The World as it Was
A FAVORITE MEMORY
1946 – The war was over. We were going to see our own soldier again – far across the globe in a distant land.
Behind a giant Vee-spray of water our MATS transport ship had muscled the Pacific Ocean out of its way, till three weeks out of San Francisco – spouting whales, rocking storms and all – we were at last hauling into Manila harbor. We passed Corregidor’s familiar profile, General Macarthur’s famous battle post, and settled into a rumbling drift towards the dock.
Slogging to a slow stop, the ship was practically listing to port, anxious dependents cramming the railing to spot fathers and husbands. Below, a band played a poignant “Kiss Me Once, Kiss me Twice” in the center of a shifting mass of olive drab, men whose grinning faces and waving arms eagerly welcomed us. We spotted who we belonged to, shrieked and waved, then pushed down the gangplank. There were fierce whirling hugs and requisite “Oh how you’ve grown” stuff – then the agonizing wait to be processed. You ever notice wherever there’s government, there’s processing?
Cargo unloaded and distributed, a waiting government issue sedan picked us up and hauled us away to Clark Field. It was full dark by the time we got there; the road had been full of bumps and mysterious shadows, headlights briefly illuminating… something. I could see nothing outside. We entered through the gates of what I later learned was the erstwhile Fort Stotsenburg, now Clark Field – Ft. Stotsenburg was a prewar post my mother had murmured about in reverential tones. She and Daddy had been there a decade before the war. (Daddy? Yep – he’ll always be Daddy.)
Finally slowing, our headlights passed over a structure I thought was a hotel. But no – we were there… We had rolled up to the commander’s quarters, a large plantation-style home with two floors, deep screened balconies and wide porches. We would spend a few days there before traveling on to my father’s post, Floridablanca at Tarlac. (The war there, turned out, wasn’t exactly over. We spent many nights dodging Huks attacks, guerilla filippino communists.)
Inside, floors gleamed with overlapping circular patterns of wax. Early next morning, transfixed, I watched barefoot house boys, feet gripping coconut halves, skate in sweeping circles to bring back the shine, mucked up by footfalls of the previous day. A primitive buffing machine. Intrigued, my eyes followed graceful dancing moves, sometimes with a candle stub grinding under the coconut against the floor.
“Missy do?” They grinned and offered me the chance to try. “Oweeee” I whimpered… the hard coconut hurt my feet. Total failure. I toppled off, giggling. As I walked around barefoot, I picked up a stiff layer of wax on the bottoms of my feet. Shoe soles did the same. But never mind – the floors gleamed richly, enhancing the huge plantation-like homestead.
It’s been seventy years, yet I can still feel and see that gray wax coating my barefoot soles. And see my father’s face in the crowd on the dock.
FIRST TIME OUT ALONE
“Oh please God, I’m lost,” I whimpered.
As I write this, I’m a student pilot again. Remembering, my palms go cold and slippery with sweat.
It was solo time again – this time to fly away from home. I hoped.
Puffed up with bravado, I pleaded with my instructor to let me loose to go someplace else, all by myself, please, to leave the monotonous pattern of “circuits and bumps,” and range away from home base. “Another field, please? A change of scene? How about Lawrence? I’ve been there often and know it well.”
“Circuits and bumps” is the tongue in cheek expression for take-offs and landings, going around, and around, and around, the landing traffic pattern rectangle. Ah, the Circuit. The takeoff and climb-out followed by turning left to parallel the runway, going back to land on it. Throttle back on final, drift and trim for an elegant touchdown (the bump). Roll out, add power, scooting down the runway to do it all over again. Around and around, up and down. Practice makes perfect. All those left turns. Took ages before I could tolerate a right-hand pattern.
After a while, I sincerely wanted to go over to the neighboring airfield and practice there for a bit.
“Oh come on, Dodge, let me go,” I whined to my baggy-eyed instructor. “I’ll be absolutely fine. You know I will. I’ve landed there lots with you in the cockpit.”
Unable to find a good reason to say no, he signed my logbook. Super-hyped, off I went, aircraft keys in hand. I was ready to lift off without a plane.
But there was just one interesting little thing. He had not checked the visibility.
Smug with my new freedom, I carefully did my preflight, listened to the ATIS Bravo (Automatic Terminal Information Service alpha-beta’d rather than numbered) contacted ground control and taxied out. I paid no mind to the visibility advisory. Ceiling 5,000, visibility three miles. So? That was VFR – but marginal. No problem. I, hotshot student pilot, was going flying!!!
Hanscom Tower: “Three Seven Two Two Juliette cleared for takeoff runway One One.”
The air, turned out, was pure murk. As up and away I climbed, the bright green land below dimmed to appallingly indistinct. Slant range visibility from the plane was low, three miles at most. So? Hey – I knew the way. Big deal. On I puttered, confidently turning to my outbound heading.
But now seven miles from home, looking back, Hanscom had vanished into the grayness. No big wide runways in sight. Where was I? Where was I? I didn’t recognize a thing. Front, back, sideways – nothing. I clutched at the yoke. Peering through thick summertime pollution, sunlight blocked by overcast, all roads and hills looked the same. Where were familiar landmarks?
Looking at my outbound compass heading, I turned to fly the reciprocal to just go home. Unnerved, I decided that had to be what to do. And so, demoralized, I started limping back. But…where was my airport? No airport! Desperately I strained to see my way. Was I headed in the right direction? I trundled along, muttering. Praying.
“Please God, help me. I’m lost,” I whimpered. (There are no atheists in the cockpit.) Seven miles from home – and lost? So much for the hotshot pilot.
Completely rattled, I realized I couldn’t just pull over to the side and stop to figure things out. The plane had to continue flying…or it would stall and crash. Oh foolish woman, stupid student. How dumb I was.
Intently I peered through the gloom for another aircraft that might show me the way. A plane I could follow – and avoid hitting. Oh look! Up ahead were a few in a line passing in front of me… and wouldn’t you know, they were on the downwind to the runway I had only just left.
I was saved. Just in case the ATIS had changed, I listened for it. Yep, still Bravo. In a confident deep voice I keyed my mike: “Hanscom Tower, November three-seven- two-two Juliette five miles east, Bravo, landing Hanscom.”
“Roger Three-Seven-Two-Two Juliette, join downwind traffic runway One-One.”
Oh. He had me on radar. I imagined I could hear the smirk in his voice, as the student pilot limped back home. I fell into line, warm relief replacing cold fright, and touched down smoothly.
“See?” grinned I to myself – “You’re pretty good after all.”
Inside again at the flight school, they looked blankly at me. “Back so soon?”
“Yeah, the visibility was lousy,” said I. “Another day.” They nodded.
No smirks. They knew what it could be like.
Dodge sniffed and ignored me.
Don Jesus Gil is gone. Beloved Don Chuy, as known to friends and family. The landmark man of the Plaza de Armas, dueno of the Terra Cotta restaurant of the Portal of the Portales, is no more. I am amazed at how saddened I am by this particular call to The Beyond. An early memory of this kindly, handsome gray-haired man haunts me.
Let me tell you about it.
Hal and I were newcomers to this Pueblo Magico, Alamos, at that moment laid low by gripa that had gripped many. It was the January chilly season, time of the Music Festival. We were staying at the Casa Roberto, a short stroll down Calle Obregon from the Palacio, home of the governance of the town, the county. I was all better; Hal had improved to the reading-in-bed stage. I felt okay about leaving him for a nighttime downtown stroll. The town is safe for such. It was past 9pm, the sidewalks and streets were empty. I had a soup container to return to Joseph, chef of what is now Charisma, and the Tesoros. A busy man.
As I started pass the Hotel Tesoros, I peeked into the restaurant – nobody there. Then I looked beyond into the open air patio, where under the stars three musicos were huddled with their guitars, softly strumming, humming, choosing their repertoire. A merry busload of tourists had been relegated to the dining room in back – they were eating enchiladas and waiting to be serenaded, tippling the world’s best margaritas. I moved to join the three men as they sweetly intoned Gavilan o Paloma, a poetic love song of the past century. They let me croon along, adding my soprano to their bassos, grinning at my efforts to mouth the Spanish words. It was a magic moment, in the dark, under those stars.
I continued my amble. Finding chef Joseph busy in his Mansion kitchen, I returned the container – he was into the night’s cleanup. My stroll took me to the Palacio; I palavered with the night watchman. He was friendly, bemused by my gringo Spanish. Then I hoisted myself up the broad rocky stairs of the portal of the Portales – those would be banned by OSHA. There on the steps, enjoying the warm breeze of the quiet night, sat Don Jesus. He nodded a welcome to me. His day was over; meals made for who knows how many that day. We greeted each other, traded appropriate comments. “Muy bonita la noche, senora.” And then he left to arrange an iced coffee for me. He sat again on the steps, thinking his thoughts and I mine. There were two fellows talking on the plaza – they were the only other humans in view besides us. Warm winds stirred the plaza’s towering palms, trees extant for more than a century. Their rattling fronds heightened the tranquility. We sat for a while, and enjoyed the precious solitude and each other’s silence.
One the way back, I found the singers clustered in the street; we sang again, said our “que pase una buena noche,” and I returned to my sweetie’s bedside. I was under the spell of this town, held up by the gentleness of the people. Don Jesus was at one end of my walk, the musicos at the other. Where else in the world could I have done such a simple and beautiful thing?
Now there is no more the man on the plaza, the marker for our comings and goings, the one whose restaurant has fed us so well for so long. No more Don Jesus to greet when we go to the Terra Cotta. We are triste, sad. His wife continues the delicious comidas, his pretty smiling daughter Claudia serves. They fill his shoes. We have them to complete our circle.
Don Jesus, we love your daughter Claudia; she has become our touchstone at the Portal. But she’s not you, not the handsome gray-haired jefe of the Terra Cotta. I still see you in the darkness, resting on the steps, your kindly smile welcoming me. I always will. It is your spot. You will always be there.
RIP, Don Gil.
WHERE DID THE BODY MAN GO?
In bygone years, as people aged and got wobbly and dotty, there were well-muscled care-givers who were like a handy man. I remember one named “Will” who used to chase after old lady “Hen” who lived on the Chesapeake Bay. An elderly white-haired acquaintance in rural Massachusetts sadly didn’t have a keeper; one day he filled a suitcase with clocks and trudged down his country road into oblivion.
Body Men would be companions to the old fellows, old gals, and follow them around, make sure they didn’t wander away. Help them to the toilet. And when they got too decrepit to ramble, they would change the bedding and do a wash-up. The family home was part of the arena. The younger generation loved and felt obliged to their creaky grandparents, and wanted to keep them around until they left their bodies behind.
Cultures change as do ways of living. In many countries the family is a tight-knit tribe all living together. Today that is unfashionable, at least in the USA. Once our three-deckers had generations arranged on separate levels – ground floor for the elders, the middle floor for the middle-aged, and the top floor for the children. The wonderful three-decker has sadly morphed into apartment houses, in our nation of a home for every family, and car for each. But rarely a place for the declining elder unable to care for himself. This trend initially brought Rest Homes, the first iteration of the Extended Living facility.
So, the noble, kindly Body Man. He surely must now be employed in the Health Care business, a nurse or nurse’s aide, hired to haul those flailing seniors around in the Extended Care places, places wryly referred to as storage units, where old folks sit strapped in chairs await recycling. Places void of the families they brought into life.
Well, as we age we do get odd and disgusting. Smelly and dirty and needing a keeper. Maybe that unpleasantness makes it easier to bid the final farewell to the once robust father, the erstwhile lovely and tender mother.
They don’t do that here in Mexico. The only old folks’ home here, the “Asilo,” is one run by good-hearted nuns, a place maintained for those who have no families. Other old folks stay with their families, cared for until called Home.
The Close Call Cat
“What’s that?” asked my son.
He was in the right passenger seat, peering through cupped hands at the plane’s generator warning light in front of him. We were flying over the sound, from Martha’s VIneyard to the mainland. I leaned over, saw nothing.
“You have to hold your hands around it, then you can see a tiny light in the middle,” he said.
My sweet straight-tail, stick-flaps 1959 Cessna 172 – a honey of a bird – had just come out of annual inspection, so when we landed I asked its mechanic about it. I was leaving the boys with a friend over night; they tootled off, and I waited to question the mechanic.
Mechanic (the one who had done the annual): “Hm. I don’t know. Next time you’re in, I’ll get under the cowling and check it out. Loose wire maybe. You’re certainly good to go now.”
Me: “Well ok then – see you about it tomorrow or the next day.”
I scooted back to the Vineyard for dinner with Hal, the pets, and the packed car. I would leave in the morning with the pets. He would drive – I would meet him back at home.
A melancholy moment – the last summertime dinner behind picture windows looking out towards the mainland. The sunset was still two hours off. Earlier, I had flown the boys to a friend in our home town to make the seasonal closing of the house easier; we would retrieve them tomorrow. A coin-flip decided who would fly. I won, and would take off in the morning before a front came through.
But what was this? Looking out at the view, chewing our steaks and enjoying our last vacation moments, our eyes tracked lovely shell-pink scud… speeding across the sky. Lowering.
The front had upped its arrival time without telling anybody.
Whooff. I grabbed the phone to talk to flight service for an updated weather briefing. But I knew… It was just what it looked like – my get out of town notice. Right NOW. We raced to the airport.
The dog scrambled into the plane… the cat, not. Prying claws and paws off my shirt, I put him in the back. He didn’t care for moving vehicles. In a car, he yowled piteous wora-wora-woras and hid under a seat. They both settled down, cowering in corners. Lulled by the rumbling engine, they would soon sleep.
I blew bye-bye kisses over the now dull cherry red generator warning light and away I taxied. Hal had seen that glowing cherry, and had fussed. I shooed him off, convinced the mechanic was right; it would be ok. It was more convenient to believe that.
But that warning light. Relentlessly, persistently, glowing ever brighter on the panel. I considered it. If I didn’t go now, the plane would have to sit on the island, awaiting sometime off in the vague future to finally fly back to home base. I tossed it about in my mind – would the battery last? Pooh – of course. Anyway, I would have at least an hour’s worth of left of battery power, if needed. Plenty. Away I flew.
The light nagged from the corner of my eye. I climbed out over the sound, leveled off. As I passed by New Bedford, ATC transmissions began crackling in my headset. The Tower had bid me safe flight, and released me to Cape Approach. Well… the mechanic notwithstanding, the radio went dead, in only twenty minutes! Next the lights dimmed and shut off. I immediately turned off the master (electrical switch) and muttered “Oh S—t” – cockpit vernacular for “Heavens to Betsy.”
The ceiling was coming down on me. City lights to the west had disappeared into mist and rain– where the front was moving in from. But lights ahead and to the east sparkled clear, with welcoming airport runway lights here and there, not far off, shining in parallel lines. No brainer.
If the visibility hadn’t been so good to the east, I wouldn’t have continued.
So… It wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. After all, the engine was running smoothly. It didn’t need a charged battery, except to start. The worst? I might have to stay overnight in the plane at one of those airports, snugged up with the cat ‘Apache’ and dog ‘Sal’. In the rain.
I lie – that wasn’t the worst. I could be hit by an airliner who couldn’t see me! And I couldn’t tell anyone that I was there. No radio, no contact with ATC.
Here, I began to panic.
Not good… never panic. Clammy fingers clutched the yoke. “I should go up…” I said to myself, and went up a few hundred feet. “No… can’t go into clouds. I should go down,” I said – and descended again. So there I was, yo-yoing up and down, trying to call a quavering “mayday” into a dead radio, turning the master on and off as it regained a bit of juice in between uses, enough to pop on position lights.
I was foolishly panicky, silly twit, unsettling the pets.
Well lookee here. Awww… I felt a gentle touch stroking my arm. Kitty was reaching his paw out to stroke my arm as if to say “there, there, things will be fine…” I grinned to myself, and patted him back.
That cat totally set me right. He was doing just as I always did to comfort him, when he was frightened. Humbling. I took him into my lap; he curled up and stayed. No wora-wora-wora yowling. Such a fine, clever cat.
So on I flew through the misting night almost at cloud base, passing by my home airport because it needed mic radio clicks to key on the runway lights – I was unable to do that. Droning on a few miles further to the one with lit runways, I landed, cracked the door to shine a flashlight on the taxiway line, making sure the pets didn’t jump out. It was now drizzling.
Those were pre-cellphone days… I dug through pockets to find a quarter for the pay phone. My dear friend came to get us – her second airport trip that day.
What did I learn? Trust your instruments. And something else – cats are smarter than you think. And they have empathy.
Why did the electrical system fail? The generator brushes were totally worn down. In doing the annual, the mechanic hadn’t inspected them. Required.
I was relieved to be home. Could’ve been worse. Could have had to spend the night in the plane.
Better to trust the instrument than the mechanic.
BROTHER MATTHEW FLIES AGAIN
The Abbey rose among the swelling green hills of central Massachusetts, a handsome sprawling stone compound echoing medieval Europe, a beautifully mystical place of monks chanting in the dimly lit chapel their morning lauds and matins, the afternoon none, evening vespers. There were also tolling bells calling contemplatives to prayers, ringing sweetly out through the halls and over the walls. Lay people were invited to attend these chanted prayers, and come they did – sitting silently in a chamber off to the side of the Abbey chapel. The Abbey itself was off-limits to the public. Think Mont Saint Michel, and you wouldn’t be far off.
Matt was a monk, a Benedictine brother. I met him at the Abbey’s store when I was browsing through their delicious Trappist jams and jellies, goodies they simmered up in huge vats in their great kitchens, items to sell to support themselves – my favorite, a strawberry-rhubarb walnut delight. (Today, they also produce a top-notch beer made in the manner of their oldest traditions.) Also, I was searching for a reader-friendly book on meditation. He was a kindly fellow who worked doing errands and maintenance for the plant – yes, a plant, this very large Abbey.
The brothers and fathers were members of a contemplative order that maintains silence for a good part of the day, a part dedicated to prayer and meditation – hours when our brother went off in a truck on errands – first shedding his monk’s robe for workman’s blue jeans and shirt. Brother Matthew, interestingly enough, had been introduced to the heavens on an earthly plane – literally. He’d taken flying lessons when he was a teenager, and had never gotten over it. Personally, I saw no reason he should have gotten over it. This predilection, however, stood in the way of a priesthood for Matthew – he had earthly attachments he couldn’t give up, at least not in his heart. In practicality he had. But as you know, to dedicate one’s life to the priesthood, the heart and mind must be free and ready to be filled with the Holy Spirit – not taken up by any aching for man’s heaven with wings.
Through conversations – mostly irritating ones about how I should dump the jam, eat only small portions of fruit and raw vegetables, and not drink water while eating (a cultish point of view that quite put me off) he divined that I was a glider tow pilot at an airport not far from his supply route. And so he showed up, during the Fathers’ hours of silence, while out scouring for Abbey supplies. One day he rolled up in the pickup – and hel-looo… there he was. “Was he looking for a ride?” you ask. Danged straight he was, and into the back of the tow plane he hopped at my grinned invitation. Wiry guy, rank with whiffy BO from sweaty labors, he clambered in. And so began a friendship that lasted for years, years of cheerful flights (my talisman?) and occasional stop-offs at our house. Usually for a drink of water. Remember, his mantra was “No water with food,” and so he got thirsty.
When he could spring loose, Brother Matthew came to our Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. He wisely learned to leave me alone about the strawberry rhubarb jam – for me, a staple to any feast.
And water with food.
It’s just too easy to roll back the years, and be there. I’m back to eight years old. The images are strong – I’m there, digging my toes in the dirt and stirring it until it becomes a fine powder at least 8 inches deep, thus violating the rule to always wear shoes. That was to protect against whatever parasites were lurking in the loam. Ha. Although my shoes were a little girl’s dream, wooden platforms with banana trees carved and painted on the side, pale green straps criss-crossing over the toes – I was a barefoot kid. But I adored them, for they were, in fact – high heels. I mastered them instantly, being only eight years old and thrilled to the bone. They were just my size… Filipinos were a small people. We got them in the local town of Tarlac near our military post.
It was in Tarlac that I learned humility. It was an epiphany – a pivotal moment in my life. Mother and I were shopping with her friends. A crowd of natives gathered to stare at us Americans, following us closely as we moved about. I was the first white child, and blonde to boot, that most had ever seen. I was a curiosity to be examined. Watched. I preened, I held my head high, I walked with dignity. I pictured myself a princess, above them all, in my own mind. I stayed close to my mother through the clothes market, peering at and examining clothes, acting interested and, I thought, oh so very grown up. I walked proudly in my shoes.
Then we wanted to cross the street. Cars were non-existent, except for the jeep that had brought us. The village was dirt roads and dirt-floored stores, the occasional wooden walkway mocked up in the aisles, and outside here and there to pass over deep mud puddles. Dogs trailed, chickens scattered, children peered, adults stared. I felt very superior in this sea of black hair and black eyes. The crowd parted for us to cross to another store. I lifted my head the way I thought a princess should, like out of one of my fairy tale books, nose up – not deigning to look down in front of me. A princess wouldn’t look down. And guess what… OH yessss…. There was a banana peel. SO classic. Whoop! Thud! – up my feet flew – and down I went. Big ouch!!! I dared not show pain, anything. I, the princess, had to carry this off, thought I to myself. Get up and smile, brush myself off. I did. Nobody smiled. They just stared.
I learned humility. My pride had shriveled. But my shoes had stayed on.
We were going home – to a home we didn’t know yet. What would it be like, on the other side of the world?
Behind a giant V-spray of water, for 21 days our MATS transport ship muscled the sea out of its way, leaving behind spouting whales – and sometimes, escorting flocks of flying fish. Finally, finally it settled into a thrumming drift towards the Manila dock. Arriving at the pier, impatient dependents crammed against the railing, calling out to joyful fathers and husbands. The dock below was a mass of men with grinning faces and waving arms. We excitedly spotted who we belonged to, pushed down the gangplank, did fierce whirling hugs – and then agonizingly waited to be processed. Stuff had to be offloaded from the cargo, slowly swinging on hooks and ropes.
That done, a government car picked us up and hauled us away to distant Clark Field. It was full dark by the time we got there. The road had been full of bumps and mysterious shadows, headlights briefly illuminating… something. I could see nothing outside. We eventually passed through Clark Field’s tall gates – formerly Fort Stotsenburg– a prewar post my mother had always spoken of in reverential tones. We pulled up to the commanding officer’s mansion. Here we would spend a few days until we traveled on to Daddy’s post. And new home. Plantation-style, these Clark Field commander’s quarters were grand. Second floor bedrooms had screened balconies and wide porches. Downstairs, too. Inside, the floors gleamed with overlapping circular patterns of wax. How fancy, I thought. How did they do that?
How? The next day I saw how – barefoot house boys swooped around on coconut halves, bending and skating in sweeping circles to bring back glow and shine, scuffed up by footfalls. Boy-powered waxing/buffing machines! Intrigued, my eyes followed their graceful moves, sometimes with a candle stub grinding under the coconut against the floor. “Missy do?” They grinned. “Oweeee!” I yipped… the hard coconut cups hurt my feet. I toppled off, giggling. As I walked around, my bare soles picked up a stiff layer of wax. (Shoes did too.) But the floors gleamed richly, in this commander’s showplace. Candle wax subbed for floor wax. We were in a land of make-do. Mama whispered “Yankee ingenuity.” “Mommy,” I said – “looks like Filipino ingenuity.” She sniffed.
Was our house going to be grand – like this? “No, no, buttercup…” said my daddy. “Our house is nice, but not a mansion. But it’s built on a concrete pad… You can even roller skate in it!” Oh boy – I could settle for that. Our new home would be just the best.
We were adventurous, curious, and rambunctious, we transplanted military offspring. We were on Luzon, at the Army Air Corps base Florida Blanca – still Air Corps, not yet Air Force, that year. Newly reunited with our warrior dads, gleeful to be back in their arms, on their laps – and swung high on their shoulders. We were all ages of course – but this day’s gaggle was aged six to ten. Littler ones were left at home, while we were on out on a forbidden foray. Forbidden because of the danger of landmines, heinous wartime devices planted to demolish the stalking enemy – now perilous, of course, to the meandering innocent. There had been scrupulous cleanups; yet every week some poor GI was blown to bits while walking around in the fields – to pee, guy-style.
The Philippine Islands were home to a marvelous plant – a low-growing, fluffy sensitive plant. Think of our weedy little pinky puff-flowering touch-me-not, and bring it to a higher level. The kind that when you touch it, recoils and folds up its leaves to escape. Then on its own timing it slowly unfolds to again capture the sunshine. These grew knee-high and left an intriguing path as we kids plowed through them. As we stirred the greenery, up flew myriads of flying insects, from tiniest butterflies to gnats and mosquitoes – which circled maddeningly. When we passed through the field and looked back – we saw the sensitive plants delightfully filling in the channeled footpath we had forged. No one would ever have guessed we had passed by. Just the kind of field for landmines. If there were any, we missed them. Our guardian angels were busy.
Way across the open field, at its edge, arose a thick jungle of bushes, vines, and trees. It was after all, the tropics. As we pushed through, making our way to the edge of the valley beyond (at the right season, we saw agri-burnoff down there done by the farmers… mostly sugar cane) – with a shock we stumbled onto an airplane wreck hidden in the deep jungle shadows. Tentatively, a couple of us stepped gingerly into the crashed Japanese fuselage, tell-tale red circle on its side. Then we saw the upright helmeted, uniformed skeleton in the pilot’s seat. We didn’t go further to see the face, the actual skull. We pivoted and breathlessly rocketed out – shrieking in terror. Silly us… the dead couldn’t hurt us. Oh yeah? Maybe yes, maybe no. We could not report this – we were doing a forbidden thing.
It was Luzon, 1946. Small wild horses grazed the lands. When one soon met his grisly demise in that same field, we kids gathered and huddled, and marveled at our luck.
I finally confessed it, to a non-plussed father. He growled his disapproval – but it was way too late. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” was hardly enough. His hug gave forgiveness, and showed his relief.
The wild sight is burned in my memory – Chinese Joe the cook, enraged, crazed, chasing fleeing terrified Lupe the housemaid with a carving knife held high to plunge into her back. His slitted eyes were on fire, his lips drawn back from his teeth, gaunt cheeks sucked in in fury. It was reflex – glaring, I bellowed “Joe Stop!! – give me that knife!” and lunged forward to grab it from him. He stopped, trembling.
I was eight years old, a yellow-haired brat, daughter of the conqueror. It was 1946, on Luzon. End of WW2. Head wavering, he gave it to me. The commotion drew my parents to the scene. “Give me the knife, Mike!” said Daddy, grimly – mother horrified and Daddy appalled. What had happened?
Joe was a gifted cook, master of the delicate merengue and flaky crusted rolls, creator and chef of dream-like, mouth-watering cuisine. He had come to us via an old restaurateur friend of my father, one he had bailed out of a Manila restaurant closure before the Conflict, back during a prewar posting. Lt. Morgan, my Daddy to be, had coughed up $50 to keep his restaurant open (a lot back then) – this money had enabled him, through the intervening years, to expand throughout the south pacific. He believed he owed his success to my father, and in the philosophy of the East, he was indebted for life. He was known to us as Charlie Corn, a vague approximation of what his name sounded like to Yankee ears. So when Charlie Corn heard that my father was back on Luzon, he appeared like a welcome genie with a cook for the household, someone he drew out of his army of restaurant cooks. And he had only the best. That excellence is what had prompted my father to keep him afloat all those years before.
Joe was a genius – but a temperamental one. Like most artists, he held his secrets close to his chest. NO one could watch him cook. Once day mother peeked in and saw him making his golden buttery rolls… he was spitting the glaze from between his teeth onto each before slipping the pan into the oven. Pit-tooey! pit-tooey! pit-tooey! And so on… Quietly she snuck away, deciding the oven’s heat would burn off the germs. The glaze was so lovely.
But foolish Lupe was not smart. She teased paranoid Joe relentlessly, peering into the kitchen from around the corner. His artistic license was threatened… He had secrets he would not, could not, share. He loathed Lupe and her teasing… He finally snapped. Violently. They were on a chase through the living room when high-pitched oriental screams reached my ears, and I stepped up.
You never know what life will bring. If I had been older, I might not have been so bold. Yeah, I would have.
Some of us don’t have much sense.