Tell me a story, Mang Rey

Remigio Cabacar learned to cut hair in the navy.  The FilAm Metro D.C. photo

Remigio Cabacar learned to cut hair in the navy. The FilAm Metro D.C. photo

By Maricar CP Hampton

Most barbers love to tell stories. It should come easy for Remigio Cabacar, a Navy cook for 25 years and former FBI chef who served four directors.

The name of his hair grooming salon in Fort Washington, Maryland says it best: “Friendly Barbershop.”

If you’re a Filipino customer, Mang Rey,87, will most likely start with World War II. He was a 17-year-old growing rice and potatoes in his hometown of San Marcelino, Zambales when he was inducted into the U.S. Navy.

“I volunteered,” he said. “I was inducted in April 1945 in the Philippines. That was about five months prior to the surrender of Japan.”

He began working in Subic Bay providing logistic support for patrol boats. After the war he was transferred to San Francisco, California to work as a mess attendant. His job: to cook and feed the Navy officers.

Cabacar was promoted and became the second highest ranking enlisted man. “I started as Third Class Petty Officer. As years go by you will have your promotions, so from Third Class Petty Officer to the second highest ranking enlisted man ang naabot ko which was Senior Chief Petty Officer,” he said proudly.

He would regale his barbershop customers with stories of how he boarded his first ship, the Destroyer minesweeper, where he spent four years, and how he experienced going into battle in Korea when his ship was deployed in Asia.

Always he would be preparing meals for anywhere from 45 to a thousand soldiers, from the Ensign Officers to the Admiral.

“I was serving the officers from the lowest to the highest ranking officer. My daily job was cooking meals on ships,” he said. “On board the Transport Ship we were feeding about 45 officers round the clock. On USS Montrose we fed about a thousand we were carrying troops at that time.”

What kind of meals, the curious customer might ask.

“Maraming klase, whatever was in the menu, roast beef, fried chicken, hamburger, hotdog. Name it I had prepared it. Mostly American food.”

He made meal plans and created a daily menu. “Whatever I put in the menu I should know how to cook,” he said.

The challenges were many. How to get along with all kinds of nationalities was foremost.

“Not all are Filipinos. Halo-halo kami. There was still segregation at that time. So in the ship, they included me with the blacks,” he said.

He retired from the Navy at age 38. Cabacar would later work as a chef in the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington D.C., serving four successive directors.

“That was my second career,” he said, narrating how his culinary experience has grown as he began to prepare specialties like Boneless Baked Cornish Hen Stuffed with Rice and Tenderloin Steak.

In the 1990s, he retired from the FBI and opened Friendly Barbershop. Experience, he loved to say like a mantra, is the best teacher.

He learned to cut in the Navy, while waiting for the meat to tenderize or the vegetables to boil al dente. It began as an experiment.

“In the ships that I was on, there were no barbers. One day I asked the commanding officer if I could cut hair, and he said of course because I a needed haircut too,” he shared.

Every other day, he would cut hair for three to four soldiers. “I learned as I went along.”

On his barbershop wall hang Mang Rey’s photographs and medals collected while he was in the Navy. With the honors come the memories of how he once served his government with pride and joy. Married with four children and 10 grandchildren, his eldest grandson is also in the Navy.

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