Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Toadstronauts of Jakarta

My father was in the international oil exploration business - he and bunch of other geologists, geophysicists, petroleum engineers and drilling experts were sent into countries to find deposits of oil and gas - usually before the country in question had 'struck it rich'. My Dad's company liked to do this in mob form. They'd decide that a country was ripe for exploring and bung in a dozen technical experts at once - along with their families. And that meant hotels. Usually the best hotel (or the only one) for all of the families all at once.

Which always surprised me because it was a profound mistake. Not so much by the company - they got a group rate, economies of scale in transportation and they could keep an eye on everyone but boy was it a mistake for the hotel. Because we were what was known in the vernacular as 'oil field trash' - called that because it was said that we 'blew with the wind' from here to there and beyond. The term also signified a certain cultural something I'm not quite sure what but definitely the opposite of je ne sais quoi. Now in our defense we were very high class oilfield trash, our dads mostly had college degrees. Heck my mom even sang in the Kebayoran Baptist choir. So in general, we were a real step up from the Joads which is what the hotel management must have been thinking: "lots of rich Americans paying twice the going rate and thinking that they're getting a volume discount, what could go wrong?"

Boys. That's what could go wrong. There is something truly glorious but also frighteningly feral about boys running in a pack at a large international resort property. Indeed, as far as we boys were concerned the time we spent at the Hotel Indonesia in Jakarta, Indonesia was "bliss in that dawn to be alive" with us as sans culottes (although we usually did) and the hotel as the Bastille. And we certainly took Hotel Indonesia by storm.

Like the time we snuck into what was then a rooftop gourmet Chinese restaurant and took turns being spun on the biggest lazy susan you have seen in your life. We got one of the younger boys to go for the record and to our amazement he generated what we believed to be the widest spiral dispersion of vomit that any upscale, gourmet Chinese restaurant had ever experienced. I can't confirm that because of course we were long gone. Even the little hurler because in those days we held to the Marine ethos: leave no man behind, even if they're covered in puke.

The Great Anti-smoking Crusade
But we weren't always anti-social. Sometimes our activities reflected a strong commitment to making our world a better place. Before we were exiled to Jakarta some of us had been indoctrinated on the evils of tobacco at the Singapore American School. Back then they laid it on pretty thick. I mean after the (chain smoking) principal gave a little speech about how "'cough, cough' these damn things will kill ya, 'hack, snort', call 'em coffin nails myself" we were treated to nonstop guts, goofy brown lungs and dudes with no jaws smoking through their neck. Needless to say it hit a nerve. And we decided that something must be done. So the hotel had a bunch of bars and lounges and of course each bar and lounge gave away little books of matches with its logo on them for the convenience of the dying wretches. So it was child's play to detail the smaller boys to snaffle every single match book they could get their hands on in the hotel because during the day all of these bars were empty and open. As they would remain until the hotel went into (a perfectly understandable) emergency lockdown some weeks later.

Now I know what you're thinking: awesome Meth raw. Suffice it to say had we known about Meth we certainly would have given it a go and I have no doubt some of the boys went on to very lucrative careers in recreational drug distribution but back then Meth was still a twinkle in some stoned chemistry student's eye. No, we were more into straightforward revolutionary pyromania. Do you realize just how big a fire hundreds of books of matches can make? And you can't imagine how fast people get upset. I mean they went to pieces faster than a falling Jenga tower - people yelling, running around with Indonesian fire extinguishers (you know, the ones that they told their boss they had gotten recharged but didn't so they went pphhhht and stopped), hoses, etc. But we could have told them not to worry because this wasn't our first match fire rodeo - we had done the same thing three years earlier at the Cuscaden House hotel in Singapore on their rooftop garden and pool area no less and nothing really bad came of that. So by the time the first responders actually responded with something that could be termed a serious response the fire had burned itself out along with most of the evidence. They must have thought us particularly inept fire starters: "after all, look how many matches they had to light to get it going."`

Love Javanese Style
Sometimes we let our thirst for inter-cultural understanding get the best of us. The hotel was the venue for some of the biggest society weddings in the country - they'd rent the great hall and invite half of Java for the big day. These were mostly formal Javanese/Muslim weddings and this may be my eurocentricity talking but it didn't look like much fun for the bride. Through most of the proceedings which included a lot of eating and cocktail party chatter the bride sat up on the stage in a little throne like a stuffed kewpie doll. She couldn't move, drink, pee - well maybe she could pee if she had....never mind. She just sat their and took it. Or maybe she was petrified at the thought of her wedding night. I dunno, I was just observing from the catwalks above. It turns out that there was a full complement of lighting and sound booms strung across the great hall with catwalks for the techies to get to and fro. We made these our own little Fagin's getaway so you can understand how irritated we were when this ridiculous wedding got started below us. So anyway, I was getting bored with the proceedings when little idiot Dave ignored our warnings and stepped beyond the catwalk onto one of the bars. He of course slipped and would have fallen to our punishment if not his death had not his brother caught him by the ankle. For some reason probably divine, little Dave who usually was the loudest of loud mouths kept his yap shut while dangling in full view at the very back of the great hall - right above all of the people who fortunately for us were at that moment focused on making quite a bit of racket. I looked quickly around, certain someone had seen him hanging by an ankle. And of course someone did. The bride - I saw her, sitting stock still up on the stage, with her eyes locked on Dave as he was quickly yanked up. She didn't say a word. I think had she yelled "aaiieeeee! there are white devil interlopers in the ceiling, get them" it would have queered her wedding or something.

In those days we had an insatiable thirst for knowledge - we were always conducting experiments - or at least trying to do odd things. We were particularly fascinated by the intersection of aerospace and.....toads. It's a little known fact that urban southeast Asia is crawling - well hopping really - with toads, particularly in the rainy season where they breed a hell of a lot faster than rabbits and make a deafening racket. A few months later when we moved into our house we found hundreds of the green skinned squatters from the size of a tennis ball down to a cute species that could sit comfortably on a dime hopping happily in our yard. Our Chinese mutt Dicey and calico cat Jingle Bells had a taste for amphibian protein they had picked up in Singapore and evidently Jakarta toads tasted even better because both of them got such distended stomachs from all of the toadage that they could hardly walk until only the 'dimestore' toads, so to speak remained. Anyway, toads everywhere so it was all toad all the time entertainment-wise at Hotel Indonesia for a while. For example, how many toads can you put into an Olympic size resort swimming pool? I honestly don't know, but a lot. And can a toad survive at the bottom of the pool overnight until the kid who put it there remembers that's where he put his favorite toad? The answer is, surprisingly: yes.

The aerospace angle? Oh, yeah, aerospace: so we lived in a twenty story high rise that towered over most of the rest of southern Jakarta and Kebayoran Baru and such a privileged vantage point could not be squandered so we began various aeronautical experiments. We built gliders and glided them off the roof - that ended up being an expensive hobby since they were inevitably either run over or stolen upon touchdown. We also flew the small Indonesian fighting kites off of the 20th to see how much higher we could get them (a lot). And parachutes - we did a wide range of different types of parachutes with different payloads. Our best were the "Apollo" line of parachute and capsule combo holding three toadstronauts from the inexhaustible supply downstairs. That was how we found out just how indestructible the common Javanese toad is: not only can they survive indefinitely underwater but they can also survive a 20 story fall. We'd loaded up a "Gemini" capsule with two toads and gave it the old heave - ho only to have the toads mistake our 'ho' for their signal to bail. We dashed downstairs and there they were lying apparently dead on the driveway. But after a few minutes they stirred and hopped off. Into the parking lot so they may in fact have had a little brain damage. But still, it was a scientific triumph.

Pornographic Arsony
As was typical in our particular gang, each new attempt at something became more extreme until something untoward happened which we took as our cue to shift to a new entertainment. This happened with aerospace when my younger brother (PBUH) and his accomplice Ben F. decided that if parachutes were cool, then parachutes with flaming boxes underneath them would be even cooler. Incidentally, Ben F. was a kind of evil semi-genius, he was always scheming some new outrage like a Dr. Evil of the elementary set so to speak (I exclude his full name just in case he has achieved his lifelong ambition to become a real Dr. Evil, you never know). As I said, he was my brother's best friend at that time and they ran what they called a 'movie' company but what was in reality a child pornography ring whose most valuable asset was one short 3 minute 8mm clip that my parents took of me when I was 3. Nude. Except for a foolscap loincloth taped to my front saying Happy New Year!. My brother the porn king and his malicious minion would sell tickets. To watch me naked. And if my brother ever tries to pull a stunt like that again I'm turning him into the authorities. And don't think I won't, Todd.

So anyway my brother the porn king and his sinister Swiss sidekick set their box aflame and tossed it out into the great smoky blue yonder (Please note: no Toads were injured in this stupid stunt, only reputations). Unfortunately, a gust of wind blew the box into a balcony that just happened to adjoin the room of Ben's parents: Dr. and Mrs. Evil. So not having the key to said room and not wanting to be tried for arson in a country whose (for all we knew) prisons made those famous Turkish ones look lenient, we advised the young Mujahideen to run downstairs as quickly as possible and try to look innocent (not a simple trick with hard cases like them) while we casually sauntered up to the room, knocked on the door and pretended to smell something and inform the authorities. Suffice it to say, the hotel didn't burn down and all that was lost were a few singed pieces of balcony furniture. The porn ring got off scot free while we had fun listening to all the Adults speculate on how the balcony furniture in a locked room got burnt: 'lightning", "the staff are smoking their gosh darn clove cigarettes out there, I can smell it". Being hardened dissemblers we would just smile through it all and bask in the brilliant intuitive sagacity of our Elders.

So you might be asking yourself: what about the hotel staff? What did they think of all the flaming parachutes and toad filled pools? Didn't they notice the lunatic Okie boys running around perpetrating mayhem hither and yon? Well you have to understand that the Javanese outlook on life, particularly back in the 70s was a bit fatalistic. After all, they had spent the last two thousand years first being conquered by the Hindus and made to carve and worship all these funky 6 armed elephant gods and such only to be invaded by the Muslims who made them burn up all the cool carvings and do the squat five times a day. Then these lily white honkies with big boom boats show up and start bossing everyone around with their quite sinister, Hollywood villain Dutch accents who then proceeded to get chucked out by the Japanese who had even better villain's accents and who didn't seem to last long at all except that they lasted a lot longer than the Americans who were the first ones to actually bring any money with them and of course that meant that they only stayed for a few weeks. Upon which the whole kit and kaboodle was dropped into the 'Indonesians' laps only there never had been anyone called an 'Indonesian' before so no one knew what that meant until a smooth talking politico named Sukarno (Javanese hate extra names, most of them go with one really good one) explained that Indonesians were in fact people who did whatever the hell he told them to do and promptly demonstrated what a big mistake that was by letting commies ruin everything. Whereupon he was deposed by Suharto (one name again) who killed a whole bunch of people because they were Chinese who weren't necessarily commies instead of killing the people who were commies who often weren't Chinese. So long story short, the hotel staff were used to life just being one damned thing after another and as far as they were concerned, we boys were just another 'damned thing'. That's not so say they didn't notice and get payback. Because they did.

The great Sen-sation
They did it in classic indirect Javanese style. We were lounging like a pride of satiated lion cubs on someone's balcony one day when someone spied a whole bunch of small rectangular pieces of paper strewn and blowing on the lawn out back. Currency, uang, jack, lettuce, money. Out back just blowing around for the taking. Enough currency for even our wildest flights of avarice. Needless to say we double timed it down there and filled several pillowcases full of the filthy lucre. And filthy it was - even for money. Filthy 5 Sen notes, shabby 50 Sens even some absolutely worthless 1 Rupiah notes which we threw away because even back then a 'Rup" was only worth a quarter of a US cent and besides....hey wait a minute. You don't think....and that's when we noticed the under gardeners and pool boys and chambermaids eyeing us as they went about their duties - giggling and pointing at us. It seems that we had been collecting old defunct currency from before the great Sukarno inflation and that it took 100 Sen to make one Rup which made a Sen worth .000025 dollars. We had just voluntarily cleaned up quite an historical mess not that the staff were grateful or anything. Indeed they spent the next few weeks smirking at us 'nouveau riche' idiots.

The lowering of the corporate boom and return to normalcy
It is a cliche trite but true that all good things must come to an end and so ours did with the lowering of the Great Corporate Boom. Apparently the General Manager of the hotel was from one of those countries like Germany or Poland where absolutely no one ever has any fun and not from Bandung as we had been led to believe. And there was definitely nothing indirect about his approach when he figured out who had been screwing with his hotel. So the hotel honcho calls my dad's boss who tells all the dads who then told all the moms. And all I can say is that it was good that school was starting up because all of those other boys, you know - the rotten ones - would have been really bored sitting in their rooms thinking about all the bad things they had done. Me? Being pure as the driven snow I tut tut tutted the "bad 'uns" as I turned to more refined pleasures.

I discovered to my surprise that girls weren't half bad

Author's Note:  Believe it or not these stories are all true. Or as true as I can make them over thirty years after the fact. We were serious pests back then - ask anyone. Some of you may think that I have gotten some of the details wrong which is probably true as my memory today is certainly no better than my maturity back then.  That being said, if you don't like my story make up your own damn memories - I mean faithfully record your memoirs for posterity. Then we can have a memory off.  God help us

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