Shit River. Whatever the official name for the brown sliver of putrefaction that separated Subic Bay Naval Station from Olongapo, the Sailor’s crude, but descriptive, nickname stuck. I held my breath to avoid breathing the noxious odors emanating from the slow moving, vile smelling, lumpy ribbon of waste. Halfway across, a Sailor in civilian clothes tossed a few pesos to the river princesses sitting below in banca boats. The princesses, teen-aged girls in gowns and tiaras, drew catcalls and whistles from men crossing the bridge. The hope was that Sailors would toss coins to the girls. Many did, but some threw the coins into the water so the girls’ attendant little boys would dive into the disease-laden water after them, possibly shortening their life spans dramatically.
I reached the guard shack and held up my ID card, thankful I didn’t have to breathe the river’s stench all day. The Filipino sentry gave it a cursory look and waved me on. I checked the schedule at the bus queue but didn’t want to wait so I hopped into the first available taxi. We sped away for the barracks, driving along the shipyard, past the runway, and then through the jungle and up Sky Club hill. Near the top, the view opened up to reveal the spectacular sight of Subic Bay’s sparkling blue water backed by the lush green forests of the Zambales Mountains that reached into the bright, clear blue sky. I never tired of the view. As we rounded the final curve before reaching our destination, the cabbie slammed on his brakes to avoid a monitor lizard sunning itself on the hot pavement. He inched the cab closer and beeped the horn until the giant, six feet long lizard, its long tongue flicking the air, lifted its huge body and sauntered into the jungle on short, powerful legs. We arrived at the barracks next to the jungle survival school encampment, and I paid and tipped the driver. My room was on the fifth deck, a heck of a climb in the PI humidity. Once in my room, I stripped and stuffed my clothes into the locker and took a hot shower.
A short while later, refreshed and wearing a clean, pressed uniform, I stepped out of the maintenance cargo van that doubled as a passenger ferry at shift change. I walked into the hangar aboard 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 me like saran wrap covering a bowl of potato salad as I walked across the hangar to the stairwell. The smell of coffee lured me to the coffee mess on the second deck where I filled my ceramic Navy mug from the coffee urn, sweetened it, and paid the cashier, a pretty Filipina with crossed eyes. I chatted with her for a few minutes until noise from passing aircraft made conversation impossible. Outside, the furnace-like heat made me hurry for the air-conditioned comfort of the Airframes work center in the Quonset hut behind the hangar.
I arrived early for my twelve-hour shift; night check hadn’t come in from the aircraft yet. I donned a pair of coveralls and scanned the aircraft status board for imaginary gripes aircrew personnel dreamed up for the mechanics to repair. With any luck, I could catch up on in-shop work and avoid the heat. The radio blasted hard rock loud enough to drown out the roar of aircraft practicing takeoffs and landings around the airfield.
I had just reached up to turn down the radio when Kenny entered the shop and said in his high-pitched Alabama nasal twang, “Admiral Nelson, have I got a deal for your skinny ass, buddy.”
Kenny had started calling me Lord or Admiral Nelson after someone told him about the British Admiral.
“What’s the deal, Kenny?”
“Aircraft three 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 turned from nonchalance to suspicion when Kenny grinned. He looked from Kenny to me then back to Kenny. “What? 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 without taking his eyes off Kenny. “Why do you keep grinning like that?” He slipped into his coveralls, again glancing from Kenny to me.
Kenny grinned like the Cheshire cat. He was a jerk and wielded power like a half-pint tyrant. “You’re putting on the wrong coveralls.”
“No, these are mine…oh, no, no way. Come on Kenny, 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 after work tonight. I’ll buy you a short time, just don’t make me go in the tank.”
“Stop freaking out, man. Relax. Lord Nelson is diving the tank, not you. You’ll be his safety observer. Simmons is your blower. Make sure you both wear cotton fuel cell coveralls; I don’t want an explosion set off by static electricity.”
“All right! Thanks, Kenny. I owe you one.” He winked at me; I mouthed “Jackass” back at him.
“Yeah, I won’t forget you owe me. I’ll be collecting next time I see you in town.”
Kenny pulled a maintenance action form from the board, assigned the job to Steve and me, and waved toward the door.
“All right you two, get going. Night check has already prepped the fuel cell for maintenance—they’re still on the aircraft. The operations officer wants the aircraft for the detachment to Thailand, so we—you—need to fix the leak pronto. Get going!”
I called over my shoulder as I left. “Kenny. Can I go on the Thailand detachment?”
“No, you got a wife. Why would I send you to the land of temptation? What would your wife say? You only want to see that Thai chick you know over there.”
“You told me I could go to Thailand again.”
“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 dress like Vikings and sing? I don’t like opera.”
“I didn’t think you would.”
“Nothing. Screw you, Kenny.”
“Screw you, Nelson. Get your tools. I ain’t sending you to Thailand so you can cheat on your wife. Jeff is going.”
“Jerk,” I mumbled as I walked away.
I was still fuming when I caught up with Steve at the tool room. “I’ll inventory the tool box if you’ll check the safety lamp over.”
“Okay.” Steve inspected the lamp, ensured the bulb lit and the glass globe seated properly, then coiled the cord over his shoulder and waited while I checked off the inventory and signed the receipt. Tools lost on aircraft could lodge into flight controls and engines; no one wanted to lose aircrew buddies to carelessness.
“Kenny’s giving you a hard time about Aida, again?”
“Yeah. He calls her my wife and gives me hell about our relationship. He claims the only thing Filipino women want is a ticket to the States and says the guys who marry them are losers.”
“Well, he’s the loser; he cheats on his wife. Have you seen the girl he hooks up with at the Brown Fox? Good lord, she looks like a water buffalo. How does she get guys to buy her drinks?”
“The real question is, how does that skinny, bug-eyed bastard get girls to go out with him? I’d scream and run if he leered at me. I’d lose my lunch from last week.” I stuffed the tool receipt in my pocket and picked up the toolbox. Steve held the door open for me. On the way out I said, “I’ve never met Kenny’s wife. She must be a winner.”
“I saw her at the terminal before we left Hawaii.”
“What does she look like?”
“She’s too good for him.”
“A worm is too good for him.”
“She could be a model.”
“She’s that pretty?”
“Yep. Unbelievable, huh?”
“Jesus. I wonder what’s wrong with her?”
Steve and I had been best friends since boot camp and roomed together when deployed overseas. We had visited each other’s family when home on leave for holidays. We were as close as two men could be with no family connection. Neither of us had any compunction about calling the other out for various sins and failings. Steve had a great liking for Aida and I knew he worried about the effect on her of my behavior in Thailand. He stopped in the middle of the hangar bay and pointed a finger at my chest.
“Why do you want to see that girl in Thailand?”
I was still steamed from the scene with Kenny; I pushed Steve’s hand away and snapped at him. “Dammit. Don’t put your finger in my chest. And don’t question me like that. I’m not a goddam child.”
Why did everyone question my motives and tell me what I should do? I hunched my shoulders to ease the throbbing knot in the back of my neck and the pounding in my temples, then set the tool box down and sat on it, leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. I stretched my shoulders again and massaged the back of my neck. “I’m sorry, Steve. Kenny’s got me on edge. What makes you think I’m going to see Lek?”
Lek was a sort-of girlfriend from past trips to Thailand before Aida and I became a couple. We had what people would call a torrid relationship with long nights of dancing and drinking away loneliness, fear, desires and needs; of desperate passion, intense arguments, and orgiastic make-up lovemaking. We parted each time without commitment or promises. Her imprint on my heart remained deeply stamped—as did my own desire for the wild abandon and freedom I had felt with her.
“Why else go to Thailand?”
“Trained elephants. The food. The temples. What else is there?”
“You still plan to marry Aida?”
“Of course. But I need to see Lek one more time.”
“You’re crazy, Tom.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You think you can resist temptation long enough to make it back to PI?”
“I haven’t looked at another woman since I committed to Aida, Steve, you know that. I spend all my time with her, and we go everywhere together. I don’t even go out with the guys anymore. You can vouch for that, too.” I heaved on the heavy tool box to get a better grip on the handle and walked to the aircraft ladder.
“Besides, I proposed to her yesterday.”
“No kidding? Good; it’s about time. But, I hope Lek doesn’t have a butterfly knife when you tell her. You think a woman threatening to cut off your happiness is funny, just wait until the butterfly knife flashes in the moonlight. You’ll sing falsetto.”
“That’s why I’m seeing her, Steve. I have to tell her I’m getting married. I can’t just walk away without saying goodbye.”
“If by some miracle you get to go to Thailand that would be the smart thing to do. There’s less danger in just letting Lek go and letting time erase you from her memory. I thought the two of you would be married by the end of that deployment. What if Lek thought that too? What are you going to do if she feels jilted?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought that far ahead. I thought I was being altruistic by telling her.”
“There’s nothing altruistic about having your nuts cut off.”
“Thanks for the visual, Steve.”
“Keep the image at the front of your mind when you land in U-Tapao.”
“I’ll wing it.”
“Good luck with that.”
A head poked out of the aircraft cabin doorway at the top of the ladder.
“Hey! What are you two nimrods standing around for? This isn’t the damn Air Force. Get your butts up here and turn over so night check can get the hell out of here.”
We climbed the ladder as fast as heavy tools and fear of Dixon’s temper would let us. The night shift supervisor was in no mood for skylarking. Fatigue lined his face, and bloodshot eyes gave him an evil, zombie-like stare. Yellow sweat stains blotted the front and armpits of his t-shirt. The big, beefy, dungaree-clad, red-headed blowhard was nearly always humorless, but now, even the possibility of humor, however remote, had fled.
“It’s humid as hell, we’ve been here twelve long hours prepping the aircraft for you, and you’re standing around like a couple of mooncalves. Nelson, get your stuff ready for the tank. Mildenhall…”
“Whatever. Just get ready to spot for Nelson. Who’s your blower?”
“Simmons, I guess.”
“Where is he?”
Steve would only take so much abuse from anyone, even senior petty officers. “How the hell should I know? Kenny was grinning like a jackass when he told me I was the safety observer. He didn’t tell me where the hell Simmons was, so find him yourself if you’re in such a hurry to get out of here.”
Dixon grunted and walked through the escape hatch onto the wing. He waited while Steve and I arranged our equipment.
“All right,” he said. “The leak is coming from the outboard side of the starboard landing gear. You’ll need Simmons to blow air into the leak point in the wheel well so you can find the source of the leak inside the tank. The sealant will bubble—Nelson! What are you doing?”
“I’m checking the respirator hose connections.”
“Well, leave it alone until I finish. I want to get out of here. It’s been a long night.”
“Geez. You don’t have to yell.” I dropped the hose and stood by with my arms crossed, burning with impatience for Dixon to leave.
“As I was saying, we haven’t blown the tank yet, so you guys will start fresh. Ev….”
We braced ourselves as an earthquake shook the aircraft. Tools rattled in tool boxes, and birds flew out of the hangar rafters overhead. Dust, feathers, and bird-droppings floated down and joined the dust, feathers, and bird droppings already coating the aircraft and hangar deck. The rumble subsided and Dixon continued.
“I don’t know what’s worse, standing under the leaky roof of this decrepit hangar or working in a damn fuel cell all night.” Dixon told his crew to check for damage, then continued his brief.
“Okay, everything is ready: there’s bubble wrap in the tank for your sensitive elbows and knees—Nelson; we grounded and fueled the air conditioning cart, and the air manifold has a new filter. The hose connections,” he glared at me, “are new. Questions? No? Good. Night check is getting out of here.”
Simons bellowed for his crew to “get your butts in gear and clean up this mess,” and left for the shop.
“Holy cow,” Steve said. “What’s his problem?”
“The selection board results are out; he didn’t make Chief Petty Officer.”
“No surprise.” Steve knelt by the access hole to the fuel tank. “Pass me the fuel cell lamp.”
I gave him the lamp and he lowered it into the tank.
“He has nineteen years in the Navy and he’s still a first class,” said Steve.” I’d say his chances of retiring as a Chief are slim.”
I shook my head. “Well, he acts like a Chief.”
“No shit. It’d be great to make Chief and have him work for me.” Steve stood and brushed off his coveralls, raising a cloud of dust and feathers before he stepped into the aircraft.
“Hang on; I’ll go check the fresh air pump.”
I lay back on the wing and stared at the rafters in the overhead. I couldn’t stop thinking about Aida and our argument that morning. I should have said right away that I’d go instead of making excuses. She missed her family and worried about them, and she was impatient to tell them she was getting married. She also liked showing me off to the friends she had grown up with. Maybe I’d make it up to her and take her out after work. Dinner and spending the evening at Rufadora would make her happy.
Steve returned and laid down next to the access hole so he could see into the tank. “Hey. I’m taking Lucy to dinner tonight. Want to go?”
“I was just thinking about taking Aida to Rufadora’s. Where are you eating?”
“Wimpy’s. Lucy loves the burgers there, and the fries are the best.”
“Why don’t we meet you for dinner, then? Aida loves it too. Must be the banana ketchup. Maybe it’s an aphrodisiac.”
“Could be. But Lucy doesn’t need an aphrodisiac, if you know what I mean.”
I winked at Steve and climbed into the wing, twisting my legs and torso to fit between wing spars and ribs. Steve passed me the respirator. As I adjusted the straps on the face mask, I looked up through the access hole and called out.
“I’ll kill you if you let anyone near the air intake. Beer farts make me gag.”
Photo: Patrol Squadron Six (VP-6) Blue Sharks P-3 Orions on the flightline at Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Olongapo, Philippines. Photo from Web, photographer unknown.