Saturday, September 5, 2009

Letter from Manila

Staff writer Tom Emch likes to get away from the magazine to act out his favorite Walter Mitty foreign correspondent's fantasy. And this time he managed to get to Manila and Clark Air Base to cover the return of the POWs. The following letter reached us just about the time Emch showed up with a bad case of jet lag.

Following established custom, I looked in at the Manila Overseas Press Club on Roxas Boulevard immediately after dumping bags at the Intercontinental.

In attendance were Manuel Collantes, Philippine deputy foreign secretary, who was holding three queens at the poker table; Ben David, the Copley stringer, with two jacks; Joe Shea, the Village Voice correspondent, who asked about magazine jobs in San Francisco; and Joe Umali, who covered the Philippine congress until President Marcos shut down the Herald.

Manila is down to three dailies from six before martial law, and Umali is just one of the more than 100 unemployed newsmen floating around the city, looking for odd jobs like helping cover the return of the prisoners of war at Clark Air Base, 50 miles to the north.

Windows in the lounge of the Press Club look west over Manila Bay - Corregidor is off to the left - and are supposed to provide a good spot to view the famed Manila sunset, which is largeley a product of the Department of Tourism.

It was so overcast you could barely tell when the sun went "plunk" into the Bay. But the sky was red from the exhaust pollution of Manila's 10,000 "Jeepneys," the working man's rapid transit.

At the M.O.P.C., as the club is called, San Miguel beer is 80 centavos or about twelve cents a bottle. At the big hotels like the Intercontinental, the Hilton and the Hyatt, they soak you about 40 cents for San Miguel, a dollar for Scotch and it makes you feel right at home.

By the first of February, there were 300 media people strung out from the Hyatt, where CBS had converted two rooms into a color lab, to the Oasis Hotel in Angeles City, across the fence from Clark Air Base.

Of course everyone expected to be covering the big story - the return of the first prisoners - at any moment. "Any moment" dragged out to twelve days. Then, finally, there was a story.

Soon as the prisoners arrived and the words were cabled home, the exodus began. Peter Jennings and the rest of the ABC crew made a fast exit, followed by the newspaper types not normally assigned to the Philippines.

Back at the M.O.P.C., the card game was still going. It cleared a little and finally I saw the sun go "plunk" into Manila Bay.

San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle 1973