25 September 2010

Reunions and Partings

Facebook is such a wonderful web tool for keeping voyeuristically in touch with friend and foe alike.

You can laugh in unavengable scorn at how ugly and fat your old belligerent school bully has turned out and  pore through his pictures to satisfy yourself that his fugliness is spawned yet onto another generation of people who will find his entire family insufferable. You check out his wife; if she's pretty then you know he has one nice woman who lives in regret. If she's ugly you surmise that this marriage was of equal partners. Only much later you find out that he is obscenely rich, the woman in the pictures is merely one of the many consorts in his life except that she is the only one he legally wed, and his kids are enjoying life the way you and yours can't dream of in a million years. You then  see that life is very very unfair.

Through 'fb' I caught wind of the La Salle Kota Kinabalu's 49th Annual Reunion (funny how that word, annual is sidelined by the popular yearly nowadays) scheduled for the night of the 21st of August, and I sent word to Anthony Mojitoh that I would surely be there. There were friends whom I had not seen in 30 years whom I hoped to see there. I needed to get a feel of KK, as it may yet prove to be the last resort as a place for me to seek employment. There was also the thrill of meeting my old, and once best friend, Dato' Donald Peter Mojuntin, just for the sake of saying hi.

The ferry departed Labuan late. It rained from Kuala Penyu to Kota Kinabalu. But the old Toyota SEG pulled faithfully along the twisty roads and land slides in the wet, the Levin engine not showing any signs of being edged out by the younger Vios that was bought three months back for the wife and kids. I'll keep her. She stands for the number of years I have survived marriage---18 and counting.

The hunt for KK's StarCity Convention Centre was done by calling up my other old buddy, Veeramani Selvaraju for interactive voice GPS, but he having never been for a reunion, did not know the place. Ah well, it was his birthday and he had other plans at home. But he did give me a foggy idea and with helicopter low-level sniff my way there skills, I wound up in the convention centre's parking lot before I could end the conversation with him.

Being a senior air force officer, I am used to being amongst the older ones arriving at any function. You know how it is: you walk in and newbie officers from all trades see your silver head and just know that you must be addressed as sir and they rush forward to greet you and ask socially correct questions with the ineptitude of a teenage nerd. Alternatively when you have answered as much small talk as you can suffer, you spot your office mate and hail him as if you hadn't seen him in the 26 years of your dead end career and you jettison the load of ditchwater younger officers for the company of guys who can hold a conversation long enough for you to consume your pre dinner drink.

But here at the convention centre as I walked up the stairs and into the lobby, I recoiled for a moment at the stark absence of youth save for those manning the registration counter. Everybody was old. Some looked positively geriatric. How do you know you're old?? It starts when the band sings Tom Jones' Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow, and gets emboldened and underlined when everyone at your table joins in, verbatim to the original singer. That's when the league I actually belonged in hit home: I am them. I am going to die very soon......

The night was a blast! The La Sallians year 1981 were seated at two tables. Dato Gordon Leong, another old classmate kept the wine pouring at our table and the conversation was simply rib tickling. Anthony, dear old chap, went so boldly as to engage me on why I should not fly the Nuri. He is an old friend. As with insurance salesmen, you never say no, you never argue. Just say yes and do what George Harrison recommended in his song.

The next morning was a mad rush back to Labuan.

The annual Kelawar Exercise on night vision goggles role and rescue flying had already begun on the 20th. My flight to KLIA was set for the 23rd, and I was to be picked up at the airport and driven straight to Kuantan. Though I was picked up and yes, driven to Kuantan, the proceedings of the day were not anything resembling straight. I was sharing transport with a Major Daud who had come down from Kuantan for a meeting in KL Base. That ended at 1300H, but the driver had to refuel and send a patient to hospital which dragged our pick up time to 1500H. Then we were informed that we had to pick up a Colonel's son from an LRT station in Setapak and get him home to Kuantan. Numerous cellphone calls to both father and son revealed that neither could provide directions to the station he was waiting at. You can't go hunting down a nebulous LRT station in KL on any given afternoon!!! I decided to interfere and navigated the driver to the LRT station near my old superbike mechanic's shop. Incidentally the boy was a 5 minute walk away from that point and he finally turned up looking as bright eyed and bushy tailed as a marten in the midday sun. Our departure from KL was at 1730H, with all the passengers save for me, anxious that the breaking of the Ramadhan fast would ingnobly, be on the road.

Thanks to the military driver breaking the speed limit from Karak to Kuantan, Major Daud and the  Colonel's son were dropped off at home eight minutes before berbuka, and did not miss the breaking of fast with their families. I, on the other had, was to be dropped off at the Mega View Hotel in Kuantan town which meant the driver would be at the wheel at berbuka time. I told the driver that I could wait in the officers' mess while he broke fast with his family in the Airmen's Married Quarters, but he opted to finish the job, end his duties and just head straight home after. I pressed my suggestion no further. As we exited the main guard room, we heard the base muezzin ululate the call to prayer. The driver made a brisk turn into the petrol station a kilometre away and I bought us drinks from the convenience shop therein, as that was all he wanted for breaking his fast. When he noticed I wasn't saying any prayers before guzzling my sparkling Ribena, he turned all apologetic.

"Tuan ni....bukan Islam ke tuan?"

I shook my head.

"Alamak tuan, kenapa tuan tak cakap? Tuan lunch pun tidak, teh petang pun tidak. Saya boleh masuk mana mana pekan on the way tadi."

I set him at ease and said that he should expedite to the hotel so that he could get home fast.
And the next day began Kelawar.
Mega View was a riverbank hotel where the exercise coordinators were housed. It was quaintly located. I used to watch the otters play like lovers on the pier. A bookshop a stone's throw away just screamed of Austin Powers to me. What a welcome to the witless!!

I turned up for the Exercise Coordination brief that afternoon at 1400H, being a member of the Exercise Secretariat. As soon as the Exercise Director saw my face, he said, "Ah Jeffrey!! You are here!! The report writing for the exercise is all yours."

The Kelawar Exercise had nothing to do with flying at night as far as I was concerned. For me, it was to say goodbye to my freinds. Capt Marina had invited me to her berbuka puasa at her home where I met Capt Paranjothi, my old copilot from No 5 Squadron and now aircraft captain and instructor to be, Capt Ahmad Tarmizi, the new aircraft captain, and Capt Khairani, my old air traffic controller form KL base when I was serving there from 2001 to 2005. It was more about updating each other on Major Sukumaran's recovery from his coma and to find out the latest repercussions of the Operation Deerhunter.

At the berbuka puasa to mark the closure of the exercise, I was forced to sit at the table with the exercise Director which was not so bad, but the unsettling thing was having to make idle chatter with the base commander, whom I was acquainted with. Yet there was consolation when shaking hands with one and all at the end of dinner, when they would say. "Okay Major Jeff, see you again."

To which I invariably answered, "No sir. Goodbye."