A Dedication to Those of Us Who Served: The First Years
My plane had just landed at Clark Air Force Base, Phillippines on a late September day. Nothing is left of the base since the Pinatubo eruption, but looking back to those days, I can still remember every minute I was there.
The first thing that I remember was the heat, not a dry heat like one would find in Nevada, but a sticky, overwhelming heat that immediately left a fog on my glasses as soon as I stepped out of the plane. We were directed to wait for a bus that would take us to Subic Bay, about a 2-hour bus ride. I was one of the first people on the bus. I noticed a very beautiful blond woman, a petty officer sit in the seat in front of me. A young blond sailor asked if he could sit with her…pointing out that the bus was filling up, and he would have no place to sit down. She relented, and soon they were involved in a light conversation as the bus begain its trundle toward Subic Bay. About an hour passed, and the bus driver decided to pull over to a Sari-sari store for a beer break. As I departed from the bus, a large group of children approached me. I must have been an easy mark, because they flocked to me like a bunch of seagulls on a dead fish. I was 19 then; naive and full of wanton charity. I handed them all the change I had, not realizing at the time that they were patting me down, testing my watch to see how well it was fastened to my wrist, as they all crowed, “Hey Joe, gimme peso…hey Joe…” As soon as they noticed I had no more change to give them, they ran to find another “victim”. Our Philipino bus driver quickly became tired of the show. when the children started approaching him, shooing us all back onto the bus. As we were boarding, the couple in front of me were laughing at the children. The blond sailor turned to the woman saying, “You want to see something funny?” The woman tittered a bit, then nodded. He leaned out and yelled, “Hey! Hey! You want a peso? You want a peso?”, as the bus began to move. The children ran after the bus, hoping for one more coin. I remember one boy in particular, looking up to him as he leaned far out the window his hands outstretched as he threw his beer bottle at the child’s head, the bottle bouncing squarely off of the child’s skull. I remember turning to watch the child falling down in the dirt road, blood already matting his head as the other children gathered around him. “There! There’s your peso!” the blond sailor shouted. Some of the men on the bus laughed, while the female sailor smiled and said, “You didn’t have to do that.” The blond sailor gave her a surly reply, “Damn slopes deserve it.” That image has lasted in my mind for a long time, and I still do not see how any of those children deserved to be treated in that way by one of us. I was told before I left the United States that we were ambassadors. I did not know what to say then, and I do not know what to say now.
My very first ship was the USS Long Beach (CGN-9), part of the then nuclear task force in the Pacific. It was dark by the time we arrived, the bus dropping us off close to Cubi Point, where my ship was docked. It was a long walk up the gangplank, with my seabag slung over my shoulder, my orders clutched in my hand. The duty officer had me escorted belowdecks to bunk with Supply (temporarily of course), until my more permanent berthing was assigned to me. The smell was something to get used to as I walked through the passageways. It was a mixture of bearing grease, sweat, and floor wax that wafted through the passage. I remember being assailed by all kinds of foreign objects, understanding the differences between port (left) and starboard (right), the fact that a bathroom was now a head, and that my newest friend was John Barton. John was a second class Petty Officer, a bona fide Vietnam Veteran who befriended me not only as someone I could confide in, but someone to look up to. I can still remember those first words. “New on board, huh?” I nodded my head. “Well, don’t mind me kid…I’m just an overpaid seaman.” John was laid back and wise, the kind of mentor that one hoped to find, street smart and ready to help.
More to come…