Well, what can you say about the City of Olongapo on the island of Luzon in the Philippines? When I was in high school, I had a couple of friends who were older and had joined the Navy right after they graduated. When home on leave they would tell stories of a place in the West Pacific that you just couldn’t believe. You sort of blew it off as over-excited storytelling and tell yourself that there just can’t be any place on earth like this. Then, you get there and realize they were pretty accurate in their descriptions of this small Philippine city that appeared to pretty much survive on the money spent by soldiers, sailors and airmen looking to cut loose.
Whether you just spent months at sea or crawling through a jungle you need some sort of way to just relax for awhile and have some fun. I’m guessing that in 1972 the average age of enlisted military personnel was probably in their early 20’s. There were those who enlisted after high school and were sent to the fleet immediately after boot camp. So many who had never stepped foot into a bar, tavern or night club were allowed to do so here. This was where many young men could test their endurance and capacity for consuming alcohol among other substances, since many weren’t of legal age stateside. When off-base you were still
responsible for being an “ambassador” for the United States, so there was some form of decorum and conduct you were expected to follow. Let’s just say there was some “leeway” in what was considered proper conduct, but if there’s one place on earth where you can act like an uncivilized animal, it was this place.
The main street right outside the Subic Bay Naval Base gate was Magsaysay Blvd. In 1972 there were concrete sidewalks that dropped off to a dirt road surface. They were just starting to pave the center of this road with concrete at the time. To cross the street during the monsoons you stepped off the sidewalk into dirt or mud for about 15 feet and then stepped up on a concrete slab in the middle, then off it into the mud and over to the other sidewalk. This main street was lined with bars with hotels sandwiched in between. One evening I went to a bar off the beaten path by myself. I must have been nuts! I remember walking back toward Magsaysay Blvd. on muddy side streets where there were no street lights, it was pouring rain and yet probably 75 degrees. We had been warned to not travel alone or off of the main streets there. You had to be very careful if carrying a camera or wearing a wristwatch as it would most likely get snatched. I never went to town with my wallet. I carried money in a front pocket and in my back pocket I carried my military ID and Geneva Convention card. At the time there were known terrorist and guerrilla camps in the jungle outside of town and it was reported that they would love to get hold of a U.S. Serviceman. There was one other time I ever went off the main drag and that was with friends. One of the guys had a girlfriend there who invited us to her place for a meal. I think the only use for electricity in her shack was a refrigerator and a light bulb. Oh, she must have had some sort of stove because she made us some stir-fry vegetables and fish which we washed down with ice cold San Miguel beer.
There was one lazy Sunday I didn’t have the duty and wanted to get off the ship. To hell with terror threats and street crime, I’m going to take off to see some sights outside of Olongapo. I can take care of myself, since I couldn’t find any of my buds that would want to go with and it was the middle of the day. I went into town with a bunch of my new recently purchased 35mm camera gear. I got into a cab and told him to take me to White Rock Beach. This ride was pretty harrowing in that the driver would go like hell squeezing this little Datsun through narrow slots, around blind corners in the outside lane and zooming around ox driven carts. It was nice that part of the trip was on paved roads! He dropped me off at the beach where I spent a few hours just kickin’ back and chillin’. I peeked into the pool area at the resort near the beach and then caught a cab back to town. Pretty uneventful day but nice to just get away.
As I mentioned the main street was lined with bars and night clubs. The cool thing here is that most of the places had a musical theme. What I mean is that there were rock and roll places and next door may be a country western bar and next to that may be heavy metal (well, heavy as it was in those days). Walking down the sidewalk was just like playing with the tuner dial on your car radio. You would hear a Chicago song and then next door you would hear Janis Joplin and next door to that you might hear Led Zeppelin. What fascinated me is how the Filipinos were such masters at imitation. These weren’t records or tape playing that I heard, they were live acts. Imagine hearing Ring of Fire coming out of a bar and it sounds exactly like the bassy, baritone of Johnny Cash. You walk in and there is this little brown guy in a western shirt, jeans and boots, about 4′ 6” onstage with his band making this sound. It was incredible! It made you want to stick around and see how they did with Folsom Prison Blues or I Walk the Line. There were a couple of places that had a Janis Joplin act. There you would find this tiny native Filipina belting out this big sound on stage. She would even have the Southern Comfort bottle (probably ice tea) at the base of her microphone, occasionally grabbing a swig. She had the sound and the mannerisms down to a tee. There were some places where the band may follow up a Buck Owens song with something from the Beatles and they would sound spot-on! These people could pick up on the instrumentation and vocals of virtually anyone they studied and of course, western culture was the money-maker.
Another place I remember was called Swanky’s International. It was up at the end of Magsaysay and a short block or so to the east on Rizal Avenue. The bands there always covered songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad and Deep Purple. The girls there could “doctor” your cigarette for you if you chose to partake. It was interesting that this place had a uniformed guard at the entrance, as some of the joints did. He was usually leaning in the doorway with one hand up around the corner of the door jamb. I was told that there was a button up there at his fingertips and when he would recognize someone from the local police, vice or drug force approaching, he would trigger a certain light on the wall that alerted the girls to hide any contraband that may be out.
The music was rather comforting in that it reminded you of home. Sometimes it was sad for the same reason. The one common thread with all the clubs was our beverage of choice, good old San Miguel beer. When especially sultry out you would offer the boy an extra 25 cents to bring you one from the bottom of the cooler with frost on it. And if he dug one from the bottom of the freezer/cooler that still has slush in it, give him an extra dime! They really could occasionally find one in that condition! The “working” girls would always come to your table and try to get you to buy them an over-priced cocktail with which the bar raked in their revenue. The girls were also there to solicit favors for later in the evening, if you chose. Most all of these women would tell you that they from some distant village or province and were here to make money for their family and for college. These girls were like temporary wives or girlfriends to some of the guys. They knew when you were getting shipped out and when you would return, so were available for you on your next visit to Subic Bay. Evidently there was a coconut telegraph that could provide the “ladies” with ship movement and know what we were doing before we did. John had his Yolanda and another shipmate had Jane Fonda Superstar, who worked upstairs at the D’Wave Club. Now I don’t remember how she got that nickname by us, but I’m betting it was before we were aware of the full impact of Jane Fonda’s (the actress) anti-war stand. Oh, to be young and single in this third-world Adult DisneyLand. Sort of a kinky nirvana. This was everything (and more) my friend Dave said it was several years prior. As I recall, the interiors of most of these places seemed the same; dimly lit and muggy. Some had swamp coolers or real a/c units, others not. Some had more spiders or lizards on the walls than others. Some had floor shows that would be really hard to describe.
One club I remember up on the right side of Magsaysay had a pond out in front with a wrought iron fence surrounding the water. In this pond lived a 5 foot alligator (or was it a croc?). A woman stood outside with a basket where you could purchase a cute little live baby chick (or were they ducklings?) from her. Once you made the buy you were to toss it into the pond for the alligator to toy with, eventually gulping it down. One night I witnessed some inebriated marines daring each other to bite the heads off the little live creatures and then throw them in. Guess what? Headless chicks bobbing in the pool sort of took the sport out of the gator’s tortuous activity, but he ate them anyway. Don’t let anyone tell you a U.S. Marine ain’t tough!
Walking this street was a multi-sensory barrage of sights, sounds and smells. When you left the main gate at the base, the road leads you right over Shit River. Smell would tell you how it got the name as well as looking upstream, you could see all the shacks of the barrio built up to and over the water. As you crossed the bridge there were children below in their small banca boats begging GI’s for change. I suspect there was a hierarchy within these beggars because there would be some poorer ones with no boat who simply bobbed around treading the stinky brown water. Whether you tossed pennies, a nickle or a dime, they would dive for it and come up holding it in their hands. This river was a 40 foot wide open sewer, for god’s sakes!
As you walked into town, you smelled the beer and tobacco wafting out of the bars and clubs. You smelled the street foods, like fresh popcorn and the monkey meat or chicken livers grilled on skewers on sidewalk hibachis. Smells from cafes or restaurants were usually pleasant but may be followed by the odor of sewage and then a few feet down you’ll get a whiff of some sweet jasmine and then back to something rotten wafting from an alleyway or bad plumbing. On the road you could catch the roar of a colorful jeepney passing by or the smelly exhaust and putt-putt sound of a passing 2-stroke motorized tricycle or sort of a moped rickshaw contraption that could carry 1 or 2 (or 3 close friends).
One food ritual I had there was when first going into town I would go to a little cafe on the left side of Magsaysay a few doors past the bridge and get a plate of pancit canton, a noodle dish. Sometimes I would order the lumpia, too. They were like spring rolls, sometimes fried. In addition to anything grilled on a sidewalk hibachi, I also ate a few hum baos. These were a sweet doughy bread that had meat in the center that was like it was in a barbeque sauce. I asked a mama san once what the meat was and she said “dog”. They were still pretty tasty. The one street food I always thought that some evening I would get drunk enough to eat was the balut. I never did. Women would stand on a street corner with a basket with some steamy towels in it. Buried in these warm towels were duck eggs. These fertilized eggs had an embryo inside that when at a certain stage of development, were then boiled. Essentially, it was like our hard boiled eggs but with a little feathery body treat inside. Just peel the shell off, sprinkle with some salt and eat. I was told that you should keep track of the semi-developed beak so you could use it as a toothpick.
I had another food ritual there that took place on the base. When we would come back to Subic Bay from Viet Nam for repairs and maintenance, the very first place I would go was the enlisted mens club on the base. Wasn’t that called the Sampaguita Club? I would go there and order a filet mignon and a 7&7. Those several special meals there are the only time in my life I can recall ever having filet mignon. I don’t think I’ve ever ordered it stateside.