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.

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