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

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