. Book Two
Frank and Marie
The orange-red sun was setting on another sweltering day in the Philippines when our C-130 touched down at Cubi Point Naval Air Station. The war in Vietnam was nine-hundred miles behind me and I could finally relax as the target on my back melted away. The creepy feeling that I was a sniper’s target had been with me for months. For the next week at least, I wouldn’t have to look for cover every time a Jeep backfired.
The Hercules taxied off the runway and came to a stop in front of the air terminal. We—myself – Chief Petty Officer Frank Bailey, and Petty Officers Sam McBride and Otis Parker—were impatient to get to the barracks and change into civilian clothes but had to wait for Customs. Spirits were high and several of the aircrewmen laughed and kidded around. The light atmosphere was a stark contrast to that of the previous day’s flight when we transported the bodies of Marines killed in action to Clark Airbase. Another aircraft and crew would take the bodies home.
Three months in Vietnam had left us thirsty for live music, cold beer, and female company. We weren’t going to waste a single minute of our short week in the Sailor’s playground known as Olongapo. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the agent collected our customs forms. He paused on the cargo ramp, winked at us, and told us to have a good time, “but don’t forget your protection!”
I walked down the cargo ramp followed by Sam and Otis and headed for the terminal. Inside, I gave Sam and Otis their duty orders. “All right fellas; check into the barracks and stow your gear before you do anything else tonight. I want you at squadron admin by eight tomorrow morning to update your records. I’m staying at the Chief’s barracks if you need to reach me. What is it, Otis?”
“Where you going tonight, Chief?”
“To church, of course. I always go to church when I get liberty in PI. Why?”
“I want to make sure we don’t go to the same bar. You might order me to buy you a drink.”
“Don’t worry about that. The first barmaid who sees you will scream and have you arrested for impersonating a Sailor.”
“Real funny, Chief.”
“Seriously, I’m meeting Master Chief Franklin at Rufadora Bar. I’ll see you guys in the morning. Have a good time!”
Have a good time. That might be hard to do. A cold chill ran down my spine. I still couldn’t shake the feeling that my back had a target pinned to it. The thought that I would never leave Vietnam again nagged at the back of my mind as I left the terminal and crammed my tall, lanky frame into the back seat of the taxi. What would the bullet feel like? What did it feel like to know you were dying? Would I hear the bullet that killed me? These questions had plagued me ten thousand times in three months.
A few minutes later I heaved myself out of the cab and walked into my room in the CPO barracks. Master Chief Franklin, “George” to his close friends and wife, “The Master Chief” to everyone else including presidents, admirals, and his kids, had told me to meet him at the bar at eight. I had time for a shower and a quick letter to my folks in Annapolis before heading into town.
Later, refreshed and hungry, I held my breath as I crossed Shit River. My stomach grumbled and I stopped at the corner of Gordon Avenue and Magsaysay. Via’s Tacos – the best in the Pacific Fleet – was out of the way, so I bought several skewers of monkey meat from a street vendor across the street. I stood on the sidewalk eating the barbecued meat – pork, I hoped – and contemplated the scene before me. Testosterone Alley would have been a more fitting name for the zone of pleasure up and down both sides of Magsaysay Drive to Rizal Avenue. Pheromones floated like moths around the little brown foxes clustering in front of every bar and intensified the burning urge for sexual release of young Sailors.
The vendor, a friendly, moon-faced old woman with few teeth, and a fixture on “her” corner for decades, joined me after helping another customer.
“Many Sailor out tonight, yis, yis? Many more soon when aircraft carrier arrive, yis?”
The USS Midway battle group was due in port the following day. Olongapo would grow by seven thousand Sailors and Marines.
The old woman, known as Mumbles for her lack of teeth, leered at me. “How many baby you tink Sailor and bargirl make? Sailor only tinking about beer and sex when dey awake, yis? All day dey tinking sex with bargirl, and beer. Make good for business for me.”
She rubbed her fingers together. “Look.” She pointed at a group of Sailors standing on the corner looking up at the bargirls on the balcony of Daisy Mae’s Bar. “Dey looking for girls. Dey want to make babies. Maybe dey marry bargirl and take dem to America, yis?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“What about you? You looking for girlfriend?”
“Not me. I’m thinking the same thing you are about Sailors. About young men in general. Food, beer, and sex. That’s what drives the world, right?”
“Yis. I tink you are right.”
Sailors would spend hours reconnoitering the perimeter of Magsaysay Drive, drinking beer, eating cheap food, looking out for willing young Filipinas ready to help them obey the irresistible urge to couple. In Olongapo, there were no boundaries to hold one back from finding love and making love, planting one’s seed and fertilizing that seed. That release offered hope to the girl and her family. Hope that the seed would grow and bloom and pave a golden road to opportunity and comfort. The girl could bid farewell to poverty. She could forget her fear that one day, a failure at love, she would live out her years as a dry, wrinkled, bitter mama-san watching over a nursery of young barmaids clamoring for their turn to suckle at the teat of the American Dream.
After finishing the last skewer, I wiped my hands on the towel the vendor offered. I tipped the white-headed, tiny old woman who rewarded me with a toothless smile. I left her still smiling and turned and walked up the noisy street, passing Wimpy’s Burgers and Apple Disco, a club Sam and I frequented in the past. I turned off Magsaysay Drive at Mariposa’s Bar and Restaurant, jammed with Sailors and Marines sitting at street-side tables, and walked up the hot, dusty side street to Rufadora Bar. A jukebox blasted Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze and barmaids danced on the balcony above the bar. One of them, a short, plain, young girl called out to me. “Hey, handsome, you come see me?”
I chuckled behind a broad grin. “No. I’m coming to see George, a friend of mine.”
“Ohhh, you benny-boy?”
“No, no, I’m afraid not.”
The girl laughed and blew me a kiss, and disappeared into the bar. Another woman, tall and slender and leaning on the balcony railing watched me as I approached the bar. Her beauty was striking. My heart skipped a beat when she turned to a call from someone out of sight, looked back my way, then walked into the bar.
I had never been to Rufadora. I usually frequented Daisy Mae’s, Apple Disco, or VP Alley bar, the patrol squadron’s home-base in town. Every bar had its loyal patrons. Helicopter crews claimed Rufadora as their own. Not much differed between the bars anyway. Every bar offered three things in abundance: cheap beer, cheap love, and loud music. I didn’t care much for cheap love.
I paused in the doorway while my eyes adjusted to the dark. My lungs recoiled from the thick cloud of cigarette smoke wafting around the interior. Entering the dim light of the bar was like crossing the threshold to another world, quite possibly Dante’s Inferno. Here dwelt at least eight of the nine circles of Hell. I wasn’t sure about heresy, but Sailors could do just about anything they set their mind to.
Tables covered in beer stains and cigarette burns, nicotine-covered ceiling and walls, and the ground-in dirt of the floor tiles gave Rufadora a shabby patina. Framed photos of grinning American boys holding barmaids on their laps decorated the walls, along with dozens of squadron plaques given to the bar’s mama-san in appreciation of the fun and memories of their R&R, or I&I as it was sometimes called: intercourse and intoxication.
Sailors and Marines in various stages of drunkenness crowded the bar. The dark interior and stale air gave the room a close, dingy, seedy feeling. The upright piano against the wall had seen better days; beer bottles and ashtrays covered the top, and the ivory keys had yellowed with age. Or was it cigarette smoke? A roar of laughter and loud cheers erupted across the room as a drunk Marine swallowed the contents of a beer bong to chants of encouragement. He wiped his lips, then fell out of his chair where he lay senseless. He looked barely old enough to shave. Two barmaids in bikinis danced atop tables on either side of the jukebox while Aretha Franklin belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Several couples made out at nearby tables. I shook my head at the irony. The pretty girl from the balcony was speaking with an older woman, presumably the mama-san, sitting at the bar stretching along the back wall. She threaded her way through the maze of tables and joined me.
“Hello, George’s friend. Have you found him?”
“Not yet, but it’s dark in here.”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s a big man with a crew cut, George Franklin. He’ll be chewing a cigar.”
“Oh, Master Chief. He’s in the back room.”
“You know him?”
“Everybody knows the Master Chief. The girls call him Goody-Goody.”
“Yes. He’s a good boy. He never touches the girls, but he always buys them drinks.” She leaned towards me and whispered in a conspiratorial voice. “And his wife lives on base.” Her eyes and a smile gave away her humor. “Are you a good boy too?”
“My mother believes so.”
“My mother believes I’m a good girl.”
“I’m not married.”
“I am not married, either.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Oh? why not?”
She smiled under arched eyebrows. “You’re a smart boy.”
“I’m more careful than smart. May I join Goody—the Master Chief?”
“Come. I will take you to him.”
I followed her like a puppy through the tangled knot of Sailors and Marines to a door at the far end of the bar. The mama-san cast a thoughtful look our way before turning her smile on me.
“Hello, Sailor. I’ve never seen you here before. Your first time?”
“Oh, uh, yes ma’am. Well, it’s my first time in Rufadora.”
“Will you come back again?”
Frank glanced at the pretty girl. “I just might, ma’am.”
“Good. We’ll be waiting for you. Come see me if anything pleases you.”
“Yes, ma’am. I will. Thank you.”
The pretty girl’s eyes turned my cheeks warm while I spoke with mama-san. She seemed to be sizing me up, placing me among the dozens of men who frequented the bar every night to see where I fit in.
She took my arm and pointed me toward the back room. “That was Helen, the mama-san. She owns the bar.”
“She’s quite forward. I didn’t know what to say. I’m afraid I stammered like a little boy.”
“You were fine. She always has that effect on the unprepared. She’s observed human nature from that end of the bar for years. Her snap judgments of people are usually accurate. And she likes you.”
“How can you tell?”
“She said good after you told her you might come back. She remains silent to those she does not like.”
I had liked the pretty girl right away; now I was keen to know more about her. “I’d better not let her down, then. I’ll make sure to come back often.
“Was there a purpose in your glance at me when you answered her?”
I ran a finger along the side of my nose, whether to hide my blush, or to buy time while I wondered what to say next. The pretty girl was clearly enjoying my discomfort if her smile was any indication. “Helen had me flustered; I think I was looking for help. She’s a strong woman.”
Helen is not afraid of anyone. The police look out for her, and Shore Patrol comes by often to check on the Sailors and Marines.”
“Doesn’t that make them stay away?”
“Does the bar look empty?”
Frank grinned. “Touché. What’s your name?”
“Hello, Marie. I’m Frank.”
“Hello, Frank. Your friend is George Franklin; that’s amusing.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Marie knocked on the door and opened it. “You will find George Franklin in here.”
I stopped halfway through the door and turned. I almost dwarfed Marie, but the hard gleam in her eyes and her straight back intimidated me for some reason. I decided against getting familiar with her until I knew her better. “Thank you, Marie. Will you be here long? Will you join me for a drink later?”
“No.” She walked away with the sensuous grace of a ballet dancer. Her long, jet black hair and light brown skin stood out against her white blouse. She was a glimmer of sunlight in the dark cavern of the bar. I turned away when I noticed the mama-san watching me. George called out and rose to greet me.