In late February, 1964, I was awakened by my wife who, at the time, was frantically whacking me about the head and shoulders and telling me it was time. Time? Time for what? Oh, THAT! I leapt out of bed (flopped tiredly, actually) grabbed the phone and called my neighbor on the other side of the wall. He was, fortunately, a Hospital Corpsman who calmed me down and told me to get over to the base dispensary. “And don’t forget your wife!” He admonished.
I’m not sure how we managed, but we did get there. There was another young woman, and an equally frazzled looking guy, like me, and she was in the very same predicament – pregnant and about to give birth. The duty corpsman was beside himself as he admitted he’d never before even assisted in childbirth. Oh, that was a confidence builder for sure. All that ran through my mind was the line from Gone with the Wind: “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthing no babies!!!!!”
As an added feature, there were only two ambulances available – a very boxy field ambulance (which now contained the gasping young lady I mentioned before) and no room for MY gasping young lady. So, we carried the stretcher bearing my wife out to a huge Pontiac Bonneville station wagon ambulance (A’la “Ghostbusters”). The first ambulance started off on the hour long journey to Cubi Point Naval Hospital down near Subic Bay.
Have I mentioned that it was a very dark night, windy, and misting with rain? No. Well it was. I’m still not sure what time it was – even now – but it was around o’dark-hundred. Once settled down in the back as best as she could be, the corpsman jumped in (not our friend, but the younger one) and off we went.
U.S. personnel were not allowed to drive the military vehicles off base in the P.I. This was due to an agreement called the Status of Forces Agreement. In actuality, it was a license to steal by the Philippinos; not that I didn’t agree with them, due to driving conditions which were, um, hazardous to say the least. So, we had a diminutive native at the wheel that, with visions of Sterling Moss in his head, roared out of the parking lot and headed at almost full throttle towards the main gate – who had been alerted that two ambulances were on their way off base.
We squealed around the corner just past the gate and took off down the mostly-paved street called “The Roads” (for Crossroads, where all the guys hung out for liberty) and blew past seemingly hundreds of bars and ‘hotels’. The paving, such as it was, ended at the edge of San Antonio. Off between the rice paddies and cane fields we went. For the most part, the road stayed straight. Once in a while it curved, but the driver didn’t slow at all. Every time we came to one of the single-lane bridges he’d pop on the red rotating light and blow over the bridge, then turn it off. He was getting a kick out of this. Too good to be true.
BOOM! Flap, flap, flub, flub. We swerved from side to side as only a squat, ungainly, heavy, station wagon can. We’d blown a tire. The driver edged to the side of the road as close as he could get to the rice paddy next to it. I stepped out and directly down the short embankment into a water-filled ditch. Not very auspicious. The corpsman was next, but I managed to tell him about the ditch before he blundered into it also. The driver refused to get out of “his” vehicle stating that (and probably quoting the regulation verbatim) ‘drivers weren’t to leave their vehicles at any time’.
Grumbling, I searched the back end tool area for a jack and found none. We did find a spare tire, however, so not all was lost. At this time, my wife was getting more and more agitated and began loudly letting us know things were getting urgent. She was down to a contraction somewhere near every ten minutes and each time she had one, the corpsman got whiter and whiter. We looked around for any sort of help or light, but all we could find was a Caribou standing knee-deep in muddy water and slowly chewing his/her cud. “Mmmmmoooo”, was all he/she said. No help there.
Finally, with a shout, I located the lug wrench where someone had thoughtfully placed it – under the front seat. I held it up in the air and rushed back to the flat rear tire. We still had not found a jack of any kind at all. Not a sign of it. There were clips for one in the tool compartment, but no jack. I cast around in ever-widening circles looking for anything we could use to lift this fifteen-ton ambulance. I fastened my eyes on a very long bamboo pole at the side of the road to mark where a trail went into the field. This is an emergency I thought and ripped it loose from the wiring holding it to the uprights.
Between the corpsman and I, and a huge rock we’d rolled under the rear end, we actually got that damn vehicle off the ground enough (after loosening all the lug nuts) to pull the tire off. Now we had another problem: How to hold the thing up while one of us swapped the tires. As it was, we needed the two of us just to keep it in the air. Enter the driver. Under threats of feeding him to the Caribou, we persuaded him to exchange the tires. He did, and we slowly let the vehicle settle down on the new tire. It was soft, but held. We piled back in and took off once again.
We pulled into the hospital with a roar. This was because we’d hit a fairly big rock and loosened the coupling from the header to the muffler. The driver was deathly afraid we’d make him pay for it’s repair. Two attendants met us at the door and wheeled my wife into the waiting room. She was established in a room with all sorts of attendants surrounding her. I managed a quick ‘love you’ before being pushed out of the room.
In the most grand traditions of the military our baby decided to ‘hurry up and wait’. I fell asleep around 0400 and wasn’t fully awake when the nurse shook me at around 0900 and said I had a daughter. That got my attention. I was led down a corridor and into another room. My wife was lying back in the bed with her eyes closed. “We have a daughter?” I asked. She answered “That’s what they tell me. I’ve only seen her once. I’m a bit groggy.” Which was an understatement as she appeared to be looking at each of me in turn and trying to discover which one was real.
While I was describing what we’d gone through to get her here (she didn’t remember much of the trip), the nurse brought our daughter in and laid her down next to my wife. I struggled manfully for about ten seconds and then broke into tears at the sight of my wife and our small baby. It was pretty emotional.
A day later, there was a second lady in the room with her. She was the wife of a Cubi Point airman with a very similar sounding last name. The nurses, who were all Philippino, had a very hard time pronouncing either woman’s names so the routines when they brought either (or both) babies into the room was reminiscent of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?”. Her baby was a boy, so there was no real danger of mixing them up.
The very day we brought our daughter home, Maria took over the care duties and my wife rarely had to lift a finger. We had increased her pay, from $30 a month to $40 (which she thought was way too much) so she was determined to earn it. Even now, in the next century, we still look back fondly at the scene: A barely twenty-year old young mother with a live-in maid to take care of her daughter.
Next: Some short PI vignettes