A GOOD MAN for the BATTALION
by Hugh Aaron
I shall return," said General MacArthur in 1942 when the Japanese attacked Luzon and forced him to leave.
"I'll be back," said I, Hal Arnold, departing the very same island of my own free will when the war was over almost four years later.
MacArthur returned as conqueror. I returned to be conquered.
When the jet from LA landed on the tarmac in Manila that sultry afternoon, I was thankful for the solid feel of land beneath its wheels. Air travel frightens me. The earthbound sight of palm trees in the flat distance and of the terminal building and maintenance hangars reassured me. I had not been back for forty years, not since our troopship put into Noumea harbor after a lonely Pacific crossing during World War II. As I walked across the tarmac from the plane, I recalled the Filipino patriot Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated on this very spot, walking as I walked, only a few months before. Many believed that the president of the Philippines had him killed.
By prearrangement I expected my old friend Barry Fortune to greet me at the gate. Instead a young man appeared from among the crowd.
"Mr. Hal Arnold," he inquired, reaching to take the carry-on suitcase from my hand.
"Yes," I replied, surprised, "but how did you recognize me?"
"You are exactly as Mr. Fortune described," he said with that clipped Filipino way of pronouncing English words, an accent I had almost forgotten.
Being practically bald now and my face resembling a dried peach wearing rimless glasses, I had to be unrecognizable from the smooth-faced, gangly lad whom Barry had known. "I don't believe you," I said.
The bright young man, smoothly brown, wearing an open-necked white shirt and white trousers, broke into a smile. "Mr. Fortune said to look for a man who resembled a giraffe."
"That's more like it," I nodded and followed him to the luggage retrieval area.
"Mr. Fortune wishes to apologize for not being here," the young man said as he led me to a cream-colored Mercedes limousine.
Barry must be getting soft, I thought. I never knew him to apologize for anything.
We traveled along a highway bordered by thatched shacks, probably the same ones I had seen there in 1945, testimony to the unchanged poverty with no war to blame it on. Entering the city I saw the Intramuros, the walled old section now restored, whose perimeter had been largely blasted to rubble when I last climbed it. We passed the gleaming white buildings of the university campus, which remained untouched during the war, an oasis of order then.
Soon we were circling the imposing granite post office with its magnificent row of Doric columns. Once reduced to a silent shell resembling an ancient Greek ruin, the building was now returned to its original grandeur. Manila before the war was called the Pearl of the Orient. It had become a pearl again, so why hadn't the appellation stuck? Would I find out?
Pulling up to an opulent new high-rise hotel with a canopy and doorman out front, New York style, the chauffeur accompanied me through revolving doors to the desk.
"This is Mr. Arnold," he said, introducing me to the impeccably attired, graying manager, who shook my hand warmly.
"Welcome, sir. May you have a delightful stay with us. The presidential suite is ready and waiting."
"Oh, I don't need anything so elaborate," I said nervously. "Any simple room would do."
"Ah, but you are Mr. Fortune's guest and we must follow his instructions."
"Mr. Fortune has made a mistake," I said, showing annoyance. "I'd prefer an ordinary room."
Observing the manager's increasing distress, I went on. "I don't have to be impressed." As I've aged, I suppose I've become stubborn, perhaps irascible, less inclined to compromise.
The chauffeur cut in. "Mr. Arnold, do you realize that Mr. Fortune owns this hotel?"
"Well, no, I see, no, I didn't realize."
Grinning, the chauffeur continued. "Then you can understand his wish."
This was more than a chauffeur, I surmised. Perhaps Fortune's chief adviser? One could never tell about Fortune's associates.
My good friend Barry Fortune was a successful business magnate, crony to the president of the Philippines, and renowned internationally throughout the business world--a world as distant as possible from mine in academe. Barry refused to allow our old friendship to wane. He maintained casual but continual contact through an occasional Christmas card or an invitation to a family event, such as a daughter's wedding, or by sending a newspaper clipping of one of his exploits. During those early years of establishing himself in the Philippines, he "gifted" me with a few shares in one of his enterprises, a brewery. At the time, contrary to a prior resolution, I lightly accepted them since they were of little value then. The shares have since multiplied substantially, yielding considerable and steadily increasing income.
The presidential suite was elaborately appointed although it was wasted on me, a confirmed Spartan. First off I tried to reach Barry by phone, succeeding only after penetrating several layers of protective staff.
"Hal, it's absolutely wonderful hearing your voice. You sound exactly the same," he said excitedly.
"And so do you, Barry. So do you. Is it possible neither of us has aged over the past forty years?"
"Well, I certainly haven't," he chuckled.
"But I have," I said. "I must learn your secret."
"Don't give an inch, that's all," he said. Although in his early seventies, his vigor and drive showed no sign of abating.
"Ah, my friend, I can't wait to lay my eyes on you again," I said. We had not seen each other since I left the islands at the age of twenty-two when we were Seabees. During the long interim we had rarely corresponded, for Barry disliked writing letters, especially personal letters. I last saw him waving from the dock at Subic Bay while I stood in the throng of sailors high on an aircraft-carrier deck. He had shouted above the din, "Everything I have is yours, but don't expect me to write."
"I'll be back," I hollered in return.
Barry's voice in the phone interrupted my reminiscing. "My chauffeur will pick you up at seven."
"That will be fine," I replied.
"We'll have dinner, just the three of us. She's dying to see you," he said, she being his one and only wife of many years.
"Same here," I said. "Is she as beautiful as ever?"
"Hal, more so, positively more so. She won't give an inch either."
"Yes, I remember, that's how she was," I responded cheerily.
"Tell you what," he said. "If you want to take a peek at me in advance, turn on your TV at three.
They're broadcasting the ribbon-cutting ceremony for my newest office building downtown in Makati." Makati was the city's high-rise commercial district.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world," I said.
They were the last words I ever spoke to my good friend Barry Fortune.
At three o'clock I sat in my suite watching the gathering of celebrities on TV. In English, a commentator identified the more prominent members who stood on a raised platform just beside the entrance to the shining bronze skyscraper. Present were several ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador; a famous Filipino actress; an American rock star; the city mayor; the chief justice; the army chief of staff, formerly the president's chauffeur; many prominent businessmen; the president, not looking well; his wife, appearing ravishing; and, of course, Barry, whom I recognized immediately despite his white hair, jowly face, and a portliness he never had as a younger man. But his bearing--confident yet relaxed--was unmistakable. How quickly one adjusts from the mind's obsolete image of a friend to the new reality.
The camera panned the large crowd, mostly young office workers and shoppers, who filled an entire block of the commercial district. Speaking into a microphone, the president recited the benefits of the free enterprise system and extolled Barry's entrepreneurial contribution to the economic vitality of the country, which, although unacknowledged, happened to be declining at the time.
Summoned by the president, Barry rose from his seat and stood facing him to receive an award. A shot was heard. Others followed, crack, crack, crack, and Barry, wrapping his arms around himself, staggered and fell forward off the platform onto the pavement.
Stunned momentarily, some of the dignitaries dropped to the platform, others to the street. Men in business suits lay beside stylishly dressed women. They were motionless so that one couldn't tell the dead or wounded from the unscathed. The commentator was incoherent amid the commotion and confusion. Meanwhile the teeming, screeching mob panicked and dispersed like a disturbed colony of ants. When I think about the scene now, several weeks later, I tremble and my heart beats rapidly. Somehow it is still too shocking and unbelievable to grasp.
It was reported in the press that the assassination attempt on the life of the president resulted in the deaths of two ambassadors and an American businessman, which was inaccurate because Barry Fortune had renounced his U.S. citizenship long ago. His death has been particularly hard for me to take. How happily I had looked forward to our reunion, and to a summer with the Fortunes in the islands. It would have been the medicine I needed to mitigate my loneliness over the death of my wife the previous winter. And it would have been a much-needed sabbatical from teaching English at UCLA. Yet I had come to the Philippines for something more--to recapture somehow in this poverty-stricken land the simplicities of a warm and spiritual past. I knew I would run the risk, once in the islands, of never emotionally returning to the States.
Fortune's funeral was no less impressive than that of a national leader. In attendance were representatives from the major western nations, and a few Communist countries, including the USSR. The vice president of the United States was there, as were the president of Brazil, the Japanese prime minister, and a score of corporate chairmen from the world's most prestigious companies. Yet so well had my friend shunned publicity, to most people around the world the name Barry Fortune held no special significance.
As we stood surrounding the grave that gray torrid morning, I watched the faces of the high and the mighty and searched for a clue to their true feelings. Perhaps I was unjust to Barry, expecting to find insincerity, but I recalled well his method of operating. Had all these luminaries owed him something, submitted to his subtle intrusions and demands? The scale may have been grander and perhaps the style more polished than in the old days, but the net result would be the same. He must have used them all to achieve his selfish ends.
It is time his story was told, the true man revealed as very few had known him. This account spans a period of barely thirty months during the war while I changed from boy to man, and viewed from both vantage points. It draws on my crystal memory of certain events as well as sources that have been passed on to me, such as a poorly kept diary of those years and hundreds of letters to my parents and to Lucia, Barry's one-time love but not his wife. I hope that this memoir will help alleviate my sorrow at losing him, for from the beginning of our friendship and through the years of silence, my caring for him never ceased.
The Naval Construction Battalions (dubbed the Seabees) during World War II were unique, consisting of highly skilled tradesmen, mostly mature family men, some in their fifties, who under the severest conditions dedicated their outstanding talents to winning the war. I doubt whether such an experience will ever be duplicated in the same way again. If this humble memoir serves in any way to enhance the lore of that organization, albeit from the limited point of view of a young man who reached no rank higher than a third class machinist's mate, then I would be gratified.
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