Penman for Monday, February 15, 2021
FOR A certain segment of that generation called the “baby boomers”—people now in their mid-60s and 70s—this month will bring back memories both poignant and painful, harking back to a time when the unbridled fun of the 1960s (think of the Beatles, Woodstock, and Barbarella) was rudely replaced, top of mind, by the all-too-serious clamor of revolutionary politics.
I was 16 and a Philippine Science High School senior when I joined my first big march on January 26, 1970, and had just turned 17 when the nine-day-long “Diliman Commune”—whose 50th anniversary came last February 1st—was put up by students like me as a spontaneous response to what we saw to be an assault on the University of the Philippines campus by military and police forces.
I have many vivid memories of that uprising which I have dealt with in essays and in my first novel, the highlights of which include standing sentry at Area 14 with a kwitis and a home-made Molotov cocktail, as if either of them would have saved me in case of an attack; sneaking out of campus in Dr. Fred Lagmay’s little car to publish the Free Collegian; and being in the DZUP booth as a comrade played a tape of “Pamulinawen” (those of you old enough will know the reference).
Ironically, that anniversary took place at a moment when, once again and half a century after the Commune, UP and other universities were being tagged as leftist “havens” by people with very different ideas about what universities should be doing. This was the same half-century, come to think of it, that produced far more UP-alumni presidents, senators, congressmen, mayors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, artists, scientists, singers, comedians, and even AFP officers than Red recruits.
But let’s not go there. I don’t mean to engage in political polemics as much as to wonder how time and distance can change people—or maybe not. The freshman me, who carried that incendiary bottle during the Commune (and maybe thankfully never got to throw it), grew up to be a potbellied and balding professor of English, much to my own surprise. Ours was a generation (as our dear editor and my fellow time-traveler Millet might remember) that did not expect to live long, and so like Achilles, we did what we felt had to be done as soon as we could do it; history was theater and we were actors in it. Less than two years after the Commune, and fresh out of martial-law prison, I met Beng—to whom, against all odds, I remain married after 47 years.
To survive that long is both wonderful and perplexing, especially when we seem to be hearing the same refrains all over again. It’s hard to tell where you are when past and present seem indistinguishable in some ways, except that you now see an old man where the young buck was in the mirror. You pity the small boy at your knee who has to go through all that on his own; you want him to be safe and not take foolish risks as you once did—but he is even smarter than you, and you know he will.
They asked me to give a short speech in UP to commemorate the Commune, but instead of a talk I chose to write and read a poem (with apologies to Janis Ian) about what it was to be seventeen fifty Februaries past, and here it is:
At seventeen I raised my left fist to the sky
And held, in my right hand,
A bottle filled with gasoline—
And far more flammable,
Admixtured faith and folly,
Courage and a thumping fear
That my life would not last much longer than
That hour, at once so still and pensive,
The tall grass around my outpost
Silvered by some distant light.
A “Molotov cocktail” was what they called
That lethal brew, its ragged tongue the sacrifice
Of someone’s cotton underwear, its fuel
Of someone’s ride to Bulacan,
And my right hand, the young elastic limb
That would toss this long-tailed dragon to the sky
Against the dark-faced enemy, my arm,
Myself, the new, rough-hewn, imperfect
Oblation of that fraught age.
I was, I told myself, prepared to die
And perhaps I might have even
Believed the lie.
I never threw that bomb, nor any other
Of the kind. The enemy was more
Deceitful than I thought, refusing to appear
Just then—although I’ve seen him since,
In the old FC and AS and Quezon Hall—
And I even stopped once to ask, “Excuse me,
Do I know you?” because I thought I did.
The intrepid and unwary die.
The articulate survive, to write poems
And raise fuseless cocktails with their right hands
While their left fingers cradle Marlboros
Or tap out the cadence of muted anthems
Once sung to red flags cresting in the wind.
These days I hold nothing
More menacing than hat and cane.
I should have feared, at seventeen,
That I would live this long, that I would know
Waywardness of memory and uncertainty of step—
And still, from time to time, looking down
The long, unfolding scroll of University Avenue,
Feel barricades of salvaged wood
And gathered stone rising in my chest.