I was a World War II pilot. I flew P-40s with the Flying Tigers in China. I survived bombing missions over Europe, in Avro Lancasters and B-17 Flying Fortresses. I tangled with Zeros in Wildcats and Hellcats in the Pacific.
I also flew F-4s Phantoms over Hanoi and F-14s over the Med. And biplanes, in World War I.
These were my secret lives. Entirely in my mind. I lived these lives in great detail, day dreaming mostly during mind-numbing classes at the Ateneo Grade School.
I had countless flights of fancy — paratrooper in Normandy, mercenary DC-3 pilot in the Congo. My Dad’s car was a B-17 cockpit. That 1948 Chevy Fleetmaster had a center pillar dividing the windshield, just like the B-17s in Twelve O’clock High. When it rained huge raindrops, the splatters on the windshield looked satisfyingly like bullet hits from the dreaded Messerschmitts.
I lived these secret lives up to an embarrassingly advanced age. Shh. Sometimes I’m still a Cold War spy… .
I had a list in my head. Things I so wanted to be.
Varsity basketball player
Did I mention fighter pilot already?
Most of these things I’ve cancelled from my list now. Varsity basketball was just a pipe dream. I did learn to play the guitar, then learned that rock music deafened me. Scratch that.
Carlo and I learned to SCUBA dive together. Dared depths, wrecks and caves. But I doubt the SEALs would take someone who turns 50 today. Scratch that.
I saw a real F-14 Tomcat from afar, at Miramar Naval Air Station — the real Top Gun. Even got myself Ray-Bans. But I can’t ride a bicycle, let alone a motorcycle like Maverick’s.
But I did learn to fly. For real. And so did Carlo, who like me dreamed of being an F-14 jock. We even flew together yesterday, for real.
And last night the real Ateneo varsity basketball team won a nail-biting cliff-hanger over its arch-rival. A more exciting game than I ever played in my imagination.
Spy? Secret agent?
I’ve stood in the real Tiananmen Square in Beijing, taken the mail train to Ludhiana Junction in the Punjab, just short of the Pakistani border. I’ve crawled the Cu Chi tunnels in Saigon, dodged UN roadblocks in war-torn Haiti. I almost caused an airliner to land unexpectedly in Colombia, during a flight to Sao Paolo. All real.
I spent days, literally, walking the real beaches and drop zones in Normandy. My sons and I ran across the Pegasus bridge in Caen. It was a replacement bridge in 2004, but we conquered it, just like the British paratroopers did in 1944.
I’ve flown real loops and rolls in a real Stearman biplane over Sonoma, and in a Decathlon over a factory I used to manage in Laguna.
I even tried skiing. My son Gino called out to me, as he zipped past me at Tahoe, "IT’S A GOOD THING THERE’S NO AGE LIMIT ON THE BUNNY SLOPE, DAD!" Everyone heard. That was when I gave up and walked down the hill, trying to look cool with the skis on my shoulder.
I’ve hurled snowballs in Vancouver, spent New Year’s day in sub-zero Chicago, soaked in sweat in 49 degrees Celsius in Dubai. I’ve panted up and down the cardiac hills of San Francisco, edged gingerly across the Petronas bridge in Kuala Lumpur (I am deathly scared of heights, believe it or not). All real.
I’ve walked across the Seine bridges in Paris, climbed the ruins of Borobudur, lifted tall glasses of amber liquid in Munich. I’ve done the Ghost and Pub walk in the haunts of London’s Temple District, levitating more amber liquid between catacombs and scaffolds. The real thing.
I was in peaceful Melbourne last week, and then in heart-stopping Tehran less than 72 hours later.
When I think beyond airline delays and schlepping baggage along miles of concourses in SIN, AMS, LHR, CLK, I have to admit — it’s been quite a ride.
That was the first thing I cancelled. But then on one of our SCUBA dives, a curious cuttlefish cruised with Carlo and me. It was changing its colors to make itself invisible. It flashed blue, and then green stripes, and then yellow running lights around its flukes. Finally, it matched itself perfectly to the coral below, and ‘disappeared’.
When we surfaced, Carlo gasped, "You know, diving is the nearest thing we will ever get to being astronauts!"
I was startled, since he didn’t know about my list. I asked, "Why is that, Carl?"
"Think about it! Hostile environment, life-support equipment, alien life forms!"
I mentally checked "Astronaut" on my list. Done!
I flew in an airliner today, my 50th birthday, Manila to Bangkok.
I was seated beside Senator Dick Gordon, of the Philippine Senate.
"Success," he told me, "is having a series of failures … until you get it right."
Someone sent me a greeting today.
This is my life.
It is my one time to be me.
So I think it’s time to stop writing lists, of what I want to be.
When I grow up, I want to be just like me.
Posted in transit, Manila to Bangkok, Sep 10, 2007.