Life on the Oxford, Pt 3

Watchstanding get pretty old after a while.  It is pretty much unendurable when you’ve been at it for over 90 days.  We were slogging our way around Vietnam eastside to Westside and back for two months when we got a call to head for the Indian Ocean.  Our food supplies, always low, got nearly exhausted on this new deployment.  We were reduced to putting hot sauce on everything from powered eggs to mystery meat.  Midrats (the ‘fourth’ meal we had every day just before going on the 0000 to 0400 watch) consisted of bread in which you had to have faith that the crunchy things were caraway seeds; sliced, long, salami-like, tubes of meat (commonly called ‘horsecock’), and mustard with a distinctly tangy flavor.  Don’t even ask about the green beans.  As a M*A*S*H cook said “you want green, have some mayonnaise”.

We ended up that tour by passing so close to Singapore we could taste the tang in the air.  As it turned out, we were pretty fortunate because we ended up in Bangkok, Thailand for a week.  With 90 days of pay in our pockets, we hit the beach by storm.  Amazingly, our ship was the only US ship in port at that time.  The rest were Australian and they really know how to party.  We couldn’t buy a drink anywhere – they’d treat.

– – –

The typhoon we hit wasn’t the largest one that year, but it hit us dead center.  Our speed, at ‘all ahead panic’ was about 10 knots.  The current was against us and running at around 12 knots.  Thus, we were actually going backwards at 2 knots although we were pushing nose-deep into heave swells reaching up to over 40 feet.  There is a picture on the Oxford web site here:

The Oxford was built originally as a Liberty ship during WW2.  It was blunt-bowed and flat bottomed.  It would roll, as they say, ‘in a teacup’.  Being bounced from bulkhead to bulkhead as you tried to traverse a passageway would do nothing but bruise your shoulders.  We were all told to just go lie in our bunks and strap in.

Those of us on watch had to continue on watch.  We used typewriters to put down everything we heard so with the ship rolling so hard it was difficult to pull the lever and push the carriage uphill.  One of our brighter lads found that if you put a bunch of rubber bands together and tied one end to your receiver, and the other to the end to the carriage, it would assist you in throwing the carriage.  This worked, but you had to wait until it was an uphill battle.  If you threw the carriage when the ship was on a starboard roll, the carriage shot downhill and ended up on the floor.  The repair guys (called ‘matmen’) were dismayed at us to say the least.

– – –

One time, as we entered Da Nang harbor, a destroyer was coming outbound.  As she passed us, we saw the guns begin to elevate and train.  They weren’t aiming at us, thank goodness, but, instead, aiming at the hillside past us.  Once we cleared their stern there was a thunderous blast as several of their big guns let go.  Dust, debris, and probably bits of Viet Cong flew into the air.  Four volleys later, they secured their guns.  We found out later that a sapper attack had just occurred and the infiltrators had run into the hills around the harbor.  The destroyer was just taking care of business.

As the Chief pointed out on deck later that night “that’s why you have to darken ship and do NOT show lights on deck.  We’re so close to shore that they can hit us with their guns”.  A happy thought.

– – –

In the dead of winter we were fighting our way on a northerly course heading for Sasebo, Japan.  Snow, freezing rain, winds, and general misery abounded.  Those of us who braved the open decks didn’t stay out long.  Finally, we arrived and, as we were maneuvering to our pier, something down in ‘the hole’ let go.  Not being an Engineman, I wouldn’t have known a steam chest from an evaporator, but the scuttlebutt (rumors) were saying  we’d really done something nasty to the engine.

It was decided that we would go ‘cold iron’ which meant we would shut down the entire engineering spaces and draw power and steam heat from shore.  There we sat for just under 30 days.  Since we were a ship of the fleet, we had to supply Shore Patrol Supplementarys (which meant we had to augment the land-based patrolmen) with members of our own crew.  Now, normally, being assigned to Shore Patrol was an odious task but under this circumstance it was a huge success.  Guys would fight to be put on the watch bill for that duty.

Being Shore Patrol meant that you got to see where all the good spots were and where and the even better spots were, so to speak.  Since you carried your SP credentials, you could always claim you were undercover.  (Hey, sometimes that worked – but not with Marines).  I, being a supervisor, even had a Jeep to cruise around in.  However, this was not all skittles and beer as you might imagine – it was COLD!  The Jeep was an open vehicle with steel seats.  The only thing we had between us and the frigid air was a windshield which, for the most part, would end up folded down on the hood because the wipers didn’t work.  At least in winter you didn’t have to worry about bugs in your teeth.

Every Naval base I’ve ever been on in WestPac (Western Pacific) had a Fiddler’s Green Club.  This is where crewmembers of all ships in the fleet come to discuss world events, meet others and interact socially.  Nightly fights were the norm and they never stopped, only went outside into the snow as we threw them out of the various rooms.  You had to be careful though because the next guy you threw out might be on Shore Patrol the next night and be operating on you!

– – –

On one very party night in Sasebo I was studying for the First Class exam to be given at 0900 the next morning.  I finished my drink(s) and wandered back to the ship and crashed.  I barely made muster at 0858 in the crew’s mess, ready, more or less, to take a highly technical, and highly classified, examination for my next higher rate.

This was back in the days when you were handed a booklet with multiple guess questions and an IBM card which you had to use a little plastic tool to punch out the (hopefully) correct answers (remember the ‘hanging chad’ bit of the Florida election?).  I blew the first card and had to ask for another.  I was terribly hung over but determined to do my best.

Of the twenty or so of us in the spaces, I was the first to leave, having punched all the holes (finally) correctly.  The only thing I wanted was rest and an aspirin.

Two weeks passed, then three.  One day, the 1MC fired up and the results of all the tests for the various ratings aboard the ship were read off.  They started with ship’s company (naturally) and then moved to what they termed ‘passengers’ (us).  The speaker worked his way up from Seaman through Third Class and then to Second Class.  I was barely listening when I suddenly heard my name.  I’d passed the test for First Class!  Not only did I pass, but I was the only one out of seven that took the exam with me.  I was elated.  At last, I was able to get into the First Class Lounge and play Acey-Ducey with the guys.  I could watch movies on the mess decks and eat popcorn through Plexiglas instead of having to sit with the rabble.  I was a ‘wheel’.

– – –

I can’t imagine writing down parts of my life as I lived it in the Oxford without making mention of a particularly wonderful liberty town called Olongapo.  Ah, just the thought of it would bring tears to your eyes.  Being there in person would not only do that, but close up your sinuses also.  The place was smelly, dirty, hot, dusty, noisy, and filled with the most incredible assortment of bars, hotels, bars, movie theatres, bars, restaurants, bars and more bars.  There were bars that held only six or eight people and there were bars that could hold the entire crew of the Oxford.

Surrounding these bars were dirt roads.  The main drag consisted of wall-to-wall Jeepneys.  A Jeepney is the shell of a World War 2 American Jeep that has been transformed into a personnel carrier.  It is usually brightly painted and has loads of dangling items from every window.  The more brightly painted and/or chrome items attached, the more status the owner had as an entrepreneur.  The more sailors he could cram into it, the better he could fleece them.  This was definitely the Philippine version of “Pimp my Jeep”.

A typical evening might go like this.

You dress carefully in your freshly starched and pressed Undress white uniform.  This is the white uniform that only contains ribbons instead of medals.  You make sure that your watch is either secured inside your pocket, or has a sturdy steel band (non-expansion).  You put your cigarettes firmly in your sock elastic (no where else on your uniform to put them) and add a second pack in the other sock.  Any money you have is distributed in various places around your body.  Usually about a third is in your left shoe, a third in your right shoe, and the rest in the tiny little watch pocket at your waistband.  I pays to take these precautions, trust me.

Finally (in about ten minutes after you start dressing) you begin to filter up to the Quarterdeck and look unobtrusive.  This can be difficult because there are about seventy other guys doing exactly the same thing.  The crowd grows until the Officer of the Deck (OD) gets pissed and orders us ‘the hell off my Quarterdeck until liberty call’.  I mean to tell you we were like a bunch or roaches ready for the light to be turned on.

The power switch is thrown on the 1MC (shipboard announcement system) and suddenly there it is!  A long, thin blast of the Bosun’s whistle followed by the announcement that we’d been waiting for ever since about 1500: “Now liberty Call!  Liberty for Section Two.  Liberty for all nonrated men to expire on board at twenty-three hundred; all rated and Chief Petty Officers to expire on board at twenty-four hundred.”

By the time the announcement ended, all seventy of us had queued up, saluted the OD, saluted the US Ensign, and blew down the gangplank to shore and began to swarm towards the bridge over the Shit River.  The closer you get to the guard shacks that border Subic Naval Base the headier the smell gets.  Finally, you turn the corner and are confronted with what seems like thousands of people all clamoring for your attention.

This is actually true – there ARE thousands of people all clamoring for your attention.  Jeepney drivers, bar touts, Monkey Meat sellers, girls of all kinds (more on that later), dogs, and the little boys that surround you like locusts and strip you bare if they can.  Your ID and liberty card are scanned by a Marine Guard and he passes you into the tender care of Olongapo, or “Po Town”

Every sailor I’ve ever known that hits this port will begin to salivate for a cold San Miguel beer somewhere about three hundred miles out.  By the time we tie up, this craving has reached epic proportions.  You have just GOT to have one.  This is fixed in your mind as you evade the grasp of young boys and others.  Down the dusty road you go with your shipmates in the quest of the coldest beer in town.  Ask any bar tout and they will be happy to tell you that THEIR bar has the coldest beer.  But, we are on a mission to get to “our” bar, the bar the Oxford has set aside as a place to gather before expanding outwards; and the last place to gather before heading back to the ship.

This bar, called The Shipwreck, is owned by a colorful woman (they are all owned by women) named “Boats” which is short for Boatswain’s Mate.  She had the mouth to prove it too.  We order our beer and it arrives – all seven bottles frozen together in one huge mass of ice.  Now THAT is what I call a really cold beer.  Coldness of beer is ensured by throwing a case or two into a freezer overnight.  The bottles that have the caps blown off are no good because they don’t contain enough alcohol and they freeze.  The beer bottles you are after are the ones that don’t have their caps off.  Quality control in the Manila brewery for San Miguel is a bit lax.  In fact, they didn’t even have standards for alcoholic content that I know of.

Anyway, after three or four of these, the huge mass of us begins to break up into groups.  There are never loners out on liberty in Olongapo.  It just isn’t done.  The instant you exit the bar, the law of the jungle takes over.  Inside, the mama-sans run with an iron hand.  Outside, you take your own chances.  Within seconds you get hands wandering all around your body.  Most of them are owned by future TSA pat-down artists who are only checking you for money, cigarettes, or signs you really could use a massage.  Some of them are actually female, the rest are not.  The ones, who are not, are called Benny Boys.  It is entirely possible that before the evening is over, you will get ‘the eye’ from a comely female only to find out that she isn’t a she at all.  It is extremely difficult to tell them at a glance they are so good.

From bar to bar, you navigate.  High winds, rough seas, and the ever-present shoals of humanity try their very best to part you from your money.  Some are successful, some are not.  I’ve heard tales of liberty parties that made it up one side of the four blocks of bars and back down the other – having a drink in each – but this is usually hooted down as a ‘tale for landlubbers’ and not true.  In fact, all the times I tried it I never got past the second block.

Soon, it is time for the various floor shows to begin in the larger bars.  Small bars know this and will even be known to close their doors and shoo their clientele through interior doors to a larger bar next door.  They split the take also.  Floor shows always start with several songs played by various Philippino bands.  Some are very good and some are very bad.  All are very loud.  Next, to the accompaniment of said bands, come the dancing girls and singers.  You haven’t lived until you see a forty year-old women with an appendix scar dancing a hootchie-kootchie dance, or an extremely well-built woman in a pained on dress singing ‘Cold Finger’, a James Bond themesong.

Some acts would have a Tijuana resident blushing.  Audience participation, in some cases actually solicited, is a big plus.  The evening moves along and the crowd moves from one bar to another.  All nightclubs have agreed to have their starting times staggered (as well as their clientele) which allows everyone to see the various shows.

By arrangement with the local constabulary, the shows start at the far end of town and work their way towards the main gate of the base.  The local cops, called PC’s (Philippine Constabulary), think nothing of wading into a disturbance and firing their submachine guns into the ceiling.  I don’t think much of it either, especially if there is a second floor.  A lot of big clubs are built on the second floor with smaller little bars underneath them.  The Ponderosa was the biggest one in town; it even had a sister club outside the gate at Clark Air Base.

By the time you present yourself at the town end of the bridge to the base it seems to stretch off into infinity.  You aren’t navigating well, you’ve run out of cigarettes and are now smoking local smokes made from horse manure and old telephone books, and you’re hungry.

This is when the guys with the charcoal braziers begin to tempt you with the sounds and smells of broiling meat.  NEVER, never ask what kind of meat it is; just pay your peso and bite it from the bamboo shoot.  Using whatever change you have left from your evening, you can watch the little kids dive into the raw sewage of the river for those that you toss into it.  They seem to enjoy it, but I don’t think I would.

Finally, you stagger past the Marine guard, show your ID and liberty card and shuffle down the long walk back to the ship.  Your uniform, once pristine white, is now a sort of reddish grey.  Your watch pocket is surrounded by grime from your fingers that reached for beer money.  Your shined shoes are now covered with dust and scars from the high heels of the girls who love to stand on your feet to keep you from moving away.  You trip up the gangplank, salute the Ensign, salute the OD, and make sure your name is on the “arrived home safe” list so you won’t be reported as missing in action.

You can hardly wait two days for your next liberty in this garden spot.

– – –

One extremely bright and sunny day as only the South China Sea can be, I was called down to the Ops Officer’s office.  You got your orders, here they are.  I was handed a sheaf of paperwork which I quickly scanned.  I was being sent to, of all places, Pensacola, Florida!  The very same place I’d had my initial training.  I was going to be an instructor.  Only two more weeks and I was on my way back to the World!!!!!



Some short PI vignettes

It was a big day was when the wife-telephone network came alive and reported that the Commissary had a new shipment of … (fill in your favorite staple here).  Real milk was once in a while provided from Australia; the rest of the time we made do with ‘reconstructed’ milk which meant powder added to water.  Beef was another major event.  The Australians did this big time for us.  Every couple of weeks a reefer truck would secretly back up to the rear entrance of the Commissary and unload sides of beef.  Being that this was a watchstanding base, and people were up at all hours, there was actually NO time when EVERYONE was asleep.  The second the truck came through the gate, the telephones came alive.

– – –

Our housegirl had adapted to having a baby in the house easily.  She’d rigged up a swing for the cradle and tied it to her elbow so when she ironed, the cradle gently rocked.  Since she lived right downstairs she was available to watch over our house all the time.  She kept a meanly clean house and was very protective of our baby.

Our neighbors in the duplex to the north were bachelor Chiefs (E-8’s) and they lived three to a house (each in their own separate rooms, of course).  They’d get to partying and anything could happen.  Once evening, Maria was taking a walk and was not really ‘accosted’ by one guy, but he was pretty aggressive.  He followed her back to our house and kept knocking on her door.  He just wanted to talk he said.  Maria finally had had enough of this and opened the door – with a two and a half foot long cane machete in her hands.  He turned a couple shades of white, backed off, and couldn’t get out of the yard fast enough.

– – –

My wife and I enjoyed going down to “The Roads” once in a while.  We did this mostly during the daytime so as to not inhibit the evening trade.  We usually took our new daughter down with us.  The wife got to know a lot of the girls who worked down there and was made to feel at home in one special bar called Mona’s Place.  Mona was a large woman who laughed a lot.  She declared that she was Kathryn’s Philippino grandmother.  She would take over and watch the baby while the two of us sat and talked to the girls.  The wife drank orange soda; I usually had a San Miguel.  The brand my wife liked best was Fanta Orange Squash.  The jukebox would be roaring out songs and the girls would dance to them.  I remember one song in particular that was very popular at the time called “The House of the Rising Sun”.  Kathryn would look around, smile, and gurgle at all the girls as they made a fuss over her.

As a result of every bar girl in The Roads knowing I was not only married, but had a great wife and a small child, my wife trusted me implicitly to go out on my own also.  One evening in particular stands out in my mind.  A friend had come over from Clark AB and was staying with us.  The two of us decided to go down to the Roads and have a few.  We piled into my convertible VW and headed out.

Along the course of the evening, we gathered up several things: 1) two extremely beautiful (and well known) bar girls who just wanted to have some fun, 2) two VERY large (3-foot in diameter) Mexican Sombreros, and 3) a Shore Patrol escort who followed us from bar to bar.  My friend and I knew them well enough so there was no hassle.  We finished up our tour-de-farce and went back on base; less the two girls of course.

Before I even got parked (a distance of about a half-mile) my wife was phoned twice with the “bad news” that I was carousing down at The Roads with bad girls.  We had a very good laugh at that.

– – –

I reported to work one day and got called into the Ops Chief’s office.  “Here are your orders” he said.  “They only gave you four weeks to pack up so you’d better get started.”  He smiled a really snarky smile.  He and I had been at odds for almost my whole time in the PI.  He was a Marine (one of the rare ones I didn’t like) and loved to hand out bad news with a smile.  My argument that I had only been here for less than half my regular tour (3 years) fell on deaf ears.

My wife took the news pretty hard when I told her.  After I showed her my orders, she just asked what kind of ship the USS Oxford was; she already knew where it was going and she didn’t like it one bit.  I was headed “Fordu supt billet SEA” which meant simply “For duty in a support billet in Southeast Asia”.  I was headed into Vietnamese waters.  All I could tell her was that we would stay well offshore and just ‘listen’.  I wouldn’t be getting shot at (I hoped I wasn’t telling a lie).

We didn’t do much laughing after that.  Our household good were packed up, we made arrangements to ship our car back to Oakland (it took four months this time), and sat in our empty house until it came time for us to leave for Clark Air Base.  No car this time.  We ended up sitting in two seats on a long, grey, navy bus with about forty sailors making the trip to Clark also for various reasons.  None of them cared enough to even let us sit together.

We pulled up to the terminal and the seven of us that were leaving San Miguel to join the Oxford hustled our families into the building.  We milled around smartly for about ten minutes until an Air Force type called our attention and began to read off names.  When he got to my wife an assistant took her arm and led her away into an area enclosed by a low iron fence.  We both thought that this was just for processing but we were wrong.  Within minutes, she was moved again – out the door and onto the tarmac.  I didn’t even have a chance to kiss her, and Kathryn, goodbye – she was gone; boarding the plane.  Shit.

Somberly, myself and the other six guys were loaded into a small minivan and run down to Subic Bay.  I left the airport before the plane even got off the ground.  We pulled up at the main gate, showed our orders and were directed down to the pier where our ship awaited us.  Hoisting my seabag on my shoulder I climbed the gangway to my next assignment.

Next:  Life aboard a Navy ship


Daughter #1 Appears

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


Life in San Miguel, PI

It didn’t take us long to settle down into our new house.  The wife was still taking in the fact that she was away, really AWAY, from her family, the States, and everything else.  We were over the International Date line, which made us a day ahead of everyone else back home.  The only real communications we had was by mail.  Telephoning, back in the early sixties, was pretty primitive and cost both an arm and a leg.

I got put immediately to work.  I was on what was called ‘watchstanding’ status.  The way it worked was that we did a series of eight-hour watches – two evenings (or ‘eves’), two midnight to morning (or ‘mids’) and two days (normal daytime shift).  They were arranged as follows:

Day 1 – 1600 to 0000

Day 2 – 1600 to 0000 (then sleep for the 0800 to 1600)

Day 3 – 0800 to 1600

Day 4 – 0800 to 1600 (then sleep for the 0000 to 0800)

Day 5 – 0000 to 0800

Day 6 – 0000 to 0800

Day 7 and 8 – off until 1600 on Day 8.

Then the cycle started again.  The whole thing was known as ‘two, two, two, and eighty’.  Now, you might thing this was pretty harsh to have two short, back to back, watches, and it was.  But, once you got used to them, and were able to sleep during the day with bright sunlight pouring into the bedroom, it wasn’t so bad.

What was more problematic was that during your time “off” there were loads of extra assigned duties; some important, some pretty strange.  We had a commanding officer who was a Captain (O-6 – same as Colonel) who desperately wanted to make flag rank (Admiral).  He would volunteer his troops to do most anything to improve Phil-Am relations.  It was not surprising, therefore, to find that we had all volunteered to paint a civilian school during our time off.  This is where it gets into the realm of bizarre.

The only paint he was usually able to locate was either battleship grey or yellow chromate; both colors were hideous.  He’d haul a truck full of it to the school, set up huge tubs of San Miguel beer and sodas, start up the barbeque pits and load them down with hamburgers and hot dogs, and pass out paper plates to the natives.  These same natives were trying very hard to keep from laughing at us and our weird CO whom they’d named Frantic Frank.

We’d have a beer then erect scaffolding along the sides of the building.  With ramps and ladders in place, we’d have another beer or two and gather up our paintbrushes and buckets.  While we were working in the hot sun, the friendly natives would bring us numerous cold beers to help us through our day.  So, as you may have guessed, there was as much paint on the ground, and us, as there was on the building.  He never tumbled to the fact that he would get much better results if he held off on the beer until AFTER the painting was done.

You have to remember that these usually hit right off our last watch – which was a midwatch.  So, we’d been up since about 2300 the day before and here it was around 1600 or 1700 the following day.  No sleep, and perhaps ten beers or so, made for a very festive time to be had by all.  When we were released from our ‘voluntary’ duties, we’d go home and crash.  There went almost half of your time off.

– – –

Another pastime, off the mid, was to go down to the Nipa Hut.  Our base, San Miguel, is located directly on the shores of the South China Sea.  Our house was a very short walk from the beach.

NOTE: This was well before Mount Pinatubo obliterated most of it.  San Miguel can be found on Google Maps.  Look for “Philippines” first then Olangapo City (yes, that infamous liberty spot) and move north slightly and west to the coast.  There is a town called San Antonio.  San Miguel Naval Base is located just west of that.  If you zoom in closer, you will see two hook-like courts in the road to the south on the base.  Change to satellite view to see the actual houses.  We lived on the easternmost loop, in the center of three houses on the east side of that loop.  7156A Tripoli Court.

Anyway, here we were off the mid.  Keeping in mind that we’d been asleep from around 1800 to 2330 or so the night before, and this was our “afternoon” actually so we took advantage of it.  We’d hang around the Nipa Hut, drink beer and play volleyball, snorkel, ride around in Banca Boats (outrigger canoes), and just generally lounge around for a while.

– – –

Parties were called for pretty much any reason; and pretty much anytime.  We hung around with the same people we stood watches with.  A lot were unmarried, so when they came to parties hosted by the married guys, they’d show up bringing booze.  It was customary to always invite the couple on the other side of your duplex because of the noise.  They were really great parties.

Parties were often given when an individual got back of TAD (Temporary Attached Duty).  This usually meant they were back from some hush-hush location (Vietnam) where they weren’t supposed to be.  Official statement for our rate was “We have no Communications Technicians in Vietnam”.  We knew better.  Fortunately, when one of our guys went over there they were guarded by Marines 24/7, bless ‘em.  I will never have anything bad to say about Marines.

– – –

Another primary reason for a party was a typhoon.  When a typhoon blew into town, those of us who were off watch would gather at a given married person’s house and move all the furniture to the center of the building – away from the louvered windows.  Then, you would carefully pull all the glass louvers out of each window and lay them flat on the floor, or in a closet.  This reduced the chances of flying glass, you see.

We went from house to house preparing it for the blow.  At the last one (we took turns hosting typhoon parties) was where the party got under way.  Halfway through the typhoon, the sky cleared a bit, the winds dropped to just small wafts of current.  This was the eye of the storm.  Now, everyone (who could still stand, that is) would rush around frantically from house to house undoing the moved furniture and moving the furniture in the other half of the duplex because the winds would now come from the other side of the house.  At the last house, we’d re-party.

A great time was had by all.

– – –

One morning, not long too long after we’d arrived, my wife informed me that we were pregnant.  Well, gosh.  Now what?  We told our housegirl, Maria, about it and she immediately began bustling around making an already spotless house into a hospital zone.  She had her brother, who was our yardboy, hang a small hammock down in her maid’s quarters so she could iron and rock the hammock at the same time.

She went around hopping on one foot, pushing a halved coconut husk all over our tile floor like a human buffing machine.  Our cat, Sassy, loved this.  He would jump up on her foot and ride around while Maria pushed that husk to and fro.  The wife did a bit of reading on what to expect when expecting and I kept standing watches getting more and more nervous as the months went by.

– – –

First, a bit of background to a really funny incident.  Rumors were always rampant on a small base such as San Miguel.  Tell a story at one end and by the time you could walk to the other, someone would be bursting to tell you what they just heard.  In some cases, our little fun-loving group would START rumors just to hear how garbled they got at the other end.

When my wife was about seven months along, she went down to visit her friend in Subic Bay.  This is an hour long trip and was not undertaken at night at all.  So she remained there overnight.  Unknown to the both of us, another couple whom we’d befriended on the ship coming over, arrived to visit from Clark AB.  I put them up in our bedroom and slept out on the couch when I got home from my midwatch.

The resident snoop (doesn’t EVERY neighborhood have one?) across the street was actively scanning windows that night and happened to fall on our window.  Now, she knew my wife was gone for the night, and where she had gone, so when she spied a silhouetted couple on the drawn curtains she drew the conclusion that I had a ‘guest’.  She was on the phone immediately to Subic and reluctantly told my wife that I was seeing another woman.

My wife, whom I had already called and told her about our friends, answered sweetly “well, you know, Dear, since I’m very pregnant he just has to find comfort somewhere”.  There was dead silence on the line and then a strangled “really?”  She never bothered to rumor us any more.

– – –

Next:  Daughter #1 makes her debut.