Wednesday, August 18, 2010
In Good Company
"Yeah, I know them. They're Gooks! GOOKS!"
I cringed, sheepishly looking over at the table of Koreans beside us. Barry was a very large man, and even when he wasn't drunk and bellowing, his normal speaking voice could probably be heard clear across the bay in Puerto Galera proper. The horrid scowl he was aiming in the direction of the Koreans didn't improve the already tense atmosphere.
It was New Years. I was staying in a beautiful little resort a couple kilometres outside the town of Puerto Galera in the Philippines. At my table was an eclectic mix of individuals, all of them at least 20 years my senior.
Greg, a hardened New Zealand Navy cook stared at his plate, saying nothing.
Greg lived in a house on the resort grounds with his Filipina wife. He spent every other month at sea and, when back, usually polished off a bottle of vodka before noon on a daily basis. That was just to warm him up.
"I spent a lot of time in Russia" He would explain with a toothy grin when questioned about his drinking prowess. I had heard the story; he had been stationed in some god forsaken place in Siberia with no company but a few Russians who couldn't speak English, and an endless supply of vodka.
"GOOKS! GOOKS!" The Koreans didn't react, I was sure that most of them could speak English, and even if they didn't, it was well known as a derogatory way to address them.
"It means 'Post Office'" Barry said, glancing our way with a grin.
It didn't. But I was not going to contradict Barry, and incur the attention of his unpredictable wrath. He had spent time in Korea, Songtan in fact, with the US Military. But, not as much time as I had. I knew their language far better than he.
As I had been a fixture in Songtan for the past few years, it was a pivotal area of our friendship. In his more sober moments, usually in the morning, we would sit and recall fond memories of the place. He had been there almost two decades before I, but it had changed little it seemed, as we exchanged stories of our exploits up and down Aragorn Alley and The Strip.
"Barry..." The Colonel said softly, trying in vein to quell his growing senseless anger.
The Colonel was famous in these parts. An elderly, dignified Filipino war veteran, he had single handedly stopped the rebellion against Marcos. Being a crack pilot, he had strafed the hordes of angry Filipinos gathering outside the palace, killing an unknown number, and sending the rest fleeing for their lives. It was an experience he wasn't proud of, but he was a soldier, and defending the corrupt Marcos had been his job. He was a war hero, and men of his stature were held in very high regard here, even though Marcos is universally hated to this day.
The Colonel was also a figure of infamy in Puerto Galera. He was well known for getting drunk, pulling out his .45 pistol, and shooting people.
"He's shot 5 people here in the last 4 years!" Greg had exclaimed, beaming. "Don't worry, he caught them creeping around here at night, this place is one of the safest places you can stay in the Philippines, EVERYBODY knows The Colonel!”
And so it seemed, but that had not stopped the assassination that had taken place a few months ago.
"It was right over there" Greg had said, motioning with his chin as we were sitting in the dining area one beautiful morning. The man had come in, and ordered a beer and light meal. Upon finishing, he got up, walked to the order desk, and shot the owner's brother in the head. After firing two more shots to make sure the man was dead he turned and politely addressed the horrified diners. He apologized profusely for the inconvenience, and urged the diners to finish their meals. Then he paid up, and casually sauntered down the kilometre of unpaved dusty jungle track that connected to the main road.
"No, you're safe here" Greg had reassured me after noting my expression upon hearing this. "I've got my 9mm, The Colonel is a crack shot with his .45, and Barry! Barry is armed to the teeth, and everybody around here knows it!"
Yes, I was in good company.
"Gooks! I know them! Suck your dick for two bucks!"
Barry had completely destroyed the pleasant dining atmosphere by now. Greg, tired of this behaviour, had gotten up and walked off, joining his family at another table. The Colonel slumped in his chair, and I remained silent. It was uncomfortable, but I didn't want to abandon the table just yet. Despite his off moments, which were frequent, I enjoyed Barry's company.
"I know Gooks! I know...SOJU!" His deafening voice taking on a sly tone.
A couple of the Koreans looked over.
"Yeah, now I got their attention! Soju! Soju!" He continued, cracking a wide grin. The Koreans smiled back.
Barry had the uncanny ability to carry an impossibly fearsome scowl at one moment, then suddenly transform his face into an impishly disarming grin. It was something to behold, and it had worked on the Koreans, temporarily relieving the tension.
I picked at my food. The evening had started off well. All the guests had gathered in the restaurant for the banquet that the staff had prepared. Spirits were high, and the Filipinos joined the residents while The Colonel stood up and made a speech. After the applause Barry had leapt up and cut into the lechon pig, presenting it to The Colonel. "The Colonel gets the first taste! He's the Patriarch!" He shouted to the cheering diners.
But now, the party was nearly over. Several of the guests had already fled back to their rooms. Barry was impossible to ignore, and he had single handedly ruined New Years.
I took advantage of the momentary lull, and abandoning my plate, returned to my room. As I sat at my laptop, I could hear Barry engaging in a loud argument with Adella, Greg's sister in law. I really liked Barry, he was great company when he was sober, but famous for this type of behaviour when drunk. I felt like a bit of a traitor for abandoning him.
"He has no friends - except us" Greg had told me later. "He does that all the time, until everybody leaves and he ends up drinking alone"
I thought about Barry in my room; a sad, lonely old man, emotionally crippled by his experience in Vietnam. He lived alone in the Philippines, moving from one place to another when those around him made it clear his presence was intolerable. He was a tragic figure.
It was starting to approach midnight, and the firecrackers that had been going off in town became a constant roar. I walked out of my room through the darkness, passing the open air restaurant. Barry was there, sullenly sitting alone, drinking in the now fully abandoned restaurant. I made my way to the beach, lit a cigarette and watched as the first streaks of colour exploded up from the other side of the bay. Smoke was rising from the town, and cheers could be heard above the constant sound of the firecrackers.
"Don't look there, look here!"
Barry had come up behind me, and pointed in the direction of the small isthmus that connected our island to the mainland.
"They do this every year, and spend a lot of money - wait for it!"
Just then a barrage of light split the darkness. Fire roared up into the sky and burst into colour.
Barry went wild with delight; he began to prance around screaming "I love you FIlipinos! I Love you!" I watched his huge silhouette against the back drop of exploding colour.
It was a fantastic show, made all the better by the brushfire that almost immediately sprang up on the hills.
"It's burning, it's burning!" Barry screamed with abandon.
The show continued, and in cadence the flames rose to a height of thirty or more feet.
"Watch out! Shit's coming down! Shit's coming down!" Barry was laughing hysterically. We were being bombarded with the expended, burning casings. I flung my arms up to shield my head and began to laugh uncontrollably.
We stood there and watched the crescendo, the sky lit up with a frenzy of explosions, smoke rising in a pillar from the town, our connection to the mainland cut off by wild brush fires, all the while being peppered from above by burning bits of cardboard. Barry screamed with delight "All for us! All for us!"
It was a moment I'll remember forever, Barry had been transformed as if the fire had burned the bitterness and anger from his very soul. I felt renewed, charged with pure energy. It seemed, somehow, like my entire life led up to witnessing this very instant in time. I became profoundly aware that there was a pure spirit deep down in every one of us, and no matter what was done to shroud it; it would forever burn with the intensity of that moment.
Finally, it was over. I walked back through the darkness to my room, overcome with emotion and in deep thought. Reaching my door I looked up and saw that for several miles up and down the coast, the flames of wild fires were licking the sky.