Friday, March 30, 2007

Children, Teach Your Parents

My six year old daughter graduated today. My wife told me a couple weeks ago to keep my schedule open for it. I thought at the time, ‘Oh, well that’s nice—a cute little make-believe commencement exercise.’ Yeah, right! Boy oh boy! Next month I'll have been in this country five years and I still have a lot to learn!

This morning I had a nice polo shirt set out and immediately I got jumped on by the wife, “You can’t wear that! You have to get dressed up!” She handed me my nicest white Barong Tagalog.

“What, for kindergarten?” I asked with some astonishment. Approaching thin ice I ventured out onto it anyway saying, “The only real graduation I can remember attending was for high school. What do they do over here--have a ceremony for every year?”

She’s got her US passport but my wife still gets pretty defensive when I wax into one of my “superior American attitude” orations—and well she should—so she laid into me with a big huff, “It’s not EVERY year. It’s only at the end of pre-school going into first grade, and again after the 6th grade, and finally at the end of high school. And if you don’t like it, don’t go!”

“Cr-r-r-a-a-ack! Splash!” That was the sound of the ice breaking under my feet and me falling through it. Feeling like a cad and knowing what’s good for me, I moon-walked out of that no-win verbal exchange, I clammed up, and put on my barong.

“Morning Daddy!” My soon to be first grader knocked and came into the room wearing lip-stick and a white leotard under what looked to me to be a long white first communion dress. “Come on Daddy, do you want to see my graduation dress?” she asked excitedly, pulling on my hand.

“Aren’t you wearing it already?” I couldn’t imagine that she’d be wearing anything nicer than what she already had on. I went with her into her room and hanging on the door knob was a little white graduation cap and gown.

‘Oh my God, they really do it up here for pre-schoolers,’ I thought shaking my head, this time keeping my comments to myself. Well, my little one was really excited, so I decided it was time to get with the program too. I began to realize that this was not going to be a cute little 1-hour-long pretend ceremony. Filipinos love pageantry and I knew I was probably about to suffer through an interminable example of some.

Three hours is not that long—right? Well, unless you’re a Baptist, most Americans can hardly stand to sit through more than an hour of church. That’s especially true for mini-Americans, those in the pre-school and kindergarten ranks of us. Thing is, today, I was pleasantly surprised by the display of excellent behavior I saw from my daughter’s five and six-year-old classmates. The entire preparatory class assembled just after 8 a.m. and they remained in good order until the torture—I mean commencement—ended a few minutes before 11. I have to say, if all my money bought was that—teaching pre-schoolers patience and a bit of observable self-discipline—then I think it was money well-spent.

The commencement exercise was an up-scaled version of one you might see at any American high school. Yes, I said up-scaled because it had three times the stuff. Let’s see, four kids gave speeches, memorized and robotically spoken, but pretty impressive considering how long the speeches were. It’s funny—three or four adults also gave speeches, only they read theirs. I think the kids would have been allowed to read their speeches too, but I don’t think they can read yet. Don’t you love the irony? There were also at least a half-dozen production numbers performed by the kids. And altogether, they devoted a full hour to the delivery of certificates and awards. My little graduate did so “with honors,” but I soon realized that every child left that day with some kind of award—whether for most-improved, best-helper, or blackest-hair—every kid left with something to buck up their little developing self-esteems. No complaints, I guess that’s a good thing. (Okay, okay, that’s not how I really feel!)

We didn’t bring a camera since we were given pre-written instructions that no photography, except by the official photographer, would be allowed during the ceremony. I guess my wife’s 10 years in the US ruined her, because she really seemed surprised to see every other parent in there with their digi- and video cams just a snapping and a shooting away.

“I thought they said no photography by the parents,” she complained loudly to me.

I answered wryly, “Are you forgetting where you live? They make lots of rules in this country, but when none of them are enforced and everyone knows they won’t be enforced then do whatever the heck you want...You know what they say about Rome, right? So, do as the Romans!”

Just goes to show that you can teach 6-year-olds here to behave and even to deliver complex speeches and sing elaborate songs, but evidently you can’t get their parents to follow even the simplest of rules. Oops, there I go again.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bohol Trip: Loboc, A Tale of a Bridge vs a Church

If you visit Bohol’s Chocolate Hills from Tagbilaran you will pass through Loboc. Even if you hadn’t planned on it I’m sure you will end up checking it out. We stopped there on the way through and again on the way back. It’s a pretty remarkable place for such a little town, and there are several reasons why—at least four that I can think of. But the initial reason is the first thing you’ll notice as you pull up to the center of town.

Have you ever seen something so bizarre, so surreal that you just HAD to have an explanation for it before you could go on with what you were originally doing? It probably feels that way for someone who sees a UFO or The Lochness Monster. Well, THAT is how I felt when we pulled up next to the ancient church in Loboc. The church was old, large and interesting, but that wasn’t what had my curiosity all abuzz, although it was certainly part of it.

No, what had my head cocked and my gaze locked was the hulk of a big old unfinished bridge looking like part of an abandoned movie set. Ever watch the movie “Speed” when the bus jumps across the unfinished chasm of an overpass? Or similarly in “The Blues Brothers” where the Nazis chasing Jake and Elroy go flying off the same kind of unfinished highway bridge? Well, that’s what’s sitting in Loboc, right in the middle of town. But, what makes it unreal is the bridge’s location.

The incomplete bridge comes from the direction of the Loboc River, which it crosses from way on high. This isn’t just a little bridge either; it’s substantial, made of concrete and reinforced with steel, and was obviously built as part of a major thoroughfare. What’s disturbing is that if the bridge is finished, the Loboc Church would have to be demolished, because the bridge stops directly across the street from the historic cathedral. Visually, the unfinished bridge is an open threat aimed directly at the church. So far, the church is holding its own against the menacing bridge’s bulk, but a question begs to be asked: What the heck is going on?

I got out of the car, stared up at the bridge, and while pointing at it started quizzing the guide about the monstrosity across the street from the beautiful church. I must have been a bit too obvious for her because she told me furtively, “Not here, we can talk when we get around the corner.”

So, I figured out that I wasn’t supposed to make a big deal out of the bridge and the way it just seemed to float unfinished in midair looking exactly like a giant waterless pier, at least not openly, so I pretended to ignore it as we walked to a garden park in front of the church. I felt foolish ignoring something so obvious, but I decided to play along. By then I was willing to do about anything to make sure my guide filled me in on “the story.” I knew it was going to be something weird and wacky and I was right.

Here’s the tale she told me. It seems unbelievable, but it makes sense if you live here long enough. There is a legend that there is gold buried under the old church. It’s the same ridiculous myth that the people in practically every province in the Philippines tell. Usually it’s a story about buried Japanese gold, but in this case it must be about Spanish treasure from the time when the friars first moved to Loboc in the early 1600s to escape marauding Muslims. That’s why the church exists in Loboc in the first place.

Some greedy person in a position of authority (sorry for being redundant there!) must have felt that they could use “Eminent Domain” as a way to force the demolition of the 400 year old landmark to get to the mythical gold. That’s all she would tell me and she spoke of it without looking at the bridge or acknowledging it, almost like she was briefed as part of her certification not to make a big deal out of it when tourists ask about the obvious eyesore right in the middle of Loboc.

Sure enough, while doing some research on the internet I inspected a road map I found of Bohol. I've included two maps in this post; check them out. The map above (click on it) shows a major road going from Sikatuna to Loboc from the direction of where the bridge now sits fallow and it also shows the road stopping, evidently from the point where the bridge stopped. I found another map (click on it below) that shows the road continuing to just west of Lila, so maybe that map represents a proposed continuation or a presently unimproved section of the same road. The story and the guide's way of dealing with it is very Filipino, and I say that with a combination of affection and humor knowing what I have learned of the national psyche here—one that is certainly unique:

(Foreigner: “Hey, why is there an elephant in the kitchen?” Local: No explanation—just a pleasant smile and a studious disregard for the question.) That is this place—it’s not good or bad—it just is. One just has to smile and enjoy the occasional absurdity.

I don’t know the rest of the story and I still have a zillion other questions such as: Why did they not finish the bridge and go through with the razing of the cathedral? Who were these dastardly people? Who stopped them? What’s the story behind it? What are they going to do with the bridge now, if anything? Will they eventually move the church or knock it down to finish the bridge? Or, will the bridge come down? One question leads to another.

Is the story about the greedy bridge-building gold-diggers even true at all? It must be, because in a place so devoid of money for public projects nothing else could possibly explain why an expensively massive bridge would be built right up to the edge of an important building like that. I mean, no one builds most of a bridge before noticing too late that there just happens to be a large church inconveniently in the way, not even here. You must admit that it’s a wild story. So wild in fact that if you didn’t have visual proof of the Mexican standoff between that big old incomplete bridge and the equally impressive church then it’s not something you would even consider likely. But the photos don’t lie. If you see it, you have to believe it—right?

There’s much more to Loboc than this amazing “the bridge versus the church” story. I’ll post more on this quaint little town soon…

Thursday, March 22, 2007

More Bohol Trip, The Baclayon Church

I love the centuries-old cathedrals here and the two that I visited in Bohol are both worth the time to stop in and check them out. The first was at Baclayon and the other in Loboc.

As much as I scorn the Spanish of 109 years ago (and before) for their despicable acts during their lengthy colonial period, I still enjoy the moldy permanence of their architecture. If not for the ancient bricks and stones all mortared together into the myriad churches that dot this country there would be almost no Filipino architecture here older than 70 or 80 years. Mind you, all these wonderful old structures were put up using local laborers and craftsman. Until just after WWII indigenous buildings were almost all made of wood and have not lasted the years well, if at all. Termites and the tropical climate make relatively short work of wooden structures, even those built of Filipino hard woods.

Our guide took us to the Baclayon Church after our stop at the Sandugo Diorama. I won’t go into the specifics of the place; you can get that at other sites like this one: Baclayon Church But I will give my impressions, and I must say I enjoyed visiting this one as much as any other I’ve seen, perhaps more because of the cool museum in the adjacent convent, now vacant of nuns. There is a small fee to enter the museum, but don’t let that deter you, it’s worth every peso.

Most of the old churches of the Philippines have been in continuous use for more than 200 years, and in the case of the present Baclayon structure, it’s been there for 300 years. If you are a Catholic you’ll especially like checking out all the years of church paraphernalia. Ancient d├ęcor, manuscripts and books, furniture, statues, and vestal garments instead of moldering away in some closet or rectory are on display there in the museum. I’ve only visited one other church museum that is better stocked with exhibits and that's the massive one that is part of The St. Augustine Cathedral sitting these past 400+ years inside the walls of the Intramuros of Manila.

The church’s museum has a typical little gift shop with the predictable t-shirts and rosary beads. And also typically, they didn’t have the one item I’m always interested in. I gave the counter girl a bit of a hard time trying to get her to convince her bosses that many tourists love to buy well-written pamphlets and even books that contain photos, facts and historical details. I quizzed her, asking if it was true that others like me had asked for the same thing. As cheap as it is to produce them locally (believe me, I know) and with all the creative talent in this country, it still astounds me that usually no one tries to fill this market niche. In fact, every town and village should produce their own booklet, listing the local history complete with photos and places of interest. I’m telling you, discerning tourists will buy them for their coffee table and travel collection.

One other thing caught my eye in the gift shop—a bit of historical detail that I found hugely fascinating. It was a list of all the senior pastors going back to the early 1700s to include the timeframe they served in that position. Continuity thy name is Catholicism! The list is uninterrupted going back almost 300 years—remarkable! What struck me about the list though, is the obvious reminder of Spanish self-importance and condescension. Every single priest was Spanish right up until 1898, the year we finally booted them out. All those years and the Europeans felt that only Europeans were fit to run that little parish. Thinking about it makes me seethe, but I suppose it was the way of the times to think so little of the locals, in this case the priestly talent. I really need to get over that aspect of this place, especially since Filipinos sure don’t seem to be hung up over it like I am.

Next, our driver and guide continued to take us up the coast toward the turn off going to the Chocolate Hills located in the center of the island. We made one tourist stop at a bolo making shop. The fellow in there doing all the work was both carpenter and blacksmith. He seemed like a humble hardworking guy and I bought one of his wooden-sheathed creations for 300 pesos, telling him to keep the change from a 500. I wasn’t trying to show off; I just like to reward industriousness. I encourage you to also stop in and watch him at work; its well-worth five or ten minutes and he hand makes a pretty good product that makes a great souvenir, and heck, you can use it too.

Our next stop—Loboc.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sorry, But General Pace IS Right

General Peter Pace recently said what many of us believe is obvious—that homosexuality is immoral. It’s obvious to me that he never plans on running for office, because the PC way is to tippytoe around the subject, by pretending not to believe what we believe and certainly NEVER saying it, at least not publicly. Here’s what CBS and the AP reported on the Chief of Staff’s comments concerning homosexual’s in the military.

(CBS/AP) The Pentagon's top general expressed regret Tuesday that he called homosexuality immoral, a remark that drew a harsh condemnation from members of Congress and gay advocacy groups.

There are things people do that are not against the law that many of us consider immoral. For many of us homosexuality is one of those things. Adultery is another one. In some societies those acts are indeed against the law and they still are according to the laws of the United States Military as codified in the Uniform Military Code of Justice.

In a newspaper interview Monday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likened homosexual acts to adultery and said the military should not condone it by allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces.

The general is exactly right and has nothing to apologize for. Overt displays of homosexuality, and of heterosexuality for that matter, contravene good order and discipline required in the military. The general’s point is that we live under strictures in the armed forces that civilians don’t have to. The “don’t ask don’t tell” policy is exactly right and is a semi-perfect compromise for the current cultural reality we exist in—that reality being that most of us still consider homosexual behavior wrong.

A good number of us, General Pace included, consider homosexuality against their moral code while others think it perfectly acceptable. A concession was reached back at the beginning of Clinton’s first term with the “Don’t ask don’t tell” agreement, which allows homosexuals to serve as long as they do not openly declare nor openly practice their sexuality. It was a huge concession on the part of the military, but now 14 years have passed and the progressives want more.

When we join the military we are quickly apprised of the rules of conduct. They are definitely not the same rules that apply to civilians. Sorry, but that’s how it is. There are many good reasons for it and people should not sign up to begin with if they don’t believe they can comply.

Besides “hiding” homosexuality, there are many other strictures military folks must follow that civilians don’t have to worry about. For instance, civilians, even the Commander in Chief it seems, are allowed to be adulterers. The same sin committed by service personnel results in prosecution and ejection from the military.

When we serve, even our freedom of speech is curtailed. We are not allowed to appear in uniform at political functions or to make political speeches or declarations. Along these same lines there is a prohibition against speaking certain words or phrases such as racial epithets or any kind of so-called hate speech.

Service people are not allowed to join militias, gangs, or any organization or institution deemed to be counter to the interests of the United States.

American troops are not allowed to have facial or body piercings now. Certain hairstyles for both females and males are prohibited, as are tattoos on exposed areas of the body.

As a serviceman or woman, try quitting and going home before your enlistment is up and see what happens. A civilian—even a cop can quit right in the middle of a shootout or a fireman during a four-alarm-fire and all that happens is they are out of a job. If a soldier “quits” in the middle of a firefight (running before the enemy) or refuses a task during battle, it can literally mean being executed by firing squad.

In a statement Tuesday, he said he should have focused more in the interview on the Defense Department policy about gays — and "less on my personal moral views."

Well, its too late now, the “cat’s out of the bag.” The general believes that homosexuality is unethical! Come on! Is anyone really surprised? As far as I know, believing that and expressing it is NOT against the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, so I don’t believe he’s going to be prosecuted or asked to resign, especially by this president, nor to apologize for SAYING exactly what he believes. But oh my God, from the expressions of outrage (read below) from the liberal community you’d think the good general was a Nazi. (Of course, that’s EXACTLY what they DO believe).

"It's bad enough that he thinks that. It's even worse that he would be foolish enough to say that publicly," Arlene Isaacsen of the Massachusetts GAy & Lesbian Political Caucus told CBS Radio station WBZ-AM. "It is crass prejudice, crass bigotry and brazen ignorance, and it's disgraceful to think that someone in his position would think in these terms."

Ms Isaacsen, most of us think EXACTLY in those terms. Homosexuality is against many of our religious and personal codes. When men and women perform felatio on each other, or anal sex, or whatever they do, to us it’s wrong. To us, it’s just as wrong as pedophilia, or sex with animals, or incest, and all the other skewed ways that people have found to release themselves sexually. General Pace’s religion tells him so and so do all Semitic religions. I find his honesty refreshing.

This Isaacsen person is upset to be reminded by the general that most of us out here still think in terms of morality instead of relativism. The object of folks like her is to get lots of people together of the same ilk, all of whom want to believe that what they are doing is okay, and thus reassure each other that what they do is just fine. Whether pedophilia or incest, those who practice those things continue to proclaim that it’s perfectly “natural” and say it’s the rest of us who are evil and prejudiced.

The sickening thing is that their plan is working. Within a generation or two I foresee all kinds of other deviancies becoming socially acceptable. Homosexuals found that by continuing to “hit us in the face” with their deviancy, eventually “we” started to accept and tolerate.

"General Pace's comments are outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops now serving in our armed forces," the advocacy group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in a statement on its Web site.

The group, which has represented some of the thousands dismissed from the military for their sexual orientation, demanded an apology.

If the general ever apologizes for stating that his personal beliefs are that homosexuality is immoral then I will be very disappointed. If he believes its wrong why should he say otherwise? We believe what we believe every bit as much as you believe whatever it is you believe. People like me tolerate it, but we don’t accept it as “natural” or decent.

"He's saying you can still serve and die for your country, but don't tell if you're gay, because then you're dishonorable; you're immoral," Fricke said.

Ahhh! Very good. Fricke gets it!

Pace did not offer an apology, something that had been demanded by gay rights groups.

I suggest they hold their collective breath until they get one—an apology from the general that is. Until these people convince the rest of us—people like Pete Pace and me—that “what they do” is okay then the policy on homosexuals in the service will remain as it is. Most Americans these days will never serve in the armed forces and so will never understand that to serve means sacrificing individual rights. In effect, even your very life no longer belongs to you. If the mission requires one to give up ones life then so be it. You actually say those words when you sign up. Being asked to agree to “don’t ask don’t tell” is one of the least of those sacrificed rights.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Blood Compact of Bohol, Legazpi & Sikatuna

Before going to Bohol I was only dimly aware of the 1565 blood compact, or Sandugo in Filipino, between the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi and Datu Sikatuna, a chieftain of Bohol. Historically this blood compact is one of the most noteworthy events of Bohol. Naturally, being a lover of things historical, I had to investigate and seek understanding.

We acquired the services of a driver and guide from the Vest Pension House and our first stop of the day was at the traditional site of the Blood Compact. I’m sure no one is exactly sure after 442 years where the specific place is that Legazpi and Sikatuna drank together from a goblet filled with a mixture of their own blood and wine, but the general area is certainly correct. At the small town of Baclayon we pulled off the road and spent several minutes at a larger than life diorama depicting Sikatuna and Legazpi seemingly having a toast. The site is high on a bluff and affords a beautiful view of the Bohol Sea. As I inspected each statue and read the plaques I tried to understand the significance of this pact.

Truthfully, at the time I didn’t get it, and even now I struggle with it. I thought to myself, ‘Why all the fuss over something so tragic?’ I can understand simply marking it as an event from the past to be acknowledged and studied, but people from Bohol actually have a party every year called the Sandugo Festival to mark what can only be considered a start date to 333 years of abject Spanish oppression. For me it brings to mind how the French similarly celebrate their Revolution, one of the most violent and deplorable events in European history.

I asked the guide how she felt about the way the Spanish treated the indigenous peoples here, but as usual I got not much more than a verbal shrug. The Japanese paid some pretty hefty reparations to the Philippines after WWII, but when one looks honestly at the three centuries of Spanish abuse heaped on this place Spain surely owes this country more money than there is in the entire world.

Like other things here there is a dichotomy in how Filipinos look at the subject of Spanish colonization. They desperately want to be proud of their past dealings with Spain, but the only way to do so is to ignore the extremely horrendous way they were treated by them. I see this dichotomy big time in the way Sikatuna and Lapu-Lapu are BOTH celebrated, each for doing the exact opposite thing. In 1521, Lapu-Lapu and his people refused to accept outside dominion and his forces ended up hacking Magellan to death on the beach at Mactan Island, which is just across the Cebu Straits from Bohol. Just 44 years later and Sikatuna accepts Legazpi’s overtures of “friendship” and the rest is history. Of course no one can blame Sikatuna; after all, Legazpi was going to do what he wanted in the name of the king of Spain regardless of what one Rajah from Bohol did.

Interestingly, I found the following excerpt in Wikpedia on the 2006 Sandugo Festival of Bohol.

Sandugo Oracles

1. One of the major highlights of the 2006 Sandugo celebration was the "Sandugo Oracles," an hour-long reenactment directed by Lutgardo Labad, which recounted the historic meeting between East and West through interpretive dance, pantomime, song and a narrative soundtrack in Bohol’s native Visayan. The oracles sought to “clarify” the Sandugo legend by going beyond typical reenactments, which only depict Legazpi and Sikatuna meeting, drinking goblets filled with each other’s blood and little else. “The performance highlights the impact on the native population and makes people think anew of their own realities,” Laba said.

2. The oracles presented Boholano priestess Karyapa tugging on Rajah Sikatuna's arm and imploring to ignore Legazpi's arrival in the Philippines. Karyapa's prohecy foretold the destruction of local civilization. The oracles also showed the role of a lesser-known datu Sigala who convinced Sikatuna to accept Legazpi's offer, and the influence of an earlier raid on Bohol by Portuguese slavers.


Obviously, here we have thoughtful and concerned people, like Mr. Labad, trying to figure out how to come to terms with the “dichotomy” I spoke of above. First, he speaks of using this newly concocted “Sandugo Oracles” to “clarify” events by going “beyond” the traditional reenactments to make us “think anew.” I suppose attempting to do that is okay, but what really bothers me is the addition of the “new history,” where supposedly a priestess tried to no avail to dissuade Sikatuna, while this Sigala fellow reminds not only Sikatuna, but all the play-goers, of what awaited the people of Bohol if he didn’t kiss Legazpi’s ass. Rewriting history can be a dangerous thing. So what’s next? Do they slowly wean the celebration away from the Sikatuna’s Blood Pact until eventually it becomes a commemoration of the ignored priestess, Karyapa? If so, I have the perfect name for this future celebration: The "Hindsight is 20-20 Festival!”

President Clinton and his notorious “definition of what is is” comment comes to mind when I think about what history is. To me, history IS a sacred thing; it should be about cold hard truth. My point is that history just “IS,” and just because it doesn’t conform to a modern vision of what it “should be” doesn’t mean it should be rewritten. Of course the festival should continue—it sounds like a grand time—but stay away from “correcting” the events of the past to make them more palatable to those of us in the present. It’s just not right.

My next Bohol entry will have not a single complaint or a bit of negativity in it—I promise! (Famous last words?)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My Little Trip to Bohol

I made a trip to Bohol a few weeks ago. I spent just 4 days there but what little I saw impresses me. Of course compared to where I live now almost anywhere else in the Philippines, except Manila, impresses me.

We flew into Tagbilaran, the provincial capital. Its airport is typical of all domestic Philippine airports—tiny, but plenty big enough for the new Cebu Pacific Airbus A320 and A319. There’s a reason Cebu Pacific seems to be competing so successfully in the domestic air travel market. Their planes are new, well-kept, and the crews are very professional. Even better are the low fares, as long as you book in advance. Don’t try to show up same day and get a ticket though; you’ll pay double.

The flight from Manila was around 90 minutes. From the air, Bohol looks to be mostly hills and sparsely populated. On the approach to Tagbilaran it seemed as if we were about to land on top of buildings, which continued to flash below almost right up until the moment the landing gear hit the tarmac. After collecting our luggage we made a deal (for 100 pesos) with one of the many van drivers (and taxis too for that matter) to take us on a tour of the hotels so we could pick one. The first stop was the Vest Pension House, only about ten minutes from the airport and it turned out to be good enough. We checked in. It’s not 4-star, but for the money it is plenty nice. I recommend it.

After check-in we scooted out to the nearby mall (a ten minute drive), one of two in “Tag,” or so I was told. It seems every city of any size these days has a mall, and usually two or more. I call it the “malling” of the Philippines. Funny thing about this country is that there isn’t a whole lot of industry in evidence, but there is plenty of shopping. A lot of us expats often wonder where the multitude of shoppers you see at all these malls get their spending money. Most of us imagine it comes from the thousands of overseas foreign workers (OFWs) sending their collective millions back home. Interesting how the president crows how her economic policies have lately made the peso stronger against the dollar. Puzzling, since it means the money coming in from the vaunted OFWs has that much less buying power here.

I hate malls; I hate shopping; so happily, after less than an hour, we were out of there. It was still only late afternoon so we had the driver take us out to look up Paul Bruno, an ex-pat who moved to Bohol from Angeles City out to Panglao Island, a place known for its beaches and diving resorts just down the road from Tagbilaran and across a causeway. Paul, a retired American GI, got tired of the Angeles City rat race and started up a delightful little pizza restaurant called the Powder Keg.

We found the Powder Keg well towards the end of Panglao just up from one of the resort areas at a “Y” just about at the end of the main central road. Paul welcomed us warmly and we sat down with a half-dozen of his buddies who also form part of his customer base. He said he had taken what was once a rundown building, fixed it up, and developed a successful eatery niche specializing in American style pizza (and other fare) and drinks, all at less than resort prices. The pizza was tasty, the setting restful and affable while the lower prices seem to make his place all the more appreciated by resort-goers looking for prices lower than those on the beach. Now, a community of American and Aussie retirees is developing their own little ad hoc expat subdivision, and according to Paul, life is good. As darkness crept in I regretted having to head back to Tagbilaran.

Tagbilaran is hilly just like much of the rest of what I saw of Bohol. I suppose you could call it the San Francisco of the Philippines except it’s not as attractive. Nope, not even close. Like most places here there is very little money for aesthetics. Personally though, I wish they’d find some, especially if those in charge are serious about making this country competitive in the tourist market. Oh well, just a thought. The way it is now, if you want beautiful visuals you have to get out of the towns and cities and head for the hills, countryside and coast; although I hear Vigan is beautiful. It’s on my list of places to see.

If you find yourself on Tagbilaran streets these days prepare for a bumpy ride. They are in the process of resurfacing the entire city and according to a local they have an awkward piecemeal system of doing so. The geology of Bohol that I observed is basically million-year-old coral raised up out of the sea into a myriad of hills. When the crews strip away the old concrete and asphalt down to the coral it makes for a decidedly rough driving surface. The problem is that the follow on road construction crews can take a long time (by non-Filipino standards) to get to those rough patches. Traffic has to slow way down over those areas, which makes for traffic snarls in a place that really shouldn’t have them. Probably the only people who complain are outsiders (like me), since I’ve noticed that Filipinos never complain about anything. (Why can’t I be like that?)

Okay, enough of the typical American style complaining. I really like Bohol and Tagbilaran. Although the capital city is not exactly enchanting, it is a nice place with pleasant people and I’m told it has a low crime rate. The province is a very conservative, traditionally-oriented place, even by Philippines standards, which I find very appealing. If you know me then you know how much I despise the “hip-hoppization” that has befallen the states, which has steadily eroded its mores and values. To me it seems that in general these days, people back home can’t speak without spewing profanity, everyone is angry, and MTV has over-sexualized our kids by the time they learn how to operate a remote control. I live here to get away from that stuff and Bohol seems even further from it.

And here’s an observation some might find interesting: I’ve never met a girl from Bohol in any of the bars on Fields Avenue. I’m sure there are some; I’ve just not met any. And since ALL I do when I barhop is to ask the girls mundane questions, that’s usually one of the first I ask. Whatever that says about the young ladies of Bohol I’ll leave to the reader to figure out.

I’ve got more to talk about concerning my trip to Bohol, but I think I’ll go ahead and post this now to keep the length to a “sub-novel” level. (Have a good one!)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Autopilot From Hell

My first job in the Air Force was Automatic Flight Controls Systems Specialist, which is fancy for Autopilot Repairman. After I got out of the Marines that was the job the Air Force felt I could best be useful. I didn’t care; I just wanted to get back into uniform after the unexpectedly long 7 months that it took me to transfer over from the Marines. As it turned out I didn’t mind at all—autopilot systems can be challengingly fun to work on. My last aircraft technical story I entitled “…Hey, it’s technical,” and at the end of it I said I’d eventually write a story about a particularly thorny C-130 autopilot, so here it is.

It was the mid-80s, in hindsight some of the best years of my life. At Yokota Air Base I was happy to get to work on a host of different Air Force aircraft such as the C-5, UH-1, WC-135, C-9, C-141, T-39 and my favorite—the C-130, or the C-130E “Hercules” to be exact.

One of our “Herc’s” was giving us fits. For almost a year it continued to cause great concern to aircrews when for no apparent reason the airplane’s autopilot would cause it to dramatically pitch up or down. It didn’t happen every flight—the problem would come and go. There were times when it would fly perfectly for two or three weeks before it would startle the hell out of some aircrew again.

Over the course of months we changed every component that could conceivably cause the malfunction. We could never duplicate it on the ground, so all we could do was change a likely component and perform a comprehensive operational check and then let it fly again. Of course after doing that we briefed every aircrew to watch out for a possible “pitching autopilot.” Sure enough we would be out there yet again for the umpteenth time trying figure it out. Like every other time though it always seemed to check out perfectly.

“Swaptronics”

After months of beating ourselves to death on this apparently unfixable automatic flight controls system, out of desperation the branch chief instructed us to swap out the complete autopilot system with another airplane that had a perfectly working autopilot. Towards the end we were made to do this at least three times, but to no avail. We spent another few hundred manhours changing out perfectly good connectors, but what else could we do? We had tried everything, and had done so two, three, four, five times already.

The cost in parts alone ran up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. As we neared the million-dollar mark the “powers that be” decided to ask the “experts” at PACAF headquarters to get us some outside help. A high-level decision was made to bring in an engineer to help us out from Lockheed, the company that had designed and built the C-130 back in the early 50s and continues to do so even to the present.

The man they sent us was an avionics engineer who went by the name of “Big Al.” I wish I could remember his last name, but if I recall right it might have had an Eastern European sound to it. Regardless, Big Al was cool. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the big fellow.

My shopchief, MSgt Jim Friend, assigned me full-time to assist Al during the week he was with us. Being the second highest ranking guy in the shop meant that it was usually me that got these kinds of interesting out of the ordinary projects. That was just fine by me, especially getting the chance to work with Big Al.

Al was a fascinating storyteller. I wish I had written down the airplane development tales he told us, because they would have been great now as Blog entries. When he came to us he must have been in his late 50s and more probably in his 60s. Thirty years before he was an engineer developing the E4 autopilot for use on the at-that-time as yet un-fielded brand new C-130A transport. Now here he was three decades later called out of retirement trying to help the Air Force figure out why one of “his” well-worn autopilots no longer wanted to operate correctly.

Retrorocket C-130 Story

I do hazily remember one of his stories. He said that the particulars were classified for awhile, but I doubt they were by the time he told us of it. He was in on the retro-rocket modification of a C-130 that was supposed to be able to land and take off from a soccer stadium in downtown Tehran as part of a planned hostage rescue plan. The idea was scrubbed he said when during one of the test landings the retro-rocket fired while the airplane was still too high. It came to a halt in midair some 15 or 20 feet above the ground, and when the rockets stopped thrusting it fell earthward in a catastrophic crash. It caused some pretty serious injuries to the test pilots’ backs and wrecked the airplane. The story went that it hit the ground so hard that the wings snapped off at the fuselage. He did say that the rockets worked for taking off, just like a giant harrier jump-jet. Anyway, so much for that idea. But who knows, if they had gotten that retro-rocket C-130 to work maybe we would have successfully rescued our hostages instead of the fiasco that happened at Desert One.

Al brought with him a paper-drum chart recorder; it looked exactly like a polygraph to me only instead of recording bodily function activity Al intended to use it to record a multitude of voltage signals from the autopilot system on our misbehaving C-130. We spent much of a day building a wire harness for it, cutting lengths of 20 or so feet of small gauge blue insulated wire and crimping on terminal lugs. He was thrilled to be able to do most of the work himself saying that for most of his engineering career with Lockheed he was not allowed to do any of that stuff. He gave the orders and technicians did the wire cutting, splicing, crimping and soldering. Sounded like a bunch of union rules nonsense to me—glad I’ve never had to deal with that kind of civilian crap.

We finished the harness and rolled the long length of wires into a large loop ready to take out to the aircraft. Afterwards Al wanted to look at the entire past year’s worth of aircraft forms. We went down to where the records were archived and he spent an hour or two poring through them while occasionally making a few notes as he continued to comb through the hundreds of pencil written pages. When he finished, he got up, stretched and grinned at me saying, “Let’s go. I’ve seen everything I need to.”

Kidding him I said, “So, what do you think? Got it figured out yet?”

Mysteriously, he continued to smile and said noncommittally, “Could be, but I didn’t come all this way without at least flying on it and checking it out.”

“Well Al, we got that pig for the next five days.”

“Okay,” he said, “We’ll see what happens.”

That afternoon we headed out to the plane for the first time and I helped him connect all the wires and power source to his signal charting recorder. Using the C-130E autopilot wiring diagram we connected the ten or so signal input wires from his machine to terminal connections in the autopilot junction box located just inside the avionics aisle, also nicknamed the “hell hole,” immediately to the left past the removed flight deck ladder. Once again he was happy that I “let” him do much of the work. I figured why not—he seemed to enjoy it so much.

All the autopilot voltage taps he installed had one thing in common—they all had something to do with pitch voltages, or signals within the autopilot that would cause the aircraft to nose up or down—like voltages from the altitude hold, pitch hold, automatic elevator trim, and so forth. We found a place on the cargo floor to securely strap the recorder and we were ready to fly for the next five days.

Zero Grav

Our first day in the air was the most notable. Before the crew came out we were there first to make sure the recorder would power up, that the paper drum would properly spool and that each recording stylus would make its tell-tale ink line. Big Al briefed the pilots on what he needed them to do up in the air, which was to basically fly around in a continuous circuit while taking the aircraft through its paces using the autopilot.

We took off with the cavernous cargo bay completely barren; in fact the whole airplane was empty except for the two pilots, a flight engineer, a loadmaster, Big Al and me. Big Al’s first task was to calibrate each signal around a “null” or centered zero voltage. For instance, once at cruise altitude he asked the pilot to make sure the aircraft was in a completely neutral pitch attitude. In other words, to make sure the nose was neither pointing up or down, but absolutely “trimmed” and level with the ground. This was the spot he set each of the recording pens so that a “nose up signal” would record above this “null line” and a “nose down signal” recorded below it. He did this for each signal until all of them were perfectly centered at a zero voltage null. It was ingenious in its simplicity.

It took two or three flying hours for Al to calibrate at null all his chosen pitch voltages, and at first I stayed close, seated next to him on a canvas jump bench seat, intently watching everything he did. Everyone on the plane was on headsets so I could listen to everything as well, especially the interchange between the pilots and Big Al.

After a time I decided to go sit for a while up on the flight deck at the navigator’s table with the seat rotated and locked facing forward. On my way up to the flight deck I passed the loadmaster doing what all loadmasters do so well—he was sound asleep on the canvas seat against the left cargo bulkhead directly across from Al. I used to joke around with my loadmaster buddies that their specialty badge should be crossed pillows.

After taking a seat at the Nav’s table I loosely buckled in and plugged my headset into a jack. I heard Al instructing the pilot that he wanted to calibrate the output from the autopilot pitch thumbwheel and exactly how he wanted the aircraft flown to do it. I wasn’t paying much attention; instead I took great interest at the beauty of the Japanese mountains on the horizon as far as I could see out the front windows.

Big Al told the pilot to give him pitch up on the thumb wheel and the pilot responded to the affirmative with “Roger that, doing so in 3, 2, 1…”

I watched the pilot’s gloved right hand spin the large thumb wheel quickly to the rear and suddenly the mountains disappeared as the nose pitched sharply and alarmingly up. I had never been in a C-130 maneuvered so violently before and it was disconcerting to say the least. Big Al was alarmed too because I heard him say in a slightly urgent voice, “Bring it back, bring it back please!”

This caused the pilot, whose hand was still on the thumbwheel, to spin it almost as quickly back to the forward position. This resulted in a flight maneuver that before that moment I had only read and heard about. The airplane was in zero gravity!

That five or so seconds of weightlessness is locked in my mind’s eye forever. I felt my body float upward away from the earth as if the airplane was trying to fly down and away from me. It is the exact same feeling you get on a rollercoaster as it barrels earthward. My stomach went straight up into my throat as my butt was no longer even touching my seat, being a good 3 or 4 inches above it, restrained only by my loose seatbelt.

What really fills my memory though is what I saw. In a split second the air was filled with stuff! By stuff I mean everything imaginable. Three of us were drinking from Styrofoam cups filled with coffee, and out of the blue those little white cups and the brown liquid within them floated freely about us in the air. The coffee wandered its way out of the containers, broke up into little droplets and dispersed in a brown liquidy cloud. I was stunned by all the dirt and dust that also suddenly filled almost every square inch of air around me as if it just appeared from nowhere. Amazing also was all the bits of hardware now at eyelevel such as tiny screws and bits of wire. ‘Where did all this stuff come from?’ I wondered. I remember the flightdeck being almost spotless and well ordered, yet here was all this trash suddenly appearing from nowhere. Also in the air was everything else we hadn’t tied down—uniform items, hats, coats, aircraft manuals, paper, tools, you name it—it was in the air in a jumbled drifting clutter.

Then, as if by magic the moment of zero grav ended and did so literally with a THUMP! I heard all the stuff hit the deck at exactly the same time and it was a sound that resounded about the aircraft. The loadmaster and Big Al had suddenly found themselves against the ceiling of the cargo bay—a good eight or nine feet up. Al was unhurt being able to grab hold of the canvas seat back, but the poor blissfully sleeping “loady” was badly hurt by his quick “trip” to the top of the airplane and nasty return voyage back to the cargo deck. His body made the loudest thump of all followed by an anguished howl as he gave voice to unexpected pain and shocked surprise. Poor guy, but he should have known better.

It took me a good 15 minutes to physically recover. As soon as my butt became replanted to my seat where it belonged I felt my mouth fill with saliva as I turned green around the gills with nausea. I took some deep breaths and struggled against vomiting. Big Al never missed a beat and after he and the flight engineer saw to the “wounded” loadmaster he and the pilot got back to work nulling out his signal voltages.

I suppose the pilot just wasn’t thinking when he made that zero gravity maneuver, otherwise I’m sure he would have warned us or just wouldn’t have done it. Surely he must have known what was going to happen when he quickly spun that pitch wheel backwards and forwards like that. Still, I’m glad he did it—just for the experience.

The unfortunate loadmaster ended up with a small cut on the side of his face, some bruised ribs, a wrenched shoulder and a twisted knee. Nothing was broken and the bleeding wasn’t serious so he asked that we continue with our mission. I think he was a little embarrassed that he hadn’t strapped in knowing full well that we were going to do some out of the ordinary flying.

For the next five days nothing else of note happened. In truth, I spent most of the five plus hours of air time per day just as sound asleep as the loadmaster. After the fourth day I was having lunch with Big Al and he commented to me that the autopilot appeared to be working as good as or better than any he had ever seen. I chuckled in response, “That makes sense… since over the last year we replaced every part and half its connectors, …not to mention we’ve tweaked the hell out of the damned thing like you wouldn’t believe. …So what do you think Al, is it fixed or what? Fess up man!”

He just grinned and chuckled back, “Well, truthfully… I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with that airplane. But, we’ll continue our checks just to make sure. Only one more day of flying and I’ll fill you in when I’m absolutely sure.”

I knew then that he knew something about that airplane that he must have discovered during his search through the aircraft forms, but he still wasn’t telling.

*** Part Two – Al Figures it Out, or Does He? ***

Our last day of “troubleshoot flying” was a doozy. Big Al had the pilot fly the hell out of that autopilot from hell. We climbed and dived, and swooped and soared, all while using every possible combination of autopilot commands and modes. After the first day I started taking Dramamine and I was happy that I had, especially for that last day. The final result, after five hours of putting the aircraft through its paces—the autopilot worked like a champ, just as Al had inferred that it would the day before.

Al told me thoughtfully, “Come on PJ lets go back to the forms. I want to show you something.”

After thanking and bidding a so-long to the aircrew we climbed onto the waiting avionics stepvan and headed back to the autopilot shop. From there I drove us in my little Japanese sedan back to the office where the archived aircraft forms were stored. Al and I sat down at a table and he began flipping through the pages sorted by month. “Take a look at this,” he said.

The first few pages he showed me were of entries from just a few days before his arrival. These entries showed the removal and replacement of a trim servo motor flex drive. Pointing at it with his big index finger he announced, “THIS is what fixed the autopilot PJ. There was never anything wrong with it. This flex drive was the culprit all along.”

I shrugged, “Al, what the heck is a flex drive? I still don’t get what you’re saying. What does it have to do with the autopilot?”

He explained putting on his “engineer hat,” “Okay, so you understand how trim tabs work, right? Airflow over a small surface called a trim tab located along the trailing edge of a primary flight control surface causes that larger primary surface to move, or to trim.”

“Okay. Yes, go on. I’m following you,” I nodded.

He continued “The C-130 elevator trim tab servo motor is not mounted in the exact center of the aircraft; it is offset—to the side. This motor causes the tabs to move up or down by spinning the flex drives attached to either side of it, one going to the left trim tab and the other to the right. The flex drives are flexible and act just like a speedometer cable where an internal flexible shaft spins within a stiff yet flexible protective housing.”

The first light went on in my head. “Okay, I can picture that.”

“Because the trim tab motor is offset, there is a long flex drive and a short one. They have two different part numbers. Up until this date—he pointed to the date of the forms entry—this aircraft had TWO LONG flex drives installed.”

“Okay, I gotya. Go on…”

“The long one mistakenly in the short side eventually got kinked so bad that it became harder and harder for the internal shaft to spin freely. Here look…”

He began to thumb through the reams of forms, and every few months he found entries where the trim tab motor was replaced time and time again. “You see? The motor had to work way too hard and would eventually burn up after a few weeks. I’m surprised your people didn’t figure it out months ago that the wrong flex drive was in that airplane. They kept changing the motor without trying to figure out what was causing it to burn up. When they fixed this flex drive problem they not only stopped burning up trim tab motors, they fixed your autopilot problem as well.”

“Okay, that sounds feasible, but I remember several times that we asked the AR shop (Aircraft rigging) to check out the elevator trim and they always said it operated perfectly fine. So why was the elevator trim operating fine for them and NOT for us?”

Big Al continued, “When the autopilot trim tab adapter sends its signal to correct a longstanding pitch error to the elevator trim motor it does so incrementally. Inside the adapter is a spinning cam that turns at just 23 times per minute that puts out small pulses of voltage to the servo motor. It works to make the elevator trim tabs move very very slowly. On the other hand, when the trim motor is operated manually it applies as much voltage as necessary to get it to move. The operator simply holds the switch for as long as required to get the tab to move where it’s needed.”

About then, another light went on for me.

Al was on a roll. He went on, “The autopilot’s small pulses of voltage simply could not overcome the friction of that kinked flexshaft until finally there was enough torque built up to make it break free. When it did, the elevator tabs would snap into their new position and THAT is what caused the aircraft to sharply pitch up or down, which probably made the aircrew crap in their flightsuits!” He chuckled.

I grinned and slapped Big Al on the shoulder. “Man, its all so obvious now. Why didn’t WE see it all this time? You knew right away from the first day you looked at these forms, didn’t you?” I accused him good-naturedly.

He just smiled. I still remember his big balding head, large nose and glasses.

****** “Unlikely?!” *******

We went back to my shop and briefed Al’s findings to my shopchief, Sgt. Friend, as well as to the branch chief, Chief Fountaine. The chief asked me to take Al down to the AR shop to brief the shopchief there on what we found. I drove Big Al down to the hangar where the Aircraft Rigging Shop was located. The man in charge of the shop was an older technical sergeant, an angular black fellow with a clipped moustache. I introduced Big Al to the guy and he didn’t even ask us to sit. He wasn’t the least bit impressed with the big engineer’s credentials, and to me it seemed that the guy was already pre-armed against what we were about to tell him. In a phrase, he was chillily defensive.

Big Al took ten or fifteen minutes to fully explain to the unhappy glowering fellow what had been causing the autopilot problems with me chirping in on occasion. When Al finished there was a few seconds of uncomfortable silence which ended with a snort from the quietly angry shopchief, “Unlikely!” was all he had to say to Al’s perfectly reasonable elucidation.

Jerking forward toward this obvious dunderhead I exploded, “WHAT!? UNLIKELY? You have GOT to be kidding me!”

Al grabbed hold of my arm and gently restrained me saying, “Never mind Sergeant Spear. It doesn’t matter…” He turned his attention to the disgruntled Tech Sgt and dismissed himself saying politely, “Thanks for your time. It was nice meeting you.” After which Big Al cheerfully offered his hand to the man who only grudgingly shook it. Al then pulled me out of that tense little office by pulling on my elbow.

I left with him but I shook my head in disgust on the way out. That wasn’t the first time and it certainly wasn’t the last time that I had to deal with arrogance from another shop member over “whose system was actually causing an aircraft malfunction.”

To conclude this longwinded little novel I have to say again that working with “Big Al” was one of the highlights of my aircraft maintenance life. To me it was like working with a legend, and he was certainly a gentleman. Often while we worked on our troubleshooting project he’d tell stories of how the C-130 autopilot turned out the way it did. For instance, I’d always wondered about the big torque limiting resistors permanently mounted against the right bulkhead all the way in the rear of the “hell hole.” Turns out those were his “babies,” devices he came up with that until he did so, the autopilot would not work properly.

I know it all sounds unremarkable, even boring to most non-maintenance types, but to me it was fascinating stuff. Big Al was like a time-machine; talking to him enabled me the chance to glimpse the murky past from someone who had been there. If anyone else out there reading this ever knew or knows Big Al, please let me know. One of the things I’d love to know is HIS LAST NAME! Big Al was one cool big old engineer. It would be great if he was still around somewhere out there.

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