Penman No. 117: The Way We Were

IMG_4726Penman for Monday, October 6, 2014

 

I’D LIKE to thank the people who’ve given me their time and accorded me their hospitality during my current visit to the US. I’m here to do more research for a book project—an oral history of the First Quarter Storm (the story of my generation, in other words)—and so far I’ve had wonderfully productive interview sessions with some people who were either active participants in the anti-martial law movement or were on the other side of things (or simply on the roadside) at the time.

Those who’ve helped me out, either as interview subjects or facilitators, include former campus journalist and retired engineer Gerry Socco and his wife Chet; lawyer Rodel Rodis; editor Rene Ciria-Cruz; tech journalist and developer Joey Arcellana; and journalist Gemma Nemenzo and her husband, Col. Irwin Ver. All of them are conveniently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, so Beng and I flew out there from DC for a long weekend of interviews and reunions with old friends.

Rodel and I go back all the way to the Philippine Science High School, where I served as Rodel’s associate editor when he helmed The Science Scholar. It was also in high school—when I myself became editor in chief—that I first heard of Joey Arcellana from our adviser, Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea (mother of the accomplished Doy and Rey Vea), who told me one day: “There are two young writers I’d like you to read. One of them writes for the UP Collegian, and his name is Joey Arcellana. The other is still in high school and writes for the Highlights, and his name is Gary Olivar.” Gemma, who now edits the ezine Positively Filipino, also edited the late, lamented Filipinas magazine, which I used to write a column for. Gerry I knew from the pre-martial law College Editors Guild of the Philippines, and we met again in the worst of possible circumstances—as fellow political prisoners in Bicutan; today, in our sixties, we share an unabashedly bourgeois passion for collecting vintage pens and watches.

In Washington, DC, where I’m formally based through my association with the George Washington University, I’ve been lucky to meet and to interview one of the torchbearers of the anti-Marcos resistance on the East Coast, Jon Melegrito, a retired librarian at GWU who now writes for the DC-based fortnightly Manila Mail. I’ve also been glad to gain the insights of three former State Department officials: former Ambassador John Maisto, who headed the old Office of Philippine Affairs and served in Manila in the late 1970s; his colleague Hank Hendrickson who now serves as executive director of the US-Philippines Society, of which Amb. Maisto is the president; and Santiago “Sonny” Busa, a Filipino-American who has served as consul in Manila, Addis Ababa, and Kuwait, and who has taught International Affairs at West Point. I’ll be doing a bit more traveling to see people in New York and possibly the Midwest.

So far, I’ve interviewed about 30 people for the book, which I’ve begun to write at my sister’s place in Virginia. It’s very strange in a way to write about bloody encounters in coconut groves in the Philippine South while reveling in the sight, outside my window, of bluejays and robins perched on the branches of trees just beginning to acquire an autumnal glow. But perhaps it’s precisely this physical and psychological estrangement that I need to handle such an emotional project—emotional, at least, for members of my generation.

Sometimes what I hear gets a bit too much; for the first time, after having written and published over 25 books with a very dry eye, I wept as I listened to an account of someone I knew shooting—executing—someone who had been her best friend. At the same time, events that might have been terrifyingly life-threatening 40 years ago can now sound absolutely hilarious—or deadpan ironic, such as when firebrand Fluellen Ortigas, selected as one of the Ten Outstanding Students of 1968, stands beside President Marcos at the awarding ceremonies, with a book titled The Essentials of Marxism in hand. “Join my staff,” Marcos tells him. “I can’t,” Ortigas replies. “You’re going to be a dictator!” Ortigas would later work for Ninoy Aquino, go underground in Panay, get arrested before martial law, get released in 1976, flee to the US via Sabah, get an MBA, and become a businessman in San Francisco.

I have many more stories like Flue’s to tell, each with its own highlights and insights—Elso Cabangon being ambushed on Taft Avenue and taking four bullets, one of them tearing through his cheek; Boy Camara auditioning for the role of Judas before eventually playing Jesus Christ, Superstar; a female comrade being married in the rites of the Party, one hand on her heart, and the other on Mao’s Quotations (it’s a marriage, like many in the movement, that will unravel). But they’ll have to wait until the book itself, which I hope to finish by early next year.

Even now, many old friends and comrades are probably wondering why I haven’t approached them yet or asked so-and-so to be interviewed, because they have interesting and important stories to tell. I’m sure they do, and I have to extend them my apologies in advance, simply because I just don’t have the time or space at the moment to include everything and everyone I should be covering. I’m almost certain that this oral history will lead to a sequel, all the way to EDSA (a book that someone else should begin writing soon). Some people I’ve asked haven’t replied or have declined, and I can only respect their implied wish to be left alone.

Again, this book will be about the past, and while we might bemoan the innocence we lost, or even wax romantic about the way we were, I don’t think too many of my respondents will want to relive their lives in exactly the same way, knowing what they do now. We might not regret what we did—it arguably needed to be done—but we or our children don’t have to repeat it, if it can be helped. That’s how history helps the future.

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