View From the Back Row

It was a dark rainy night, and I was killing time in the wardroom, waiting on midrats, absent-mindedly watching the evening movie, before I took over the JOOD midwatch on the bridge. I dreaded it, because the OOD was a screamer, and we were off the mouth of the Tagus River, the Rio Tejo, where the tiny Portuguese fishing boats, probably with their sea anchors out, nets down, and crews asleep, painted almost solid green on the surface search radar. 

     To the uninitiated, the preceding paragraph might seem, at best, unclear. A naval language cognoscenti, however, would know that I was nervously waiting around in the officer’s dining room/lounge for the abbreviated midnight meal, usually leftovers, to be served before I took the 12 – 4 A.M. Junior Officer of the Deck Watch in the ship’s pilothouse. They would also know that the Officer of the Deck, the senior person on the bridge, often lost his temper under duress, and that it was going to be a long, busy night; underway from Lisbon, but now creeping through the foggy darkness headed out to sea, trying not to hit any of the little, ubiquitous fishing boats that had the right of way under maritime law. 

     They would also know there would be no English on any of the bridge radio circuits, night vision was lousy, and that JOOD is one of those thankless jobs where you have 100 ways to go down in flames with all the responsibility and no power. We had gotten underway from Lisbon that afternoon, to catch the tide, slipping downriver, past the outstretched arms of the statue of Cristi Rio, similar to Christ of the Andes in Rio de Janeiro, except Christi Rio stands atop a tall building, and then passing the new Padrao Dos Descombrimentos, celebrating the exploits of Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, and Prince Henry the Navigator back in the 15th century.

     Vasco de Gama was the first early modern European to reach India by sea (1498). Magellan, who was Portuguese, actually left from Spain on his voyage to the Spice Islands which turned out to be the first circumnavigation of the globe, some 37,600 miles. He started out with five ships and 237 men; sadly, only one ship and 18 crew members made it back three years later, not including Magellan. He had the misfortune to be killed in 1521 on the island of Cebu, in the Philippines, by King Lapula, an indigenous chieftain, over a minor language misunderstanding. He did live to name the Pacific Ocean (“Peaceful Sea”). Revered today in the PI (Philippine Islands) as a national hero, Lapulu is also the name of a large fish of the grouper family that is served as a delicacy in Filipino restaurants.

     My wife and mother-in-law once visited me in the PI while a ship of mine was in port Subic Bay, and we rode the Philippine Rabbit, a local bus line, up to Manila for dinner. I was a little worried during that trip because there had been a resurgence of HUK (Hukbalahap) communist guerrilla activity around Subic, and a U.S. naval officer had been murdered out in the ville. We went to a nice restaurant on Roxas Avenue, alongside the seashore, not far from the Old Town, which saw some of the most intense action when the city was liberated from the Japanese, and the American Embassy. When the waiter took our order, trying to impress my mother-in-law, who never liked me, I ordered three lapulu. 

 

The waiter looked at me quizzically, shrugged, and soon showed back up with three gigantic fish, each one covering a very large platter. One would have been more than sufficient for three people. Needless to say, my mother-in-law was not impressed.

  Even in the PI, or maybe especially in foreign countries, you need to understand the meaning of words when you hear them and before you start tossing them around. Back at Subic, for example, you’d hear golfers talk off-handedly about the “three-step snakes.” It didn’t sound like any big deal, but it was deadly serious. They were talking about these deadly, green bamboo vipers that would curl up and sleep in the cups on the golf course. An unsuspecting golfer would reach into the cup to retrieve his or her ball, get bitten, take three steps, and die. I don’t know if the stories were true, but they sure got my attention. Maybe that’s where Quentin Tarantino got the idea for that killer karate chop that ends “Kill Bill, Part II.”

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