Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Part 52: Lost Horizon

"... you can't subject a mere boy to... years of intense physical and emotional stress without tearing something to tatters. People would say, I suppose, that he came through without a scratch. But the scratches were there - on the inside."
We sat for a long time in silence ...

Do you think he will ever find it?"

- from Lost Horizon by James Hilton

I was hurriedly cramming all my worldly belongings into my footlocker and suitcase for the summer. Five years worth of school magazines, yearbooks and newspapers, old scripts, a few school books and novels, left over school supplies, a photo album, sheets, blankets and clothing.

In a small air force flight bag I packed the bare minimum of clothing I would need to get me back to America. I planned to buy all the clothing I needed while I was there and much more.
I had been busy compiling a list of things I wanted to pick up including gifts for my friends.

A month earlier, in April, my parents and brothers flew to the U.S. for a four month furlough. I would be joining them now that school was out and I was excited to be heading back to the States for a short visit. I was looking forward to doing some sight seeing, eating American food and visiting the relatives. If I had time I hoped to see some of my friends from Brent who now lived in the U.S. and had made tentative plans to see my girlfriend in North Carolina while she was on furlough too.

I had got my bundle of exit papers from the local PC commandant, paid the appropriate fees and document stamps on my exit visa. Then I went to the Mission Board offices and picked up my ticket and passport. The treasurer handed me my documents, then pulled a dusty cash box from a drawer. Fumbling with the key, it groaned in protest at being opened, the lid snapping shut on his hand several times as he tried to extract a single ancient bill from its interior. Scrooge gripped it tightly in his hand for a few moments, stretching out his arm and retracting it several times before finally handing it to me. I looked at him in disgust and amazement. A measly five bucks "travel money" to get me back to the states.

The next morning I caught a Korean Airlines 747 out of Manila to Seoul, then on to Los Angeles. It was a long flight with a lousy movie and I had plenty of time to think.
I thought about my five years at Brent; I thought about my senior year ahead, planning and dreaming of the things I would do. Slave Day, Senior Skip Day, Prom and Graduation; now my name would hang in the Gym along with the names of my classmates.

The plane was delayed in Seoul and by the time we got to L.A. I had missed my connecting flight to Chicago. There were quite a few stranded kids at LAX and we spent the night in the terminal playing cards. In the morning while waiting for my flight the elderly couple who had been sitting next to me on the flight asked if I had spent the night in the airport and had I had anything to eat. I guess I looked hungry - I hadn't eaten since the day before but didn't want to seem like I was looking for a hand out. They wouldn't take no for answer and bought me breakfast.

When I got to Chicago I was surprised to see my mom's sister and her husband waiting at the arrival gate. They bought me a steak, we drank wine and they peppered me with questions. I hadn't seen them for years and happily recounted my adventures at Brent and my plans for my Senior year. Then on to Iowa in a inter-state commuter turbo prop. The plane circled the little airport, preparing to land, I watched the buildings below.

Then it hit me all of a sudden, from deep within me I knew with the utmost certainty; I would never go back to the Philippines again. The empty pit within me was a chasm that could never be filled. Then the wheels touched the ground and the plane came to a stop. Walking across the tarmac I searched the crowd for my family; I found confirmation on my parents faces. That was it. The adventure was over.

I never got to say farewell to the family who raised me, to my friends, my city, my school, my home.

"You sheltered me from harm
Kept me warm, kept me warm
You gave my life to me
Set me free, set me free
The finest years I ever knew
Were all the years I had with you

You taught me how to love
What it's of, what it's of
You never said too much
But still you showed the way
And I knew from watching you
Nobody else could ever know
The part of me that can't let go

I would give anything I own
Give up my life, my heart, my home
I would give everything I own
Just to have you back again"
- from a song by Bread

I never got to look for the little boy lying in his hole in the comote field, to tell him it's safe to come home.

I think he lies there still.


I'm sorry.

I love you.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

Part 51: The Last Waltz

I will remember you and hold on to the
fine time that we knew,
sing a memory or two, when there's nothin' left to do
~ from "Love's in Vain" by Jimmie Spheeris

"The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply..."
~ from A Separate Peace by John Knowles

"What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind..."
~ William Wordsworth

Those were sweet, blissful days. I had fallen from grace, wandered in the desert, was lost and then found. I was humbled and found redemption.

The school year was swiftly coming to an end and I didn't see it coming. I didn't see the signs or learn from past events.
I didn't remember that all good things must end, that "some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them".

Jaime and I had a lot on our plates that spring. End of the year term papers, a play and we were busy trying to get the yearbook finalized in time to get it off to the printer.

Aah, the Ganza. Blood, sweat and tears. Lots of artistic disagreements, lots of shouting, lots of compromises. We had many a late night, drank gallons of coffee and smoked cartons of cigarettes. Cutting and pasting, banging away at the typewriter, digging through submitted photos, poetry and art. Jaime was the editor and you could see his hand all over it. Maybe a little of mine too, but it was hard to tell, we thought so much alike.

This year's edition reflected his anxiety and ambivalence about Brent, about leaving the Philippines. But this yearbook also reflected the tension and uncertainty amongst the students, staff and faculty. Unions, petitions and lawsuits; the Headmaster and a few teachers were facing legal proceedings. Brent was at a crossroads, a very different school from the school we arrived at five years earlier.

The one constant was the Campus, changing yet unchanged over the last 67 years. So, instead of doing the traditional dedication to a faculty or staff member, we made our dedication to the Brent Campus. Our staff photographers took pictures of Amos, Ogilby, Binsted, Weiser, Richardson, Hamilton, the Old Infirmary and the New Dorm. Pages were filled with photos of the Neutral, the soccer field, the gym, tennis courts and the Valley. Maybe it was his way of saying goodbye to each and every building, tree and place that had touched and shaped our lives.
This Ganza was his eulogy.

Each member of the Senior class got their own individual page and they spent a lot of time working on them, carefully crafting their last words and testaments. We finally got the last one and we submitted our almost finished product to the printer, happy, yet slightly unsatisfied, a bittersweet moment. A week later we had the printer's proof back for us to check for errors or to make any last minute corrections.
In an unusual turn of events, the Headmaster insisted that he see and sign off on this blueline before it was released to print. He didn't like some of the captions, in particular one next to his photo in his Halloween costume that said "Old Nick". He made some corrections and returned it to us, ordering the Ganza adviser, Mrs Sheffer, to make sure that his changes were made. This really rankled us, especially Jaime. We made some corrections of our own, fixing typos here and there and then Jaime, in a bold move, restored the original caption to the photo. Anarchy! His final act of rebellion.

t had been a rainless, hot spring and as the months progressed it continued to get dryer. The Neutral turned a rusty brown, most of the grass on the soccer field was dead or dying, brown patches of bare dirt dotted the field.

Field Day was a hot, dusty affair. I didn't much care who won the competitions, I was just trying to spend as much time with my girlfriend, in a few days she would be leaving on furlough with her parents for the summer. It was a day for hanging out between events with her and my friends. When the last event was completed, the last award handed out, we piled on the bus to head over to John Hay to take showers. Brent had no water.

From the earliest days of the founding of the city, Baguio has had a water problem. Despite having some of the highest annual rainfall of any city, collecting and storing water for the dry season had never been seriously implemented. In the 1930s, Mayor Halsema had worked hard to improve the water works, by the time WWII came it was adequate for the population of 50,000. In the late 60's and early 70's the population increased dramatically, once again the water resources for Baguio were over extended. Part of the problem came from the burgeoning number of tourists who came during the dry months, easily doubling the number of people living in Baguio.

In 1976, the lack of rain turned into a drought, water rationing was now in effect throughout the city. Downtown Baguio was a grimy mess, the rain that normally washed the streets and sidewalks clean, now just a distant memory. Fires were a real problem as there was no water for the Fire Department to use. The river that flowed past Asin Hot Springs became a tiny creek. Back at Brent the situation was grim, the water tower and cisterns ran dry. The Boys dorm reeked from unflushed toilets, the boys reeked from want of showers.

Only the local US Airbase had a steady flow of water. Over the years the military commanders and planners of Camp John Hay had continuously improved and supplemented their water storage and collection system; they now supplied Brent with potable water for drinking and for the kitchen to cook and wash dishes with. Brent had 50 gallon drums of water of dubious quality trucked in for flushing toilets in the Administration Office, Ogilby Hall and the girls dorm. My friends and I went to John Hay almost every day now, to shower at a friends home and use the "facilities".

With Field Day out of the way, we focused our attention to the last play of the year, "Flower Drum Song", a musical being directed by Mrs Viduya. It is a story of the struggle of assimilation, maintaining cultural identity and the struggle between the older and younger generations. Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner, is about to enter into an arranged marriage with illegal immigrant Mei Li. But Sammy is in love with club dancer/singer Linda Low, who is romancing Wang Ta, son of a wealthy Chinese businessman. Mei Li falls in love with Wang Ta, but is honor bound to fulfill her contract. It was a convoluted plot, but a lot of fun to produce.

Most of my classmates were in the play, Beth Wagner was Mei Li, Paul Bautista was Wang Ta and Paul's sister Margie was Linda Low. Jaime had the role of Sammy, Dayne Florence was the father of Mei Lei and I had a minor role as a slightly deaf, dirty old uncle. About half of the cast was Caucasian, which in a play about Chinese Americans can be problematic. But the blond haired kids dyed their hair black, and with some make up it didn't look too rediculous.

The Junior class was busy preparing for the Junior-Senior Prom. As class president I found myself making most of the decisions, but I tried to delegate where and when I could. A couple of classmates were looking for a band, others were in charge of decorations and setting up. The class treasurer and I went to look at various venues for the prom; we went from restaurant to club, sampled the menus and worried about parking. Finally, one of the kids whose father worked for VOA was able to negotiate us a good price at the John Hay Main Club. With the money we saved I ordered 12 dozen long stem red roses which would be handed out to the girls when they arrived (for those slackers who were too cheap to get their dates flowers).

The only thing I hadn't done yet was get a date for the prom. Jaime was going to go by himself and then asked Flo Lusk to go. I too had been tempted to go by myself, but then I decided to ask Lisa Marks, one of my girlfriend's friends, so she could go. I warned her that I would be busy making sure things were running smoothly and that this was just a "friends only" kind of date. My friend Jack was taking our buddy Vic Horne's sister Tracey and Vic was taking Pam Johnson; Dayne Florence was taking Jasminda Salapong.

Trying to keep an accurate head count so we could order enough food, I was surprised to find a few of my classmates had not RSVP'd yet. I asked one of them if he was going and did he have a date. He said he wanted to ask one of our classmates. Maybe it was my recently restored self confidence, maybe it was the inner peace I felt, but I was emboldened. Not thinking how it might appear I said Do you want me to ask her for you? He said he did, so I sought her out right after our next class and asked her point blank Do you want to go to the Prom with him?
She did, and her response gave him the courage to approach her himself. This would be the first time going to a dance for both of them.

Finally it was prom night. I had to get there early to help set up. The night was a blur, every time I turned around someone was asking me something and I hurried here and there, checking on this, checking on that. Some of the day students had arrived in their own cars and naturally had smuggled in alcoholic beverages. Every now and then two or three would wander out to have a "smoke" or "get some air". I didn't have time, I was getting pulled in all directions. I didn't even get to finish my dinner. Finally, I collared the class vice-president and told him he would have to deal with the questions for the rest of the night. I found my date and we danced and I even made it out to the parking lot.

Because of Martial Law there was a curfew, those who were not planning to stay had to leave early, but the majority of the guests stayed and danced all night. Just before dawn things began to break up, I made my final rounds, then headed back to Brent with Jaime and our dates. We caught a cab and they dropped us off at the bottom of Brent Road, from there we walked up to the school.
Out of the mist on the road in front of us, two figures slowly grew in size and then we recognized them, it was Mr Keddie and Mr Spitzer. They were leaving school early, trying to stay one step ahead of the law, they were headed to Manila to catch a plane out of the country.

Then one sunny day it was Graduation. The Gym was packed with parents, students and relatives. Pomp and Circumstance began playing and the Seniors filed out with me leading the procession up the aisle. Our class advisor Ms Estacio whispered loudly "What's he doing! He's not a Senior!" Apparently after decades of teaching at Brent she had forgotten the long standing tradition of having the Junior class president escort the seniors to the stage. At the foot of the steps I turned and stood to one side, congratulating the seniors as they filed past going up the stairs. There were speeches and awards, the senior class sang "To Each His Own". They called the names and handed out the diplomas. Then it was over and the recessional began. The Seniors posed for pictures with family and relatives and took their last class picture. I worked my way through the happy crowd, congratulating my jubilant friends, meeting their parents. There at the back of the gym was Jaime and his family and as I approached them I was overwhelmed with grief.

Up to that moment the significance of this graduation had been hidden from me, locked away in some remote area of my heart and brain. Jaime was leaving. For five years we had ate, slept, fought and laughed together. Brent had molded and shaped us and we had grown and changed together. We shared a million memories and experiences. He knew what I was thinking and I knew how he felt. So different and yet so alike. We had the same friends, we liked the same girls.
We felt the same rage, the same joy. We had made choices over the years based not on the facts of the choice itself but on our friendship. As much as two friends could be, we were joined at the hip. He protected my front, I watched his back.

We were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
He was Phineas: intelligent, athletic, boisterous and charismatic, a magnet that drew everyone towards him, there did not seem to be anything he couldn't do. We all shined brighter around him. I was Gene: quiet and introverted, yet around him I grew more confident, more outgoing. Because he was naturally assertive, I was often accused of being his "tuta", a puppet, but they didn't know us very well. There was a lot more give and take than they would ever know. They didn't know that when he was his most self-assured and adamant, inside he was tormented by self-doubt and feelings of inferiority; that when I backed his play I bolstered his self-confidence as well as mine.

It seemed we had always been together, that we had always been friends. Because of this, it never occurred to me that there might come a day when he would leave me behind. I guess I thought we would live and die together. I stretched out my arm to shake the hand of the conquering hero. If he had maintained his composure I could have made it through unscathed, but the look on his face told me everything. Time to back his play one last time. The enormity of it engulfed me and the tears began to flow, then to gush.

It wasn't a graduation, it was a funeral.

"To each his own it's plain to see
To walk alone you have to be

It's all for you and all for me
- You'll see
I'm gonna miss you, yes, I will

No matter who you are,
I'll love you still

For my life is my conscience, the seeds I sow

I just wanted to let you know.

Familiar faces that I've seen

Turnin' red and turnin' green

They just got caught with writing on their sleeve

I guess I'll leave

I'm gonna miss you, yes, I will

No matter who you are, I'll love you still

Will you cancel my papers and lock the door
'Cause I ain't gonna be 'round no more

Will I make it through the summer
Breaking ties with the old and new?

Losing one just gains another

There is nothing I can do

I'm gonna miss you, yes, I will

No matter who you are I'll love you still

For my life is my conscience, the seeds I sow

And I just wanted to let you know"

~ To Each His Own by America