Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: philippines (page 1 of 2)

Back to School

In 2008, my colleagues picked me as teacher of the year for our campus. Upon being selected, my principal handed me a packet to complete. Seems you have to write a short essay about your path to teaching, teachers who inspired you, professional accomplishments and some biography so the board can pick the district teacher of the year. This is a slightly redacted version of what I wrote back in 2008. I found it while cleaning up my work computer and doing some start of the year organizing. Call it a summer rerun.

I became a teacher twice. In the process, I learned that sometimes you have to leave a thing to see how much you love it.

When I was in college too many people told me I would be a good teacher. Told me I should be a teacher. Yeah, right, I thought. That’s nuts. Teaching was in the family, but I was going to work on film sets and maybe even be a director. A funny thing happened on the way to the director’s chair, though.

I learned that film work in Austin is sporadic at best. Hard up for cash between gigs, I took to substitute teaching. It took a little while to admit it, but eventually I realized I liked being in the classroom more than on film sets. Though I was “just subbing,” the work felt meaningful. I was a little jealous of the teachers with whom I worked; what they were doing was important. It wasn’t long before subbing mattered more to me than working on TV shows and movies I wouldn’t even have watched had I not been involved with making them.

While subbing, I thought a lot about the teachers who impacted me most. In second grade, Mrs. G. shared her love for Hawaii with us. That summer we moved to the Philippines and had a three-day layover in Honolulu. I knew the whole island and probably could have gone into business conducting tours. There was Mr. R. of 9th grade Modern European History who shouted and raved, gloriously reliving the great battles and upheavals that molded Europe.  On day one of 12th Grade AP English, Mr. C. informed us that he only read and taught books with lots of sex or violence. We read Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, the King James Bible, Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, Macbeth, Hamlet, and Invisible Man. I became a reader. The one thing all these teachers shared was passion. They loved their subjects, and they wanted their students to love them as much as they did. They were having fun too.

After graduate school, I found myself at a crossroads. I could restart my freelance film career, or I could try going all in on the teaching thing. Maybe my college friends weren’t so crazy. I enrolled in an alternative certification program in ‘99. That first year teaching middle school was grueling, but I survived. I taught 7th grade English for a second year and then switched to high school where I taught 10th and 11th grade English while building a winning debate program.  Each year, though, I had less fun. It grew more aggravating. The grass looked greener in the business world and in 2005, I decided I had done my part and paid my debt to society. It was time to go corporate and cash in.

That lasted almost one semester. I missed teaching. I missed the kids. I missed talking about books and analyzing poems. I missed the way autumn looks from inside a classroom and feels when you walk out at the end of the day. I missed the way spring brings everyone alive. I missed the rhythm of the school year, and most importantly, I missed doing work that I believe matters and makes the world a better place.

Only slightly annoyed by the self-applied pressure of my social conscience, I applied to be the GED instructor at a juvenile correctional facility in January 2006. I wasn’t sure how it would go there, but I learned that I really like teaching these kids. Someone has to.

The contributions and accomplishments in education of which I am the most proud are the ordinary days here at my school teaching a 100% “at-risk” population. Whether it’s helping seventeen-year-old freshmen earn their GEDs so they can start fresh in their lives or just, as my former principal said, “welcoming kids back to the community of learners,” on a daily basis, I get to help kids find their way back to the thrill of learning, the truth of a well told story, the beauty of a poem, a sense of wonder at the world around them.

That first day back in the classroom, I knew I had come home. I had become a teacher for the second and last time.

The Rope Swing

We were the shadows
that filled the sky while
ten thousand flying foxes
hung sleeping in the trees.
We raced up the street,
tropical sky and a flash
of the South China Sea’s
brightness squinting our eyes.
Barefoot down the hill,
not thinking once about
bamboo vipers the color
of grass to the rope swing
made (we all imagined) from
the same rope they used
to hang Tojo. Running,
we took our lives in hand,
swung out over the houses
in the loop, imagined
we could soar and in airborne
moments learned to love
the risk, the danger,
the sunny disregard for
the bone-shattering distance
to the rooftops down below,
the all-too brief air in your face
seconds when we could have
just let go,
birds learning to fly—
unschooled and unbound
by our parents’ gravity.

Old Photo Friday (Bataan, Philippines: 1982)

Friendship Tower of Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. 1982.

I found this while flipping through the old photo albums. It’s a picture of the Friendship Tower of Bagac in Bagac, Bataan, Philippines. It was dedicated in 1975 as a monument to peace and friendship between the Philippines and Japan.

I took the picture in spring 1982 with my old Kodak 110 Instamatic. I took three pictures of it and as soon as they came back, I taped them together to make this collage in an attempt to capture the whole thing. Not bad for an eleven-year-old.

We moved to Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines in 1979. In that time and place World War II was still close at hand. Only thirty-four years had passed, which to an eight-year-old represented several lifetimes but now doesn’t seem like much time at all. About the same as the span of years stretching from this moment back to ’82.

Physically, World War II was everywhere: relics, monuments and blood dried into the soil. In those years after Vietnam, I’m sure it was the war people on base preferred to remember. To a child, though, it existed in a dream world between heroic fantasy and rusted reality.

The fantasy came from books and stories seasoned with a little bit of Dungeons & Dragons-inspired battle romance. We read the books, enacted our war games wearing camouflage and rank insignia we’d pinched from our dads, and fought each other with mangos, avocados and guavas plucked from trees.

Despite the games, though, there was also the undeniable reality of the whole thing lingering in the air and throughout the jungle we were all strictly forbidden to enter. I remember one day hiking with my scout troop on Grande Island, a small resort—formerly a fort—island in the mouth of Subic Bay. We found an overgrown bunker facing toward the sparkling South China Sea complete with a gun emplacement rusted orange and ruined by years left to the rainy season’s whims. Had anyone fought there? Had anyone died?

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

These were questions that rattled through my mind when I participated in the annual reenactment of the Bataan Death March by scout troops from throughout Southeast Asia. My troop participated each year, and I was as excited as could be in 1982, when I was old enough for several grueling days of hiking.

The real Bataan Death March occurred in 1942 when Japanese forces captured over 70,000 Filipino and American soldiers after the Battle of Bataan and marched them to prison camps. Along that route, thousands were killed or died of starvation and disease.

Forty years later, we camped on the beach, played D&D in our tents and each morning after breakfast, we were bused to wherever we’d left off the previous day to trace the route of the death march. I remember it as exhausting and yet throughout, I had the awareness that this was nothing next to what those victims and survivors of the real Bataan Death March endured.

Somewhere along those dusty Philippine roads my fascination with war turned to recoiling as I realized it was one thing to reenact battles with my friends, but quite another to walk endless miles along a trail of brutality, hopelessness and murder. I think it was then that the idea of war began to move from fantasy to nightmare as we walked through Bataan imagining the sheer horror of the reality our reenactment was meant to remember.

It was quite a walk for an eleven-year-old with a vivid imagination, but I think I learned more about the cost of war than I ever did from books or school.

Along the trail of the Bataan Death March. 1982

There’s another Old Photo Friday from 2006 featuring a picture from the Bataan Death March.

Snakes on a Blog

Blotched Water Snakes

Lately, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the other life that lives along the little stream that runs to the pond down the street. Summer birding in these parts can be a bit dull and besides, there is a whole ecosystem out there to enjoy and appreciate.

From the footbridge over the stream, I’ve been noticing these little snakes that like to sit in the water, likely waiting for minnows to swim by. I’ve seen as many as three at a time going in and out of the crevices in the rocks. A jogger stopped on the bridge to have a look and he told me he saw four of them a few days prior.

As a kid living in the Philippines, I learned never to mess with snakes, and I still don’t even though I know the poisonous Texas snakes and these aren’t them. According to Austin Reptile Service’s ID Page for blotched snakes, I’m pretty certain these are Blotched Water Snakes (nerodia erythrogaster transversa), a nonvenomous species. The one with the more pronounced pattern is a juvenile.

Despite the fact that they’re nonvenomous, I kept my distance and certainly wouldn’t pick one up and not just because I don’t think people should go around handling wild animals but because, well, those Philippine lessons die hard and it could be a cobra or a bamboo viper. Aren’t irrationalities fascinating?

Still, I enjoyed watching them cool in the water and on that 100+ degree morning, I wouldn’t have minded joining them.

Blotched Water Snake

Blind Man’s Bluff

When I was a kid living on Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, the standard school field trip was to go tour whatever ships were in port. My favorites were the submarines with their cramped interiors and lack of windows. The men on board often wore beards and their world was as hostile and unforgiving as outer space.

On another fieldtrip we visited the base post office. They had a big whiteboard in there that listed all the ships in the Pacific fleet and had the dates and location of each ship’s next port call so the mail could be delivered appropriately. Except for the submarines. They just had red dots. Nobody knew where they would show up next or when. I always wondered if that bothered a friend of mine whose dad was captain of the USS Grayback, one of the subs we got to tour.

That fascination with submarines led me to read about the NR-1 last summer, which in turn led me to Sherry Sontag and Christoper Drew’s thrilling 1998 history of cold war submarine espionage, Blind Man’s Bluff, a perfectly titled book.

Sontag and Drew recount the adventures of cold war submariners including daring attempts to follow Soviet missile subs, the illegal and very dangerous wire-tapping operations in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea, attempts to salvage a sunken Soviet sub, and the mysteries surrounding the loss of the USS Scorpion along with the various cover-ups that these operations entailed.

It’s an interesting look into one of the most secret and fascinating realms of cold war history, unknown to most Americans including, oftentimes, the crews of the submarines themselves. Sontag & Drew describe briefings with the newly elected presidents Carter, Reagan and Clinton in which they were told of the submarine operations about which they were previously unaware. By the end, each new president is sitting on the edge of his seat. Blind Man’s Bluff kept me there as well.

One of the most interesting things is that the authors interviewed many former Soviet naval officials and submarine commanders and learned the other side of the story as well. It is interesting to learn that the Soviets never really had a first strike capability against the US. They were building up in fear of – and to retaliate against – our first strike capability. But then cold wars are really about fear more than anything else.

When the cold war ended, one former Soviet admiral is reported to have joked that the end of the Soviet Union would be the most damaging thing that could have happened to the US submarine force since their enemy was being taken from them.

After the mid-nineties, the authors admit information is scant and classified. Subs are still out there under the waves, likely spying and playing cat-and-mouse with Chinese and Iranian submarines now, tapping new cables, and listening, always listening.

I guess, now all these years later, I can finally imagine how some of the blanks of that post office white board would be filled in.

Old Photo Friday

I got this shot of Honolulu, looking out towards Diamond Head in July of ’79. During that summer, we moved from Washington, DC to Subic Bay Naval Base in The Philippines, but the journey was as exciting as the destination since we had a three-day layover in Hawaii.

I was between 2nd and 3rd grade, but all through 2nd grade we had studied Hawaii. I learned all about the various islands, King Kamehameha, the attack on Pearl Harbor, the humu­humu­nuku­nuku­āpuaʻa, and had even tried poi. We were in Arizona visting my grandparents when we found out that we were going to get to go to Hawaii.

I was very young, but I remember it all very clearly. I think it was the combination of spending a year studying it before actually getting to go that had the effect of searing it all into my mind. Unfortunately, I was recovering from chicken pox and had some kind of infection on my foor that prevented me from getting to go to the beach, but we saw quite a bit of Oahu anyway.

Old Photo Friday

We lived in The Philippines from 1979-1982. I joined the Boy Scouts in ’82 and the first big trip I went on was a reenactment of the Bataan Death March. The real march occured in 1942 when Japanese soldiers marched 10,000 American and Philippino prisoners of war to their deaths in one of the uglier events of the war.

We spent most of spring break with American scouts from all over the Far East Council as well as scouts from The Philippines and other Asian nations. We camped on the beach each night and each morning we were bused to where we had left off the previous day. The picture above is of a carabao, a kind of Philippine water buffalo, along with a few of the guys from the troop taking a break.

We saw a lot of the Phillipine countryside and one day walked through a village where heavily armed men – I’m talking ammo belts around their shoulders like Mexican revolutionaries – stood cradling their machine guns and smoking cigarettes while we hiked past. Our scoutmaster told us to just keep walking and “don’t stare.”

It was one of those experiences that has stayed with me, that made history come alive and through sore feet and tired legs, we all got a small taste of what those brave soldiers endured during World War II.

Update: I have now correctly spelled carabao. Thanks to Heather for reminding me of the difference in spelling between caribou and carabao. It would be odd to actually see caribou in The Philippines. But who knows, there is at least one tropical island that has polar bears.

Old Photo Friday

During the summer of 1979 we moved from Washington, DC to Subic Bay in The Philippines. Along the way we stopped in Austin to visit my aunt. She lived in a duplex on Arroyo Seco and her dog shared the backyard with her neighbor’s golden retreiver, Jeremy.

The first morning we were there, we heard my brother screaming, “He’s eating me! He’s eating me!”

We went out to find that Jeremy was introducing himself by licking my brother who was pinned up against the house. I took this picture of my sister after we learned that Jeremy didn’t actually eat people and was in fact very friendly, but the look on her face suggests that maybe we weren’t so sure.

Old Photo Friday

This little gem is of my neighbors Mike (with the gun) and Billy. They were our neighbors at Subic Bay Naval Base in The Philippines. My guess is that I took the picture sometime in 1979.

I have a whole series of these pictures of us doing action poses with the gun. Our friend Jimmy and Billy’s brother Chris were also involved.

Mike’s shirt, you’ll notice, reads, “Iran is a four letter word.” No doubt it’s back in style in certain circles. He also had one with a nuclear explosion that said, “Made in America. Tested in Japan. Use it in Iran.”

Everyone, including me, wanted those shirts back then even though we didn’t have a clue what Iran was all about or why eight-year-olds should be wearing shirts advocating mass death for an entire nation.

Fortunately, my parents had the good sense to not let me have one.

I wonder if we’ll soon be seeing such shirts adorning today’s youngsters.

Old Photo Friday

I mentioned Montezuma Castle in last week’s Old Photo Friday, and today we take a couple of looks at it from two different points in time.

Montezuma Castle National Monument is located in Cape Verde, Arizona and has nothing to do with Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The cliff dwelling was built by the Sinagua people, and according to Wikipedia Montezuma Castle was the last known dwelling place of the Sinagua. It was abandoned around 1425.

This first image was taken during the summer of 1982 when we were visiting family as we moved from the Philippines to Italy. I was 11, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a cliff dwelling or heard about the Anasazi people who built them (the Sinagua are considered a branch of the Anasazi group).

Montezuma Castle circa 1982

The second image was taken in 1996 when my wife and I were traveling through the four corners region looking at the ancient ruins.

Montezuma Castle circa 1996

Like me, the trees seem to have grown a bit in the intervening fourteen years.

In Italy, I would see the ruins of Pompeii and many other Roman sites, but none of it captured my imagination or sparked a sense of wonder comparable to what I saw in Arizona when I was a kid.

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