Tuesday, January 20, 2009

26. The Road Back

A calesa (two wheeled Filipino taxi pulled by its driver)
Downtown Manila, 1945

Photo Source: pro.corbis.com

This is wonderful. I am so pleased to see him again, my good friend Joop. Yes, Harry is here too. But Andre, no, he has not heard of him or seen him anywhere. But don't worry, he could still be in Thailand for all we know. Joop's wife is all right, in a Batavia camp. Did I hear from Lisa? Good, we shall be seeing them soon, sure thing.

Joop and I agree that our reunion should be celebrated. We will pick up Harry and Roel, and then to Manila in style, what?

We hire a "cab", one of those Filipino-operated contraptions, held together by a prayer and a length of wire. At the beer garden we buy tickets, each representing a can of American beer. The cashier repeats each order as it comes in - "two", "one only", "four", but when Joop, smiling broadly, says, "Twenty-five, please!" she keeps silent for a moment before repeating it in a shocked tone.

We do not wish to talk about the war. That is past now and must be forgotten as soon as possible. Only some of the funny episodes in Chungkai are brought up, the things we did together. There is a great optimism with us about the future. We laugh and drink a lot. In the afternoon, drifting through the shopping centre of Manila, we pass along the honky tonks, movie theatres and restaurants, stopping now and then to look at the wine, liquor and stolen PX goods and advertisements of night entertainments. The air is filled with the blare of loudspeakers and ringing bicycle bells. The latest hit songs are thrown full-blast across the street. We walk from Don't Fence Me In through Rum and Coca-cola to You Belong to My Heart. The sun burns on the bare skin of my neck in my open collar shirt. The rim of my cap presses hotly on my wet brow. We decide to go to the Roosevelt Club for lunch.

The Roosevelt Club
Photo Source: Flickr.com

Waiting for the traffic signal to cross over, I take my cap off to cool my head, rubbing my rolled up sleeve over my eyes. Where would Lisa be now? The thought makes me uneasy. Shouldn't I be in the Fifth, waiting for further news from her, rather than here in Manila with my friends, loitering through town, feeling great? Silently I look out of the corner of my eye at my friends, who do not appear to suffer from a bad conscience. Thumbs hooked in his trouser pockets, Joop is watching the passing traffic with quiet, moving eyes. Roel, pushing a finger through his neckband, points to something, tugging at Harry's sleeve. Honest, straightforward men, who anyone would be proud to call his mates, who do not seem to think anything wrong in being here and amusing themselves.

After lunch we ease ourselves into the big club chairs in the beautifully furnished mezzanine, contentedly burping and yawning. We watch a man waking up from a deep slumber in a chair at the opposite wall. A long, wide yawn draws his eyes into narrow slits. Suddenly they fall and focus on a tall ashtray stand, full of long cigarette ends. His mind still fogged with sleep, he has momentarily forgotten that the war is over, there are plenty of cigarettes around, that it has been three months since one would fight like a wild animal to get those nice, long stubs. In the split second before his brain has readjusted itself to the present, his hand has shot out to grab a handful, only to drop them back into the tray immediately with a puzzled expression on his face. Our loud laughter sends him into a deep blush, but he can take it and is still grinning sheepishly when we break up.

Back in town the multicoloured sign of a burlesque show draws us inside to see what these much talked about shows are really like. The girls, though attractive enough in their semi-nudeness, perform with the dullness of automatons, lacking the refinement of their American counterparts. At the end of the show the drummer proceeds to beat a roll, and the curtain goes up to show a beautifully formed girl from behind on a slowly rotating low pedestal. Seen from the rear she seems baretopped, wearing only the filmiest of skirts. The G.I. barker informs us that she is the prize female of the troupe, adding enigmatically that we should shake it without breaking it. The breasts appear fully covered by empty powdered-milk cans. A lash with the hips drops the skirt and a gee-string of non-transparent material wipes the happy expectation from all the tilted, rapidly gum-chewing faces.

"Joop, let's go!" I yell through the tobacco smoke and loud shouting of "Cheat! Cheat!" and "Take it off! Take it off!"

Lisa writes that she and all the others are now safely brought over to Adek camp in Batavia:

When are you coming back to me? How many more weeks do I have to wait? I want to introduce Mary-Em to her Daddy. Every night before bed I showed your picture to her so she could say goodnight to her Daddy. I'm sure she will now recognize you when you are back with us again.

We learn that Dutch troops have unobtrusively landed on islands in the Indies without meeting much resistance. They will soon land on Java and take over from the British. Most probably all fit Dutch personnel will be sent southwards on short notice. Our top ranking officers have already quietly left by air. This is going to be it. This at last is what we want to hear. The endless waiting is unbearable.

Seven o'clock on a very hot evening. Sitting on camp chairs just outside the recreation centre, we talk a little, now and then sipping from beer cans. From the jukebox inside, a husky voice sings of moonlight and kisses. From the table tennis corner comes the dry click-clack of ping pong balls. In the dim light our cigarette smoke rises slowly in thick white and grey spirals in the still, humid air. There is a lull in the talking, and then Joop recalls to mind the buying of eighteen, yes, eighteen jars of choice old Dutch gin by a select group of Navy corporals shortly before capitulation to Japan, towards the end of February '42.

The jars were put in the ground somewhere in the Navy dockyards in Surabaya, the exact spot the most guarded secret of the Corps. Here in Manila some of the men had met again, and suggestions were being made as to an appropriate manner of celebrating the homecoming to the old Navy Depot. Unfortunately, not so many of the original number of contributors had survived the war, and so the boys had agreed to share the treasure with others found worthy of such an honour. Only those who in one way or another had made themselves useful to the Royal Dutch Navy would be considered.

After a pause to let the significance of his words sink in, the hint is dropped that he, Joop, could be made agreeable to including the three of us in the festivities. Naturally this would depend entirely on our ability to see to it that he, Joop, would never be without of supply of certain refreshments for the remaining days of our stay in Manila. Harry, assuring him of our intentions to do just that, inquires if any metal wiring had been used for, say, binding the jars together. Could Joop remember it?

"Why, yes, copper wire as a matter of fact, against corrosion, savvi?"

"Well, then we should first reconsider our promise for the refreshments you had in mind."

"Why?"

"I've heard of certain mine detecting devices which are so sensitive that they pick up anything made of metal, no matter how small or how deep in the ground."

The announcement is made that in one week's time, perhaps less, we are to travel by ship to an undisclosed destination. Everyone is visibly stirred into agitation. At last the time has come. We have been in personal contact with that remarkable conglomeration of races, sects and customs - the American people - who have saved the world from disaster for a second time. Who welcomed us into their midst, sharing with us everything they consider best for their own men. We have found it well to be with them, we have begin to know and like the American G.I.

But now we wish to go our own way, to settle our own affairs. So let us go now, Uncle Sam, and thank you for everything you gave us. "God bless all that is the U.S.", somebody has carved in the mess table of our sector.

Tomorrow will be the day that we are to embark on a southbound transport ship. Our destination will be somewhere in the Indies, where we shall be once more enlisted in the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. Yesterday I said goodbye to Vivette, who has been such a good friend to me. This morning it was also "be seeing you" to Joop, who is leaving a day earlier than the rest of us to join his beloved Navy somewhere south. The old salt was as pleased as Punch, though he was sorry to leave me, he said. One thing was worrying him, though. "Not them British, but them Dutch booze-happy mudslingers with them sneaky mine-tectors." Roel and Harry will be going with me, so I am coming home with two of the good friends I had in the war.

We are waiting in open lorries on the road for the signal to drive off. Suddenly a number of Filipino women come running to our cavalcade, shouting and calling us at the top of their voices. American MPs stop them from clambering onto the lorries and chase them back across the road. We cannot understand exactly what the women are shouting, but we clearly hear the word "husband" several times. So it is true, what has been said - some of our men, married and fathers of children back home in Java, had been courting and got themselves wedded to Filipina girls, in church and all! Why we shall never know. It is one thing to chase a skirt, but having yourself bound in holy wedlock here in Manila, while in Java Mum and the kids are all the time hoping and praying to get you back alive, is dastardly mean. The MP boys are unbending, the "husbands" won't move an inch, so presently the women slink away, sobbing and crying, back into the little food stalls and bamboo abodes along the dusty road.

The ship trembles softly to the pulse of her engines. On the stern we watch the disappearing outline of Manila harbour slowly dissolving in a black silhouette of langourous plumes of coconut trees waving about their tall, slim trunks.

"Well, Hendrik, you old cynic! Happy to go home?"

"Sure, sure," is his reply as he taps the bowl of the pipe in the palm of his hand. "Sure, I'm glad to go back to peacetime, to return to our own little wars and skirmishes."

I am astonished. Still full of biting sarcasm, even at a time like this. What makes this man tick? Will nothing satisfy him? I'll have it out with him, now or never.

"Cut it out, man! What do you want? Isn't there anything which could make you glad, happy? Don't you believe in goodness anymore? Don't you know that the good side has won this war?"

"Like I said, I am glad to go home, but I do not believe in good nations anymore. Being good or bad is incidental. Naturally I have nothing but abhorrence for what the Germans and Japs did to human beings, whether they be Jews or not. But as warring nations, Germany and Japan were hardly in first place, considered as villains, because they were after land, possessions which were not theirs."

"So?"

"It is all so hypocritical! What about Britain's Boer War excuse to get to the diamonds and gold which were in the possession of the Boers? Was that right? What about the concentration camps operated by the British? With all their overwhelmingly superior forces they could not pin the Boers down, so they resorted to concentrating the captured men, women and children from their farmsteads in so-called refugee camps where, at the end of the war twenty thousand had perished, most of them women and children! The Flemish poet, Pol de Mont, wrote a searing poem about that."

"What are you driving at?"

"That being good is incidental."

"Yes, and our dear country Holland was last in the world to abolish slavery. We ourselves weren't exactly saints to our vanquished, you know. But enough, that's all history now. Let it rest where it belongs, in the past. We've got to look forward."

"I have merely stated a fact."

"A fact is that this rotten war has ended, which is much better for us, wouldn't you say?"

"What is better for us may be worse for others. It's all relative and one-sided."

"Hendrik, you're exasperating. Look, would you rather have seen the Germans, or the Japs, win the war?"

"Of course not!"

"There's your answer, then. The good ones have won and we're on the right side. And I bet you that both the Jerries and the Nips are glad too that this war is over."

"How long until the next one?"

"Blast it, will people never learn?"

"They've got to beat it inside themselves," says Hendrik. "Wars are not ended by the victory of one nation over another, nor by killing off the defeated enemy from granddad down to the last dog in the yard, like the old Hebrews did with their opponents. We can't liquidate all Germans and Japs. It is within ourselves that we have to find the answer. Peace, as I see it, is believing in humanity, in understanding, if not accepting, your neighbour, and above all, not to desire that which is his. Then, only then, the Great Peace will come."

"But don't you think that people have changed, that the war brought a lesson to us?" I ask.

"I don't think so, unless we learned from it that we should arm ourselves to the teeth, so strong that our misunderstood neighbour will have second thoughts before starting an attack, for fear of self-destruction."

"Your talking about the powers that be. What about the individual, the mass, without whom no war can be started?"

"The mass, you say? They cannot afford to reject dictation by the authorities. They may lose their jobs or even be thrown into prison. I don't believe that we will be dedicated enough to uphold a principle, any principle, to be willing to risk all that! Only when we want to come to agree as a great, overpowering majority will we achieve the Great Peace. And to become a great, peaceful body of willing people we first have to be able to understand each other, to love each other, before - as one man - saying "no" to the warmongers. Imagine, thousands and thousands of people loving each other, just for the heck of it! Come off it, friend. You wouldn't believe that yourself, would you?"

"Hendrik, why did you survive the war?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"You see, my friend," I tell him, "You might as well be dead. You've got nothing to come home to."

Without waiting for his reply, for I have had enough of this man, I walk away from him to the far end of the stern of the ship, this friendly vessel which will take me back to her.

We are out in the open sea with its long swell of trough and crest. The sun is setting, the wind sings in the wiring overhead. Far out is the thin line of land sinking beyond the horizon, the flash of a lighthouse swinging up and dipping down out of sight. Across the darkening sky cotton-wool clouds, gold-fringed by the dying sun, sweep onward before the breeze. And lo, my old friends, the stars. They looked down on me at Singapore, in Thailand, at sea and in Japan - in those days of my life, the days I am leaving behind me forever.

Then, somewhere in the back of my mind, I hear the metallic click in the loudspeaker of the public address system of the vessel, a sure sign of a forthcoming announcement.

As suddenly as it came the shuddering passes, and I am calm again. It is then that I hear him approaching me from behind. There is that tobacco smell. I do not wish to speak to him ever again, and keep my back turned to him.

"Now hear this! Now hear this!" goes the loudspeaker.

Hendrik knocks his pipe against the railing.

"Now hear this! Now hear this!" We are to assemble at once in the mess room for further instructions. I shall have to go down to take proper notice.

Before stepping down the companionway, I look once more upwards to that immeasurably vast sky, where the clouds are swept away to make room for the stars.

I do not know why I should be among those to survive, to come home. So all I can do is offer in silence my profound thanksgiving to Him who is behind that glimmering, glorifying infinity.

"Amen," says Hendrik.