Thursday, November 18, 2010

Part 41: The Tempest

"These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air... We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with sleep."
from The Tempest by William Shakespeare

I'm sure there were school activities those first few months of school, some field trips maybe; my friends Leigh, Lulie and Leeanne had lead roles in Alice in Wonderland, but I can't really tell you much about the first part of the semester, because I was preoccupied, I had a girlfriend. For some reason it seemed to take up all my free time and I was neglecting my friends. I think they were sort of happy for me although they often appeared concerned. OK, so things got a little tempestuous at times. It was turning out to be an on again off again relationship. We would break up and then a few days or a week or two later we would get back together again. Things would be great at first, but then they would slowly start to fall apart and neither of us seemed to know why.

Mirroring my life, the 1974 Typhoon Season was a busy one, there were 35 typhoons or tropical storms between January and December that year. Not all the storms impacted the mountain provinces, but we had more than our share. Baguio had an early warning system, a siren located near City Hall which could be clearly heard around the city.
It consisted of a single or a series of siren wails; the Mayor would determine the number of signals depending on what the weather bureau (PAGASA) would announce:

Typhoon Signal #1 - some elementary schools had the option NOT to go to school, or if during the day, have parents pick them up.

Typhoon Signal #2 - elementary and high school kids go home, universities and government still at work. Heavy rain coming within the next 4 to 8 hours.

Typhoon Signal #3 - no work, no nothing, get home. Emergency/disaster groups and utilities get ready. Heavy rain, strong winds expected within the next 4 hours.

Typhoon Signal #4 - Typhoon is here, don't go out, very dangerous conditions.

Brent didn't recognize the first two signals, it was only when the third signal would commence that school would be let out. I never actually heard #4, by then the wind and rain were so strong that the sirens could not be heard.

There were a few minor storms and typhoons the first few months of school, but nothing that caused the school to close. This all changed when Typhoon
Susang hit Baguio one Thursday afternoon in October. I was in English class when we heard the first siren go off, no big deal we heard these often enough; then the second siren sounded and we all sat there pretending to be paying attention while listening with a cocked ear for the third siren. There it was! School was out! Susang struck Baguio on the 10th of October, bringing 30.8 inches of rain in less than 24 hours. A week later and we heard the sirens again, waiting with baited breath for that third siren. That typhoon was Tering and it was followed by Uding 6 days later. This was getting kind of old, it seemed my clothes were always damp. Typhoon Wening hit four days after that. On the first of November, Yaning blew through and Aning hit us a week after that. Each time now you could hear the classes around Ogilby counting out the sirens: one... two... three! The roar of cheers and the boarders would go running back to the dorms to fill the wood boxes with firewood, then to the canteen to stock up on snacks. The rain would start, then came the winds, eventually the power would go out; usually shut down by the power company to avoid injuries. We ate dinner by candlelight, later that night two raincoat clad houseboys would show up, one bearing a petromax lantern in one hand and a thermos of coffee and another of hot chocolate in the other; the other houseboy gingerly carried the inevitable tray of jelly rolls (we had the same snack every night for five years!).

Weekends during these typhoons were spent at Hamilton Hall (although the girls did surprise us a few times by showing up at the boys dorm), playing cards, eating snacks and listening to someone play the guitar while singing along. We would make the trek up the hill, leaning into the wind and by the time we arrived we would be completely soaked. There was always a roaring fire going and the girls would give us clothes to change into; we would line up our shoes on the hearth, hang our socks, shirts and jeans over the fireplace screen and watch the steam rise from our drying clothes.

Late one night during a typhoon we got a call from Hamilton Hall, Mr Pettitt needed some help boarding up a window that had broken in the storm. Jaime and I went over and on the way we picked up a piece of corrugated roofing that had come off the covered walkway. It was really tough trying to hang on to that tin sheet in the strong wind! When we got there we carried it up to the "4 L's" sala and helped Mr. Pettitt nail it over the window. While we were doing this Linda went to use the restroom, but came out a few minutes later screaming! There was a rat in the toilet! When she went to flush she noticed something wet and furry looking up at her from the bowl! Jaime grabbed the fireplace poker and I the tongs and while I held it down Jaime killed it! I was totally disgusted. From that day forward I always look in the toilet first...

Jaime and I were still in our sopping wet clothes, so the girls offered the use of their blazing fire to dry them out. We took off our clothes and I eventually found myself trying to get warm, huddled under a blanket with a pretty classmate in her room. How I got there or where the dorm master was I couldn't tell you. I was vaguely aware that we were both in our underwear (I can't tell you why she was because I never asked), but it never occurred to me that this might be an opportunity for hanky panky! Or at least it didn't occur to me till the next day when Jaime said something about it!

Typhoon Aning we had a break in the weather and Mr Asiatico decided he had better take advantage of the situation and make his annual trip to 100 Islands. We got to the coast and it was still a bit overcast and the water was choppy as we headed out to sea. About half way out we heard a shout from the bow and Mr Asiatico was pointing out to a pair of dorsal fins a hundred feet or so from our boat! This was the first time I had seen sharks other than the dead ones brought in by fishermen. Two of my classmates and fellow boarders, Tommy Lowman and Michael Kendrick were with me, Tommy had brought along his scuba gear and two extra pairs of swim fins and masks. He had brought along so much gear that Michael and I had to help him get it all in the boat. That first night after supper, we helped him get geared up and he tested out his new underwater flashlight. I was swimming along side using a snorkel when Tommy poked a bunch of sea cucumbers which suddenly expelled their innards! This was totally unexpected and with muffled shouts we swam quickly back to the beach. I guess they were as startled as we were!

Later that night Tommy and I snuck out to swim over to an island that was a few hundred feet from the one we were on. There had been a concrete bridge connecting the two, but Typhoon Susang had destroyed it. Now there were just the supports sticking out of the water. We were about half way there when churning waves threw us against the the busted up bridge. I felt a burning pain on my thighs where I scraped against rebar and broken concrete. We climbed on to one of the supports and Tommy shined his flashlight on my legs, they were covered in blood! He had a bad gash on his hand and we looked at each other and said
We couldn't stay there, so we once again swam as fast as we could back to shore. When we got back to camp, our classmate Marie cleaned our wounds and anointed us with iodine. Most of the scratches were not too deep, but my legs were a little stiff and sore the next morning. After breakfast we began collecting our samples and answering our worksheets. The sky was clear, it was warm and sunny and the water was calm. A couple of sea urchin fishermen showed up on a bamboo raft, they had long poles with a steel spike attached to the end. They would go along till they spotted a cluster of sea urchins, then used their poles to skewer them and bring them up. I was watching them from the edge of the water when I felt a sharp pain in the bottom of my foot. Thinking I had stepped on a thorn or a piece of glass I went up the beach and sat down in the sand to examine my foot. I was surprised to see a fish attached to my foot! I yanked it off and it left a little bloody hole in the sole. It turned out it was some small species of Remora, about 4 inches long, that used a sucker on the top of its head to hang on to sharks and would feed off the remains of whatever the shark was eating. A great specimen for our science class, but I was not happy that it had been collected at my expense.

We still had not learned our lesson about safe swimming practices because that afternoon while snorkeling alone on the backside of the island we suddenly felt ourselves in a strong current and were being pulled out to sea. After some desperate hard swimming we managed to catch hold of a coral reef. After several attempts at trying to cross the sharp antler coral barefoot, we ended up having to walk backwards in our swim fins.

Nights on the islands were a strange thing. There was no electricity, the only artificial light at night came from our camp fires and lanterns. When it was overcast it was pitch black, but when the skies were clear you could see fairly well. We kept waking up, thinking it was almost sunrise only to find out that it was one or two o'clock in the morning. On our last night I woke up knowing it must be hours till sunrise, but decided to walk down to the beach and watch the waves. I was sitting there, pondering my life, my relationship with my girlfriend that I knew was coming to a final end, when I heard someone come up behind me. I turned to look and it was a wondrous sight. Clad in a bikini, her waist length blond hair glowing silver in the starlight she came and sat close beside me, smelling of lavender and apricots and she was most beautiful. Jaime once said of her that she was the kind of girl his mother warned him about and accordingly gave her wide berth. I didn't see it, she was young and fresh, vivacious and alive. But I followed a code; I had a girlfriend back at Brent and this girl had a boyfriend there too and I felt honor bound not to break "the rules".

We didn't talk much, we shared a cigarette or two and she put her head on my shoulder. We sat and first watched the waves, then the sun rising up out of the water till we heard the voices of our waking classmates. Rising to her knees she kissed me lightly and went back to camp.

A lot has been written about living a life without regrets, but maybe you really haven't lived if you don't regret something. As I rode the bus back to Brent I know I was regretting my inaction, when my girlfriend broke up with me a few days later I really regretted it. Although mutually agreed upon, it didn't end well. Then, as if to put a final period (or maybe an exclamation point) to the end of our relationship, Typhoon Bidang slammed into
Baguio the following Thursday, the 28th of November, knocking down trees around the city and on our campus.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Part 40: Routines, Rituals and Traditions

As per my annual routine I returned to Baguio a week before school started. Arriving at Brent things were comfortably the same. Crossing Neutral to Binstead, I peeked in the lounge to see if anyone might be there. It was empty, but it was a friendly expectant emptiness, as if the room was waiting for us to return and bring it back to life.

Yet to say that school was unchanged from the previous year was not true. Like every other year since I started going to Brent, the 1974-75 school year brought big changes. When I got to the dorm one of the first things I discovered was that I was now on the top floor on the east side of the dorm (as a sophomore I had expected to be on the second floor again).
This was comforting in its own way, I had woken each day my first two years at Brent with the sun rise, from my high vantage point I could see the tree covered mountains in the distance. I went and collected my trunk and other belongings and then went to select mattresses for my room. My queen size from last year was no where to be found so I assumed some teacher had got to it first. After digging through a dozen or more I was able to find two kapok stuffed mattresses that were plump, firm and at the same time soft. I spent the rest of the day arranging, then rearranging my room. That night I lay in bed watching the lightning flashes on the distant mountains. It was good to be home.

The next morning I decided to take a shower and then head downtown to do some shopping. Knowing the dorm was empty I just threw my towel over my shoulder, picked up my shower kit and walked out the bathroom door only to discover another change. We had new dorm parents, the O'Neils, and there was Mrs O'Neil walking up the steps to introduce herself! Whoops! There I was doing the Full Monty! I think she was more embarrassed than I was, all she said was
"oh, my...". I skidded to a stop and did an abrupt about face (in case she wanted a rear view) and went back into the bathroom and wrapped my towel around my waist. After a few minutes I decided the coast was clear and made my way to my room to get dressed. At dinner that night she turned bright red as I was laughingly introduced to them by my former dorm mother Mrs Pettitt. The Pettitts were now dorm parents of the girls dorm. After having them as dorm parents for two years I kind of thought of Mrs Pettitt as my surrogate mom and I wasn't too sure I liked this change.

The next few days were quiet ones, I replicated my yearly routine of collecting my school books from the book store, getting a head start on my required reading, going to the library, making a trip downtown for siopao or shopping. Along with a slew of other kids, Jaime showed up the Friday before school started; he had the room across the hall from mine. Jaime and his family had just got back from short furlough in the U.S. and I was eager to hear of his adventures. One of the things he brought back was a pair of brown leather work boots which he called "shitkickers". I really liked them and so we went to town to see if we could find me a pair in the "army surplus" section of the market. This section of the market was mostly black market goods that somehow made it from the bases at Clark or Subic to the stalls of the Baguio market. There you could find American candy, cigarettes, Army, Air Force and Navy apparel. After a hour of searching I found a pair of brand new black Navy steel toed deck boots with vibram soles and they fit perfectly. Jaime picked up some brown shoe polish and a bar of saddle soap and then we headed over to the Rose Bowl for some chicken fried rice. I tell you of these mundane facts because these items became part of our routine. If we happened to be in the dorm when the dinner gong sounded, Jaime would come to collect me saying "let's go Kid" and off we would march side by side, our boots beating out the time on the pavement, then drumming on the wooden part of the sidewalk of Binstead, our feet hitting the swinging doors to the dining hall at the same moment which would burst open with a crash, a half second pause at the top of the landing, then Jaime would step to the right and I to the left,
ka thump, thump down the two steps, our grande entree!

The next day we went back into town again with Leeanne and Lulie to catch a movie and go to a used clothing store we had heard of, the forerunner of the
ukay-ukay shops that are so prevalent in Baguio today. I picked up a black cable-knit sweater and an olive green zip up jacket like the one Clint Eastwood wore in "Kelly's Heroes". At the urging of the girls Jaime and I also purchased matching pairs of striped bell bottom Levi brand hip huggers. Now we were stylin!

There were a lot of new kids in the dorms this year, Michael and Susan Kendrick from Australia, Juli Tin, Margie Geronimo, Chris Fassnacht, Donna Stackhouse, Cathy Blowers from Africa, Cindy Hill from Saigon, Marianne Salvo from Laos, Paul Bowman, James Jensen from Liberia, the Lipka brothers from Indonesia, Chuck Wheeler and Joan Barber who came from Saipan, Tommy and Mary Lowman out of Vietnam, and a bunch of Canadians, much to the delight of Leeanne Colvin. There was Dana Busse, Pierre Sabourin, Garth Patterson, Cindy and Kelly Low. Garth came to the dorms with his hockey sticks, I am not sure where he thought he would be playing. I think this was our most culturally diverse year, with the Canadians, four British kids, three Australians added to our normal Filipino and American mix.
The Brent student population really swelled that year, my class which in previous years bounced between 11 and 14 students, now numbered 22. Besides the high school students we also had that year for the first (and last) time Junior College students!

The first few weeks went by quickly, class and student council elections; the new Senior class president Norman Van Vactor quickly gaining huge popularity by securing Rug's old room off the dining hall as a private "Seniors Only" lounge. With all these new students, the annual Senior class fundraiser "Slave Day" was a huge success. The auction which normally ran about 30 to 40 minutes from beginning to end, dragged out to an hour and half. Relationships seemed to form quickly that year too, by the time Slave Day rolled around most of the "available" girls had boyfriends. Somehow I found myself with a girlfriend too.

Rituals. We all have them, the little things we do when we get up in the morning, when we go to bed at night. Humans are creatures of habit, we tend to like doing things in a certain order, step by step instructions, bullet points, map directions, the laundry lists of our lives. There is comfort in the sequence, a sense of accomplishment after completing a step. It is an unspoken acknowledgment: we can't control what is happening out there but we can control this. For some of us it is something more. The ritual of my annual return to Baguio and Brent is something I have written about many times; I am writing about it again to emphasize how much it meant to me. I could leave Baguio any way I liked, plane, car or bus. But I had to return exactly the same way each time now. I think subconsciously I was afraid to break my routine, as if it might jinx my new life. So I followed my routine: plane to Manila, taxi to the PNR bus station, bus to Baguio, closing my eyes and waiting for the scent of pine and the coolness on my cheek before opening them again. But there was something else I haven't mentioned before. When I stepped off the bus I experienced this emotional release; like the sensation a child experiences when they think they are lost and beginning to panic when suddenly they catch sight of their parents: the heart drops to the pit of the stomach and rebounds equally fast, pulling with it all the pent up fear and agony, the hiccup before the torrent of tears comes exploding forth with relief at being safe again. This is what I felt each time I returned, this is how much it meant to me.

"I'm back" I would silently whisper, wrapped in their warm embrace.

"... And like he told me, when she holds me, she enfolds me in her world."
from the song "Corey's Coming" by Harry Chapin