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.