Long ago, on the other side of the world I faced off against a Panamanian freighter and lived to tell about it. When I was in the Air Force, stationed in the Philippines, I took a week-long vacation in Hong Kong. It was one of those Clark Air Base tourist excursions to various far east destinations. As it turned out, in that group, I was one of the few active-duty military people. The large majority were Filipinos who were employees on the base or family of base personnel. They were a lively, generous and friendly group.
One young man invited me to have dinner with Chinese friends of his at a restaurant they owned. It wasn’t a particularly large establishment, but filled to capacity. We sat at a large table in the center of the room. There were about ten people at the table, extraordinarily friendly and interested in me. Someone was playing Mahjong in a nearby room. My friend acted as interpreter and I asked what the racket was as it sounded like someone playing dominoes loudly. “Oh! Mahjong! Mahjong!”
The spread was a display of exotic seafood. In those days I didn’t like fish so much, although my first venture into sushi was motivated by my romantic pursuit of two Canadian girls in Baguio. However, I decided I would not be an idiot about it and committed to trying and enjoying every single thing, which as it turned out was not difficult. Everything was superbly seasoned. I didn’t know what a lot of it was, but I identified correctly the calamari and the eel, neither of which was breaded, and both were astonishingly tasty in an oily, spicy way. I’ve never tasted better for either of those dishes. I almost gagged on eel I had in England. The Chinese serve tea with dinner, of course, but the man who owned the restaurant, learning I was a Texan, insisted I drink beer with dinner. So I did. He wanted to know about cowboys. One of the small things that stuck with me from that night was the man used a toothpick but covered his mouth with his other hand as he did so. We used chopsticks, of course, which has never been easy for me.
Hong Kong had a famous floating restaurant and we all ate dinner there one night. I thought it was funny the Filipino ladies were having none of the chopsticks. They insisted the waiter bring them forks. I soldiered on with the chopsticks, believing practice makes perfect. I actually stood out in that group because of my chopstick incompetence. I also stood out one night when I went on a date with one of my fellow travelers to a disco. Yes, disco was big in those days. Those of you who know me know I’m a tall man. My date was a very pretty little Filipina. In the club I was a giant compared to everyone else. No one was rude to me but everyone seemed amused to watch me flailing about on the dance floor.
I also stood out on a very strange day. So, basically, Hong Kong has a mainland side, Kowloon, and Hong Kong Island. The Star Ferry takes you back and forth. One afternoon I was on my way to the Island. I was aboard the ferry gazing at the skyscrapers across the water. The photo I’ve included would appear to be the very spot where the incident happened. The ferry was crowded. I was leaning on a railing on the side of the boat overlooking the bay and I saw about three hundred yards away a huge freighter heading toward the dock. None of us thought much about it as it dropped anchor and we assumed it would slow down. But it didn’t. It kept coming. A tugboat got along the side of it and men threw some rope up to the crew on the freighter and they tied them off and the tug’s engine roared, but the freighter kept coming.
About that time people started noticing it was unusual for the freighter to be heading directly for us. Some began to panic and scream and ran off the boat as the Captain rang the Ferry’s alarm again and again. Just like in one of those thrilling movies, the Captain tried to start the ferry’s engine to move it out of the way, but it wouldn’t start. Nevertheless, I really wasn’t in a hurry. I watched the big ship grow bigger as it loomed about a hundred yards out. For some reason absolutely incomprehensible to me today, I was determined not to run off the boat in fear. I thought it just seemed “unmanly” to do so. I really don’t know why I felt no fear. I just kept leaning on the railing, watching the ship advance. I looked around and saw I was the only one on the boat except for the Captain on the upper deck, trying to start the engine and blowing the alarm, and another man to my right, also leaning on the railing. We acknowledged each other and he smiled. I looked down at the dirty water and I thought it was lucky I hadn’t brought my camera, a Canon EF SLR, with me that day. The tug was closer and I reasoned if I had to, I’d jump into the water and swim to the tug. Again, getting off the ferry was apparently not an option, but jumping into filthy water and risking drowning, apparently was. When I looked back at the man, he was gone. I was alone with the ferry alarm and the engine stalling and the massive freighter barreling down on us while the guys in the tugboat, although speaking Chinese, were clearly yelling at me that I needed to get out of the way.
As it happened, the Captain finally got the engine started and pulled the boat out of the way just in time before the huge ship crashed into the concrete pier where we had been floating. There were screams and pandemonium but no one was injured. Later that night back at the hotel the incident was on the news on a station they called “The Pearl.” They showed video of the ship and the mangled pier. I could easily have gotten off that boat. I had several opportunities, but honestly, I never felt I needed to do so, except right at that last minute, and then we moved out of the way. It was weird. Maybe a part of me knew it just wasn’t my time. Which makes me think, when it is my time, I’m probably going to know it.