I left the Command Master Chief’s office practically walking on air. I wasn’t going back to Vietnam. They said I needed a break and would be replaced by another Chief who needed the time in-country. The tension had drained from me like shedding a layer of skin. The feeling of doom lifted from my shoulders and I felt twenty pounds lighter. What a relief. Sam too. They wanted to keep Sam back and groom him for promotion.
I found Sam in the coffee mess and gave him the news. We walked through the hangar bay like changed men, calling out greetings and shaking hands with shipmates we hadn’t seen in months. We walked to the bus stop but had just missed it so we started up the hill to the main part of the base, ‘downtown’ as Sailors called it, where the chapel and other buildings were located. A troop of spider monkeys watched us from across the road. No good ever came from eye-balling monkeys; they were likely to throw rocks or sticks. Confrontations were rare, but Sailors and Marines had a penchant for getting into trouble, and monkeys had long fangs and bit hard.
The walk in the heat was strenuous with the humidity making it about three sweat drops away from a full rain, but we waved away several taxis. The walk would give us time to talk.
“Frank. If you had anything to do with me staying back, I sure do appreciate it. I don’t mind staying in ‘Nam, but I need the desk time back here if I’m ever going to make Chief.”
“It was the Master Chiefs’ doing. Besides, I had a bad feeling about Vietnam. I was sure I wasn’t going to make it.”
“You? You’re indestructible. It would take more than one bullet to do you in.”
I picked up a rock from the roadside. “I wish I were as confident as you.” I wound up and threw the rock into the jungle. A flurry of thrashing noises complained at the disruption.
“I hope you’re right. Some mentor, aren’t I, worried about dying?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be a great mentor. We’ve only worked together for what, six years now? I should know everything you know.”
“You do. Pure luck made me Chief first. All you need to do is find some way to magically grow an extra year of service to match mine and you’re golden!”
“No kidding. If only the selection board would see it my way.”
“Don’t worry. You’ll be selected and buy me the first beer at your wetting-down party.”
“I’m glad you’re so sure.”
“I have reason to be: I trained you.”
I broke into a run. “Come on. I’ll race you to the top.”
“Hey, no fair; you started running before you finished talking!” Sam was faster, though, and laughed as he passed me and arrived at the chapel well ahead.
Chaplain Caragounis was working in the flowerbed when we arrived. I called out to him.
“Hey, Chaps, are you pulling weeds or planting them?”
The Chaplain stood and wiped his forehead. We both grinned; it was impossible not to smile at the good-natured chaplain.
“Why, hello Frank. Hello Sam. You know what they say: when weeding, the best way to make sure you are removing a weed and not a valuable plant is to gently tug on it. If it comes out of the ground easily, it’s a valuable plant.” He surveyed the chapel grounds with his hands on his hips. “It’s challenging to keep the jungle at bay. Last week I found a python hiding in the shrubbery. Yesterday, a monitor lizard decided to sun itself next to the rectory. I draw the line at cobras for neighbors, though.”
He looked from Sam to me. “Welcome back, boys, welcome back. I’m happy to see you both safe and sound.” He wiped his hands before shaking ours. “I lit a candle and said a prayer for all of you when I heard about the firefight. I’m so sorry for the casualties.”
“Thank you for the prayers, Chaplain. It could have been much worse.”
“Yes, it usually is. Let’s pray this war ends sooner than later. I’ve presided over far too many memorial services and sent too many bodies home to loved ones.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Chaplain.” We were silent for a moment before I changed the subject. “Do we have a truck for the supplies?”
“Why, yes we do. The Seabees kindly loaned me one from their motor pool. They parked the truck behind the chapel. Come, we’ll head over to public works. Oh, let me change these clothes first.”
The Chaplain disappeared for a few minutes before reappearing in short canvas trousers and a t-shirt. “You’ll forgive me for appearing like this; shorts are much cooler and more comfortable than long pants in this heat.”
“No problem, Chaplain,” Frank said. “We need to change as well. Would you mind if we stopped by the barracks on the way?”
“Of course not. By the way, is Master Chief Franklin coming with us?”
“Yes. He said he’d meet us at public works.”
“Good. He’s always such a pleasure to have around, and the kids love him. They call him Goody-Goody, you know.”
I thought that odd. Why would the kids at the orphanage call George Goody-Goody? Coincidence? That would be a stretch. Maybe they heard it from someone who worked at Rufadora. Were any of the barmaids, orphans?
We reached the truck and Sam volunteered to drive. He looked around to make sure we fastened our seatbelts and said “Ready, fellas?”
The truck belched to a start and lurched forward as Sam turned the heavy stake truck onto the road. We left through the main gate and onto Magsaysay Drive, creeping along through heavy traffic until passing the city market and reaching the edge of town. Once on National Highway, we left behind the stink of a city teeming with life and diesel fumes. My spirits lifted as the feeling of doom passed from my mind. On either side of the road, tall, graceful coconut palms lined National Highway like swaying sentinels. Carabao cooled themselves in mud-wallows along the roadside and sari-sari stores dotted the landscape offering cold drinks and snacks to travelers. I relaxed and leaned back in the seat as the truck, laden with paint and building material, lumbered along. The orphanage lay near 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 and Subic City.
Sam slowed the truck as we passed the hand-painted sign for the Zambales Orphanage. The exit turned onto a road that nearly formed a u-turn and Sam had to strain to overcome the lack of power steering. At the end of the long, rutted dirt lane sat the low, unpainted cement buildings of the orphanage. The chapel’s steeple, topped with the cross, rode along the top of the green hedge separating the lane from the pasture. Goats and chickens scattered as we drove into the dusty, gravel parking lot. Sam brought the truck to a shuddering stop next to the dining hall. A sow pig, lying in her litter against the wall and feeding her young, peered with complacence at the truck from beneath her immense wrinkled forehead.
Sam took the key from the ignition and stuck it in his pocket, then leaned over the steering wheel to look around the grounds. “Boy. Not much has changed. The place looks the same as the last time we were here.”
I shaded my eyes from the bright noontime sun. “Doesn’t it, though? That building will look better once we slap a coat of paint over those bare walls.” I slid over as the Chaplain opened the passenger door. “Are we painting the exterior today, Chaplain?”
“No, Frank. Sister Arnalita would like to finish the inside of the new building first.” The door of the long narrow building at the near end of the parking lot opened and a nun walked out followed by several more nuns and a large group of children. “Here are the Sisters and children.”
Chaplain Caragounis stepped from the truck and looked around speaking with pride of his part in the chapel’s restoration. “You’ll find the chapel much improved. A former resident blessed the orphanage with a generous endowment that Sister Arnalita put to good use.” Ever mindful of his appearance, he pulled at his shirt and poked it under his belt to make himself presentable but sweat stuck it to his skin and he gave up, smiling instead at the approaching crowd of happy faces.
The Sisters and what looked like all the children in their care, about thirty kids from toddlers to teenagers, surrounded us. Sister Arnalita, a striking middle-aged woman with a round, friendly, open face, stepped from the group and approached Chaplain Caragounis; they knew each other well.
“Greetings, Father Caragounis, and welcome.”
“Hello, Sister Arnalita.” They shook hands as the chaplain made introductions. “You remember Frank Bailey and Sam McBride. They assisted here several times during their last deployment.”
“Of course, I do, Father Caragounis.” Sister Arnalita, squinting against the sun until I moved to shade her, greeted us, smiling in remembrance as she grasped our hands and gave a firm, friendly squeeze.
“Hello, Frank. Hello, Sam. Welcome back to Zambales Orphanage. We are so pleased to see you again. Father Caragounis told us you would come today.” She put her arms around the shoulders of a young boy and girl and gestured to the others. “We have some new faces since your last visit. Children, say hello—.” She paused when a small child rushed from the crowd.
“Sammy, Sammy, you come back, you come back.”
Sam knelt and the little girl ran into his arms. She pressed her face against his neck and sobbed.
“Little Lucy! Hello darling. So, you missed me? I missed you too, sweetheart. I missed you too.” Sam kissed her cheek and wiped his eyes with his sleeve.
“Oh, Sammy. I am so happy you came. Did you like the letters I sent you, Sammy?” Then, in a loud whisper, “Sister Mary Ann helped me write them. She is my best friend.”
“I loved your letters, Little Lucy. I read them over and over again. Tell Sister Mary Ann I said thank you for helping you write them.”
Laughter rippled through the crowd as Little Lucy called out at the top of her lungs. “Sister Mary Ann. Sammy says to say thank you for writing – I mean 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 good to see you. I read your letters to Lucy many times. They were most welcome.”
“Thank you, Sister Mary Ann. You’ve been so kind.”
Sister Arnalita, patting Little Lucy’s knee, smiled. “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.”
“That’s okay. So much has happened. You know, we would have adopted Little Lucy and she’d be in Spain with Susanna if… well, she’d be in Spain. Susanna loved her and couldn’t wait to take her home.” Sam’s eyes closed as he stroked Little Lucy’s head and pressed his cheek to hers. “Sometimes I feel like she’s standing right next to me.”
“I understand, Sam. God bless dear Susanna. We were so sorry and prayed for you both. I explained what happened as best I could to the children.”
I hoped the Sister wouldn’t ask about Sam’s son. Sam was already on the verge of breaking down; the orphanage held a lot of memories of Susanna who had often helped with the children before returning to Spain. I hadn’t wanted to ask Sam along, but that would never have done; Sam had spoken with excitement about seeing Little Lucy again. Questions about giving his son up for adoption wouldn’t help any.
Little Lucy fingered the silver chain around Sam’s neck. “Sammy, can I hold the chain?”
“Yes, but be careful with it.” He slipped the necklace off, removed a golden wedding band, and placed it around her neck.
“Ohhhh,” she murmured. “Pretty. What’s this?” She held up the medallion, turning it so the ruby flashed in the sunlight.
“That belonged to Susanna’s grandmother and to her mother before that. It belonged to her family for a long, long time.”
“How long is a long, long time, Sammy?”
“A long time before you were born, sweetheart.”
“What was the other thing you had?”
Sam fingered Susanna’s wedding ring in his pocket. “Oh, only a ring, sweetheart, only a ring.”
“Is Susanna coming back, Sammy?”
“No, Little Lucy.”
“Is she in Heaven?”
“Yes, she is. God needed another angel and called Susanna to Heaven.”
“Will I see her there, Sammy?”
“Yes, sweetheart. You’ll see her there.”
Sister Arnalita cleared her throat. She turned to address the crowd of adults and giggling children.
“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 while the Sisters rounded up the children. “Thank you. Now, children, say hello to Frank and Sam. And you will never forget dear Father Caragounis.”
A chorus of young voices called out greetings to the men. I climbed into the truck bed while the chaplain asked Sister Arnalita where she wanted the building materials.
“You may place the materials next to the new medical building. The lumber we will use next weekend when Chaplain Rohland and his group of volunteers repair the roof, so, if you like, you may begin painting the treatment rooms. Shall we?
“Children. Children!” She called for order, but they were too excited. “Goodness.”
The orphanage took on a holiday atmosphere when Sailors visited and the children wanted to play and be silly. “Sisters, the children, please. Thank you. Children! Line up and help carry the material to the new building. Sister Evangelina will show you where to put the material.” She gestured to a group of older, teenaged boys. “You big boys help with the lumber.”
She turned to the chaplain and said, “Father. When you are ready.”
Turning to me, he said, “All right, Frank, hand down the material and we’ll pass it along.”
“You got it, Chaplain. Here we go.”
We stopped for a late lunch after unloading and distributing the material. Little Lucy clung to Sam’s side. The chaplain, Sister Arnalita, and I sat together at the head of the long dining table and chatted about the orphanage, future repairs, and our plans for our next tours of duty. Sister Arnalita said she would pray for us to receive orders keeping us in the Philippines so we would always be close to the orphanage. We had moved on to discussing plans for more renovations to the orphanage when a car drove up. A car door opened and closed, and footsteps crunched on the gravel. The door opened and Marie entered the dining hall.