Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Swimming The Olongapo River TINSIWT

Liberty in Olongapo. Mythic liberty. Ice cold San Miguel would be 1.5 Piso when the exchange rate was 18P to the dollar. Maybe it was twice or three times that in one of the mainline dance bars on Magsaysay, but off on the quiet side streets, you could sit in a little hole in the wall and get a beer so cold a column of slush would rise out of the neck when you opened it for about a dime.

(I remember taking this picture, holding the camera tight against a telephone pole to stabilize it)

Just the thing to start an evening after working the flightline in the tropical sun all day. The rest of the place, there's no explaining it. Ask a sailor or Marine about Olongapo and if they were there, you'll get a wry smile. It wasn't right and it wasn't moral, but there it was. There were lots of young ladies, and a system to make sure there were lots of young ladies, available in Olongapo.

Some of it was business and some of it was love. A lot of guys jumped through a lot of hoops to bring home a girl they met in the P.I. and marry her. That was love. The business part of it was a bar fine that you paid to the bar. After that, you had essentially rented her companionship for the time frame, be it an evening or a month. Then it was up to you to provide food, shelter, and entertainment. All of which could be easy done on the pay of a PFC.

It was between the two of you as to what sorts of things you did together. Ya' know, like going dancing or going on base to go to the beach at Grande Island...or whatever.

Everyone was burning the candle at both ends throwing the candle in the fire to watch it melt. Guys were out until dawn and stumbling back on base in order to make a 0700 muster on the flightline, launching the morning planes, and then collapsing on a pile of bubble wrap to try to recover because liberty began at 1700 and hey are you going out the gate with us?

Things that would have got you written up anywhere else in the world now only had one punishment. The 1st Shirt would take your ID. He had a stack of blue cards and he would get your name typed right on one, for a day or three days, or a week. It worked as ID, got you in the chowhall, the PX and anything else on base. It just would not get you past the Marines at the gate in front of the bridge that took you over the Olongapo River.

The Olongapo Sh*t River. Just thinking about it brings a little flutter to my throat after 30 years.  There was no sanitation, no septic systems, no sewers, everything went in the river. By the time it got to the base, floating rafts of debris, garbage, and sh*t meandered down and out to sea. The water was no better,  a soup of human and animal waste that would keep a microbiologist entertained for a lifetime. The river might as well have been lava, the only way across was the bridge.

And now the stage is set for our tale. For the hero of our story, a young Marine, had fallen in love. Met the girl of his dreams. Her charms were like no other girl, in Olongapo, or indeed, the whole wide world. And he, like so many, stayed up too late too many times and one morning awoke to find the sun high in the sky and the far away morning muster long past. A base taxi deposited him at the barracks where he threw on a uniform and raced down the hill to the flightline.

A smiling 1st Sgt. gave him his blue card and set his punishment to one week. Which would not do, no, would not do at all. A love like this would not be denied. And so he did what love demanded. He went upriver on the base, far from the bridge and the Marines at the gate, and into the jungle. There he whistled across the river to a young boy with a boat and paid him a Piso or two to ferry him across. A neat solution and no one the wiser as long as he stayed far from the bars where the NCOs might see him.

And this worked for 3 or 4 days, long enough for all of us to know, and to shake our heads in wonder, beginning to lay odds on how long this would go on. Because getting off the base was only half the problem. You needed that ID to get back on the base as well. Each morning, early, as the sky started to get light, he would leave the girl and go down to the river, pay the ferryman, and return to the base in time to make muster.

Until that morning when there were no boats. He paced and waited, I suppose, as the sky got brighter. Finally in a panic he swam across the river. When he scrambled up the bank on the other side he was stopped by a Filipino security guard armed with a pump shotgun. The real reason, most likely, that there were no boats that day.

They took him up the hill in the back of a pickup truck, as he smelled much like the river, and took him straight to sick bay. He was given a brush and a disinfectant and put at an outside shower to take the first pass, and the second pass, at scrubbing himself. Everything he was wearing was put in a dumpster. Then, a series of antibiotics, a whole new series of inoculations, and irrigation of all his orifices, eyes, ears, mouth, nose, urethra, etc. to remove the river's gifts.

Much subdued, he was returned to the Squadron after a few days. As further punishment, he was restricted to the base for the rest of the deployment. To the best of my knowledge, he and the young lady never spoke again.

A lot of Marines went over that bridge and every one of  us has stories to tell, but he was the only American I ever heard of that swam the Olongopo River.


OldAFSarge said...


skybill said...

Hi "Patch,"
What a Rip!! Now ya' got me goin', gotta'go find my old "Oki Boat LPH-3 'Cruise of 70'" Cruise book!!
Got Gunz.....OUTLAW?!!,

burt said...

When I was there, Marcos had the whole country under martial law. If you didn't get back to the main gate by midnight, you were stuck wherever you were until 5am: the baranguay would just as soon arrest you as he would smile at you.

I remember one night particularly well. "Watch-snatching" was a big thing back then: a kid would come running past you, stick his finger thru your watchband, pull hard and break the springbar (the thing that holds the band to the case), and grab the watch. They knew which watches were valuable, so you never wore anything more expensive than a cheap-sh*t plastic Casio off-base.

That night, this kid came running past me and "hit" a sailor further up Magsaysay Blvd. The sailor started shouting... the baranguay saw the kid.... pulled his pistol... shot the kid... walked over to the body... grabbed the watch... walked over to the sailor... and offered the sailor his watch back.

No big deal. Most folks ignored everything after the gunshots and kept on with their business.

I only went to Subic City once - and that was plenty enough times for one life.

One green kid on his first Wespac bet me he could take a shot of beer in each bar and still be able to get back to the ship under his own power. Lots of bragging... until he crossed the bridge... heh...

Too many stories - not all are fit for print, but many are fit for telling at a bar. And all start TINS...

Yeah... those were the days... :-)

Old NFO said...

Burt, was that in 73??? If so, that was a kid from VP-4 that got his watch stolen (it was a $5 Timex but had a metal expansion band). We were used to Sangley Point, not Cubi... But when we came back in 75, got got 'fully' involved on Gordon Ave. VP Alley, The Missouri and a few others had moved from Sangley to Cubi in the intervening two years.

jon spencer said...

I have said this on other blogs.
What ever story is being told about Olongapo, no matter how outlandish it is true.
Oh, it was fun.
And a experience too.