The stake truck, laden with paint and building material, lumbered along National Highway toward Barrio Baretto, a small village midway between Olongapo and Subic City. Sailors favored “the Barrio” for its quiet, remote location and small bars, a welcome relief from the crowds and wild nightlife of Olongapo.
A light breeze whispered through coconut palms lining the road like swaying sentinals. Carabao cooled themselves in mud-wallows along the highway and sari-sari stores dotted the landscape, offering cold drinks and snacks to travelers. Sam smiled as they passed beneath the sign for Zambales Orphanage. He hadn’t been to the orphanage since Susanna died and he looked forward to seeing the friendly faces of the Sisters and kids. He strained to overcome the lack of power steering as he turned onto the long, rutted dirt road leading to the cement buildings of the orphanage.
“Here we are. Looks the same as last time we were here, Frank.” He brought the truck to a shuddering stop in the parking lot.
“It sure does. The buildings will look much better once we slap a coat of paint over those bare cement walls. Here come the Sisters and k,ids.”
Chaplain Michael opened the door and stepped from the truck to greet the crowd. “You’ll find the Chapel much improved. The Sisters were blessed to receive a small endowment last year from a former resident and her family. Sister Arnalita spent the money wisely and beautified the interior for the glory of God. She is a treasure.”
The sisters of Our Lady of Lourdes, and what looked like all the children in their care, about thirty kids, surrounded the men as they met near the truck. Sister Arnalita, a striking woman of forty-eight, greeted them with piercing brown eyes and a dry, firm handshake. She and the chaplain knew each other well, having met in Manila in 1945 during the post-war occupation when he helped the Sister pick up the pieces of shattered lives after the war.They had remained steadfast friends since then.
“Sister Arnalita, you remember these two special friends of mine, Frank Bailey and Sam McBride. They assisted here several times during their last deployment.”
Sister Arnalita, squinting against the sun until Frank moved to block the sun for her, greeted the men, smiling warmly at each in turn as she grasped his hands and gave them a firm, but gentle squeeze.
“Of course, Father Michael. Hello, Frank. Hello, Sam. Welcome back to Zambales Orphanage. We are so pleased to see you again. Father Michael told us you would come here today. Children, say hello…” she began, but stopped when a small, brown blur rushed from the crowd of children and jumped into Sam’s arms.
“Sammy, Sammy, you come back, you come back,” cried a little girl of eight. The little girl’s shoulders shook as she pressed her face against Sam’s neck and sobbed. Sam’s face spread in a broad smile, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“Little Lucy! Hello darling. So you missed me? I missed you too, sweetheart. I missed you too,” he said as he patted Little Lucy’s shoulder. “Did you like the letters I sent you?”
“Oh, yes, Sammy. Do you like mine?” Then, in a whisper, “Sister Mary Ann write them for me. She is my best friend.”
“I love your letters, Little Lucy. I keep all of them with me to read over and over again. Tell Sister Mary Ann I said thank you for helping you.”
Little Lucy looked into the crowd and called out, “Sister Mary Ann. Sammy says to say thank you for writing…I mean for helping me write my letters.”
“Oh, that is sweet, Lucy. You are quite welcome.” Sister Mary Ann left the crowd and took Sam’s hand. “Welcome back, Sam. It is so good to see you. I read your letters to Lucy many times, over and over. They were very welcome.”
“Thank you, Sister. I’m happy to be back.”
Sister Arnalita, patting Little Lucy on the shoulder, smiled and said, “She speaks of you constantly Sam. We did not tell her that you would be here today; we did not want to get her hopes up only to disappoint if you could not come.”
“Thank you Sister. So much has happened since Susanna died. Had she lived….” He stroked Little Lucy’s head and pressed his cheek to hers. “Sometimes I feel like she’s standing right next to me. We wanted to adopt Little Lucy.”
“Yes, Sam,” she said gently. “We know. God bless dear Susanna. We were so sorry for what happened; we lit candles and prayed for you both.”
Sister Arnalita turned to address the crowd of giggling children who scrambled all around the truck.
“Goodness, children, come now, behave, and listen. Behave, I say, behave. Sisters, if you please.” She stood with her hands on her hips and a half-hearted look of vexation. “Thank you. Now, children, say hello to Frank and Sam, and you won’t forget dear Father Michael too.”
A chorus of young voices called out greetings to the men. The chaplain spoke to Frank, who turned down the tailgate and climbed into the truck bed, and asked Sister Arnalita where she wanted the building materials.
“Since we are painting the treatment rooms and repairing the dispensary roof today, why don’t we put the materials next to the dispensary. Chaplain Rohland and his group of volunteers are already repairing the roof, so, if you like, you and these gentlemen may paint the dispensary. Shall we?
“Children. Children!” She called for order again, but they were too excited. The orphanage took on a holiday atmosphere when Sailors were there, and the children wanted to play and be silly. “Sisters, the children, please. Thank you. Children. Line up and help carry the material from the truck to the chapel. Sister Evangelina will show you where to put things.”
She turned to the chaplain and said, “Father. When you are ready.”
Turning to Frank, he said, “All right, Frank, start handing down the material and we’ll pass it along.
“You got it, Chaplain. Here we go.” He handed down the first load of lumber to a teenaged boy.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
They stopped after a while for lunch. Little Lucy never left Sam’s side, clinging desperately to him wherever he went, which made painting a little awkward. Sam had more paint on himself than usual while Little Lucy appeared practically a different color, although sky blue wouldn’t be recommended anywhere as a suitable color for a little girl. Sister Arnalita had explained to Little Lucy last year what happened to Susanna. No stranger to death, she had understood as well as an eight-year old is able to. She no longer cried for Susanna and Sam, but treasured the photos of the three of them at Manila Zoo, riding in the liberty boat to picnic on Grande Island, and her favorite, feeding the ducks at Burnham Lake in Baguio.
Sam and Susanna met Little Lucy when the children from the orphanage visited the base for a Tiger Cruise on the USS Midway, a daylong ride on the ship where the children watched jets take off and land, toured the great ship, and ate lunch with the Sailors on the mess decks. During their tour of the ship, with Sam and Susanna as chaperones from the chaplain’s office, Little Lucy had walked up to the two as they led the group of children through the hangar bay. She took them both by the hand and remained with them all day. When time to leave arrived, she refused to let go even to the point of sitting on Sam’s feet and clasping her arms and legs around him. Nothing could make her leave Sam and Susanna, not even the pleas of Sister Arnalita. Only when she fell asleep in Sam’s arms could they put her on the bus for the short ride back to the orphanage. After that, the three were practically inseparable when Sam and Susanna had a day off from work or a few extra hours in the evenings to spend at the orphanage. They added “Little” to her name to distinguish her from Susanna’s best friend.
The little girl’s parents had died in a bus accident, but not before her mother pushed her only child out of the window as the bus plunged over the cliff to the river bed far below. Little Lucy retained no memory of that, and few memories of her parents. The orphanage, the sisters, and the other children were the only family she had had until Sam and Susanna came into her life. That too ended in sadness. Sam had determined not to let sadness hurt her again.
Frank, the two chaplains, and Sister Arnalita sat together at the head of the long dining table and chatted about the orphanage, future repairs, and Frank and Sam’s plans for their next tours of duty. Sister Arnalita said she would pray for them to receive orders keeping them in the Philippines so they would always be close to the orphanage. They had moved on to discussing the war in Vietnam when a car drove up. A car door opened and closed, and they heard footsteps crunching on the gravel. The door to the dining hall opened and Marie walked in.