Belmont Club

How can I tell you

The day someone else’s safe house was raided back in the anti-Marcos days, I got three guys to stake out all the approaches to it. The idea was to head off, from a distance, anyone who didn’t get the word. The safehouse was located in a poultry in the first foothills of the mighty Sierra Madres that rose east from the suburbs of Manila to the distant coast where their peaks ran northward like a wall. I learned of the safehouse after some friends helped the chicken farmers pluck the birds, and they were paid in a sackful of chicken heads and chicken feet; they gave us some and we ate stewed chicken heads and feet for weeks. So when it got raided, we watched the roads.

Even sitting in the hot, high grass was a great change from the warrens of the inner city, with their overhanging roofs and crazy streets. There had been a deal table in the poultry shed, and the story was that the guys had the trick of mixing seething water with instant coffee which bubbled up to produce a foam. Guests would be gulled into thinking they were being served coffee with milk. The impression lasted until you actually tried to drink it. Then the vision of coffee with milk passed, and there was only the deal table and the clucking of chickens.

The raid in retrospect, was probably the work of a mole. There had been earlier suspicions and a consequent redeployment just in case, but the poultry had never been moved. I wound up in a place across from the southeastern wall of the vast cemetery in the Retiro area. It was advertised as a “studio” but it was really a glorified store-room constructed by roofing over an alley between two buildings. One wall belonged to a house that had seen better days and the other to a greasepit equipped with a jukebox where sounds screeched out from blown speakers. It had volume; that was about it. They had real vinyl records in those days. You dropped in coins, made a selection and a little mechanical arm grabbed a record from the carousel and put it down on a turntable. The sound came through the wall like it wasn’t there.

One of my professors in later life had been a naval officer aboard a destroyer. He told me that when they were tracking Soviet subs they’d sometimes play the Volga Boatman loud over the transducers, just to get on the enemy’s nerves. If he could travel back in time to visit his future student, he might find it a little like that in that dark tunnel of a place. The jukebox blaring from that greasepit was probably more weirdly terrifying in its own way than those transducers. At the end of the passageway with its alcove-like dividers was a bathroom with a 55 gallon drum. The drum was left under an open faucet to catch the drips which passed for a water supply and cumulatively provide enough water to cook, clean and bathe. A 25 watt bulb in the bathroom gave it that Das Boot-like touch. The shadows were welcome; nobody was in any hurry to change the bulb for fear of what might come to light. The place was built like a trap and nobody liked it.

It was always a treat to escape from the sour smells of the city and get out into the feet of the great mountains, even if it was only for road watching. The air was fresh, if dusty; and half the fun was getting there. If you were so inclined, and security was paramount, you could avoid the main roads and approach from a long way off, circling through the gardens, fields and goat paths which stubbornly survived in the interstices of the property development of the expanding city and make your way through abandoned or half-finished gated communities until you stood beneath the denuded peaks of what had once been primary forest. The fabled jungles of Luzon had long since been defeated by three things: the gasoline-powered chainsaw (which only became widely available after the Second World War); the front winch of surplus Army 6×6 trucks (left in great quantities by the departing 6th and 8th Armies) and the bulldozer and grader, which made road-building and hence logging possible. What you had left after the forest was gone was tough high grass, brush and lots of ants.

When it was plain that no one was coming, and the watch duty was done, darkness offered a choice of occupations. You could go back to the tunnel house by the cemetery, with its preview of the torments Soviet sailors would endure under the lash of a USN destroyer, or you could drift. Become part of night with all the riff-raff of the world: the vendors of peanuts, boiled duck eggs and pork cracklings. Join the tide of garbage scavengers with their wooden carts. Attend an all-night wake at a funeral home where you could pretend to be a distant friend of the deceased. Or bum a space among sidewalk vendors who slept beside their covered tables of fake watches, costume jewelry, plated necklaces, plastic sunglasses and other things. Maybe on your way you’d look into the lighted windows of decent people gathered round a television set or eating a family dinner with its soup, vegetable and fried fish. Then sometimes an aching desire to become “normal” would wash over you and a tune would run through your head almost as if your submerged self was trying to outrun the transducers of your soul. But the moment would pass; and you found yourself at the door of the tunnel house. Then you turned the handle and left the mountains outside before you realized that you would never see them that way again.


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