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You be the hero of the neighborhood
Nobody knows that you left for good
You’re in the army now
Oh, oh, you’re in the army now
This is a stanza from a song of the Status Quo band that never fails to give me a nostalgic feeling.
July 11, 1986. The night was very calm and still. Stars were giving off a luminous amount of light forming, as moments passed, discernible constellations shining upon that distant and isolated knoll. The croaking of the frogs in the surrounding vast rice fields seemed to compete joyfully with the serenade of the strolling crickets. The smell of the green paddy fields was so fresh and mint suggesting that Ceres, the goddess of Agriculture, was just peeping around the corner. It was generally a hushed night. And relaxing. Until a distant relative living in the town came home panting and dropped a bombshell on us. My brother Celso, whom we fondly called Manong Ondoy and who had only been a few months a soldier, in his twenties, and well-made for military service, was one of those ambushed by the MILF rebels in Agusan del Sur. He was not dead, but he was missing in action. It was our longest night ever.
The bad news painfully took me that night back in time when he was still with us. Flashed before my young mind were pictures — some bleary, others distinct. I could see one with an outline of a well-built, broad-shouldered man playing the guitar with a mind blowing dexterity. Another one bared a shirtless man lying down on a bamboo floor reading a tattered, dilapidated Bible while listening to an FM-tuned in radio. Around him were his three little sisters sheepishly asking him to tune in the radio to Handumanan sa Usa ka Awit, a much-publicized DYHP radio drama. The most distinct picture of all was that of a man braving the raging flood, carrying his youngest sister on his back, with the rest of his siblings tagging along in an attempt to flee from the swelling river. For a third grader, not much was remembered. But those few memories of Manong Ondoy were so indelible, enough to take me back to the harsh reality of that moment.
Most say that nothing hurts parents more than burying their children before them. I disagree. For me, nothing pains them more than not knowing if their child is still alive or is already dead . It’s the feeling of uncertainty, the fear of hopelessness and of the unknown. It’s the fear for the worst possibility. This I realized after seeing my parents’ anguish through the days. And weeks. And months. And years. It’s the waiting for the unknown that made it more tormenting. I could very well remember how my parents, clutching Manong Ondoy’s only picture to different churches and chapels, tried to set hope on his shirt by wiping Mama Mary’s statue with it. Manong Jun Albino, a radio commentator, pinned his hopes on his radio program by begging the MILF rebels to set our brother free in case they have taken him captive. When this went futile, he resorted to consulting a number of fortune tellers, only to be bombarded with lies. It’s like fighting a losing battle then.
The debacle that befell us prodded our other brother, Manong Ado (1Lt. Naziancino Quinlog), who was also in the Philippine Army that time, to transfer to the Philippine Marine Corps. He was positive that once a Marine, he could have more influence and power advantageous in locating our missing brother. We then became hopeful. Around 1992 or 1993, Manong Ado was assigned in Basilan. He kept us posted of his activities and reassured us of his undwindling enthusiasm to find Manong Ondoy alive. But one time, my parents’ letter for him was sent back home unopened. The reason – my brother was one of the 27 Marines who died from an encounter with the MILF rebels, leaving behind a wife and a two-year old son. In the case of Manong Ado’s untimely demise in the hands of the barbaric MILF rebels seven years after Manong Ondoy’s disappearance, I could say that history, indeed, repeats itself. The incident that transpired crushed our already bleeding hearts even more. My poor mother passed away taking with her the pain of Manong Ado’s unfinished business and of not seeing Manong Ondoy’s body. Twenty-five years had passed already since his disappearance, but until now we didn’t bid our last farewell yet. How can we when we haven’t seen the body? For each of us in the family, there is still a forlorn hope that someday, somehow, someone would tap our shoulders and say, “I’m back”.
The recent Basilan clash that killed 19 soldiers with 12 others reported wounded has reopened old wounds. Is there really hope in the MILF-GRP peace pact that the Aquino administration is still pushing forward? For us whose lives have been ruined by these barbarians, it’s maybe best to scrap the ceasefire talks and wage an all-out war against the MILF to have peace. To all the family members of the slain soldiers, I share your pain. They may not be in the army now, my brothers included, but the reality that they died with their boots on remains indelibly etched in the pages of history. It may not be enough consolation, but it would always remind us that there is life in death.
Deciding on the first post for a blog is no piece of cake. Others tend to write about the most popular topics that are sure to drive traffic into their blog; some choose to write about their passions. Choosing mine didn’t take much time, though. It is simply because I decided to look back at the past, not to grieve over it, but to appreciate life’s humps and bumps that made me what I am now: a teacher, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a speck of dust.
Man DOES NOT Live on Bread Alone
I grew up in a big family: six sisters and five brothers. With parents who eked out their living through farming small patches of land, I could say that we really had lived a hand-to-mouth existence. During my grade school years, I frequently had to carry with me vegetables like squash, okra, and string beans to sell on my way to school. Long before I was taught that man belongs to the animal kingdom, I already knew it very well. It’s not because I got Charles Darwin’s genes but because there were a couple of times when we had to partake of the blocks of salt provided by the Department of Agriculture for small cattle raisers. But those blocks of salt were not really for the cattle raisers; it’s for their cattle to lick. Watching our cattle licked it with much gusto always fascinated me, but looking at my mother washing that same block of salt so we could use it for our rice porridge amused me even more.
It may sound strange but there were several instances when I took pity on small, young plantain bananas which were served both as our food and viand. My mother used to boil plantain bananas for our food. For our viand, she would peel green plantain bananas, chop it into medium-sized chunks, boil it with coconut milk, salt to taste, and presto, we had food on our table. Sometimes, for variety purposes, she would boil a spoon-scooped young or green coconut meat with coconut milk. If we ran out of plantain bananas, my mother was quick to serve us sweet potato, taro root, cassava, or bamboo shoots. This was our meal, so regular that my mother has perfected her recipe over the years. Sometimes, however, we’ve got to have a stroke of luck and found ourselves feasting over a carefully measured plain porridge on each of our plates, or better yet, a ladleful of rice. Poor as a church mouse we were though, we were always full of beans. Even until now, I am amused and amazed at how my mother got the idea that an unripe soursop can be cooked and eaten. Of course, I know that the ripe fruit can be eaten, but cooking an unripe one to replace rice which is a staple food is, I think, not a common idea. Or was it only us who had experienced eating a cooked unripe soursop? Man, indeed, does not live on bread alone.
A Challenging Journey
Enduring stabbing pain in my feet from going to school barefooted under the scorching heat of the sun was not unusual. That scene was quite ordinary in the months of February and March. It was quite different during rainy season. Our nipa hut sat upon a knoll a thousand or so meters away from the confluence of the Bagasico and Kabungaan rivers. That picturesque hill was surrounded with wide rice fields we had to pass through in going to and fro our house. When rains were heavy, it was impossible not to experience sticking our legs in knee-deep mud, or worse, wading through waist-high water. Heavy downpour for like two or three straight days would cause the rivers to swell and overflow into the rice fields. This made the inundated rice fields impossible to traverse with our bare feet. In difficult times like these, we resorted to cutting banana trunks, and keeping them together with bamboo stems to produce banana raft that would take us to the other side of the world. That seemingly insignificant banana raft was so indispensable that going to and fro the school, fetching water from a well, buying a gram or two of salt, and even borrowing a bottle of kerosene or a piece of matchstick from the nearest neighbor were impossible without it. Those blistered feet and sticky mud, however, failed to seal our fate. It must have even fueled my journey because I was able to breeze through elementary and high school.
Inching My Way Through College
Sure as fate, inching my way through college was no easy feat. Since our whole family was living on the breadline and there were three of us in college, tightening the purse strings had become my craft. However, no matter how I tried to stretch my allowance and because my school, ViSCA/VSU, was miles away from Bohol, my home province, I ended up frequently fighting with a growling stomach to be able to sleep through the night. In those days, cell phones were not invented yet, or I just had not seen one in our university. So it always took me a paper and pen to inform my parents that I have run out of rice and allowance.
Almost two decades had passed already, but how everything around me got vague every time I went to school on an empty stomach is still very vivid in my mind. I remember one time I was looking around for something to eat… in someone else’s food locker or cabinet and found nothing but a sachet of margarine. It was, for me, the world’s tastiest margarine or it might have been that hunger was the best sauce. It also dawned on me later in the night that I must have a cast iron stomach because, with only a spoonful of margarine inside, I was able to memorize the laws of taxation and even discuss impeccably the laws of supply and demand in class the following day. I don’t know if you would call it pride or stupidity but I’d rather sleep hungry than rob Peter to pay Paul. Oh, if I just had the license to print money.
I remember writing once to my parents a relatively long letter itemizing my expenses, describing my hunger, venting my ire, lashing them out with harsh, unpleasant words for ignoring child spacing when, in fact, they didn’t have a stable job to provide our basic needs. Reading the finished letter, however, made me realize that it would do more harm than good. Rereading it a couple of times a week after I wrote it brought tears to my eyes and made me thankful even more that I did not mail it. So full of rage for my insensitivity and ingratitude, I then tore up the letter. Sending three children to different colleges at the same time was already something we had to thank our parents for. Had it not been for my unrelenting enthusiasm to finish my studies and my parents’ eagerness to send us to college despite our privation, I would have stopped my schooling and given up to hunger. I must say that the mind of a full but unfocused man is in his stomach but the stomach of a hungry but determined man is in his mind. I had to bank on my hunger to satisfy my thirst for success. And with a not-so-lucrative but stable and noble job I have now, I should say that I have successfully satiated my hunger and quenched my thirst. A toast to my hard-earned success!