Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Weekend at Subic Bay

Sometimes it’s hard to do my job.  Every day I am faced with a large cart of books that need to be cataloged, and too often I end up thumbing through one that catches my eye.  I’m transported from my little cubicle in Technical Services to worlds that I can only dream about.  To historic events, to the lives of the rich and famous to the poor and the not-so-famous. I never know when a non-fiction book will take me back somewhere in my past.  The minutes tick away as I fall, engrossed, into the book and into my memories.  Suddenly I, guiltily, snap back to reality and carry on with my work.

The other day, it was Graham Nash’s autobiography, “Wild Tales: A Rock and Roll Life."  I have always put Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) at the number one spot of my favorite bands.  I’ve written before about how their music is thematic of my sister, Lisa’s life, and of my vision, as a spectator, of her extraordinary high school years.  Their rich sound and lyrics remind me of jam sessions in our living room in Brussels, made up of lanky, long-haired, blue-jean-wearing, motorcycle-riding guys and their girlfriends, singing impossible harmonies and strumming their 12-string guitars.  I peeked in from behind closed doors, taking it in, wishing I could be like them, young, talented and totally cool, their whole lives lying ahead. 

I put CSN on my iPod this morning (to start my day … but that’s another band) and a song came up that took me in an entirely different direction, to the Philippines, in a galaxy far, far away ... 

It was Thanksgiving, 1976.  My mom and her friend Eileen had booked a shopping trip to Hong Kong.  My dad was on his way to India for an extended business trip.  What to do with me?  Of all times, at Thanksgiving, the penultimate family holiday, my family was leaving me!  Luckily, I had two invitations: one to go to the mountain resort of Baguio with a family friend.  The other was a trip, just for fun, to Subic Bay, the home of the biggest US Naval Base in the Pacific at the time, about 50 miles north west of Manila.  What a choice.

The friend who invited me to Subic was uber cool: she was a cheerleader, and beautiful, and I was thrilled that she saw fit to be my friend.  We had met in our Asian Studies class; she was new to the school, and we just clicked.  I always felt comfortable with her, and we had a lot of fun together, sometimes skipping school to grab a burger at the local watering hole. We laughed a lot and got into some shenanigans here and there.  She lived a little on the edge, which enticed me, and gave me courage to do the same. 

She was dating a guy whose father was a physician at the Naval Air Station, Cubi Point, on the edge of Subic.  Another girlfriend was to join us, with the boyfriend, and the four of us were to stay with his family at Cubi.  We left the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, on a Victory Liner bus.  It was loud, hot, dusty and windy, and we sat, happy and free, as we bounced our way north to Olongapo City, outside the gates of the base.  We made our way to Cubi, and to the boyfriend’s house.  When we arrived, there were no parents in sight.  We had the house to ourselves, for the entire weekend.  I was sixteen years old.

The boyfriend was a student at George Dewey High School, and we made our way over there to meet some of his friends. "Afternoon Delight" was a big hit at the time, and it seemed to be playing from every jukebox we passed.  We went out that first night to a club on base where we danced to the latest music from the states, and later ate American hamburgers and chocolate ice cream at the nearby bowling alley.  There were American servicemen everywhere you looked, and you know what they say about a man in uniform.  It was mesmerizing.  They also paid more than a little attention to us as we passed.  The next night we went to a club called The Sampaguita Club, where a Marine MP took one look at my I.D. and threw us out because we were underage.  For some reason, we then went to the Officers’ Club (where age doesn’t matter?) and I was asked to dance by ten different sharply dressed officers.  Was I in heaven? 

Me, at sixteen.
The next day we took the ferry to Grande Island in the middle of the bay, an R and R spot for the military.  We hung out on the beach, drinking and just being.  Sunburned and a little tipsy (perhaps?) we came back to the boyfriend’s house and dressed for an evening out.  We hooked up with a nurse who worked at the naval hospital and her date. She was a WAVE, and worked with the boyfriend’s father at the hospital.  It was a strange time in the history of the base: the war in Vietnam was over, and for whatever reason there was a lot of dissatisfaction among those in the Navy.  We saw evidence of drugs everywhere; they were just another part of Navy life.  We listened, horrified, to stories about two servicemen who had rescued a drowning Filipina, only to be accused of rape by her family.  Thrown in the brig, the men endured daily beatings by Marine MPs.  There seemed to be a dome of dark discontent covering the entire base.  Graffiti was spray painted on many a wall: FTN! 

After lingering for a while in the nurse's apartment, we left to see the sights in Olongapo.  The base was separated from the city by a river, if you could call it that, more like an open sewer (its nickname was Shit River).  Walking across the bridge from the base into the city, I was a little amused, but at the same time shocked to see men in small boats on the river, calling out to the passing sailors, “You want a girl?  Hey Joe!  You want a young girl! My sister only 13!”  Small children would actually be swimming in the awful water, calling for people to throw coins to them.  If the coins landed in the water, the kids would dive down to the mucky bottom to retrieve them.  We were too young to appreciate the tragedy, only in retrospect do I understand the dark world we were passing through. 

On the main thoroughfare the air was pulsing with music from the clubs.  Beautiful Filipina women stood in the doorways, dressed provocatively, enticing passersby to enter.  There was a sensory cacophony of the loud music, cigarette smoke, stale beer, and cooking food. We were blinded by thousands of blinking neon lights.  The sidewalk teemed with humanity: sailors and Filipinos moving in all directions as jeepneys and motorcycle taxis rumbled by coughing out diesel fumes.  Towering above the crowd, tall MPs sauntered along, their starched while uniforms spotless and pressed, hands on their billy clubs, looking for misbehaving sailors.

The view from the base looking towards Olongapo.
We wandered into a club called New Florida, where we danced with each other and other guys. I suppose we were rare birds: young American girls.  My friend gave me some dance tips: "It's all in the shoulders, Liz!" I was determined to get drunk, (no drinking age off-base in the city!) so I slammed back three rums and coke, one after the other.  Someone ordered a pitcher of something called Mojo, a mixture of vodka, rum, gin, San Miguel beer, pineapple juice and who knows what else.  The place started seriously spinning and my friend took me out into the fresh air to walk it off.  As we walked along the sidewalk, elbowing our way through the crowd, I ran smack dab into an air conditioning unit, gashing my head in the process.  We ducked into a pizza place to clean up my head, which was bleeding pretty decently by then.  The bathroom was packed with Filipinas, all shapes and sizes, and we had to elbow our way to the sink.  It was hot and damp, with a strong, wet smell of disinfectant mixed with cheap perfume (and other things).  The floor seemed to be going up and down like a carnival fun house.  Groups of women preened in front of the mirror, chattering in rapid-fire Tagalog and reapplying their makeup.  As I leaned in, dabbing my head with a paper towel, a young girl threw up in the sink next to me.  It was surreal: I remember thinking that I was hallucinating, or at least wishing I was. 

Back to New Florida we went.  As I sat at the table, the others back on the dance floor, I sensed a presence; a sailor sat down next to me.  He kept asking me to dance, but I refused, saying I was just too wasted.  I told him to sit down and talk to me, so he did.  His name was Allan.  He was only 19, not much older than I was, and had already been in the Navy for a year.  After having met a lot of sailors that weekend, I don’t know why Allan stood out (especially in my impaired state).  He was on the USS Okinawa, and he landed helicopters.  We just couldn’t stop talking.  At one point a song came on: Stephen Stills’ "Love the One You’re With."  It was almost as if the music sobered me up, returned clarity to my head, and marked the time and place, like a pin on a map.  He touched the now very large bump and gash on my head, and kissed it.  He put his hand on my shoulder and pulled out a picture of himself, after writing something on the back. 

Exhausted from the dancing, and the alcohol starting to wear off, we all left to go back on base to get something to eat, and Allan tagged along.  Ears ringing in the sudden quiet, we sat at a table, and he seemed reflective, quiet.  I asked him if anything was wrong, and he said, “If you don’t understand my silence, you’ll never understand my words.”  He seemed to wake up after that, pulling out pictures of his family, his twin sister, telling me his life story.  Suddenly he looked at his watch and said, “Shit!  I was supposed to be back on the ship by midnight!  It’s 12:30!”  No problem … the boyfriend said it was cool to come back to his house until 4, when he could go back on board. 

Everyone else went to bed, and Allan and I stayed up on the patio talking through the night, taking in the sleepy lights of Subic as the tropical breeze pushed the bougainvillea bushes to and fro.  I was in a trance.  I listened to him talk about his girlfriend back home, how she dumped him when he went into the service.  How he missed his family, and how hard it was to be in the Navy.  I remember the glow of his cigarette in the dark, as he paused to take a drag, his short military haircut and his denim uniform.  I was floating on air.  There I was, having an adult conversation with a man who thought I was interesting.  Little old me!  I still marvel that I was there at all … there had been no phone call from my parents to check out where I would be.  Did they even care?

4:00 came entirely too quickly, and as a taxi pulled up to take Allan back to his ship, he leaned down and kissed me good-bye.  The sun was still a long time away from coming up, and I headed back in the house to sleep.  I lay in the bed, reliving everything that had just happened as I drifted off. 

Perhaps we were just two lost souls who happened to find each other across a noisy, smoky bar.  He so far away from home, longing for his family; me, near to my home as I knew it, but longing for my family as well.  There were too many stretches of time where I was alone, my dad on the never-ending business trips (sometimes several weeks away), my mom out with her friends, playing mahjongg or shopping in Hong Kong.  It was a rare day that I came home from school to find anyone there.  I was desperate for some semblance of stability, a port if you will.  Allan and I were both adrift, (him literally, me figuratively) out in the big bad world with no direction.  We happened to stumble across each other in the course of a crazy, wild weekend, each a buoy for the other in the middle of an ocean. 

Not me at Grande Island.
Several weeks later, I heard through the grapevine that the Okinawa was back at Subic.  I had this silly notion that Allan and I would be reunited and we would sail off into the sunset. 

I managed to get back to Subic with a different girlfriend, ostensibly to watch a soccer match between our school and Dewey High School.  Of course as soon as the bus got there, we ditched the game and went browsing around the base.  (I still remember how the goody two-shoes in me whined and kvetched about how we were going to get in trouble, until my friend finally told me to shut the heck up.  I wasn't a very good "bad girl.")  We took the boat across to Grande Island, walking along the beach.  I didn’t really expect to find Allan, what were the odds?  I mean, there were thousands of people at Subic.  Surely I would never find him!

I literally stumbled across a group of people, sailors and Filipinas partying on the beach, tripping over the corner of their beach blanket.  I hastily apologized, blushing, and turned to the guy whose legs I had just trampled.  It was Allan.

I stood there, stunned and agape with disbelief.  He jumped up to his feet, and hugged me. He stood in front of me, and grabbed my hand.  We walked over to the breakwater, and sat down on the rocks, our feet dangling over the sea.  He told me there was “something about me”.  We decided to have a romance on paper.  The Okinawa was leaving the next day for Taiwan, and he promised to write to me every day.  He kissed me again, like he had that night at Cubi, and I watched him walk away.  My girlfriend and I got in lots of trouble with the school (see, I was right!) for ditching the soccer game (the bus had waited three hours for us, ack!)  I was humiliated by getting into trouble, but it was worth the few minutes I got to spend with Allan.

Over the next few weeks, I got several letters from him while the Okinawa was cruising around the Pacific.  He wrote me poems and told me about his life on board the aircraft carrier.  He sent goofy pictures of himself and the guys on the ship.  He told me he loved me, as if, impossibly, he could create a love affair by writing about it. For the love-starved, hyper-romantic teenager that I was, it was gold.

Then, just as soon as they had started, the letters stopped coming.  Over time my memories of him, such as they were, faded.  Life went on.  Our moment was over.

About a year later, I did get a short note from him, telling me he had been kicked out of the Navy, and he was back in California, but that was it.  I never heard from him again. 

When the internet came along, a hundred years later, on a whim I tried to find Allan, if nothing else, to tell him how I still remembered him, and how our brief time together had made me, an awkward and lonely teenager, feel special.  Somehow I found out that he had died in the late 1990s.  Strangely, I was crushed.  I still can’t explain the magic of that crazy weekend, amazed that my parents didn’t care where I was or what I was doing.  It was like a quick, heady trip home to the states; the American food, the music, the American guys.  Allan and I had probably spent a total of about 6 hours together.  Maybe that was how it was supposed to be: brief, but meaningful.  A message from the universe that we were not alone.

Every time I hear that song, “Love the One You’re With," I am transported back to that skanky bar in Olongapo and can taste the sickly sweet Mojo.  I can smell the cigarette smoke and hear the music crashing around my ears.  And I remember how a young sailor picked me out of a crowd and, just for a moment, made me feel special. 

If you're down and confused

And you don't remember who you're talking to

Concentration slips away

Because your baby is so far away
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

And if you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

Don't be angry, don't be sad

Don't sit crying over good times you've had

Well there's a girl sitting right next to you

And she's just waiting for something to do
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

And if you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

You gotta love the one you're with

Turn your heartache right into joy

She's a girl and you're a boy

Did you get it together and make it nice?

When you ain't gonna need anymore advice
Well there's a rose in a fisted glove

And the eagle flies with the dove

Sometimes you can't be with the one you love, honey

Love the one you're with

You can read more about the debauchery and insanity that servicemen at Subic got into at 

From my "fully-in-port-on-solid-ground" position today, it all seems ridiculous that my parents were on board (let's see how many boat and ocean puns I can cram into one blog entry!) with me spending several days at a military base filled with hundreds (thousands?) of young men who were on dry land after having been at sea for months.  It was a different parenting universe, to be sure.  I truly believe that a parent living with children overseas had similar issues of detachment from (reality?) the norms back stateside.  Perhaps my parents were struggling in their own fashion to find their way.  Is there such a thing as a Third Culture Parent?  I wonder.  


Anonymous said...

Wow! This sounds so familiar! I too went to Subic. What a wild and wooly place!

Eric said...

Hi there, greetings from the Philippines!
I found my way here and was enjoying my reading. I come from Olongapo and your story here reminds me of the old happy days when Subic Naval Base was still there.
My life back then was filled with dreams that one day I would find my way to USA and work in the US Navy. But of course, it didn't happen.