I saw the best pilots of my generation destroyed by
Bacardi, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the Cubi streets at dawn,
looking for the way back-sheep…
So Cubi Point it was, in the Philippines that was, on one or another cruise from here to there and back again in the service of the Greater Good and racking up shipboard arrested landings, just for the bragging rights that were in it. ‘Twas a “working inport,” which meant of course that the
blackshoes professional surface warfare officers had to busy themselves about the rust stains adhering to the hull of our warship, herself half-way returned from the uttermost parts of the world, with the signs of the sea showing plain. Well, that and ordnance offloads and re-tiling of the mess decks, a task that seemed an almost monastic devotion aboard certain ships, the one aboard which I had the honor to serve being not least among them.
As for us, we few, we happy few, we band of pilots, our “work” consisted mostly of sleeping on both ears until maybe 1000 or so, making a high speed pass through the ready room in wash khakis for 10 minutes or so to check for mail and then standing around Looking Professionally Concerned About Stuff before remarking, as though to no one in particular, that we’d be heading off the ship at 1100 for to get some chow if anyone cared to join us.
Anyone often did.
The Naval Station Subic Bay/Naval Air Station Cubi Point was a charming remnant of the old empire, a little bit of home carved out of the e’er encroaching jungle and to put it plainly, something of a social wasteland once the carrier pulled in. You see, all the cleverer Navy nurses withdrew themselves into the shadows even as the superannuated captains locked their teenaged daughters in the basement once we came ashore in all our epic grandeur, escorted as we were by 5000 or so of our closest friends, looking for whatever adventure might come. We pretty much had the run of the place as the permanent party peeked out at us from behind their Venetian blinds, while the local labor force bore up under the weight of our injunctions, each of them wondering when it would be that we’d pull out again, surely soon for the love of God?
Chow ashore for the noonday meal very often consisted of Cubi Dogs and ice cubes, both served at the Cubi Point O’Club, the former being nobbut a hot dog served Philippino style, in no way dissimilar to its American counterpart, while the latter were found at the bottom of a Cubi Special glass. In order to balance our diets by getting at the ice cubes – and do so without making a mess of one’s shirt – it was necessary to drain the Cubi Special of its liquid contents, however. Those contents consisted of a particularly potent combination of Bacardi 151 rum combined with divers fruit juices, the latter considered salubrious in that equatorial clime, while the former served as a kind of preservative. Thus fortified by our endeavors, afternoons often consisted of stertorously snoring by the poolside, baking our jailhouse pallors in the tropical sun.
These our well-earned rests were often interrupted by the Tomcat guys, who, when they weren’t weepily engaged in telling one another how much they loved each other (and, by proxy, themselves) were locked in grim and as it were, nearly mortal, combat over the Ancient and Honorable game of Animal Ball – a wetter version of the sport known and loved by NBA fans across the world crossed with rugby. If in fact it’s possible to drown at rugby.
Awakened, refreshed and more nearly approximating our perfect selves, we’d stop by the exchange to look at all the things we couldn’t afford but decided to buy anyway, prices being less than back at home and look at all the money we’d saved! After which the real business of the night would commence, the part that put the word “work” into the term “working inport” for the aviators, as we’d sortie out in force into the badlands beyond the gate, crossing Sh!t River and heading out into Alongapo or even The Barrio itself, saints preserve us and I hope you brought protection if you plan on drinking that mojo because I’m washing my hands of you, the way that you get.
Oh, we’d go out in martial force gentle reader and it would have made your heart glad to see us arrayed in our splendour as we passed the ramparts with our pennants proudly fluttering in the breeze and our chins held high. But it was a damned hard service there on the empire’s outer rim, our foe was experienced and crafty and not all of us who went out beyond the wire would make it back again, selah. So yes, we took our losses out in town, and if I might be permitted to tell the truth at this late juncture, even of those who made it back in safety – often severely wounded by the experience and some even crawling across the threshold supported by their friends – there were few who were not much reduced by the experience, not to say shattered. I wear the scars to this day.
An alternative to that experience, not to be pooh-poohed in a long inport after several consecutive nights of Alongo-slaughter, was to take a safety day and remain within the comforting encasement of the Cubi O’Club itself. There, having taken your afternoon ease by the pool, you could start your evening playing shuffleboard at the upstairs bar, looking at all the cruise plaques bearing the names of Those Who Went Before Us in between turns – the place has been faithfully replicated by the way (apart from the beer stains on the carpet) at the naval aviation museum in Pensacola, Florida.
You might also stroll by the dining room, where the local residents would sneak out when they thought the coast was clear to eat actual food while being serenaded by one or another of the exceptionally talented cover bands, most of whom were legally obligated at some point to sing, “Peelings, nothing more than peelings, trying to porget my, peelings of love!” an experience that somehow left the listener both mildly amused and maudlinly homesick.
Finally there was the downstairs bar, where the air wing would rock the house so late as to become early again, far away from the Disapproving Eye of the grown-ups upstairs, and whose L-shaped bar had, at its apex, the actual cockpit of a DC-3, facing out into Subic Bay. This was obviously a temptation of the most irresistible sort for any true aviator, and the attraction was not reduced but rather augmented gentle reader by the fact that between the two cockpit seats was a logbook, itself bearing the marks of many a famous aviator who over the years who had dared to jump the bar for to sign himself in. This simple act assured him an eternal place in the pantheon of naval aviation godhood, not least because going behind the bar while it was open – and only a scrub would sneak back while it was not – was a thing done under the threat of Significant Financial Consequence.
You see, there are any number of ways to end up buying a round of drinks for all your friends in the naval service: Ringing the bell for example without cause, wearing of headgear within the confines of the bar or bearing arms while not actually on watch, rolling five aces or losing a die over the side during a game of chance and of a surety, going behind the bar. These are all offenses grievously sufficient to the punishment of buying drinks for your friends. I do not, for now, mention the Dead Bug.
Surrounded by over a hundred rowdy aviators in various stages of moral decay, getting caught behind the bar could cost you a very great deal of money indeed because even in the PI buying a hundred bottles of beer wasn’t as who should say “cheap,” not to mention the certainty that at least some of those who were first served by your forced generosity would make their way to the end of the line for a second helping before the bill could be paid, the thieving bastards.
So it came to pass one night, far after the usual GICOT* had passed that your correspondent and a colleague of his close acquaintance whom we shall call “Lenny” (since that was, in fact, his name) settled on a seemingly infallible plan: We would, with a number of our other brothers of different mothers, contrive to simulate a brawl sufficient to draw the attention of the assembled throng away from our persons. With lumpen masses thus entranced by the on-going rumpus, we would steal behind the bar, make our way into the cockpit and sign ourselves into eternity.
The idea was flawless, perfect, complete to the last detail. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, I’ll tell you gentle reader, and this one is for free: You can never truly go wrong by over-estimating the depravity of the human spirit, the venality of naval aviators when it comes to the article of booze, or the envy of your fellow man. We were no sooner behind the bar and past the point of no return than some our erstwhile comrades flipped sides, breaking their troth with us and halting the rumble – which had started to grow admirably, by the way – just long enough to dime us out in front of the whole multitude there assembled. You could have heard a pin drop, or at least you could until Sammy the bartender started avidly a-ringing on his bell, signaling to all and sundry (no few of whom had been up until this moment at the upstairs bar and whom, like New Jersey whiplash claimants jumping on a city bus after an in-town fender bender, scurried down the stairs at this Pavlovian signal of fiscal blood in the water) that the next round was on Lex and Lenny.
Ah, well – it was a small enough price to pay for immortality.
I wonder whatever became of that logbook.
*Good idea cut-off time