Photo of USTDC courtesy of Les Duffin

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Pete and the Taipei Journey

One of the characters that I wrote about earlier was Pete, an Army Sergeant (Sergeant First Class, I think) who worked in USTDC's J-2 (Intel) branch with Larry, an Air Force Master Sergeant. Pete and his family had been in Taipei for quite a long time and lived in a predominately Chinese neighborhood. I believe that his kids attended the local schools, rather than Taipei American School, where most American kids studied. I remember that his youngest daughter spoke mostly Chinese, much to her mom's dismay sometimes.

I mentioned in the earlier post that Pete had a rather interesting part-time job. He was a buyer for the PACEX catalog, which was the mail order catalog of the military exchange system for the Pacific region -- a sort of Sears catalog for military people. It contained a lot of items that were unique to the Far East and Pete knew a lot of manufacturers and wholesalers in Taiwan.

One Saturday morning he invited me to ride with him as he made some stops around the city. I think that was my first experience as a passenger in anything but a Taxi in Taipei and I remember that Pete drove like a local -- like a pretty aggressive local actually. But I'm sure that he scared me a whole lot more than any of the other drivers, who apparently attended the same driving school that Pete did. Somewhere in Taiwan today there may be an old rusted shell of a Volkswagen bus that still has my fingerprints pressed into the dash.

As we went from place to place, I had the opportunity to see some of the behind the scenes stuff in the city. For example, we visited a facility that produced oil paintings on canvas. None of the artists were working that Saturday, but there were stacks of completed canvases. As I looked through some of them, I saw that the images in each stack were all basically the same. Each artist apparently worked on just one image, over and over again. To this day, every time I see an ad for a "starving artists" sale somewhere, I remember that day in Taipei.

Another stop was at the Adidas shoe company. We were ushered into a large office with deep carpets and paneled walls, where we were warmly greeted by an executive type who obviously knew Pete very well. They conducted a little business and as we were getting ready to leave, the exec turned to me and asked if I'd like to have a pair of their shoes as a souvenir of my visit. Of course I said yes and he walked over to one wall and pressed on the paneling, which rotated to reveal racks of all the models of shoes that they manufactured there. He worked his way around the room, opening each section, and then told me to pick out something I liked. I picked out a pair of running shoes, told him my size, and he dispatched his assistant to retrieve a pair. They probably weren't much by today's standards, but they were my very first pair of Adidas and I wore them until they were threadbare.

Pete was eventually reassigned to a remote location in Korea sometime in 1974 and his family stayed in Taipei while he was gone. I don't know if he was able to get assigned back to Taiwan after his Korean tour, but I'm sure that he probably tried.

I held a number of part-time jobs during my military career, but never one as interesting as Pete's. Like many of the people I knew in Taipei, I've often wondered whatever happened to him.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Night of the Wrecked Mustang

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with Kent Mathieu, who owns the Taipei Air Station website. He recently offered to pass along the story of how he wrecked his 1965 Mustang on the road to Beitou and I'm delighted to include it here.

I think it was in late spring of 1966 when a team from Clark Air Base flew into Taipei to inspect our Communications Squadron Personnel Office at Taipei Air Station.

We wanted to be good hosts, of course; that was part of the game. Normally someone was appointed to "take care" of the folks who were inspecting each office. I was single at the time and so was “volunteered” to host the two inspectors who were visiting our Personnel and Admin shop.

All of Inspection Team's folks were housed downtown, probably at the Ambassador or one of the other hotels on Chung Shan North Road, because there were no visitor lodging facilities at Taipei Air Station.

After our two inspectors finished their work each day – usually after a long lunch somewhere -- they headed to their hotel to rest and refresh. Most of team probably had dinner at one of the military clubs downtown and then dispersed for other recreation, the bar, the movie theater or whatever.

After the second day of the inspection, I arranged to meet up with the team at Club 63 for dinner. We ate, swapped stories for a while at the bar and then jumped in my car to visit a couple of clubs in the area -- those places we all remember down Chung Shan N. Road from the Linkou Club and Navy Exchange.

After a couple of hours of bar-hopping, I suggested we visit one of the hot springs hotels in Beitou. We discussed all possibilities of what we could do after a hot tub soak and everyone was anxious to get to Peitou.

It was drizzling as we made our way up the narrow two-lane asphalt road toward the village in my 1965, three-speed Mustang that night. About halfway to Beitou, I came upon a taxi that had stopped right on the road in front of me. This was 1966 and there were very few civilian automobiles on the road. I read in some publication recently that many Taiwan taxi drivers believed they were exempt from observing traffic laws. Most were ex-pedicab owners, who made u-turns anyplace, would drive on a sidewalk to get a fare, constantly honked their horns, and who believed that turning on their headlights caused their engines to burn more fuel. I thought of them as kamikaze drivers, living without fear or care. Who could ever forget those white knuckle rides in the back seat of a red taxi?

Anyway, I slowed down and pulled left to pass the taxi, probably shifting down to second gear to do it. In the 1960s, the asphalt type roads were constructed without the use of machines. They were built by a team of men and the surface was heavy with tar and sand. As I passed the taxi, my wheels hit a very slippery spot in the pavement. The Mustang began to slide. I tried to brake and turn the wheel; everything I did to regain control of the vehicle was useless. The car was out of control as it moved down the road. We did a slow 60 degree turn sliding along the left side of the road and onto a small dirt area, straight into a solid, heavy duty rock wall.

The whole thing happened in a few short seconds, but to me it was in slow motion. My passengers, one in the front and another in the back had consumed too many adult beverages to react to the slide, or grab something to hold onto before the impact. The collision mashed in the driver's side of the hood, front fender, grill, etc. My car was a mess. The two Inspectors had minor injuries, mostly a lot of small cuts. The inspector riding in the front seat plowed his head into the windshield. He looked terrible the next day, but there were no serious injuries to any of us.

I was both embarrassed and frightened, as these were the Inspectors from Clark Air Base and now they were busted up and I was the cause of all their aches and pains. Today as I look back on the situation, I suspect they were as embarrassed as me. Nothing official came of the incident, but I am sure the wreck story has been told numerous times by both of the inspectors throughout their lives.

I called the Navy Exchange Garage from someone's house close to the accident. The garage offered 24 hour towing service and they came out immediately and hauled my Mustang back to the HSA West Compound, NEX Garage and Gas station.

The next day, Taiwan Fire and Marine Insurance Company came and hauled my car to a repair shop close to Club 63, just next door toward the Grand Hotel. (During my visit to the area in 2006, I found the property where the garage once sat, today is a beautiful park.) The Navy Exchange garage helped me order new parts from Ford Motor Company and everything was completely paid for by the Insurance Company.

It took the repair shop 6 weeks to get the bumper, grill and other parts shipped in. The hood and fender were pounded, welded and layers of thick Bondo were applied. The paint job came out only so-so, but I was not too concerned; I had already sold the car and had another two-plus years to drive it before I turned it over to the new owner.

What I remember most about the accident were the workers in the repair shop. Most of them were very young boys; not more than seven or eight years old, with a few older boys in their teens and one or two men. Any time of day or evening I stopped by the shop to check on my car, the shop was always open. I mean any time, day or late at night, many times after I had dinner at one of the military clubs. I always found everyone at work doing something; no sitting around in this shop. My car sat for a long time waiting for parts, but the garage was always full of cars in all states of repair and it probably never closed it's doors. It seems now, as I think about the youngsters, I would guess that they were probably hired out to the shop by their parents. No child labor laws existed then and life was extremely tough for just about everyone in Taiwan. It’s a lot different today for the average Taiwan citizen.

This was another learning experience for me, and I always say that I grew up during my Taiwan tour. I began to really see things there that woke me up to the world as it really was. My life up to this time had been unblemished and free of want or need. Those years in Taiwan made such an impression on my life that I continue to feel that Taiwan is a second home to me

I had no other auto accidents during my sojourn in Taiwan, but neither my accident nor anything else could have changed this precious time in my life. How did your time in Taiwan register in your life? I'm sure most of us still alive today would put it right up their toward the top.

God bless Taiwan and its wonderful, free people!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Club 63

I received a note from Kent (owner of the Taipei Air Station website), along with some photos from the old days, and he was kind enough to let me post them here. He's obviously right about the Club 63 name which just proves that memories (mine, in this case) do tend to fade over time. In my own defense, I have to say that we always called it the "63 Club" or just "The Club," which probably just proves that our use of the English language was about as refined as our feeble attempts at Chinese.

As I've mentioned earlier, the Club 63 became the China Seas Club when the Navy took over its operation. I recall that they did some remodeling and also installed slot machines, which the Air Force and Army had removed from all of their clubs some years earlier.

Here's Kent's input:

I saw in your latest blog you referred to the club as "63 Club." When I was in Taipei, the club was called "Club 63" or the MAAG NCO Open Mess. It got its name from APO 63 which was the old APO number before the APO's and FPO's were reorganized and added the 5 digit ZIP Code. Here is a copy of the cover of the Club 63 Magazine for June 1968. Rudy Arevelo is shown in the center pages celebrating his 10th Anniversary at Club 63, probably in May 1968. The picture is bad, but you judge for yourself. It was printed on the old offset press and the quality is typical of 1968.
[...also sending a...] picture of the Club 13 band at Taipei Air Station.

[Additional Note: Kent advises that the Club 13 photo was provided by Rick Ferch, who was at Site 4 and Shihmen.]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

63 Club/China Seas Club House Band

During my two tours in the Far East (Okinawa 1963-1964 and Taiwan 1973-1974) the enlisted clubs always had pretty decent house bands that played just about every night. They could play all the popular songs of the day and many other tunes as well. Basically, if there was a demand for it, they could play it.

Most of these bands, including the two that I was familiar with, were from the Philippines. We used to joke that Filipinos must all receive horns, drums or guitars at birth.

The house band at the 63 Club when I was there was called Conrad and His Band, and they were really good. The band's renditions of popular hits like the Doobie Brothers' China Grove were very close to the originals and the dance floor was often packed.

I remember that they had a beautiful young vocalist who sang lead for some of their numbers. She articulated each word and phrase as if she'd been singing them all of her life. However, I found out one day that she spoke almost no English. I don't think that any of the musicians did either, except for Conrad. I talked with him a few times and he seemed like a good guy.

I don't know whether it's true or not, but I was told that Conrad owned all of the house bands at all of the military clubs in Taiwan. The story was that he had some agreement with someone in the Taiwan government that only he was allowed to import any musical instruments into the island.

Anyway, I'd like to hear from anyone regarding the house bands in those days. If you happen to have a picture of any of them, I'd sure like to see it.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Traffic Court Justice -- Supplemental

Looking back over my last post, it occurs to me that I may have implied that American military people were more or less immune from Taiwan law. That was certainly not my intent. I never once felt that I could expect any better treatment than any of the locals if I managed to break any laws, and I'm sure that those around me felt the same.

I know for a fact that there were Americans incarcerated in Taiwan jails for various crimes. My lawyer friend used to visit them on a regular basis. In fact, I wrote earlier about Americans who were still in confinement during the withdrawal of American forces.

The one possible exception was an army guy I knew who drove his 240Z over a local guy's foot one night while drunkenly navigating out of the China Seas/63 Club parking lot. He told me about it the next morning and said that he wasn't worried because both he and his boss, an army lieutenant colonel, were Masons. I never heard another word about the incident, so apparently something magical happened to make it all go away. I doubt that it had much to do directly with the Taiwan government.


I just remembered something else on this subject: I was once told by a general officer's enlisted aide that part of his job was driving the general's wife wherever she needed to go in Taipei. This was not an ego trip on her part and it had nothing to do with her skill as a driver. It was done solely to eliminate the possibility that she might ever be directly involved in an auto accident or receive a traffic citation. Such an event might result in a delicate diplomatic situation that could be an embarrassing distraction to the command. The decision was made somewhere along the line to just eliminate that possibility.

I mention this only to further illustrate that local traffic laws did apply to all U.S. military personnel and their dependents when I was in Taipei.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Traffic Court Justice

I apologize for the thundering silence on this blog recently. I've been preoccupied with family matters, winter blahs, and writer's block -- especially that last thing.

I was just thinking about a conversation I had with one of the USTDC lawyers, an Air Force captain whose name I've long since forgotten. We were discussing an auto accident in which an American military guy driving home from work was hit by a Taiwanese, who was riding a motorcycle.

I don't know about today, but in 1973-1974 there were separate lanes reserved for bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles on the major thoroughfares of Taipei. They were usually separated from the streets by fences or traffic islands, with openings every few yards to get on and off the thoroughfare.

In this case, the American automobile driver was making a left turn at night, which of course involved crossing the motorcycle lane on that side. The motorcycle rider did not have his headlights on. The driver didn't see him and the cycle ran into the car, killing the rider.

According to my friend, a case like this would normally be resolved under Taiwan law as follows:
  • The American driver would be charged with vehicular homicide (or something similar) because he was crossing the motorcycle lane. Never mind the fact that he couldn't see the cyclist.
  • He would be fined and sentenced to a lengthy jail term.
  • He would also be ordered to pay monetary restitution to the victim's family.
The actual result, according to my friend, was normally something like this:
  • The driver would be released by the Taiwan police immediately after the trial.
  • The U.S. Government would pay the fine and the family.
  • The driver and his family would be sent back to the States.
I can't swear to the accuracy of this story, but that's how I remember it. If anyone has had experience with this sort of thing, please post it or drop me a note.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Street Characters

It's been more than thirty years since I left Taipei, but I've been thinking lately about some of the characters that I used to see on the sidewalks near the HSA compound. These were folks whose main objective was to separate a young GI from his money. It was probably easier if the young man had been hitting the local watering holes for a few hours.

For example, there was a guy who sold some sort of bird-like marionettes similar to the one shown here. It seems to me that he also sold a fuzzy snake puppet that was pretty cool.

One duo I saw all the time was a blind guy in dark sunglasses, being led down the street by a friend. The friend would walk up to you and ask for a donation. Sometimes you'd notice that the friend played the role of the blind guy and the blind guy became the friend. Hey, it's a living.

And there were kids peddling everything under the sun. You learned pretty quickly that the trick was just to avoid eye contact, hold up your hand, and keep walking. They'd quickly head off in search of someone new to the island.

I honestly don't remember any hustlers standing outside of clubs encouraging you to come inside, or at least nothing like I'd experienced ten years earlier on Okinawa. I really didn't run the clubs in Taipei, so maybe someone else can comment on that, purely in the interest of historical accuracy of course.