The year was 1985. The month was May. I was 22 years old. An Army Intelligence soldier on leave from Okinawa, Japan, I was in the Philippines for my 4th time in three years. Had I known the impact this trip would have on me, I may never have gone, fearing the emotions I would have to endure later, when I returned.
Three friends had accompanied me on this trip. We all took our leave together. I knew it would be my last trip to the Philippines as I was due to leave Okinawa in December of that year. Party time for the soldier-boys. If you've never been to a poverty stricken country, I need to paint a quick picture for you.
Most of the Philippine residents do not own a car. They travel by Jeepnees, buses, motorcycles, scooters, and foot. Their average daily pay is less than our hourly minimum wage. As a soldier, I would go there with 500.00 and live like a prince. That is in no way an exaggeration. I was walking through a market one day and saw a lady buying a whole fish that was probably to be her family's supper that evening. She shook the one hundred plus flies from the fish and plopped it into a bag, probably happy that she could afford this delicacy. I shivered at the thought. The houses or shelters people lived in may contain a pipe coming out of the wall with a trickle of water that fell onto a dirt or rock floor. That was their shower, their sink, and their soul source of what may or may not be water good enough to drink.
That's just a glimpse. No sense in getting carried away with the picture painting.
In my second of two weeks there, I happened to be walking by some of the bars and clubs we frequented and spotted a little boy of around 7 or 8 coming out from under a propped up wooden box. This got my curiosity. I thought I should at least do the good deed of letting his parents know where he was. I went into the club, and asked if the manager could see me. She followed me outside and I pointed to the little guy, all dressed up in his ragged pair of shorts, no shoes, no shirt, and looking like he hadn't seen a shower in his entire life. She looked up at me and spoke the words that stung like a white-faced hornet stinging me on a hot humid day through a sunburn.
"Sir," she said to me sadly, "You ask where his home is. That is his home sir. He have no family." She turned and went back into the club.
I stood there frozen like a statue. I couldn't move. It hit me like Mike Tyson would hit a punching bag. I had grown up a "welfare kid." In comparison to what I was witnessing, I was the eldest son of the rich and famous. I had a home. I had a family. I had brothers and a sister. For goodness sakes, I had clothing. Goodwill supplied or not, I had clothing.
"No!" I said it right out loud. "No. Not today! That little boy is going to know that today, on this day, he is loved."
"Ray, what the hell are you doing?" It was one of my friends. "We're hitting the clubs man. You coming?"
"I'll find you guys later. There's something I have to do."
"Ray, don't do it man. You're getting too involved."
"I know I am guys. I'll see you later."
I went up to the little boy and I said, "You know where I find Ice-cream?"
He said, "I show you."
We walked. He walked beside me so proud that he was with somebody. So happy that somebody was giving him a moment's attention. He had no idea what I had in mind. Outside the icecream shop he pointed to it. He held out his hand and said, "Sir, maybe you give me Peso?" I smiled. I know there were tears. There should have been, because there are now, as I type these words.
20 pesos to the American Dollar.... He was asking me for a nickel..... A nickel.... Me, with almost 4,000 dollars back at the ATM machine on Clark Airforce Base, if I needed it.......A nickel.
"You come with me, boy. Okay?"
Inside the icecream shop, he ate hungrily at the huge banana split I had purchased for him. Half way through it, his shrunken stomach could hold no more. He was beaming. So happy was this poor little boy. The American soldier had just spent about 25 pesos on him. You would have thought it was Christmas morning.....Not yet my friend.....not yet.
We left the icecream shop. I told him I needed a new shirt. He led me down the dusty street to a thrift store. When we left the thrift store, my little friend was wearing new pants, a new shirt, and a new pair of sandals. In a bag, he carried another shirt and a new pair of shorts. I bought a wash cloth and showed him how to use it whenever the rains would come. I showed him that in the rain, he could soak the cloth and wash his face and hands. Back it his little home...the box...the dreadful wooden box. I told him I had to go but maybe I'd see him in around. He thanked me. I hugged him. I handed him something and he looked at me with a question mark. In my pocket was a 35mm film case containing twenty ,one-peso coins. Ever see someone's face when the won the lottery? Well...you get the picture.
I didn't see my little buddy again until my last day there. The 4 of us were getting ready to leave through the gate that entered the Airforce Base. I turned around, hearing that little voice. "Sir....Sir....Take me with you. Please take me with you. I be a good boy sir. Please take me with you."
"I can't take you with me. I have to go to a place where you cannot go." He cried. His dirty little face so soaked with tears, as his little arms reached out to me, begging me not to go.
My heart was shattering. My friends knew it, and they gave me my space. I reached into my pocket and pulled out everything I had rolled up in 5, ten, and 20 peso bills. I figure somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 pesos. Enough for him to eat well for a few weeks without any problem. I told him, "You take this. You be careful. Don''t show anybody that you have this. Hide it, and when you need to eat, you only take what you need to buy food. I hugged him as the water filled my eyes and overflowed down across my face.
I left. I never saw him again. It's been 24 years, and I find myself often wondering if that boy who would now be in his early thirties remembers the soldier who fed and clothed him on that hot day. I hope that it was enough. I hope he survived. And I'm pretty sure that if he does remember, then he knows that on that day in his young life, someone did something for him that made a difference.