Kowalchyk, Tricia: Teaching in the Philippines

It was the last day of school in June of 1991. By then, now the 15th, my fourth graders were
very, very excited to go to the Subic Bay beach for our end of the year party. I had just
completed my second year teaching on the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. This was
my first job, and at a young 23, I was having the experience of my life.

When I landed two years earlier, I had just graduated from Syracuse University, and teaching in
the Philippines for DoDDS was my very first job. I opened up the door to my classroom and I
faced twenty-five students who smiled back at their young, naive teacher and laughed and
giggled at my appearance. Most of my students were born in the Philippines and I am towering
at 5’10”, so I was met with shy stares and polite questions. I did not know any Tagalog,
although I would soon learn many phrases and words to help me adapt to this new country. All
of those fourth graders knew two if not more languages. I was indeed nervous, but excited and
glad to be not only in my first classroom, but to be here, in the Philippines, teaching the children
I was destined to meet and start my career.

The adventures started happening almost immediately. During that first full school year I
encountered monkeys, large snakes, and geckos. Daily, I came up against the heat that never
rests when the sun goes down, only lurking in the dark shadows. Once the morning light was
back, so was the heat, with a fierceness that makes it hard to breathe and hits you like a ton of
bricks if you try to move too quickly. I woke to run with my good friend, Audrey, at 5 am to avoid
the searing heat of the day, which started by 8 am. The Philippine climate dominated the day,
and we were soon to learn it also ruled our energy levels.

By the end of that school year, I lived through my first typhoon. Snow storms and blizzards were
more my style, coming from rural upstate New York, but I soon learned to carry on with life as
usual, all the while with waves crashing into buildings built close to the shore line. We marveled
at the forces of nature lapping at our concrete fortresses with such pounding energy and might.
I felt safe, being on a US Military base, and thought to myself, that if anything were to happen, I
would be okay. I was stationed with some of the most competent and skilled people from our

The damage was incredible. Mature trees tossed around like sticks, rain coming down so fast
and furious that ponds were instantly created. The slant and sting of the rain when one
ventured outdoors, for indeed, it lasted for at least 24 hours, was so sharp it felt like I was being
pricked with pins rather than doused with water from the angry clouds above.
Coming out of that experience, the U.S. Navy Sea Bees made sure that all aspects of life were
put back together, roads and buildings repaired, fallen trees taken away. For indeed, the sun
did come out, and base life resumed. We were the lucky ones, having support just a phone call
away to restore what we had come to know as “regular routine living” despite living 8,500 miles
away from where I grew up.

In 1990, there were two significant military coup attempts, resulting in our Navy Seals traveling
off the military installation to the capital, Manila, to quell the uprising. As a young single person
living in a BOQ, I felt the void when half of my building mates left to perform their military duty.
Again, we were not affected directly, but precautions were put into place to make sure our
safety was intact. Often, during the two years I spent on the Subic Bay Naval Base, we were
locked on base, or had curfews in place to protect the on-base population. Although an
inconvenience, my colleagues and military friends were all quite creative in finding ways to keep
ourselves entertained within the confinement of 24 square miles. Base negotiations had been
going on for more than a year, and it had been decided that the United States would vacate the
60,000 acre base, which was the Navy’s principal supply and ship-repair installation in the area
by the close of 1992.

However, nothing could have prepared us for what happened on the beautiful morning of June
15th 1991. Prior to that, heading weather warnings, earthquakes and signs of the imminent
explosion, the U.S. military made the decision to move the 15,000 people residing on Clark Air
Force base, nine miles from the foot of Mount Pinatubo, to Subic Bay and Cubi Point, which
were located 25 miles from the mountain. This distance was considered safe. In early June,
they started arriving. The sight of this 50 mile long convoy was staggering. Upon arrival, we
were asked to voluntarily give up our living quarters to families coming onto the base from Clark.
I gladly did, and moved in with a friend to ride out the impending eruption. A family of four
occupied the space I had called home for the past two years.

It became so over crowded that soon there were a sea of tents set up on the median of the
highway, temporarily housing, to those who had evacuated Clark. Two days later, Mt. Pinatubo
erupted again, this time covering the former Air Force base. Not a week later, on the last day of
school, Pinatubo blasted with a vengeance, raining down a fine dust of ash, converging with the
rain produced by Typhoon Yunya, which was descending on the Philippines simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I had twenty-five students waiting on the shore of Subic Bay itself, for the 9:00am
whistle from the life guard on duty to declare that the beach party could begin! Shouts of
laughter, and screams of delight filled the air as the fourth graders plunged themselves into the
cool waters with their friends close by, and having the time of their lives. Strangely, another
whistle could be heard from the life guard at 9:04am. “Everybody out! Everybody out! Back on
the bus!” Warnings and directions came from the adults, as we soon realized what was
happening. For off in the distance we could see the white powder puff of smoke coming from the
top of the mountain. Looking so serene and idyllic, the clouds began to grow bigger and bigger
with each blast into the air and we knew time was crucial to get these kids back up to school so
their parents could take them home. Within the time it took to load all the fourth graders on the
bus, drive the five miles back up to school, the sky had turned from bright sunshine to darkness.

Back at the school, all students were sent home or picked up by anxious parents. The place
was deserted. We were told to go home as well. We were issued surgical breathing masks to
wear when we ventured outdoors. It was strangely eerie and silent all around us. Inside, as
well. For, there was really nothing constructive to do but to wait and to watch. After all, who had
experienced the eruption of a volcano?

After my departure from the Philippines, I was being transferred to Berlin, Germany in the Fall.
My personal property was already en-route to Europe and my car had been shipped just days
before the end of the school year. I was already a short timer. I had plane tickets to leave the
country four days after school ended.

By the end of the day on June 15, 1991, Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport was
closed, with no date of reopening. The airport itself was covered with a centimeter of fine sand
to powder-sized ash, making it impossible to get planes out of there.

We were told to start brushing off cars and we even started brushing the fine dust off of the
roofs of low buildings. It was a like a fine snow floating in the air, that never reached the
ground, and yet the ground was covered with it. It was exciting, scary, fun and nerve-racking all
at once. We really didn’t have anything else to do but to help clear and to wait and wait……..

Four days later, the airport was reopened for a time. Like winning the lottery, my flight, one of
the last planes to take off out of that airport for quite some time, and it was going to depart the
country as scheduled. I left behind my dear good friends, some of whom would later, many
days later, board a ship headed for Guam. The conditions on that ship deteriorated rather
quickly. The four days after Pinatubo erupted, for me, was like a dream covered in a film of light
ash, so to say. Everything happened in slow motion; for no one really knew what was to come
next. The focus was our safety, but without electricity, water and other simple amenities of life,
tempers and nerves were showing. We were uncertain of our immediate future, but we were
together and school was done.

This peril we were living through, and the gravity of it, would not become apparent until it was
declared that the 15th of June in 1991, would go down in history. The eruption of Mount
Pinatubo was one of the eleven largest volcanoes to erupt on our Earth. In living history, it was
the biggest. The cloud of volcanic ash that spewed from the heights of the mountain, traveled
the globe in a mere 22 days. I was there at the start, in a beautiful country, soon to be
devastated and crippled by one of the largest natural occurrences in our world history.
When you live through something like this, you are unaware at the time, of what you are going
through and experiencing. Even today, I am reluctant to come to terms emotionally with the
grave seriousness of the situation. A part of you shuts down, so that you can focus on moving
forward one step at a time, one minute at a time. Shoveling ash, one scoop at a time. Taking it
all in, but not processing until years later. Or, maybe even, now, as I write this article, it is the
first time I have thought about that experience, and for good reason.

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