the front steps of my house in Forbes Park, Makati, Manila, one clear afternoon, when a virtual flock of Huey helicopters flew directly overhead, heading south like angry, acking raptors looking for a meal. Later I learned that Francis Ford Coppola was filming his iconic movie, “Apocalypse Now” in the Philippines, and these helicopters were being borrowed from the U.S. government. Many of the young men at the International School took an entire month off of classes to be extras. They came back with heads shaved and several thousand dollars in their pockets, and the knowledge that they had participated in a piece of film history. In the scene where the cavalry lands on the beach, there is a quick shot of a boy being forced out of a helicopter, yelling, in the midst of the chaos, “I’m not going! I’m not going!” That’s Alan Penner … a guy I knew!
Let me introduce you to Steve Valley, one of the extras. Like many of the soldiers in the crowd scenes, he is a TCK. His father worked for Lockheed, under contract to build and maintain the C-130 cargo plane. His work took the family to Saudi Arabia, Tripoli, Libya, Manila, Venezuela and Hawaii. Steve learned to swim in the Mediterranean Sea, learned to speak Arabic, and got used to the call to prayer broadcast five times a day over loudspeakers. Fields trips from the Oil Companies School were to Sabratha and Leptis Magna, the oldest ruins on the planet. Family vacations were to Malta and Tunisia. The local bread was delicious, candy was from Europe and garbage was burned across the street.
In Manila, life was good. Maids, drivers, and cooks were the norm. Like me, Steve was given an inordinate amount of freedom. Bar hopping, partying and disco dancing was the activity of choice over the weekends. We drank beer and liquor and lived like little adults. The only limitation was the government-ordained curfew from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. It was easy to get around the city, either by cab or Jeepney, in a mad dash to make it home in time. It sounds like a sybaritic paradise, but Steve says it taught him responsibility, and kids were trusted to do the right thing.
But one experience stands out above all. Steve waxes nostalgic when he talks about his time on the set of “Apocalypse Now”. He remembers Coppola as being “hell with the megaphone”. There are memories of long hours spent waiting for a shot to be set up, pouring down monsoon rains and less than ideal (make that miserable) living conditions. There were open-air toilets, set-busting typhoons and being rescued by the Philippine Army after a storm stranded the boys for two days in an old schoolhouse. He remembers hanging out with some young guy named Larry Fishburne, 14 years old at the time, Steve wishing all the time he could hang out with a “bigger” star like Martin Sheen. Sheen did eat lunch with all the boys one afternoon … they were all tongue-tied in his presence, until they figured out he was just another guy with teenage sons. While they expected the big star to be aloof and lofty, he was actually very cool and willingly signed autographs.
Robert Duvall, on the other hand, lived up to his megastar reputation. There was a moment before the shooting of the famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” scene, where Duvall was sitting on a folding canvas chair. Someone whispered “That’s Robert Duvall. He was in that movie, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’”. Another boy replied, without whispering, “Oh yeah, I recognize him. He was that retard who hid toys in the tree.” Duvall turned to look at the boy, squinting and frowning at him for an agonizing minute, before he said, “Who the f*ck is this kid?” The boy was ushered away from the star, “gagging on the foot in his mouth.”
During one scene requiring heavy rain, the crew pumped river water into four or five firehoses, aimed it straight up and let it rain down in huge brown drops on the extras, for hours at a time. In knee-deep mud they dug trenches with combat helmets, absorbing all kinds of tropical bugs. As a result, several of the boys came down with a nasty jungle fever, spending nights and days on uncomfortable cots in the humid, un-air conditioned schoolrooms, where they were billeted.
During the filming of a beach scene, the boys were given Coke cans with beer labels, as they cooked steaks on makeshift grills. At one point a huge truck of San Miguel beer arrived and the boys lined up to fill their faux beer cans with actual beer. After getting their beer, they would go to the end of the line and drink up while waiting in line for another fill up. Some went through the line several times before those in charge wised up and shut the operation down.
Adversity brings people together. While the creature comforts may have been lacking, the opportunity to be a part of this movie was once-in-a-lifetime. Like war veterans, they join together on Facebook pages to reminisce and rehash the stories of their experience. It could be that fighting an imaginary war affected them as much as a real one. Perhaps being a TCK is itself like being in a war, fighting for our identity and our place in the world. Thus, like the band of brothers who emerge from the battlefield, battered and scarred, we look to each other to find our solace. We laugh at the difficulties we overcame and brag about the ridiculous luxuries, but all in all we find, in our commonality, ourselves.