Aircraft problems made for a long and tiring fifteen hours at the airbase. Once they were finished, Tom and the rest of the weary day crew grabbed their backpacks and trudged to the van, happy to be out of grease-stained coveralls and on the way to the hotel.
Aimless chatter gave way to quiet soon after the van left the terminal. Most of the Sailors reclined in their seats, lost in thought or dozing. George snored once or twice, but stopped when Tom elbowed him in the ribs. Even the driver, a wildly gesticulating and verbose tour guide who spoke wickedly tortured English, fell under the spell of the somnolent atmosphere and held his tongue.
Tom, half-turned with his cheek against the seatback, peered through the window at the crescent moon peeking above the jungle as the sky cleared and revealed the dense carpet of stars dotting the black dome of night. He turned and looked out the rear window. In the countryside, far away from city lights, the sky blazed from horizon to horizon with twinkling pinpoints of light. Stars of orange, blue, red, white sprinkled across the heavens and lit the night with the brilliance of a hundred thousand sparkling diamonds. Tom felt he could run his fingers through the Milky Way as it spanned the infinite curve of the universe like a great swath of white splashed upon a canvas of black.
Back home in Hawaii, with his camera poised on a tripod in the darkness of Yokohama Beach, he felt the same way, like he could touch Sirius, Orion with his raised club, and Lepus at his feet, Auriga and Cassiopeia brilliant in their stellar shine. He reveled in the streak of meteors flashing across the sky, and satellites with their steady motion passing among the wonders of the universe, unable to appreciate the carpet of beauty they traveled. In those moments, Tom wanted nothing more than to sit back and gaze in awe at the splendor of the night sky.
His thoughts turned to Pattaya and how, as in every Oriental liberty port, Sailors found a similar splendor among the women inhabiting far off exotic lands, fragrant with the aroma of spices and incense, and cultures a thousand years older than western civilization. These women floated through Sailors’ vision, bejeweled with sparkling eyes and dazzling smiles that could not hide a yearning for love and companionship that sprung from a deep well of hope and a bottomless fear of want. A yearning expressed in a desperate search for love, and fear that lovemaking would end in painful abandonment, leaving them one day closer to the age when beauty would no longer bring them hope and love but an empty, bitter old age.
“Nelson!” Tom jumped at Chief Clothier’s voice, loud in the quiet of the van.
“Are you doing okay?”
“Yes, Chief. I’m just looking at the stars and wishing I was back in Hawaii looking through my telescope.”
“The sky is beautiful, isn’t it? I didn’t know you were an astronomer.”
“Not even an amateur, Chief; I just like to see what’s out there. I wish I could travel beyond everything. I’d put on my headphones, listen to some opera, and fly through he stars. I wish I could look into the future and see where I’ll be in thirty or forty years.”
“You’re a dreamer, Nelson, or an escapist. By the way. You did a great job today.”
“Thank you, Chief. I appreciate that.”
“How are things back in PI? How’s your girlfriend? Ada, isn’t it?”
“Aida. Like the opera. She’s okay. She’s visiting her folks in Bataan while I’m on detachment. I would have gone with her had I stayed behind.”
Chief Clothier got up and sidled to the back row where he nudged George awake.
“Wolfe. Hey, Wolfie! Get up and take my seat; I want to sit back here for a while.”
George, coming out of a deep sleep, took a moment to get his bearings. “What the hell? What’s going on? Who kicked me?”
“I did. Change seats with me.”
“Oh. Okay, Chief.” George picked up his backpack and took the front seat, falling asleep again with his head against the window.
The Chief settled in, resting his legs under the bench seat in front of him. “Ah. This is better. More legroom. So, why didn’t you want to go to Baguio with Ada?”
“Aida. Like the opera. She’s from Bag…Bataan. I never know what to say to her parents. Sometimes I think her father looks at me like some creep who only wants to bang his daughter for fun. He makes me nervous. He’s friendly enough – takes me fishing in their banca boat, makes me sit at the head of the table, feeds me first – but there seems to be something lurking behind his smile. I try to put myself in his place, but it doesn’t help. I still feel like he wants to cut my throat.”
“Well, that’s the natural protectiveness of a girl’s father. Back home, he’d greet you with a shotgun. Don’t you have any sisters?”
“Four, but they aren’t my real sisters; I’m adopted.”
“What happened to your parents?”
“I don’t know much about them. My mom died when I was born. My dad was in the Navy and gave me up for adoption. He was killed in Vietnam.”
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sorry if I got too personal.”
“Nah. It’s okay, Chief. I don’t talk about them much, but it feels good when I do. Thanks for asking about them.”
“Your adoptive dad, wasn’t he in the Air Force?”
The question brought his adoptive parents to mind; his busy, distant father; his mother, quiet, full of life and fun, constantly reassuring her beloved son of his beauty and worth, his abilities, the goodness and tenderness of his heart, his vulnerability.
“Yes. A Master Sergeant. He retired after twenty years then joined a defense consulting firm.”
“They’re both alive?”
“Yes. They live in Tampa, Florida.”
Tom and the Chief settled back in their seats. Tom leaned his head against the window. He soon breathed deep in that shallow region just inside alertness. His mind filled with thoughts of Aida, Lek, and Amporn. A turmoil of images and voices, colors and scents, a mix of faces and memories, emotions happy and sad, sensations at turns cold and trembling, warm and soothing. Aida, her short, black hair brushing across his belly sending wild, delicious shivers through him; Amporn’s sensuous body and soft, warm, enveloping love-making; Lek, his fingers exploring her peaks and crevices as his body pressed into hers; lovely Lek pleading for a return of the same love she gave, and in his dream he knew she would never receive. He loved them each, and wanted each of them and none of them. Then Mama-san, whose sharp eyes pierced his heart and frowned in sorrow for Aida and disappointment in him for his duplicities; George berating him for lying and cheating on Aida; Steve naming him a pig for his whoring among women.
He dreamt of school and the painful, paralyzing shyness that shut him off from more than casual female acquaintance, and the years in ports spent seeking easy female companionship whatever the cost in money, drinks, promises, hope. He smiled, he sweated, he laughed in his sleep, and he cried when his heart broke again, and again, and again. He dreamt of his one true love, the one he had known while stationed in Spain, then so painfully lost when she died unexpectedly. His fear of falling in love again and his destructive behavior in seeking carnal and empty, rather than spiritual, healing love.
A voice, and a hand shaking him by the shoulder woke him.
“Tom. Tom! Wake up, man, we’re at the hotel.” Brian shook his shoulder and told him his backpack was on the curb, that they would all meet in the lobby in an hour.
A dream-like fog shrouded his mind as he wiped his eyes and chin. He made his way to the sliding door and ducked his head as he stepped from the van. He slung his backpack over his shoulder and walked into the lobby where he retrieved his key from the front desk clerk. The good-looking girl wasn’t on duty; her absence filled him with a deep disappointment, and he walked to his room with heavy steps. Inside, he tossed the backpack onto the desk chair, stripped down to his underwear and lay in bed. He stared at the ceiling, his mind a jumble of thoughts recalling the tail of his semi-awake dream-state.
He rose after a few minutes. He needed a shower. The strong flow of hot water felt good on his aching muscles and drew the weariness away, and the sadness. A lingering regret remained but dissolved as he relaxed and thought about Lek. He looked forward to seeing her.
He brushed his teeth and washed his hair, recovering enough to hum while he showered. He looked at himself again as he dried off in front of the mirror and flexed his abs and shoulders like a bodybuilder. He laughed as he finished drying off and put on clean clothes.
Refreshed and ready to see Lek, he grabbed his wallet and room key and headed for the lobby, meeting Phil and Glenn by the pool. Together, the three of them walked to the front desk where they found George leaning on the counter, deep in conversation with the good-looking desk clerk. Brian and Hoi stood nearby chatting with the night manager, a friendly man who looked out for the Sailolrs. Tom felt a flush of resentment at George. He had no reason to be jealous – he hadn’t spoken anything but polite chatter to the girl since he’d been at the hotel. She was friendly, but that was her job. Now she looked ready to warm George’s bed for him. Damn. Just like George. He had a way of charming women until they practically melted in front of him.
He waited with Hoi and the other guys while George said good-bye to the good-looking girl, then the six of them headed down Beach Road. A taxi would have been faster but they preferred to walk. The international feel of the crowds on the sidewalk, the mix of languages, the lights and vendors, the smell of fried grasshoppers and roast chicken, kettle corn, meat skewers, coconut oil, and who knew what else, the noise and occasional siren, all gave the night an excitement that lifted a young Sailor’s heart and made him feel lucky to be alive and overseas. Someday they would be old men, and would look back with fondness on these times and wish they could relive them. Better to make happy memories now than live with regrets later.