Penman for Monday, July 20, 2020
BEING A certified pack rat, I was rummaging through some boxes last week when I turned up a bunch of papers from 30 to 40 years ago, including a few things that might as well be ancient relics to our children and grandchildren today—among them an airline ticket (not the one you spit out of your printer, but the one with several red-inked coupons), a rainbow Apple sticker (long before that rainbow meant something else), receipts for beer at an Ermita bar at P2.50 a bottle (so that must have been a pretty posh place in 1978), and two RCPI telegrams.
It was the telegram that made me smile, because it took me back to those pre-Viber, pre-Messenger, pre-SMS days when your messages came to you on two bicycle wheels, tucked in plastic envelopes that were just thin enough for you to rip apart. And that’s what you did with telegrams, because no one ever sent you one to say a casual “hi” or “wassup” or “It rained again today so I couldn’t take the dogs out and just watched CLOY again—which episode are you on?”
Telegrams meant only one of two things: good news or bad news. Their arrival filled you with either breathless anticipation or heart-thumping dread, in the very least with a tingling curiosity that would not be satisfied until you tore the envelope open to read your fate. That’s what they were: those flimsy telegrams and their deliverers were bearers of fate, heralds of your future.
This particular telegram I was looking at was of the kind that most writers of my generation would have been over the moon to receive, and I was. Dated August 25, 1983, it said, in all caps: “Congratulations your entry in the 1983 Palanca Awards Oldtimer adjudged first prize winner ceremonies September 1 7 pm at Manila Garden Hotel Makati confirm attendance with La Tondeña or Philprom please keep confidential formal announcement will be made September 1 Nemie Bermejo Project Coordinator.”
I don’t know how “confidential” I remained after reading that, but I must have screamed; we were still living up in the hills of San Mateo and no one would have minded. And then I fell quiet and felt guilty for my joyful outburst, because I remembered that it was no time to be happy; this was August 1983, and just four days before I received that telegram, Ninoy Aquino had been shot dead on the airport tarmac, and the nation was in tumultuous mourning. Suddenly my prize seemed a paltry thing. No wonder, a few days later, I received a second telegram, informing me that the awards ceremonies were going to be postponed indefinitely, and that I could just go to the La Tondeña office for my prize and certificate. Ninoy’s funeral was set for the 31st, and no one knew what the country was going to be like the day after, so the Palancas did the prudent thing and called the party off.
Recalling that period, you can imagine the flurry of messages, all laden with strong emotion, that would have filled up Viber and Facebook, had they existed then—the rumors, the conspiracy theories, the memes, the calls to action. As it was, without even cellphones to use and with “party lines” still prone to eavesdrop on our conversations, we had nothing but our housemates, our neighbors, and our imaginations to bounce our fears and conjectures off.
But I was talking about the telegram, which was as private as you could get, and even code if you liked, or even get cutesy with (I once sent this to my wife Beng in Manila, when I was stranded in Romblon: “Missus I miss us honey send money”)—you just had to be prepared to wait a day for the receiver to get it and at least another day for a response—if it came at all. If it did, it would be hand-carried by the same laconic, slow-pedaling delivery man who probably couldn’t have cared less if your telegram said you’d won the Nobel Prize.
No, the telegram was not the best medium to spark a revolution or even just a mass suicide with, in the way that the Orange Man can now use Twitter to drive thousands of his lemmings over the cliff when he tweets some idiotic prescription and they take it as God’s truth. It was slow, it was just for you, and it really didn’t say much, because people were saving centavos by the word. It had no visual attachments, no emoticons, not even enough punctuation marks to more precisely express emotion. It was flat, blunt, and adamantly mechanical.
Sometimes it made or recorded history (see “The ten most memorable telegrams ever sent” here. Most of the time, like a passing stranger, it knocked on your door, said a few words, then vanished into oblivion. These two telegrams of mine stepped into a box and popped up only now after almost 40 years, as if to remind me to think of every word before I sent it out into the world.