Mabuhay (Hello or Welcome in Tagalog)
I wrote this for a creative writing class that I'm taking this semester for fun. The assignment was to write a piece of creative non-fiction, which was called "new journalism" back when I was getting my bachelor's in English. But it's been a great experience to be a class and writing in this genre again. My instructor advised that I do a hybrid graduate degree in journalism and English because that would create more job opportunities for me. Since I was a news reporter before children and I loved that job, I think I'll follow her advice.
Summer in the Philippine Islands can be extremely pleasant. I remember the warm and humid days, but often there was a breeze blowing inland from the massive Pacific Ocean that kept the temperatures from rising into the triple digit range. The skies were clear blue and nearly cloudless, a personal requirement for a perfect summer day. From 1966 to 1968, my family lived on Luzon, which is considered to be the main island of the Philippines. My father was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force who had to fly a lot of missions in and out of Vietnam during the war, and we rarely saw much of him. As a way of keeping military families like ours together, Uncle Sam assigned the Shortt family to Clark Air Force Base, near Angeles City.
At first, we lived in what was known as “off-base” housing, which was a series of housing compounds located a few miles away from the base. The houses were closer to the local villages, or barrios, as they were called, and offered a rather unsettlingly personal experience of life in the Philippines. During the first night in our painted brick and cement home, my sister and I barely managed to avoid being run over by a herd of pigs stampeding down the street. Two Filipino boys ran behind the herd, waving sticks and laughing at us as we ducked inside the heavy metal gate that separated our house from the street. “Black is black,” they sang out as they raced by. Tam and I looked at each other, puzzled. What was that supposed to mean? Was that a negative comment about our black skin? We weren’t sure if it was a racial slur because it was hard for us to imagine that people who were mired by such desperate poverty would resort to using derogatory names. Besides, the term seemed to be nothing more than the lyrics for a popular song by Los Bravos:
Black is black
I want my baby back
It's gray, it's gray
Since she went away, Ooh-Ooh
What can I do
'Cause I-I-I-I-I'm feelin' blue.
Tam and I figured that the boys didn’t know what they were saying, and they were merely singing a pop song that they heard on the radio. They had no reason to call us names. We hadn’t done anything to them.
But it didn’t take us long to figure out that yes, the pig-herders had assigned negative connotations to the words, “Black is black.” It was their way of saying the “N” word. After that, all hesitation was gone. We flew out of our front yard whenever we heard the pigs coming down the street, and chased the shepherds all the way to the gate of the barrio. Mom had taught us that we should never allow anyone to denigrate our race in any manner. If the pig-herders wanted to call us names, they also had to accept the fiery consequences. We never got the chance to have a confrontation, however. They switched on the after-burners as soon as we came out of the yard, and we couldn’t catch them. We always wound up going home breathless and disappointed.
“Don’t worry about them,” my mother often said whenever we returned home exhausted. “They don’t have a pot to piss in; their words don’t mean a thing"
All of that changed when we moved into the comfortable little three bedroom, one bath air-conditioned house located in the enlisted men’s family housing area on Clark. Tam and I were allowed to roam more freely because Mom felt that the base was safe from such menaces as the “Huks” and marauding gangs of pig-herders.
What Mom never realized was that her children were not always interested in being “safe”. She pulled us along quickly whenever we passed the Aeta (or Negritos, as they were called back then) on our way to the Base Exchange or the commissary. The Aeta were dark-skinned, nappy-haired people of very short stature who preceded all other ethnic groups in making the Philippines their home. Tam, Ricky and I were frightened by their rather fierce appearance, yet curious about them. Mom always used that old cliché “curiosity kills the cat” whenever we asked her questions about them. So we turned to Dad with our questions whenever he was home from the war in Vietnam. He was always more than happy to fill us in on the story.
The Aeta had full permission to live anywhere they wanted to on the base, and their preference turned out to be the dense, seemingly uninhabitable jungle areas that couldn’t be tamed for military use. According to my father, they served as scouts and assassins against the Japanese during World War II. The American and Filipino armies promised the Aeta that they would be allowed to return to their traditional ways while living on property that was leased by the United States Air Force from the Philippine government. In exchange, the Aeta were to evacuate during military training maneuvers, which didn’t seem to be a problem for them. Compromise with the Americans meant that their source of income would continue to flow into their tobacco stained hands.
Apparently, some of the Aeta’s traditional ways included the practice of shrinking human heads. The heads were sold as curios to military personnel and their families as they passed the small crowds of Aeta gathered outside the Base Exchange. They must been a profitable items because the head merchants were out there shouting “Heads! You buy; you buy!” even the during monsoon (rainy) season. The heads were enormously mesmerizing to my siblings and me. But getting away from Mom to take a closer look was a difficult task. She wasn’t about to let her babies get anywhere near something so vile.
During one trip to the BX, Mom became distracted by a sidewalk sale of oil paintings. While she busy inspecting a painting of Filipino women performing the “tinikling”, an intricate traditional dance involving jumping between large bamboo sticks that were clapped together in rhythmic patterns, my siblings and I hazarded the chance to solve the shrunken heads puzzle. We made a beeline for the Aeta, pulling up short when we came within inches for the shrunken heads. They were truly a disgusting sight. There was only a vague resemblance to a human being because they looked like very large dried apples with brown, leather skin. All of them had long hair, which the Aeta used to tie them to the heads together so they could be displayed at all at once. It made a very gruesome presentation. I wondered if the victims were required to grow their hair before they were sacrificed for the economic good of the group. None of the Aeta had hair like that. Maybe the long hairs were kept secluded in the jungle, awaiting their fate.
Cautiously, I approached a woman and pointed to her string of heads. Tam and Ricky stayed a few inches behind me, staring at the Aeta and their prized artifacts with fear-widened eyes.
“Are they real?” That question had been on my mind ever since we first encountered the Aeta outside the BX. I had to avert my eyes away from the shriveled versions of human beings to ask that, however. They looked even creepier up close.
“Yes, yes, you buy, yes? The Aeta woman was grinning widely, showing off her black gums and rotting teeth. She was barefoot and wearing a mismatched skirt and blouse of American origin. To my horror, she held the heads closer to my face. “Is good; you buy!”
At the same time, I heard my mother’s sharp voice cutting through the humid air.
“Angela Denise! Get away from there, right now!”
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Whirling around, I grabbed my brother and sister and took off running. Mom was giving us her dangerous look. She took my arm and pinched it hard when I approached.
“I better not ever catch you doing something like that again, you hear me?”
She didn’t have to worry about that. I had nightmares featuring laughing, shrunken heads for the next month. I gave the Aeta a lot of clearance during subsequent trips to the BX.
As with everything in life, our time in the Philippines had to come to a close. I found myself feeling very sad to be leaving the place that had been so strange, but fascinating to me. Everyday seemed to be a new adventure, and I was rarely bored. Besides, life back in the States seemed to have gone into the realm of insanity. There were protests and riots in almost every major city. Shortly after we received our orders to report to McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 5,1968. According to massively censored and biased reports from the Armed Forces News Services, all of America seemed to be burning.
A month before we were scheduled to arrive in Tacoma, Robert F. Kennedy, Democratic candidate for President and baby brother to former president John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. The Shortt family began to rely less on the Armed Forces Network and anxiously wait for the mail order delayed issues of Ebony and Jet magazines to arrive. We trusted the Johnson Publishing Company to give us a more complete account of the Civil Rights movement and on-going protests about the Vietnam War. But neither Ebony nor Jet helped soothe our apprehensions about what was waiting for us back in the States. As always, we turned to Mom.
“Keep your mind on your schoolwork; that’s all you have to do. You do that, and everything will be just fine.”
That’s all we needed to hear.