Shit River. Whatever the official name for the brown sliver of putrefaction that separated Subic Bay Naval Station from Olongapo, the Sailor’s nickname stuck. Tom held his breath as he crossed the bridge in a vain attempt to avoid breathing the noxious odors emanating from the slow moving, vile smelling, lumpy ribbon of waste. He watched as a Sailor in civilian clothes heading into town stopped to toss a few pesos to the Shit River Princesses sitting below in banca boats. The princesses, young teenaged girls in gowns and tiaras, drew catcalls and whistles from men crossing the bridge. The hope was that the men would toss coins to them. Most did, but threw the coins into the brown water so the girls’ brothers had to dive for them.
“Hey sweetheart,” the Sailor called. “What are you gonna be when you grow up; a hooker or a queen?” He looked around and laughed for his audience. “Hey. How much for a short time?”
What a sorry spectacle. I hope to God they don’t understand English. The tone won’t be hard to understand though. What a jerk. Someone should knock his sorry ass into the water.
He reached the guard post and held up his ID card, thankful he didn’t have to breathe the river’s stench all day. The Filipino sentry gave it a cursory look and waved him on. Tom stopped at the curb and checked the time: ten minutes before the next bus. Several taxis waited in the queue with engines idling. He hopped into the first one and they sped away for the barracks, driving along the waterfront and up Sky Club Hill. They had to stop for a monitor lizard, at least eight feet long, sunning itself on the hot pavement. The cabbie inched the cab closer and beeped the horn until the giant lizard, its long tongue licking the air, sauntered into the jungle. They arrived at the VP barracks and pulled up to the taxi stand. Tom paid the driver and ran across the walkway to the stairwell, taking the steps two at a time to the fifth floor. He stripped and stuffed his clothes in his locker and hit the shower.
Refreshed, and wearing a clean, pressed uniform, Tom stepped out of the maintenance van and walked into the hangar on Cubi Point Naval Air Station, the aviation portion of Subic Bay Naval Base. Two aircraft parked nose to nose filled the hangar bay. Sailors changed a propeller on one; the hose of an air conditioning cart lay across the starboard wing of the other. Engine exhaust and fuel fumes enveloped him as he made his way to the coffee mess.
It might be hellish hot weather, but he was a Sailor, and Sailors caught the coffee habit early in their careers. His hyperactive nature negated the need for caffeine, but Tom had to have his morning coffee, and decaf he considered undrinkable. He also had a slight tremor in his hands that coffee exacerbated. ‘No,’ he told people who remarked on the tremor. ‘I am not an alcoholic, and I am not nervous. I’m hyper.’ His friends laughed when Aida grabbed Tom’s trembling hands and pressed them to her face to calm them. It embarrassed him, but that was her manner, and he didn’t mind that Aida’s thoughtful care of him caused good-natured ribbing among their friends.
He swallowed against the lump in his throat as he thought of Aida and the little time they had left. He thought of the plans he had imagined for their future, and the places they would visit. But, did he want to give up his freedom and live tied to one woman? He tried to picture himself back home without her. It wasn’t difficult. Living in Hawaii was a dream come true for a single Sailor. Barhopping in Waikiki, college girls, tourist chicks, living on the beach. Marriage meant giving it all up.
He took a deep breath and walked into the Airframes work center in the Quonset hut behind the hangar. Tom arrived early for his twelve-hour shift; night check had not come in from the aircraft yet. He grabbed a pair of coveralls from his locker and put them on as he scanned the aircraft status board to see what kind of imaginary gripes aircrew personnel had dreamed up for the mechanics to repair. The AC blasted out refreshingly cold air; maybe he could do some in-shop work today and avoid the heat. The radio blasted the Scorpion’s Blackout loud enough to drown out the F-14 Tomcats practicing takeoffs and landings.
He reached up to turn down the radio when Kenny entered the shop and said in a high-pitched Alabama twang, “Hey. Admiral Nelson, have I got a deal for your skinny ass, buddy.”
Kenny had taken to calling him Lord Nelson or Admiral Nelson after someone told him about the British Admiral. “What’s the deal, Kenny?”
“Aircraft three, PC-3, has a fuel leak. I want you to dive the tank. You can even pick your safety observer, and…oh, oh, wait for it, wait for it…behind door number one we have: Steve!”
The door opened and Steve Minnifield walked in, his expression turning to suspicion when Kenny grinned at him. “What?” he said. “I didn’t lose the tool.”
Kenny’s eyes narrowed. “What tool”
“What do you mean, what? What tool didn’t you lose?”
“I didn’t lose a tool. I saw that stupid grin on your face and thought I’d better say something positive.” Steve sidled over to his locker, still looking at Kenny. “Why do you keep grinning at me?” He slipped into the coveralls, glancing from Kenny to Tom.
Kenny grinned like a Cheshire cat. He knew Steve was claustrophobic. “You’re putting on the wrong coveralls.” He wielded power like a half-pint tyrant.
“No, these are mine…oh, no, no way. Come on Kenny, you know I hate fuel cell repair. Crawling around inside the wing gives me the creeps. Let someone else do it. I’ll buy you a beer tonight. I’ll buy you a short time, just don’t make me go in the tank.”
“Stop freaking out. Relax. Lord Nelson is diving the tank, not you. You’ll be his safety observer. Simmons will blow the tank if he ever gets here. Or you can blow it if you want to.”
“All right, man, thanks. I owe you one.” He turned and grinned at Tom.
Tom mouthed “jackass.”
“Yeah, I won’t forget you owe me. I’ll be collecting next time I see you in town.
“All right you two, get going. Night check has already prepared the fuel cell for maintenance – they’re still on the aircraft. By the way, the operations officer wants PC-3 for the detachment to Thailand, so we – you – need to fix the leak pronto. Move!”
As he walked to the door, Tom called over his shoulder, “Kenny. I’m going on the Thailand detachment, right?”
“Hell no, you got a wife. Why would I send you to the land of temptation? What would your wife say?”
Tom stopped and turned. “You told me I could go on another det to Thailand.”
“Will your wife let you go?”
“Screw you, Kenny. She’s not my wife. And her name is Aida. Like the opera. You know what opera is don’t you?”
“Opera? Isn’t that where fat women wear helmets with horns? I don’t like opera.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Nothing. Screw you, Kenny”
“Screw you, Nelson. Get your tools. Ray and Bryant are going to Thailand.”
“Jerkoff,” Tom mumbled as he walked away.
He caught up with Steve at the tool room. “I’ll inventory the tool kit if you’ll check the safety lamp over.”
Tom checked off the inventory and signed the receipt.
“Is Kenny giving you a hard time about Aida, again?”
“Yeah. He calls her my wife. He gives me crap about paying her steady barfine. He says it’s a stupid thing to do when I can get laid anytime for five bucks, or ten bucks if I need to sleep with something warm all night. He says barmaids are just hookers out for Sailors’ money. What a creep.”
“Yeah, well, Kenny’s not too particular. Have you seen the barmaid he hooks up with at the Brown Fox? Good lord, she looks like a water buffalo. How does she manage to get guys to pay her barfine?”
“I don’t know. The real question is how does that skinny, bug-eyed bastard manage to get girls to sleep with him? I’d scream and run if I were a chick and saw him leering at me. I’d lose my lunch from last week. You know he’s married?”
“Yeah. I saw his wife right before we left Barber’s Point. Have you seen her?”
“No? What’d you think? What’s she look like?”
“A beached whale.”
Tom laughed. “Like a what?”
“She looks like a beached whale. I was at Bryan’s house one day grilling some steaks with him and Darla. I saw this woman lying on a blanket across the street. Bryan said she was Kenny’s wife.”
“She’s that big?”
“Wooly mammoths ain’t in it.”
Steve looked pensive as they walked to the aircraft carrying their tools, like something was weighing on his mind. Tom knew him well and was ready to ask what was bothering him when Steve spoke up.
“Tom. Why do you want to see that girl in Thailand if you’re on the verge of marrying Aida? You do want to marry Aida, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I met Lek on deployment last year. She works at the Whiskey A Go-Go. Man, she’s hot. A little brown sex machine. I always stay with her instead of banging other chicks and maybe getting the clap.”
“You’re a pig, Tom.”
“What? No, I’m not. Why do say that?”
“Look at yourself. You’re about to marry one girl – at least you say you are – while at the same time you want to go bang another girl. What the hell, Tom? And you call Kenny a creep?”
“He is a creep.” Tom was defiant. But he knew Steve was right. His retort came out half-hearted.
“Yeah, maybe he is. But every time we go barhopping, you’re looking for someone to bang. It’s a wonder Aida hasn’t found out. She will, you know. One of these days, some bargirl is going to mention to another bargirl, who knows Aida, that she slept with you, and Aida is going to go batshit.”
“No way. I’m too careful. I only hang out in the Barrio or Subic. Aida couldn’t find out. Besides, I’m not going to see any more women. I’m marrying Aida. End of discussion.”
“Really, Tom? You think you can resist temptation long enough to make it back to Hawaii?”
“Yes. Like I told you. Things are different now. I made a promise to Aida and I’m going to keep my word.”
“I hope so for your sake. You think a bargirl threatening to cut off your happiness is funny, just wait until the butterfly knife flashes in the moonlight. You’ll be singing a different tune. I’ve seen Aida mad. It’s ugly.”
A head poked out of the aircraft cabin door at the top of the ladder. “Hey! What are you goddamn clowns standing around for? This isn’t the Air Force. Get your asses up here so night check can turn over and get the hell out of here.” Tom and Steve grabbed their tools and ran up the ladder.
Petty Officer Dixon’s face was lined with fatigue, and his eyes bloodshot. Sweat stained his shirt. “It’s humid as hell and we’ve been here twelve goddamn hours trying to find this damn leak and you’re standing around like a couple of goddamn mooncalves; damn nimrods. Nelson, get your shit ready for the tank. Mildenhall…”
“Whatever. Just get your ass ready to spot for Nelson. Who’s your blower?”
“Simmons, I guess.”
“Where the hell is he?”
“How the hell should I know? I just walked into the damn shop and saw Kenny grinning like a jackass. Then he told me to be Tom’s safety observer.” Dixon grunted and walked through the escape hatch onto the wing.
Dixon waited while they arranged their equipment. “All right. The leak is coming from the outboard side of the landing gear. We’ve spent all night prepping the tank, so we…Nelson! What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m checking the respirator hose connections.”
“Well, leave the goddamn thing alone until I finish. I want to get the hell out of here and get some sleep. It’s been a long twelve hours.”
“Geez. You don’t have to yell.” Tom set the hose down and stood by with his arms crossed. He burned with impatience for Dixon to get it over with and go back to the barracks. Working inside the fuel cell would take his mind off Aida for a few hours.
“As I was saying, we haven’t blown the tank yet, so you guys will start fresh. Ev…Fuck. Hang on.”
They braced themselves as another earthquake shook the aircraft. Tools rattled in tool boxes, and birds flew out of the hangar rafters overhead. Dust and feathers floated down and coated the aircraft. The roar subsided after what seemed an eternity.
“Crap,” Dixon said. “I don’t know what’s worse, standing under the leaky roof of this shitty hangar or working in a goddamn fuel cell all night.” He looked around and told his crew to check for damage, then continued his brief with Tom and Steve.
“Like I was saying, everything is ready: bubble wrap in the tank for your sensitive elbows and knees – Nelson; AC cart is grounded and fueled; air manifold is set up and has a new filter. The hose connections,” he glared at Tom, “are new. Do you have any questions? No? Good. Night check is going the fuck home.”
Dixon bellowed at his crew to “get your asses in gear and clean up this goddamn mess,” and left for the shop.
“Holy cow,” Steve said. “What’s his problem?”
“He knows he’s never going to make Chief.”
“No kidding.” Steve knelt by the access cover to the fuel cell. “Pass me the fuel cell light.”
Tom took the light out of the tool box and handed it to Steve who lowered it into the cell. “He already has nineteen years in and he’s still a first class. I’d say his chances of retiring as a Chief Petty Officer are slim.”
Steve said, “Well, he acts like a Chief.”
Tom knelt and peered into the fuel tank while Steve left to prepare the air breathing equipment. His thoughts turned to Aida but he chased them away; he didn’t need the distraction when he had a fuel leak to fix. Maybe he’d take Aida to Maricel’s to see her friends tonight; she’d like that. She missed her girlfriends, and he suspected she liked showing him off as her future husband. Yeah, he’d take her to Maricel’s. He’d take her to dinner too.
He glanced up at Steve who had returned and was connecting the respirator mask and air hose. “Hey. I’m taking Aida out tonight. Want to go?”
“I’m seeing Lucy again tonight. We’re going to dinner then to a movie. Are you going to Maricel’s? We’ll stop by if it isn’t too late.”
“Yeah. We’ll eat dinner first, probably at Wimpy’s. Aida loves that place.”
“Why don’t we meet you for dinner? Lucy loves it too. Must be the banana ketchup. Maybe it’s an aphrodisiac.”
“Could be. But Aida doesn’t need an aphrodisiac, if you know what I mean.” Tom winked at Steve and climbed into the wing. Steve gave him the respirator before scrambling down the ladder to switch on the air intake.
Tom looked up through the access hole and called out to him. “Steve.”
“I’ll kill you if you let anyone near the air intake. Beer farts make me gag.”