Cora: Summer Wind
December 12th was Francis Albert Sinatra's birthday, a day that in my opinion should be declared a national holiday. I thought that it would be a nice tribute if I did a bit of YouTube research and posted my three favorite Sinatra songs to my Facebook page. I had posted the first two and while I was copying number three I began to think about... Cora.
It was the summer of 1967. The Carrier Task Group to which I was attached had been operating in the Gulf of Tonkin providing bombing interdiction over North Vietnam since early winter. The code name
for our operating area was "Yankee Station," which meant that we shared bombing duties with the Air Force over North Vietnam. After nearly ninety days at sea working twelve hours a day, seven days a week the relief carrier finally arrived and our big ship tied down her aircraft, stored the bombs and their bomb carts securely in the bomb magazines, wheeled one hundred and eighty degrees and headed east across the South China Sea for the Carrier Pier at Subic Bay. The transit to Subic would require three days.
Olongapo city here we come!
It was the second day of our Philippine transit when I received word that I was wanted in the Air Operations Office to pick up a message that had arrived on the daily mail plane. Puzzled, I hustled up to Air Ops. Who would be sending me a message? Where did it originate? Was it bad news? These questions were buzzing inside my head when I entered the Air Ops shack. The duty officer handed me an envelope with only my name and rank written on the outside. No return address. No stamp. What in the name of heaven could this be about? Enough speculation. I decided to open the damn thing on the spot.
The note was from my old friend and former shipmate Gino. It simply said: "Take some leave. We're headed south to see Max." Gino and I had been stationed together several years past and I assumed that the mysterious "Max" in the note referred to Max McNeil who was also stationed with us but had transferred out and hadn't been heard from since. I submitted and was granted a leave request for the entire in port period. Knowing Gino as I did I knew that this leave period was bound to be a memorable one.
Day three dawned and our Carrier arrived at Cubi Point, ready for some much needed rest for her crew. I had packed my civilian clothes and was one of the first men to leave the ship when liberty was announced. Standing on the pier waiting was Gino, a young Filipina woman, a Filipino man and two portable ice chests. It was good to see Gino again. He introduced me to the woman as his girl friend Minda and the man as Rogelio. Rogelio, he said was our chauffeur. The ice chests were filled with bottles of San Miguel beer and cheap vodka.
Chauffeur? Why did we need a chauffer, I inquired? Because, came the answer, we were headed southeast through the Zambales Mountains and around Manila Bay to Cavite City where Max was living in high style in a walled villa. Oh and by the way, Gino added, we'd be taking a live baby babuy with us.
Babuy? What is a babuy? A baby pig, came the response. When we arrived at Max's place we were going to butcher and roast the thing.
I reached into an ice chest and took a long pull from the vodka bottle inside.
Rogelio was none too pleased that we'd be transporting livestock in the Navy Special Services Ford Fairlane that Gino had rented. Minda, speaking rapidly in tagalog assured him that she would fashion some diapers for the pig and that she would not only take care to see that the pig wouldn't soil the car interior but that she would also handle the delicate business of bribing the soldiers at the various checkpoints along the highway who were armed with automatic weapons and weren't afraid to use them if they perceived to have suffered an affront to their delicate national honor. After much back and forth and the exchanging of a twenty peso note Rogelio reluctantly agreed to allow the pig to ride inside the car with us.
I took another long pull from the vodka bottle. I was going to need it if I was going to be part of this safari!
In the interest of brevity I will shorten the narrative surrounding the several hour journey to Cavite and report that the pig had a ripping good time riding in the front seat in Minda's lap, diapered to the nines with his snout sticking out the window like a dog. We managed to bribe our way through two checkpoints without getting shot by some very nervous soldiers. After several more pulls from the vodka bottle and a few San Miguels both Gino and I were developing an affection for the damn pig riding happily in front snorting at the passersby in the little barrios along the highway. We pled our case to Minda to spare the pig, but to no avail. The pig was to go to his reward the next day skewered and slowly rotated over a firepit.
Well at least he enjoyed the car ride.
We arrived at Max's villa in the late afternoon. Max looked exactly as I remember him, a bit portly, bald with a wide grin and an amiable affect. He ushered us inside the walls of the villa and introduced us to his "housegirl." The housegirl's job description evidently contained more than just taking care of the house - she was required to take care of Max also. Her welcome for our hardy band was less than enthusiastic. She viewed Minda as competition for Max and saw Gino and me as evil vodka swilling corrupters of Max's moral fiber.
I had news for the housegirl. Max's "moral fiber" was thinner than dental floss.
The rest of the afternoon was spent unpacking and reminiscing old times. The vodka bottles had long since emptied and the San Miguel was running dangerously low. Max sent the girl out for more. On the way out the gate she gave Gino the evil eye and disappeared into the dusky twilight.
After a late breakfast the next morning Max announced that Minda and Evil Eye would be prepping and butchering the pig while he would show Gino and me the town of Cavite City. Max had political connections with the local elected officials as he was responsible for testing and evaluating Filipino citizens that wished to join the U.S. Navy through the seaplane base at Sangley Point. Sangley nestled up against Cavite City and like navy towns everywhere the main drag was populated with one bar after another.
The first bar that we entered was owned by a former mayor of Cavite, a fellow named Peiping Arbanas. Arbanas owned several bars and restaurants and controlled the hiring and firing of virtually every bar girl in town. He and Max had something going, something that I didn't even want to know about. The three of us sat down over a rum and coke to pass the time. Every girl in the bar gravitated to our table.
"You like the girls?" Peiping was asking Max. "No charge. Pick the one you want and no pay out to the bar. Just give the girl whatever you like."
It was a bit early in the day and I wanted to look around the rest of the town. I thanked Peiping for his generosity. Maybe later I said.
After a few rums a young boy entered the bar looking for Max. He hurried over to our table and announced that Evil Eye had paid him ten pesos to follow us around and report back to her what we were doing in the bars. Max looked the kid in the eye, reached into his pocket and handed him twenty pesos.
"What are we doing?" he asked.
"I don't see nothing,” came the reply.
As the day progressed into the afternoon Max, Gino and Peiping disappeared after huddling about something or another and I decided to visit another watering hole to see what was happening. I left the bar, crossed the street and sauntered into a ramshackle affair just up the main drag. The jukebox in the place was playing loudly. I ordered a rum and coke and walked over to the jukebox to look over the playlist.
The playlist was a rather dated affair but it did contain a new Sinatra tune that I hadn't heard. The title was 'Summer Wind.'
'The summer wind came blowing in, from across the sea,'
I felt a nudge and turned to see a lovely young girl of seventeen or so standing next to me. She had honey blonde hair, bright blue eyes, skin the color of cocoa butter and a pleasingly plumpish body that reminded me just a bit of Carroll Baker in the movie 'Baby Doll.'
'It lingered there and touched your hair and walked with me,'
"Hi sailor. I saw you sitting with Peiping at the other bar this morning." Her voice was a melody. "You're the one Max calls 'Nasty'. "
"I'd rather you called me Bob. What is your name?"
"Cora." Came the reply.
'All summer long we sang a song, and then we strolled that golden sand,'
We sat at a table and I ordered a round of drinks. Cora asked for a Coke. We sipped and talked in that little run down bar all afternoon. She was the daughter of a Filipina mother and American father who had left for the States before she was born, promising to return for mother and daughter and was never heard from again. Cora didn't seem to mind. She was full of youthful optimism. She loved her world and wanted nothing more than to leave her family's nipa hut in the barrios to come to the bars and earn some pesos for herself and her family. Her effervescence and her mixed beauty captivated me.
'Two sweethearts and the summer wind.'
"Cora, can you stay here in town with me at Max's house for a week or so?" My heart was about to jump out of my chest.
"Oh sure. Max has a beautiful house. Can I take a shower when we get there? I always have to use a coffee can and a hose when I want to bathe."
"Of course you can. We'll even go and buy you some clothes so you have something more to wear. Tonight we're roasting a pig that we brought with us from Subic."
Cora giggled. "Okay Nast.. um Bobby. Lets go. I'm going to call you Bobby because I like that better."
"Bobby it is, Baby Doll. Lets get going."
We arrived back at Max's in the early evening. Cora was loaded down with shopping bags full of clothes that she had bought with the pesos that I had promised her. The babuy was roasting slowly in the firepit. Every mongrel dog in the city was sitting outside the wall hoping for Max to throw a scrap or two over the barrier where they would fight like wolves for possession of the tasty morsel. Cora went immediately upstairs to find my room and the shower. Max, Gino and I sat at the rattan bar drinking rum and debating whether or not to listen to Armed Forces Radio.
Soon the pig was ready and we feasted on it, firepit baked potatoes and some baked tropical roots or something that I cannot to this day identify. We had a marvelous evening laughing, drinking and even being entertained by the women who sang a few local songs in tagalog. Evil Eye was no exception. She was as happy as I would ever see her, drinking San Miguel and flirting with Max. Max sat at the table, eating and smiling benevolently, our gracious and generous friend and host. Our enjoyment obviously pleased him. After dinner we all pitched in to clear the table and straighten up the living and dining rooms while Evil Eye and Minda took care of the dishes. Cora volunteered somewhat half heartedly to help but Max said no, she was a guest of his friend and would not have to help. We spent the remainder of the evening laughing and talking and partaking of a native wine made from coconut juice called tubao.
It was late when Cora looked over at me and said in a small, shy voice that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. I agreed and we said our goodnight to all and headed upstairs for my room.
The night was steamy and hot. There wasn't a breath of a breeze anywhere to be felt. I turned on the fan and directed it toward the double bed at the far wall. Cora came over to me and kissed me passionately. We stumbled across the room, undressed while still in an embrace and fell into bed.
'The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky,'
We made love passionately, hurriedly, quickly that first time, then tenderly and slowly for what seemed like forever, neither of us wanting it to end. After, Cora curled up in a little fetal-like ball and went to sleep, snoring softly. I remained awake listening to her contented sound before drifting off into a fitful sleep. I will never forget that evening.
The date was July 28th, 1967.
The next morning over Bloody Marys - Cora was having her usual Coke - we were planning to hire a Jeepney to take us out to the barrios where I was promised an authentic Filipino lunch. I was to meet her friends and just enjoy an afternoon in some little sari sari store somewhere trying to keep up with the rapid tagalog that all of the locals would be speaking. I guessed that my tagalog was as rudimentary as was their english but Cora would be along to act as both my guide and translator. Later we'd return back to Max's and relax a bit before dinner.
We were just getting ready to leave when Max came rushing into the house with an official communication in hand. Our relief Carrier, the Forrestal had suffered a fire and explosion and was listing badly to port. At the time of the communication the explosions had subsided but the fire remained out of control. All leave and liberty for our crew was cancelled and all hands were to return to the ship immediately. If the ship had left Cubi Point arrangements would be made for stragglers to fly back with the mail plane. Max had phoned Rogelio who was staying at Sangley Point and the car would be here within the half hour.
I was stunned, as was Gino. I looked over at my Cora and for one ever so brief moment thought about disappearing into the barrio with her.
"Good bye, Nasty. Go to your ship and come back soon." Cora came over to me and we kissed for the very last time.
'I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind.'
Note: Adapted from Bob Stockteon's Listening To Ghosts (Xlibris Press). Unauthorized use prohibited.