Usually around these parts, upon meeting someone and getting to know them on a casual basis, you just never know who they “really” are; you know, like what they’ve done in life and where they’ve been in this big ‘ol world. And when I've tried to guess, I almost never come close to getting it right. I’ve found that especially true in areas where third country nationals, folks also referred to as expats, tend to congregate, like right here in Angeles City.
The people I run into in these parts remind me a bit of the type of “unusual” folk I used to meet in Africa, when I was stationed in Liberia back in the 70s. Stephen Spielberg captured the feel of what I’m getting at it in his Star Wars bar scenes, where he shows all the alien creatures indulging in libation and uneasy comradeship. Well, for the most part, the comradeship in Monrovia was not usually uneasy, but it always seemed that folks would feel each other out first before disclosing much about themselves.
So how is that any different than in the US; say for instance, in Saginaw or Birch Run, back where I did my high school time in Michigan, and where many in my family reside still? Well, back there, when you meet a person, they tend to be, let’s say—ordinary. By that I mean they might work for the cable company, or as a salesman, or maybe in the medical industry, or perhaps in a factory, and well, you get the gist.
Back there, people who wander the furthest off the beaten track and perhaps approach the closest to the spirit of my “Star Wars people” analogy are some of my brother’s musician pals. Aside from them though, most folks back home support themselves and live in ways most would consider common place, and don't get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just that to find someone who has done things truly out of the ordinary you have to search a little harder and ask a few more questions. Granted, they ARE out there, just ask my brother. But here, and in places like Monrovia, they are everyone and they are everywhere.
In Liberia, I rubbed shoulders and partied with diamond smugglers and ship’s captains, missionaries and mercenaries, secret agents and Peace Corps workers, diplomats and Lebanese merchants, airline pilots and stewardesses, and military personnel from a dozen nations; to name a few.
A neat thing about being a young marine embassy guard in a tiny third world country is that we marines tended to be the “party coordinators” for much of the local diplomatic and international community, especially for our fellow Americans, of which there were scores of them living there or passing through for all sorts of reasons. Also, many of the other embassies were located near ours on embassy row, so we all knew each other and attended each other’s functions; and NO one threw more “functions” than we marines did. We gloried in our reputation, loving it that almost all of the other foreigners in Monrovia considered us to be part of the “in crowd.” It was heady stuff for a previously nerdy 20-year-old to suddenly have such marvelous popularity status.
In fact, the Marine House, the sprawling two-story building where we six marine watchstanders lived, was fitted with a fully-stocked bar and a large dance floor up on the second floor, to include the obligatory disco ball of the 70’s complete with its now passé spinning light show. Every Friday and Saturday night the “Marine House Bar & Club” was “the place to go,” for at least one drink, or two, or three.
Even the ambassador was known to show up and play cards during our well-attended monthly poker nights. Sometimes the last of the die hard poker players would keep a game going for two or three days, until the last two players had cleaned the other out. Those were exciting times, especially seeing the “mix” of players at the half-dozen or so tables. At one table I remember seeing the chargé d’affaires playing cards and kabitzing with a diamond smuggler, a Lebanese storeowner, and a 22-year-old marine sergeant. Where else could that happen but in a backwater like Monrovia? Believe me, a marine guard and the embassy chargé would NEVER be seen together in a personal social situation at one of the larger embassy settings, such as at London or Paris. It couldn’t happen. Protocol would forbid such a mixing of “ranks.”
Not long after arriving here in Angeles, a place similar in many aspects to what I describe above in Liberia, I began to feel a little déjà vu when I realized that I was once again surrounded by a host of interesting “characters.” At first, I was under the mistaken impression that most of the other foreigners residing hereabouts and passing through were US military retirees like me. But soon, I was surprised to learn that most of my fellow ex-pats here have never affiliated with the U.S. military, or anyone’s military for that matter.
I’ve written about one of these characters in other posts, since I see him at the gym almost everyday. His name is Roland, and at 79, soon to be 80, he’s almost exactly the same age as my dad. Roland is definitely a character; I figured that out almost immediately. In a word, he’s gregarious; in two words, he’s a wise ass. Even with his talkative nature however, it’s still taken me a year to learn the few notable things I know about him. I CAN tell you this, the more I know, the more I like and respect the skinny old fellow.
He is ¼ Irish, with his mom providing his "white side" with her half-Irish genetics. She appears to have been the primary influence of his early life, insisting that he learn and speak her American English in their home in Beijing where he was born; but it was Mandarin for him everywhere else. He said other Chinese were well aware of his mixed ancestry, although for the life of me I don’t see how by the looks of him. If he hadn’t told me, by looking at his facial features I’d never guess we both come from Irish stock, unless his hair in his younger days had a brownish tinge. He loves his “Mick” heritage though, and plays it up for all it's worth. And like the Irish, he definitely has “the gift of gab.” He tells me you aren’t likely to find an average Chinese fellow with a similar talkative proclivity.
A funny thing to me is that he is not very fond of the Chinese, so I get the impression that he was not treated so well by them. In fact, he went back to Beijing in the 90's after the Reds made it possible to visit his old stomping grounds once more, and he says after that trip, "never again." Evidently, its very difficult to "go home " once a Chinese becomes "something else;" especially in his case where that "something" is about as American as one can get.
Eventually I got around to asking him about where he was during “The War.” I knew he would probably know exactly what “war” I was talking about since the Chinese suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation. I was right. He knew right away that I was referring to The Second World War. Most folks to whom I make such general references don’t have a clue; but not so with Roland, whenever I use "obscure references" he’s always way ahead of me. On that alone I find him fascinating simply because he seems to be totally “up” on history, including contemporary stuff, what I like to call “history in the making.” I mean, how many 80 year olds know about Britney Spears’ problems and who the latest American Idol is? Roland does.
His mom was an American and while he was still fairly young they had moved back to the US to the San Francisco area. I don’t know how they managed to make such a bad move, but sometime before before 1940 when the Japanese invaded the eastern bulge of China, Roland and his parents went back to Beijing. I calculated that he was just reaching his teen years when all this nasty occupation business was going on, and I asked him if he took part in any of the messy wartime “activities” thereabouts. Sure enough, he had, and in “the resistance” of all things.
Wow! I was immediately impressed that a young teenager would dare do such a thing, especially considering how murderously brutal the Japanese Imperial Army was to anyone who dared oppose them and got caught doing it. He assured me that he did nothing spectacular, but was part of a multitude of other involved youths. At night they went out and placed little flashlights on a line in the countryside for American pilots flying bombers to follow to key targets such as munitions factories. Roland said the Japanese soon caught on to them and in effort to force them to stop helping the Americans they forced the Chinese plant workers to remain within the factory all night. According to Roland, none of that made a difference; they continued their work even with the knowledge that it meant American bombs might well kill members of their own families. He just laughs with that “black humor” of his, jokingly saying, “Well, you know how we Chinese are—kill a few thousand of us and we just make a few thousand more.” I shouldn’t laugh, it only encourages him; but I do every time.
After the war he finally made it back to the states. College wasn’t immediately in the works until he could “get caught up” on his studies after having gotten a couple years behind. By 1952 he achieved an engineering degree and for the rest of his adult life worked in industry always working “out of the box” as he delights in claiming.
He quit smoking, a bad habit that everyone did back "in the day" he says, but stopped too late to save a lung to cancer. He looks to weigh about 130 pounds, if that, and even with his single lung he seems to be doing pretty well. He spends about an hour and a half “working out,” but most of that is taken up in wandering around the gym floor from one conversation to the next. He’s always got something to say, usually with a bit of a smirk; not something you’d expect from an octogenarian. I’ve never seen him serious for more than a sentence or two.
Normally, when we talk, it’s about the things of today. I love it that his views of the world almost directly mirror mine. He’s a staunch conservative, a perspective born of what he’s been through in the world. For instance, there isn’t a democratic presidential candidate that he doesn’t despise and his reasons for hating them are always well explained, but each time with a joke to end every tirade. He equates the thinking of liberals, socialists and other progressive types with the moronic views he encountered in Chinese communists as a lad. He completely supports “the war” and all its “fronts,” knowing that people who mindlessly preach "peace at all costs" are doing nothing but handing over the keys to their hearth and homes. "You either fight for the continuation of your society or die," this from a man who never served a minute in uniform; yet, he “gets it” based on what he’s seen and been through. For him it’s instinctive, intuitive—insights based on experience.
Roland kind of reminds me of another old African dude I knew in Liberia all those many years ago--over 30 now. He was our cook, Mr. William. Now that guy had some STORIES! Maybe I’ll talk about him some other time…