Clark Air Base, located on the main island of Luzon in the Philippines, was nothing like I expected, although the humidity when I first stepped from the plane into the open night air was not unlike what I remembered in San Antonio, Texas, where just three years earlier I’d had my Air Force basic training. Incandescent bulbs outlined a large blue and white painted sign that announced “Welcome to Clark Air Base: Supply Depot to the Western Pacific.” The scene wasn’t at all like what I’d recalled seeing on television a few weeks earlier when the Vietnam War POWs were first released. I’d also recalled hearing that Clark was the largest Air Force base in the world. I glanced around the tarmac as we were herded into an oversized Quonset hut marked “New Arrivals.” Off to the right, I noticed a long row of coffin-sized metal boxes lined up on wood pallets, apparently waiting to be loaded onto a C-5 Galaxy transport. The nose section of the huge plane was actually raised perpendicular to the rest of the fuselage, pointing straight into the air. Then I overheard someone in front of me saying that they really were caskets, containing the latest casualties from the war. Sent home via the Postal Courier Service, to which I had been assigned. Strange mail, I thought soberly.
It struck me that I was lucky to have been sent to Clark instead of ‘Nam. Not that I hadn’t tried to go there: shortly after I’d first enlisted, I’d had the crazy idea of volunteering to be a side gunner on a Huey helicopter, until I learned that the average life expectancy of a side gunner was about twenty-three minutes after takeoff. Even then, I’d thought briefly (and stupidly) that I might be willing to play the odds, but how much longer than twenty-three minutes would a good odds-player live? No, I was lucky, from at least that one point of view, to be here. The air was sticky, and I immediately felt overdressed in my Class B blues.
We went into the Quonset hut, about two hundred of us, as far as I could tell, and from all the services, too, except the Army. But there were plenty of Navy and Marines, soon to be headed south to Subic Bay. Clark must be the gateway, I figured, the staging area, the hub where everybody assigned to the PI must travel through.
“Welcome to the PI,” a man wearing Master Sergeant stripes said into a microphone. “You just left The World for…well, you can put your own name to it….”
There were forms to fill out, orders to be collected, pay records and the like. We were all issued Merchandise Control Cards, and told we could only buy certain amounts of cigarettes, liquor, and electronic gear—the black market was horrible here, and the government of the US didn’t want anyone getting rich off of Uncle Sam, at least in that way.
Someone stuffed a base map in my hand, and the man giving the briefing ended with one word of caution: “Don’t go off base by yourself until you’ve had a chance to join up with a sponsor, escort, whatever. The locals can spot a ‘cherry boy’ coming from a mile away.”
I just wanted to sleep. It was three a.m. PI time, which was nine p.m. back in San Diego, of either the day before or the day after today, I couldn’t remember how the time zones worked. There was a big blue Air Force bus outside the terminal, with the driver announcing he was headed for the Enlisted and Officer Transient quarters. I grabbed my duffel bag from the baggage claim cart and got on board.
The BEQ was an open bay affair not unlike what I’d had in basic training, but with small fence-like partitions between the beds. I pulled my uniform from my body, dropped everything on the duffel bag in front of the bed, dropped myself into the bunk and fell fast asleep. It didn’t last long: after about four hours, my eyes popped open and wouldn’t close again.
I managed to find my room at the Postal Service barracks, and discovered my hold baggage, sent in advance of my arrival, was waiting for me in several large boxes. It including my beloved stereo system. I was glad I would have the room to myself. I was told there would be few, if any, inspections.
The base was huge, the size of a small city back in The World. I located a chow hall and had some breakfast, then went over to the base post office where I would be working for the next sixteen or so months. The Chief of the APO, a pleasant, very laid-back Senior Master Sergeant, welcomed me, and gave me a quick tour of the place: a huge back room where a bunch of guys in fatigue-pants and their white undershirts were unloading a fifty-three-foot SeaLand trailer that had been parked just outside the loading dock. They were in a sort of bucket-brigade line stretching from the front of the trailer to the rear, passing large canvas bags and boxes out of it. I thought it looked like easy work. Then the chief told me to go back to the barracks and get some rest and to come back first thing Monday morning. The jet lag can take a toll on the body.
I went back to my room and unpacked my stuff, then got dressed in my civvies, and–after first stopping at the base bank and changing some US dollars into Philippine pesos– took the bus the five miles to the front gate.
Looking back, I can’t adequately explain why I ignored the advice I’d been given the night before not to venture off base alone. My thought at the time was simply that I didn’t want to try to hang out at any of the service clubs with people I didn’t yet know. But I think now it was more than that. I was terribly naïve about the oftentimes harsh realities of military life overseas. American service people are generally disliked more than they are liked. Too, I think I tended toward a general distrust of those senior to me, most of whom were adults my own father’s age or older. They were always so cautious. The way I looked at it, I’d spent most of my childhood doing exactly the opposite of what I’d been told by cautious adults, and, outside of a few less-than-memorable incidents, I’d come out okay. Why should things be any different now?
When I got off the bus, I stood just inside the main gate and looked out toward the edge of Angeles City. Other than Tijuana, Mexico, which hardly counts, it was the first time I had been in a foreign country. The noise was startling. In the distance was what I would soon discover was MacArthur Highway, AKA Highway 1, much of which was the route of the infamous Bataan Death March, where thousands of US and Philippine soldiers had died. Now it was jammed with colorful jeepnies—the mini-bus conversions of the thousands of army jeeps left behind when the Americans went home after WWII.
Lots of obviously non-Filipino guys were walking around me and out the gate, hailing jeepnies. I girded my loins and followed a group.
Apparently the Filipino beggar-children were, indeed, able to spot a “cherry boy” from a considerable distance, as though he were wearing a large sign announcing his peculiarity in block letters. Today my own sign was apparently no less visible: I was no sooner outside the gate before a screaming throng of them surrounded me, waving chewing gum and empty hands in my direction.
“Hey, Joe,” they all said in unison, “you buy gum?” or “You change your dollars to pesos?” Many were only half dressed, some in rags. All were dirty. Apart from this group, a small boy with no legs sat on a wood coaster beside the sidewalk, watching the servicemen as they passed him on their way into Angeles. He held a package of Juicy Fruit in one hand; the other was outstretched, palm up, unmoving. He said nothing, but his eyes were everywhere, watching. Another group of Americans walked by, ignoring the outstretched hand. One even brushed against the boy, but said nothing; no apology; no acknowledgement whatsoever.
I couldn’t bring myself to be so callous. Not yet, anyway. I pushed my way through the screaming, jumping children to this one who was silent and immobile. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a quarter and a nickel, which I held out to him in my open palm. “How much do you want for the gum?” I asked. It didn’t occur to me until after I’d spoken that this child might not understand English.
The kid looked at the money. “That all you have, Joe? Thirty cents?” His voice, like his face, was expressionless.
My mind went suddenly to my back pocket, where I had several Philippine pesos in my wallet. I ignored it. “Yes,” I lied. Already I could feel the callousness—mixed with guilt—spreading through me.
Something seemed to cross his face, a slight lifting of the eyebrows. The kid knew damn well I was lying, that no one comes out the gate with thirty cents in his pocket. But he wasn’t stupid. “If that’s all you have, Joe, then I sell this to you for thirty cents.”
He moved for the first time since I had seen him: in one swift motion the change was swept from my hand and replaced by the yellow pack of gum. I heard the tinkle of coins being dropped into his cup on the sidewalk beside him. He squinted up into the sunlight to see my face. “You cherry boy in PI, Joe?”
I smiled. “What’s a ‘cherry boy’?” I asked him.
“You know. Someone–” He paused, looking me over, then: “You had a Pilipina yet, Joe?”
It occurred to me then what he really meant by ‘cherry.”
I didn’t answer him; something distracted me, another voice, a young man’s accented voice, calling to me from the other side of the road. A man sitting alone in a red jeepney. “Hey, Joe!” he called. He was smiling. “Special Jeepney for you! I give you good price, take you where you want to go.”
I crossed the street to where he was parked. “How much?” I asked.
“Five P,” he said. I thought about it. Five Pesos was less than a dollar, if I’d correctly remembered the exchange rate. I got in beside him, and he turned on the motor and drove onto the small street leading from the base gate to the jammed highway.
I looked at him more closely, and noticed he wasn’t quite as young as I had at first thought, though it was impossible to say what his age was…somewhere between thirty and fifty. He asked me what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, and I told him I wanted to buy some wood souvenirs. He nodded enthusiastically. He said he had an uncle who owned a store nearby; he’d give me a good deal.
I was thinking how lucky I was to run into someone who could take me anywhere I wanted to go for less than a buck, and who could tell me a little about the place. I felt instantly more at ease.
We drove about five minutes. Angeles City was jammed with people and jeeps (hardly any cars, except, ironically, the occasional Mercedes). It smelled like a combination of cooked meat, smoke, and urine. The sounds of engines and grinding gears and chattering voices filled the air. Lining the highway was one bar/whorehouse after another: the Playboy Club (an obvious rip-off), Jade Garden, etc. I was surprised to see a Kentucky Fried Chicken and an A&W Root Beer place, and I wondered where they got their meats, what they would taste like. I was feeling more comfortable, and wondered why everyone had been so cautious, there obviously was nothing to worry about. And I was congratulating myself on stepping out, not letting my fear keep me from doing what I wanted to do.
We pulled up in front of a souvenir shop on Highway 1, and we went inside. I browsed around the various wood carvings while the driver went into the back. He soon appeared with another older man. “How long you been in PI?” the man asked. I told him my plane had landed just last night, and he smiled broadly. He asked me what I did, how long had I been in the Air Force, that sort of thing. I told him I worked for the base post office, that I was still a junior sergeant. The two of them exchanged looks, and the older man nodded and walked away.
I found a couple of nicely carved wood mugs, and paid twenty pesos, or about three dollars for each of them, which I thought was a pretty good price for hand-carved wood.
After I’d paid for the mugs, the driver said: “You’re a nice man. We don’t like a lot of the Americans, they’re not always so friendly. But you, you’re nice. Maybe you’d like to come meet my family? My grandfather is always interested in meeting nice Americans. He’ll give you a free Coke!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. I felt like I’d already extended myself quite a lot by coming off base so soon.
The man looked a little hurt. “But I’ve already called him,” he said. “He’s expecting you. You don’t know how important it is to him!” And before I knew it, I was back in the jeep with the guy and we were whistling down Highway 1 into a distant residential area of Angeles City. The longer we drove, and the farther we got from base, the more nervous I became.
Finally, we pulled up in front of a two-storey stucco duplex that looked like it could have been located in LA. The grandfather apparently lived in the upstairs apartment, and when we got out and walked up the stairs and knocked on the door, there was a portly Filipino with a large blue-black mole on his cheek next to his mouth. He smiled warmly when we came inside and took my hand and shook it. “Engineer Bill!” he said, and when I looked at him questioningly, he gestured to the younger man. “My grandson told me all about you. You are an officer, an engineer?” When I started to tell him I wasn’t exactly either, he waved his hand dismissively in the air. “No matter, no matter,” he said. “Of course, you’d like a Coke.” He nodded toward his nephew, who immediately busied himself in a back area where I assumed the kitchen was; the clinking of ice cubes and the satisfying quish! of a cola bottle being opened.
We sat on a tattered couch and talked. The old man, who never said his name, was friendly, engaging. He pointed to some black and white pictures on the wall. His family. Daughters, sons, grandchildren. One of the photos was apparently of him and a youngish man he proudly claimed was Ferdinand Marcos during WWII, fighting for the resistance against the Japanese. He pointed to himself, holding a machete, looking fierce. I wondered how many Japanese heads he’d taken with that terrible looking blade. He had tears in his eyes as he looked at the photo, as if thinking, Ah! The glorious days when we were all fighting for freedom!
We talked, chatted, laughed. I was feeling more and more at ease. These were good people, I thought. And again I was congratulating myself on not listening to the warnings I’d been given back on base.
We talked about the various cultures around the area. Apparently the Japanese, once hated, were becoming more accepted there, despite the atrocities of the war, the Death March, the concentration camp on Clark Field. “But we hate the Chinese,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Oh?” I said. “But why?” I had thought the Chinese had been our allies during the war. It turned out it had nothing to do with the war. “The Chinese have all the money here,” he said. “They bleed us, use us to do their shit work.”
In the Philippines, I soon learned, millions of ethnic Filipinos worked for Chinese; but almost no Chinese worked for Filipinos. The Chinese dominated industry and commerce at every level of society. Apart from a handful of corrupt politicians and a few aristocratic Spanish mestizo families, all of the Philippines’ billionaires were Chinese. By contrast, all the menial jobs in the Philippines were filled by Filipinos. All domestic servants and squatters were Filipinos.
I was of course completely ignorant of this, but as I talked with this older Filipino, I began to sympathize with him. Apparently there was a Chinese who owned the apartment building he was renting, in which we were now sitting. “He raises the rent every year,” the old man said. “He’s bleeding us. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to pay the rent and we’ll be forced out onto the streets. And he doesn’t care. All he cares about is his money.” I found myself beginning to hate the Chinese, as well.
The old man smiled wickedly, his black mole quivering. “But we get back at him once in awhile,” he said. He explained. “This Chinese loves to gamble. He comes by to empty the Coke machine downstairs every week, brings a suitcase filled with money, and we invite him to play a little cards. Most of the time, we let him win, just to keep him interested. And then”—he drew his finger across his throat—“we go in for the kill.”
I must have looked shocked. He laughed. “I mean, we take his money,” he said. He drew closer and spoke conspiratorially. “We have a way,” he said. “This Chinese is greedy, but at least he’s stupid!”
My curiosity was peaked; I was enjoying the conversation. “This is the way it works,” he said. One of the old man’s grandsons, who is designated as the dealer, sits close enough to the Chinese to be able to see his cards. Through an ingenious system of nearly invisible hand signals, the grandson communicates this information to the opponent. Consequently, the opponent always knows when he’s won the hand, thence to bet, or when he’s lost the hand, and not to bet. “One time we won back two months worth of rent!” he said proudly. “The Chinese has so much money he hardly notices it at all. But the Chinese is so greedy, he always wants to play again so he can win back what he lost! He doesn’t need the money. It’s the principle.” He laughed so hard I thought he was going to start crying or have a heart attack.
Then a thought seemed to come to him, and his face brightened. “Say, you can help us!”
“You can play. The Chinese will be coming this afternoon to empty the Coke machine, and he’ll want to play. He loves to play the Americans. It makes him feel superior if he can beat them.”
“Oh, no, I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m really not that good at cards.” I thought of my wallet, and the thirty or so dollars—less what I’d paid for the wood mugs and the jeepny fare—that I’d converted into pesos. “Besides, I don’t have much money on me.”
“You don’t need any of your own money,” he said quickly. “We’ll give you money to play with. We’re going to win it back anyway. You can’t lose!” he said, eyes bright. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
“No, really, I don’t think so,” I said.
He looked at me intently. “How about this?” he leaned toward me and spoke with lowered voice: “I’ll split the winnings with you, fifty-fifty.” He made a chopping motion with his open hand.
I raised my eyebrows. “You will?”
“Sure,” he said. “You don’t think I’d ask you to do this without something for you, do you?” He winked and nodded. “Last time we played, we took in almost six thousand pesos. That’s more than eight hundred dollars American, today.” He smacked me on the thigh. “You’d have more than four hundred dollars!” He paused to let the figures sink into my suddenly mushy brain.
I felt my heart suddenly quicken. Four hundred dollars! I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had four hundred bucks spare cash. I had no savings of my own, and I had already put into place an allotment to send money from my pay home to my wife Janis. The things I could buy! Plus, I reminded myself, I’d be doing this good man a favor, help him keep his family from being on the streets.
I agreed, of course. How could I refuse? My heartbeat quickened even more. The old man chortled, looked at the clock, then yelled for his grandson. They exchanged words in Tagalog. The grandson smiled at me, then left the room. “Chinese should be along in just a few minutes,” the old man said excitedly. “We better get busy; you have to learn this before he comes!”
It was a simple system. His grandson would place the fingers of both hands in some combination on the table, indicating the total numerical value in the Chinese hand. And since he would be the dealer, he’d also surreptitiously show me the next card in the deck. I’d know all the cards in each of our hands, and the next card to come up. We did a few practice hands, and the old man beamed at me. “You’re a natural. I’ll bet you were first in your class at engineering school!”
We sat and chatted for a few minutes. “Oh, I almost forgot,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a wad of Filipino pesos. “Here’s your bank.” I felt funny taking it, until I remembered that it was all going back to him, plus some. We couldn’t lose. He looked at me seriously. “Thank you,” he said. “This will really help my family. You have no idea how much that means to people like us, when Americans help.”
At last, there was a brief knock on the front door, and the grandson came in, followed by a dark-skinned man wearing the white traditional untucked dress shirt known as a barong. He wore dark glasses which he didn’t take off when he came into the room. His black hair was combed back. He carried with him a large briefcase.
The old man stood up, and regarded the Chinese stiffly. The Chinese put out his hand and the old man took it and shook it once and forced a smile, then said something in terse Tagalog which the Chinese evidently understood. He nodded and looked at me and smiled broadly. “So? You are the famous Engineer Bill? Wanting a friendly game of cards?”
I shot a glance at the old Man, who looked at me blankly, wondering what other lies they’d told this guy about me. I put out my hand and nodded. “Glad to meet you,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
There seemed nothing he wanted to say, either. He went directly to the dining table and took a seat. The grandson sat next to him. The Chinese put his briefcase on the table and opened it. Inside were stacks of colorful money, tons of money, more money than I had ever seen. I couldn’t believe how much money. I looked at the old man and he smiled, winked and nodded toward the table. I went and sat down on the opposite chair and the old man sat next to me. The Chinese withdrew one of the stacks from the briefcase, bearing what I thought were hundred-peso bills, and put it onto the table in front of him, then closed the briefcase and set it on the floor next to his chair. I took out the wad the old man had given me. The Chinese looked at the wad and chuckled. “Not much money for an engineer!” he said.
The old man said, “Enough to win everything you have!”
We played. The grandson dealt and, after we each had our cards, slyly slid out a corner of the top card in the deck so I could see it. The Chinese was so intent on looking at his own card he didn’t notice a thing. Then the grandson leaned back in his chair, glanced at the Chinese cards, and put two fingers onto the table. My own hand was a winner.
And so it went. With each new hand, I began to feel almost giddy with the idea that I couldn’t lose, and the further idea that I was going to get half of everything I won. Conversely, the Chinese seemed to become more and more irate as steadily lost.
Finally, we arrived at what was supposed to be the last hand of the game: I had a twenty; the Chinese had a nineteen, and the next card in the deck was a four. I knew I had the thing won. Apparently, the Chinese figured he had it won, too. He opened up his briefcase and extracted another stack of bills and pulled several from it and dropped it into the pot. “I raise one thousand P,” he said.
I knew about table stakes rules, and that he wasn’t allowed to just add to his stake like that. I looked at the old man sitting next to me, expecting some sort of word, but he just looked at me blankly. I looked back at the Chinese. “You can’t do that,” I said to him. “Table stakes rules.”
The Chinese didn’t hesitate. “Those are American rules,” he said. “We don’t have rules like that here. If you don’t at least match my bet, you lose.” Again the old man didn’t say anything or indicate there was anything in the least unusual going on. I looked at my own stack and realized I didn’t have enough to call the bet. A trickle of fear began growing in my stomach. I looked at the old man. “I don’t have enough to cover it,” I said.
The old man looked at my stack. Then he asked the Chinese if he could consult with me in another room. “Leave the cards here,” the Chinese said. “Your grandson here will make sure I don’t mess with them.”
I got up and went into the hallway with the old man. “Do you have the winning hand?” he whispered.
I told him I had.
“Well, we have to cover the bet, and I don’t have any more money.” He looked at me. “What about you? Do you have anything you can add, just to finish the hand?”
I thought about my wallet, and told him I only had about a hundred pesos, far below what I needed, which was the truth. I even took out my wallet and showed him. He got a worried look on his face. “We can’t lose this hand!” he said. “My rent money is tied up there!” Then he looked at me again. “How about this: do you own anything that we can use as collateral? A television? A camera? Stereo equipment?”
I racked my brain. Then I remembered my stereo back in my room. “I—I do have a stereo, but I don’t want to sell it,” I said.
“You wouldn’t be selling it. We’ll borrow it. I know a man, he’ll give us cash for it, enough to cover this bet. It’s like a pawn shop. You win the hand, then take the money and get your stereo back. Grandson will even drive you. You have the winning hand! There’s no way you can lose!”
I thought about it. I looked back at the pile of money on the table. I turned over in my brain all the possible ways this could go wrong, and couldn’t find any. I was nervous. But damn it, I wasn’t going to let my fear get the best of me!
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it, as long as you’re sure I’m not going to lose my stereo.”
“No way,” he said emphatically. “I promise you, your stereo is safe.”
We went back into the kitchen and told the Chinese we were going to have to go get more money. The Chinese smiled. “No problem,” he said. He pulled a couple of envelopes from his briefcase, and we put our cards into then, sealed them, and signed the flaps so no one could cheat.
The grandson drove me back to the main gate and said he’d wait. There was an on-base taxi just inside the gate. A half hour later I’d gone back to the barracks, loaded my stereo into the taxi, and was back at the gate. The grandson smiled when I arrived, and helped me load the stuff onto the jeep. Another ten minutes and we were at a small shop in a dirt alley on the south side of Angles City, the old man inside with the shop keeper and my stereo. Soon he emerged with a wad of money. “He has your stereo just inside. We come back later with the cash and you’ll have your stereo again.”
We drove back to the house. I couldn’t help having the suspicion that something might have been changed in the cards while we were gone, this was almost too easy. It looked as if I were about to walk away with as much as six or seven hundred dollars.
Everyone resumed their positions. I put the money on the table, called the bet, and we looked at the cards. I almost screamed when the cards were exactly as they should have been. I’d won the hand, twenty to nineteen. “Yes!” I said, and raked the money onto my side of the table. My heart felt like it was going to break right through my chest.
We had agreed it would be the last hand, and I stood and started counting the money. Chinese watched me for awhile. Then he said: “You have to give me a chance to win my money back.” I was ready to go, and said so, but he persisted. “One more hand,” he said. “It won’t take more than a few minutes, and you can double your money. But you have to give me a chance.”
I looked at the old man. He thought about it, and then nodded. “You can spare a few minutes more, can’t you?” he asked. Then he winked slyly: “It might mean a lot more money for you.” He winked again. I looked at the cash, realizing now I might be able to walk out with a thousand dollars or more. My heart beat even harder, and I began to sweat. “Okay,” I said. “One more hand. But this time, table stakes. That’s the only way I’ll play.”
Chinese grinned widely. “Agreed,” he said. He reached into his briefcase and extracted another stack of bills. And I was already counting them, adding them to my own imagined winnings.
The grandson dealt the cards. I had twenty, a queen up and another queen down. The Chinese had a ten showing. The grandson signaled the Chinese was holding a nine. I waited for the grandson to show me the next card. Nothing. What was going on? Then I figured it didn’t really matter, surely the Chinese wouldn’t be taking a hit. He’d be a fool. I struggled to keep breathing; there was no way I was going to lose this, I’d already won. The Chinese slid his stacks of money into the middle of the table, and I matched the bet. Thousands of pesos right there, and I was going to get half of it. But I kept wondering why the signal of the next card hadn’t occurred.
Then Chinese said, “Hit me,” to the grandson. I stared at him. Why in God’s name would he take a hit on nineteen? I almost started laughing. The grandson had an exaggerated look of surprise on his face. Then he dropped the card on the table: a two. It was like dropping a bomb right there on the table. Chinese yelled out, “Hah! Twenty-one!” He dropped his nine on the table and smirked, and began raking in the pot.
I felt suddenly like throwing up. I looked over at the old man, who looked stunned. Then he turned his eyes onto me, suddenly angry. “Excuse us, sir,” he said to the Chinese. “I need to have a word with Engineer Bill.”
I felt as if I was on top of a huge wave on the ocean, being carried to the top as it swelled, looking down to a surface below me getting farther and farther away, knowing I was going to be smashed if I didn’t start back-paddling now. But there seemed no way to stop the inevitable. I stood up from the table, and realized my hands had begun shaking. I followed the old man into the hallway. He turned and glared at me, and I noticed a large machete hanging from the wall beside him. The same machete he was holding in the picture in the front room, or so it seemed.
“I ought to kill you!” he hissed at me. “You’ve lost everything!”
If I had ever before experienced the level of fear I felt at that moment, I couldn’t recall it. I very nearly pissed my pants then and there. I was too scared to even begin crying. I imagined him grabbing the machete from the wall and taking my head off with one slice. My mouth and throat went dry. I couldn’t have pleaded with him not to hurt me if I’d wanted to. Obviously I couldn’t tell him it hadn’t been my fault that the signals had stopped. Why wasn’t he talking to the grandson, too?
“We’ve got to get that money back.” He came closer to me, a foul smell coming from his mouth, and I wondered what sort of shit he’d been smoking or chewing or eating. Did he eat dog? All the clichés came flooding back into my head. I felt faint, as if I would fall over, and I leaned against the wall of the hallway just to stay standing. “What else do you have that you can put up as collateral for another hand?” he demanded.
I racked my brain. There was nothing besides the clothes on my back and the few worthless belongings I had back at the barracks.
“You must have something,” he said. “A camera? How about some jewelry? A television?”
“I—I have a camera,” I lied.
I thought. “N-Nikon,” I said. “It’s a really nice camera. Expensive. I can get that.”
He thought about this. “And the lenses,” he said. “Telephoto? Wide-angle?”
He looked at me closely. I was certain he could tell I was lying. He glanced more than once at the machete on the wall. But then he took a breath and his features softened. He looked at me with a sort of kindness. “Good,” he said. “Another hand, you can get the camera and your stereo back, both.” He called toward the kitchen, and the grandson appeared. “Take Engineer Bill back to the gate,” he said. “Wait for him while he gets his camera.” Then we went to the kitchen. At first the Chinese balked about another hand, saying it was very late. Then he relented. “You were kind enough to give me another chance,” he said magnanimously, “so I will give you the same kindness. Meet here in one hour? That will be time enough to have some supper.” It was agreed, and I left with the grandson while the old man watched us from the upstairs window.
We drove in silence for awhile. Then I looked at him. “What happened to the signal?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” he said. “I signaled.”
I knew there was no use arguing. We arrived at the gate, and I got out and walked up and showed my ID, and stepped onto base property. American property. I breathed easier. Then I went over and got into one of the base cabs and told the driver to take me to the barracks. I turned and looked at the grandson sitting in his jeepny, and wondered how long he would wait there before he finally figured out I wasn’t coming back.
But the sick feeling returned when I got to my room and found the empty boxes that had had my stereo in them. The stereo I was still paying off. And it certainly didn’t help when I finally thought about the situation and figured out it was I who had been cheated, not the Chinese, and that during that last hand, it was more likely that he was the one getting the signals, had been getting them all along from the old man, and they were playing me. Then I remembered the Chinese had never taken off his glasses, and I wondered if he had been Chinese at all.
I didn’t go off base for nearly a month, afraid I was going to be seen by these characters and nabbed and taken into a back alley somewhere and murdered. This was no idle fear. It happened. The base papers and the AFRTS TV station regularly reported that some poor American schmuck’s body had been found in a back alley, or pulled from the nearby river at the Subic Naval Base, having been stabbed or shot or whatever. But then I read an article in the Clark Air Base paper about an Air Force officer, a fighter pilot on temporary duty from The World who had apparently been out on the town and had been lured into a “friendly” game of cards involving an Asian man, reportedly Chinese, and an old Filipino with a huge mole on his cheek, and how after this friendly game he’d lost a television, camera, and a huge amount of cash before he figured out he’d been taken to the cleaners. And I laughed and laughed until I nearly fell off my stool.