Friday, April 11, 2008
Photo: Diego Fernandes 2008
The day was tropical sticky wet with the thinnest of cloud cover. The air felt damp enough for rain but hot enough to boil eggs. Thin yellow skies hung over the islands like translucent sheets of silk.
I was restless and bored on the ship and I wanted something to do; I wanted something new, to go somewhere I hadn’t been, do something I hadn’t done, anything but whatever I was doing, but the humidity and heat made my imagination dull. Generally I like the heat and even the humidity but that day was just like being in a steam cooker.
I kept wandering outside onto the deck and looking at the sky hoping it would change. One of my shipmates finally asked me why I didn’t just go into town and do what everyone else did. What everyone else did just wasn’t my style. I didn’t even like beer and all the “hostesses” were irritating with their constant demands to buy them drinks or a helicopter. They thought the latter was funny and it may have been the first time, but the great seventeen block triangle of bars, upstairs and down, filled with hundreds of girls repeating the same joke quickly wore out my not very substantial patience.
Worse, as a kind of social lubricant I had, once upon a time, learned to read palms, and actually got quite good at it. One evening, to entertain myself as much as the girl I was buying drinks for, I decided to read her palm. Apparently I was so successful, she left and told every girl in the place, all of whom came running to my table, leaving their not so happy “boyfriends” and literally pushing the shipmate sharing my table out of the way so they could have their hands read. He was mostly unhappy because they wouldn’t let him get to his beer, although one of the girls finally picked it up, and without even turning, handed it to him over another girl’s head. After that the girls in town called me “Gypsy” and it was difficult to find a bar where a girl wouldn’t know the nickname, or, if one of my shipmates saw me coming, he would ask me, politely, to leave.
Some of the sailors maintained “permanent” girlfriends and even paid for apartments if they thought they could afford them. They measured their success with the girl by how loyal she seemed to be to their efforts at making her domestic. The girl’s loyalty was mostly demonstrated in cooking for her “man”, meaning the guy who paid for the food or her apartment. During the evening, it was an even bet that she would be at home or working in one of the dozens of bars. The girls knew what the priority was, and extreme poverty kept them working for any of the dribs and drabs of cash that found itself their way. Many women had out-of-wedlock children. My shipmates from the Midwest and the South called them illegitimate, even when the children were theirs. They didn’t care. Their wives back home had kids (of whom they would frequently share snapshots) and those were legitimate. These other children, “half-breeds”, were relegated to a class similar to cracked pottery. With one sole exception, a fellow who cared for, and tried to adopt (I never knew whether his adoption efforts ever paid off) two children that were left mostly to their own devices by their mother, I do not remember any of the guys with kids paying any attention at all to them; each man’s concern was the availability and loyalty of his woman.
No sailor I knew would go into town in the middle of the day, even for his woman. It wasn’t unheard of, but it was rare, and in the middle of a day like that, exceptionally rare. Deciding steam-cooked adventure was better than boredom, I got dressed in my civvies anyway and made my way topside. At the brow, the OOD and the enlisted guy on watch looked wilted, large sweat stains showing under their armpits and in the OOD’s case a massive sweat stain at his groin. I do well in heat. I only sweat lightly even in humid conditions, so I started to make the obvious joke about his sweat stained crotch but he cut me off with an abrupt, “…don’t say it! I’ve already heard the same thing about ten times.” So I cheerily waved and told them to drink plenty of water, and in spite of the heat and my rather oppressed mood almost bounced down the gangway. I heard the enlisted man yell something after me about getting some, or getting him some, but I really didn’t pay any attention.
The first thing I decided to do was get a haircut at the base shop where for a very small fee, servicemen got haircuts, facial and torso massage and manicure, all in one convenient chair, and it was cool. That day I got the works, even the manicure.
The barber was a local who wasn’t inclined to chat, which I appreciated. He was also the most precise of the men who worked in the shop. He not only knew the legal requirements of military haircutting, he knew the way around those rules which was important in those days when men in civilian life all had long hair. After cutting your hair he gave meticulous attention to removing all the loose hair. If you needed a shave, you were shaved rapidly with a strait razor that moved so quickly I am sure some clients feared for their lives.
Having accomplished the shave the barber would wrap a hot towel over your face and while your pores were opening or whatever it was they were supposed to do, he would massage neck and shoulder muscles until the towel cooled. Replacing the now cooled towel with another hot one, he massaged arms and hands. Then he removed that towel and pushing you forward, would massage your back down to the waistline and when finished there leaned you, by that point you were usually the consistency of wet pasta, back into the headrest, placed another hot towel on the face and massaged your chest and abdominal muscles. He removed the final towel and spread a thin layer of green or pink clay on your face and with a hair dryer on cool, blew the mud dry. Afterward he took another hot, wet towel and thoroughly cleaned the mud off. Then almost slapped a cold wet towel against your steaming face.
He would finish with the manicure. Nails, cuticles and, when requested, clear enamel were worked with a rapidity that seemed unreal. When I asked him one day why he worked so fast, he said, “…done this long time, sailors always in a hurry.”
I was never quite comfortable with the abdominal massage. It was just one of those procedures that seemed strange and too intimate but I never failed to let him do his work. I hesitated asking in any case because I thought it might disturb his routine. That day was the only time he commented on his work on me. “You more work here,” he said as he kneaded my midsection. I wasn’t quite sure what he meant. I thought for a moment he was telling me I needed to do sit-ups, then because of the way he changed the movement of his hands, became fairly confident that he meant he needed to do more work.
“Too much time sit. You go walk.” That last was a command. He pushed me out of the chair and with a couple of quick swipes of a soft brush cleaned any remaining hair off my neck and clothing. When I paid him I always left a large tip. That day he just pushed it back at me and said, “go find nice girl.” I laughed and told him nice girls probably wouldn’t be taking money and lay the tip on his counter. He said gravely, “you good man. You go church, nice girl pray.” Then he turned to help another customer and I left the coolness of the shop and stepped back into the tropic sun.
The moment I first found myself in a tropic zone I knew I was home. Most Americans have a “nice for a visit, but wouldn’t want to live here” attitude about tropical climates. Come to think of it, that attitude persists no matter what the climate unless one was talking about one’s native region. My Midwestern buddies always exclaimed about the seasonal changes and the variety of weather; Southerners spoke rather fondly of their bugs for some reason; Northeasterners didn’t speak about their environment so much as the variety of activities that could be had in their part of the world.
I am a Californian. We like speed and change; we don’t care about climate much. If it gets too cold we build a fire of one sort or another, if it gets too hot we take off our clothing or invent a remote control air conditioner. When neither of those is an option, we migrate. If the climate seems extreme, then we write stories and make movies about it, it’s fun. The tropics are extreme in themselves. They require no embellishment or exaggeration; the tropics simply need to be experienced and lived.
When I stepped out of the barbershop and into the street that day, I was ready for another tropical experience. I really had no idea where I was going or what I was going to do. I just knew it was steamy hot, and I had just been told to go to church. I was certainly not about to visit the base chapel, so I did the next best thing, I walked over the bridge and into town and went looking for a church.
As I walked I tried to remember if I had ever even seen a church in town, and nothing at all came to mind. Not that I had ever come into town with the objective of going to church, but churches are usually pretty obvious. We sailors came into town at night with the lights from the bars glowing and the sound from the bar bands blaring into the streets. At that time the streets would be filled with vendors selling barbequed meat on sticks or pickled eggs; touts would be standing in every doorway waving any who would respond, inward toward “the best band” or “the prettiest girls” and occasionally “the best floor show”. The 'Strip' was crawling with small boys learning how to become pickpockets, mobbing an unwary serviceman and relieving him of all accessories and 'Brownshirts', the Federal Police, ready and willing to shoot them on sight. The air was redolent with the smells of polluted water, roasted meat and dust and unwashed bodies, vomit, feces and urine. Separated into component parts not particularly pleasant, but as a whole experience, rather exotic and exciting. You wouldn’t be able to spot a church easily at night. But I wasn’t walking through the town at night.
It was one o’clock in the afternoon. The streets were empty of sailors and marines. Many of the bars were shut against the day with metal pull-down gates. In a few open doorways, girls leaned against the doorjambs trying to look sexy to entice the occasional passerby inside. I watched as one girl, looking sadly forlorn at her street post, perk up when joined by another who seemed to materialize out of an interior darkness, turn happily to her companion; they talked briefly then the first, replaced by the second, vanished within. As soon as the first girl disappeared, the second took on the demeanor of the first girl, dejected and bored.
Leaving the bar district, I entered into an area of small shops selling fish and rice and produce for the local population. This wasn’t an area commonly seen by servicemen. The mid-day heat was keeping even most of the locals indoors, but a group of six or seven children were playing a game that looked like Ring Around the Rosie, only with a soccer ball being passed back and forth through a puddle. All the children were uniformly poor and were dressed in ragged pass-me-down clothing. One little girl with curly bright blond hair stood out among her dark-haired friends. As I passed the group they cautiously moved aside and stared at me. I wondered if they had ever seen a serviceman in the middle of the day, but after they knew I wasn’t stopping to talk, they all waved and smiled and one of the boys kicked the ball in my direction, to which I simply kicked it back and continued onward.
The town was built in a river valley running roughly east west between some low hills. As I walked, I could see the treeless condition of the north ridgeline. To the south, rain forest made it’s way right up to the edge of town, but the northern ridge had only a few small shrubs trying to survive in a deeply eroded desert-like hillside.
I stopped to make sense of this and was staring at that sere landscape when a voice behind me asked in a rather comically gruff voice, “what’re yew doin’ in town? I thought I tol’ ya this town ain’t big enough fer th’ both of us.” Turning, I saw a friend from the ship, Brian, smiling his lazy smile at me and peering over the top of his sunglasses.
“Couldn’t help myself. Mad dogs and Englishmen, doncha know.”
“Huh?” Apparently, he had never heard the song.
“Song…my grandmother used to sing. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noon day sun.” I sang merrily.
“Mad dogs and Englishmen huh? And us. What are you looking at?”
“Well, look over there,” I pointed to the south, “covered with jungle. Totally. Right? Now, look over there,” I turned to the north, “nothing.”
Brian looked back and forth from south to north for a moment and then grunted, “looks like they stripped that hillside for some reason.” Then he paused and looking at the northern side, squinted and asked, “what’s that?”
“What? Where are you looking?” I tried to look in the general direction of his glance but the glare from the street was too bright and I asked him for the loan of his sunglasses.
“They’re prescription,” he warned, but handed them to me.
“They sure are,” I drawled, “how do you see through these things?”
“Better question is how could I see without ‘em.”
“I can’t use them, they’re way too strong for me,” I said, handing them back. “Now try and point where you’re looking.” So he held up his arm and I sighted along it to the mountainside. Shading my eyes by completely cupping both hands around them, I finally saw it. A rather large crucifix planted more than half way up the hillside. "How have I missed that?" I wondered aloud, and then answered myself, "I’ve never been here during the day ... Do you suppose we could get up there?” I asked.
“Sure,” Brian responded heartily, “if only we had climbing gear and supplies for what? A week? Sure!”
“Brian,” I whined a bit, “that isn’t even a mile away from here. That would be an easy, easy walk.”
“Yeah,” he said in a flat voice, “On a perfect spring day! Haven’t you noticed? It is really, really, really hot out here. I vote we go get something cool to drink.”
“Right there, my friend, on the other side of this very street, is a store where you may buy something cool to drink. And all the fresh fruit you could ever want.”
“Uh… I meant something cool to drink, as in say, alcoholically cool. Back that way,” he pointed back in the direction of the bars.
I began to cluck like a chicken and then stopped abruptly. “What are you doing here in the middle of the day anyway?” I asked rather peremptorily.
Grinning, he said, “I saw you come out of the barbershop on base and just thought I’d follow you and see where you went.”
“You followed me all the way from the base?”
“Yep. And I almost turned back when I saw you pass the Strip. I’ve never been this far into town, and I’m not sure I ever want to come back this way again either.”
“Let me guess; you’re broke and you were hoping I’d buy you a beer?”
“Nope, but if you’re offering, I accept.”
“I am not offering…yet. Go with me up there, though” I pointed at the crucifix, “and I’ll buy you a couple of beers.”
“I don’t know why you want to go up there. It’s just a cross with a Jesus built in the middle of a … a desert. And it’s hot! It’s hot! I could fry an egg on the sidewalk out here.”
“If there were any sidewalks, you mean. And anyway, your eggs would probably be steamed instead of fried. Come on! Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I don’t know why he agreed to go, but he did. He complained about every hundred steps and when we got to the edge of the hillside, looked up at our destination and said, “we, oh Lord, are going to need your everlasting help, to get our sorry butts up this fucking hill!”
“I don’t believe,” I said thoughtfully, “I have ever heard anyone petition Jesus’ help to get their sorry butt up a fucking hill. But your point is well taken. Where does that path up there start?”
Glancing back and forth across the hillside, Brian pointed at a spot about a quarter of a mile further east, “still sure you want to do this?” he said querulously like an old man.
“I,” and I paused for drama, “am as fresh as a daisy. A very hot fresh daisy. A very hot fresh tropical sort of daisy. A very hot fresh tropical sort of daisy with …”
“I get it,” he interrupted.
Unfortunately, with buildings and houses and fences built smack up against the mountain we couldn’t follow the hillside directly to the trailhead and had to backtrack another quarter of a mile to a street running parallel to the mountain. Then we panted our way to take another street eastward, to find the small side street which lead to the beginning of the trail, which street, also unfortunately, we had to search to find, adding what probably only seemed like miles, to our trek. Brian was sweating heavily and quite red in the face when we finally reached the trailhead.
To cool off, we asked a sympathetic older woman if she had anything to drink. Leaving us sitting cross-legged on her tiny porch she hurried inside her corrugated tin house and brought back two cold colas. How she kept them cold was a mystery, which neither Brian nor I ever solved, but she was truly sympathetic, especially when she learned we were trying to reach the hillside crucifix. Brian offered her money for the drinks but she steadfastly refused. I asked her if there was anything we could do before we left to which she just shook her head and in her heavily accented English told us to just say a prayer for the town.
When we left the shade of her small porch facing the mountain, Brian was silent for about five minutes, which I attributed to the heat but then he suddenly asked, “why do you suppose she wanted us to pray for the town?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she just thinks the town needs people praying for it.” Even I was feeling a little cooked, so I spoke a little shortly to him.
“She seemed … I don’t know … she seemed like … she seemed like the town needed something. Protection maybe.”
“What? Where did you get that? She just asked us to say a prayer for the town.”
“It was how she said it, you know? She kept looking over that way,” and he pointed inland toward the rain forest.
“She was pretty old, maybe she remembers the Japanese coming from over there …”
“Japanese came from the sea, dork. Over there!” and he pointed toward the base.
“Well then, maybe she wanted something from over there.”
As we talked the trail rose precipitously westward and rather unlike the streets of the town, was litter free. When I made a verbal note of this to Brian, he laughed, “not a lot of Americans up here.” But it was an irregular climb and totally washed out in places. Wide gullies had to be climbed around or through and the loose gravel and dirt made treacherous footing. In a while however, we overlooked the rooftops and a soft breeze from the bay was blowing in our faces. “GOD! That feels good!” Brian exclaimed to the waiting crucifix, still an eighth mile or so distant.
“Wow. What a view up here.” I said in a quiet counterpoint. “Look. There’s the ship!”
“Who cares? We see the fucking ship every day. But look over there; you can see those islands at the mouth of the bay and the shuttle boats. This is such a nice breeze, I’m not sure I want to go back down through that again,” and he pointed at the town, “I think I’m staying.”
“Gotta. How else will we get back? Jitney? I don’t think they make it up here too often. What would you eat? Those thorny looking bushes? Nope, you’ll go back, even if it’s only for the beer.”
Brian flipped me the bird.
“Speaking of beer, I wonder if Jesus will turn the dirt into beer ... for you, of course.”
“I’m thinking not. Just a guess, of course, but I just gotta feeling.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. We’ve been using way too much profanity on our pilgrimage.”
“Well,” I wasn’t quite sure when I had first started thinking of this as a pilgrimage, “isn’t it kind of like a pilgrimage? Think of everything we’ve gone through to get here.”
“You mean, a couple of side streets and over a couple of mud puddles? Or rather, a mud puddle? All that?”
“Mud puddle? Oh, you mean that one where those kids were playing. No…I just meant, we came through all this heat in the middle of the day when no one else, even them,” and I waved at the town, “seems to want to be outside. So we gave ourselves a little challenge, and here we are!”
“I have to admit, the heat is a big challenge for me, I am fried. Even you are beginning to get a little red.”
“Oh crap! I forgot to put on sunblock!”
“Guess what, genius? I’ve got some right here.” With that Brian reached in his pocket and pulled out a tiny tube of sunscreen. “I didn’t forget.” Then he held it out, but when I reached for it, he pulled back his hand in a teasing gesture. “What do I get for some of this?”
“I already have to buy you a couple of beers. What else do you want?”
“Let’s see … I’m not sure right at the moment. I’ll think of something. I want it to be something good.”
“How good? I can survive a little sunburn.”
“Let me think.” We were approaching the crucifix, and breathing heavily from the last rise in the trail. Brian looked at the cross, handed me the tube and said, “I’ll get back to ya.”
The crucifix was standing in a saddle of the mountain about fifty feet across. The monument itself was placed as close to the rising hillside as the builders could get it, with the rest of the natural saddle leveled for spectators. The crucifix stood about twenty feet high with the cross painted white and the naked flesh of the Christ figure in an almost flamingo pink and wearing a bright blue loincloth. The figure’s hair was painted in shiny black enamel and around his head was a delicate wooden crown of thorns painted in an unnatural brown color, so unnatural, I wondered why they hadn’t simply left the wood bare.
The most startling aspect to the piece wasn’t the brilliant red paint dripping from the wounds made by the crown of thorns and the nails in his limbs, but rather the look of sheer terror and agony on his face. In the distance, the crucifix had looked like a pretty standard Roman Catholic monument. Up close, the colors looked silly until the viewer looked carefully at the expression on the Christ’s face. The figure was staring into the town below and the sculptor had caught pain, fear, in a terrifying intimate way. There was no calm benevolent glance in the face; it was a cry for mercy.
Brian and I were silent as we stared at that tortured visage. Brian made a small noise in his throat and walked closer. “Look at the crown of thorns, Jim.”
I walked closer and realized that what I had thought was painted wood was some kind of rusted bayonet wire with three to six inch long spiked points thrusting into the statues head and the viewers mind. I was staring up at the INRI scroll which was moving in the breeze when I started to say something smartass, but then I noticed Brian had moved suddenly to the base of the monument and looked to be suddenly caressing the statues feet, or holding them with his head resting in the crease between the legs.
At first I thought maybe he needed something to hold onto because of heat stroke or dehydration. Then with his hands still clasping the feet he had sagged limply to his knees. Then I could hear him muttering something quietly but couldn’t make out what he said. I stood quietly paralyzed for a moment then scurried over and put my hand on his shoulder, “are you all right?” I was genuinely concerned. Because of the heat I couldn’t tell if he was shedding tears or sweating. He nodded and pulled his shirt tail up to wipe his face.
“Something about the face. I … saw ... felt.” He was obviously shaken, but stood up still holding the Christ's feet.
I wanted to ask what he felt but doing so seemed wrong. “Should we say one for the town, now?” I asked quietly wondering if we shouldn't just go back to town. Again, he nodded. To my surprise, Brian got down on one knee; I just closed my eyes, tried not to think about Brian's seeming collapse, and bowed my head.
I don’t remember what I asked for the town, but as flippant as I sometimes can be, I participated as fully as I knew how. Brian seemed to know what he was doing so I just took my cues from him. I don’t think he was especially religious or even particularly Christian, I certainly am not, but in that moment, we were as sincere as Believers.
When I opened my eyes I was staring at the ground in front of me and as I moved, I caught the glint of something mostly buried in the red dirt. Reaching down I pulled an intact green glass rosary with a tiny gold-colored metal crucifix out of the dirt. I rubbed some of the dirt off while thinking the piece must have been dropped because it was somehow flawed.
I don’t know why, but I kept looking at it thinking there must have been a part of it broken or damaged for someone to have dropped and left such a pretty thing. The rosary was completely undamaged. The beads were a deep emerald color and made in the shape of hearts and the circular part met at a piece made of the same metal as the crucifix with the image of the sacred heart on both sides. The tiny figure of Jesus rested against what looked like an inlay of the same green glass as the beads. The little banner reading “INRI” was tilted almost jauntily.
When Brian asked to see it, I rubbed a little more dirt off on my pants and handed him the rosary perhaps just a trifle anxiously. I wasn’t sure why, but I was afraid he would do something like pull it apart or throw it over the precipice facing the town. He just took it though, examined the metal Jesus and handed it back to me.
“What are you going to do with it?”
I couldn’t tell him why, but I looked around the empty saddle of the mountain expecting the owner to come up and say, “excuse me, but I dropped my rosary and I would like to have it back.” When I told Brian this strange thought, he just laughed a little and said, “nobody here but us chickens.”
“What do you suppose happened?”
“Don’t know, buddy. Maybe … I don’t know.”
“I just had this thought that somebody came up here and got really disappointed, or disgusted.”
“You mean because it “didn’t work”?” He used his hands to make quote marks in the air.
“Something like that. It looks like a girl’s rosary … maybe she came up here and was saying her rosary and … maybe nothing happened, or she just dropped it and couldn’t find it.”
“Then she must have been up here at night. That would be pretty hard to miss if it was just laying on this ground.”
“Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know, the whole thing just gets my imagination going.” With that I put the rosary in my pocket and forgot about it.
Facing away from the giant crucifix, Brian and I walked to edge of the cliff over-looking the town and stood trying to pick out landmarks. What we saw were the buildings of the town, crammed so tightly together, the location of streets had to be guessed. The entire city looked like someone had jammed all the stovepipe chimneys on all the roofs of all the messy looking rusted tin shacks up against the river where it was force-fed a view. Across the river in a bright contrast, were the clean strips of black tarmac streets, neat white stucco walls of barracks and other buildings, all separated by the perfect patches of green clipped lawns and waving palms of the naval base.
On our side of the river, inside the town not one spot of green, grass or tree, could be seen. The town was a desert just like the side of the mountain where we stood. From the vantage of the crucifix, one side of the river looked like a raggedy man begging for the attention of his wealthy brother on the opposite shore. Brian and I were silently sharing an unforgettable experience.
“No wonder they think we’re all rich,” Brian spoke suddenly bitter, “look at that! Compared to any one of them, we are rich.”
I was thinking the same thing and told him so. “And tonight, we go into town, spend all the money in our pockets, tell them we’re out of money, go back to the base and repeat the whole thing tomorrow night. It must be like magic to them. Run out of money? Just go back and get some more.”
“I heard one of the chiefs talking with someone about how we improve their economy. Look at that, Jim. How have we improved their economy? Bars and hookers? Why don’t we offer to level the town and put in housing and air conditioning or something? Why don’t we clean up that fucking river? That’s just an open sewer! And those little kids swim in it. Do you know what happens to you if you fall in that river? The fucking Navy gives you every inoculation known to man, that’s what! Those little kids jump in that crap for coins that we throw at them …”
“ And miss on purpose,” I interjected. I was feeling disgusted with myself. I didn’t want to remember throwing coins into that river.
“… and miss on purpose …” Brian’s voice choked and he stopped speaking abruptly. Running away from me to the west, I could hear him gagging and trying to control the impulse to throw up. I stood listening and felt the gorge rising in myself, looked out over the town and felt my knees buckle, and both of us were vomiting into the chasm.
“Brian, I …,” I started to say something and vomited again.
He laughed weakly and said, “yeah, I know. … Jim,” he interrupted himself, paused and struggled for the words, “Jim,” he repeated, “I was looking through his eyes … I don’t know how … I was looking from up there!” Brian’s voice was catching as he tried to speak. He was crying but seemed to be getting through the experience.
It took me longer to regain my composure. Ever since I was little, vomiting made me cry. This time I had a reason. Brian stood waiting patiently though and leaked tears with me.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I sniffled a little angrily, “this is just stupid!”
Brian, wiping at his tears, laughed a bit saying, “I know what you mean. It’s too hot to cry like this.”
We both started laughing and crying at that, and started walking back to town wiping our faces with our shirttails. We passed the woman who had given us the colas and we waved and she waved and we smiled and she smiled showing us her missing teeth.