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It was April 1966 in the seaside City of Cebu. We were home from our Manila colleges and universities. For almost three months, we would party, swim, go to movies, and hang out at Eddie's Log Cabin.
That a war was going on just 500 miles away was incomprehensible to us. Intellectually, we knew. We had seen photographs of Buddhist monks burning in fierce self-immolation. We had read of Diem, napalm, deforestation, bombing raids, and body counts.
The reality of that war brushed us in the form of the hyperkinetic U.S. Air Base at nearby Mactan. We watched tall walls rise and we speculated that the Americans were building a missile site. When parts of the wall were dismantled we saw a runway, tower, camouflaged planes, and barracks. Almost overnight, shanties, claiming to be bars and massage parlors, mushroomed. American soldiers roamed our city. World War II lingo came back to life. Hey Joe, wanna buy watch. Hey Joe, wanna girl. Wanna virgin.
We avoided them, these short-haired men. They descended upon the city with painted, mini-skirted girls clinging tightly to their arms. We good girls learned to stay away from the soldiers.
Madre mia, you might get Vietnam Rose, the respectable matrons lectured from their mahjong tables. And for God's sake don't use the public restrooms.
Near the end of April, we threw a spectacular costume party, and we were exotic beings that night. I was a Muslim princess with pearls woven into my black hair. My brown skin gleamed against my sea green dress.
We were admiring one another when one of the girls (whom we referred to as fast) walked in with two American soldiers. We knew they were soldiers because of their short hair and their youth.
We froze and stared at them. In the background Peggy Lee whined:
Is that all there is Fair skin, brown hair, freckles, tall. Their all-American looks reminded me of Coke and Marlboro ads. They wore Levi pants and strange black shirts. They seemed timid and confused at our provincial opulence. One stamped his foot on the marble floor. The other stared at the crystal chandelier. The two had a dreamlike quality, making me feel they were surrounded by an invisible wall that neither of us could penetrate.
They're tired, I thought. They probably just flew in from Vietnam. How strange it must be to be in a war one minute and in a silly costume party the next. They were our age. Terribly young to be fighting a war, I thought.
They should be at home with their families and friends. They should be driving to a Cove 47 on shimmering hot days to lie on bleached sand and swim in seductively warm water. They should have girlfriends to dream with. They shouldn't have to go back to a war where they could get their guts blown out.
I watched them until the novelty of having American-soldiers--at-our- party grew stale. Then I tasted the Beer-Gin-Coke concoction (dubbed Virgin Coke) that the boys made.
The summer passed and I forgot the American boys.
But years later, on April 30, 1975, I remembered the strangers. TV news showed thousands of Vietnamese trekking across Vietnam to escape death. Hue, Da Nang, Saigon. People dragged the very bones of their ancestors. They ran, stumbled into carts, motorcycles, and boats. Confusion. Death. Fear. Tears. I saw the unforgettable scene of U.S. marines beating desperate Vietnamese who clawed at hovering American helicopters. The awfulness of that war came to a surprising halt that April day.
I saw all these and remembered the two soldiers. I wondered if they made it.