Approach to Cubi Point Naval Air Station, Olongapo, Philippines.
The sun set on another blistering day in the Philippines as our C-130 touched down at Cubi Point Naval Air Station. The war in Vietnam was nine-hundred miles in the past. I could finally relax and put the horror of that last, bloody attack behind me. For the next week at least, I wouldn’t have to look for a foxhole to dive into every time a Jeep backfired.
The Hercules taxied off the runway and parked in front of the air terminal. Once we cleared Customs, I gave Petty Officer Sam McBride his orders and told him to report to squadron admin the following morning.
After a short taxi ride past the destroyer and submarine piers, I checked into my room at the CPO barracks. Master Chief Franklin, “Chip” to his close friends and “The Master Chief” to everyone else, had asked me to meet him at Rufadora Bar at eight. I had time for a shower and a quick letter to my folks in Annapolis before heading into town.
Refreshed but hungry, I held my breath and crossed Shit River. I stopped at the corner of Gordon Avenue and Magsaysay Drive and bought several skewers of monkey meat from a street vendor. A scroungy black and white mutt ran across the street and sat next to me with a paw raised. He was pitifully thin, so I fed him a few pieces of meat and contemplated the scene before me.
Testosterone Alley would have been a more fitting name for the zone of pleasure up and down both sides of Magsaysay Drive to Rizal Avenue. Pheromones floated like moths around the little brown foxes clustering in front of every bar and intensified the burning urge for sexual release of young Sailors.
The vendor, a friendly, moon-faced old woman with few teeth and a fixture on her corner for decades, joined me.
Many Sailor out tonight, yis, yis? Many more soon when aircraft carrier arrives, yis?
The old woman, known as Mumbles for her lack of teeth, leered at me. How many babies you tink Sailor and bargirl make? Sailor only tinking about beer and sex when dey awake, yis? All day dey tinking sex with bargirl, and beer. Make good for business for me. She rubbed her fingers together.
Look. She pointed toward a group of Sailors standing on the corner looking up at the bargirls on the balcony of Daisy Mae’s Bar. Dey looking for girls. Dey want to make babies. Maybe dey marry bargirl and take dem to America, yis?
Maybe, I said.
What about you? You looking for girlfriend?
Not me. I’m thinking the same thing you are about Sailors. About young men in general. Food, beer, and sex. That’s what drives the world, right?
Yis, I tink you are right.
Sailors would spend hours reconnoitering the perimeter of Magsaysay Drive, drinking beer, eating cheap food, looking out for willing young Filipinas ready to help them obey the irresistible urge to couple. In Olongapo, there were no boundaries to hold one back from finding love and making love, planting one’s seed, and fertilizing that seed. That release offered hope to the girl and her family. Hope that the seed would grow and bloom and pave a golden road to opportunity and comfort. The girl could bid farewell to poverty. She could forget her fear that one day, a failure at love, she would live out her years as a dry, wrinkled, bitter mama-san watching over a nursery of young barmaids clamoring for their turn to suckle at the teat of the American Dream.
After finishing the last skewer, I wiped my hands on a towel and tipped the white-headed, tiny old woman who rewarded me with a toothless smile. I left her still smiling and walked up Magsaysay, passing Wimpy’s Burgers and Apple Disco, a club Sam and I had frequented in the past. I turned the corner at Mariposa’s Restaurant, jammed with Sailors and Marines sitting at sidewalk tables, and walked up the hot, dusty side street to Rufadora Bar. A jukebox blasted Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and several women danced on the balcony above the bar. One of them called out to me. Hey, handsome, you come see me?
I’m sorry, beautiful lady. I’m coming to see Chip, a friend of mine.
Ohhh, you a benny-boy?
No, no, I’m afraid not.
She laughed and blew me a kiss and disappeared into the bar. Another woman, tall and slender, leaned on the balcony railing while observing my approach. Her beauty was striking. She turned to a call from someone out of sight, looked back my way, and walked into the bar.
Rufadora was new to me. I usually frequented Daisy Mae’s, Slim’s, or VP Alley bar, the patrol squadron’s home-base in town. Every bar had its loyal patrons. Helicopter crews claimed Rufadora as their own. Not much differed between the bars, anyway. Every bar offered three things in abundance: cheap beer, cheap love, and loud music. I didn’t care much for cheap love.
I paused in the doorway while my eyes adjusted to the dark. My lungs recoiled from the thick cloud of cigarette smoke wafting around the interior. Entering the bar was like crossing the threshold to another world, quite possibly Dante’s Inferno. Here dwelt at least eight of the nine circles of Hell. I wasn’t sure about heresy, but Sailors could do just about anything they set their minds to.
Tables covered in spilled beer and cigarette burns, nicotine-stained ceiling and walls, and the ground-in dirt of the floor tiles gave Rufadora a shabby patina. Framed photos of grinning American boys holding girls on their laps decorated the walls, along with dozens of squadron plaques given to the bar’s mama-san in appreciation of the fun and memories of their R&R, or I&I as it was sometimes called: intercourse and intoxication.
Sailors and Marines in various stages of drunkenness crowded the bar. The dark interior and stale air gave the room a close, dingy, seedy feeling. The upright piano against the wall had seen better days; beer bottles and ashtrays covered the top, and the ivory keys had yellowed with age. Or was it cigarette smoke? A roar of laughter and loud cheers erupted across the room as a drunk Marine swallowed the contents of a beer bong to chants of encouragement. He wiped his lips, then fell out of his chair where he lay senseless. He didn’t look old enough to shave. Two women in bikinis danced on tables on either side of the jukebox while Aretha Franklin belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Several couples made out at nearby tables. I shook my head at the irony. The pretty woman from the balcony was speaking with an older woman, presumably the mama-san, sitting at the bar stretching along the back wall. She threaded her way through the maze of tables.
Hello, Chip’s friend. Have you found him?
Not yet, but it’s dark in here.
What does he look like?”
He’s a big man with a crew cut. He’ll be chewing a cigar.
Oh, Master Chief. He’s in the back room.
You know him?
Everybody knows Goody-Goody.
Yes. He’s a good boy. He never bothers the servers but always buys them drinks. She leaned towards me and whispered in a conspiratorial voice. And he’s married. His wife lives on base. Her eyes and a smile gave away her humor. Are you a good boy too?
My mother believes so.
My mother believes I’m a good girl.
I’m not married.
I am not married either.
I didn’t think you were.
Her eyes narrowed. Oh? Why not?
She smiled under arched eyebrows. You’re a smart boy.
I’m more careful than smart. May I join Goody … the Master Chief?
Come. I will take you to him.
I followed her like a puppy through the tangled knot of Sailors and Marines to a door at the near end of the bar. The mama-san cast a thoughtful look our way before turning her smile on me.
Hello, Sailor. I’ve never seen you here before. Your first time?
What? Oh, uh, yes ma’am. Well, it’s my first time in Rufadora.
Will you come back again?
I glanced at the pretty girl. I just might, ma’am.
She smiled and said, Good. We’ll be waiting for you. Come see me if anything pleases you.
Yes, ma’am. I will. Thank you.
The pretty girl’s eyes turned my cheeks warm while I spoke with mama-san. She seemed to be sizing me up, placing me among the dozens of men who frequented the bar every night to see where I fit in.
She took my arm and pointed me toward the back room. That was Helen, the mama-san. She owns Rufadora.
She’s quite forward. I didn’t know what to say. I’m afraid I stammered like a little boy.
You were fine. She always has that effect on the unprepared. She’s observed human nature from that end of the bar for years. Her snap judgments of people are usually accurate. And she likes you.
How can you tell?
She replied after you told her you might come back. She ignores those she does not like.
I had liked my guide right away and was keen to know more about her. I’d better not let her down then. I’ll make sure to come back often.
Was there a purpose in your glance at me when you answered her?
I ran a finger along the side of my nose, to both hide my blush and buy time while I wondered what to say next. This extraordinary woman was clearly enjoying my discomfort, if her smile were any indication. Helen had me flustered. I think I was looking for help. She’s a strong woman.
Helen is not afraid of anyone. The police look out for her, and Shore Patrol comes by often to check on the military boys.
Doesn’t that make them stay away?
Does the bar look empty?
She had me there. Touché. What’s your name?
Hello, Marie. I’m Frank.
Hello, Frank. I took her hand when she offered it. Soft with a firm grip. Warm, too. Your friend is Chip Franklin; that’s amusing.
I’ve heard that before.
Marie knocked on the door and opened it. You will find Goody-Goody in here, Frank.
I was tempted to make a crack about not being goody-goody like Chip, but thought better of it. At six three, I towered over Marie, but the hard gleam in her eyes and her straight back
intimidated me for some reason. Thank you, Marie. Will you be here long? Will you join me for a drink later?No. She turned and walked away with the sensuous grace of a ballet dancer. Her long, jet black hair and light brown skin stood out against her white blouse. She was a glimmer of sunlight in the dark cavern of the bar.