Tuesday, October 31, 2006

How The VA Plays Kick the Can

There are times when I’m so angry with my government that I begin to understand what causes postal workers to snap. Now is one of those times.

I was just starting an appointment with one of my veteran clients this morning when I received a devastating phone call. It was the wife of a veteran I’ve been helping for more than a year now. Ed and I were trying to obtain for him long overdue and much needed disability compensation from the Veterans Administration. After speaking to the tearful girl I was almost too overcome with sadness and anger to go on with my appointment.

Ed, only in his late 50s, died last night just two months after learning he had cancer. He should have left for the States to start treatment as soon as the cancer was discovered, but being alone in the world and seriously affected by his condition, he needed his wife to accompany him. That’s not too much to ask, don’t you think? But evidently it was as far as the immigration jerks at the embassy are concerned.

After weeks of waiting, Immigration finally informed him that first he had to go back to the States and only then could he petition her. What a crock! These cold-hearted SOBs knew that he was going back for immediate medical treatment and he’d never be able to run the paperwork. And knowing Ed, I think he realized that if he left his beloved wife behind that it was likely he’d never see her again. He couldn’t chance that. He was not about to leave her behind. Do you see now why I despise those creeps in the embassy?

When he had first called me, frightened out of his mind with the news that he had cancer in his brain and lungs, he had told me that he was going to wait and get his airline tickets after going to the embassy and applying for an emergency visa for his wife. Knowing how heartless those bastards at the embassy are, I told him then that he should expect them to deny her a visa. For the VA, Social Security, and the counselor section—all located inside that insufferable building called the American embassy—denying is what they all do best. Unless you are a big shot, you won’t get anything but the run-around from any of those people.

What is it about American embassy staff that makes them such asses? It could be the fact that they have so much power over people, especially over little people like Ed and his grieving wife. When I walk through the embassy building, as I am forced to do three to five times a month in the course of my volunteer work for veterans, and pass the arrogant permanent staff types in there, I always feel spite for them. I realize the ill will I feel is bred from resentment, because I know very few of them, but if you only knew the pain and despair they cause! I wonder if THEY know how much they are detested out here by us normal folk.

From Ed’s widow I learned that his doctor thought it was probably stress that took him so early. His physician was surprised at how soon he passed away. He had “given” him much more time than the two months that it took him to die. She confided in me how worrying it had been for him to deal first with the VA all these months, and then finally with the embassy immigration officials, which turned out to be the final straw. This is NO joke, but I say in all sincerity that he was murdered—ultimately, he was killed by those pitiless bureaucrats.

Ed’s disabilities prevented him from working, and based on the medical evidence we had, he should have been granted compensation by the VA immediately for his primary debilitating ailments. Unfortunately, I’ve found that the VA Claims Section in Manila is made up of some individuals who habitually make incorrect decisions, almost whimsically, and then stubbornly refuse to change their incorrect determinations no matter how much evidence and precedent is stacked in front of them. This was exactly the case for Ed.

We had all the proof we needed to show that his ailment was service-connected, and we had over two-dozen case precedents that perfectly mirrored his claim. Yet, that disgraceful place made him take his claim to the Board of Veterans Appeals not once, but twice! I can assure you, Ed would have won his claim—it was IN the freaking bag—but now it will be as if he never filed at all. Once again, the bastards got their way.

Although the VA treated him shabbily over the years, and especially over this past year, unlike me, I never heard him use cross language either when talking to VA personnel or when we spoke of the VA concerning his claim. In a word, he was a very nice man, a gentleman. And now that he’s gone it seems to me that the VA as an entity is probably just fine with that. Those are bitter words, accusatory words, but that’s how I feel. You see, they play a game with veterans in need—I call it “kick the can.”

Shamefully, they played “kick the can” with Ed. The object of their game is to keep “kicking the can,” or the veteran’s claim, down the road all the way to the bitter end of the appeals process. It takes literally years, but the VA has all the time in the world. At the same time, they know that many veterans like Ed are not destined for old age. What really bothers me is that this time my guy actually died. I always tell my guys that they (the VA) play this game hoping that they’ll die so they won’t have to make the award. Each time I say it, I do so somewhat jokingly, only this time it happened, and I cannot feel worse.

Do I really think they purposely do this horrible thing? Here’s what I think. There is a culture inculcated into the hearts and minds of the people in that soulless organization that encourages VA raters and examiners to underplay and deny, if at all possible, every claim they can. Then they send out boilerplate letters to the veterans that most find almost impossible to fully understand so that they need someone like me to explain it to them. Without my help, these guys lose almost every claim they make. A lot of veterans, especially the very old or mentally infirm ones, just give up. And once again, the VA wins.

All day I thought of Ed. I remember the last time I saw him. He was jauntily walking away to catch a bus after I dropped him off at the Dau terminal following our last go with the appeals judge. We were optimistic and in great spirits during the 2 hour drive back from Manila. We had laid out our case completely and convincingly and I KNEW I could chock it into the win column. Other than that, all Ed wanted to talk about was his lovely new bride. He couldn’t believe his luck that he had found the perfect girl for him. They were married last January and now, after our successful show with the traveling judge, he knew better days were surely ahead for them both.

Her last words to me on the phone this morning were of him, “Mr. Spear,” she said, her voice strained with emotion, “I didn’t have him with me long enough.”

I doubt if I get much sleep tonight. It’s already almost 2 a.m. and my mind is running in circles. Discouraging times like these make me wonder how long I can keep doing this.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Baseball Introspection

Baseball’s World Series ended a few hours ago, although I didn’t really watch it other than in fleeting dribs and drabs as a part of my normal channel surfing. I’d forgotten about the game and checked back on it during St. Louis’ post game celebration over hapless Detroit. I feel bad only because I know my family in Michigan is most certainly disappointed. I already explained why I no longer care about the Detroit Tigers in an earlier post called “The Detroit Tigers and Me.” Still, I’ve been meaning to write why baseball was such a huge part of my growing up years and how it continued to affect me.

The other day, when things still seemed hopeful for the Tigers, I was having a Yahoo Instant Messenger conversation with my brother, Kevin. We were talking about our years in little league baseball. During our chat he made a comment that astonished me. He said that I was his hero back then. I must admit his remark shocked me, and as I consider it further it makes me feel ashamed. I had never considered that I might be someone that my “little” brother might have looked up to, I suppose because I was too self-centered to notice. So when I said I was considering a piece on my early baseball playing days he was glad to hear it.

People who haven’t played baseball, or never played it seriously, are prone to sneer at it. The primary criticism—it’s boring. That’s understandable--I feel exactly the same about watching soccer. I played soccer once or twice in high school gym class and it always consisted of the coach dividing the class into two teams, throwing us a ball and whistling us to start kicking. Most of us knew only to kick and not catch the ball, unless you are the goal keeper of course. My one poignant soccer memory—I went up in the air to block a pass with my chest and an opponent pushed me in the back, I suppose hoping not to be seen by Coach Peters. I landed flat on my back, Peters saw it, blew the whistle and I scored the only goal of my life on a penalty kick. I’ve never played a moment of that game since and glad of it. Baseball, now that’s another story all together.

Some of my earliest memories are of playing catch with my dad. Indeed, we probably averaged doing that activity two or three times a week from the time we started when I was 4 or 5 up through my early teens when he retired from the service. We started out with a plastic whiffle ball, and once I learned the mechanics of catching and throwing, we progressed to a hard rubber ball, and finally, to a real baseball. I maintain that it takes lots more to teach a kid to play baseball than almost any other sport—learning the basics of “throw and catch” is only the start.

To a beginner, playing baseball is physically counterintuitive. A new player will usually feel physically threatened, and will more than likely be immediately out of their comfort zone. To the untrained, the glove feels ungainly and the tiny heavy hard ball whistles and seethes alarmingly as it speeds toward you when thrown by any decent player over the age of ten. Catch it wrong in your glove and it hurts, a lot. Misjudge a ground ball and it can bounce into your face or break a finger. I have two broken fingers thanks to mis-catches while trying to field balls on a “short-hop,” where it is either thrown or hit hard at a fielder’s feet.

And then there is batting. What a frightening experience that is to the uninitiated, to force oneself to stand in the batter’s box while a pitcher menacingly throws the ball, seemingly right at you, and often as hard as possible. The ball looks impossibly small as it screams in, and even a pitcher with an average arm can cause a pitched ball to jump and slice right or left through the air. Out of self-preservation, the natural inclination of a first time batter is to “bail out” as the ball whistles in. To accustom new players to the unsettling sight of an incoming pitched ball, a good coach will throw the ball at slow speed and progressively increase the rate. Of course, the first year or two of ball is kids throwing to kids, so it’s not quite so frightening. Thing is, it doesn’t take long for young pitchers to learn how to throw a fastball with some angry speed behind it, but hopefully, by that time the players have become accustomed to it.

If one plays long enough, like maybe a game or two, then getting hit by a pitch WILL happen. Its part of the game and all good players MUST lose their fear of getting hit to become an effective batter, but dang it can hurt! No one in their right mind tries to hit without a helmet; a fastball can kill or cause real damage if it strikes the head. For all you soccer players or others critical of MY game, go to a batting cage and just try standing in while the throwing machine does its thing. You will find it to be completely unnerving. Now, try also hitting the ball—good luck! It’s one of the toughest tasks of ANY sport, trying to hit a round ball with a round bat. Speaking of injuries, my worst "owie" while batting was a pitch that ended hard into my left kidney. I had tried to turn away from a fastball that curved into me so much that I could not get away from it. That night, I urinated blood. What a game, huh?

All sports can cause injuries, and baseball is definitely no exception. If you think about it, getting hurt while playing a sport is a kind of right of passage for a young boy, and these days, for young girls as well. I suppose all you soccer players mostly get hurt when you inevitably kick the crap out of each other or run into one another, usually by “accident.” Learning how to dramatize even the smallest “tackle” seems to be part of that game, but I digress. No matter the sport, learning to overcome the fear of getting hurt can be THE most important part of the game. In baseball, fear of the ball coming at you, either pitched, thrown, or hit, is the toughest part of baseball for a young kid. My dad did his part in inuring me to this fear by practicing with me almost everyday and constantly reminding me to watch the ball all the way into my mitt, especially when it arrives on the ground when the natural reaction is to turn the head away to spare the face. I put pressure on myself to overcome this overpowering instinct, to NOT turn my head as I put down my glove when catching hard grounders and short-hops. When I was finally able to do this continuously, I felt like I had become a man. There is that right of passage thing again.

I wonder how a person who has never played a sport can possibly get along in the world. The lessons I learned playing ball and other sports were crucial. I developed physical self-confidence. I learned the concept of practice to develop muscle memory, strength and endurance. I learned how to win and lose with grace. I learned to push my body to continue even long after the point of exhaustion. I learned that pain is inevitable and that fear of injury must be overcome to prevent paralysis of action. I learned that competition is good and to yearn for it, especially when it is stiff and pushes you to do your best.

My brother’s comments have caused me uneasy introspection concerning my ball playing days, both as a kid and as an adult. I’m not sure why he saw me as heroic back when I played as a little leaguer all those decades ago. As a player, I was perhaps just better than average, but my success probably wasn’t that big a factor for him anyway. I was 4 years older, and that was significant when I was 11 and he was 7. I was on one team that went on to win a championship with me playing third base and pitcher. I played my positions well enough and started every game, but never made any all-star teams. I’m sure the excitement of watching me play was impressive enough for him.

Thinking back on those days, I hope I played enough catch with him and didn’t ignore him too much, but I probably did. As a matter of fact, I barely remember watching him play HIS games, so I MUST have been remiss. Even as a dad I didn’t measure up well compared to my dad’s efforts with me. I played catch with my son when he was growing up not nearly as much as my dad did with me, and evidently not enough to inspire him to play ball competitively. I can think of lots of excuses why this is so, but none of them cuts it. On the positive side, I did set a fairly good example by competing on the field as an adult all the way into my mid-30s, whereas my father never played any ball. Still, compared to him, I must admit that he was the better dad when it came to teaching his progeny the basics of the game. If I could go back in time, there is a lot I would do differently, and playing more baseball with my brother and with my son are well up on the list.

Friday, October 27, 2006

An Arrow Runs Through It

Five of us sat high up on Kevin Raquepaw’s big wooden porch, the kind built on the front of most homes back in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. It was expansive and well sheltered from rain and sun by an equally spacious roof. All the homes on Church Street were constructed with those wonderfully inviting front porches. It’s nice to know that most of them are still there, even as modern homes no longer sport them. Back then, when I still lived in Birch Run, they made the perfect place to socialize and watch the neighborhood go about its business.

I always enjoyed Kevin’s company—funny and philosophical—he knew whole passages from all The Marx Brothers’ movies. He would constantly quote his hero, Groucho, perfectly copying his mannerism and inflection. On this day however, he wasn’t much in the mood for that stuff.

Our high school’s very first cross country season was about to begin in a few short weeks; to help get ready for it we had just finished doing some semi-serious jogging in the intense mid-August afternoon heat. But the usually carefree Kevin wasn’t down at the mouth from the effects of our recently completed exertions. Nope, that wasn't it at all.

Still sweating profusely in our sopping wet running shorts and t-shirts we did our best to cheer up our generous host, but mostly we sprawled about in typical teenage fashion, while gulping sweetened ice tea, heavy on the ice of course.

So, here was the source of our buddy's angst. It had been three days since he had seen his brown dog. (Sorry, but I can’t remember its name). I didn’t want to say it out loud, but I was pretty sure that his short-haired terrier-like mongrel was probably already lying dead in some farmer’s field. Eventually all free-ranging pets in that community did not come home, especially virile male dogs. Evidently some farmer, or a farmer's son, could not resist taking an easy shot. I had already lost two dogs that way myself, first my grandmother’s black Labrador, a gentle animal we called “Toby,” and a year or two later my own eager little canine, “Beau,” who was probably the horniest little pooch that ever roamed the face of the earth. The irresistible siren call of doggy sex always proved to be their downfall.

Swirling the ice in my big plastic tumbler of sweet tea I got up and took a new seat at the top of the porch steps. I took another swig and looked to my right toward the intersection where Church Street T’d into Main Street. I started to glance away and instead did a double take. I stood up, shaded my eyes, pointed where I had been peering and excitedly announced, “Kevin! That looks like your dog coming this way!”

I shaded my eyes with both hands and became positive that it really WAS Kev’s dog, but there was something not quite right with the picture in front of me. As he approached to within 100 feet or so, I recognized his distinctive trot, but there was something about his shape that caused me to narrow my eyes and crane my head forward. The intrepid little fellow was on the sidewalk approaching us from the other side of the street. His tongue lolled out of his mouth as it would normally do on a hot late summer day, and in fact, everything seemed completely ordinary, EXCEPT there was an arrow stuck clean through his body!

“Kev, do you see that?” I pointed out the obvious visual inconsistency to my friend.

The “prodigal” dog saw the group of us coming down the stairs and eagerly crossed the street making a direct angle right for home. Kevin met the skewered little animal on the small front lawn and crouched down to greet him. The dog was delighted at the attention and wagged his tail with abandon, twisting and reversing his wriggling body to enjoy the full attention of his master’s gentle petting. Other than the foot of arrow poking through him, neatly parallel to the ground equidistantly from each side of his body, only an inch or so under the spine, the dog acted entirely natural. It was one of the most incongruent things I’ve ever seen.

Kevin took his dog-ka-bob to the vet I believe, or maybe he didn’t; either way, the arrow came out and the dog was none the worse for it. There was no blood; he displayed no evidence of discomfort or adverse effects; and he lived for a good while after that if I remember right. Actually, if it hadn’t been for the implausible vision of that happy little animal trotting casually down the street with an arrow sticking through him, I’m sure that today I would never remember that he ever even existed. All my friends had dogs and I couldn’t tell you what kind they were or what they looked like, but I’ll never forget Kevin Raquepaw’s little brown dog. Is it any wonder?

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Brain Drain

I have received responses galore from well-wishers concerning my wife’s condition after her traumatic stick-up. One local Filipino friend also sent news of his impending departure to The UAE. I find this upsetting…once again it seems that a very good man is traveling afar because there is just no real opportunity locally.

I had always heard the term “brain drain” when it comes to the Phils, but there’s more to it than that. It isn’t just smart people flooding out of here—good-hearted and caring people are also leaving in droves. Henry is one of each. I met him over three years ago when I started taking college classes. He teaches English and Literature mostly, but his contributions go much further. His classes are uncompromising in quality—he takes no shortcuts, and in a country where shortcuts are pandemic.

It seems like Henry provided oversight and advice to nearly every student club and activity on campus. He arrived at the school early and always left late. We often commiserated over the direction his beloved nation seems to be heading or its lack of any real direction at all, and now it seems that he also is abandoning the seemingly impossible task of trying to make change from within. The Philippines desperately needs good people like Henry, but alas, he feels he has no choice but to go. I’ll miss seeing him on campus.

As you read his note to me and my response, think of Henry and pray for him and his beloved nation. I know him—he would very much prefer to live and work in the Philippines, but unfortunately, his country has let him down. This is a classic modern Philippines story and it’s a tragic one.

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Hi there buddy,

I just read your message and I’m sorry for what happened to your wife. I hope she's just fine.

I also keep on reminding my wife and students as well to be careful and vigilant. There have been incidents as such that were experienced by some of my students.

Actually, you are right that AC is becoming a dangerous place because of its economic boom which is not supposed to be, right? If AC's economy is improving, there must be an increase of employment. Maybe, now a days, people are becoming more lazy and want to have easy money rather than WORK legally.

At any rate, let's just be all extra careful and vigilant especially you every time you ride on your bike...and of course always PRAY........

By the way, I’ll be leaving for DUBAI probably 2nd week of November. So, you won't see me in school anymore. I'm going to try my luck there.... thanks for your friendship and I hope that even we're far, we will always be friends.

Until then...

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Hi “Professor” Henry,

Thanks for the concern and good wishes. She’s doing much better now.

I keep hearing that there is an economic boom here in Angeles, but I'm not so sure. I see new stores going up, and homes, hotels and apartments, BUT where's the industry? It seems most of the “boom” here is driven by speculation that more tourists will come with the expansion of airline flights into Clark, but lets face it, the tourists that come here do so mostly for the girls. Much of the money driving the local economy is from OFWs (Overseas Foreign Workers) sending bucks back, like I assume you plan to do, yes? If there is so much more opportunity here then why are you leaving us Henry? That's a rhetorical question of course. I KNOW the answer and it is a shame, because many of the brightest and most industrious leave, often the very best that this country has to offer take off--present company included.

It greatly sorrows me to see you go as you are such a great teacher; in fact, one of the best I've had since I started attending classes here. But, I am happy for you if this move helps you and your family reach your dreams of a better life. It’s just a shame that it can't be done right here in your own country, ESPECIALLY for you, a guy who obviously cares greatly for your students, teaches righteous things and provides an incredibly selfless example.

If you must go to that part of the world to advance yourself, then I'm glad it’s the UAE. It seems to be very progressive and tolerant for a Muslim country. I certainly hope it works out that way for you.

I also hope that we can maintain our friendship and correspondence Henry. Please stay in touch my friend!

Phil

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Letters from Bootcamp, Installment VII (Snapping In)

Rifle Qualification was THE best part of bootcamp. Why? Because for those two weeks they allowed us to mostly concentrate on shooting skills. The humiliation and capricious physical punishment was very nearly put on hold; not completely, but almost. It makes sense if you have ever seen the movie “Full Metal Jacket;” why push a bunch of untried privates to the emotional brink when for 5 days they are given LIVE rounds of anti-personnel ammunition? So, the best two weeks came after the worst week. I don’t know if it was by design, and if so, for what purpose, but so it was. What follows is a loooong letter, all together 7 pages on little sheets of USMC stationery. Have a read and I’ll comment at the end… see you there.

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August 5, 1975 – Dear Family,


Now that I’ve survived mess duty, it looks like I’ll have to try and live through rifle qualification. We have 2 weeks of rifle training here at Pendleton on a huge dusty, sandy firing range. I believe it’s called Edson Range. The first week is called “snapping in week.” That’s what we’re in now. I was warned it was difficult, but the pain from the positions is excruciating, especially the kneeling position. Dad, what kind of marksmanship training did you have in bootcamp? Did you have to snap in to all these difficult positions? Next Monday we start firing “real” practice rounds, probably 70 or 80 rounds a day all week, then next Friday we have qualification day, where we fire 50 rounds all together in the various positions we were taught. We must score 183 points at least to go on with the platoon. Otherwise, we are set back 2 weeks to try it again; another failure and its 2 more weeks. After that, one more failure and the Marine Corps considers you untrainable and kicks you out. (I’ll finish this later).

August 8, 1975

Boy, have I been busy lately. They haven’t given us a single bit of free time I could write letters in except yesterday. Because I’m a house mouse I had to clean the duty hut. (Oops, I’ll finish later).

I had to stop for chow. Tomorrow is our last day of snapping in; after that, we start firing live rounds.

By the way, just because I have problems getting letters off, don’t let that deter you people from sending them to me. I can always find time to read them. All those people who asked for my address must have done it to be nice because I haven’t heard from any of them except for Jean Martin and Terry, and that was quite a while ago.

You know, there’s one thing I’ve noticed about bootcamp so far, the days seem to drag by while the weeks fly by.

I’ve written Grandma Haley twice so far and Grandma Spear once. The reason I wrote Grandma Haley one more is because I got one more letter from her. The way I work it is I write a letter to a person only after they’ve written me. It’s the only way I can do it with my limited time. That doesn’t apply to the family however.

What little tan I had on my legs and torso is pretty well gone. They like you to sweat a lot so they make you wear all kinds of heavy clothing. I yearn to be back there, running around in tennis shoes and shorts, jumping into the pool for a half-hour, running a few miles, coming back to the house for a gallon of lemonade and a few dozen cookies, and then burning it all off at the tennis courts. Someday soon maybe.

When is Pat and Lynn’s reception you spoke about? I can’t wait to get at that fresh corn, raspberries and strawberries, etc. from the garden and blueberries from Warblers. Save some for me!

It’s nice to hear Kevin is running. That “head radio” you bought sounds pretty cool. By the way, it’s about time you wrote me a letter Kev, like Gail has.

It doesn’t sound to me like the Clio Country Club won’t be worth the membership money you paid until I come back from the USMC in a few years. That’s an awful lot of money for golf. Do you think it’s worth it? (I’ll write more later)….

Aug 9, 1975

Mary Kay, Gail and Kevin really need to get into golf to make the money you paid for the membership to be worth it. Even then, you can’t golf all year round, what sorts of things does the club have going on during the winter? You’ll probably end up wasting money on the deal.

I have a feeling I’m going to have trouble qualifying on the rifle range this Friday. If I don’t qualify, it means being set back for a week or two. It’s just one more thing I’ve got to sweat through. If I don’t graduate with this platoon, I’ll graduate with another one I guess. What’s the difference? The sooner I get out of here the better. To qualify, you must shoot at least a 182 out of a possible 250. Sounds easy, but it’s not. For the past couple of days our platoon pulled butts for other platoons. That is, we pulled targets down and marked scores with little disks on the targets. I saw quite a few scores that were well below 182.

You asked about the kitchen help in the messhalls. Without the privates who are relieved every week by a new platoon of recruit privates that messhall would come to a complete halt. Every bit of the work, except supervisory and a little cooking, is done by privates.

Tell the people in my class who ask about me that I’m surviving by living through one day at a time. To be truthful, most of the time I’m pretty uncomfortable.

In the last letter you sent, you said the weather was foggy there. It’s always foggy here. Sometimes the firing range comes to a complete halt because of it. Although, it still hasn’t rained here yet. It sure is weird the weather here; how’s the weather doing there? In the next letter you write, make sure give me a complete run-down on the garden. Man, I miss it.

Could you clip “Prince Valiant” out of the Sunday papers and send it to me? I know it sounds like a weird request (it is), but I have a hankering to find out what’s going on with the old boy.

I got a glance at a Sunday paper the other day and saw Billy Martin was kicked out of the Rangers and joined up with the Yankees as manager. What a shock that was.

Thanks for that last letter you sent Gail. I was sitting there during mail call feeling very dejected about not getting any mail and the DI was down to the last letter. You should have seen me jump up and yell when he called my name, “SIR, PRIVATE SPEAR, AYE AYE Sir!”

Could you send me a packet of Air Mail stamps? I’ll pay you back when I get home. I must owe you about $5 all ready. I did buy a pack here at the PX, but the DI dumped my footlocker all over the deck today for leaving it unlocked. I never saw those stamps again. They cost about $1.14 too, dang it!

As soon as you get this letter start praying that I qualify at the range. Maybe if I get enough people asking God for a hand I’ll make it. (…I’ll write more later).

August 10, 1975

I got that sandpaper, and it’s just the right kind too. My brass is pretty shiny now because of it. I used it to get the scratches out of the buckle and belt tip for a cleaner shine. Go ahead and send the rest of it.

Boy! John Roe sure is a troublemaker. He’s probably the rowdiest and most feisty of the guys in the platoon. So far he hasn’t gotten into any real fights yet, but he sure has come close. The squad leaders in charge of getting things done are always on him to do his job. He does his job alright, but it’s always his way. I don’t have any problems with him though.

So far we haven’t had any blanket parties yet. I heard another platoon in our series had one though. The DI of that platoon broke it up before the kid got killed.

I’ve only been punched by a DI twice so far, and only in the chest. Nowadays they have to watch themselves. All a private has to do is request to see the series commander, who is Capt. Rivers, and he will immediately can the drill instructor. That’s not the way it used to be, or so I’ve heard.

Well, by now the new fall shows should have been reviewed on TV. Do they look any good? Hey, that’s a silver lining, all I’m missing here are the summer repeats!

How about the Haley Reunion? Is it going to be in Frankenmuth again this year?

By now Mr. Dawson (cross-country coach) should have contacted you Kevin. Has he returned yet from his honeymoon? I’ll bet you guys never do go up north to Courtney’s cabin for pre-season training. He always waits till the last 3 weeks wasting the whole summer.

Have you been saving my letters? If you have, how many have I sent? If not, please start. I’ll be very interested to read what I’ve written when all this is over.

How are the Tigers doing? They’re in last place, right?

Hey Dad, have you made any plans for the ice rink this year? Maybe this winter you can make some adjustments and have more ice.

Our Preliminary Marksmanship Instructor (PMI) informed us yesterday that we won’t have any time this week to write letters. This one took me five days, from August 5th to the 10th. This letter is so long that it might take you a week to read it anyway.

Mary Kay, have you bought that record album yet? Seen any movies? I haven’t! How’s the job? Still have it? Any new Birch Run gossip?

That’s about it for now. Keep me informed people.

Love, Phil

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Snapping in was mind-numbing. All the privates of our platoon spent hours every day for five days in a huge circle, practicing our aiming and trigger-pulling techniques. Another name for it is “dry-firing.” We dry-fired our rifles at tiny painted targets on a white 55 gallon metal drum in the middle of the big circle. The shooting positions were unbearable to do, mostly because we were forced to pull our shooting straps painfully tight.

The web strap, normally used for sling arms, for shooting purposes attaches to the forward clip near the end of the barrel while the other end forms an adjustable loop tightened around the shooter’s left bicep. The PMIs and DIs tightened this strap as short as they could so that it would still barely allow the rifle butt to literally “pop” into the pocket formed between the pectoral, shoulder and upper bicep muscles. Sometimes it would be so tight that it would take two people to get the rifle butt to pop in. I cannot tell you how much this hurt. The entirety of bootcamp was like this, once you thought they could not possibly find another way to torment, sure enough, they did.

Mark Colpean, a high school buddy going through training with me, at one point was in tears because his arm went dead, so tight was the strap and for so many hours. The poor guy’s arm hung limp, numb and useless at his side and he must have believed it was seriously damaged. At the time, I wasn’t so sure that it wasn’t. It took a long time to return to a semblance of normal.

As for me, when the instructors weren’t looking, I loosened the strap to reduce the agony. I figured it was stupid to make it so tight that the pain interfered with the concentration required to get good sight-picture, breath control, and steady trigger squeeze. To this day, I’m not convinced that the folks in charge of basic training were the best and brightest. Inflicting pain and degradation on young men with the thought that you are toughening them up was a mistaken notion. In my case, by disobeying orders and using my own common sense I was able to improve my shooting technique.

Reading this old letter I realize that I had a bad case of "the denials." I still had not come to grips with the fact that I was NEVER going home again. I continued to write about my dreams of resuming my life where I had left off as a kid, but that was not going to happen. I was homesick and unhappy with where I found myself. I thirsted for news from home to reconnect me to my old world, which seemed light-years away. All I wanted was to get through it and go home in four years; little did I know that part of my life was over forever…

Bootcamp Letters by Installment: 1 2 3 4 5 6

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Is it Becoming TOO Dangerous to Live in Angeles City?

I just arrived home to find my wife shaking, her face slack with the vestiges of extreme fear, and white as a ghost.... For the second time since we've lived here she got mugged... The first time was 3 years ago and it was a simple case of a purse snatching, no big deal; it just made her angry. This time it was different. When the business end of a gun is jammed hard into the side of your chest and you are told by a desperate hard-eyed character to hand over your purse or you're dead, it can ruin more than your day. Folks come to this site all the time to find out what its like to live here, well, this is also part of living here. Some would say it's just as bad in many places in the US and that's true, but I've never lived in those places... I just sent out an email to everyone I know in the Angeles City area to let them know what happened and to be forewarned and forearmed. Here's what I sent:

My wife was just mugged at gun point right in front of Savers Mall in the parking lot directly in front of the building itself... As soon as she unlocked the door to get out a man pushed a gun into her chest while she was still behind the wheel. He demanded her purse, which she gave up and off he went... She made a report to the police and to Savers Security, for all the good it will do... She let her guard down thinking that the presence of all the security immediately in front of the store would make her safe. Truthfully, this city is getting more and more out of control... It may be approaching unlivable, unless the mayor and his boys can get a handle on it. What makes it worse, is no one learns of these incidents. We cannot forget that AC is a VERY dangerous place, and gets more so everyday... Tell your wives and better halfs to have nothing in their purses that they cannot afford to lose... Carrying cell phones, valuable ID, credit cards and lots of cash is just plain boneheaded.... I suggest all women carry a "show purse" with a little money, fake IDs, etc, that they can hand over to muggers to get the mugging safely over with... This place is dangerous and we have to adjust our lives with this in mind... phil

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Damn Yanks!

Since becoming an expatriate, I’ve had countless “delightful” debates over the years—usually with Europeans, Englishmen mostly, but also with the occasional “Continental”—about our respective societies and national sports. I remember this one guy though, a chap from Northern England who really had it in for the States, and he let me have “what for” over a number of his pet peeves he had against my country of origin.

I met this guy while relaxing in the pool at the Swagman one late afternoon. For descriptive purposes, he was whiter even than me, which I didn’t think was possible; but with my Scottish and Irish heredity, of course I gave him a run for most pallid. (Actually, no; his girlfriend was pastier than both of us combined!) But what really highlighted his Northern European ancestry was his huge head, closely shaved, evidently to disguise an advanced case of male pattern baldness. After several days in the tropics, the sun had given his smooth pate a painful-looking pinkish glow. I’ll bet that sunburn made it even worse for him to keep it shaved.

It’s funny, but I think he was a little angry at himself for apparently finding me less than despicable in spite of the fact that I’m from a country that he truly despises. Even so, it thoroughly amused me how he hated virtually everything about America, and with such practiced vitriol. I could tell that he and his mates must have had an anti-Yank discussion or two while throwing back a few stouts in the pub.

I asked him if he’d ever even been to the United States. His answer was spat more than stated, “Never. You couldn’t pay me to go!”

His hatred amused me because of its irrationality. I asked him if he could logically explain why my country filled him with such loathing, and he went into an obviously oft-repeated diatribe that mostly castigated us for the world-wide ubiquity of detestable American franchises like McDonalds, not to mention our international arrogance and meddling (only a “few” of our countless sins!), but of all things, what really caused him disgust was our apparent blasé attitude toward sports, especially our almost universal disregard for THE ONLY sport as far he was concerned—Football, or soccer, as we “contemptible” Americans refer to it.

He used his own passion as a benchmark for how a “true” sports fan demonstrates love for team and sport. He explained that he lived and worked on the continent, in Belgium if I remember right. Just recently, he had made the trip across the channel back home to England see his team in a crucial competition, and although he had not been home to see his parents in months, he bragged that he went straightaway to the stadium. Furthermore, after the match and post-match celebrations, he directly returned so as not to miss a day of work. THIS, he claimed, was concrete proof of his genuine devotion. I shook my head in wonder and agreed with him, remarking that he certainly seemed to have unique priorities.

Nodding my agreement I grinned and said wryly, “You’re right buddy; because I would have found a way to get home to see my family. As far as I can tell, YOU’RE love for soccer far outstrips most any American’s love for THEIR sports teams!” I don’t think he caught on to my sarcasm; I gave sincerity my best effort.

“You definitely take the cake mate!” I laughed, shaking my head.

I attempted an explanation of the supposed tepid interest that WE, “Mr. Soccer’s” distant cousins from across “the pond,” have for our professional sports teams:

“First of all, our sports interests are seasonal, and now a days we have a lot of different types of sport to choose from and throughout the ENTIRE year. It used to be we had baseball in the summer, football in the fall, and basketball and hockey in the winter through spring. Now our time and interest is pulled in all sorts of directions, like pee-wee leagues, little leagues, college sports, bowling, track, softball, winter sports, NASCAR, golf, tennis, women’s fastpitch; Damn man, it’s almost limitless. Dude, we love our sports, but most of us just aren’t as into any particular one like you guys are. That could also explain why we don’t have baseball hooligans like you have in Europe!”

I laughed delivering my last comment, but he didn’t see the humor.

We continued our back-and-forth—he denigrated, and I explained and defended. I developed a strategy of asking pointed questions, specifically to find out the true source of his dislike of all things Americana. I soon detected that most of what he thought of as “bad” about us was based more on generalization than on fact. I told him:

“Before you permanently make your mind up about us based on all these skewed impressions you’ve apparently picked up from the BBC, you really need to go look at the country with your own eyes. The U.S. is huge…you can’t imagine how big until you’ve driven it. … Americans do not have a SINGLE mindset, because we ARE such a varied people. You really can’t say that Americans are this and Americans are that—there are too many of us to nail down the whole lot of us, or even most of us, to a single mindset. We have millions of viewpoints and hundreds of subcultures! About the only single thing ALL of us share is a love for freedom and opportunity, aside from that WE are YOU! Hell, most of my genetic makeup is from the British Isles. If you hate us, you hate yourself man…”

I don’t know if I changed any of his negative vibes about us, but it was fun trying. I know I did change his mind about one thing though, his notion that ALL of us know nothing about anything outside of the USA. When we discussed issues involving history and geography I argued rings around him.

But what really won him over, at least partially, was when they started up the karaoke and I got up and did my rendition of “House of the Rising Sun”. He shook my hand after I finished singing saying, “Anyone who can nail that song can’t be ALL bad!”

The fact that I bought most of the rounds didn’t hurt either…

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Detroit Tigers and Me….

There was a time when I was quite angry with the baseball Tigers of Detroit, but not anymore. Most folks don’t even remember the decision they made as a team in 1990 that caused me to turn my back on them. But before 1990, the year I forever lost interest in them, I lived and breathed Tiger baseball. From the time I was a kid in the 60’s, baseball to me meant the Tigers. I was born in Japan and lived in many places until my dad retired from the military in 1971; but my parents are Michiganders, therefore, by default, I was one too. I was a Tigers fan jus sanguinis.

In 1968, before the era of big TV revenue and night games, baseball was mostly played in the day. I was in the 6th grade in San Antonio, Texas and I remember following the World Series mostly surreptitiously via transistor radio. The only games I was able to watch on TV were those played on the weekend, but the deciding final games were all played during the week while I was trapped in school. I could hardly concentrate in class—all that mattered to me was the Tigers!

By the way in 1968, Mickey Lolich and the Tigers beat Bob Gibson and the Cardinals to take the series in 7. My brother was just telling me that his first memory of baseball was coming home in the afternoon from school and I was already there with the black & white on; we celebrated as Bill Freehan caught a popup for the last out to win the series. Strange, I don't remember that. I'm jealous; I mean he's 4 years younger than me! Why does he have that memory and I don't!? Damn it....

In the winter of 1974 I was rewarded by the Saginaw News for my performance as a newspaper boy. All of the most successful paperboys were honored at a banquet at the famous Bavarian Inn Restaurant in the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. “The Voice of the Tigers,” Ernie Harwell, only 55 at the time, was the guest speaker and enamored us with his experiences as an announcer, including many stories about our beloved Tigers. He showed us a baseball signed by most of the members of the 1973 team and declared that one of us would become its new owner that night. I didn’t even hope to think that it might be me, and promptly forgot about it. At the end of his speech he took the banquet program and announced that he would drop his pen, point first, onto the list of our names, and whoever it landed upon would get the ball. He dropped his pen, picked up the program, closely examined it, looked up and called MY name! My dad was with me and when I returned to my seat with precious ball in hand, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him more excited or with a bigger smile on his face. It’s possible that he was more excited than I was. Ernie Harwell, now 88, is the MAN!

In 1984, my Tigers came roaring out of the box; they won and kept on winning. Kirk Gibson and crew were unstoppable, and everyone knew from the All Star Break on that it was their year. Sure enough, they easily swept through the season and took the Series without breaking a sweat. It wasn’t even close. The hapless San Diego Padres never had a chance.

In August of 1990 I deployed to the Saudi peninsula as part of the allied Gulf War effort against Saddam Hussein. By mid-September my unit was fortunate enough to be hooked up with satellite-fed TV and we watched baseball with great interest. The Tigers were in 3rd place and close to contention, but that year the real September show in Detroit was Cecil Fielder. The big man smacked homer after homer and we thought he might go for Maris’ record.

Anytime we had a break between our 12 hour shifts we would head over to the big TV “hooch” to check out the baseball games. We were thrilled to see that all the teams of Major League Baseball (MLB) wore black armbands to show their support and respect for those of us serving away from home in the war. But there was one exception—The Detroit Tigers! I couldn’t believe it. I was disappointed, angry and felt betrayed. How could MY team be the ONLY one to turn their collective backs on me?

The story from the Tigers is that a single player decided that he would not wear the armband. This lone player was the second baseman, Lou Whittaker. I don’t know what his bag was, whether he was against war in general, or if he was just trying to emulate Muhammad Ali; regardless, he turned his back on me and others like me, and took the rest of the team with him. Out of deference to their teammate, the entire team opted to not wear the armband. In turn, I “opted” to no longer be a Tiger’s baseball fan. For many years, as long as a single 1990 Tiger still played, I actively and savagely rooted against them. I was even happy to see them lose to the Yankees!

Interestingly, I googled the hell out of this subject and found absolutely nothing on this sad matter. It’s as if it never happened. I know I didn’t imagine it, but it seems no one else remembers it at all. Such a petty thing to get upset over some would say, but it meant a lot to me and if it happened again today, I’d be just as upset.

More than 15 years have passed since “I lost my baseball religion,” and although I am no longer angry with the Tigers, I never came back to following or caring about them. Even presently, after having relentlessly mowed down the Yankees, a team I truly detest, and now in the midst of their destruction of the Athletics, I am still not a fan. I guess once you lose “the love” you cannot recapture it.

All the players from 15 years ago are gone now, and I hold nothing against the current team, but regrettably, for me, the damage is done. If they go all the way and take the World Championship I’ll be watching ONLY as a baseball fan, NOT as a Detroit Tigers fan. Although, I must admit that my most prized possession is STILL that baseball signed by the ’73 Tig’s given to me with a handshake and a hearty congratulations by Ernie Harwell. After all, I’ll never stop loving the OLD Tigers, those early Detroit teams that existed before THEY stopped loving me.

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Christmas Time, Already?

I came home yesterday evening and was shocked to find the house covered in garland, outdoor lights and a host of other Christmas decorations. I was shocked, but not for the reason most of you might think.

Coming through the door, my littlest one rushed me like Dino on the Flintstones and grabbed me around the knees.

“Daddy! Daddy! Come see the Christmas tree!”

Sarah’s only a few months past three, so she probably doesn’t remember much of last Christmas, and nothing of her first two. She took my hand and enthusiastically pulled and led me into the living room where, sure enough, there it was, just as it looks in the picture. What shocked me was that it took so long for all the Christmas stuff to get put up this year.

‘It’s about time,’ I thought.

I couldn’t believe it when I heard my first Christmas carol on a local radio station back in 2002, the year I first got here, and it was just the first week of September.

‘Surely, it’s a joke!’ came to mind.

But no, once the “…ber” months arrive—you know, September, October, and so on—THAT is when the Christmas season effectively arrives in the Philippines. And truthfully, it doesn’t thrill me in the least. I’ve always been a bit of a scrooge anyway, and over here I am even more cynical and less enthused over the so-called Holiday Season.

Obviously, it lasts much too long for my tastes. It’s long enough in the US where for most people it starts the day after Thanksgiving, the last Thursday in November. But in the Phils, it seems interminable. It’s a good thing ALL Christmas trees here are artificial, otherwise they’d have to replace them at least twice before the big day.

Another problem I have is the unhesitatingly unembarrassed way some will ask for “their Christmas.” It’s undignified, but folks do it and start “dropping hints,” if you can call them that, from the time the season begins. I find myself avoiding going out from a week or two before the 25th until the day after, mostly because I start feeling so guilty about not having everyone’s “Christmas.”

What I do now is budget about $200 every December to hand over to the various peripheral people in my life such as the guards in my subdivision, the folks who manage my gym, the guys at the gas station; you know, people like that. I buy a box of Christmas cards and put 500 pesos, about $10, in with each one. But once the last card is gone, I start hiding.

I’ve thought about why the season starts so early here. Comparing it to our traditions in the States, I think I have an answer. Although the Philippines has more official holidays, including the “snap holidays” the president constantly announces whenever she feels like giving herself a three-day weekend, it seems that most people just see them as days off with no real underlying meaning. Sure, they have their Independence Day, Memorial Day and All Souls Day, but I’ve noticed they don’t really have any impact on people’s consciousness.

Back home, our holidays clearly define the beginning and end of the divisions of our year. Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer; July 4th, Independence Day, marks the middle; while Labor Day marks its end, and the beginning of school. Halloween, while not a holiday, nevertheless is remarkable enough that everyone looks forward to it and the fun and entertainment that it brings to our lives. Thanksgiving is a big one; without a doubt it signals the start of Christmas Season, and it traditionally brings families together and causes us to thank God for our blessings. And so it goes on… all the way through Christmas and New Years.

No, here Christmas overwhelms ALL holidays to the point that it seems like it is the ONLY holiday. Easter is fully appreciated in the Philippines and is given its full religious significance, and for me, it is my favorite holiday over here, mostly because it doesn't involve fireworks! New Years is like an afterthought to Christmas, where they get to set off millions of firecrackers, but that’s about it. What New Years really marks is the beginning of the countdown ……. to the NEXT Christmas!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Letters from Bootcamp, Installment VI (Krishnas Suck!)

In this letter I decided to send a personal note to each of my three siblings. THE most difficult part of the training, Mess Duty, was almost behind me. In the next day or so, our two weeks of rifle training would begin. After that, two weeks of infantry training awaited. And finally, we'd head back south to San Diego for the homestretch to graduation.

I was struck with irony when I read my message to my sister, where I told her I planned on being on an airplane for home less than an hour from the moment I graduated. It didn’t exactly work out that way…in fact; it worked out horribly opposite to that scenario. Check out that “Airplane” story at the end of this installment of “letters from bootcamp.”

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August 3, 1975 – Dear Gail:

I’m not doing too badly now. The days and weeks are beginning to move faster it seems. Although that’s okay with me, I’m sure you don’t like that considering school starts in only 30 some odd days.

Congratulations! It feels pretty good being on a championship team doesn’t it? Too bad about Burt though. By the score though, you guys put up a pretty good battle.

I got all your letters so far; keep writing them. I look forward to hearing from everyone.

Dear Mary Kay:

I can’t believe the people I’m getting letters from. So far I’ve got one from Terry and one from Jean Martin. What are the 4 movies you’ve seen since I left? That’s the one activity I feel most deprived of. How much have you saved up now from your job? It’s nice to hear you’re working regularly again.

When I graduate I plan to be on a plane for home between ½ to a full hour after it’s all over. The airport is right next to M.C.R.D. Mark’s doing fine and he said “Hi!” Take a few of the family so I know what everyone looks like these days. Too bad Dad’s always grumpy. Dad, you behave yourself!

Dear Kevin:

If I know you, you haven’t been working on your running. Don’t put it off. Make yourself do it or you’ll find Cross-Country season has arrived before you know it and you won’t be ready. This year, when they have the Haley reunion why don’t you run out to it? It’s a good way to get in shape and impress a few people while you’re at it. Aside from that, coke and cake and ice-cream and Jello will all taste a lot better when you have to run the 7 or 8 miles to get out there.

How much was your profit (from your newspaper route) for July? How’s my old route doing? Are you keeping Gail (our sister) on the job?

You’ve only sent 1 or 2 letters. Next time your get a chance, and soon, answer this one. I’m sitting on the edge of my footlocker, literally, waiting for an answer.

Love to all of you,

Phil

P.S. I’m returning the cutout (newspaper clipping) of Dawson (now Mr. & Mrs.) in this letter. Save it for me. Send some more interesting cutouts. (clippings)

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I had every intention of being on an airplane back to Michigan just as soon as humanly possible after the graduation ceremony when that wonderful day at long last arrived after the third week of September. A line of buses waited to take us the short distance to the terminal. Seeing them parked just off to the side was comforting. After months of watching “freedom birds” take off continuously overhead from just over the fence, I knew I was soon going to be riding one home.

31 years later, I remember plainly our platoon commander, SSgt Trevino, awaiting his turn to dismiss us for the last time after having taken us through our graduation paces, the most important part being the pass-in-review parade along with our three sister platoons. As platoon 1075 began cheering themselves hoarse, Trevino came to attention in front of us, snapping his ceremonial sword sharply up next to his side, the point coming to rest just to the side of his head. Dressed smartly in our full “class A” greens we listened expectantly for his last order ever to us. When he delivered it, boomed out loudly with Latino flair, we practically exploded with joy:

“Platoon 1076, DISMISSED!”

In unison, all 78 of us responded at the top of our lungs, “Aye-Aye Sir!” We took two steps back, first with the left foot, then together with the right one, performed about-face, drew in huge breaths and together we yelled out a hardy, “AuuuRAH!” We screamed our jubilance, snatching the barracks covers from our heads and throwing them high into the air where they formed a fleeting flock of green saucer-shaped caps. One platoon after another did this until all four platoons had been dismissed.

Those of us in a hurry to catch flights allowed ourselves a few moments to congratulate each other. After three decades, other than the two guys from my hometown who went through it with me, I never saw any of my platoon mates from bootcamp ever again. My two high school buddies and I hurried over to our bus; we scrambled aboard with several other newly minted marines, all of us carrying our “seabags” and “ditty bags.” (A seabag is what marines call a duffel bag and a ditty bag is a gym bag). I looked out the bus window and watched most of the platoon gather round and shake the hands of our erstwhile DIs, something that I had no stomach for whatsoever.

The San Diego airport was just a few minutes drive away and in no time we checked in our seabags at the counters and received our boarding passes. Mark and I strutted proudly down the concourse to where our plane waited to take us back home to Michigan. A lot has changed in our airports since 1975, and back then Hari-Krishna’s were allowed to harass people right up to the gate entrances. I had never seen one before and a pretty Krishna girl approached giving me a “free” book about her religion. Not being wise to the ways of the world back then, I took it, offering a “thank you” and feeling woozy at being so close to such a pretty thing after more than three months of not seeing any women at all. I figured I could read it on the plane, which was due to take off in about 15 minutes. Knowing our flight was about to go, Mark spoke to hurry me along, “Come on Phil, our plane!”

I turned to walk off and absentmindedly placed my ticket and boarding pass in my new book. The pretty Krishna gal spoke sweetly and pleadingly about then, “Sir, could you perhaps make a donation just to cover our costs?”

I should have tossed the book back at her, instead, being a nice young STUPID fellow, I said, “Okay, is ten bucks enough?”

Now Mark was beside himself. “Come on man!”

Hold this for me Mark.” I handed him the book, forgetting that my ticket was in it.

“Okay man, I’ll see you on the plane!” Mark grabbed the book and that was the last time I saw him AND my ticket.

I gave the pretty gal with her sweet face, long brown hair and flowing garb a twenty and hurried down the concourse after Mark, who was long gone by that time. I went up to the counter and began searching futilely for my ticket in all my pockets. With panic setting in I picked up my ditty bag with "USMC" printed in bright yellow letters across its side and searched through it too, all to no avail.

The doors were about to close and I did NOT have my damn ticket! I could feel my face turn beat red while perspiration popped out of every pore. Suddenly, my tie was way too tight. I ran back down the concourse for several hundred feet thinking I must have dropped my ticket, didn’t see it anywhere, and then ran back to the gate counter. By this time the doors were closed and the plane was running engines. My voice flustered and tense, I tried to explain to the airline lady that I could not find my ticket, but I was supposed to be on THAT airplane! She was sympathetic, but said there was nothing she could do; it was too late.

So, instead of catching the first possible flight back home it took an extra half-day to straighten out the mystery of the lost ticket. Mark found it in-flight and realized to his dismay that I hadn’t made the flight because he had my ticket. He informed a stewardess and they radioed back to confirm the location of my ticket. To their credit, the airline people, and I don’t remember which airline it was, set me up on the next available open flight. Just the same, it sure wasn’t a very auspicious start for a young guy trying to make his way in the world on his own for the first time. I felt like a complete goober.

To this day, whenever I watch the 1980 movie “Airplane,” I cheer when Robert Stack’s character kung fu’s the crap out of the horde of aggravating Hari-Krishnas. “Give ‘em hell Stryker!”

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Saga of Friendship Bridge; The Agony & NOW,.... The Ecstasy?

Weird title huh? But ecstasy describes exactly what many of us longsuffering AC residents felt today when we FINALLY were able to simply drive over the newly completed Friendship Bridge. See the map below where it is circled in red to see where the bridge crosses the Abacan. What a treat to drive above the river bed without having to worry about waiting in line or breaking an axel in an extra deep washout. Zoom! I was across it in seconds where in the past it has taken as long as 20 or 30 minutes during rush hour when we had to wait in line to cross the "temporary" single lane bridge over huge rusted-out steel plates that clanged and jumped alarmingly as we drove over them.

The Abacan River passes directly through Angeles City and it's outlying barrios from the east after originating from the slopes of the infamous Mount Pinatubo. Most folks familiar with the Philippines know all about what happened in June 1991 when that supposedly "extinct" volcano decided to revive itself and blow its top over much of this area. Massive amounts of volcanic dust and debris, called lahar, stacked up in huge slabs hundreds of feet thick on the slopes around the volcano. The storms of that rainy season and those of the next several rainy seasons washed gigantic chunks of lahar down into the Abacan river channel. The water mixed with the lahar to make a destructive slurry that washed away everything in its path, including all the bridges of Angeles City. The banks of the river also continually carved away the river bank, slicing away more and more real estate until the channel became hundreds of feet wide in places. Over the days and months, more and more homes and busineses disappeared into the brown angry river. It became more paste than water when the rains came down in torrents that lasted for days and weeks as they tend to do here in the tropics.

See the map above to see how Pinatubo is situated in relation to Angeles City. The river rushes down from the volcano's slopes, passes south of Clark Air Base and then forms the northern boundary of Angeles City proper. The very first bridge in it's path is Friendship Bridge and it has taken the full brunt and fury of its crushing rushing mounds of thick lahar mud.

The above photo was taken on 26 Sep 06 from the south side of the new bridge before it was open. On the left side of it can be seen what's left of the original bridge. I believe they left the old pilings in place just to the west of the new bridge to help protect it from future lahar flows. I'm told that there are still millions of tons of the stuff waiting to wash down on us. Oh joy!

I took the shot above just today. This is the southern approach with the bridge directly ahead just a hundred or so meters. There is a woodcarving workshop to the right where I snapped the photo. Some of their creations are visible in the shot.

This photo (above) was also taken today, 7 Oct 06, from the southern "on ramp." This ramp, a good 20 feet high at its tallest, did not exist until about a year ago when scores of dumptrunks hauled in tons of fill to create it. The riverbed has become so wide here that the only way to bridge it is to bring in more and more earth and hope that it won't just wash out around the ends of it. That's how the last two bridges on that spot were lost. That, and a bad case of under-engineering based on "under-funding," which I've heard happened because of "funds skimming." It's only rumor, mind you, so it might be true or not. But, if I had to bet...!

These are more views (above) of the vestiges of the previous bridge; you can see it's "bones" lying in the channel, which is mostly dry, even throughout the rainy season. It takes many days of hard steady rain for the channel to fill with water from bank to bank. I've only seen that happen once or twice in the four plus years I've lived here.

Another view like the ones above, only taken from near the beginning of the southern ramp looking toward the unopened new bridge with the broken pieces of the old bridge to it's western side in the distance.

I took the pic above and the three that follow over the last couple of weeks. They show stills of the finishing touches being done on the north side approach and onramp. It may not be obvious in the picture, but the ramp curves around to the right as it approaches the bridge from the north. That's why the presence of the heavy-duty reinforced concrete traffic "teeth," to prevent vehicles from plowing off the ramp and possibly into homes or people.

The entire north side was completed in just over one month. The bridge was closed completely to traffic on 21 Aug 06 to let the construction crews go at it unhindered. It has been a horrible inconvenience for those of us on the "wrong" side of the river.


My daughter's school and my gym are just across the bridge and used to take just 5 minutes to get there. Suddenly, we had to drive all the way around to the next bridge in Hensonville, which added at times 20 or 30 minutes to the drive depending on the traffic.

The guys above stopped for a moment when I asked them to wave and smile. It reminded me again how sweet the people of this country are. In the US, if I'd have asked some construction types to pose and smile for a photo, more than likely I would have been told to go to hell, or worse.

This photo (above) was taken today of the mostly finished north side approach and ramp. The construction crane is still there, although its need is long past. It has been almost two years since this bridge was started. We had high hopes when the pilings were first put in all those many months ago that we would soon have a REAL bridge to cross that cursed river. None of us dreamed that it would take all this time to finish. ONLY in the Philippines!

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