**(Photo provenance unknown) Shit River Bridge between Subic Bay Naval Station and Olongapo. The banca boats hold Shit River “Princesses” who entice coins from passing Sailors and Marines. The young boys dive in after the coins.**
The sun rose blood-red through the ash drifting from Mount Pinatubo’s smoking crater. Enough moisture filled the air to quench a dying man’s thirst. The wind pushed the sun’s heat against my face like a second skin. I turned away when the river’s stench hit me, but it was no use. Whatever the official name for the vile smelling, lumpy sliver of waste that separated naval base and town, the Sailor’s crude nickname stuck: Shit River. I shielded my eyes against the sun’s glare, took a deep breath, and held it while I crossed the bridge to Subic Bay Naval Station.
I reached the guard shack, thankful I didn’t have to breathe the river’s fetid odor all day. The Filipino sentry gave my ID card a cursory look and waved me on. I checked the schedule at the bus queue but took a taxi rather than wait. We sped away for the barracks, driving along the shipyard packed with visiting warships. We drove past the airfield and the runway and into the jungle and up Sky Club Hill. Near the top, the view opened to reveal the deep blue water of Subic Bay backed by the lush green foliage of the Zambales Mountains reaching high into the hazy morning sky. The South China Sea beckoned in the distance.
As we rounded the curve to the barracks, the cabbie mashed the brakes to avoid a monitor lizard sunning itself on the hot pavement. We inched closer. The cabbie honked the horn until the eight-foot lizard lifted itself on short, powerful legs, and sauntered away, flicking its long tongue in defiance. We arrived at the barracks next to the jungle survival school compound. I paid the driver and ran up the stairs to my room on the fifth deck. Sweat rolled off me as I caught my breath. I peeled away my damp clothes and donned my uniform, then grabbed a soda from the refrigerator and ate a cold slice of pizza leftover from the Sky Club.
A short bus ride later, I walked into the hangar aboard Cubi Point Naval Air Station, the aviation side of the giant American Navy base. Two P-3 Orion anti-submarine aircraft parked nose to nose filled the hangar. The cavernous structure echoed with the sounds of mechanics replacing a propeller on one P-3 while structural mechanics repaired a fuel cell in the starboard wing of the other. Good-natured voices and colorful language rose above the echoing clang of tools and roar of ground support equipment engines.
Fuel fumes enveloped me like Saran Wrap covering a bowl of potato salad as I walked across the hangar deck. I took the stairs to the coffee mess on the second deck and filled my mug to the brim with the lifeblood of the Navy. The cashier, a plain, cross-eyed Filipina in her mid-twenties with acne-scarred cheeks, returned my smile as she made change for me. Outside, I hurried for the air-conditioned comfort of the Airframes shop in the Quonset hut behind the hangar.
Kenny, the shift supervisor, walked in as I scanned the aircraft status board, jotting down maintenance notes for the detachment. His high-pitched Alabama nasal twang grated in my ears. I turned the radio volume up, but it didn’t help. His voice rose to the pitch of an untuned violin in the hands of a tone deaf sixth-grader.
Well, if it ain’t my buddy, Admiral Nelson. Hey admiral, I heard you were whining to Master Chief about not going on the Thailand detachment. It wasn’t your turn, you know.
I’m not your buddy, and I’m not related to Admiral Nelson.
So, you admit you were sucking up to him and got him to change his mind?
Whatever you say, Kenny.
Now, why would you want to go to Thailand? What would your wife say? You just want to see that Thai chick you used to screw over there.
She’s not my wife. And her name is Aida, like the opera. You know what opera is, don’t you?
Isn’t that where fat ladies dress like Vikings and sing? I don’t like opera.
I didn’t think you would.
Nothing. Screw you, Kenny.
Screw you, Admiral. Won’t your wife get mad if you go to Thailand?
You’re such a jerk, Kenny.
You heard me.
He sniffed and pushed his glasses up with his index finger. I’m not a jerk.
Yeah? People say otherwise.
Kenny flipped me off, but I ignored him. I picked up my coffee mug and notebook and left to join Phil in the First-Class Petty Officer’s Mess.
Kenny giving you a hard time about Aida again?
Like always. He calls her my wife and gives me hell about our relationship. He claims the only thing Filipino women want is a ticket to the States and says the guys who marry them are losers.
Well, he’s the loser: he cheats on his wife. Have you seen the girl he hooks up with at the Brown Fox? Good Lord, she looks like a water buffalo. How she gets guys to buy her drinks is beyond me.
The real question is, how does that skinny, bug-eyed bastard get girls to go out with him? I’d scream and run if he leered at me. I’d lose my lunch from last week.
The light flashed on the massive, stainless steel, 65-cup coffee maker we called the Viking. I poured a cup for Phil, then filled my own.
I’ve never met Kenny’s wife. She must be a winner.
I saw her at the terminal before we left Hawaii.
What does she look like?
She’s too good for him.
A worm is too good for him.
She could be a model.
I’m serious. Unbelievable, huh?
Holy crap. I wonder what’s wrong with her?
Phil and I had been best friends since boot camp and roomed together when deployed overseas. Neither of us had any compunction about calling the other out for various sins and failings. Phil had a great liking for Aida and worried over what I might do if I went to Thailand. But I didn’t expect a finger in my chest.
Why do you want to see that girl in Thailand?
I pushed his hand away and snapped at him.
Don’t put your finger in my chest, Phil, and don’t question me like that. I’m not a child.
I sat on the edge of the sofa and squeezed the bridge of my nose. After chilling out for a minute, I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees, massaging the back of my neck.
I’m sorry, Phil. I know you mean well. What makes you think I want to see Lek?
Lek was an acquaintance from Thailand. We had had what people would call a torrid relationship with long nights of dancing and drinking away loneliness, desperate passion, violent arguments, and orgiastic make-up sex. She helped me forget what it was like to feel dead inside. We parted each time without commitment or promise. I wasn’t in love with her, but her imprint on my heart remained deeply stamped as did my desire for the freedom I had felt with her. The freedom from love that came after mourning the loss of Susanna for so long.
Why else go to Thailand?
Trained elephants. The food. The temples. What else is there?
You going to marry Aida?
Are you going to marry Aida?
That appears to be her expectation.
You’re crazy, Tom.
Why do you say that?
You think you can resist temptation long enough to make it back to PI?
Hey, I didn’t ask to go to Thailand. Anyway, I only want to tell Lek it’s over.
Why do you need to tell her anything?
I don’t want her hanging on to something that will never happen.
You seem to believe she’s sitting at home crying and waiting for you to come back. She’s not, you know.
We had a pretty serious fling. She might think I’ll come back and marry her.
Newsflash, Tom: Lek works in a nightclub on the Pattaya Beach strip. She’s not waiting for you.
She might be.
Phil shook his head. If—and that’s a mighty big if—she’s waiting for you, I hope she doesn’t find out about Aida. If she does, she’ll have a butterfly knife when you see her. You think a woman threatening to cut off your happiness is funny just wait until the knife flashes in the moonlight. You’ll sing falsetto.
I just can’t walk away without saying goodbye.
Saying goodbye is the nice thing to do, but there’s less danger in staying away from Lek and letting time erase you from her memory.
I thought I was being altruistic by telling her.
There’s nothing altruistic about having your nuts cut off.
Thanks for the visual, Phil.
Keep the image in mind when you see her.
I’ll wing it.
Good luck with that, he said. By the way, I’m taking Lucy to dinner tonight. Why don’t you and Aida join us?
Thanks, but not tonight. I’m taking her to Grande Island for a picnic tomorrow. Why don’t you and Lucy join us?
We’re going to Manila. I promised to take her to the zoo.
You don’t need to go to Manila for that. Just bring her down here for the day. That’ll entertain her.
Phil laughed. No kidding. I’ll catch you later.
We split up. Phil headed to his shop, I to mine. As I ducked under the aft fuselage of the fuel leak aircraft, I overheard two of the mechanics on the wing. One of them was donning a respirator mask.
Bryan. Hey, Bryan.
I’ll kill you if you let anyone near the fresh air intake. Beer farts make me gag.