Monday, January 25, 2010

Part 21: Return of the Native

"Where we love is home,

Home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts"
~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr

"It's surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time"
~ Barbara Kingsolver

Having delivered me to the city of my school and thus, in his estimation, having reached the limits of his parental duties, my father and I happily parted company. Filiusfamilias had ended. Leaving my dad at the airport to fend for himself, I caught a cab to school.

Driving from Loakan Airport in the rain up to the city, on through the thick fog to Brent, old landmarks began appearing suddenly out of the mist like ghosts; silent sentinels telling me I was almost home. As if the mist was conjuring up a Baguio from the past, I was struck again and again by the richness of the colors and by how timeless the city seemed to be.

By the time my taxi pulled up at the gate the fog had melted and the sun was peeking out.

I hurried up the hill, wondering what kind of trouble I would be in for arriving at school so many days late. I had been anxious about it the whole trip, now that I was here I was beginning to panic.

Friends called out to me as I headed to the office. It was great to be back. For the first time in my life I was returning to the same school! For the very first time I was not the new kid.

I actually knew most of the kids standing in line at the Registrar's desk. When it was my turn I stammered out apologies for my delay. My worries proved to be unfounded, I was told that I was not the only one held up by the weather. Students and a few teachers would continue to straggle in over the next few weeks.

When I found this out two waves of emotion ran over me, the first was relief at not being late for the start of school, the second was more intangible, harder to put my finger on. I felt safe, relaxed, comfortable.

Because I had preregistered at Brent the previous year, registration was simply a matter of picking up my class schedule and in no time at all I was standing outside the bookstore waiting for Manong Jeremy to hand me my schoolbooks. Earth Science with Mr. Asiatico, S.E. Asian History with Mr. Jenista, Algebra with Ms. Castro, English with ...suddenly I felt a slobbery wet finger in my ear. I jumped.
It was Pat Dillon. Somewhere along the way that was the nickname he had christened me with. Could have been worse. Joey Butler was called
"Buttless". Grinning he grabbed my arm and gave me an "Indian burn". Didn't miss that or the "wet willy" either.
"When you get done come and see my new room. I got some new posters and then we have an errand to run."

After stowing my books in my locker, I hurried down to the dorm with my arms full. This year I had two suitcases to unpack and at the bookstore we were issued a desk lamp and a little electric heater.

Going down the steps by the Chapel I had my first big surprise: there was construction going on across from our dorm. Where there used to be a pretty little cottage, now were concrete forms and scaffolding. Some of the guys from the dorm were poking around, checking out the building.

The second surprise was that the old dorm master quarters on the lower level had been converted to dorm rooms and a dorm
sala complete with couches and a TV! I went to my old room and found that I was not assigned there this year. On the door to each room was taped a piece of paper with the names of the occupants on it. I went up and down the hall looking at the doors. My old roommates Jaime Case, Joey Butler and Hata Dimaporo were back but we were not all in the same big room again. It was comforting to see old familiar names next to the new ones. Norman Van Vactor, Angel Medina, Mike Pries, Pat Dillon were back and there were some new kids in our dorm, two 5th graders; Ross Van Vactor, Mark Murray and two 10th graders Robert Curby and Kent Rounds. I was shocked to find I was in a two person room that the previous year had been occupied by a teacher, Ms Licadang. My roommate was Steve Leech, a new kid, who was in my grade. I had been hoping to get Jaime as my roommate again, but I was thrilled to find that we had our own private on suite bathroom. No more waiting your turn, no more running out of hot water! Plus not having to share the toilet with half a dozen other teenagers!

The third surprise was that the Nurse and the clinic had been moved to Weiser Hall above the darkroom/typing classroom and renamed the Infirmary. The old Infirmary building had been renamed Weiser Hall. Everyone still called the two buildings by their original names so I am not sure why they switched them. In Nurse's old rooms were the new dorm parents, Mr. and Mrs. Pettitt. Mr. Pettitt hadn't arrived yet, but Mrs. Pettitt was there to welcome me and seemed really nice. She was the sister of one of our teachers, Mr. Jenista, and they both had attended Brent in the 60's. It seemed kind of strange that a former student was now working here and hard to imagine her as a kid. I wondered what it felt like to be teaching at the same school she used to attend and if she felt weird being a teacher instead of the student.

I quickly unpacked my bags and since I was the first one in the room, I picked the top bunk. Then I went over to the linen storage and checked out some extra blankets and a pillow from Mrs. Tabafunda. After I got my bed made and all my gear stowed I hurried up to Pat's room on the second floor.

Pat's room was where I learned about the amazing world of psychedelic rock.
He always had music playing and the wall's of his room were covered with black light posters, including an R- rated parody depicting various Walt Disney characters performing illegal and obscene things. Besides music, Pat's other two obsessions were ping pong and cribbage. He carried a custom ping pong paddle in one of the pockets of the army coat that he always wore. He taught us how to play cribbage and later that year he organized a dorm wide cribbage competition and posted a chart showing who played who and the results of each match.

Pat introduced me to his new roommate Kent Rounds and told me that we were headed to town to get some
"groceries". We signed out at our dorm and again at the main gate and then we caught a taxi downtown. Pat directed the taxi to a store on the fringe of the main shopping area and told me to wait. My chest tightened when I saw them come out with two cases of San Miguel beer and a couple of grocery sacks full of snacks. Once back in the taxi he took off his huge green army coat.

"Put this on" he told me and proceeded to fill all the pockets with the beer. By the time we reached the Brent gate all the bottles were out of sight. Pat jumped out, signed us in and had the driver go all the way to the dorm. Once there, he and Kent Rounds went ahead of me to make sure the coast was clear and run interference in case a teacher should be about. It was a long walk from the taxi to Pat's room, trying to keep from tripping on the coat which reached down to my ankles. I staggered up the steps, trying to not let the bottles clink with each step. Somehow I made it without too much incriminating sound.

Back in his room later that night we played cards, listened to music and I nursed a lone San Miguel. Well, I wasn't much of a drinker so I clutched mine, occasionally taking tiny sips of the increasingly warm beer. This was part of my payment. The other part of my payment was chips, crackers and EZ Cheese. I was congratulated and toasted for my endeavors and told to expect future missions. The older guys went through the beer, throwing their empty bottles out the window in to the valley below. As the beer flowed their tongues loosened and they began to tell stories. One of the new guys bragged to us of his exploits at some place called
The Red Rooster and his subsequent trips to the doctor afterward to get penicillin shots. It seemed to be a odd, painful way to spend your allowance, and I couldn't help but think of what I would do with the money if I had it. This was a strange new world for me, one that I was not totally comfortable in or terribly sure about; part of me still wanted to be a kid. But I was being included and that was important to me. I wasn't particularly happy at having to be the one smuggling in contraband but I didn't want to jeopardize my new status either. It meant no more hazing for me and that I was "protected" from would be bullies.

And so began my career as a
beer mule.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Part 20: Storm Warnings

"And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered"

~ Genesis 7:19

"Long as I remember, the rain been coming down. Clouds of myst'ry pouring confusion on the ground. Good men through the ages, trying to find the sun;
And I wonder, still I wonder, who'll stop the rain?"
~ Creedence Clearwater Revival

This is my version of Dad's favorite story, one that he will gladly repeat to anyone who will listen. Of our trip in August of 1972 from Tacloban to Baguio.
In the Philippines there are essentially two seasons. Dry and Wet. Being a tropical country, the Dry season usually was never completely without rain. And in the Wet, well I always thought that the slogan for Morton salt was written by a Filipino because "when it rains, it pours".

"Rainy Season" generally begins in June and runs through December. To put it into perspective, the average annual rainfall for the US is around 30 inches, while in the Philippines the average is around 90 inches. Some years it started earlier, some years it ran well into February. During the bad years travel could be tricky because of the heavy rains and typhoons. Weather in the Philippines was always dramatic. Monsoons, typhoons, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes. In August of 1968 we survived the "Ruby Towers" earthquake that hit Manila. After 7 years in the Philippines, we thought we had seen the worst of it. We were wrong.
The 1972 season was especially bad, starting a little late, it soon made up for the delay. Torrential downpours, two major back to back typhoons. By mid July, fields had become ponds, then turned into lakes. Crops rotted in the fields. Little creeks became rivers, rivers turned into oceans. There was heavy flooding everywhere and in the mountains with the flooding came landslides. By the beginning of August parts of the lowlands were under 15 to 20 feet of water. For the month of July, Baguio recorded 188 inches of rain. Transportation ground to a halt. Flights out of Tacloban to Manila and from Manila to Baguio were sporadic.
To get me to school on time my parents decided I should leave a week earlier than originally scheduled. In early August, my Dad and I flew from Tacloban to Manila. At the airport we found out that some other stranded Brent students were booked on a flight to San Fernando, La Union, located at the foot of the Cordillera mountain range where they would charter a bus up the mountains to Baguio. Dad made a reservation for me on that flight and we caught a taxi to the Guest House in Malate.
The waters of Metro Manila were fairly deep in some areas, but our Captain navigated his cab well, finding the shallower streets, valiantly plowing through the deep waters when he had to, but finally had to stop a few blocks from the Guest House. Dad carried our luggage on his head and we waded waist and sometimes chest deep through the streets the rest of the way.
Once there I had a few days to kill before the departure, so I went with Dad on his expeditions to get supplies. We waded the streets again and caught a bus to Quiapo, the next day we went to the Mission Headquarters in Quezon City. Everywhere we went the stores were flooded and being cold and wet all day was the norm. The night before my flight to Baguio, I went to bed with a high fever and when I awoke two days later I had missed the flight. The rains turned heavy again. I was stuck.
After I recovered, Dad and I went out to the airport to see what we could find. Mostly we found canceled flights and when the planes did fly they were already fully booked. I got on standby for every flight and we waited. The lowlands were completely flooded now, bridges were out and no buses were traveling to Baguio. We spent our days at the airport, waiting for the rains to let up and the flights to Baguio to resume.

One day at the ticket counter, the agent said he heard there was a pilot of a twin engine Cessna 310 who was going to fly up empty to Baguio to pick up someone who was stranded. Dad got directions and we went over to talk to the pilot. Money exchanged hands and we got on board.
Finally, back to Baguio!

Looking out the window as we flew, it was like the ocean had covered the land below us, with just the tops of trees and houses sticking out of the water. Here and there we could stranded people sitting on the roofs of their homes. It was raining again, but not heavily. As we got closer to the mountains the little plane was buffeted by the wind. The pilot increased power to his engines and we rose up to 5ooo feet. Every so often one of the engines would cough and sputter, but always came back up again and after an hour we saw Loakan Airport. This airport has cliffs on either end of the runway and is noticeably concave. As we began our decent, the left engine sputtered, then stopped running.

“No problem” said the pilot, “we have two”. That is when the other engine quit. The whistling sound of wind passing around the plane filled the cabin. It was very quiet. None of us said anything as we watched the ground rapidly rise up to meet us. We glided down on to the runway and coasted up just short of the terminal.

"Welcome to Baguio!" The pilot held the door as we crawled out, he was all grins as if this happened all the time.
I caught a taxi to school while Dad stayed behind at the airport to figure out how he was going to get back to Manila.

At the ticket counter he was told there were no open flights for weeks; Dad was feeling pretty frustrated. Then
Philippine Air Force One and Two landed. On board were President Marcos, reporters, Congressmen and assorted dignitaries who were out assessing the flood damage across the Philippines. One of the persons in the entourage was from Leyte and recognized Dad and went up to see what he was doing here so far from home. When Dad told him of his troubles the man said "I'm with the Congressman! Ride with us!" Dad grabbed his suitcase and pink briefcase and away they went.

First they toured the landslide damage around Baguio and surrounding towns. Then back to the planes where they embarked, crisscrossing Luzon, landing at various airports when they could, getting out to survey the damage, eating and sometimes spending the night. Ten days later they were back in Baguio (where the Cessna pilot was still working on his plane). It took Dad almost two weeks to get back to Tacloban from the day we left.

As I mentioned before, Dad loves to tell this story. I have heard him recount it 15 times in one day. In all the papers and on TV, it was big news in the Philippines at the time. It caused quite a stir, having the President, assorted Congressmen and some white guy inspecting the destruction. If you come across images from that event you might be able to spot Dad, he is the CIA looking guy with the horn rim glasses, crew cut and a pink briefcase.