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.