It occurred to me that none of you will see the story that I wrote for publication because it will be published as part of a literary journal, which also means writing por gratas. But publishing credits look good to literary agents. Since there's no money changing going on, I figure I might as well post it here to a wider audience. Yes, like any other person in involved in the literary arts, I'm ego-centric. I like the idea of my words going out to others who may or may not think the same way. If I didn't like it, I would be like Emily Dickinson, writing poetry and suffering in self-imposed isolation. I isolate myself enough; I don't need to keep my words swirling around in my head. That would be one step into the loony bin (mental hospital) for me, and there are times when I feel like I'm a half step away from that already.
Anyway, the name of the piece is "Diamond Life", and it is what is now called "creative non-fiction". Years ago, the genre was known as "new journalism", or writing about real people, places and events using fiction writing techniques. The genre has been popularized by successful writers such as Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion and John McPhee. I'm nowhere close to that group's stellar and groundbreaking achievements, but I'm determined to keep plugging away at it.
We smelled the marauding herd of pigs before we saw them. My sister Tam and I were standing outside the coral colored concrete wall that barricaded the coral colored, three bedroom, two bath house our family lived in for our first year in the Philippine Islands. We lived in the “Diamond Compound”--a housing area built ostensibly by local Filipino contractors for the United States Armed Forces in a banana-coconut-palm-mango tree-filled area beneath the shadow of the then dormant volcano, Mount Pinatubo.
The neighborhood was unlike any other we had ever seen. Nearly all of the homes in the off-base compound (meaning that we lived in a special area designed for non-commissioned officers’ families) were made from the same concrete brick material, and painted with wild, gaudy colors: awful aquamarine, banana yellow, obnoxious orange and retina-burning coral. There were no sidewalks, and the street was a mash of pebbles and inferior grade asphalt, which gave way to foot-wide potholes.
The year was 1966; President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated three years earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson was the President of the United States, and the Vietnam “military action” was being referred to as a “war” to preserve democracy in Southeast Asia and the world. For that reason, Staff Sergeant Richard S. Shortt (my father), one of the Military Airlift Command's C-130 load masters during the war, was put on constant alert while stationed at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippine Islands. His family—wife Mary, daughter Angela (me), daughter Tamara and son Richard the II--was transferred to Clark so we could see the patriarch of the family once every three months.
We had just moved into our new living quarters, and Tam and I decided to take a look around the neighborhood while our mother was busy ordering the poor, hapless, barely English- speaking movers around. That’s when we took a whiff of that malodorous stench, a particularly noxious, nostril-burning, stomach-churning stew of maggot-riddled meat, moldy cabbage, rotted carrots and open sewage .
Tam pinched her nose closed with her thumb and forefinger, then looked up the street for the source of the odor. I began to look in the opposite direction, but I became distracted by the tiny, tin-roofed, three-sided store that was the street from our house.
“Let’s go see what’s at that store.”
I never asked my sister if she wanted to do anything. As the oldest of the three Shortt children, I felt it was my God-given right to make her (and our little brother, Ricky) follow my lead whenever I had one of my adventurous ideas. She didn’t always do it, which always angered me enough to call her names like “scaredy-cat”, and “prissy miss sissy”. But this time we were in a foreign land and an unfamiliar area. Anything could happen to either of us. She knew I would march off without her and leave her in a bad, possibly dangerous situation if she didn't stick close. I was known to do that
“C’mon, we won’t be gone long!”
She glanced back at our concrete brick house. Mom was in there, snapping her fingers and ordering the movers to shuffle the same pieces of furniture from one end of a room to the other. The woman was rarely satisfied with anything, which meant she would be preoccupied with changing various arrangements of furniture for hours. That was fine with me; it gave me a chance to explore the neighborhood. Grabbing Tam’s arm, I began pulling her across the street.
We didn’t get very far. It seemed like they came out of nowhere.—a herd of grunting, disgustingly foul-smelling, coarse haired pigs of various sizes and dispositions charged at us. Tam shrieked and backed up while I jumped and dodged out of the way. One particularly enormous boar seemed to be determined to run me over. With my heart beating manically, I scrambled to get my sister and I back inside the heavy, rusted metal gate that kept the reality of life in the Philippines safely closed off from the Shortt family's makeshift Americanized way of living.
In the meantime, two Filipino boys ran behind the herd, waving sticks and laughing at us. “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 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 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.
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 using the “N” word. After that, all hesitation was gone. We flew out of our front yard ready for a fight whenever we heard the pigs coming down the street. Tam and I chased the thin, barely-clothed shepherds all the way to the gate of the compound that separated our neighborhood from the impoverished 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 had to also accept the fiery consequences of a battle royal.
We never had that anticipated fight. The pig-herders 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 it,” my mother often said whenever we returned home and told her what had happened. She never seemed very upset.
“Those people don’t have a pot to piss in; why should you care what they call you? Just let them be.”
There were so many things we had to learn during our first year in the Philippines. All of us Shortt kids were fascinated by the little three-walled structure located across the street. It was known as a “sari-sari” (variety) store, and it sold all sorts of colorful toys, such as long straws packaged with a wad of soft rubber that we rolled around between our fingers to make it softer, then placed on one end of the straw. At the other end, we blew air through the straw and created huge, sparkly neon-colored balloons that lasted a lot longer than bubble gum.
The danger, of course, was inhaling the rubbery substance through the straw, which would have been disastrous to our continued health. The proprietor also sold little plastic replicas of B52s, tiny army trucks, and the ubiquitous toy soldiers in various fighting poses. It never seemed odd to me that for a country devastated by World War II and numerous bloody, political upheavals, selling war toys to children was considered to be quite normal. At the time, I was relieved to have such a large choice of toys guns so I could play “war” with the boy in our compound.
The sari-sari also sold flashy-looking plastic high heeled shoes and handbags, fake feathered boas, and cat-eyed child-sized sunglasses with glitter on the frames. Tam and I never paid much attention to those items, but looking back, it seemed there were two subtle messages being sold to Filipino children—you will grow up to be either a soldier or a street-walker. For some, that message became their destiny.
Of course, our favorite items to buy at the sari-sari were the small bottles Coca-Cola (“They have Coke here, too!”) and rice candy, which were these sweet, very chewy little confections wrapped in translucent rice paper that dissolved in our mouths. The rice paper had no taste, but we loved the idea of eating it without getting sick.
“One dime American, yes?” The sari-sari owner leaned over the counter and grinned at us with brown, tobacco-stained teeth. Tam, Ricky, and I put our dimes on the counter and ran home with our treasured candy and Cokes.
We went back a few days later for more rice candy and Coke, but the store owner had a different attitude.
“One quarter American, each!”
I looked at Tam and Ricky, then turned back to the sari-sari man.
“A quarter? You charged us ten cents the other day!” I felt the super-heated, prickly flash of anger surging over me.
“Price go up!” The sari-sari man no longer appeared friendly. He folded his arms across his chest resolutely and frowned.
“You buy...one quarter, American!”
“C'mon, let's get some more money from Mom,” I told my siblings. I sensed that something wasn't right about the exchange, but the candy and Cokes were more important at the time.
Mom had a different view of the situation. Once we went into the kitchen and told her what happened, she stopped cleaning collard greens, wiped her hands on a towel, stormed out of the house and power-walked up to the sari-sari counter. The three of us had to run to keep up with her. We didn't know what was going on, but we knew that look on her face. The sari-sari man was in big trouble
Our mother launched into one of her rapid-fire, righteous indignation speeches, which seemed to make the sari-sari man confused at first. He probably didn't understand a word she was saying. But when he glanced at us standing behind Mom, he seemed to piece together the story, and became angry.
“You! You all...niggahs!”
I can't remember what Mom said because she could rattle off 1, 000 words per second when she was riding one of her lava flows of rage. The man abruptly closed up his shop, slamming the metal shutters with a loud clang. Mom was in the middle of a vicious sounding tirade, and didn't seem to notice for a moment that the man had shut down both the store and the argument. It took her a second to collect herself and tell us to “run on in the house and get ready for dinner”.
As we trotted back across the street, Ricky spoke first: “What's a niggah?”
He was only three at the time; he hadn't heard Mom's don't-let-anyone-call-you-that speech. I looked over my shoulder, and saw that Mom was still fuming and muttering curses under her breath.
“I'll tell you later,” I whispered.
“When?” Ricky was becoming aware that there were a lot of things we wouldn't tell him because we thought he was too young, and he didn't appreciate being left out of our conversations. “Tell me!”
“Shhhh!” Tam also peered nervously back at Mom. She didn't want to get her any more upset than she was already. We were in for a tense evening as it was.
Our mother did calm down after she finished cooking and called us to the table to eat with Dad, who had just come in from a pre-flight briefing on base. Over dinner, she patiently tried to explain the socio-economic impact of imported racism from the States.
“See, the people here don't have much of anything. You all can see that. So they depend on Americans for money, especially rich white folks.”
“What's white folks?” Ricky was spitting kernels from his corn on the cob across the table as he spoke. Mom frowned.
“Don't talk with your mouth full!” Carefully, she set her fork down next to her plate and placed her hands in her lap. That meant she was about to say something important.
“I'll tell you later,” I whispered again to Ricky, who shot an irritated glance at me. I knew he had seen plenty of white folks because we were around them pretty much all of the time. But he hadn't associated the people he'd been seeing with the term Mom used.
“White folks run things in this world, including the Philippines. The Filipinos see how they look down at us, and call us names. So they imitate what white people do because they want to stay in good with the folks who have the money.”
Tam spoke up then. “How come white people hate us so much?.”
Mom looked the other side of the dining room table at Dad, who had once again broke the rule about reading at the dinner table. He had the Air Force Times open in his lap as he shoveled collard greens and cornbread into his mouth.
“Richard! Could you pay at least a little attention to your family during dinner?”
As usual, Dad was engrossed in his world. Mom was responsible for ours, and he figured she was better equipped to handle family matters.
Mom sighed with impatience. “Your daughter asked an important question.”
“Well, Mary, I have two! Which one asked the question?”
Mom sucked her teeth in disgust. “Never mind!” She turned her attention to us. “To answer your question, we really don't know why. For God knows what reason, they hate the color of our skin. Isn't that right, Richard?”
Dad, of course, didn't answer. He was turning the pages of the newspaper. Tam and I giggled as quietly as we could while Mom glared at him.
After living in the Diamond Compound for ten months, our name came up on the on-housing list. We said our silent goodbyes to the concrete brick housing area with the crazy colors, the barrio behind the compound, and the pig-herders, who continued to jeer at us whenever they ran down our street.
Life on base was considerably more “American” than in the Diamond Compound, and our interactions with the locals were limited to those who worked for the Armed Forces on base, and the Aeta (aka “negritos”) people who sold machetes, beads and shrunken heads outside the Base Exchange. The military police patrolled on-base housing regularly to keep it safe democracy-minded military dependents, so Tam and I were free to roam a lot further than we ever could back in Diamond. We were also very relieved to smell garbage-free air on a daily basis for the first time since our arrival on the islands.
“No pigs, no stink!” We danced around joyously in our bungalow style, plain gray painted home that was raised off the ground in case of flooding during the monsoon season. No pigs, horrible smells, cheating sari-sari owners or back yards overflowing with sewage streaming in from the barrio or broken septic tanks. We loved it.
After two and a half years, we were ordered to return to the States. I found myself feeling depressed to be leaving a place that had been so strange and confusing, 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 waited 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 and your fists ready for the first sign of trouble. That’s all you have to do. You do that, and everything will be just fine.”
That’s all we needed to hear.