Monkey Business: Subic Bay the Philippines
By Daniel Shea
October 13, 2013
It was late 1968 or maybe Jan of 1969 when I arrived at Sep Cd. Co MB USNB Subic Bay Philippines. Time has a way of fading into the background of one’s memories, maybe because it seemed like just yesterday and then we only lived in the moment.
I was a fresh combat marine, a machine gunner from the guerrilla warfare of Viet Nam, no more snipers, mortars or booby traps to contend with, no more humping mountain jungles in sweltering temperature of 90 to 100 plus degrees looking for death to strike from behind every tree, leaf, rock or bamboo thicket.
You would think this a welcome relief now to be so far away from the slaughter of war but you would be wrong. One worries about those left behind, those you shared survival with and what about my little brother who came into my same company and platoon, my brother who took my place as two brothers were not to serve together in combat. If he were to die and I to survive was a constant reminder of guilt no matter how unwarranted I had to bare.
Worries of the mind are different from the realities on the ground, thus there was some relief in this new duty station. Subic Bay was a naval station and we marines were guarding ammo bunkers out in the jungle. We walked posts alone in the jungle four hours on four hours off, twenty four seven for four days with two days off to play in the whore town of Olongapo city. It was a poor little barrio across a canal so polluted its smells permeated the whole city. Our only goal was to get drunk and get laid and forget we were in hell. As time went on I began to see that we were abusing these people just by our presence, because we saw them only as someone to serve our needs and desires. Empathy took hold of me as I realized that the young women were trapped in a sex trade made available to men of war, killers and criminals alike. Many of the women hoped to develop a longtime relationship with one of the regular marines or sailors in hopes of getting married and escaping the hell they were in.
Sorry but I am digressing from my story to the business of different sort, a business of corruption where I found no peace, it is a story that will have to be told some other time.
Peace for me was in the solitude of the jungle and my encounter with the Monkey King we called Brass Balls.
First let me explain something about how different were the jungles of Viet Nam and the Philippines. The jungles of Viet Nam that I knew had already been bombed from air, land and sea, set a blaze by napalm and flamethrowers, riddled with bullets and human remains, a jungle pre-soaked from chemical herbicides known as Agent Orange. While the canopy of trees could still blot out the sun and the brush so thick paths had to be carved out with machetes, still it was quiet, no chattering of birds or monkeys. Where once mighty tigers stalked their prey, tigers and prey were no more, the poisons and noises of war had killed or chased life out this ancient rainforest, there was now only a ghostly silence.
The only sounds were our boots on a dying earth, our heartbeats pounding in our ears and huffing breaths from our chests to remind us we were still alive. That and the bloodsucking vampires you know as mosquitoes and flies, showing no mercy, tortured the living.
Now the jungles of the Philippines were alive with all matter of life, the grunts of wild boars and water buffaloes, pythons big enough to swallow a man, birds of every feather and every squawk, tweet and whistle, monkeys calling to one another from the tree tops, fruit bats as big as man ruled the moonlit nights above a jungle that never sleeps. It was a jungle with certain dangers, every variety of poisonous snakes were underfoot or aloft in the branches, but for the marine on watch, walking his post, the most feared were the monkeys who didn’t take too kindly to our presence in their habitat.
I had been warned to stay clear of these furry men with canine teeth, they were known to have attacked a marine or two, of which many tales where told. One such story was about a monkey King marines called Brass Balls for he feared neither man nor beast. It was said, a marine confronted him on his post, fired one round in the air to scare him off but BB kept coming at him, he shot he swears directly into him but the beast jumped into the air and landed on his rifle, BBs weight smashed the rifle into the ground and the final round went off and the terrified marine ran all the way back to the guard station refusing to stand guard ever again.
I thought the story was all smoke, just one of those jungle legends told to frighten the new guy. It had been months and I had many strange encounters while walking post in the kingdom of Brass Balls. Still I fell in love with the jungle, her mysteries, her symphony of sounds, her perfume of sweet blossoms, she even hid me from the world when I decide to take a nap out of the hot sun.
Yes, there were monkeys, I would see them from time to time, I would keep my distance and just watch them as they leaped from tree to tree foraging the various fruits, leaves or nuts within their reach. They moved through the jungle like a military operation, always with guards scouting out for dangers and steering a direction though this sea of green. Once I came across a troop of these monkeys, I watched them cross the road sending out guards two on one side of the road and two on the other side. They called out to the majority and they came out of the canopy of the trees and crossed the road all eyes and ears alert to any danger that might approach. I gathered up my courage and decided to follow them into the jungle, curious to see where it might lead. As I got farther from the road and deeper into the green I began to notice myself being surrounded as the guards where swinging through the branches to get behind me. Fear alerted me that I had better get the hell out of there or I might find myself in a heap of trouble. I raise my rifle to the ready and put a bullet in the chamber and slowly backed out until I found safety on the road again. I felt as though I had avoided an enemy ambush and was glad to have escaped without firing a shot.
This would not be my last experience with these ape men of this magical forest. One day on a hot summer afternoon I was walking my post when I saw a large troop of monkeys making all kinds of chatter, some up in the canopy of trees on my left and across the road over the fence others foraging bananas. One of the guards saw me coming and made such a holler all the troops to the left scrambled out the trees and took to the road and leaped over the fence. I kept moving forward thinking I had scared them off. When a whole army of monkeys charged the cyclone fence and clung to it and started shaking it in protest to my presence.
That is when I saw him, Brass Balls, he climbed the fence stood on two feet like a man in the middle of the road facing toward me. He was no more than fifteen or twenty feet away from me, we stared eye to eye while the army to the right hollered insults at me. I don’t know what came over me but I raise my hands over my head and shook them like a chimpanzee and made monkey hoots imitating Tarzan’s Cheetah I had watched for years on TV reruns. Funny as it may sound Brass Balls did the same and I seemed to understand what he was trying to communicate.
All of his troop had made it over the fence except one of the youngsters still skirting back and forth in the branches to the left of me. She seemed terrified to have been separated from the her family, all alone she was crying out for help.
I made another monkey imitation and went to the left to get behind this little one and BB to went to his right scampering up the jungle vines into the branches and chased this frighten baby back over the fence and into the fold. Everything was now relaxed, the army on the fence dropped back into the banana trees and began foraging again. Brass Balls leaped back over the fence and again faced me eye to eye and we both shook our hands over our heads and grunted and hooted at each other in mutual respect and then he slowly climbed over the fence and rejoined his troops.
Fascinated by the whole experience I found a grassy knoll and sat down watching this huge family of monkeys going about their business now not caring at all that I was present. I laid back and fell asleep and was woke-up by my hat being lifted off my face. Startled, but staying calm my hat was lifted again this time I noticed it was one of the baby monkeys that had got curious enough to sneak up and see what strange monkey this was whose fur could be lifted off his head. Then I looked up and I was surrounded in the branches all above me by the whole troop. No longer considered a threat my presence was tolerated, thus could be ignored as they went about with all their monkey business.
I have often wondered how this King of the monkeys Brass Balls would tell this story to his grandchildren. Would he remind them that if man and animals can attempt the others’ language, suspend their fears of each other and learn to cooperate, that peace may be possible among all the creatures of the earth?
Only if we humans can learn to communicate with each other in mutual respect, learn to share our knowledge and resources so all may benefit, then it might be possible for us to build the foundations essential to achieve Peace on Earth and Good Will to All.