Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lunch anyone?

Okay, I know that it's been a lot of years since I left Taipei, but for some reason I can't seem to remember where we normally ate lunch during the day.

I lived just outside the HSA east compound, and I know there were snack bars within the east and west compounds, but I have no memory of any of them. I often skipped breakfast in those days, but where I ate lunch is a complete mystery. I doubt that I would have packed a lunch because I hadn't accumulated much common sense back then.

I don't recall any sort of vending machines at TDC, so that can't be it either.

My evening meals were often at the 63 Club (China Seas) or even the Linkou Club Annex, which offered up some really greasy fried chicken. Also, I had a small toaster oven in my room that I used to prepare frozen dinners every now and then, though I often dozed off and burned whatever I was preparing.

Seems like my senior moments are becoming more pervasive.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Learning the Ropes -- Navy Style

It was my first day on the job at USTDC and three of us decided to head out for lunch. As we headed down the hallway, the other two walking side by side ahead of me, I noticed what appeared to be a Navy officer coming from the other direction. I didn't really think much about it since we were indoors and we Air Force enlisted types normally just said a "Good morning, sir" or something similar under those circumstances.

But it turned out that this was the admiral and the two guys in front of me suddenly stopped cold and snapped to attention. Like a tailgating SUV, I slammed into them, knocking us all off balance. We must have looked like The Three Stooges as we tried to regain our composure and whatever was left of our dignity. The admiral walked on by, staring at me as he passed. He wasn't smiling. Probably thought, "Hmmm...another clueless Air Force enlisted guy." He was right, of course. Who knew that one was supposed to stop and remain in place until the admiral passed by??

I don't think I ever passed the admiral in the hallway again after that, but I was fully prepared to stop, for no apparent reason, if or when I ever did.

Working with the Navy, Army and Marines was a great learning experience. For example, I was told that there are only two ropes aboard ship. One is the rope that hangs down from the bell and the other is the ladder that goes over the side. Everything else is a line.

Every branch had its own terminology, but the Navy and Marines were quite different from the Army and Air Force. Floors were decks; doors were hatches; walls were bulkheads; restrooms (or latrines in the Air Force and Army) were heads, and on it went. Because I was an office worker, most correspondence was in Navy format which was quite different from what I was accustomed to.

None of this stuff was bad, just different and it took some getting used to.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Layout of HSA Compounds

I recently received these diagrams of the Headquarters Support Activity's east and west compounds from Les Duffin. (Thanks again, Les!) Click on either of the images to see a larger version.

The east compound was where the US Taiwan Defense Command was located, as well as the Navy Exchange, commissary, theater, library, beverage store, snack bar and several other offices and services.

I attempted to overlay the Google Earth view of the east compound area with the diagram, but I can't decide whether or not I have the correct scale. In any case, I think it provides a rough approximation of the area as it existed during the 1970s. Please post your comments if your memory is better than mine on this.

Here's the diagram of the west compound, which was located to the east of where the stadium is located today. The bowling alley was there, as was the chapel, Pass and Registration and the auto repair shop.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Where We Were

This is an overhead view of the former HSA (Headquarters Support Activity) East and West compounds as they appear today. Click on the graphic for an expanded view.

The US Taiwan Defense Command was located on the north side of the East Compound. The large, white, modern looking structure is the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. I believe that it's located at approximately the same spot as USTDC, though I can't say for sure. The area to the south of the museum is now a park.

Just to the north and across the river is the former 63 (China Seas) Enlisted Club. Today, that building is the home of The American Club. To see the building as it appeared in the 1970s, go to Kent's Taipei Air Station website.

Just up the hill from The American Club is the Grand Hotel.

Taipei Traffic

"Taipei traffic was insane!"

You often hear similar comments from those who visit the city. But I don't agree with that at all. It was very orderly, just in its own unique way. There was a certain etiquette to be observed and you were fine as long as you drove in a socially acceptable manner -- not to be confused with a legal manner of course.

For example, I've driven in major cities all over the United States and I contend that Taipei drivers were more like Boston drivers than, say, Houston drivers. In Houston, there seems to be no speed limit and their attitude is on the order of: Fifty-five miles an hour?? Why, we can change a flat tire at fifty-five! Their primary objective each day is to get from point A to point B in less time than anyone has ever done it before.

Boston drivers, on the other hand, behave more like an aggressive swarm of killer bees than a speeding formation of geese. I have often wondered why they even bother painting traffic lanes on the streets of Boston because everyone there just seems to ignore them. For example, a Boston intersection may be marked for three lanes in each direction and once in a while there may actually be three lanes of cars. But there may also be four or five, depending on how many millimeters of space happen to be available at the time. Disgruntled Sox fans might actually manage to find space enough for six lanes if their team loses to the Yankees, especially if they can blow their horns often enough and loud enough to alter the space/time continuum. Expecting Boston drivers to calmly drive in their own lane would be like expecting a group of Italians to calmly wait their turn at an airline ticket counter. It's just not going to happen.

In Taipei, there was an accepted way to drive, and it had nothing to do with the law. For example, I remember left-turn lanes but no left-turn arrows. When the lights turned green at an intersection, those in the left turn lane just jumped out and, bumper to bumper, cut in front of oncoming traffic. The oncoming traffic would slowly advance until it was no longer possible for more cars to turn left and at that point the cars wanting to go straight ahead took their turn. Nobody got excited; that's just how it was done.

However for those who violated the informal rules, a correction might be enforced on the spot. One day my taxi was waiting at an intersection. Just ahead of us were two other taxis, one beside the other. The one on the right apparently tried to ease forward to create an extra lane, but he happened to tap the bumper of the cab to his left. The driver of the cab that received the tap immediately got out, walked around to the offending cab, punched the driver in the face and returned to his car just as the light turned green. He then drove casually on his way, the dispute apparently resolved.

Because I didn't own a car, I did very little driving and made most of my short trips by taxis, which were cheap and plentiful back in the early 1970s. I think most of them were Yu Loongs, which I believe was a Taiwan manufacturer. Many of them had some sort of mechanical gadget that allowed the drivers to open and close the right rear door for the convenience of their passengers. Many of the drivers had a wood beaded seat covering, which I assume was designed to allow some air circulation, especially during the very hot and humid summers.

A cabbie once told me that there were no bad taxi drivers in Taiwan. He explained, "The bad ones are all dead." I suppose there was some truth in that.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Big Ed and the Authentic Chinese Meal -- Part Two

Our parade, headed by Big Ed, continue on its way. I remember that there were lots of small stands along the way selling all sorts of different things, but after all these years I just don't recall much more than that.

Two of them, however, stand out pretty clearly:

The first was what looked like a makeshift weight training area where several young men with bulging muscles were lifting rusty barbells on a well worn weight bench. They paused just long enough to glare at us and then went back to their workouts. Apparently they weren't impressed with Ed or any of the rest of us either. But what I remember most there was the young bear that was chained to a post right next to the weightlifters. Why a bear at a workout facility? I have no idea.

The other stand I remember most was one with snakes -- poisonous, I was told -- hanging from the edge of its roof. The merchant grabbed one of them and cut it open, squeezing its "juice" into a glass. The customers then drank the contents of the glass. I understand it was considered to be a healthy tonic of some sort. We decided not to explore that any further.

We finally arrived at our restaurant and our parade of curious onlookers just sort of dissipated like a wave ebbing away from a beach.

The restaurant was pretty primitive -- especially by today's standards -- but Pete assured us that their seafood was the best in the city. At the front were several wooden bins of ice with all manner of sea critters laying on top. Pete selected several varieties of fish and a couple of octopusses (yes, I know that some prefer the plural form octopi), asking that one of the latter be fried and the other boiled. The selections were whisked off to the kitchen to be prepared for us.

We all sat around a wooden table with chairs that were made from sections of tree trunks about two feet high. It wasn't the most comfortable seating but was certainly adequate and it just seemed right for the place.

Well, the food was delicious and we all probably ate far more than we should have. Pete's wife took a particular liking to the boiled octopus for some reason and the rest of us were only too happy to let her eat all she wanted, which she did.

After dinner we headed back in the direction of the bus, minus our earlier crowd of onlookers. I guess the novelty of us had worn off by then. It had been a good night with good friends, new experiences and plenty of good seafood.

One other thing: The next morning I received a call at the office. It was Pete's wife and she said that she'd been trying to call her husband but he was apparently away from his office. She really sounded bad so I asked her if everything was alright. She replied, "I am really sick. I think it may have been something I ate last night!" The only thing she ate that the rest of us didn't share was, of course, the boiled octopus. Every now and then my instincts are right on.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Big Ed and the Authentic Chinese Meal -- Part One

Pete, an army friend, probably knew Taipei about as well as any American. In addition to his job at USTDC, Pete was a buyer for the PACEX (Pacific Exchange) military mail order catalog, and his visits with local businesses and manufacturers took him all over the city. I rode with him one Saturday to visit a few of them and I’ll write about that another time.

One day Pete and his wife decided to take some of us out for an authentic Chinese seafood dinner in an area of the city whose name I don't remember and likely couldn't pronounce anyway. They invited Air Force Larry and me, along with somebody Pete called Big Ed and his wife. I’d never met Big Ed, but he was an old friend of Pete’s so I figured he must be a pretty okay guy.

So the big evening arrived and Pete’s Volkswagen bus rolled up to the door of the hostel to pick up Larry and me. We were introduced to Ed and his wife, and off we went.

It wasn’t until we arrived at our destination and piled out of the bus that I understood how Big Ed got his name. He was about seven feet tall, or at least he would have been if he could stand fully upright. A land mine in Vietnam left him with legs that weren’t of much use to him, except that he could still hobble around on crutches. Even then he towered over the rest of us and his muscular upper body and bushy beard gave him a fierce appearance that belied his true personality. In truth, Big Ed was a gentle giant.

The area we entered was unlike anyplace I’d ever seen. I was accustomed to the “GI” environment near the HSA compound, but this was totally different. The streets were very narrow and jammed with people, and there were small shops and restaurants along both sides. This was not the Taipei that catered to tourists and American military people. This was the real deal. These were working class people on their own turf.

Big Ed was quite a novelty to these folks and many of them followed along as we made our way to our restaurant. The crowd grew with every step and before long we found ourselves leading a huge parade of curious onlookers. When we stopped, they stopped. When we moved on, so did they. We were like a group of roadies walking alongside a rock star.

To be continued . . . .

Monday, August 6, 2007

Crime in Taipei

Even after all these years, I'm still struck by the fact that Taipei was relatively crime-free. I don't recall ever being concerned about getting attacked or robbed while I was there back in 1973-1974. If such things ever happened, I never heard about them. I felt perfectly safe walking along the street in downtown Taipei at any hour of the day or night. Apparently, it's still like that today, according to the US State Department.

That's not to say there was no crime. Home burglaries, for example, were always a possibility. I hired a houseboy at the hostel, mostly to keep an eye on things. He definitely earned my trust the time I inadvertently left a fair amount of cash on the table in my room one morning. Not only was it still there when I returned home that night, but he had neatly sorted and stacked it for me.

During my tour I "house sat" a few times for some of the Navy officers at TDC who wandered off to Hong Kong or somewhere on vacation. I think they had full-time neighborhood security guys who roamed up and down the block from time to time. Even so, they felt a little more secure having someone in the house every night as well. It gave me a change of scenery for a few days and usually resulted in a good meal at a nice restaurant when they returned -- a definite win-win situation.

I'm now retired and live close to a major university in the Midwest. We don't have a horrific crime rate here, but I wouldn't even consider going for a walk downtown at three o'clock in the morning. In Taipei, a city of close to two million people at the time, I wouldn't have hesitated.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Empty Lot

Between my hostel and the main entrance to the HSA east compound was a large lot, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by a concrete wall. The rumor was that it was a mass burial ground and that the locals believed that it was haunted by restless spirits, bad juju or something.

I don't intend to dig very deeply into the history of modern East Asia, but one version of what may have happened there can be found in George H. Kerr's book, Formosa Betrayed. There are those who disagree with at least some of the events described in this book, but it's generally agreed that those were difficult times for all concerned.

All I know for sure is that I lived right next to that plot of ground for fifteen months and the only spirits I ever saw were in cans or bottles and the only screeching I ever heard was from the normal panic stops of Taipei traffic.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

The Hostel

As with all military relocations, assignment to USTDC meant that you had to locate suitable living quarters for the duration of your tour. There was no on-base government housing, as is often available at stateside and other overseas installations.

Upon arrival, you usually registered at a nearby hotel and the government reimbursed those expenses for some period of time after your arrival, but you were expected to find suitable quarters as soon as possible. I don't recall the name of my hotel, but it was located right next to the Linkou Club Annex, just around the corner from the Headquarters Support Activity (HSA) compound. TDC was located at the far end of the HSA East Compound.

Most unaccompanied folks (single or those with families in the States) found an apartment somewhere, either by themselves or shared with others. Some, like me, moved into the Hostel that was located right next to the main gate of the HSA East Compound. It was a short walk to the office and was conveniently located close to most places I ever wanted or needed to go. This picture (courtesy of Les Duffin -- USTDC 1976-78) shows the main entrance. The HSA East Compound main entrance was just a few yards to the right of this building, past a walled-in area that was overgrown with weeds. I'll write more about that area some other time.

The Hostel was actually in two buildings, one behind the other. I lived in the second one, which is shown here (photo from this website). I had a single room on the second floor which I've circled in this photo. It had terrazzo floors throughout, a single bed, a stand-alone closet/storage area, a small living area and a private bathroom with shower. The rent was relatively cheap and it included utilities. There was a window air conditioning unit that kept the place nicely chilled during the summer.

I paid a houseboy to make the bed, keep the place clean and tidy, including keeping my shoes shined, and he did an outstanding job. I don't remember the cost but I think it was probably somewhere in the $20.00 per month range -- a real bargain. Laundry, as I recall, was extra and he charged by the piece. That too wasn't very much.

I bought a refrigerator, a radio, and a small television to use while I was there also. It wasn't luxury living, but it sure wasn't bad.

My best friend and next door neighbor, Air Force Sergeant Larry, not to be confused with my Navy buddy Larry, and I usually walked to work together. He worked upstairs in J-2 at TDC and I was downstairs in J-1. Larry eventually decided to move in with a couple of other guys at a roomy apartment some distance away. They invited me to come along, but after crunching all the numbers I realized that it would ultimately cost me quite a lot more than I was spending at the Hostel. Trying to support myself, and of course my family back in the States, left very little extra on a Tech Sergeant's pay.

The only real complaint I had about the Hostel was the aircraft noise. Not too far to the east was the commercial airport and the Hostel was located almost directly under the flight path of incoming airliners. Of course TDC and the entire HSA compound were under that same flight path, but it just seemed a lot worse at the Hostel when you were trying to read, watch television, or sleep. I sort of got used to it but never could completely tune it out. The absolute worst were the Cathay Pacific jets. Someone said they used a specific Rolls Royce engine that the other airlines didn't. I don't know about that, but I do know that they really screamed as they passed over the building! Unlike today, governments didn't worry too much about noise pollution back in the early 1970s.

The Hostel, like everything else in and around the HSA compound, is gone now. All buildings were demolished, the pavement torn up, and the area converted to a park. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (left) is also located there. I understand that the entire area was bare for several years before they got around to building the museum and landscaping the park.