Sunday, May 17, 2009

And Where Could I Marvel My Birthday Away?

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks of months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. - Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

I turned 51 today here on my Philippine island. Looking back on the way marks behind me as I zigzagged across continents and oceans, I am like the traveller who knows where he has been but cannot tell where he is going.

In 1987, I celebrated my 29th birthday in Columbia, South Carolina, with my mother and father. I mention it only as a starting point. In 1988 I was in Orlando, Florida, turning 30 in Navy Basic Training. Of course, I didn't plan it. It just turned out that way. By the next birthday, I was already settled in at my first "permanent" duty station (which, thank goodness, was not permanent) in the small town of Fallon, Nevada. So settled, in fact, that I would celebrate my next two birthdays there.

By '92, I had been transferred to White Beach, Okinawa, and celebrated my 34th birthday in the nearby fishing village of Heshikiya with my Navy buddy Carlos, getting acquainted with a barmaid whom we called Lost Boys, because of her badly aligned teeth. In '93, I found myself in Phitsanulok, Thailand on the occasion of my 35th birthday, and I finished the day in the company of a girl whose name I couldn't pronounce but whose breasts were as redoubtable as Mount Rushmore. So taken was I by Thailand, in fact, that I spent all of my advance TAD* money and had to pay it back over the following months back in Okinawa.

The next year I was back in Thailand for my 36th birthday, this time in Sri Racha, a half hour north of Pattaya Beach. Even there, in a small fishing town, there was a strip of bars just outside my hotel that my fellow sailors were calling the "Honch," after the entertainment district outside the Navy base at Yokosuka, Japan. They were hostess bars whose clientele were usually Japanese businessmen, for whom the hotel had been built so that they could play golf on a nearby "Japanese Only" golf course. The hostesses were used to big spenders and were not at all prepared to entertain a gang of rude and underpaid American sailors. I shared an elevator once with a Japanese man in the hotel and, having come from Okinawa myself, his thoughts were probably identical to mine: "there's no escape from these people!"

By 1995, I was out of the Navy but still in Asia. I was in Angeles City, Philippines, where I had just married (in March) a girl I had met there in '93. I was broke, my prospects were dim, and I was just about to leave the Philippines to go home and begin the lengthy and heartless process of getting my wife a visa. "Home" was Aurora, Colorado. And it was there, the following year, that I turned 38 in Aurora Presbyterian Hospital, under observation for a heart condition diagnosed that very day.

I was fully recovered from the heart condition, but apparently suffering from a mental condition, by my next birthday, in '97, in basic training once again - except it was the Army this time, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Turning 39 in the company of 17- and 18-year-olds made me feel quite a bit older. And I made the further sobering discovery that, in the nine years since my Navy basic training, the level of maturity in young men had plummeted. I was made a squad leader in my platoon because of my prior service, and there were times when I felt more like a baby sitter. Of course, I didn't reckon then that it probably had more to do with my simply being nine years older.

It was in South Korea that I turned 40. I was with some friends "downrange" in a town outside Camp Casey's main gate, and they were obliged, according to military custom, to get me as drunk as physically possible. We were playing "quarters," a unique game in which the object is to lose (and the loser drinks a full mug of beer). Lose enough times, as I did, and the game is over sooner than planned. I recall only that I became rather cross that I had lost ten straight rounds, in the space of about five minutes, and I could feel my competitive skills collapsing rapidly. So I stood up and shouted "Stop this game!" The Korean waitresses were so startled that had to give them a reassuring smile. Then, as if in response to a warning light going on inside my head, I left my friends in the bar and hailed a taxi to take me back to my barracks. That is all I remember of my 40th birthday.

A year later, home at last with my wife in Colorado, I observed my birthday resentful of the knowledge that the Army had turned us into strangers. It didn't help matters, of course, that she was capitalizing on it. The following year, on my first birthday of the new millennium, matters between us were considerably worse. So it should come as no surprise that I celebrated my 43rd birthday without my wife right back in the place where we had met, in Angeles City, Philippines. It had been six years since I was last there, but I bumped into someone who had been at my wedding every day of my month-long stay. I wasn't alone on my birthday. I made sure of that. But it an odd sort of revenge, and sour.

I wish I could gloss over my next four birthdays, from 2002 to 2005. I was alone in Des Moines, Iowa, a city known better to some of its natives as Death Moans. When, in the summer of '05, a close friend breezed through town on his way to Seattle, he wondered what pleasure, if any, I was getting out of my life. My ultimate response was to leave Des Moines for the Last Frontier.

My next two birthdays were spent in the bosom of my family, or what there was left of it, in Anchorage, Alaska. It was the time of year, late Spring, when the days were sixteen hours long , when tourists were arriving in Homer, down the coast, by the shipload, and when my sister, with whom I was living, was making good money selling her hand-crafted jewelry at the local bazaars.
But because of promises I made to myself, or perhaps to my former self, that ageless, invulnerable, fearless, and incorrigible self that it is probably better to ignore, I came back here to the Philippines to take up once again the dream I had in 1995 of making a go of living here.

And, after once again finding it a bad idea, and resolving to have been home in Alaska by now, here I remain on my Philippine island. A long time ago, after seeing the Tom Hanks movie Big with a woman who had the novel virtue of being nearly as old as me, I asked her what she thought of it. "It made me feel homesick," she said. "I'm homesick for places I've never been," I responded. I was at the beginning of my stint in the Navy, and looking forward to the outward voyage. At 51, my islands explored, their pleasures tasted, I can think of nothing now but the homeward voyage. The Constantine Cavafy poem, "Ithaka" puts it more succinctly:

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, trans.)

* "Temporary Additional Duty," or what we sailors called it, "Travelling Around Drunk."

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