Monday, August 10, 2009

Part 6: Travels with Father

"Fathers are biological necessities, but social accidents"

~ Margaret Mead

Most kids at some point in their lives are embarrassed by the geekiness of their parents. We learned this at an early age as Dad liked to embarrass us in public regularly. Going out to a restaurant was a tortuous experience. Dad would place a napkin on his head, stick spoons to his nose. We would cover our faces in shame when at the local Chinese restaurant he would stick chopsticks under his upper lip and using his hands pull the skin around his eyes into slits. Then as the waiter approached to take our order he would say

"One oldel flied lice".

Once we had moved in, unpacked and got situated, Dad began going out and meeting with farmers, getting them to try the new rice varieties developed at IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute at Los Banos.

In the beginning there was always a local pastor with him to make the introductions and to translate, but in later years he would often go out on his own.
In those early years I was just along for the ride, someone to keep him company, but even then I was already beginning to step in to a role as backup translator for my father. In Quezon City I had quickly picked up a little Tagalog and some Visayan from Auring. Once in Leyte I began to learn Waray. In reality I was more of a silent observer than a translator. I would sit quietly and listen to the comments they were making, sometimes clarifying words or terms misunderstood, learning to gauge the mood of the crowd. Where ever we went crowds would gather to see the Americanos. Kids would loudly repeat every word he said till finally an adult would make them be quiet.

Leyte and especially Samar were still wild, pristine and undeveloped in those days. Wild boar, monkeys, deer, pythons and giant lizards were still commonly found in the jungles. Over the next four years we crisscrossed the islands of Leyte and Samar. We soon each had our favorite places: Borongan, Burauen, Baybay, Calbayog, Catarman, Catbalogan, Mahaplag, Sogod, St. Bernard, Naval on Biliran Island, Tagbalaran, Bohol and Higatangan.

We made lifelong friends: the Ngoho's, Lito Ang, Pastors Ibalarosa, Joe Sidaya and Rudy Mayol.
Dad loved going to Biliran Island where his industrious friend Lito Ang always had us laughing at his stories. I loved St. Bernard where the warmth of the welcome we received always made me feel like I was coming home to a loving family. To get there we had to drive all the way to the southern tip of Leyte and leave the jeep in the town of Sogod and cross the Magatas river on foot. Pastor Ibalarosa and his entire family would come out to meet us and help us cross the swift moving water. There would be shouts of laughter as Dad inevitably would slip and fall in. Some one would rush to help him up while some small boy would grab his briefcase before it got too far down stream and carry it for him the rest of the way. Dad always marveled at how a kid could wade across the river without falling but he couldn't.

Driving on seldom traveled logging trails, then leaving the jeep and riding on the back of logging trucks, hiking to remote villages accessible only by foot, ours was a life of high jungle adventure. We slept where we could: on the seats of the jeep, on mats on the floors of homes or churches. We ate what our hosts provided: sometimes well (a lechon feast), sometimes exotic (monkey or snake), but most times spartan (rice and dried fish). I remember one morning our host shamefully apologizing he had no sugar or condensada for our breakfast of coffee and pandesal, only some milk his nursing wife expressed into a cup. We humbly and respectfully accepted their gift of life with our coffee and bread. It was then I began to understand the importance of what my father was trying to do.

One of the strangest , most exciting trips occurred that first year. We left Tacloban one morning while it was still dark, driving as far as the roads would take us. That night we slept on the floor of a Church in a small coastal village. Early the next morning we took a "pump boat" up river till the water was too shallow for the prop, then we switched to small bancas that were waiting for us. We paddled on, the silence disturbed sometimes by a splash as crocodiles slid in to the water. Just when it seemed we could follow the river no farther we got out and pulled the bancas on to the bank. Then after something to eat and drink, we began a half day hike through wet, thick and dark jungle, our guides cutting a way for us with their bolos just like in the movies. We could hear monkeys and birds chattering and screeching as we made our way. Sometimes we would see snakes. Towards the end of the day we emerged from the steaming jungle on a strange vista: silhouetted in the setting sun, as far as we could see there were little round cone shaped hills. We hiked towards the only one that had a Nipa hut on it. There our host, the local headman, greeted us and brought us in for merienda before the meeting. Before we sat down to eat he produced a giant conch shell, held it up to his mouth and proceeded to blow into it, making a sound like a ram's horn. About an hour later, flickering in the darkness we could see lights from lanterns and torches coming towards us from every direction. They were his people, answering their leader's call. On a post inside his hut hung a WWII vintage Thompson sub machine gun, on another an M-1 carbine, on the table was a .45 and a couple on hand grenades. It was something out of King Solomon's Mines, Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now. We were Quatermain, Morrow or Kurtz on some exotic adventure. In reality of course it was rather mundane, Dad pulled some papers and samples from his trusty briefcase and gave a talk on the latest IR-8 rice.

When we left the States in 1965, Dad had brought with him a beautiful hand tooled leather briefcase that he had made himself. It had served him at Yale and Cornell, Ateneo and IRRI, but later he used it to carry the necessities of life, medicines, toilet paper, socks and underwear. In the hot humid tropical weather it soon grew homesick for it's temperate climate roots. The leather began to separate from the frame, then turned a funky shade of khaki, as mold took root. Finally, one day when my dad picked it up, it just came apart, papers flying everywhere.

Dad yelled.
(Dad had spent four years in the Korean War and knew lots of interesting words
. The term "cuss like a sailor" applied to him. He was a stickler for correct pronunciation and would yell at me when ever I tried them out)

So Dad and I went downtown to see what could be found in the shops. In the 60's Tacloban was a sleepy provincial port. The big excitement was when an inter-island cargo ship would deliver a load of supplies. The selection in the stores was plain and utilitarian. Still, they carried a cornucopia of household goods for rural life: School supplies, uniforms for Sacred Heart, Divine Word & Leyte Normal, tin pots and pans, plates, cups, kitchen tools and utensils, needles, thread, fabric and notions filled the shelves from floor to ceiling. In the display cases were cheap jewelry, watches, clocks and transistor radios, a record album or two. Some items were strung from heavy gauge wire that zigzagged the store. Long wooden poles with hooks on the end were wielded by nimble clerks, deftly snagging the desired item from the rafters and depositing it on the counter before you. There were few toys or comics, even fewer books. Even during Christmas there was very little to interest a small boy. We went from store to store, searching for that elusive briefcase. One shop had some multi-colored floral fabric suitcases, another a wood and tin trunk.

Then Dad spotted up near the ceiling a lone briefcase, part of a four piece set of Samsonite luggage. He asked to see it. The clerk climbed a ladder and deposited it on the counter.
Heavy duty, strong, just the ticket.

"I'll take it!

"No, just the briefcase"
he said as the clerk protested that it was part of a set.

This exchange went on for sometime between Dad and the clerk. A crowd gathered. Finally, the clerk got the owner who, while disappointed at not selling the whole set, was glad to overcharge him for the single item. I, on the other hand, was only too glad to get out of the store and away from the comments they were making about my father and his new briefcase.
"Hey Joe! Your case is very bayut-ti-ful." (Filipinos like to transform similar sounding English words into humorous words with hidden meaning. Bayut is a Waray word for a Homosexual man)

This was the genesis of my aversion to being in the spotlight. My father was the progenitor for that 50's style sensation: brown dress shoes, black calf high socks, Bermuda shorts and a short sleeve dress shirt. Color coordinating forbidden. Nice. Real Classy. His favorite apparel for all public appearances. Now fashionably accessorized with his new Hot Pink Samsonite Brief Case.

My father had a curious bouncy style of walking. With every step his feet rebounded off the ground. As if he had springs or rubber balls on his heels. Of course, Dad never walked. He never strolled. He STRODE. He used to shake stuff off the table and walls in those little
Nipa huts we visited. I can see him now: crew cut, Bermuda shorts, brown leather shoes and black socks bouncing along the little mud dikes between the rice paddies. Which were never designed for such abuse. Inevitably they would crumble and in he would go, head over heals, that damn pink briefcase spinning through the air and all the time yelling as he fell "@#%!&@#!!", the watching swarm of kids dutifully repeating every word back to him.

I learned to trail as far behind as I could, hoping my black hair and brown eyes would allow me to blend in with the crowd who gathered for the comedic entertainment of a lifetime. When ever I could I would sneak off to a Sari-Sari store, slide ten centavos across the counter and drown my sorrows with a
Royal Lem-O-Lime or Tru Orange. Sometimes two.


  1. What a riot that pink briefcase was!!!

    AY-LAB-IT!!! Let's have more!

  2. I tried so desparately to fade into the woodwork, the briefcase put us in to the center of the room!

  3. I can picture everything so vividly. Breastmilk in a cup - that's hospitality like no other. Your father was quite a character.

    I'd rename this piece Travels with My Father and His Hot Pink Briefcase.

  4. Your blog is very well written and brought back my personal memories of Brent. I was also 12 and a day student when I started 7th grade. Your emotions of fear, uncertainty and anxiety attending a new school were no different than mine - same strict rules, dress code, etc. However, by the time I graduated in '71 (yes that infamous class of '71), we had pretty much changed the rules (no more "D"'s or demerits, smoking (yes, on-campus smoking privileges for seniors), lax dress code, off-campus weekends for borders, etc.). This is probably why they reverted to the "old" rules after we graduated. But as you stated, the rules were a big part of the Brent tradition which we all embraced (oftentimes complained about)and is a shared experience amongst everyone who attended Brent. Again, thanks for sharing your memories with your fellow Brentonians.