Penman No. 410: A Dimming of Lights

Penman for Monday, March 29, 2021

OUTSIDE OF immediate family, there comes to every life at least one figure whom we cannot owe and thank enough—a mentor, a cheerleader, a believer on whose every word of encouragement you wait, and whose rebukes or admonitions, albeit rare, strike you with chilling efficacy.

This past month I lost two such figures, a woman and a man who lived into their nineties and thus influenced not only me but generations of students and acolytes eager to learn.

The first was Mrs. Agnes Banzon Vea—better known to many as the understandably proud mother of Smart founder Doy and Mapua president Rey, among other accomplished children. She was our English teacher at the Philippine Science High School, where she taught for many decades and became an institution.

For many decades now, I’ve boasted about being Mrs. Vea’s acknowledged pet. One of the things I quickly realized upon her passing was that it wasn’t true—we were all her pets.

Maybe I just felt special, because that’s what she made each of us feel. We were the third batch of PSHS students, long before the school came to be known as “Pisay.” But she did far more than teach us grammar and even literature. She taught us to think on our feet, to see beyond the obvious, and to enjoy ourselves doing it. She liberated our minds, and made a science high school feel like a playground for the imagination.

There are two episodes that have remained very clearly with me that happened when I was editor of the Science Scholar, and she was our adviser. Once, deadlines were falling due, but I was feeling lazy, so I told her I wasn’t in the mood to write. That was the only time I saw her get angry. I can’t recall exactly what she told me, maybe because it left me in total shock, but she made it clear that talent was worth nothing without discipline. I went to work right away.

Another time, in more pleasant circumstances, she took me aside to tell me something important. “Butch,” she said, “there are two young writers I want you to read, because both of them are very good. One is Joey Arcellana, and he edits the Philippine Collegian at UP. The other is still in UP High, and his name is Gary Olivar.” I think she was telling me that there were far better writers than myself, and that it was good to never forget that, if I was to continue learning. I took her advice, and because of it, within my first semester of entering UP two years later, I joined the Philippine Collegian, and also the Alpha Sigma fraternity, to which Gary and incidentally Mrs. Vea’s son Doy belonged.

But more than a teacher, she was a second mother to us, and I was especially touched by the memory of one of my batchmates, Ophelia Gaspay, who recalled how she was sitting all by herself in one of our school dances, watching the world go by. Suddenly, much to her surprise, someone went up to her to ask her for a dance—none other than Rey Vea, the dreamboat and heartthrob of the whole school. As they were twirling across the floor, she saw, out of the corner of her eye, a beaming Mrs. Vea, her fairy godmother, who had apparently waved her magic wand.

The second mentor I lost was the writer and editor Johnny Gatbonton, who had a long and distinguished career in journalism. Literature majors should remember him as the author of the classic postwar short story “Clay,” which won first prize in the Palanca Awards of 1951. When I met him in the early 1990s, he was about as old as I am now, and had set up a speechwriting operation for President Fidel V. Ramos. He needed another hand; I had just returned from my graduate studies in the US, and was close to penniless. 

I learned not only graceful and effective speechwriting from Johnny, but also imbibed his intellectual curiosity, his love for the arts, and his generosity toward younger writers. Johnny held office at the painter Malang’s building on West Avenue in Quezon City, and every now and then Johnny hosted lunch for a train of literary luminaries who included Nick Joaquin, NVM Gonzalez, Greg Brillantes, Rony Diaz, and Andy Cristobal Cruz; I was the proverbial fly on the wall, eavesdropping on another generation’s animated conversation.

In 1994, when I was a awarded a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland (where I eventually wrote and completed Penmanship and Other Stories), instead of docking me a month’s pay for my absence, Johnny gave me the cash for pocket money and wished me well on my writing. Many years later, out of the blue and when he had also retired, Johnny asked me and the late Raul Rodrigo out to lunch just so we could chat about nonfiction and daydream about which National Artist’s biography we most wanted to write (I think I said Franz Arcellana, another mentor of mine, and Raul said Botong Francisco). 

The dimming of such lights, although inevitable, is deeply saddening, but we can only wish that we will be as sorely missed when our time comes.

Penman No. 169: I Saw Them Standing There (Almost)

Beatles

Penman for Monday, October 5, 2015

I WAS playing Texas Hold ‘Em with a bunch of younger guys a couple of weeks ago in my favorite poker joint and one of them was delivering a spirited rendition of Bruno Mars’ “Nothing on You” (yes, this old fogey knows the singer and the song)—probably to disguise a pair of Kings—and the table talk came around to our preferences in music.

“I can tell where this is going,” I thought. But then they call me “Daddy Butch” in the place—everyone above 50 is a “daddy” or a “mommy,” which is better than the monikers some other regulars sport, such as “Itlog,” “Daga,” “Paos,” and “Payat”—so my age wasn’t the issue. The young ‘uns were really interested in knowing what kind of music my generation listened to, so after everyone else had spoken in praise of pop, hip-hop, grunge, and metal, I yielded the one and only answer any soul born in 1954 can truthfully produce: “The Beatles.”

Some nodded, smiling, and then our dealer—a sweet girl in her mid- to late 20s—shuffled the cards and said, “Were they really big?”

I have to say, I almost lost it at that point.

I pride myself at the table on my poker face, a point my adversaries readily concede—“You can never tell what hand Daddy Butch is holding!”, I’d often hear. But that fearsome inscrutability more likely comes from the fact that, at the freewheeling 10-20 cash game, I’ll bet on anything from a pocket pair of Jacks to a 7-deuce off-suit. In others words, I’m what they call a “loose and aggressive player,” possibly mad, possibly idiotic, possibly serious. I lose a lot of money playing this way (I behave much better in tournaments) but it’s worth the sight of my tablemates guessing and squirming.

But again, I almost lost that carefully crafted coolness when I heard (with better emphasis) “Were THE BEATLES really big???” It was worse, to me, than those schoolkids who asked why Mabini was chairbound throughout that whole “Heneral Luna” movie. I felt a vile sourness welling up from my gut and bubbling out of my ears and nostrils. You might forget the Philippine Revolution of 1896 and I won’t even bother you with trivia like the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Military Bases Agreement, but THE BEATLES????? (Let’s add a couple more question marks for real emphasis.)

I was too apoplectic to answer, but eventually someone on my left, a forty-something fellow who just might have been old enough to be rocked to sleep to the strains of “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da,” said “Yes, they were big.”

“Bigger than Nirvana?” someone else chimed in.

“Yes, bigger than Nirvana.”

“Bigger than One Direction?”

“Yes, bigger than One Direction.”

“Bigger than Michael Jackson?”

“Well, maybe MJ came closest to the Beatles in popularity.”

“Actually, they even claimed to be more popular than Jesus Christ,” I finally said, “and depending on the number of Muslims and Buddhists in the world at that time, it just might have been true.”

“Really, they said that? When?

“In 1966—just before they came to the Philippines.”

“They CAME to the Philippines?”

“Sure—they had a big concert here on July 4, 1966—and I ALMOST saw them!” The bile had snuck down my throat now, and I was feeling much better, given a rapt audience for one of my favorite stories.

With full relish, I recounted how the Fab Four flew into Manila, were met by screaming, fishnet-stockinged girls, offended Bongbong Marcos, and were practically chased out of the old MIA by Liberace fans who clearly believed that—at least in the Philippines—the Beatles couldn’t possibly be bigger than the Marcoses.

Somewhere in there I interjected the story of how my mother had promised a 12-year-old named Butch that they were going to see the Beatles at the Rizal Coliseum. The indulgent mother and her eager son get as far as Quiapo Boulevard from their humble abode in Pasig, whereupon she sees a new moviehouse trumpeting the wonders of Cinerama. “Let’s watch this movie instead!” the lady says, and the boy’s once-in-a-lifetime chance of seeing John, Paul, George, and Ringo standing on the stage—albeit from 1,674 feet away in the bleachers—vanish into the gutter. That afternoon, as luckier fans swoon to “Please, Please Me” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” tank fire and bazookas echo in the boy’s ears, all throughout the two hours of “The Battle of the Bulge.”

My poker playmates look at me with wide-eyed wonder—I try to read their faces, like a a poker player ought to be be able to do—but I can’t tell if they can’t believe that I’m that old, or if they’re just awed to be sitting at the same table with someone who actually breathed the same jeepney-flavored air in the same politician-infested city as the lads from Liverpool.

They got nothing on you, Beatles!

Picture-'Britain's Finest' Beatles tribute band

AND IF these memories make you feel like suiting up in your collarless jackets and zippered boots and swaying to “Eight Days a Week,” you’ll get a chance to relive the Beatles experience when one of Britain’s finest Beatles tribute bands—called, well, Britain’s Finest—come to Manila for a concert on October 14, Wednesday, at the tent of the Midas Hotel and Casino on Roxas Boulevard in Pasay City.

You can get your tickets (P3,800 for the VIP and P2,800 for the gold section at all SM Tickets (470-222) and TicketWorld (891-9999) outlets or via www.ticketworld.com.ph.

I’m planning to go, but I think I’ll leave my mom at home this time.