I’m just finishing up the last edit of the English-language version of my book detailing my time in the army, so I thought it would be appropriate to go down to the place where I spent the majority of my military career, Da Ping Ding in Miaoli, to take a look around. Chenbl and I set out on a 9 a.m. train; the once-mighty Ziqiang Express seemed old-fashioned and lackadaisical in comparison with the ultra-modern bullet train system, but the bullet train does not stop in Miaoli. A typhoon was on its way, but I was banking that Saturday would be tolerable, weather-wise.
We got off at the station, which seems to be at the edge of town, far off from the little downtown area. Miaoli is comprised basically of two parallel streets. Back in the day, the Miaoli buses heading up the mountain towards Sanyi left frequently, but now only the Hsinchu buses seem to leave with any regularity. We got on one and creaked across town; it was just the two of us until we stopped at the bus station in the real downtown to pick up passengers.
Up the mountain, to Shangnanshi. The base, though long abandoned, was still standing and covered with dense foliage. The last time I was up there civilian guards had been posted at the gates, with motion sensors set up inside, so after getting off the bus we headed for the East Base’s back gate, where I knew of a few places one could sneak in. The holes in the perimeter were still there, but the areas just inside were so overgrown that we had to hack our way through some pretty thick trees and vines to get to the main base road.
Once inside, I was momentarily disoriented at the sight of the shell of a building, all the windows gone and the ceiling tiles hanging down. Then I realized that it was the old Guard Company mess hall, and that I’d even had my picture taken standing in front of it. Just behind it was the cliff from which I’d enjoyed the view over the valley below when I got a break from washing dishes after meals.
I was wary of guards and stray dogs, often stopping to shush Chenbl’s usual incessant commentary; he was convinced nobody was around, but I wasn’t so sure. We walked past familiar buildings and signs to the Guard Company barracks, the quads in between buildings covered in dense, jungle-like overgrowth, the windows gone and the rooms empty. I found the place I’d lived in so long ago and sat on the spot where my old bunk was, remembering what it was like to sleep there, with only ceiling fans to keep cool in the summer heat. We’d spent the onslaught of Typhoon Herb there, and back then I wondered what the base would look like after it had been abandoned. Now I know.
The Guard Company faced the East Base’s parade grounds, which is now waist-high in weeds. We walked over to the Division HQ building that spooked me out on several occasions when I had to stand guard there at night and listen to the ghosts. Chenbl, ever sensitive to such things, said he felt dizzy and insisted on apologizing to any spirits who might be offended at our presence.
After making a round of the entire East Base, I began to suspect that there was actually nobody around. We passed female officers’ quarters, something that I’d never encountered when I was there. Back at the Guard Company, I kept noticing places where various things had happened; I felt like I was in a time travel novel, visiting ancient ruins where I once lived.
We snuck out a hold near the side gate where I’d waited in line so many time to get in and out of the base, and then across the road to the West Base, where we fought through another mass of brambles and thorns to the main armory. Some dogs noticed us and began barking, and though nobody appeared, I walked quickly ahead to the rear part of the base where the Regiment HQ was located. A seemingly flightless white pigeon strutted up and down the leaf-covered road as black clouds began to cover the sky. The silence and emptiness were eerie. Vines and bushes had invaded some of the buildings. Even the motion sensors were gone, though the plastic shells of some could still be seen here and there.
I showed Chenbl the RHQ barracks and the base karaoke that I’d managed. The floor I’d spent so much time mopping was covered with dirt, as is the spider-infested bar where I’d picked laserdiscs of songs for various officers to sing. Rain began to pelt down, and we took refuge in the RHQ rec room while we got our umbrellas out, and then followed the base ring road to the main gate, which felt a little strange in that we usually ran around it going the other way. When I turned around, it seemed much more familiar. There used to be an old guy manning the main gate, but I figured it wouldn’t matter by that time if we got thrown out.
Nobody was there. Chenbl took my picture in front of the rapid response unit barracks as well as at the main gate guard post where I’d stood guard. The old Chiang Kai-shek statue is still there, with the old green man waving his hat and smiling at the empty, unmanned gate in front of the overgrown parade grounds. After I got my fill of pictures and just standing around lost in various reveries, we walked out the gate and down the road to catch the bus to Tongluo, where we had some unimpressive Hakka noodles for lunch. Chenbl asked an old woman if there was anything interesting around, but after I took her picture, she yelled, “I give you directions and then you take unflattering pictures of me? How dare you?” But we were already walking away, past thick green rice fields waving in the wind like a big bedspread. We stopped to walk with a woman hurriedly harvesting a small garden before the storm hit, and then visited an old hospital from the Japanese area, a two-story wooden building with blue trimming. The original doctor’s son lives there now, by himself, and he came out to tell us a bit around the place.
We took the electric train back to Miaoli Station. By that time it was around 5:30 p.m. which was normally about the time I would get there when I had leave and wanted to go up to Taipei, so I experienced a little willing cognitive dissonance, imagining that it was still 1996 and I’d just come down from the base, ready for a weekend on the town. Then I pulled out my iPhone and ruined the atmosphere.
We got back to Taipei around 8 p.m. and proceeded to the Taipei Artists Village, where Thumper was holding his 20th arriversary, i.e. 20 years since he came to Taiwan. We were the first to show up; Jason was setting up the barbeque, and I fashioned a string for the washtub bass from one of the bar decorations. Other people began showing up, and as usual, the more people inhabit a room, the less I feel like talking. I walked between people, taking pictures and munching on the excellent food (except for the undercooked potatoes), until my upstairs neighbor Brent started the evening’s musical entertainment. The bass lasted about two songs before the string broke, but I wasn’t in much of a mood for the bass anyway and declined David’s offer of fiber-optic wire as a replacement (it was too slippery and cut my hand when I tried to tie it). The pocket trumpet called to me, however, although not many of the songs really suited it, though Conor rope me into a 12-bar blues set.
By around 2 or 3 a.m. many people had already gone; only a few of us were left. I shuffled around the edges of the room, playing freestyle licks here and there. Rodney was doing something on the drums, and Lany was playing around with some guitar stuff. Somehow, we all just synced up and Lo! a pretty cool jam ensued. But I was tired, and when Brent said he was leaving, I took him up on his offer of a ride back through the growing storm. It would save me a trip across the galloping Bitan bridge, anyway.