Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Potluck Christmas

On Christmas morning, Grandpa Joey heard the doorbell ring. He grabbed his walker, slowly shuffled to the door and opened it. Nobody there but a big, white styrofoam cooler with a red ribbon tied around it.
And a note. It said:
Merry Christmas Grandpa! Don't worry, it's still fresh! Love, Ricky
* * *
  The day before, Ricky Hunnicut was driving his mother, Mary, towards his Aunt Peggy's place in Middleburg. A combination Christmas/Birthday pot-luck dinner awaited them.
"And don't mention your cousin's urinary tract infection. She'd be mortified if she knew that you knew. And on Christmas Eve of all days... bless her heart!"
"Yes ma'am."
"This is the fourth time Becky's come down with it in two years. Poor gal, she's only sixteen!"
"Seventeen, she's seventeen today. I wonder why she's so infectious?"
"Ricky, girls are built differently than you boys. It's quite common."
He rolled his eyes, "Duh, mom, I'm 22."
"Well you act like you're ten sometimes."
"Seems to me it comes from filth or sex." Ricky couldn't resist provoking his mother.
"Hush your mouth! Becky is pure. I'm sure of it. Besides, your aunt Peggy would tell me if she were otherwise. We sisters share everything... Watch out for that red Honda up ahead... and slow down for heavens sake!"
"Yes ma'am."
Mary Hunnicutt was alway critical about her son's driving. More so today, what with the stress of preparing for the party. Preparation–whether giving or attending a party–it was the preparation part that made Mary crazy. What to wear? What to cook? What kind of present to buy? Instead of happy anticipation, she looked forward these tasks with a sense of grim determination. Made it too important and took the fun out of it. Ricky wasn't sure if it was just her or some kind of woman thing. For him, planning a party was a twelve pack of Miller Ultra and a jumbo bag of pork rinds.
He hadn't even wanted to go to this damned party but his dad had managed to get out of it first, by claiming he had to go fishing with his boss from the Tire Store. Ricky figured he was lying but didn't want to risk getting popped in the head for saying so. Since Mama was too fat too drive safely, it was up to him to cram her into his old, white Toyota Corolla for the thirty mile drive to Aunt Peggy's country mobile home in cracker Middleburg.
"Honey, are you driving the speed limit? I think not, just slow this thing down."
"Mama, I'm only going two miles over the speed limit."
"I don't care. Look at those clouds, I'm sure it's going to rain."
No matter how well Ricky drove, it was never good enough for Mama. He was always either too fast or too slow. She really got nervous when they were on the highway. All the cars changing lanes looked like chariots of death to her. Mary would assume the role of co-pilot :
"Watch out for that truck. He should be in the right lane, the fool."
"The exit sign says 25. We're going to tip over on the curve!"
But the worst distraction was when Mama started air-braking: slamming her foot down on the floor when she felt they were too close to another vehicle. Her body would stiffen and her right leg pumped the carpet in jerky movements.
Ricky couldn't count the times she had scared him witless with that trick. Although it could backfire; one day she had air-braked repeatedly as they drove across town to the new Walmart Superstore in Orange Park. "THUMP! THUMP!" "THUMP! THUMP!" By the time they got there, Mama had a bad cramp. She waddled up to the entrance like she had a peg leg. It was the first time she rode in an electric buggy to do her shopping.
She rode in them all the time now.
They left the urban sprawl of Blanding Boulevard onto an empty two lane country road. Mossy oak trees, scrub pine and palmetto palms lined both sides. Mary slipped out of her flip-flops and wiggled her toes. Raindrops started to spatter on the windshield.
"It's raining. Turn on your wipers... and roll up the windows, I don't want Pooh Bear to get wet."
Ricky glanced over his right shoulder to see the white mini poodle; it's paws and head were hanging out the rear window, happily licking raindrops off its wet nose. The dog had just recently been to the beauty parlor and was sporting a classic poodle haircut, complete with pink painted toenails. It looked like the gayest dog in Florida.
"Hey dog. Pooh, over here," he said as he patted the middle backseat cushion.
"Good Lord! Keep your eyes on the road and both of your hands on the steering wheel."
"Fine, I just didn't want to decapitate the thing." He shut the windows with a touch of the electric button.
"Pooh Bear is not a thing," said Mary as she twisted her girth around to talk to the dog in a singsong voice," She's my precious, yes she is! Who's my sweet precious? Who my sweet?"
Pooh barked and pranced to return the love, yapping louder and louder as Mary goaded him on.
The rain grew stronger but Ricky pressed down on the accelerator. Not that he was in a hurry to get there, it was only going to be a small pot-luck with the family. Becky had had her fun party with her school buddies on Friday night. That meant none of her hot girl friends would be at the house. No lusting over jailbait in tube tops and short shorts today.
"Is Grandpa Joey coming?"
"No, he and your auntie are still not talking."
"Still? About the deer?"
"It's not that he served venison, but Peggy is sure it was road kill. And you have to admit Grandpa is far too old and fragile to go shoot one himself these days."
"Well I thought it was good."
"You would, you're just like him. Anything you boys find in the woods you'll eat."
"Only if Grandpa cooks it. He's a genius."
"Well, you'll have to do with honey baked ham tonight. From a store."
Ricky was sorry his Grandpa wouldn't be there, but his stomach started to rumble when he thought about all the good food they'd eat: ham, sweet potatoes, string beans, cream pie. And Mama's contribution; her much loved "Confederate Navy Beans." Ricky had carried it himself, red-hot from the oven, to the car. It lay there, in a big Pyrex dish covered in tinfoil, on the floorboard by Mama's feet, so Pooh wouldn't burn himself.
The aroma was heavenly.
"Mama, those beans sure smell good."
"Well they'd better. Cost a fortune to make. I just can't believe how much food prices have gone up."
"For beans?"
"No silly, for the bacon. I only use market bacon from Teeters Meat Shop. It's up to six dollars a pound. May be the last time I make it. Damn that Obama."
"How come you used white cheese this time?"
"It's provolone. Got it on sale."
"That doesn't sound very Confederate."
"Son, I assure you that the Confederates ate whatever they could get."
Mama started giggling.
"What's so funny?"
"He he! You got to promise not to tell... "
"The barbecue sauce I used... He he he... It's from New York City!" Mama slapped her knee.
"So much for southern cooking." Ricky started laughing too, Mama was infectious.
"Ha ha!" said Mama, "Nobody will ever know, they're so used to eating your Grandpa's road kill! Ha ha ha!"
"The south will rise again! HA!HA!"
"On the gas from these here beans! HO! HO! HO!"
"HAHAHA! Stop it ma, you're killing me!" Between the rain and the water in Ricky's eyes, he could hardly see the road.
And the turkey standing in the middle of it.
Other than its homely face, the Florida wild turkey does not look like the bird that is served at Thanksgiving. It is much thinner and stands on long legs. It can reach up to four feet tall. One can tell the mood of a turkey by the color of its head: blue for amorous, red when angry, and in the case of this bird, ashen white, as it realized it had a split second to live.
Ricky slammed on the brakes.
Mary slammed her air brakes into the Confederate Navy Beans.
The car lurched and slid its bald tires on the wet roadway.
Pooh Bear flew from the backseat and landed on Ricky's shoulders.
Mary's bare, right foot pierced through the aluminum foil into the hot beans and cheese; she screamed as if she were giving birth. Ricky and the dog joined her.
The car began to spin.
The struck turkey had flipped over the hood and caught its foot in the windshield wiper. It did a full fledged death dance, wings flapping against the windshield: left and right, left and right, left and right.
They spun round and round until the right rear tire popped, stopping the car.
They sat there silently for a few seconds, watching the bird's last convulsion.
"Do you think it's dead?" said Mary.
"More important, are we still alive?"
"Son, I believe the car's facing the wrong way."
"I think the dog peed on me. My back is wet."
"Do we have any tissue? I got beans stuck between my toes."
"Check the glove compartment."
Ricky got out of the car, pried the bird off the windshield and threw it to the side of the road.
They drove on the flat tire at a walking pace for a quarter mile to the parking lot of a solitary Quiki Market. While Ricky changed the tire, Mary went inside and came back out with a plastic knife and spoon. She took the Confederate Navy Beans out; there was a perfect Hollywood footprint in it. Sitting on the curb, she blended it back to its original form.
"Good as new. Not. A. Word. Y'hear?" she said, tossing the plastic spoon for Pooh to lick clean.
"My lips are sealed. Say, Mama, did you see any ice coolers for sale in there?"

* * *

Friday, September 26, 2014

Japanese Occupation Money

I found some samples of some Filipino Japanese Occupation Money in an antique store. It's interesting how the style mimics the US Dollar of the times. After the Japanese took over the Philippines in 1941, they brought hundreds of propaganda experts to "asianize" the population through theater, movies, radio and newspapers. The picture on the right hand side of the note is of the monument to Jose Rizal, a Pinoy patriot. The idea was that the Filipinos would reject western influence and embrace "The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." In other words, the United States of Japan, which included every Asian country from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, and ALL of the countries in between.
As inflation grew worse during the war years, the Japanese simply printed more money when they needed it. It became utterly worthless, yet they forced it on the populance. The Filipinos refered to these banknotes as "Mickey Mouse Money."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Take a time-machine to 1940s Manila

Meet the Reynaldos, a simple country family living on their farm in 1940s American Philippines. Good luck has bounced their way and the family is climbing out of rural poverty to become successful entrepreneurs.

Say hello to Eric Lawson, the gay manager of the only five-star hotel in town. With all the luxury and celebrity that comes with the job, what's not to love about Manila?

And have a listen to the beautiful Pinky del Rosario and her husband, Romeo. They're the hottest Big Band Swing act in southeast Asia. With her voice and his talent, the sky seems to be the only limit to their ambitions.

But the sweet life turns sour when World War Two blows up explosively in their faces. The victorious Japanese Army arrives, bringing with them a new set of rules and other ugly surprises. For the Reynaldos, this means becoming servants in their own house. For Eric Lawson, it's fear, brutality, and the specter of starvation in a prisoner-of-war camp. And as for Pinky and Romeo, singing for the enemy puts them on a dangerous tight-wire between collaboration and sedition.

As seen through the eyes of the Reynaldo's youngest son, Pepot, The Yellow Bar delivers a close up view of the almost forgotten history of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines and the horrors of the battle of Manila, telling the story of a remarkable family that struggles to survive it all through quick thinking, faith, and a pinch of dark humor.

Based on a true story.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Yellow Bar: Publishers Weekly Review

"Pepot lives a bumpy one hour ride from Manila and the opening paragraph is a knockout: "I was sitting naked on my carabao, thinking about how to get Pinky del Rosario to marry me, when World War II came to us. This was a big problem; Pinky was a famous singer, married, and also my Auntie. She was 24 years old to my 10. There were some obvious problems for me to work out before I could propose a wedding."

... The plot of this novel is unique. It’s the story of a Philippine family before, during, and after World War II, and the invasion of the country by the Japanese. Pepot, Pinky, and Dora are perfect examples of engaging characters. The setting is vividly alive on the page. The transitions from past to present are seamless... Many books have been written about this time period. Some have even been written with the South Pacific as a focus. But not many novels are told from the angle of citizens in the Philippines and this makes this marvelous tale stand out." -PUBLISHERS WEEKLY-

Needless to say, it's exciting to be reviewed by Publishers Weekly! The Yellow Bar is currently a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) 2014. If you'd like to read the first chapter for free (and possibly vote for it) click here for the Amazon link. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter in Manila 2014

Just a nice picture of my mother-in-law, taken by my nephew, Kong. She in her late 80s and as beautiful as ever. Some of you may already know that she was my inspiration for Imang in The Yellow Bar. We don't have any pictures of her as a child in WW2, but you can click here to see her as a young lady.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Now Available! ARTS DECO

A dark little comedy set in America’s Bicentennial year: Art Silver loves his bimbo actress wife, Kitty, which is why he consents to rent a penthouse apartment in the heart of old Hollywood while their home in the suburbs is being built. Large, glamorous and with a storied history, the place seems to be the perfect spot to for their tenth anniversary party. That is, until Kitty hosts a seance-gone-wrong and inadvertently opens a portal to the netherworld. Now long-dead celebrities are walking the halls. Far from being scary, Art finds that live-in spooks come with some amazing benefits. But is it too much of a good thing? And what's the ghost of JFK doing here with his wife behind closed doors?

Ghosts. Hollywood. 1976. What's not to love?

(And it's only 99 cents!)

NOTE: Contains adult themes. Not too graphic but a very different story from The Yellow Bar. To preview on Amazon, click here.

Friday, November 22, 2013

For Your Christmas Basket!

I am pleased to announce that I've finally gotten around to publishing The Yellow Bar in paperback form on Amazon. Just in time for the holidays!

Just imagine the tears of joy from your teenaged child as you give them this instead of an Xbox 5 for Christmas!

How about one for old Granny in the rest home? If she can't read it, at least she could chew on it or throw it at the orderlies!

It also makes an attractive door-stop.

Only $12.99 for a version in gen-u-ine paper and ink! Click on the link here to go directly to Amazon.

Limit 10,000 copies per customer.

Merry, Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy Christmas!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Sites in the Book: The Manila Cathedral

"Manila Cathedral was gone. There was nothing but a few columns and a huge pile of rubble left."
Click to see larger image.
The current Cathedral, in the old walled Spanish quarter of Intramuros, is in its 8th reincarnation. The church has a long, sad history of being destroyed by fire and earthquakes since it was first built as a bamboo and wood structure in 1571 by Padre Juan de Vivero. The 7th version, which you see in the left photo was completed in 1879.

During the war years, the gardens around the church were dug up to make air-raid shelters. In February 1945, while the Battle of Manila was raging, the Japanese rounded up a group of eighty men ( including 37 Spanish priests) and crammed them into one of the shelters. Then they were buried alive with large stones and gasoline barrels full of earth. The Japanese amused themselves by shooting or tossing hand-grenades into any air-holes they found. Only a hand-full of these men managed to dig their way out, four days later, and survive. One can only imagine the horror they lived through.

Today, the Cathedral is remains the main seat of The Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. However, the Cathedral is now closed to the public as it is undergoing extensive earthquake strengthening renovation. Hopefully it will reopen sometime in 2014.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sites in the Book: Fort Santiago

"By late morning he still hadn't shown up. This was not him, something was wrong."

Fort Santiago is one of the best maintained parks in Manila- and so it should be. The city started here, possibly dating all the way to prehistoric times, on the banks of the Pasig River. When the Spanish first arrived in the 1500s, the site was the wooden fort of Rajah Sulaiman at the mouth of the Pasig River. Much like their Conquistador brothers in South America, they made war on the natives, destroyed the fort, and started building their own triangular stone bastion in the 1590s. It would later grow and merge into the original Spanish city of Intramuros.

So much history has happened within its stone walls: Pirates, plagues and foreign invasions. It was the starting point of the Manila Galleon trade. It was a prison and a military barracks. Philippine National Hero, Jose Rizal, was imprisoned here before his execution. 

In 1941, Fort Santiago was the headquarters for the US Army. After the fall of Manila and the occupation by the Japanese, the fort became a dreadful prison and intelligence center, where hundreds (possibly thousands) of Filipinos were sent for interrogation and detention in to the medieval dungeons below. During the war years, the mere mention of of being sent there was enough to make a suspected Allied collaborator wet his pants: the stories of sadistic torture, amputation, starvation and other brutal conditions were all true.

After its liberation during the Battle of Manila in 1945, the bodies of over 600 Filipinos civilians were found crammed on top of each other in the small stone dungeons, locked behind thick wooden, iron-framed doors. It was determined that they had either died of starvation and/or suffocation. Another horrible war crime that adds to the ghosts that must surely walk the grounds of Fort Santiago. God bless them.

Nephew Kong touches history.
Yet today, a typical unaware tourist would never suspect its bloody history. The Fort is now a national park and has been well renovated in recent years. The grounds have been landscaped into gardens; you will see Pinoy families having picnics there. The stone walls have (mostly) been repaired. Happy, plastic statues of historic figures (including American General MacArthur) recline in realistic poses on benches and light poles. A few of the former military barracks remain on the sides as picturesque ruins, with authentic World War Two bullet holes still in their walls. There is even a welcome center. 

But for those of you who want to feel Fort Santiago’s history, take my little tip: Walk all the way to the back, to the river’s edge. The stones get mossier and more broken. The vegetation gets wilder on the edge of the timeless Pasig River. You will see stone steps that lead into the dungeons. You won’t be able to go inside. You don’t need to. Just stand by the entrance silently and feel the humid heat and smell coming from below. There is nothing Disney-like about this experience- it is funky. It is 1590s, 1690s, 1790s, 1890s...

Now imagine spending an hour in that dungeon. A day. A week. A lifetime. Did a shiver just go up your spine? Good. Now you understand what history really is.

Click on photos to see larger size.

Friday, March 22, 2013

My Unexpected Birthday Trip to Singapore

As an American, living in Indonesia is a lot of fun, but there are a few annoyances. The biggest one is the government Immigration department. The rules are always changing, seemingly for no other reason than to confuse all of the participants involved. Therefore, companies that hire foreigners usually have to contract a local immigration liaison to keep up with these changes.

One of the requirements is that a foreigner must leave the country to reapply for his or her work permit. This is a yearly pain-in-the-butt. The closest country is Singapore, and that’s where most of us go. It can be a fun trip if you have the time, or a trip from hell if you have none. My visa was coming to an end on March 31, and I was expecting the fun trip.

Then my boss called.

“It’s Easter at the end of the month and all the airline-tickets are sold out. You have to go to Singapore NOW!”

“I can’t go now. I have to teach.”

“Then go on Thursday. Your day off. But you have to come back the same day. I don’t have anyone to replace you on Friday.”

Don’t you just love bosses?

To make a long story short, here is what I did yesterday:

Got up at 2:30 AM. Put a camera, umbrella and iPad into my backpack and walked out the door. Went to the alley shortcut to get to the street where the taxis are. It was locked up. Walked the long way (real long, about 15 minutes) to the main street. I’m standing on the corner in the dark when a man in a van drives slowly by and stops.

“Hey mister, where you go?”

“To the airport.”

“You come. I take you.” He looked at me, smiling hungrily.

“No thank you. I’ll take a taxi.”

“You come! You come! I take you airport!”

My imagination tells me that he’s an axe murderer. He really wants me to hop in. He wants it too much. The vehicle has no side windows. It’s scary and I walk away. But he follows me slowly in the murder van, blocking my view of the taxis that are zooming by.

“You come in! We go airport!”

I wonder what will make the best weapon: the camera, the umbrella or the iPad? Just as I’m deciding to use the entire backpack as a club, a Bluebird Taxi pulls over.


Scary man looks outraged and peels off. I hop into the cab.

“Where to?” asks the driver.

“To the airport. Take the toll-road.”

3:30 AM. The toll-road is dark blue and empty. To the average Indonesian, an empty road is a signal to step-on-the-gas, an invitation to go as fast as possible. But my driver wants to go one better; he wants to break the sound barrier. I will need no coffee this morning. I am wide eyed awake, praying that the wheels don’t fly off, as we thunder down the road at warp-speed towards Sukarno-Hatta International Airport.

And then I remember: today is my birthday! This revelation calms me down. I mean, how many people die on their birthdays, right? Besides, if I did have that misfortune, at least it would be symmetrical. My life would be neatly tied up in a memorable package. A poetic demise.

I didn’t even tell the driver to slow down.

Singapore via Lion Air. It’s a new plane but I don’t quite trust it because of the logo: an orange/red lion’s head with a crown on it. It looks like it was designed by 5th grader. Plus, they really squeeze the seats together, to cram in as many passengers as possible. My knees are pressed against the front seat for the entire 90 minute flight. But I have a window seat on a clear morning. We fly over the jungles of Sumatra and skip over the Malaccas Straight. Below are giant working ships from all over the world; oil tankers and freighters. Singapore comes into view; its apartment towers ring the shoreline like the walls of a castle.

I called our fixer, Mr. Raoul* as soon as I passed customs. He told me to meet him at the outside courtyard of the McDonalds on Orchid Road. When I got there, I found this man surrounded by other visa clients from all over the world. You see, the Indonesian immigration office requires all applicants to wait a few days for a visa. However, money changes everything, and if you pay a little extra to a Raou, you can have your visa by late afternoon. I don’t like this system; it has the feeling of a drug deal. It makes me feel sleazy. Indeed, it certainly looks sleazy- a large Indian man with a picnic table full of passports, papers and dollars. I give him my stuff and he tells me to meet him back here at 4:30 PM.

It is now 9:30 in the morning and I have no idea what to do. Being alone in a city where you know no one, makes you feel like a ghost. I float down the wide sidewalk of Orchard Road past the tall shopping malls, electronic billboards and tall shady trees. High-end clothing and electronic brands fill the shop windows. The place is spotless; even the pedestrians dress better than in other cities. There is nothing I want, other than to eat.

I spot a hawker stand, which is a patio type food garden featuring exotic foods. What to eat for breakfast? Noodles with pork dumplings fits the bill, along with that cup of coffee that I never had. The noodles are excellent and gone in minutes. I sit there content and nurse my coffee.

Then a pigeon shits on me.

It hits my hand and the coffee a mere six inches from my face, just as I was about to sip. There is no tissue paper, so I go back to the counter and ask for some.

“Oh, that happens all the time,” says the smiling counter girl. She gives me a wad of tissue and a new coffee. Singaporeans are nice.

When I get back to my table, I notice that my cell phone is buzzing. I check and see I’ve got over a dozen messages.

Oh yeah, it’s my birthday! Everyone is greeting me! I can feel the love! Now I have something to do! I’ll spend some time writing witty replies!

I send the first one to my good friend Lily.


Uh-oh, the message didn’t go through. Try again.


Hmm, I’ll just call her. I dial the number and get a voice recording in broken Indonesian English:

“We’re sorry, you are not allowed to make international calls with this number.”

Like HELL I’m not! I’ve been using this number for ten years to call from abroad! The service is called Matrix, and it’s bloody expensive but I have been paying it for the very reason that I can make calls from abroad. How dare you not work!

I became filled with Matrix-hate. The coffee soured in my belly as I sent tons of evil thoughts to the Matrix office via my mind. (May this tidal wave of bad karma one day explode their building into a zillion pieces.)

So what’s a ghost in the city to do? It was starting to get frickin’ hot. I couldn’t walk down the sidewalk all day.

Then a double-decker city tour bus drove by. Its sign said:


Why not? I had never tried that before. I paid, got on, and cruised in air conditioned comfort. The best thing about it was that the pass was good for all day. You could stop at any one of the attractions and get back on again at no extra charge. Bliss!

I took the tour 3 times.

The first time, I sat on the left of the bus. The second time, the right. On the third, I got brave and actually got out of the bus to visit some attractions. I saw the giant ferris wheel, the art museum, little India, and the wild new casino towers which have something that looks like a giant surf board on top. Mind you, I never actually entered any of these attractions; I just loitered like a bum and took pictures until the next bus came by. I did give the Botanical Gardens a try for about 15 minutes, but who wants to sweat in a humid rainforest when it’s 1000 degrees outside?

A revelation of sorts hit me on that third tour; Southeast Asia is exploding with economic growth right now. Singapore is building and reshaping itself into the city of the future. It is Star Trek come to life. I see the same things happening in Jakarta and Manila. Futuristic, gravity-defying towers are growing into the sky. Blossoming like flowers overnight. Enormous wealth is starting to be seen. A rapidly growing middle class is rising and buying. Their children are smart, ambitious and aggressive. New Asian art forms are being born. There seems to be no bounds to the speed and experimentation of this new age. And unlike America and Europe: There is no fear.

I am not jealous, but it makes me want to run back home. Not to Jakarta, but to Jacksonville, Florida, where nothing changes. But that is just me. For you fearless souls out there, look east and maybe join them in this brave new world.

It is their hour.

Oh, and I got back to Jakarta at 10 PM. The plane was late. Some things will never change.

*Name changed to protect the guilty. Click on photos to see larger image.