Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Oh My God! Look Sir!

Our van service driver, Roger Jr., as we call him, picked me up this morning at 6 a.m. for a trip to the Manila VA Regional Office. We got onto the North Luzon Expressway at the Angeles City – Magalang entrance and headed south toward Manila. I stared sleepily out the passenger side window watching as farmers winnowed their rice crop or burned the resultant waste straw. Why they burn it, I have no idea. They burn everything here; I hate that. I shrugged off that vexing question and settled in for the hour and a half ride to the U.S. Embassy.

Suddenly I was snapped out of my reverie, “Oh my God! Look SIR!”

I turned toward Roger and saw him pointing at the oncoming traffic on the other side of the median. A jeepney was careening crazily from side-to-side 100 meters or so ahead of us. Roger was already slowing down as the ancient, out-of-control vehicle took one last wild swerve into the center median, caught its right front wheel in the soft ground and flopped over on its right side.

We gasped as a dust cloud enveloped the crashed jeep, and then we were past it. “I hope that thing isn’t full of people,” I prayed aloud looking back. I knew my hopes were in vain, because people tend to pack themselves by the bunch into cars and vans over here. It’s amazing how many they can fit in. Sometimes its like watching the little clown cars where one person after another climbs out, and 10 minutes later, they are still debarking. Folks around here are a lot smaller than Americans, so they can really pack ‘em in too!

By the time we could get stopped, we were 50 feet past the wreck site. Three "good samaritan" cars were already parked behind us, and more continued to pull over. Even more cars had stopped on the other side of the highway. I was relieved that people were stopping to help.

Before the dust had settled, the driver appeared from the other side of his turned over vehicle. He frantically scrambled to the rear entrance of his flipped jeepney and crawled half in. He began pulling out items, and then a woman in jeans crawled out, followed by a young man. Passersby were now assisting, and one reached in and pulled out a small boy, who looked to be 5 or 6 years old. People of various ages and gender were starting to stagger out or were pulled out by others. I’d seen enough.

“Come on Roger. Let’s get to a call box and call for an ambulance.”

There’s no 911 here, so the call box was the best option to get help fast. We piled back into our van and sped off. In less than a mile we found an emergency phone, but before we could get out, I saw a caravan of four ambulances speed past us toward the toppled jeepney. I was amazed and thankful to see help was on the way, and so quickly.

“Rog, that is even a faster response than you can get in the States. Wow!”

For the next 20 or so miles, we talked of watching the jeepney flip over, and the amazing aftermath. Roger was overcome with emotion at first, after seeing that children were involved, so I did all the talking for awhile.

Here are my conclusions after what I saw today:
1) My faith in the goodness of Filipinos has been buttressed and increased. People were falling over themselves to stop and help.

2) If you’re going to have a car accident in the Philippines, have it on the North Luzon Expressway.
3) The emergency response system on that expressway is very very good.

4) Jeepneys are inherently unsafe at high speeds, and shouldn’t be allowed on superhighways.

As I’ve remarked before, I’m much more impressed with the way people in this country react to accidents and mishaps than, for instance, the way folks react to similar instances in the supposedly more advanced country of Japan. I don’t like to say negative things about any group of people, but the Japanese could really stand a dose of human kindness, Filipino style. Read this earlier post that explains exactly what I mean, based on my own anecdotal experiences in Japan.

We could only speculate what caused that jeep to go so violently out of control. It appeared to be overloaded, so maybe the suspension failed; or it could have blown a tire, or perhaps ALL of the above. On the way back, we inspected the road surface and could find no skid marks at all, so it seems the driver never even tried to apply the brakes, if he had any at all. Then again, I don't see how he could -- the way that jeeney was fishtailing; he probably couldn't even FIND the brake pedal. If there are any mechanics or crash experts out there, feel free to interject with your insights.

Anyway .... Another day, another adventure.

The Rizal Diorama...A "Must See" in Manila

"The fam" and I took a side trip to Luneta Park in Manila. With so much local history represented in that place, I knew I would wind up there eventually.

Over the span of 74 years, the cruel Spaniards took the lives of almost 140 Filipinos in a small northwest corner of the park, a place that I call the killing ground. Many of those martyred in that hallowed place were totally innocent of the charges of treason and rebellion leveled at them; just the same, to set an example, they were either shot or garroted.

In fact, in 1872, Spain choked the lives out of three innocent Filipino priests in Luneta, which made them forever beloved and famous to generations of their countrymen. I’m an American, but I’ll never forget their names—Fathers Burgos, Gomez, and Zamora. Falsely accused of masterminding the '72 Cavite Rebellion, one of the priests pleaded, “Why are you killing me? I have done nothing!” The Spaniard placing the metal “squeeze collar” around his neck, answered callously, “Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter.”

Twenty-four years later, on December 30, 1896, they murdered another innocent Filipino, the most famous “Pinoy” in the history of this country—Jose Rizal.

The Spanish in charge of their Philippines colony made a huge mistake when they killed this incredibly intelligent and talented man. The evil friars and Spanish governing authorities insisted on his demise, but in doing so, they galvanized the rest of his countrymen into finally going through with a full-scale run at independence. Read
this earlier post to get a more in-depth look at this truly wonderful man.

I found the following excerpt online:

“North of the Rizal monument, near the Chinese Garden, is a small enclosed section. This is the actual site of Rizal's execution. Larger-than-life dioramas show his final days in captivity and his death at the hands of his own countrymen. The Spanish authorities used Filipino, not Spanish soldiers, for his firing squad. As the diorama statues show, Rizal's last act of defiance was to face away from his executioners."

We visited the diorama around lunchtime; so naturally, we were almost the only ones there. As I’ve said in previous posts, Filipinos NEVER miss lunch.

I was struck by the size of the figures. As the photos show, the bronze statues tower over mere humans. It cost less than 20 cents per person to enter, and it was money well spent.

The “enclosed section” around the diorama is made that way by grassy manmade hummocks about eight feet high. I would never have done it that way, since it destroys the way it might have looked at the time of Rizal’s death. As a lay-historian, I am a purist when it comes to the preservation of historical sites. Then again, the way it once looked can never be recaptured, especially since much of the land that was once Manila Bay is now reclaimed land. On his walk to the execution site from his prison cell inside the ancient walled city of the Intramuros, Rizal remarked how wonderful the view of the Bay and how clear he could see the Cavite Peninsula. Unfortunately, these days there is absolutely no way anyone can see Manila Bay from anywhere in the Luneta Park.

The excerpt I found above states that Rizal’s last act of defiance was to face away from his Filipino firing squad. That is a bit misleading, because actually, his statue is supposed to represent him spinning away from the firing soldiers in a last gasp effort to die looking up at the sky, instead of breathing his last face down.

In reality, his last request was to be shot facing his executioners, but the Spaniards refused, citing Spanish law that seditionists are to be shot in the back. Legend has it that as the bullets crashed through his back, with superhuman effort he spun himself so that he could die face up. Considering what happens to the human body when a half-dozen large caliber bullets crash through it, I find this to be a highly unlikely; just the same, it certainly adds grandly to his legend.

As we wondered through the gigantic bronzes inside the enclosed area, I changed my mind somewhat about the presence of all the trees and tall lush hummocks. They provide welcome protection from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. The quiet and peace within its bounds promotes contemplation and reflection.

My girls ran from statue to statue, while I also wandered from one visual to the next, trying to imagine what it must have been like when Dr. Rizal tragically breathed his last. I felt like weeping, but I was angry too, remembering how the spectating Spanish men and women had actually cheered as the peace loving, and yes, SPANISH LOVING man lay bleeding on the ground at their feet. Outraged, I thought, ‘How COULD they?’

Not far from the diorama is the Rizal Monument. I will talk of it in a future post.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"...We are Lacking Heroes..." ???

I just watched with but half an ear "The Heartland with John Kasich" on FOX News. His style of animated intensity kind of turns me off, so I can’t normally bear to give him my full consideration. What DID draw my attention was a remark he made to the mother of Mark Bingham, Alice Hoglan, as they discussed the release of the film “Flight 93.” I was shocked to hear him casually remark, “…What we are lacking these days are heroes; we don’t have enough of them…” My immediate reaction was to sit up and shout, “You have GOT to be kidding me Kasich!”

Maybe I’m being a bit sensitive with his throwaway line, and perhaps taking it a bit out of context, but his casual comment highlights exactly what Richard K. Kolb writes about in his article “
Society & the Soldier” as featured in the April VFW Magazine. At the start of his article, Kolb asks a poignant question and it deserves some soul-searching examination:

“Only a fraction of the population is making a sacrifice in the current wars. What does this mean for the nation’s well-being?"

Before going on to Kolb's article, what is frustrating is that we HAVE hundreds of heroes AND their stories available to us; and THAT is what bothers me about the Kasich comment. He seems to ignore the THOUSANDS of couageous folks who are serving at THIS VERY MOMENT in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in other places we are not aware of in The Terror War.

Among THESE stout-hearted volunteers are the UNQUESTIONABLY heroic, men and women who have been decorated for acts of bravery—winners of Medals of Honor, Silver Stars, Air Force and Navy Crosses, Bronze Stars, and Purple Hearts. Yet, most Americans are completely oblivious of the actions that resulted in the award of these medals. Why is this? In fairness to John Kasich, he features a few of these brave men and women, but not NEARLY often enough.

I don’t completely blame the media—news organizations report what interests their viewers, and evidently, Americans for the most part don’t want to be upset by “The War.” I find this extremely troubling, and it supports my contention that those of us who serve, who have served, and intend to serve are different and might well be on a higher moral and patriotic plane apart from the millions of civilians who would NEVER consider, for any reason, the concept of joining the armed forces. It seems to me that many of these folks deal with their selfish (or perhaps unmindful) attitude by simply ignoring anything to do with the military, or worse, by denouncing the military or anything to do with The War.

Below is Mr. Kolb’s article wherein he observes similarly that there is a gulf of mindset between servicemen and women AND their civilian citizen counterparts. If you can bear to, take a look at your own heart and consciense as you read. Also, I’ve written two earlier related posts: “
Serve for Citizenship,” and “Serve for Citizenship -- a Response.” I must warn you, all three pieces may be difficult to read if you have never served.


“America is divided between the vast majority who do not serve and the tiny minority who do,” T. Trent Gegax and Evan Thomas wrote in Newsweek. In fact, only four-tenths of 1% of citizens wear a military uniform, even amidst the highly touted war on terrorism.

Let’s take a look at what some other commentators have had to say about this state of military affairs in America today.

“Americans may love their military,” Loyola University political scientist John Allen Williams wrote in 1999, “but it is in the same way they might love their Rottweiler: They are happy enough for the protection but do not want to become one themselves.” Serving in the armed forces is “as unfathomable as life on another planet,” he concluded.

Consequently, few citizens have a direct link to those who do serve. Princeton University political economist Uwe E. Reinhardt calculated that “no more than 10 million Americans have any real emotional connection to these wars.”

In his Washington Post essay entitled “Who’s Paying for Our Patriotism?” Reinhardt figured “these wars visit no sacrifice of any sort—neither blood nor angst nor taxes— on well over 95% of the American people.”

None of this should come as any surprise. As Scott Curthoys wrote in Army Times: “Since the war in Vietnam and the end of compulsory service, the military has become an entity increasingly outside of American society—an organization that serves the society but is not really of the society. As a result, most young Americans are content with letting someone else do the fighting.”

Indeed, they are, and so are their parents. “America’s elite would prefer somebody else’s daughters to die rather than one of their own sons,” says Northwestern University military sociologist Charles Moskos.

Guilt is Well-Placed

There is little dispute on this point, and much to sustain it. Under the heading “Patriotic Guilt” in the Los Angeles Times, 28-year-old Oren Rawls readily admitted: “I know full well that relatively few in my generation buy into the ‘for flag and country’ bit, and that my sense of patriotic guilt would probably make for a good joke or two in the service. The honest truth is that nothing less than a full-fledged draft could get me to put on a uniform.”

This does not bode well for national cohesiveness. What we have is “a society which pays a fraction of its population to take all the real risks of citizenship,” said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The reality is you will have had a group of Americans who bore almost all of the burden of citizenship. For most Americans it [the war] is being fought by other families’ sons and daughters, who are both out of sight and often out of mind.” As Thom Shanker succinctly put it in the New York Times: “America is not a nation at war, but a nation with only its military at war.”

And that military has only a handful of service-age males among its ranks. As Moskos observed of serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: “It’s not a generational experience.”

Support for those in uniform is strong. But is it superficial? Do those on the lines think it is genuine? In a Time essay—“The Danger of Yellow Ribbon Patriotism”—Joe Klein quoted an Iraq vet as saying, “You just get the feeling that the rest of the country doesn’t understand. They’re not part of this. It’s peacetime in America, and a few of us at war.”

Moskos agrees: “The whole country is undergoing patriotism lite.” While troop support efforts receive well-deserved publicity, some symbolic gestures such as sporting bumper stickers demand little. “These acts are small ways of showing some recognition, because we’re not doing it any other way.”

Societal Covenant Inviolate

With the absence of a draft and the underlying notion of civic obligation lost for more than a generation now, the rest of the country does not get it. What does all this mean for the nation’s future defense? Joan Vennochi, writing in the Boston Globe, answered this way: “Understanding history means understanding that countries are born, survive and flourish because individuals are willing to die for them.”

Still, those serving and their families are content with what exists in terms of support. “I think that’s the difference,” Army wife Jacqui Coffman told the Los Angeles Times. “When you go back to Vietnam, you were looking at the American public actually disliking the American soldier. That isn’t true anymore.”

Is that enough, though? Like all wars, soldiers want their sacrifices to have meaning. As one serviceman told his mother before he was killed in Iraq, the prayer of every warrior is universal: “Just don’t forget me.”

Remembrance is crucial, but so is assisting those who survive near death. “As a society, we still do not know how to welcome home the wounded warrior—how to express deep appreciation and respect at the same time as profound grief,” Nancy Sherman wrote in the Boston Globe. Her book on this subject called Stoic Warriors will soon supplement Sherman’s editorial, “When Johnny Comes Home.”

Like many other Vietnam vets, Marine veteran and Los Angeles Times staff writer John Balzar is greatly concerned about the post-war reception. “Today’s heroes are in danger of becoming tomorrow’s damaged goods,”

Balzar wrote in the paper. “Public opinion can be fickle.”Balzar got to the essence of the matter. “How society collectively greets and treats overstressed veterans, now and in the years to come, is one of the most significant factors in whether they heal and how quickly,” he wrote.

Veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter how small their relative numbers, are bound to make valuable contributions to the society for which they sacrificed so much. Just as their predecessors have done.

Early on, Army Special Forces Maj. Roger D. Carstens offered this assessment in USA Today: “They will throw their war-born maturity and wisdom into driving the machinery that runs this country. They will run ethical and energetic companies; provide expert and values-based service to your families; serve us well in elected office; and raise their children to be good citizens.”

That is quite a bargain for a society that gives so little in return.

Society has a pact with its armed forces. That unwritten agreement is implicit in its intent. It’s an obligation more important than ever, with so few protecting so many. Thomas Mockaitis, a DePaul University history professor, has called this pact “A Covenant with the American Soldier.”

No matter the ultimate outcome of the wars, we as a nation have a debt to repay long after the fighting stops.

So, as Knight Ridder senior military correspondent Joseph L. Galloway asked, “What are we doing as a people and a nation to deserve the service and sacrifice of such men and women?”

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

…And We Lose Another

We buried another veteran today—a good friend of mine—in the American Cemetery on the former Clark Air Base.

Jim did his military years, about 25 of them, in the United States Navy. By the time I met him late in 2002, he was already in his late 70s and in a physical downward spiral. The poor health he suffered through during his last years can mostly be attributed to his days in Vietnam. Exposure to Agent Orange led to his diabetes, and that led to some pretty unkind cardiovascular conditions, which finally toppled him last week.

Like a lot of us vets, Jim never stopped being “in.” I was helping him with a disability claim against the ever-pissy VA, and I was struck by his fervor for an idea he had concerning his beloved U.S. Navy. He told me about an officer he had worked with during his last years on active duty. It seems that this “0” was somewhat ahead of his time when it came to management style. Jim raved about this man, and how he actually LISTENED to his men, no matter their rank, before issuing orders. He went on about how high the morale was, and how effective it worked, especially when everyone felt that their opinions were valued.

I nodded knowingly as Jim spoke glowingly of this “renaissance officer,” under whom he had served so enthusiastically in the late 1960s. Much of what Jim described, I had already been taught in all of my professional military schools—in ’83 at the Yokota AB Leadership School, again in ’85 at the Kadena AB NCO Academy, and once and for all in ’97 at the Senior NCO Academy at Gunter AFB, Alabama.

Jim wanted to share the wonderful experiences he had had while working with this enlightened officer, and he wanted me put them in the format of an open letter to the “brass,” so that the entire United States Navy could benefit from what he had learned during that cherished time. I had to carefully explain to him that writing his letter was no longer necessary, since most of the services already operated as he described, at least theoretically, to some degree.

Remember, Jim had served proudly in the “brown shoe navy” during WWII, Korea and Vietnam. By the time I met him, he was already retired for well over 30 years. Yet in his mind, he was still IN! He still wanted to contribute; he was still worried about HIS Navy, and wanted the best for it. I get emotional now thinking about it. I have no doubt that HIS United States Navy was immeasurably better because of his service. Anchors Aweigh and God speed Jim!

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Big Dwight

After more than a year at Little Rock Air Force Base, I was well in-the-groove as swing shift supervisor of the Instrument Autopilot Shop. That’s what it was called back in the late 1980s.

A mix of “interesting” characters worked for me — perhaps a dozen or so airmen in all — with a wide range of backgrounds and technical experience.

As “shift boss,” I had a lot of “stuff” on my management plate. Maintenance Control continuously called in aircraft “squawks” and assigned priorities to each; after which, I dispersed my people to work the "write ups," keeping in mind my folks’ capabilities, and personality compatibilities, or more aptly — incompatibilities.

I learned the hard way that it wasn’t worth the hassle of putting certain people together on the same job. I also learned that some individuals required more oversight and supervision than others. I had to be on top of all that, because when they “screwed up,” my bosses considered it MY screw up.

Aside from ensuring that our assigned aircraft systems were quickly and safely repaired, it was also my job to ensure my people maintained all their certifications, complied with all required training, and kept all medical appointments. Most of this stuff took place in the daytime, which of course, complicated my nightshift work schedule. For instance, if someone had training in the day, as a good supervisor, I needed to ensure they had enough rest before the training; and to keep morale up, I was also compelled to provide Compensatory Time Off, as the workload permitted of course.

As military supervisors, we are taught and expected to take care of our people at ALL times, not just while they are at work. This is a 24-hour responsibility, just as ALL responsibilities are in the U. S. armed forces. As daunting and as difficult as it seems, I was supposed to keep tabs on the personal lives of every one of my airmen.

If Airman First Class Jones got arrested for drunk driving, I could expect a phone call, and it could come at inopportune moments, like past midnight on a weekend. That sort of thing happened more than once in my career. This brings to mind the many times I’ve had civilians marvel at, and even mildly rebuke, my relative youth at retirement. My response: I usually suggest to these “uninformed” individuals that before they judge that they FIRST walk-a-mile in my combat boots, well-worn after 27 years of almost non-stop task pressures!

One of the most intriguing airmen on my shift was Dwight Turner. His appearance alone was enough to give anyone pause. He was, and probably still is, intimidating. At over 6 feet, and weighing in at a lean 250 pounds, he could be physically disconcerting. That is UNTIL you got to know him. Dwight was a giant of a black man, and due to his imposing muscular physique and shaved noggin, he bore a remarkable resemblance to “Mister Clean;” BUT he was really just a big Teddy Bear.

Part of what made Dwight fascinating to me was his unexpected personality and unlikely penchants. He spoke so quietly that you were forced to concentrate on his voice to understand him, and he was endearingly self-effacing and courteous. He grew up in the Deep South, Alabama or Mississippi I believe, but he had no discernible accent. He listened to his Walkman a lot, and I was stunned when I learned of his taste in music. It was almost exactly what I liked — groups like Journey, Kansas, The Eagles, and of all things — girl bands, like Bananarama and Heart!

As I already said, I was responsible for my people, and that included helping them to manage their career progression. Dwight studied a lot, and so made Staff Sergeant, or E5, fairly quickly, but he was doomed to making no higher than the next rank of Technical Sergeant, and all because of a simple glaring personal deficiency — Dwight could not drive!

His inability to drive made him a problem for me. As a SSgt, and one of the higher-ranking guys on the shift, he was supposed to be able to step in as driver of our shop’s step van. The driver of this vehicle is normally the second highest-ranking guy on the shift, and driving it was a big responsibility, as well as providing valuable management experience. But, without a drivers license, SSgt Turner would be forever relegated to non-supervisory tasks, and in effect, he would not be able to advance his career in aircraft maintenance.

It was during the time we were both sent on a “Rotation” to England in late 1987 that I got a chance to really socialize with him, and as a result, truly got to know him and to earn his trust. It was then that I told Dwight that I was going to personally ensure that he learned to drive, and as soon as we returned to Arkansas. At the time, we were both drunk, playing darts in a small English pub just outside Mildenhall Royal Air Base; and he became so overwhelmed with gratitude by my declaration that he “overwhelmed” me with a crushing bear hug.

As I said, Dwight was capable of the unexpected, and I learned this was even more likely after he tipped a few. I thoroughly enjoyed this “tipsy version” of him; he was much more open with his feelings, became nonstop talkative, and sometimes quite emotional. You know, I never met anyone who didn’t like the big lug.

I owned the ideal automobile with which to teach big Dwight how to drive — it was a compact, a little brown ’81 Toyota Corolla 4-door sedan. Actually, Dwight was fully capable of driving; according to him however, whenever he had tried to take a road test, he became so nervous that he failed miserably. In his home state, it was even worse, because he was required to parallel park, a skill that became virtually impossible as his brain shutdown from nervousness.

Dwight had about ten years in service when I met him, and he had lived in Arkansas almost that entire time; but I was astonished to learn that he knew next to nothing about the town of Jacksonville. This little city sits just outside the main gate, yet in the many years he had lived on the base, he had almost never strayed off it and into the nearby town. His lack of a car, and his painful shyness made him a virtual prisoner on Little Rock Air Force Base. Learning this further intensified my desire to get him driving.

The first step was to get him a learner’s permit, which was quite easy since all he had to do was take the written test, pass it, and be issued a 60-day learner’s license. He passed the exam with flying colors, and for the next month, I picked him up at the barracks at 6 a.m., before all the heavy traffic hit the roads.

First, I had him drive within the gigantic base commissary parking lot. It was an ideal location for him to learn to maneuver the car around objects, to keep it in his lane, to back up, and to parallel park. Within a week I had him driving all over the base streets, and he soon managed to do so as if he’d been driving for years. At that point, I decided we were ready to pursue the last part of my strategy for him.

As I said, his previous tries had been stymied by an almost neurotic fear that welled up in him when he was expected to perform behind the wheel, especially while submitting himself to the critical assessment of an evaluator. With all that in mind, I felt that I had the answer to conquering his problem.

I had already successfully trained my wife and stepson in the art of driving, and I knew exactly what would happen during the practical driving test. It was rather simple — the driver and evaluator got into the car where it was parked at the police station in a side lot, then the driver backed up, pulled up to a stop sign, turned right into the street, drove around the small block, pulled back into the lot and parked. That was all there was to it — and luckily for Dwight, Arkansas did not require a prospective driver to demonstrate parallel parking skills.

A week before the test, for about a half hour every day, I had Dwight drive the expected routine, until he could have done it with his eyes closed. My goal was to ingrain the task so deeply into his mind that he would be able to perform it, despite the inevitable anxiety he was sure to experience. We must have driven around that block more than a hundred times, but I was sure every lap would be more than worth it.

I picked up Dwight on the morning of his long awaited test day. It was quite cold out, but Dwight was sweating like it was over a hundred degrees. As we drove to the police station, I noticed his hands trembling, and he was quieter than his usual silent self.

I spoke to him encouragingly, like a coach on game day, or like a concerned parent, which is exactly how I felt about all of my people, but even more so about him as we made our way downtown. Keeping my voice even and moderate, I told him: “You know you can do this Dwight. You can do it in your sleep, and you know it. Just stay relaxed and stay confident, okay?”

To fit into my tiny car, he had to push his seat all the way back on its rails, and even then, he barely fit behind the wheel. Just the same, the Corolla’s rack-and-pinion steering, automatic transmission, and small size made it relatively easy for him to drive it. No, the car wasn’t going to prevent him from his goal; it would be Dwight’s own apprehension that he had to overcome.

After all the time and emotion that I had invested in this endeavor, I think I was almost as uneasy as he; but I knew that I had done everything possible. Now, it was up to him.

We parked in the lot, and luckily, we managed to put the car almost exactly in the middle spot from where we had practiced backing out so many times over the last week. Dwight went into the “cop shop” and signed up on that day’s driving test list. We were number four out of about a dozen on the list. We sat in the car and waited. Dwight was pouring sweat and glanced about like a trapped animal. I suggested, “Let’s get out of the car and wait Dwight.”

We got out and watched how the others did, keeping our hands warm in our pockets and protected from the bone chilling cold. It would be an understatement to say that the second driver started off poorly; she backed up and ran into another parked car! There was negligible damage, but I could hardly believe it when the officer allowed her to continue. I laughed and remarked, “See Dwight, you can’t do any worse than her! This is going to be a piece of cake man!”

The third driver was just about finished, and as the teenage boy pulled in and switched off the ignition, Dwight began walking slowly toward my car. I called after him, “Stay relaxed Dwight. You’ve done this a million times.”

He was already behind the wheel by the time the policeman got in and sat down in the front passenger seat. I grinned as he immediately, and almost frantically, rolled down his window. ‘Oops. Dwight must be smelling pretty bad about now!’ I thought. I could see Dwight's hands locked tightly around the steering wheel, his dark skin turned nearly white at the knuckles. I prayed nervously for him and muttered quietly under my breath, "Come on Dwight, keep it together!"

From there it was anticlimactic. Dwight backed out without a hitch, and using his “autopilot mode,” he went through the routine in less than five minutes. I chuckled again, as the cop couldn’t wait to get out of the car, but I was ecstatic to hear him call out a brief congratulations back through the window. When I saw that, I did a mental fist pump.

Dwight squeezed himself out of the Corolla with a huge grin on his face. I shook his hand and slapped his back, feeling like a proud papa. “Dwight, you did it dude! Let’s go man, I’m buying you breakfast at Mickey D’s!”

Already approaching his late 20s, Dwight finally had his driver's license, and with it, he was able to open the doors to newfound independence and personal freedom. Within a year, he bought a new car and moved off base into an apartment. On top of that, he started driving and supervising from the “NOVEMBER 3” Instrument Autopilot van. My “son” was growing up, and the whole world became his oyster. I was proud of him!

Friday, April 14, 2006

Easter in the Phils

I have got to get a USB splitter, so I can start playing photojournalist, especially during times like these, when there is so much going on to take pictures of. I have a perfectly fine digital camera, but no spare USB port on my pc to plug into. My new Blog pal, Jeannie, asked for more photos of life in the Phils, so I'll make an effort to take some digi-snaps for her and other likeminded folks.
For those of you “lapsed” types out there, this is Holy Week—the days of the Last Supper, Gethsemane, Peter’s denial, the scourging, the crowning of thorns, Pilate’s mock trial, the crucifixion, and finally, Resurrection Sunday itself—or Easter, as secularists prefer to call it. But as I intimated above, I was just witness to one intriguing scene after another, all out there in the dusty sun-drenched streets of Angeles City, and me without a camera!

The Philippines has two BIG holidays—the combo of Christmas & Ne
w Years for one (those two really can’t be separated here), AND Holy Week. All the other holidays are merely days offs to most Filipinos. But, if I were forced to choose a FAVORITE Holiday over here, it would definitely be Easter, and for a couple of unexpected reasons, or so you may think. Stay tuned for them.

Before getting into why I love Easter here above all other holidays, let me say that in the Phils there is NO mistaking what these days are all about. During Holy Week, Filipinos are well reminded of their belief that Jesus died on the cross and then, three days later, arose from the dead. There are no Easter bunnies and brightly colored eggs in this country to confuse people as to the original meaning of the occasion. What you DO see are lines of men, anywhere from six to a dozen, walking through the streets, with throngs of friends and relatives leading and following them. These men, trudging single file, are shirtless, clad only in sandals or bare feet, and to signify humility, as well as due to the staining spatters of blood; they wear their oldest and most threadbare jeans.

Some of these contrite fellows also wear “crowns of thorns” fashioned of barbed wire, or more usually, from vines or palm fronds. Another interesting custom is the wearing of a red hood--the red color probably to signify Christ's blood--that completely covers the face and head, and gives the wearer a spooky, anonymous look. ALL of these fellows flagellate themselves with leather straps or ropes, first over one shoulder, and then over the other, and they all do so in unison. The leather or rope “scourges” are tipped with pieces of sharpened bamboo to increase the pain of their contrition, and to rupture the skin more easily and dramatically.

The sound of prayers spoken in unison; the measured slapping and pounding against backs; and battered skin, bright red with blood; certain
ly make for theatrical effect; but these guys aren’t just showing off or merely acting out parts. One of my Filipino friends has a brother in one of the “scourge lines” this year; he’s doing it because, in his words, he wants to show God in a real way that he is sorry for his sins, and now wants to try to change his life. It’s easy for Westerners to belittle such sentiment, but they shouldn’t. These guys are for real.

As I rode my scooter from place to place today, going about my business, I didn’t just see one or two of these gripping scenes played out. No, these types of processions continually stopped traffic, blessedly light during this non-working “Black Friday.” Among the many groups of scourgers, I also witnessed at least a half dozen street “Passion Plays.”

These recreations feature a man dressed convincingly as Christ, bearing a heavy wooden cross over his shoulder. He drags this heavy cross down the street for blocks, again with followers calling out encouragement and openly praying as one. Along the way, this Jesus will struggle and fall, just as described in the testaments. Some of these processions also include other actors dressed in the bright red uniforms of Roman soldiers while carrying swords and wearing helmets. I observed one of these “soldiers” cruelly brandishing a whip, which he snapped and cracked realistically over and around the worn out Christ.

I passed four of these Calvary style productions; one so elaborate and well attended that traffic was stopped for five minutes. We waited while Jesus; his retinue of Roman soldiers, his mother Mary, some apostles, and Mary Magdalene, all crossed through a busy intersection. The good thing about being on a scooter is that I simply passed the lines of stacked up cars and drove right to the front of the action. I did this once, passing a bit too close to a scourger, and one of his blows glanced across my own shoulder. Ouch. Good thing my shirt was of dark material, or it would have been stained up a bit by the transfer of his blood.

Do you see now why I wish I had had my camera? People who live here get used to seeing
such things, stuff you just don’t see in other places of the world, especially in the USA. And just up the road, in the City of San Fernando, they actually nail men to crosses, driving actual sharpened steel spikes through the palms of volunteer Jesus’s. All of these people go through this agony for personal reasons, to atone for past sins, or as a way of asking God for help in their lives. Now THAT is hardcore!

So, getting back to my original question—why Easter is my favorite holiday in the Philippines:

Well aside from the visuals I describe above, for one, I love it because it’s QUIET. Christmas and New Years turn this place into a veritable “war zone.” Every night for the last two or three weeks of December, people set off firecrackers and skyrockets, sometimes for no apparent reason and at ridiculously late evening or early morning hours. What is THAT all about? I always thought Christmas was about “holy night, SILENT night!”

And finally,
I am fond of Easter here because it DOESN’T mean presents and gifts. As a matter of fact, if I were forced to sacrifice a holiday, it would BE Christmas. I say, who needs it anyway? A true Christian understands that the real significance of Christ is represented by his resurrection, and NOT by his birth. (Not to mention that Jesus was actually born in April anyway!) It’s hard not to become cynical about Christmas when greetings of “Merry Christmas sir!” are almost always coupled with an outstretched open hand. Groan and Bah, Humbug!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Justice for Filipino WWII Veterans!

After answering Amadeo's comment that the United States has too much on it's plate at present to help certain of our aging Fipino WWII comrades, I decided to add this post to address why my blog buddy is so wrong. Last year, I wrote the following letter trying to find a US senator or congressman to sponsor a bill to at long last correct this terrible injustice. I've had no luck yet, but if anyone else feels as angry as I do about the situation I describe below, by all means contact me with any suggestions.
Dear United States legislator,

I have discovered an unjust situation concerning my fellow U.S. veterans—our Filipino WWII comrades. The following is the gist of the problem, and the simple solution that I recently wrote in the form of a resolution, which essentially involves a change to one of the VA's directives/policies. I must stress that the change I am pushing for won’t wait as these folks (the youngest now 80 years old) are dying off even as I write this:


I propose this resolution to amend all appropriate parts of the CFR 38 and M-21 regarding adjudications concerning claims by Filipino veterans of World War II to:

Change current procedure that causes the VARO Manila to deny outright Filipino WWII claimant’s applications for VA benefits based on lack of verification from data archived at National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in spite of contrary documentation* that, if determined valid, shows that they should indeed be eligible for benefits.

1. Just after WWII, in the late 1940s, the United States War Claims Commission or WCC was set up in the Philippines to address claims of civilian property damage and to gather information concerning Filipino veterans who had participated in the war on the side of the allies.
2. A primary task of the WCC was to canvas the entire expanse of the Philippines to determine who was a valid veteran of the USAFFE and of the recognized guerrillas including their status as POWs (as collected on Red Cross lists) and also information concerning possible collaborator status of Filipino veterans.
3. All data gathered by the WCC is archived at NPRC at St. Louis, Missouri.
4. * In 1947, when Philippine Commonwealth Army Personnel reverted to full control of the newly sovereign Philippines, the United States Army turned over all documentation concerning these men to the newly formed Armed Forces of the Philippines. These voluminous papers have been in archive status in Manila ever since, and include such documents as U.S. army pay records, enlistment and discharge orders, medical records, and other such documents. The VA implausibly considers none of this documentation valid, UNTIL the Filipino veteran’s name is confirmed to be on the WCC listings archived at the NPRC.

The problem:
In spite of a supposedly concerted effort by the WCC after the war, not all veterans of the USAFFE and of the authorized guerrillas were contacted by WCC agents, and this resulted in these veterans not being documented.
2. Current procedure is that only WCC information archived at NPRC may be used by VARO Manila or the BVA to make determinations regarding the following:
1. Status of service (as collected by the WCC).
2. POW status (as collected from the Red Cross Lists by the WCC).
3. Collaborator status (as determined by WCC investigation).
4. When a Filipino makes a claim with the VA, and presents apparently valid documentation* showing proof of U.S. service, before the VA processes the claim they query NPRC for “proof” of the claimant’s service and other information based on archived WCC data.
5. If NPRC cannot find the claimant’s name on the WCC service list, the VA denies the claim outright based on lack of proof of authorized U.S. service regardless of any and all documents* presented by the claimant to the contrary.
6. Filipino veterans who became POWs, and then subsequently escaped from the Japanese before the Red Cross recorded their names, are denied authorized POW status by the VA regardless of documentation* to the contrary.
7. Filipino veterans who were determined after the war by the WCC to have collaborated with the Japanese are forever considered collaborators by the VA and denied benefits, even if these men were subsequently legally cleared of these charges and have documentation that shows it.
8. We have found from cruel experience that all data gathered by the WCC, and now stored at NPRC, cannot be added to, corrected, or altered in any way.
9. Because data gathered over 60 years ago by the now defunct WCC is evidently considered infallible by the VA, and therefore information set-in-stone and un-modifiable, Filipino veterans and their widows are routinely denied consideration for benefits by the VA even in the face of overwhelmingly contrary documented evidence. *

The Solution:
Amend or append all applicable passages of the 38 CFR and the M-21 to require the VA to adjudicate ALL claims made by Filipino veteran claimants, their widows and dependents regardless of possible faulty and incomplete WCC information stored by NPRC.
2. Before simply denying a claim at the outset based only on unalterable, possibly incorrect and incomplete 60 year-old WCC data, The VA and BVA must fully consider ALL available documentation* when adjudicating claims based on valid U.S. service, as well as claims affected by POW and collaborator status.

(Senator/Congressman-woman), I wish you could see the look of pained confusion on the faces of these old veterans (and at times their widows) as they bring to me convincingly valid documentary evidence* that shows they served and were honorably discharged. Their confusion comes when the VA discounts their documents*, no matter how legitimate, because their names are not on the 60-year-old WCC list archived at NPRC, or when the VA makes denials based on other obsolete WCC info. The documents* some of the folks clutch expectantly in their hands range from U.S. army discharges, U.S. army pay records*, U.S. active duty medical evidence*, photos of themselves in their U.S. army uniform, and so on.

I have been trying to help these folks since I started in this voluntary position as service officer going on three years now. I have not been idly sitting on my hands or wringing them all this time. I have tried every avenue I can think of to get justice for these veterans, but to no avail. The VA has stonewalled these people and me as we have tried to use the appeal process.

I say, "Stonewalled" because the VA’s routine denial letters are misleading if not outright disingenuous. The VA leads us to believe that it might be possible to set the record straight, just not through them. Some of their denial letters tell the veteran that only the U.S. Army can make the changes, or that NPRC has the authority. In fact, the VA knows full well that these claimant veterans have absolutely no recourse or any available method to correct WCC information whatsoever. I learned this fact the hard way when I actually sent several correction packages to NPRC, after one archives technician wrote and told me that they might be able to “rebuild the veteran’s service records.” After sending several packages to NPRC, I finally got a straightforward answer from a more experienced archives technician who stated, “it will literally take an act of congress” to ever get WCC documentation amended or appended.

(Sir/Madam), I am convinced that the VA is aware of this situation. For example, a traveling BVA judge actually stated off-the-record, “I know it’s wrong but there is nothing I can do.” The attitude displayed by this judge and by VARO Manila representatives is the most un-American mind-set I can conceive of. We have a clear wrong in the way we are treating claimants, its been going on for decades, and VARO Manila’s response has been to shrug their collective shoulders and to smugly imply that this is not their problem, that there is nothing they can do. I lose sleep at night because of this and yet it seems none of this seems to bother the people in charge at VARO Manila at all.

The irony is that most of these old Filipino vets won’t qualify for anything more than a U.S. flag at the time of their death, so for the most part it’s not a question of money. The point is that these veterans deserve to be acknowledged as such, and if they are valid vets, then their claims should be processed. To say that only information derived by the long defunct WCC is the ONLY way that a WWII Filipino can be validated as a U.S. veteran is nonsense.

For instance, Ninety-year-old Mr. Santiago came to me three weeks ago with a stack of U.S. Army documents* after the VA told him that as far as the United States was concerned he had never served. During the war he was the only Filipino rated as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces. He has a picture of himself in his US Army Air Corps uniform. I asked him if he remembered the WCC coming to the Philippines after the war. He said he was too busy helping to set up the fledgling Philippine Air Lines, and in flying the president of the Philippines from place to place, to be aware of any such thing. This man had been a POW and escapee of the Japanese twice, first as a USAFFE troop and then again as a guerrilla, and it seems VARO Manila cannot care less.

My plan now is to start finding advocates in the U.S. legislature to help me with getting the VA to stop their outrageous procedure of ONLY using WCC evidence in adjudicating claims of Filipino WWII claimants. The WCC was NOT infallible and they did NOT get it right in many cases, so why should this documentation be considered some kind of sacred bible-like record?

Late last year I approached senior officers of the VFW and got no help and as I already said, this situation cannot wait for another year, so action must start now. I have found a couple other retired servicemen like myself who are just as upset about this as I am, and they are going to help me write senators and congressmen like you in an attempt to find justice. Your attention to this matter is greatly appreciated, and I humbly ask your support to finally fulfill the promises we made to these brave veterans. I am confident you are fully aware that we enjoy the freedoms we do today thanks to the selfless contributions of these men and women. In my opinion, they are as American as I am and deserve unquestioned and immediate acknowledgement of their service, and if eligible, care and compensation.


Phil Spear

* In 1947, when Philippine Commonwealth Army Personnel reverted to full control of the newly sovereign Philippines, the United States Army turned over all documentation concerning these men to the newly formed Armed Forces of the Philippines. These voluminous papers have been in archive status in Manila ever since, and include such documents as U.S. army pay records, enlistment and discharge orders, medical records, and other such documents. The VA implausibly considers none of this documentation valid, UNTIL the Filipino veteran’s name is confirmed to be on the WCC listings archived at the NPRC.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Outreach to Cagayan

My partner-in-crime, Cecil “Doc” Johnson, and I went up to the northern Philippine province of Cagayan to offer our expertise as Veterans Service Officers, or VSOs, to the good WWII vets of that region. When we make these trips we never quite know what kind of veteran turnout to expect. The youngest of them are in their late 70s, with most in their 80s. What I do expect is to meet some interesting old fellows, sweet old widows and a few grown children to boot.

Before this trip, I wasn’t even aware of the province of Cagayan. After having been there, I can say now that it’s a special place indeed. Doc had led me to believe we were going to the port town of Aparri, but our actual destination turned out to be the tiny Ville of Gattaran.

We took the Monday afternoon flight out of Manila to the provincial capital city of Tuguegarao, which after much practice, I am proud to say I am now able to pronounce like a native. The Air Philippines Boeing 737 took us there in less than an hour. Cherry, the daughter of the local American Legion district Commander, had waited for us for three hours at the tiny airport, along with several members of her immediate and extended family. It’s a Filipino custom to meet-and-greet guests at their arrival point with a good-sized crew, and we got the full treatment. After introductions, Doc and I found seats in their well-used van, and soon we were heading north up the Maharlika Highway.

This two-lane cement road closely follows the eastern side of the Cagayan River. The ride north was pleasant with wonderful views of the wide river and its valley to the left, and vistas of gently rolling hills to the right. Both sides of our vehicle offered pastoral scenes of wallowing carabao, and well-tended fields of tobacco, corn, and rice. The steeper hills are heavily vegetated with bananas, mangos, palms and all sorts of other hardwood tropical trees. On the whole, I decided that its one of the most serene looking places I’ve yet seen in this country. The towns and villages pop up every ten or fifteen minutes of travel, and they are uniformly clean and well kept. I was impressed; Cagayan looks like a nice place to live.

Still thinking that our destination was Aparri, I kept looking for the South China Sea to show up to our front. After more than an hour, my heart sank a bit when we pulled off the Maharlika and into the dusty dirt of a gravel parking lot. ‘This is it?’ I thought gloomily. We had parked in front of a tiny, tattered L-shaped lodge, our home for the next week, I soon learned. More often than not, when we go on these “outreach trips,” its to a good-sized town or city, and usually we stay in one of the better tourist hotels. Things were going to be different this time. Oh well, as Doc always says, “We’re tough!”

I sat quietly in an easy chair in the lobby and listened as Doc chatted up the lodge owner. Our rooms weren’t ready yet. An older woman with some cleaning supplies was just about to do her thing and make them “fit for foreigners!” In the meantime, we made our way to a small diner at the far end of the lodge by the road, and sat together around a large wooden table. I wasn’t much in the mood for chow, but I ate a little rice and a Filipino dish consisting mostly of long beans and sweet potatoes, or kamoté as sweet potatoes are called here. We tried to pay, but our hosts refused our money.

Our rooms were large but spare. I was thrilled to see that the “important” items were there—a TV and an air conditioner—both as tiny as they come. My happiness was complete when I found Cinemax on one of the 10 available satellite channels. The proprietor, another one of Cherry’s relatives, was profuse with apologies about my room, especially as he explained that I would have to flush the toilet with a bucket; also, I would be showering out of that same bucket. And finally, I would be using Filipino toilet paper—aka soap and water! It’s times like that where my five years in the USMC serve me well; no matter how uncomfortable things get, I’ve always seen worse. But hey, I had Cinemax, so all was right with the world!

We were to meet our group of hopeful old veterans the next morning at 0730, so after breakfast Doc and I crammed into a trike and headed for Gatarran proper, only about a mile south of our hotel. At the far end of town we extricated ourselves painfully from our cramped transport and ambled down the hill to Cherry’s simple home. A large group of folks were already seated and waiting for us. We waved and smiled our hellos, shaking hands here and there like politicians. We took our places at a large table in front of the gathered seniors.

First things first, an elderly woman asked us to introduce ourselves, and then all the notables present were introduced to us. Then a prayer, part of which was aimed at us:

“…and lord, please ensure that these two kind and honorable gentlemen help us with our VA claims, especially considering that we faithfully served when the government of the United States of America asked us to put our lives on the line in the war against the cruel Japanese…”

‘Oh boy, the pressure’s on!’ I thought, grinning with cocked head.

One last thing before we started—a spirited rendition of the Philippine national anthem, and I must say, it sounded pretty good. Those old folks could sing!

After that, we interviewed each person one at a time. We saw more than 30 folks that first day. Most of their problems stemmed from not being recognized as veterans by the VA, or they didn’t have evidence that their current medical conditions had resulted from their time in service.

The ones that always break my heart are those with supposed “unproven” service. Many of these poor old fellas have reams of documents confirming their service, but since they didn’t get their names recorded in 1948 by the War Claims Commission, the VA refuses to recognize them as U.S. veterans. It’s one of the most un-American and unjust situations I’ve ever seen, and it makes me ashamed of my government. The only way to help these folks before they all die is to find an American legislator to sponsor and pass a bill to FORCE the heartless VA regional office in Manila to stop this faulty practice. I’m not holding my breath; I’ve written Carlos Pebenito, the guy in charge of the benefits section, and his response was typically bureaucratic and weak: “It’s the law, and NOT my problem. Oh, and good luck with that Phil!”

After running across a half-dozen cases like that, Doc and I figured it was time for me to “speechify.” I got up and detailed to all those present what the problem was, and what I was trying to do to fix it. I also told them not to get their hopes up. Sigh.

The next two days went like that. We listened to each veteran, widow, son or daughter and examined their documents. Whether we had good news or bad, all were gracious and thankful that we had taken the time to come out and listen to their claims woes and queries. After listening to each, we told them exactly what kind of new evidence they would need to reopen old claims, or what medical proof would convince the VA that their current disabilities warranted an increase. Each case is different, and each one is important to us.

We met a remarkable 84-year-old woman named Atanacia, Cherry’s aunt. She invited us to come with her across the Cagayan River to see her home in the little town of Callao. In the afternoon, once Doc and I had finished mostly disappointing the majority of our clients, we walked out behind Cherry’s house to the banks of the river. Thing is, at more than 30 feet, it was more of a cliff than a bank, and it was in an alarming state of erosion. Cherry’s uncle, whom I’ll call “Uncle Doc,” because he’s a retired physician, told us that their house would probably fall into the river within the next couple of years. In typical accepting Filipino fashion, they shrugged off the impending doom of their home, and said they’d just relocate once the house was about to fall. Being long-suffering is both a Filipino blessing and a curse. I sure can’t be like that, but more power to those that can.

Getting back to Atanacia, we told her we would meet her later that afternoon for the boat ride to the far bank. Just before 5 p.m., Atanacia and her brother met us at the boat landing. It was NOT what I had pictured. I figured there would be a fairly flat and easily accessible way to the water. Instead, I was astonished to see another sheer 30-foot cliff.

I asked Atanacia, “Momma,” as we called her, “how are we going to get down to the boats?”

“Down the stairs,” she answered matter of factly, pointing to the alleged flight of stairs. Sure enough, they were there—a series of steps carved into the hard-packed sand cliff. I hadn’t noticed them at first, so inconspicuous were they. I asked her how she could possibly go up and down that steep slippery-looking cliff at her age, and she told me she did it every day, twice a day. I couldn’t believe it; I wasn’t sure that I was even confident enough to do it. The cliff face is at least as high as a three-story building, and it looked quite daunting. “Momma, if you can do it, so can I!” I declared.

A 12-foot-long wooden skiff, the “ferry,” was heading back from the far bank with a load of a half-dozen passengers, so it was time to head down to the river. I watched Atanacia take the hand of a young man, and she followed him gamely down the narrow sandy sloping steps with barely a pause. He led the way and she steadied herself by holding his outstretched forearm with one hand, while balancing herself by holding onto the cliff wall with the other. She made it all the way down the series of three steeply slanting ramps of steps without a problem, so Doc and I scrambled down behind her. I tried not to look as nervous as I felt. I can’t imagine an 84-year-old American woman, or man, even considering such a feat. Incredible! One misstep and her brittle old bones would have splintered when she hit bottom. I shuddered at the image.

The Cagayan River is quite wide; Atanacia and her brother both told us it wasn’t always so. It seems that the rainy seasons now bring massive floods of water down from the mountains, now much denuded of timber. In the old days, they said, the river ran much slower; it’s only been the last 10 or 15 years that the yearly torrents began to eat away at the edges of the river. They shook their wizened heads and blamed it on government mismanagement and corruption—a series of regimes unwilling or unable to control illegal logging; and without the funds or inclination to keep valuable farmland, and people’s homes, from being lost to the yearly erosive effects of ever-swifter-moving floodwaters. Sure enough, the river where we crossed it was probably a thousand meters wide. Uncle Doc said when he was a boy it wasn’t half that wide.

A spacious sand bar has formed on the far bank where the river bends around in a shallow dogleg. We had to walk through deep darkbrown sand strewn with carabao dung for over a hundred meters to get to the line of waiting trikes-for-hire. We passed a boy of about 7 or 8 placidly riding his huge lumbering carabao to give it a bath. I knew this since there was already three other carabao already enjoying their evening dip in the river. They are called WATER buffalo for a good reason.

We passed through tiny Callao where Atanacia said the Japanese had once burned alive about 80 villagers—men, women and children—an act of vengeance after Filipino guerrillas had attacked a Japanese patrol. She told us one more story about another nearby village where the people had had enough of the Nipponese slaughtering their carabao for a meal whenever they passed through. One day, as the Japanese soldiers sat down to another meal of “free” carabao steaks, the villagers made them “pay” the hard way, when they fell on the hapless imperial soldiers, slaughtering them to a man with their long bolo knives. Those deadly tools can make short work of a coconut, so a human skull would be no problem at all. Gomenasai!

Atanacia never stopped talking of her late husband, Adelberto. He died ten years ago, but to Atanacia he has never left her. Almost every other sentence starts with references to her beloved late spouse. We pulled up in front of her home in two trikes, just off a modest concrete road, and entered the low-walled compound. This was her family’s home ground; she had been born there in 1922, and I soon learned that she planned to be buried there as well.

Her house is a two-story cement block structure painted white and topped off with a blue-tiled roof. Much of the front is aproned with an expansive wraparound banistered patio, part of which is overhung by an equally expansive second floor terrace. It looked like a good place to sit outside and enjoy the morning and evening breezes, while shooting some with friends. Thirty-foot-tall Mango trees shade most of the property, and all the way to the back is a prominently white aboveground tomb. I asked her, “Is that where your husband is?” She proudly answered in the affirmative, remarking that they had built it a few years back and moved him in when flooding had compromised his original burial place. We walked back to inspect it. Two coffin-sized crypts stood side-by-side 8 feet high on the marble-encased platform. She pointed to one of the vaults stating that she would someday be laid to rest next to him.

The south side of the estate is devoted to growing crops and raising fowl and pigs. A humble wooden dwelling housed her fulltime caretaker. We took a seat in plastic chairs around a wooden table just outside of his hut, and Atanacia had him prepare three young coconuts. In no time there were four glasses of sweet coco water for us to enjoy. He offered the halved shells to us along with some spoons, and Doc and I dug into the soft white delectable inner coconut. The pigsties were just a few feet away, and unfortunately, the wafting smell slightly interfered with my coconut-enjoyment, but you get used to it after a few minutes I noticed.

The last of the ferries leave at 6 p.m., so we headed back to the waiting trikes. We made the long walk back through the sand, past fields of watermelon and tobacco. It was just past 6 and the only boat in sight was just pulling into the landing at the far side of the river. Oops. Uncle Doc waved his arms and whooped at the top of his lungs to get someone’s attention over there, but no one seemed to respond. We all sat down and waited as the evening grew darker and the air stiller. I didn’t have anything better to do that night, so I sat tight and enjoyed the calm beauty around me. After 45 minutes, a boat came across with a late load of passengers, and we had our ride home.

After seeing the last of our veteran clients late Thursday morning we had the rest of the day open, especially since there were no flights back to Manila until Friday. So we decided to hire Cherry’s van and do some sightseeing. That morning we headed north, up the Maharlika highway, towards Aparri to see “old and beautiful things,” as we instructed Cherry and Atanacia. We stopped at several interesting places: an Old Spanish Cathedral at Lalloc, the oldest church bell in the Philippines circa 1580, and finally the coastal city of Aparri. Our new family bought us lunch at a Japanese restaurant; we tried to pay, but again, they wouldn’t hear of it.

Before leaving Aparri, we drove down to the municipal beach. Doc struck off to the west and I headed east. I passed a large family on holiday, and they asked me to join them for lunch. I left my name and address when one of the ladies asked if I could help her dad with his benefits claim. Doc and I NEVER stop doing our job when it comes to helping our fellow veterans!

On the way back to Gatarran, we stopped at Cherry’s friend’s home to see her beautiful tropical garden featuring several types of orchids. I have similar flowers at my place, so what I found fun was exploring the back of their yard, which is devoted to vegetables, carabao, pigs and chickens. One of our gracious hosts, an 18-year-old girl, led us all the way to the back of their place, where we scrambled down a small sandy hill to a creek featuring several carabao. I loved the bucolic setting, thinking, ‘Now THIS is TRULY the Philippines!’

By the time we got back to our lodge late that afternoon I was beat. My wooden box bed, with its two-inch foam pad, beckoned me. After rinsing off the road grime with water ladled and splashed over my head from my all-purpose plastic bucket, I fell out for a much-needed nap!

Friday morning the power went off while I was half way through my shaving routine. I finished packing, sans electricity, and headed over with Doc to the “Water Farm Diner” just up the road from us. If you ever drive through Gatarran and its time to eat, stop in there; it’s a good place to grab a sandwich or traditional Filipino fare. If you’re an American, you’ll feel right at home as it’s filled top-to-bottom with Americana. The owner, Norman, is a good guy. Doc and I enjoyed our conversations with him over our evening drinks. Almost every meal we ate was there at the Water Farm. Thank goodness it was there! We ate our breakfast and Cherry and her driver-husband came to pick us up just as we finished.

We left early so we would have time to stop at a place called Calvary in the town of Iguig before making our flight home. Once more, I enjoyed the Cagayan countryside, this time as we drove south back to Tuguegarao. Almost an hour into our ride, we entered the bustling town of Iguig. Cherry had to ask to make sure we turned up the proper road to the Calvary Cathedral, because the sign to the place, if there was one, was not well marked. We drove up a precipitous narrow drive and into a dusty parking lot in front of the ancient brick basilica. I was immediately captivated by the place.

The first thing that meets the eye is a huge statue of a “touchdown Jesus,” much like the large mural at Notre Dame University in Indiana. To the right of the parking lot is a grand old basilica built of fired red bricks. To the left is an ancient cement obelisk that is supposed to date back to 1765, or so says the placard.

Walking past the giant Jesus statue, I was drawn to a low stonewall overlooking a gorgeous vista of the Cagayan river valley. The view is stunningly beautiful. If we had had more time, I would have packed a lunch and soaked in the panorama while enjoying my meal. I’ve always loved being atop high places with special views, and that spot has both. By all means stop in and check it out; you’ll love it.

If you’re into architecture, the splendid old cathedral has a series of flying buttresses, also made of the old red bricks. They form a series of tall archways around the sides and back of the basilica. Without the buttresses the imposing sides of the church would have long ago collapsed under their own weight. I wish we had taken more time, so I could have explored the interior of that wonderful old structure. I love that stuff! Parts of the original edifice can still be seen where it was incorporated into the present building. It smells delightfully musty, like a delectably aged wine.

And finally, behind and past the church to the right, is a giant looping pathway that follows the rim of a large geological bowl. This natural amphitheatre must be at least 600 meters across and depresses into the ground 60 or 70 feet. I walked down a steep series of ancient concrete step-like seats behind the cathedral all the way to the bottom of the closely-cropped grassy bowl. (This stairway is described in the paragraph below). From that vantage, at the very center of the basin bottom, I could look up and see the gigantic series of statues depicting each of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Even if you are not Catholic, you will be impressed with the sublime loveliness of the place. Being there was truly inspiring, and I would love to go back and capture what I saw on film.

I found this blurb in a promotional “Come to Cagayan” site: “The Iguig centuries-old parish hill church is a popular tourist attraction. Iguig Calvary has The 14 Stations of the Cross depicted in larger-than-life-size concrete statues. The mildew-covered Rectory, constructed in 1768, was then the only source of drinking water. There is an ancient brick stairway to the west of the church, which was used by visiting Spanish dignitaries who traveled aboard barangays (bangka boats) that once plied up and down the river.”

So that’s it. It was a long post for such a short trip, but Cagayan is worth every second. I really want to go back. The sights are wonderful and the people are fantastic. Everyone I met had a greeting and a smile for me. If you want peaceful, friendly, and beautiful—Cagayan is the place!

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Defending Washington & Revere

I saw Robert Wuhl on an episode of FOX NEWS’ OReilly the other day. Wuhl was promoting an HBO show wherein he, and I quote, “puts a pop-culture spin on history in "Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl."” According to HBO, “Wuhl plays the most irreverent teacher ever, teaching actual (sic) history from an unusual perspective.”

Let me warn you now that this show is a crock! For HBO to claim that he teaches “actual” history is outrageous! Wuhl claims that ALL history is based purely on the perspective of the teller. His show’s format is him “teaching” history to college students. In this way, I guess he and HBO believes he acquires a measure of credibility.

Do NOT be lulled! On the HBO website, I found a promotional interview with this “pseudo-historian.” I paste key excerpts from it below, and in my answers to them I expose this man for the imposter he “actually” is!

Robert Wuhl: It (his TV special) is basically a monologue done in a classroom, and it's about how pop culture becomes history. By pop culture, I mean whoever the most popular person is at that point in time. People say that life shouldn't be a popularity contest, but life is a popularity contest. And it doesn't make a difference if it's 2005 or 1805. Whoever the most popular person is at that time, they're going to have a lot of weight, whether they're being elected, whether they're being read, whether they're being sought out, whether we emulate them. And what they say and do is going to affect a bunch of other people because the media is printing it and people are listening to them. And that's just the way life is. It doesn't change.

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl attempts to make the point that American history is skewed due to the effects that the “popularity” of historical personalities has had on how our history has been written and remembered. On his OReilly plug for his upcoming HBO show, he takes a huge swipe at American icons like George Washington and Paul Revere.

It is true that George Washington WAS hugely popular, especially in the years after the war. Understandably so, since it was HIS persistence and leadership during the darkest hours of our war for independence that was THE prime reason we won our liberty. Washington was so popular with the American people that he could have been president for life, if he so wanted. Wuhl ignores WHY he was so popular. People loved him because he was deserving of their respect; during the eight years of the revolutionary period he had EARNED it! So, how exactly does Washington’s popularity skew our memory of him?

Bill OReilly, who really did poorly in this segment, made a pitiful attempt to stick up for Washington. Wuhl shouted at OReilly: “How many battles did Washington actually fight in? NONE! How many battles did he actually win? THREE!” I gritted my teeth at that one, and I lost all respect for Bill when he made no retort. For Wuhl to castigate Washington for never having actually “fought” in any battles is hogwash! General Eisenhower, the architect of the allied victory in Europe, ALSO never fought a single battle in his ENTIRE life.

Wuhl shows just how simpleminded he truly is by making these kinds of silly statements; and to say George Washington won only three battles is just plain ridiculous as well. Even if had never won a single battle, just as the North Vietnamese never won a single battle against the U.S., Washington WON the LAST battle at Yorktown, Virginia!

Robert Wuhl: Human behavior doesn't change over the years. People are still doing stuff for the same reasons they did it years ago, which is basically "My God's better than your God." Or "How much is in it for me and uh who's got the hots for you." That's basically where history comes from, those few things.

PhilippinePhil: Huh? What cynical kind of drivel is this guy trying to pawn off as historical discussion? I don’t recall reading anything from the founding fathers stating that their God is better than anyone else’s, because back then we all worshipped the SAME God. Wuhl is trying to inject his personal liberal secularism into our PAST history; that secular stuff is part of our contemporary history. NOW, who is rewriting history?

And his offhand remark concerning who has the “hots for whom” is pure bunk, thrown in purely for purposes of titillation. If he’s trying to make the point that all historical figures are human, and thus subject to human foibles, then he should say that. After all, not much of what is IMPORTANT in our history has had anything at all to do with sexual interests.

Even Clinton’s sexcapades will be nothing but a salacious side note once history is finally solidified into textbooks 50 years from now. President Harding was known to have some pretty wild parties in the White House back in the 20s, but no one spends that much time studying it today; so will it be with “Slick Willy.”

HBO: What was the genesis behind presenting this in a classroom setting and not a comedy venue?

Robert Wuhl: … I think there's a great thirst for knowledge in society today. I think the younger generations really want to learn. I don't think they want to be bored. I think they want to learn by telling a story that incorporates, encompasses something that they can use practically. Something they can relate to. And I think you can learn and you can entertain at the same time. You try to make it as palatable to people today to make them understand it in their terms. It's like when you hear 10,000 people were killed at an event, you say, well that's a big number. But if you get to know one person and they're killed, that puts a face on it. Well, that's what I try to do with history. So we're gonna kill 10,000 people. [CHUCKLES] No. I try to make it fun by telling stories and making people understand how pop culture throughout history becomes history.

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl is simply wrong here—pop culture is pop culture. No good historian, even a lay one like myself, confuses it with history, without first researching and reading. For instance, in Wuhl’s conversation with OReilly, he said that the ONLY reason “pop culture icon” Paul Revere is known today is because of a poem written about him decades later by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Wrong! Revere was properly and duly accredited for his roll in events long before the famous Wadsworth poem. Revere had been a member of the “Sons of Liberty,” a patriot organization in Boston; he had participated in the Boston Tea Party; and he was the one who arranged the “one of if by land, two if by sea” warning signal in the windows of the Old North Church. Revere is also the man who organized the MANY warning riders of that night, men who fanned across the countryside as they alerted the Minutemen of the coming of the British. Wuhl has HIS agenda and he willingly ignores facts to spread his deceitful—more “entertaining”—version of history.

Even Bill OReilly shows his own poor grasp of history, not to mention a surpising prejudice, by acquiescing to Wuhl when Bill claims that the REAL reason Revere entered the annals of history was because of Revere’s great “wealth!” What? Bill, COME ON! Paul Revere became wealthy much later, after the war, as his foundry business expanded. You see? This is why amateurs and dilettantes should NOT try to teach history. Now, people who watch and respect him will be just as mislead by OReilly, as they will be Wuhl.

Still on the subject of Paul Revere, Wuhl asserted to OReilly that since Revere ONLY road his horse about 19 miles into the Massachusetts countryside before his capture that this somehow demeans his feat. I wonder if Wuhl could ride a horse in the dark of night on unlit rutted dirt tracks for even ONE MILE? And remember, Revere was a city dweller, so he did just fine by me. Besides, Revere had guaranteed the success of the undertaking that night by ensuring that there were MANY riders that night.

HBO: So you're both performing and you're teaching. It's kind of like a hybrid?

Robert Wuhl: It's an interesting process because I don't know if I'm actually teaching or if I'm doing a monologue or a one-man show, so I call it a docucomadality show. It's a documentary, it's a comedy, it's a reality show. I first started putting this together in a comedy club, and then tried it out on students in classrooms - realizing that those are two entirely different audiences. …Now, when you do this in front of students, …, you have to be really honest with them. They're looking to you for the truth. They're looking to you for something interesting. You've got to keep their interest going and that's tough, so you better tell them interesting stories. And they have an amazing bullshit detector. So don't bullshit them.

PhilippinePhil: The problem is that Wuhl is quite FULL of BS! And he uses his own careless and prejudiced views of U.S. History to try to change people’s views of our history to match his twisted version of it by degrading and trivializing it; AND he is ABSOLUTELY WRONG about students having “an amazing BS detector.” Students ARE ignorant—that’s why they are students—they KNOW next to nothing. Wuhl seeks them out for exactly that reason…he KNOWS he CAN BS them! He ingratiates himself to them by telling them that they MUST be very smart indeed as they LISTEN to HIM.

He’s crafty in his psychology. Call people smart and they will think that YOU must be very intelligent indeed! Thing is, if he tried that malarkey on honest-to-God historians, they would destroy him, and they would do so quite easily.

Robert Wuhl: Teachers are the most under-recognized, under-appreciated, underpaid people, and yet everybody will say the future of our children is education. But look who's on the low rung -- the teachers.

PhilippinePhil: After sucking up to students, Wuhl curries favor here with teachers; but is he trying to compare HIMSELF to them? I hope not, because Wuhl is NO teacher; but he IS a fraud. After listening to him speak on OReilly’s show, I HOPE he doesn’t try to pass himself off as a teacher, because he’s NOT qualified to hold a “true history teacher’s” books. Although, I must say that Wuhl might be VERY qualified to teach geography to high school students in Colorado, perhaps in the same school as demagogue teacher Jay Bennish?

HBO: How do you go about presenting the material, and what sorts of concepts are behind it?

Robert Wuhl: I've always had a theory that history is basically storytelling, and the key to storytelling is who's telling the story. That's why in the days of the Indians and the free plains, every time that the Calvary won a battle, the press said it was a great military victory. But if the Indians won, it was a massacre. Who's telling the story? That's what it came down to. So I try and tell stories and raise these questions. .

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl’s “progressive side” is in full bloom with this comment. I don’t know what modern history books he has read lately, if any; but no decent history book written in the last 50 years tries to “spin” the American Plains Wars based on the press reports of that era, or any of our wars for that matter, the way he’s describing. Now, if he’s trying to say that the labels of “wrong” and “right” depends on who writes the accounts, now that I CAN agree with. But, if he wants to get into questions of ethics, now that is another story altogether.

For instance, lets talk historical morality by using a 3-part Ethics Class exercise:

1) the Aztecs slaughtered hundreds of thousands of other indigenous people in The New World, long before the Spanish came along and ended that Aztec butchery.

2) Rhetorical question: Who was more “evil,” the Spanish or the Aztecs? When it comes to the facts of history, it just doesn’t matter. I say let the events and facts speak for themselves.

3) Then again, would the U.N. go into Mexico today, if the Aztecs made a comeback and began ritual slaughter once again?

It’s the “what ifs” like that that make history so appealing to me, but MY interest is based on facts, not prejudice.

HBO: Can you think of anyone from history who got a bad lot, or did the good work but didn't get their due?
Robert Wuhl: Oh, there's a lot of them. That's a question I was always asking when I was doing the research for this show. I would ask historians, who deserves better? Well I don't know if he deserves better, but Benedict Arnold is an interesting story. If you think of his life in terms of today's corporate world, he was basically passed over for promotion about four times. He gets shot in battle and gives up his leg, and then a guy gets promoted over him. And after about the fourth or fifth time, you'd start to say, who else is offering what? I've done all this work for you, I'm not getting the gig here and it doesn't look like you're going to win. So I'm going to go to the other side. Everybody thinks he was hung. He wasn't, he wound up living the life over in Great Britain, and his wife had a lot to do with that. So Benedict Arnold, although there's no way around the fact that he was a traitor, I understand him.
PhilippinePhil: Again, what in the heck is Wuhl talking about? Benedict Arnold was the classic flip-flopping traitor. As an American, he fought bravely and well against the British Army WITH the American Army. He became disillusioned, and flopped over to the Brits; BUT what makes him so detestable is that he did so while STILL in the uniform of the Americans! Wuhl leaves that part out and it’s a very crucial component. We rightfully despise Benedict Arnold because he was a vile turncoat.

Hey Wuhl, pick a side and stay with it. If Wuhl thinks that pursuing the side of opportunity and self-aggrandizement is “understandable” then I feel sorry for him; and truthfully, I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU Wuhl!
Robert Wuhl: Now, on the other side, you go to England, and George Washington is considered a traitor. Here's an English guy, he's working for the English, and he does a 180. So again, who's telling the story?
PhilippinePhil: Mr. Wuhl! George Washington was born in Virginia. The English NEVER considered him English! If they had, and if they had TREATED him and ALL OF US like English, then there NEVER would have been a revolution, because there would have been NO NEED for it! This is the kind of moral equivalency that liberals LOVE to spew, and it drives me bonkers. They cherry pick data that suits them, and pass off biased opinion as fact.

Mr. Wuhl, How exactly does George Washington do a 180? He was born American and he was ALWAYS an American, or Virginian if you will. It was the English who treated the Americans as NOT worthy of the rights of Englishmen, and that’s WHY George joined and LED the revolt. He risked his life and his family’s fortune and future BECAUSE it was the RIGHT thing to do.
Wuhl seeks to do what many in our progressive universities seek these days, to denigrate our lily-white, and very Christian founding fathers. Why do they do this? It’s obvious—because these brave and selfless men stand for everything that progressives do NOT. Our founders were Christians, they were white, and they believed in black and white principles, NOT in shades of morality. Now I could care less that they were white, but progressives find this fact to be utterly repugnant.
I have to ask: Why is this guy Wuhl supposed to be qualified in anyway to teach any of us history, especially to students who might not know any better? He’s an actor and a comedian, and worse, he’s got his prejudices, which may not be all that apparent to the unsuspecting, and that makes him even more dangerous in my eyes. He’s Hollywood, so guess what side of the political and moral road he falls? It should take you one guess—(Right?) Wrong!