It was, perhaps, one of the most profound moments in my life. An epiphany, if you will.
I was but a boy, and it was my first visit to a place called Olongapo City in the Philippines. We called it “Potown”, and it was a place where many members of the American military found themselves during the war. It was a muddy-street sort of affair… bars, brothels, and strip clubs crowding each other for any space on the main dirt drag, and a place where American soldiers and sailors came rushing in to drink, drug, and get laid. It was the Wild West come true.
If you liked rock and roll music, there was a bar for that. If you liked country western music, there was a bar for that. There was a bar for just about any lifestyle or taste that can be imagined. Beer was a Peso (15 cents at the time). A whore was a Peso. For a young boy from the American Southwest, it was just a bit of heaven. Not that I was naïve. I really did carry a razor in my boot, and I was not a newcomer to the delicate world of women who would have sex with anyone who could afford it. I was raised hard, so Potown didn’t deter me from my usual pursuits of women, alcohol, and a good fight. Hell, I was home.
To get from the American military base to Potown, you had to walk across the bridge over the Shit River. The Shit River was an open sewer, and the ritual was to throw loose change into the water as you crossed. Not for luck, but to watch the kids swimming in the water dive down and retrieve the coins that were tossed into the river. It was funny… and we laughed.
Then one day… I didn’t laugh. As the sun went down, I stood on the bridge over the Shit River and watched the smiling little boys treading water as they begged us to throw coins. And then… something odd happened… I felt genuinely ashamed. Ashamed as an American, and ashamed as a person. These were living human beings swimming in a river of excrement for my entertainment. Swimming in a river of excrement because they were starving. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that this was wrong on every single level of my being.
It was profound, because I had never felt real shame before. I was an emotionless Neanderthal… a feral child… for the better part of my life up until then, so the feeling of shame was something new and… profound. It changed me.
I’ve never gone back to my feral self. I’ve seen what people with wealth and power can do (and rationalize) to people without wealth and power. They did it then, and they certainly do it now. All you have to do is open your eyes and your heart to see it… and then feel ashamed.
And to all of the little boys who swam in the Shit River… you must be in your fifties and sixties now… I apologize. I can’t apologize for my friends or fellow soldiers, but I can certainly apologize for myself. I don’t rationalize my behaviors. I was wrong, and I am truly sorry.
Have a day.
primum vivere, deinde philosophari.