George’s iron grip dug into my shoulder while his other hand crushed mine in a hand shake.
“Hey, Frank, great to see you, buddy. Come on in and join the party.”
I looked back to see if Marie might be following me. She wasn’t.
“Come on, come on,’ George said tugging my arm. “Don’t be shy. You know everyone here, don’t you?” His southern accent reminded me of home as he led me into a sea of Chief petty officers. I waded through the crowd shaking hands and exchanging greetings, and took a seat next to George at the head table.
“It is so good to see you,” he said. “How you been? We’ve missed you something fierce. Hey, someone get Frank a San Miguel, will you? Stan, be a good fella for once and sound the bell. Thank you, shipmate.”
Stan tugged the rope dangling from the ceiling and the ship’s bell clanged four bells at the bar. A few moments later, the door opened and Marie walked in carrying a tray and a beer. The room fell silent as Marie handed me the beer. Our eyes met.
“I thought the beer might be for you.”
I reached for the beer, but jerked my hand back at the touch of Marie’s fingers.
She set the beer on the table. “Jumpy, Frank?”
“Yes.” The touch of her fingers reawakened a longing I had suppressed in Vietnam.
“Maybe you should go to bed. You look tired, Frank.”
“Yes. Maybe I should,” I said, never taking my eyes off hers. “Thank you for the beer.”
“You’re welcome.” She gave me a smile, her eyes holding mine as she turned and walked out, closing the door behind her. She wasn’t shy, that’s for sure, but she wasn’t a barmaid looking for a big tip either.
“Jesus Christ,” a voice murmured. “Marie never serves anyone.”
Someone else piped up. “Yeah, what’d you do to her, Frank?”
I leaned back in my chair and hooked my thumbs in imaginary suspenders. “Well, boys. Some men have it, others don’t. Try not to be too jealous.” Something bothered me after I spoke though; I felt cheap speaking of Marie that way. Maybe I had been in Vietnam too long. But that wasn’t it. I sensed Marie was different. She was too mature, too cultured, too sophisticated. She wasn’t a poor girl from the provinces seeing the big city for the first time.
Another guy, Senior Chief Kelly, practically sneered as he said, “Well, you must have done something. She’s always so damn snooty.”
“She seems pretty nice to me,” I said.
“You don’t get out much, do you, boy?”
That got my hackles up, but I remained silent. So did the others.
The loudmouth continued. “She’ll sit all night while Sailors buy her drinks, but the drinks are mostly water with barely enough booze for the smell. She never goes home with anyone. The mama-san must want to keep her clean and pure.”
“Yeah,” piped in Chief O’Brien, “Marie’s about as pure as they come.”
The Senior Chief nodded in agreement. “Didn’t you ever see a drop-dead gorgeous barmaid you wanted to take out, buy her drinks all night, and get nowhere? God knows, I have.”
“I have better things to do than spend all night drinking, Senior Chief. I’ve been in ’Nam since we left Hawaii. When I get back to PI, I don’t spend all my time getting drunk; I like to get out in the provinces.”
“You hit the bars in the provinces, don’t you? Granted, they aren’t the same as the bars here in Olongapo. For one thing, there are no Flips in our bars. Not many, anyway.” Kelly laughed again, his face red with drink.
Chief Magalapa, born and raised in Olongapo, sat quiet, shaking his head as he sipped his San Miguel. The other Chiefs squirmed in their seats.
I fired back. “No, Senior Chief, I don’t hit the bars in the provinces, the people I meet welcome me into their homes. In fact, when I help repair the Catholic orphanage in the Barrio tomorrow, a bunch of Flips will be there working alongside other Sailors too stupid to realize they could be in town getting drunk. Wait, I can read their letters home now: Dear Mom and Dad, I could have helped repair an orphanage in Barrio Baretto today, but I thought it would be better to hang out in a bar and get drunk. Heck, I may never have another chance to travel overseas again, so I’d better make the most of it. Love, Dickie.”
“Well, ain’t you cute. Looks like I struck a nerve. What, you don’t like it when I call ‘em Flips? Are you a Flip lover, boy?”
“All right, Senior, that’s enough.” George stood and glared at the Senior Chief. “How you talk in private is your own business. I expect your conversation to be civil and respectful in the Chief’s Mess, wherever it happens to be.”
He looked around the room, his hands on his hips. George was a big man, crew cut, steely-eyed, and imposing. Thirty-five years of service backed him up.
“That goes for all of you. We’re Chief Petty Officers, not thugs. Is that understood?”
Nobody said anything. More than one face turned red.
“All right then, meeting adjourned. Fall out. The smoking lamp is lit. Where’s my damn cigar?”
O’Brien smiled and ran his finger across his temple to keep from laughing. “In your mouth, George.”
“Oh. Yeah. Someone ring the bell to let Mama-san know the meeting is over and to send in some beers; my mouth is dry. And if Marie brings the beers to Frank instead of me, we’ll have to have a long talk. Who’s the President of this Mess anyway?”
The meeting broke up. A few chiefs left for the base or other bars, others gathered around tables in their usual groups. Senior Chief Kelly, red-faced and drunk, dominated a table of Chiefs who appeared annoyed by his presence. Ignored by the others, he finally left.
George and I were the only ones left at the table. I downed the rest of my beer as the door close behind the Senior Chief. “What’s the deal with Senior Chief Kelly? Is he always that way?”
“Paul? Not always. He quit flying last year after his helicopter crashed at sea. He was the only one to make it out. Search and Rescue helo picked him up. It was nasty. An engine caught fire and spread to the cockpit before they could do anything. The helo spun out of control and dropped like a rock. The pilot burned to a crisp. He was on fire when he turned and looked Paul square in the eyes as they hit the water. It’s the last thing Paul remembers.”
“Poor guy. That’s awful.”
“Yeah. I knew the pilot. Taught him the ropes during his first tour of duty. He was a fine man, a hell of an officer. Family man too.” He brought the beer to his lips and took a long drink. “Paul’s working with us until he receives orders. I’ve tried to get him transferred early, but Washington tells me the only available billets are in Vietnam, but that’s no place for a man in his shape.”
“Why is he such an ass?”
“Whatever goodwill people felt for him after the crash evaporated soon after he came here. He was different before the crash: easygoing, cheerful, happy. Not now. He’s arrogant and cocky, talks too much, drinks too much, and resents authority. I sympathize with him of course, but you can only do so much for someone in Paul’s state. We’ve got him working in Operations, a job he’s familiar with, but the Ops yeoman wants to kill him. If he doesn’t get orders soon….”
“I’m glad you told me, I wanted to punch him after what he said. Chief Magalapa was sitting next to him. I can’t imagine what he was feeling.”
I paused as a barmaid entered the room. “Here comes your beer, George.”
George smiled as Amy approached the table. “Well, hello there, young lady. Now, why is a pretty girl like you working in a place like this?”
“Oh, Goody-Goody,” said Amy, a strikingly pretty girl of about eighteen. “You know I only work here so I see you.”
“Well, it’s nice of you to say that, sweetheart. Thank you for the beer.”
“Do you want some food? Mama-san bought adobo and pancit.”
“No, I have to get home soon. I have a busy day tomorrow.”
“Ok. Bye-bye, Goody-Goody.’
George puffed his cigar and blew smoke rings toward the ceiling. “Nice girl, Amy. I always wonder why she’s working in a place like this.”
Amy walked from table to table serving the remaining beers, the edge of the serving tray between her hip and arm. As she walked through the doorway, she swung her hips around in a smooth dancing move to make room for the tray. Conversation slowed as the Sailors watched, her white short-shorts holding their attention like boys watching cheerleaders practice.
I cleared my throat and answered. “She’s probably hoping a Sailor will come in, sweep her off her feet, marry her, and take her back to the States. I hope she gets her wish.”
“So do I, Frank, so do I. In a way, though, I feel sorry for them.”
“Oh. How so?
“They put all their hope into landing a Sailor or Marine for a husband and moving to the States where they think everyone is rich.”
“They do, George. Pretty as Amy is, she’ll be married and have a baby by the time she’s twenty, if not sooner. She’s in for a rude awakening when she finds out her Sailor husband is on the low end of the social scale, not to mention the pay scale.”
“That’s right.” He squinted against the smoke in his eyes. “Things are so cheap here – this beer cost me less than a dime – a young Sailor is comparatively rich. There’s also the lack of other Filipinos to socialize with back in the States, unless her husband is lucky enough to land a set of orders to Norfolk or San Diego.”
“Sailors receive counseling before they get married. Aren’t they told what to expect: culture shock, discrimination, disrespect? Isn’t the whole interview and counseling process designed to test their commitment?”
“The interview process is designed to discourage marriage, Frank, and for good reason. It’s easy for a naïve young kid fresh out of boot camp and overseas for the first time to become infatuated with the first girl who makes goo-goo eyes at him. Most have never had a serious girlfriend and think they’re in love after the girl takes him home a few times and dotes on him. Haven’t you counseled any of the Sailors in your squadron?
“No. They see the Chaplain.”
“When you do, be careful. It’s hard to convince a guy he’s wrong about a girl when he insists they love each other and want to get married. And then there are those who say they’re doing the honorable thing by marrying. Maybe, but that isn’t always an accident. I’m not saying that every relationship is a one-sided attempt to catch a ride to America, but enough are to make me cynical. You can often tell if the girl is sincere during an interview. A few Sailors reconsider, but most go through with their plans.”
“Yep. It happens every deployment.”
“It does indeed.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought and half-watching a game of pool. After a cry of triumph by the winning player, George spoke again, preoccupied by the earlier conversation.
“You know, Frank. Filipinos dream just like everybody else. They dream of a better life for their kids. Some of the boys join the US Navy and become citizens sooner or later. They’ll realize their dreams that way. But parents know their daughters have dreams too, otherwise they wouldn’t let them work as barmaids hustling Sailors for drinks. They know what’s at stake and what’s to be gained.”
“I know they do, George.”
“I hope Amy does okay. I hope her Sailor is good to her.” He chuckled. “If she’s lucky, her Sailor will work for me.”
“That would scare any Sailor.”
“Damn straight it would, Frank. Someone has to look out for these young knuckleheads.” George looked at his watch. “Well, I’m heading back to the base. Betty will think I’m lying in a gutter in Subic if I don’t get home soon. What time are we meeting tomorrow?”
“Why don’t we meet at Public Works at, say, nine-thirty? You can help us load supplies for the orphanage. The sisters expect us by eleven.”
“All right. See you then.”
He laughed as he shook my hand. “You’re a punk Frank. See you in the morning.”
George headed for the door but stopped before he reached it. He walked back and took my hand, gripping it tighter and holding me by my sore shoulder.
“I know it was bad, Frank. I’m glad you made it out of ‘Nam alive, buddy.”