By all accounts, the fall patrol went well. USS Denver (LPD 9) left its home port of Sasebo, Japan on September 19, 2008, with three other ships and headed south. The ship’s first scheduled liberty port was the former U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay, the Philippines.
While underway, I started my days with a cup of coffee and a cigarette on an exterior deck designated for smoking. I went there to satisfy my caffeine and nicotine habit throughout the day. My friend Brielle and I visited the smoke deck during the weekly “Executive Officer’s Cigar Night” to watch the sun disappear while talking to other officers and sailors. In addition to smoking, I learned where in Subic Bay and the surrounding area I could buy cheap cigarettes, Cuban cigars, inexpensive liquor, high-quality woodcarvings, and good seafood.
One late October day, steaming a few miles east of Luzon Island – the largest and most populous island of the Philippine archipelago – Denver prepared for her transit into Subic Bay. On the smoke deck, a young enlisted engineer and smoke deck regular asked me, “Hey, Lieutenant, whatcha gonna do in port, sir?”
“I dunno. Prob’ly get a woodcarving of something, go out in town, get something to eat. Why?”
“’Cause, ya know, L.T., you can get a girl. Cheap.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, dude. That’s history.”
“Yea, but we’re talking cheap. And you can do anything you like, sir.”
I nodded my head.
Asking for a light he said, “That’s what I’ve been told, sir.”
I held out my Zippo, flipped the cap, struck the flint, and asked, “So, are you telling me you’ve never been to the Philippines? How can ya be so sure?”
Standing up, he took in a long drag then exhaled through his nose. He gave me a sideways glance and said, “Ahhhh, sir, that’s all they’re talking about in berthing.”
I snapped the lighter shut, dismissing his claim. “Cool. I’ll see ya around. I gotta get ready for tomorrow’s transit.”
I opened the door and stepped back inside the ship.
Everybody on board Denver except the Commanding Officer, the Executive Officer, and the Command Master Chief belonged to a duty section, the group of sailors and officers required to remain on the ship for a 24-hour period for operational readiness and safety. My section had duty the day we pulled into Subic Bay. I was disappointed but glad to get it over with early in the visit.
At about six the next morning, a couple of hours before the oncoming duty section relieved mine, I watched the sunrise while finishing my pier inspection, my shirt already starting to soak with sweat. After inspecting the ship’s port side and the surrounding pier, I walked back on board. I did the time change and figured it was 5 p.m. in Florida where my wife Susan and two daughters, Emily and Lily, ages seven and five, resided. I tried to call home.
Like many times I phoned the house while living in Asia, the answering machine greeted my call. When I went to Sasebo, my family remained in Florida so Susan could finish her degree. Our house on Naval Station Mayport sat one street over from the beach, so I figured the three of them, along with our pug Jack, were playing on the beach.
In the early evening, I went looking for my friend Josh. As the ship’s medical doctor, everybody on board simply called him “Doc.” I found him in his medical office, and we decided to hit up some other officers to go to dinner. After eating, just about the time the sun started to sink beyond the horizon, we found an outdoor bar with a decent sitting area. None of us planned to drink excessively. It was too hot and sticky for that. We just wanted to get away and stay away from the ship for as long as possible. We saw the ship’s dentist and another officer so we motioned them over.
We found a rickety table and chairs and sat down about five feet from the street. As we spoke, drank, and watched the busy street with its mix of sailors, marines, and locals milling about, a black van stopped in front of us under a street lamp.
The side door of the van slid open. We saw four or five young Filipino women in standard streetwalker attire huddled in the opening. They advertised their availability by fondling barely covered breasts and caressing naked thighs. One flipped her long, shiny black hair. Their smiles said they welcomed all-comers.
The Filipino pimp in the front passenger seat rolled down his window. Taking the cigarette out of his mouth with one hand, he stuck out his head and yelled to us.
“Hey, you! You like? You like what you see? You want?”
I looked around to confirm he was speaking to us.
Pimp took a long drag then yelled to us again, this time saying, “My girls! They suck good. They fuck good. You want!”
Doc looked around and asked me if the pimp was talking to us.
“Yeah. Could be. I guess so.”
Pimp slammed his hand on the door a couple of times for emphasis, cigarette bobbing up and down between his fingers. “Hey! My girls. They good, okay? They make you happy. Okay? You take to hotel. All night, okay? Cheap. Just for you. Come on!”
Pimp took a long drag, satisfied with his salesmanship.
Doc waved him on.
Pimp removed the cigarette from his mouth with the first two fingers of his right hand and used it to point to us, “We come back later. We have more girls. Won’t be sorry.”
He took another drag while waving the driver to roll forward. The side door slammed shut and we lost sight of the girls. The encounter lasted no more than thirty seconds.
We looked at each other and continued drinking. I remembered similar girls in Costa Rica, Hong Kong, and Guam. I recognized the modus operandi. We watched the van drive off.
Looking around, one of my counterparts asked, “How old do you think those girls were?”
We shook our heads and mumbled into our drinks. We didn’t actually want to know; we just couldn’t think of anything else to say. The women looked of legal age, but shade and shadow obscure one’s facial features.
We started walking back to the ship around 9:30 that night. While we walked down the street, we saw sailors going to a similar van containing similar pimps and prostitutes pandering the same product. Sexual hygiene didn’t look too high on the list of “must practice” items for the girls in the van, nor did it seem a required item for the sailors engaged in haggling over the merchandise. My smoke deck acquaintance came to mind.
On my third day in port, two officers and I decided to walk out Subic Bay’s front gate and into Olongapo City. My standard liberty attire of khaki shorts, Birkenstock sandals, and a polo shirt basically mirrored what Adam and Danielle wore. I asked a sailor standing on the pier which way we needed to walk and then took his advice. Just like the two previous days, it was hot, sticky, and dusty. Almost immediately we started sweating.
As we crossed into the city, the smell hit the three of us as we neared the bridge leading us to another world. The brown, foamy, film-covered water with visible human waste and trash flowed under us as we walked over the bridge. Rambling cars and buses, trucks and trollies, all belching black and gray smoke, drove back and forth, kicking up dust. Their misfiring engines and damaged mufflers mixed with music escaping the old buildings.
Signs plastered on the run-down buildings near the bridge told us the establishments offered a “soapy rinse down massage” or a “high quality body rub” or simply some “relax time.” The massage parlors sat somewhat empty; nighttime was the right time for their customers.
Seeing these for the first time, Adam seemed to have an eye-opening experience. I don’t know how he didn’t fill up on flies and mosquitos after walking around with his mouth agape. Danielle actively avoided damaging the pedicure she had received the day before. Seeing the signs and buildings transported me to various port visits and travels: Panama, Europe, Las Vegas, Singapore, and Colombia.
As we walked past the massage parlors, we noticed people going about their normal lives: buying groceries, eating, going into banks. Children chased each other, splashing barefoot in water puddles. Mothers took their children into stores for groceries and daily supplies just as mothers do everywhere. Old men smoking cigarettes stopped at newsstands and thumbed through magazines. Young couples held hands.
We continued wandering, looking in various stores while searching for the out-of-the-way bars offering good food and local beer. We passed more massage parlors and not a few “juicy bars” with red neon lights edging the windows. The lights told the traveler that the working women inside sold full-on fornication. We stepped over stagnant pools of water and other fluids; we started to re-think our shoe choice.
We dodged the little kids running around us. Some played while others begged. A few sidled up to us and demanded money. Others, lower in the begging hierarchy, simply asked for food. Part of the time we responded that we didn’t have any money. Other times we ignored them. We felt uncomfortable touching or talking to them.
We fixed our sights on a bar that didn’t appear to be a cover for a whorehouse when a ragged little barefoot boy, about 12 years old, stepped out in front of us and grabbed my hand.
“Hey, mister! Wait,” he said.
“No,” I told him, trying to push him away. “Go away. I don’t want anything.”
“Wait! I got something you like,” the boy said.
I looked down at him. The little black-haired boy came up to my waist, maybe a little higher. A picture, perhaps a cartoon character, filled the front of his dirty shirt. His dusty shorts hung over his spindly legs. His knees were scraped and scabbed over.
Danielle said, “Look, we’re, like, uh, kinda busy, okay?”
Adam stood there, dumbfounded.
“Hey, hey, hey! You come over here,” the little boy said, still pulling my hand, attempting to sway me in his direction.
I tried to pull my hand away. I started to worry; I started to wonder if we were heading down the wrong alley. Several scenes played out in my mind’s eye: Danielle fighting a sexual assault; Adam lying unconscious in a ditch; and strangers kicking me up one side and down the other. I always prided myself on not wandering into situations where physical harm awaited me. That day, however, I feared for all three of us.
The 12-year-old, still with a death-grip, motioned to somebody in the shadows while trying to lead me over to a makeshift cloth door. I lost track of my companions. I expected to see a woman appear from behind the material, ready to ply her trade.
The little boy asked me, “You wanna fuck? I got girl for you. Nice. Young. You fuck!”
Expecting another twenty-something like the night before, I continued trying to break his grip.
“Listen!” I said, yanking my hand out of his and pointing at him. “I don’t wanna girl, and I don’t wanna fuck.” I started sweating more.
“No, No. You fuck my sister,” he said. “She good. You not forget.”
I wondered if the little boy, facing me and walking backwards, was trying to drum up business for his big sister.
I took a drag from my cigarette and looked up, over the little boy’s shoulder, to the girl in the doorway.
He wasn’t working for his big sister, or his mom or aunt. The little boy I had just pointed my finger towards and yelled at like an enraged drill instructor was the big brother trying to rent out his little sister — who looked about ten years old.
She displayed a weak smile, the kind one learns to wear, or maybe put there by the back of a hand. The ends of her matted black hair fell to about where her collarbone rested under the rag passing as a T-shirt. Her shorts were like her brother’s; her small, dusty feet seemed planted in dirt and filth.
Looking at the little Filipino girl – working, dirty, and appearing like the world rested on her shoulders – I saw Emily and Lily standing beside her in the doorway. Their blond hair flowed freely in the sea breeze. They wore the same type of clothing as the little girl, but theirs were clean and well-fitting. Their smiles indicated they were heading to the beach just a block from our house. Like the little girl, my daughters weren’t wearing shoes.
Then I saw Emily and Lily standing filthy in a street, pimped out to a 38-year-old man. I suddenly wanted to be anywhere but there.
Danielle, Adam, and I came to the same conclusion: we no longer wanted to find something to drink. Our shopping was done; liberty was over.
Danielle said to me, “I think I want to go back to the ship.”
I nodded my head in acknowledgment.
Adam, looking at his feet, mumbled something I took for agreement.
We turned and started walking.
The conversation from that point until we arrived at Denver consisted mainly of when to cross the street. We didn’t make small talk or plans to do something later. We split up after crossing the brow, and I wandered up to the smoke deck alone.
I chain-smoked about a half a pack of cigarettes, flicking the butts into the bay as soon as I lit the next one. After smoking, I went up two levels to the space housing the phone capable of connecting to the United States to call my family.
I rang the doorbell outside the room and the sailor on duty opened the door. He was about my age, maybe a little older, and had children of his own. After common courtesies, I unloaded my story to him. He offered me a cup of coffee. He sat there, listened, and didn’t saying anything other than an occasional “okay” or “I hear ya.” After acting as a sounding board, he left and sat across the space with a bank of computers separating us so I could use the phone in private.
Even though I knew it would be late and I ran the risk of waking Susan, I called. After a few groggy moments she said everybody enjoyed a good afternoon at the beach. Our silly pug, she relayed, acted as if the tidal pools were deadly and ran away from the incoming water. Her classes were going fine. All – Susan, Emily, Lily, and Jack the Pug – were doing well and missed me. I didn’t tell her about my trip into town.
After hanging up the phone, I descended two decks to my stateroom. I undressed, put on my robe, crossed the passageway, and entered the head to shower. I turned on the water and tried to wash the filth away.
Still feeling dirty the next morning, I stepped out to the smoke deck with my coffee and cigarettes. The sun was rising and the humidity was thick, causing my shirt to stick to my skin. I still felt grimy. The foul essence, however, didn’t emanate from the little girl in the alley nor from the women in the van. The disgust was self-imposed, caused by the thoughts of my actions from years before.
“The memories of a man in his old age / Are the deeds of a man in his prime.”– from Pink Floyd’s “Free Four”
I brought this disgust upon myself, as a young man in my prime, while living in Panama and Europe. I couldn’t then, and cannot now, as a somewhat older man, erase the memories.
“It’s a victimless crime,” I reflected while talking to women at whorehouse bars in Germany.
“They need the money, so why shouldn’t I?” I justified while window shopping the ladies lit by red lights in Belgium.
“I’m not making them sleep with me,” I rationalized before renting one of the women behind glass in Amsterdam.
“It’s just business,” I reassured myself as Panamanian women leaned inside my car’s open passenger-side window.
The women who walked the streets, flirted in lingerie behind windows, or masturbated in viewing booths started out as daughters and little girls. Most, in my experiences, weren’t there to satisfy their own sexual needs, buy high-dollar clothing, or pay for college – though some were, I’m sure – rather they lived in an environment they couldn’t escape or one beyond their control. An unknown number, like the alley girl and the van women, went to work because they had to, coerced to welcome all-comers.
Just as they did for me, prostitutes and escorts around the world accentuate their features to highlight what men want. This lures the men in while the ladies work to maintain their client-base. Occasionally, even with well-honed coping abilities used to detach themselves from intimacy, despair streaks across their face, a far-away look or a dazed glance up at the ceiling. With some, a few years stretches into a few decades. After a while, a working woman’s appearance isn’t as appealing. Her physical allure vanishes. She may find herself discarded with only memories of herself working on her knees or all fours, face down or looking up.
Two days after my alley encounter, Denver left the Philippines. Everybody made it back on board the previous night without the local police returning any sailors or marines to the ship. Two tugs and a harbor pilot helped us leave on time. From the time our sailors pulled the last mooring line back on deck to when the bridge increased speed to “ahead full,” we spent about an hour leaving Luzon in our wake. By all accounts, our transit out of Subic Bay went well. Once far enough out to sea, the ship reverted to its normal underway watches and routines.
I filled my coffee cup and went to the smoke deck. Looking aft over the flight deck, I saw the faint and hazy image of the Philippines disappearing over the horizon. Soon another ship would moor at our vacated dock. The nightly cycle would begin anew. The little girl, unless something changed, would soon find herself in a van, in the shadows, or framed by red neon light.