Memories of Coup Attempts Gone By

There were two reasons school was canceled when I was in ninth grade—typhoons and coup attempts—and in the manner of privileged and oblivious youth everywhere, I was afraid of neither.

I was 13 when I left my parents for boarding school in the Philippines, making the four-day trip from Indonesia with two 15-year-old boys and another 13-year-old girl who never knew where she’d last seen her passport. In retrospect, it strikes me as wildly irresponsible and not a little crazy that our parents shooed us off with no adult supervision, crossing fingers we’d end up at our final destination, and, since I’ve become a parent myself I’ve asked them in a calm and measured tone, WHAT IN THE WORLD WERE YOU THINKING. Their answer? YES, IT WAS WILDLY IRRESPONSIBLE AND NOT A LITTLE CRAZY, Beth, but {{shrug}} everyone was doing it, so… 

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And, honestly, they’re right. Everyone in our little missionary circle was mailing their children to other countries, and who were we to swim against the current? Also, I begged to be allowed to go. Begged and begged and begged. And also-also, I knew to my bones I was easily old and mature enough to handle it. The hostels. The airports. The midnight taxi rides through Jakarta following crates of chickens tied to motorbikes. Defying Jeff Schroeder when he told me to behave in the Customs line and proving to him you can, too, do cartwheels without being arrested. Confiscating Bethany Ketchum’s passport and keeping it with mine because I swear to God, Bethany, if you lose your passport one more time, I am leaving you in Singapore. 

And I suppose I’m thinking about all of this today because the last time I was in-country for a coup attempt was 1987. I was 13. I had just arrived in the Philippines with the boys and Bethany and my big blue trunk. We had a few weeks to settle in at school, and then one morning we got to sleep in.

I shared the small pink room at the end of the hall with a senior named Kim. Years later, after we both coincidentally moved from Southeast Asia to Washington state, the age difference in our friendship came in handy; she was 21 when I was 17, so I had someone on hand to buy me Bartles and Jaymes wine coolers by the bushel.

But at 13, newly arrived, Kim was assigned to me and me to her, and we lived in relative harmony in our dorm with a dozen other girls. Which isn’t to say we didn’t drive each other insane, but is to say our squabbles were all petty and we knew it. And on the morning of August 28, 1987, which I only know because I looked it up on Wikipedia, Kim shook me awake.

When I pried open my eyeballs, she whispered, “You can turn your alarm off. No school. Coup attempt.”

Those two striking words.

No. School.

I smiled and fell back asleep.

My other memories of that day come in fits and starts.

I remember walking downstairs mid-morning and asking what a coup attempt was.

I remember sitting on concrete benches behind the gym on the hill that looked out over Manila where it all unfolded. 

I remember my grandfather calling me from Oregon, on the telephone, the only time in the three years we were outside the United States that I heard his voice. I sat on the floor by the clunky black phone. “Beth? Are you OK?” his voice crackled over the line with giant pauses as his words swam the whole Pacific. “We’re watching the news,” he explained. I was confused, honestly. Baffled. It took me several expensive minutes to correlate the call with the coup. “Oh! Yeah, it’s fine, Grandpa,” I said, “I think the US Air Force sends helicopters if the rebels get too close?” Strangely, he seemed no less worried. 

And I remember watching the news ourselves that afternoon, bunched together on our dorm parents’ red rug. Seeing the gunfire live. Feeling utterly removed from events happening just miles away. Like it was unreal, as make-believe as an action movie and as impactful on my life except that it’s a weird story from a weird childhood. 

And I guess that’s how I feel tonight, too, after watching a coup attempt unfold in the United States capitol today. Like it was unreal, as make-believe as an action movie. Except this time it’s a weird story from my kids’ weird childhood.

ABOUT BETH WOOLSEY I'm a writer. And a mess. And mouthy, brave, and strong. I believe we all belong to each other. I believe in the long way 'round. And I believe, always, in grace in the grime and wonder in the wild of a life lived off course from what was, once, a perfectly good plan.
6 comments
  1. LOL! I love reading other MKs reflections of such things 🙂 We didn’t have coup attempts the same way. We had “listen to the number of F14’s to know if there’s trouble at the border”. My mom thought the NATO base near us was on a street named Charlie because that was usually the security status. When it jumped to Delta, we couldn’t go to church there or get blueberry pie at the base.

  2. It’s funny (funny-peculiar more than funny-haha) what we remember. In the Pacific Northwest, a “no school” day was a snow day, or for a few weeks in the 1970s in my town, knowledge that the teachers’ union was still on strike. Somehow we knew that the latter was not a happy occasion.
    I love how you write your stories and share your memories.

  3. For me it was 9/11. I remember being worried about my mom’s friend. But the aftermath is what I remember the most. I remember people who hardly gave a thought about Islam before suddenly hating it.

    I’m trying to think of Trump as the GOP’s abusive boyfriend who finally got physical with them. Some people are waking up to what’s going and leaving the relationship. Some are still excusing his behavior while they dab makeup over their bruises. And there are a small, noisy few who are just as crazy and twisted.

    1. This is an excellent description. Thank you.

  4. Glad you are back, Beth. We missed you and what you share

  5. I get how you are feeling. I lived overseas as a teenager in the 80s as well. But in relatively safe western Europe where we were targeted by anti-american terror groups. Bomb threats were a common occurrence in my school, so much that I never thought twice about the scares or the frequent under car sweeps done as we parked in our neighborhood.

    As I reflect back and realize how I just lived carefully, but LIVED. I appreciate the education my youth provided. I’m able to live without fear. Carefully, but not paralyzed by every event. Today’s events are shameful. But I can still go and love my neighbor and treat others with kindness. I can continue to work on my community to build unity.

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