In this, his second tale of boat people he met in Australia, my highschool friend Rolly Lampa quietly but powerfully strikes one against a Communist regime that made boat refugees of a generation of Vietnamese people. At the same time, he gently chides me for a (probably) tacit pitch for Communism when I fretted earlier over what I called a "clampdown" on one of our batchmates who died an NPA commander in the early years of martial rule in the Philippines. (To decode this cryptic intro, read post alluded to here.)
The other Vietnamese guy I met while in Customs was a bit different. He was tall and gangly and well educated, an IT guy no less. His name was Loc. He was with the unit that serviced our computers and coordinated mainframe requirements. He had newly transferred in from another government office and he was working on the disc drive of the guy next to me when he must have overheard a conversation I was having with another Pinoy officer.By:
When the other officer had gone, Loc caught my eye, smiled, and introduced himself. You’re from the Philippines, he asked, and his English was accentless, almost Pinoy-sounding. He said he had many Pilipino friends. Turned out he’d also come to Australia by way of the “camps” – in his case, camps in the Philippines (Palawan, I think). We chatted, and from then on, in the manner of officemates the world over, when we crossed each other’s paths, we would nod to each other and say Hi, Hello.
One late afternoon, it was my turn to call up the IT group for help – my computer kept freezing. Loc got the assignment and spent about an hour at my computer station, doing techno things. It was past five and the office was almost deserted when he finished but we continued chatting.
I remember the winter rain splattering on the windows when Loc told me his story. Once upon an afternoon only, and we never again got to rap with each other that long again.
Loc was 17 when he went on the boats. When he tells his story, he begins with about 20 odd men in the boat, no women. Like Ba, he never tells what happened to the women on the boat. They got to open sea and were heading north, towards Hongkong but they ran into trouble near some coral reefs that he later found out were called Freedomland on Philippine maps. There was a gunboat, he says, flying a strange flag. Many years later, he found out that was a People's Republic of China (PROC) flag but he couldn’t have known. The men on the boat saw the gunflashes even before they heard the chatter of the machine guns but they were taken completely by surprise. Some stood up to raise both hands in surrender but the firing went on.
Loc does not remember making a conscious decision on what to do. He simply dove head first into the water. Good for him, he was a strong swimmer; that had been his school sport. Loc remembers diving in the general direction of the nearest island and he remembers that he hadn’t taken more than four or five strokes in the water when he felt a glancing blow to the top of his skull. Loc showed me the scar where the bullet had furrowed a neat groove through his hairline. Might have been a ricochet from the hull of the boat because it was a spent bullet that lodged weakly near his temple. Through a red mist, Loc swam as he had never swam before, fighting not to pass out. He thinks he may have swam about 6 or 7 km before the breakers flung him on the beach. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness but remembers with clarity the moment when his eyes focused on a pair of combat boots. He looked up to the muzzle of a rifle and thought it was all over. It wasn’t. A Philippine marine had stumbled upon him on the beach.
Afterwards, Loc remembers only kindness. Maybe it just wasn’t his time yet, he says. Maybe some young Philippine Army doctor thought he was a challenge. Maybe karma. Maybe faith (he is Roman Catholic). Maybe plain compassion, he speculates, and that is why he likes Pinoys instinctively. I feel unbidden pride in my own people. Loc lived through the hospital and the refugee camp, and the processing. He reckons three or four men in his boat survived, none of them his relatives. He is the only one who chose to live in Melbourne. He finished college, got a job, got married and had just become a father to a baby girl when we talked idly, waiting for the winter rain to let up. I moved on to another government office a year later and haven’t had occasion to run into him ever since.
But I think of Loc every time I read stories of personal bravery and about refugees and the people smugglers who are much in the news. Lately, I’ve been reading my blogger friend’s struggle to accept the reluctance of her high school classmates to affirm one of their own as an “outstanding alumnus” for having co-founded the NPA. Where has all the romance gone for a generation who used to wear Che Guevara T-shirts ? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Nowadays, I think of the NPA and their vision of an alternative society and my mind’s eye locks into a 17-year old orphan boy swimming to freedom through a hail of bullets. Not much romance there, I would think.
Sadly, reality beats romance every time. The reality is that the homes they left must have turned pretty awful for Ba and Loc and their people to flee in rickety boats and make their way through unspeakable horror to freedom and a better place to raise their own children. And I’m glad the NPA will never take over my old country. Or turn out a generation of Pinoy boat people.
Rolando Agaton Lampa
Photo credits: stockxpert