Seventeen - Chapter Three
I can still remember the fragrance of the frangipanis, and the taste of the calamansi juice we used to drink and that was everywhere. I’ll always remember the smells as well. The hot and reeking odours of rotting foods, drains, traffic and strange, exotic restaurants. The appalling smell of meat in the markets led to me becoming a vegetarian. It was an intriguing Asiatic amalgamation of odours that exists in all Asian cities I’ve discovered since.
Unfortunately, Nick the lead singer, an Italian from Melbourne became seriously ill and had to go into hospital while we were rehearsing. He was bleeding from the
bowel and had to go back home. We were left without a singer and Lionel was becoming increasingly aggressive, stressed and difficult to deal with. He also had our passports and was in control of our finances, we were yet to be paid and were only surviving on pocket money for food. Barbara and I were rehearsing, going to costume fittings, being fitted into beaded bikinis for our shows, and going to the ‘1571’ disco each night where we sat in the air-conditioning or danced to the band who were singing Santana songs, perfectly. It was heady and exciting but we were in a world of our own.
Lionel found a Philippino singer to replace Nick and he was sent back home to Australia. We saw him off at the airport with a tinge of regret that we weren’t going home too. Things weren’t going as well as we’d expected and we were apprehensive by now about going into a war-zone. But Barbara and I were getting on well with the boys and had peacefully transcended the idea of any physical relationships with them preferring instead to remain friends. I’ve often wondered whether things would have turned out differently had we been more involved with them but the way it went we were friends but not particularly close to any of them. We had to take care of ourselves on a daily basis.
At this point we had a show and started performing at Subic Bay, which was an American navel base up the coast. This involved a four hour journey by road from Manila, in a bus without windows and wooden seats to sit on. There would be thirteen of us altogether squashed into the bus with all our gear and equipment. We always did two shows each night, one early show and a later one for maximum use of time. It was always a very tiring four hour drive home afterwards and we would never arrive back in Manila before 3 or 4 am. On one occasion we went for fourteen hours without food because Lionel wouldn’t let us stop to eat which was an indication of the low regard he had for all of us at that time. There was a huge rift between him and the girls and us, and the boys.
Barbara and I were very popular with the audiences and always received standing ovations, we enjoyed it but for the travelling. We were often sent flowers and champagne and invited to meet the Admirals, but they all seemed too old for us and we never met anyone we liked, romantically,
We also did some shows at hotels in Manila. I remember one hotel called the Antipolo, where we did a show and being taken into a basement that doubled as an illegal casino. All the chips were magnetic and at the press of a button the tables flipped over and turned into dining tables. It was like something out of James Bond. We did our first show there on April 30th at the ‘Nightbat’ disco though we did it outside and late at 11 o’clock. After that, Barbara and I were often sent out to dance at the Nightbat on our own, as dancers but of course we never saw any money for our performances. It wasn’t in our contracts to do that but we were too young to stand up for our rights.
We used to travel through the provinces in a small bus to do the shows at Subic Bay. The first show was the day after the one at the Antipolo Hotel. We left the Palace at 3 o’clock and arrived at 7 pm. The first club was the N.C.O. and then we did a second show at 9.30. p.m. at the C.P.O. club. Another club where we worked was called ‘The Officer’s Landing’. Barbara and I encountered small emergencies. She broke a strap on stage one night, and I, a shoe. We arrived back in our hotels at 6 am that night. We also did shows at Quezon City at a place called the ‘Jusmag’.
Those shows were awesome and the audiences of Americans on ‘R&R’ incredible. Barbara and I were hugely popular and stole the show whenever we went onstage. We had dazzling bikinis, long hair and curvaceous teenage bodies. It was actually quite fun and we enjoyed it though it was a long drive back to the hotel in Manila through the villages each night. We never stayed at Subic Bay and were always well protected with armed guards. Guns had become very familiar. We’d been warned never to mention Marcos or worse, denigrate him in any way, as this was highly dangerous. Most of the shows we did in Manila were in Makati, which was in a compound to make it safer, but we lived in the centre of the city itself. I remember the river flowing through it because it was so polluted it actually ignited from time to time and people living on it were in great jeopardy. It was all very surreal and fascinating to me then. We were told on June 2nd that we would be going into Vietnam on the 21st. On June 7th I rang my mother and asked her to send me a ticket to go back to New Zealand, as I had no hope of receiving one from Lionel. He had every intention of taking us into Saigon without the boys. Just after that the phone in our room became mysteriously out of order so it was just as well we had called when we did. Our tickets arrived on the 9th of June.
One day Lionel called a meeting between all of us in his apartment upstairs that he shared with Mary and Dianne. He dropped a bombshell by saying
“ Due to the delays and loss of bookings caused by Nick’s departure, having to find a replacement and so on we have lost a lot of money. I’ve come to the decision that it will be cheaper to reduce the show that actually goes into Vietnam. Therefore, I have decided to send the brass section home and just take the rhythm section and the girls into Saigon.”
We were all absolutely gobsmakked by this announcement. This meant for Barbara and I, that our only allies, would be leaving us and suddenly Saigon didn’t sound so attractive when faced with a future there with Lionel, Mary, Dianne, Trevor, the singer and each other. He was sending Tommy, the saxophonist and the trumpet player home. This put our future in a totally different perspective.
This was all due to happen in the following week. As we left the meeting Barbara and I were feeling very upset and went upstairs to talk to the boys. We decided immediately that we wanted out as well. We wanted to go home now and we still hadn’t been paid any salaries at all. We discussed everything with the boys and we naively agreed not to tell Lionel that we weren’t going until the boys had left. We didn’t want them to lose their fares home that he was paying for. They convinced us to martyr ourselves and promised to take us to the Philippine Musicians Union and sort something out before they departed. We were the scapegoats and unsure of our own position we agreed to let them go before we spoke up for ourselves. We saw the boys off on June 18th and cried buckets, Tommy, Mike, Kim and Gary. Warrick had already gone as had Nick, of course. It was a late flight at 10.15 pm. We went upstairs to Lionels and told him we wanted out the very next day.
We did go the Union and we did get police protection before we fronted Lionel with our news after the boys left for Australia. We knew Lionel would be angry and possibly violent when we asked to be sent home too. Of course he disagreed and immediately threw us out of the hotel. Our bodyguard was with us and we got our passports back, our suitcases and we were to all intents and purposes out on the street in Manila without any money whatsoever. From there we were taken to a Home for Abandoned Women in the hope of a bed until our tickets from New Zealand arrived. We’d rung out parents and explained that we were in trouble and pleaded with them to send us our tickets. They did that in the form of cash so that we could book them when we’d retrieved our passports off Lionel. At that point he was refusing to give them back. So much for our dreams of returning home with money in the bank and a sense of achievement.
The Women’s Home we visited on June 19th was called the ‘Good Shepherd’ and was absolutely chock a block and short of standing up all night there was no place to sleep. Then the chief of police (who had suggested quite seriously that we have Lionel assassinated for a small sum at one point as an option) remembered a Scottish friend (with the questionable name of Bob Smith) who had an apartment where we might be able to stay until we flew out. This fellow was a nutritionist who gave lectures around the villages in the provinces and was happy to provide us with a room for a week. Plus we had our bodyguard outside the door for 24 hours a day while we were there. On June 21st, the day I had circled in my diary as the day we were due to go into Vietnam, Barbara and I were ensconced in a hotel with an armed bodyguard. We were yet to pick up our passports which Lionel had been withholding. However on the afternoon of the 21st we visited Lionel with the police, Mr Smith, and Vic a representative from the Musicians’ Union and finally got them back. We flew out of Manila at 11.59 that night on the 22nd arriving in Sydney on the 23rd at 9.15 am catching the 5.15.pm flight to Auckland. We arrived at 11 pm and were home in bed by 1 am.
We finally flew out of Manila and arrived back in Auckland intact but disillusioned after our experience. We sought legal advice about our loss or earnings and discovered that our contracts weren’t worth the paper they were written on. I never saw Lionel again or ever heard from him. Although Barbara and I had remained very close throughout the entire three-month experience we lost touch almost as soon as we arrived back in Auckland. I think we would always associate the disappointment we’d been through with each other. I did hear she married a traffic officer and had a happy marriage a few years later. It’s taken me over thirty years to write about it. It wasn’t a painful experience it was really a very lucky one when I reflect and consider all the myriad things that could have happened to us and to me.