Thursday, January 7, 2016

Mutatis Mutandis

For my first post of the new year, I wanted to do more than make a fresh start. Going through some old emails recently that I'd saved to a gmail account back in 2005, I came across the following email that I sent to a friend nineteen years ago. I had been in touch with a mutual friend who gave my email address to him. He asked in his subject line, "Are you the Dan I used to know?" 

Subj: The Dan you used to know?
Date: 96-12-09 19:01:14 EST 
From: Asiahand 
To: J*********

I read your message the very day, in fact just two hours after, you sent it. This long it's taken me to frame a reply. What follows is everything I am prepared to divulge for now regarding your friend Dan Harper, who sometimes mentioned your name to me during my brief acquaintance with him. I last saw Dan Harper on May 31st 1995. My first meeting with him occurred just two months prior when I happened to attend his wedding in Balibago in the Philippines. He had arrived in the Philippines earlier in March after his detachment from the Navy in Okinawa. He had managed to separate overseas rather than return to the States, which he frequently assured me was unthinkable. I was one of only two other Americans at the wedding, which is probably why we wound up getting acquainted.

I had been living in Balibago with a girlfriend for more than a year, overstaying my visa by several months. This would eventually have resulted in an expensive fine and maybe a stay in jail if I ever decided to leave the country. I was totally broke, living off the generosity of my girlfriend,her family, and a handful of fellow expatriates - Australians - for whom I performed occasional business transactions which I won't specify here.

My prospects of ever leaving the country were remote, until I met Dan. He was "disaffected," to use his own word, with the States, and wished to remain in the Philippines for as long as he possibly could. He had some cash, but it was dwindling rather quickly what with the expense of his wedding and reception (food and drink for 100+, his wife's gown, etc.) and his wife's extravagances. He felt quite swept away by the whole experience.

We became drinking buddies as the weeks went by and his 90-day visa slowly elapsed. His wife wanted him to return to the States and apply for her own immigrant visa (every Filipinos' dream). Dan tried repeatedly to persuade her to let him stay and support himself on the GI Bill benefits he could draw by attending the local university in Angeles City. I knew many ex-servicemen who were doing this - $400 a month is a king's ransom in parts of the Philippines. But she stonewalled.

After another month of this, we came up with a plan to save both our skins. Dan and I were sitting in a bar called Margaritaville on Fields Avenue (sorry, but the details are significant) along what used to be the perimeter of Clark Air Force Base, abandoned since the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in '91. We had played a little pool and were just wasting the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the bar, sipping San Miguels and watching the traffic on Fields pick up as evening fell. This was a full-time activity for alot of expats.

Dan was staring at the barmaid when he started telling me how there was nothing more in the world he wanted right then than to climb aboard a banana boat and head south somewhere, to "disappear." He looked at me and I knew he wasn't joking. He pulled a scrap of paper out of his wallet and handed it to me. I unfolded it and found a handwriiten poem - "The Voyage to Secrecy" it was called. It had something to do with wanting to go to a place where you could never be found again. I asked Dan if he'd written it, but he said he only wished he had.

We spent the evening coming up with a plan: he and I would switch identities - he assuming my dead-end life in the Philippines, and I going back to the States. Though we were far from look-alikes, there was never any question of taking over each other's lives. Once the switch was made, he would cut all ties with whomever he and I knew in Balibago and "head south," just as he said. I would simply use his passport to get home on the cheapest flight available.

His wife wasn't to know, but I was to proceed with her immigrant visa anyway and get her to the States. She arrived here in Colorado last June 20th. She was surprised to see me and thought it was all a joke for the first few weeks. Now she doesn't seem to mind, and we've grown rather close. Filipinas are nothing if not practical.

The last time I saw Dan was the night of May 31st, as I said before. He had arranged a bus ticket to Manila for me and enough cash to get me to the airport, that's all. I made arrangements for my sister to collect me once I arrived Stateside. All he had was a rucksack with clothes and a few books - everything he figured he needed in his new life. He asked me if I wanted his dress blue Navy uniform, but I declined. I'll never forget his last words just before I boarded the Philippine Rabbit bus: just a simple "goodbye and good luck."

He smiled and walked off toward MacArthur Highway. I never saw or heard from him him again - unless it was a postcard I got on what was his 38th birthday last May. On the card was a typical tourist photo of a pretty young Filipina in native dress. The postmark was from Jolo on the island of Sulu way down where the Philippines meets Borneo. The message was a line from the Old testament: "And the Pharoah said unto Joseph: forasmuch as God hath showed thee all this..." Nothing else. It wasn't signed.

I know this must sound more than a little daft. I figure Dan would've wanted you to know the whole story. I still don't know if you're quite prepared to believe it. I'm alive and I'm here in the States thanks to Dan and I'm telling you now: Believe it!


What my friend couldn't have known was exactly how much I wanted this fantasy to be true. I was out of the Navy, living with my sister in Aurora, Colorado, and my wife, who had arrived from the Philippines in June, was living with me. From the day of my departure from the Philippines after I married her until her arrival in the States with a visa it had taken 385 days, due to two government shut-downs and my wife's indecision about abandoning everything she had known to come and live with a man she barely knew. Then there was the strain of three people living under the same roof of a small two bedroom apartment. I was working a dead-end job, facing the realization that I had committed to myself to a life I didn't want.

Four months after I sent this email I joined the Army. Clearly, I was looking for a way to regain what I had lost in the Navy, which was, believe it or not, a sense of freedom and a position of strength from which I could get a better look at my life. After six months of training, the Army sent me to Korea, unaccompanied. It was this second separation that broke what was left of my marriage.

I got out of the Army in 2000 and got out of my marriage in '01. Not knowing exactly what to do with my life, I drifted for the next five years until I hit on the idea of going back to the Philippines. After everything that had happened to me, there was still, it seemed to me, this parallel life of mine going on somewhere in the Philippines. I had found happiness there and expected (foolishly) to find it again. I went back in November 2007. In early 2008, I boarded a bus instead of a banana boat and went south. I didn't go as far as Sulu, "way down where the Philippines meets Borneo," but I came far enough to find myself, still there - here - after almost eight years, effectively lost.  The poem I used to carry in my wallet, written by Norman Cameron, asked the question, "How many days the voyage to secrecy?" The speaker of the poem wanted nothing more than to get lost. I accomplished it. But now I want to be found again.

I have led a hazardous life these eight years. I have lost nearly everything, and, in so doing, I have discovered precisely how much I possessed in my life in the States. What seemed directionless then seems amazingly purposeful to me now. And now I want it back. Before I can make a fresh start, I have to stop. 

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