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By Steve Kwiecinski

NABONG USAY NG BALOONGA TALOONGA BAGGAMOOLAY NG UMAY UMAY!” the young man is singing out at the top of his lungs. Okay, that’s not what he’s singing, but that’s what his native tongue of Filipino aka Tagalog sounds like to a non-speaker. And “singing out” doesn’t really describe his massacre-ization (I made that up, ala Arlo Guthrie) of the accepted norms of human vocalization in a melodic manner. “Yell” might be a closer term, but that still doesn’t describe the pain that the songwriter would feel at hearing his tune belted out much in the same way as a pig being slaughtered. Bob Dylan or Janis Joplin on their worst day would sound better.

We’re a group of six tourists on the Philippine island of Corregidor, which guards Manila Bay. Bob, a British WWII veteran and our guide for this trip, John, a man born on Corregidor to a U.S. Army family before World War II, and Charlie, a soldier in the Philippines just after the war, are from California. Judy from Texas is the daughter of a war hero here on Corregidor. My wife Marcia and I are here from Michigan because my father also fought on this island. We are sitting at a picnic table outside the MacArthur Café.

In 1942, fierce fighting occurred between the Japanese military and the combined Filipino and American Armed Forces on this island. Today Corregidor is a well-preserved battlefield with large gun emplacements and barracks still in evidence, as well as a memorial to the many thousands that died here. Now a tropical paradise 25 miles southwest of Metropolitan Manila, it is an entirely different universe from that huge metropolis.

We are just yards away from a statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur near the dock where he departed Corregidor. Looking impossibly larger than life, he seems to be waving for a "taksi," not to the soldiers he is abandoning to servitude under the Emperor of the Sun. He appears to be eyeing us as we down numerous San Miguels, the beer of choice in the Philippines. The alcohol helps us bear the “singing.”

Videoke, the video successor to karaoke, is all the rage in these islands. After a hard day’s work, the young people can sit down, have a beer or soda, and for five pesos (notated P5, equal to 10 American cents) pretend that they are the next Sinatra or Streisand. Earlier, Marcia and I, after a hard day’s hike, had come down to the café for a beer. One young girl actually sounded pretty good. Of course we had no idea what she was singing, but at least she hit the right notes, and the songs she chose seemed to be Filipino love songs with soothing melodies. I even thought about slipping her P50 and asking her to come back after dinner, hoping for some decent singing.

But tonight we are out of luck. The microphone is at an all male table, and the next guy isn’t a whole lot better than the former. “BUTAY NG ALOONGAY NG TANOG ALLOY BUGATAY NG LOOTAY BANALY!” he’s belting out. (I throw the word “ng” in every so often because it’s the only word I know in Tagalog. Ng seems to be in every sentence, and is on the back of the P100 note seven times. I think it’s pronounced “ng” and I think it means “of,” though the natives aren’t saying.)

Now John says, “Do you think if we gave him 50 pesos he’d sit down and shut up?” laughing as he says it. We all chuckle. Then Charlie comes up with one of his patented questions: “Did I ever tell you about the time I met a 300 pound prostitute in South Africa?” Above the noise he proceeds to give us the sordid details. Meanwhile I’m trying to order another round of San Migs and praying that the next Sinatra actually is sitting at the table waiting his turn for the microphone. Not likely, I know. In fact, I have heard that there have been several young men killed in metro Manila because they were butchering “My Way” at the videoke bars.

It has been an interesting day. Earlier I crawled through a 90-year-old tunnel near Battery Chicago on Morrison Hill with my guide Ronilo, the chief of security on the island. I wasn’t all that bothered by the first nine-inch lizard that dropped from the ceiling and brushed my ankle, nor the second, which bounced off my knee. Then the third lizard – these are not your ordinary, run of the mill geckos, but more like miniature Godzillas – landed on my bare shoulder. That just about literally “scared the crap out of me,” although I tried to act cool. I don’t think Ron bought the act. Now I’m waiting my turn to tell the others at the table about “The Attack of the Tunnel Lizards.”

Marcia says, “You should have seen all the monkeys we saw on Malinta hill this afternoon.” Charlie, who still considers himself quite the lady’s man and joke teller, is reminded of one of his stories. “A guy in Africa shot a couple of monkeys. When he got back to the States he took them to a taxidermist. The taxidermist asked, ‘How do you want them mounted?’ The man said, ‘Oh, I don’t need them mounted, shaking hands will be just fine.” Okay. Charlie really is an interesting guy. He has an extensive international engineering background and endless curiosity. The other night in Malinta Tunnel he wanted to know things like the slope of the tunnel floor, because of his interest in railroads. But he also asked some pretty weird questions like, “What is the drag coefficient on the air as it comes down the ventilation shafts?” Our poor young Filipino guide seemed relieved to say goodbye at the end of our tunnel tour.

By now Judy’s feeling pretty relaxed and says, “I only know one joke. When does a moth fly straight?” I say, “When it’s windy?” No one else hazards a guess. Judy says, “When he farts.” I have to set my beer down as San Mig shoots out my nostrils.

Another young man grabs the mike. He’s wearing a blue tank top, and even though I can’t make out what he’s singing, he sounds a lot like Elvis Presley. Everyone at his table is “feeling good.” They’re already hammered from quantities of San Migs and Ginebra, the cheap local gin that we’ve been told tastes like paint thinner. I decide to make it interesting. I offer to buy a beer for each guy at his table if Blue will sing an Elvis song. I rejoin my group, and soon a waitress comes over with the inch-thick videoke songbook. We page through and pick out “In the Ghetto,” “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” and “Hound Dog.” I give the girl P15 and hope that Blue will entertain us.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I met the Texas anvil salesman at base camp on Mt. Everest?” Charlie asks, as we’re waiting for our song selections to come around on the videoke. Eyes roll a bit as he tells us another of his tales. By the time he’s done you almost believe that someone would want an anvil at 17,000 feet in the Himalayas. It’s got to be time for another round. “Waitress!”

“In the Ghetto” comes on. Nobody sings. “Crap,” I’m thinking to myself. Here Blue is perfectly capable of giving us the quiver voice and he and the rest of the table are sitting there probably thinking to themselves, “What the heck is that song, and why would anybody want to waste P5 on it?” So we down our San Migs and hope Blue knows “Can’t Help.” But when the song comes on, Blue just sits there, and up stands a guy in a red shirt. Red knows the song, but he’s yelling the lyrics. We can’t tell if he’s trying to be funny or if he’s just clueless. “BUT I CAN'T HELP FALLING IN LOVE WITH YOU!” screamed in staccato isn’t what we had in mind. Red keeps the mike as “Hound Dog” comes on. At least his style and this song are a better fit.

“Did I ever tell you about the time our tour bus was overrun by monkeys in the Brazilian rain forest?” Charlie asks. “No, Charlie, tell us that one.” Since Charlie is partially blind, he doesn’t notice that I’m not paying a lot of attention. The others are doing their best to listen, but I’m looking around and taking in the scenery. It’s dark but I think I can make out MacArthur’s bronze statue waving at me now.

Young people are continuing to gather under the nipa roof and sit at various picnic tables outside the café. The girl with long dark hair a couple of tables down might be this afternoon’s singer, but she’s not likely to get the microphone from the guy’s table. Too bad. Our next round of beers have arrived, John’s treat, and this time the waitress brings a bucket of ice, four glasses, and warm bottles. Their tiny fridge is out of cold beer for the night. At least San Miguel has enough flavor to survive watering down.

Even though Blue didn’t sing the songs, I pay the waitress to take nine beers to his table. When the San Migs arrive, they look our way and wave. Someone yells, “Thanks, Joe!!” I don’t care a whole lot at this point that Blue didn’t sing. It was probably a matter of miscommunication. English is the official language of the Philippines, almost all of the signs are in English, and it supposedly has the third most English speakers in the world, yet the average Filipino knows just enough English to be dangerous. Often as not, following their directions will lead you to the wrong destination. They almost always answer questions with confidence and a smile, so you think they understand. Five minutes later you discover you’re totally lost and the next person you ask will probably be just as helpful.

Apparently the songs in English have caught on, because now we’re hearing a number of them. Red eventually gets the microphone back and sings “Achy Breaky Heart,” while Blue puts on quite a show moving his lower body parts to the music. We’ve had enough beer to find it quite entertaining. “DOAN BRECK MAH HOT, MAH ECKEY BRECKEY HOT!” Red screams. Blue gyrates. John asks, “You think he’ll just sit down and shut up if I give him fifty pesos?” We all chuckle.

“PINAY OOHLOO MUHULAY BAGATO NG BAGATAY!” Now someone else at the same table has the mike, and they’re back to Tagalog. It’s been a long, hot, sweaty day, we’ve had more than enough to drink, and we still have to negotiate the steep walk back up to the Corregidor Inn in the dark. I stand up and say, “Let’s head back.” On the way, I ask, “Hey, Charlie, did I remember to tell you about the giant lizards that jumped me in the tunnel?”





Steve Kwiecinski is currently writing a book retracing his father’s footsteps in the Philippines during World War II. He can be reached at [email protected]