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My Time in the Ashes

by jonah gruber

When I was fifteen years old, I traveled to the Philippines to attend


my brother's wedding. He was still in the Navy at that time, still working as
a petty officer in consignment and supply, far below where he belonged.
It was the first time I had traveled outside of the United States since I was
ten, when I went to England to see my mother's rural roots. The trip to the
Philippines was defined by the eruption of Mt. Pinotubo, one of the worst
volcanic eruptions of the last hundred years. The volcano didn't unleash a
fiery storm of molten death as did Krakow or Vesuvius but instead slowly
belched out large amounts of burning ash over a period of weeks. The
combination of this with the typhoon season meant that the ash mixed with
the storms to create downpours of wet cement. The cement collapsed
entire villages, whole city blocks were flattened, and everywhere you could
see Filipinos, ever industrious, piling the ashes into great hills whereupon
they would be converted into cinder blocks and bricks.

Every family in Olongapo, where the Navy base was located (it has
since been closed down, but it employed sixty-thousand Filipinos, just to
give you a sense of how important it was), had a collection of these
homemade blocks, which they exchanged for meager wads of cash.
Pinotubo claimed an estimated 35,000 lives in the Philippines, perhaps
many tens of thousands more due to sickness, poisoned water, and famine
that generally follow such great displacements in the developing world. I
recall that when I returned to America, nobody knew or even cared that this
terrible thing had happened. All we had heard on the news was that
Californian sunsets were getting a little more yellow from the ashes in the
atmosphere. I must say I experienced a perverse pleasure in watching
Malibu burn down last year, but that's partially because I am an awful
person.

I was a very quiet teenager, extremely shy, and with an insecurity that
I think extended far beyond normal teenage angst. This often paralyzed
me, particularly with girls. I don't think I asked a girl out till I was, not
coincidentally, legally able to drink. At fifteen I had a girlfriend, my first, who
never spoke to me. We would lay in bed and write notes to one another.
This was a problem because she would archive them, sorted by date, so I
could never change my stories or forget anything because sheʼd consult
the record and I'd be busted. In lieu of flirtation aggressive girls would
simply claim me, like peeling a wounded rabbit off the street. I spoke very
little and had very few friends. I attended parties rarely, not because I
wasn't invited, but because I didn't see the point in them (that all changed
in college of course). I wrote very bad poetry, but I wrote it often.
Things having to do with human contact could be devastatingly intense. It
wasn't a posture, it was more like a form of very mild autism. I really
haven't changed that much, I suppose. I tell you this because somehow I
think itʼs necessary to have an abstract of Jonah: Teen Edition before going
forward.
When you recall moments of your life, there are certain things that
you cannot shake out of your memory, but you wish you could. They lurk
there in the recesses of your hippocampus like raspy-tongued lampreys,
slithering up from the darkness and muck to suckle your blood when you
step in the wrong place. What I remember most was the children, the
poor homeless children, which one wealthy contractor who's wife looked
astonishingly similar to Imelda Marcos called "urchins," I suppose because
saying "urchins" is somehow more agreeable than saying "dying kids in the
street who beg for food." There was one boy, about my age, who was
slumped on the sidewalk near an open sewer, assembled in filthy rags. His
belly was distended, and he was completely bald. His left eye had rolled
back into his skull, while his other eye stared into my own. He held his
arm out to me and attempted to form words, though he could hardly move
his mouth. I wanted so badly to hold his hand, to feed him and take him
away. I distinctly recall that he was covered in flies, and they crawled
around his face and over his lips. I stared at him for what seemed like
many minutes, as people walked by, completely ignoring him. It was
beyond belief to me how a child could die in the street like this, a mere two
hundred yards from an American Naval base. Perhaps this lamprey is
responsible for some of my unhealthy cynicism?
"Come on Jo," my brother said, urging me out of my trance. He saw
what I was going through, and this must have effected him as well.
Throughout my trip, and for years after, I thought about that boy. I
fantasized that we had become friends, that I had made him healthy again
and that I knew his name. But we didn't become friends, and I didn't learn
his name.

Riding along in the jeepneys, the beautiful stretched jeeps that are
the defining characteristic of Filipino transportation, I saw a crowd of
children walking along the road. When they saw me, they all began
jumping up and down and smiling. "Coca cola! Coca cola!" they yelled, as
if somehow I was responsible for creating it. "Yes, Coca cola!" I yelled back
at them, I suppose because I was happy to see children that were not
miserable. I also really liked Coca Cola too.

It was determined by the adults that we were to go up north, first to a


resort villa, owned by a mysterious despot named Mr. Escadero, then to the
cool mountain city of Baguio, where you could get away from the humidity
and heat and shop for silverware. We hired a driver, which made me
uncomfortable, being a person who does not like to be served, but when I
found out that the driver had a rifle with him in order to ward off
highwaymen on our long journey, I thought it was pretty cool. Rifles make
everything more interesting. The driver was a balding, middle aged man
with worried eyes. He was very loyal and genuinely concerned for our well
being. He seemed extremely happy to have the work, and he appreciated
how much we cared for him as well. We would ask him to eat with us,
bought him all his meals, we even let him sleep in our terrible motel room
with us, terrible because there was an endless parade of ants crawling out
of the faucet and all over my body for the entire night. He brought his rifle
from the van into the room. I eyed it salaciously from my bed. I wanted to
shoot it at things. No matter how sensitive or sweet, every boy loves rifles.
If it were not for the ants and the perpetual diarrhea, I would have slept like
a baby.

Driving around the small town near Villa Escadero, we were attacked
by mobs of tour-givers. They ran up to the van and would put their hands
into the windows and beg for us to go on their tours. The driver was going
about forty with one of these guys hanging on the side, just dangling off of
the van like a stuntman. He slammed the windows on his fingers
repeatedly to get him to let go. My mother screamed, in an accent best
described as Imperial English, "No! Please! You'll hurt him! Stop doing
that! Stop the van at once!" The driver seemed perplexed by this order, but
he stopped the van suddenly enough that the tour guide flew off the side.
My mother begrudgingly, and with no small amount of terror, decided to go
on one of their "canoe tours" along some local rapids, because my mother
is a woman with nearly boundless compassion. I donʼt think Iʼve ever
known someone who could confront such desperation with such
equanimity. The driver went with her and my brother, bringing a small
firearm just in case they were bandits. Needless to say they werenʼt, and
also needless to say the canoe tour was terrifying and definitely life
threatening to my mother. They were so hungry that they would risk their
lives and the lives of tourists for forty dollars.

Villa Escadero was beautiful, and seemed little effected by the


volcano, but once again I couldn't appreciate this beauty because of what I
perceived as despicable levels of class inequality present on the land.
Villa Escadero is a large coconut plantation, possibly with other crops as
well, a small mansion that houses the Big Man and an assortment of grass-
thatched guest homes, and a beautiful roofless restaurant where one dines
literally on a river, with your feet dabbing in the stream. Fresh fruit is
served beneath the plumage of tropical birds. Large game is brought off a
spit and split open for you to enjoy, as a feast performed for some Tongan
chief. Tired looking peasants, far too many workers for the work that
needed to be done, shuffle about in the background insuring that everyone
is happy. The people who live and work there are essentially living in a
quasi-feudal state of serfdom reigned over by the invisible Escadero clan.
They are most likely bound by poverty to his land and are not awarded the
rights of his caste. I went off by myself on his property, something I should
not have done, just to see what the resort was all about. I picked a green
coconut off the ground and slammed it into a steel rod sticking out of a
concrete block. The fresh juice poured out and I held it high over my face,
perhaps the best way to derive liquid refreshment in the world. It splashed
pornographically over my mouth and my shirt and I reveled in the freedom
of it, like a child from Lord of the Flies. A large group of children had
convened in a cluster by a palm tree, staring at me with a mixture of
curiosity and disdain. I had done something they could not do, because
they were not white. I had stolen Mr. Escadero's property and I would get
away with it. I waved at them and smiled, but they did not wave or smile
back. At the end of my time in the Philippines I learned that one of my
cousins-in-law had been shot and killed for sneaking onto a plantation and
stealing mangoes.
Later that night, some guerillas from the New Peoples' Army
surrounded the villa, possibly because they heard there were whites
present. The NPA were Maoist rebels, though without Soviet backing they
became little more than organized gangsters with no clear socialist agenda.
They extort from the local populace and run various other rackets
throughout north Luzon. They exist simply because they can. I saw men
in a jeep, carrying AK-47s, speeding away on a small villa road. We heard
little of it, but I was suddenly much happier to have an armed guard.

We got on a bus, where I tried my first balut, the national treat of the
islands, which consists of a warm duck egg with the duck baby half grown
in it. The Filipinos on the bus watched me eat with bemused smiles. I
pulled the duckling fetus out of the egg with my fingers and ate it as if to
say, "You think I'm scared of your crazy food? Anything you can eat I can
eat better." It was very salty and crunchy, sort of like what you'd expect an
abortion would taste like.
An hour into the trip, we passed the valley where Mount Pinotubo
rose up from the mud and ash, like some hellish fang half bitten into the
fruit of the Earth. In my memory it seems like the road we were on was
right at the base of the volcano, but I know this couldn't be true. Our
memory magnifies things and filters them into a series of great icons and
symbols. All and all it was so traumatizing that I think I have deeply
subdued the experience in my mind to an acceptable level, as all people do
to cope with things that are out of their realm of understanding, or their
ability to accept. I do recall with certainty a flat wasteland of mud, of
crushed huts and makeshift shanties, of hundreds of people covered in
mud and begging at the side of the road, of mothers, themselves starving,
nursing their babies, of children running after the bus with their hands
raised to the windows, of people throwing them pesos, of people selling
any little thing they could to get money to get away, of Filipino soldiers
looking both official and menacing, of the eyes following mine, those sad,
hungry eyes, and the unbearable shame and helplessness that followed.

The bus ride was terrifying, and like the refugees of the volcano, I
have mostly buried the details in my memory. The byways leading
through the mountains around Baguio are precipitous and ancient. Most of
the major engineering projects on Luzon were built by Americans many
decades ago as a means of exploiting the nation's resources, particularly
silver and other light metals. To make things worse, it was typhoon
season, and as darkness fell upon the bus so too did a mother of a storm,
sending down thick sheets of rain and shattering the air with thunder.
Arnold Schwarzeneggarʼs Total Recall, the great Proustian-Martian epic,
was playing on a small television screen in the front, which made the whole
thing extremely surreal. The bus seemed to slide and skid, at times
hydroplaning, all along the narrow roads, which snaked around slender
peaks, deeper and deeper into mining country. It was confirmed that the
bus right after ours did not make it, and had plummeted off a cliff in a
landslide. Everyone on board was killed. My last thoughts might have
been "Wow, Arnold Schwarzeneggar really shouldn't have made
Kindergarten Cop. His best movie is either Commando or Predator," but
thankfully they weren't. Who knows, they still could be.

The rest of the trip is something of a languid blur. I ate fried frogs
under the flirting gaze of a small phalanx of extremely gay Filipino waiters,
who giggled at everything I put in my mouth. The dish that was the most
giggleworthy was obviously the cow testicle soup, which was salty and not
crunchy, but soft and tendinous, rather like what you might expect a testicle
to taste like if you decided to bite into it. What is not a blur is anything
involving women. I was fifteen, which meant I was a walking erection. At
fifteen years old the soft slope of a doorknob would send me into a state of
extreme arousal, and so I marveled at the sheer volume of prostitutes
available to the eye throughout Olongapo, but this voyeurism was not
without its concomitant guilt. I was far too pure of heart to ever... No... I
could never... My brother took me into a brothel, I guess for the same
reasons that a dad makes his son smoke the entire pack to teach him not
to smoke. I was both exhilarated and ashamed at what I saw. I've never
been with a prostitute. I would have too much trouble separating the
woman from her history, from whatever sadnesses that tormented her, from
whatever diseases that tormented her too, and that combination would kill
it for me. However, given enough time without physical contact, in some
distant land, I'm sure I would buckle under the pressure.

Finally, when we were ready for the wedding, I was told that many
people in the family, the peasant side that lived in the country, would not
come because they were ashamed of their shabby clothes. Filipinos have
enormous families, and in a country without national cohesion, all you have
is your family. I had more fantasies: Being able to buy them all new
tuxedoes and wonderful dresses so that they could all be there and I could
meet them and be celebrated! Again with the shame.

The bridesmaid who was to hold my arm was one of the most beautiful
girls I'd ever seen in my life. She was a few years younger than me. I
couldn't breathe. She looked like what a child might imagine a princess
looking like from some Eastern storybook kingdom. She approached me,
bubbling something in Tagalog to her mother at first, but turned away
suddenly and broke down in tears. I was taken aback and confused. I
thought perhaps she was being forced to do something she didn't want to
do, as if she didn't want to be at the wedding. I was told by my sister-in-
law that she was ashamed to walk with somebody with such white skin.
The Filipinos love white skin, and all their actors and models are as pale as
lilies. They don't get any whiter than me, so I must have been really
amazing to look at. Funny now, but at the moment I was traumatized.
Here was a beautiful girl saying I was too intimidating to walk with, but this
was complicated by the racial aspect of it, so it was a compliment that
actually ended up hurting me more than anything else. More shame. The
walk up the aisle was awkward to say the least. I kept peeking over at her
holding my arm. I could tell she was fighting with every fiber in her body all
those tears welling up inside her. I turned to her and said, "It's okay." in
the gentlest way I could. I don't know if she understood me, or if it helped.

At the end of a Catholic wedding women throw things. The bride


throws a bouquet and a bunch of women vie to catch it. When Marie, my
new sister, threw her bouquet, the women clambered to be the ones to
wield the flowers. The woman who gets the bouquet is supposedly the
next bride to be. It's very fun! If you believe in marriage. She gets in a
seat in the middle of the wedding guests and peels off one of her garters,
which she throws at the men. The lucky man is then supposed to marry
her in the future, though of course itʼs all just a funny Catholic game that
they play to make people feel guilty for not being married yet. I didn't
really want to participate in this; I was only a kid, and I felt sort of excluded
from the entire cultural event in any case. What followed is one of the
most embarrassing experiences of my life, and one that I feel has put me
off weddings ever since. I really hate weddings. Please stop getting
married. If someone asks you to marry them just sort of walk away, even if
you like them. That's what I'd do. Anyway, the pleasant young Filipino
woman, young yes, but ten years older than myself, threw her garter
behind her back. I was somewhere outside of the group, eating a piece of
pork adobo or something, and the garter landed on a table. The twenty
men assembled as catchers turn to me all at once, and there is a dead
silence that spans several seconds.
"Uh. What?" I say, porkily. Marie gesticulates back and forth, as if
to say "go to table, pick up garter, go to lady." I pick up the garter, and I
can feel the blood rush to my head.
"Ok. Now what?" The men, who have yielded to Lord Jonah the
White, the errant Prince of the Ball, clap on queue. I decide not to
immediately commit suicide and do as I am told, which is to kiss the bashful
young lady and put her garter on. Mind you, this is as close to a woman's
thigh that I had ever been, and I am no longer a sensuously pale knight, but
a shockingly beet red stroke victim, and I think that maybe she's having
second thoughts. As I always do in casual kissing rituals I apply way too
much saliva and then immediately feel like an idiot. The feeling is highly
exacerbated when you think that five hundred Filipinos might be analyzing
the saliva stain left on the target cheek. When she kissed me she pretty
much just blew on my ear, which sort of hurt my feelings. Here I was
giving her mouth and she wouldn't even give me a little something.

I received many marriage proposals while I was there. I can't


remember how many times I was proposed to. And they were real
proposals. It's the easiest way out, like winning the lottery. I sometimes
wonder how much that trip shaped my way of seeing the world. If I had not
been exposed at such a young age to the horrors of mass starvation,
death, violence, American hypocrisy and cruelty, would I not feel so guilty
every time I go into a nice store or shopping center? Would nice food not
be tinged with shame? I have very serious bouts of agoraphobia,
especially when it comes to shopping. I tend to shake a bit, feel
suffocated, and I lose my sense of direction. Perhaps Iʼve drank a lot so
that I don't have to feel these things around people, the drugs help you not
really care. It sounds crazy, but maybe going from such excess to such
horror in such a short amount of time can do that to you.
-2008