Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Part 1: Sunrise - A Boy's Story

Dr Abe V Rotor

Staying put on the farm - is that all you aspire for?

“Buy me a tractor,” I asked by dad, “And I will not look for a job. I’d stay on the farm.”

“Is that all you aspire for?” My father replied. It was the turning point of my life. I left the farm and went on to pursue my studies, later joining the government service, and after early retirement, becoming a university professor.

Dad is now long gone and only my sister is overseeing the farm. One time while visiting the farm, I asked my eldest son, Marlo, “Do you like to stay here and manage the farm?” He fell silent and I did not utter another word.

I stopped schooling to be with my dad.

I stopped schooling in Manila, so I went home to San Vicente, arriving there on a Sunday at dawn. Instead of directly proceeding to our house, I dropped at the church through the main door. In the distance a man was standing, stooping, his nape showing the marks of old age. I wondered who the man was, and to my surprise I found out he was my dad. I did not know he had grown that old. I said my prayers, and left with a heavy heart.

It was at home that my dad and I met after the mass. He knew it was not yet school vacation, but he was very happy to see me. I did not tell I saw him in the church that morning. Later I told my plan not to continue my studies anymore because I wanted to be with him. He just felt silent.

The following morning he prepared our two bikes. “We are going to Banaoang,” he said in an aura of confidence. Banaoang is a mountain pass through which the mighty Abra River flows, where bamboo from the hills are sold in quantity. We were going to build a flue-curing barn.

The going was easy at first, but the distance and the uphill part were exhausting. Dad gave up before we reached our destination. “Get a rope and pull my bike. Let’s go back home.” He sat down in the shade of a mango tree. When we were rested we slowly pedaled back home. Both of us were silent the rest of the day.

I stayed with my dad until the end of summer working in the tobacco barn we put up. I went back to Manila the following school year to continue my studies. I always pass the highway dad and I once took, and there under an old mango tree, I would be seeing a man resting in its shade, stooping, wrinkles on his nape showing old age.

I shot an arrow into the air and it fell on a newspaper

I must have been 4 or 5 years old. Dad was reading Manila Bulletin on a rocking chair. I was playing Robin Hood. Since our sala is very spacious (it has no divisions), anything on the ceiling and walls was a potential target. But something wrong happened. In physics a crooked arrow would not follow a straight line, so it found an unintended mark – the center of a widespread newspaper. The arrow pierced through it and landed on my dad’s forehead, almost between his eyes. He gave me a severe beating with my plaything as he wiped his forehead, blood dripping. I did not cry, I just took the punishment obligingly. Dad must have seen innocence in my eyes. He stopped and gave me a hug.

I shot my finger with an airgun.

I bought an airgun from Ben Florentino, a classmate of mine in high school at the Colegio de la Immaculada Concepcion (CIC Vigan) for fifty pesos, a good amount then, circa 1955. I was loading the pellet, when I dropped the rifle, and on hitting the ground, went off. The bullet pierced through the fleshy tip of my left forefinger. I tried to remove it but to no avail, so I went to the municipal doctor. There was no anesthesia available, and when I could no longer bear the pain, he simply dressed the wound and sent me home.

My wound soon healed, and the lead pellet was to stay with me for the next five years or so, when I finally decided to go for an operation. Had it not been for my playing the violin, I would not have bothered to do so. And it was providential.

Dr. Vicente Versoza, our family doctor in Vigan, performed the operation. A mass of tissues snugly wrapped around the pellet, isolating its poison. He told me I am lucky. There are cases of lead poisoning among war veterans who bore bullets in their bodies. I remember the late President Ferdinand Marcos. Was his ailment precipitated by lead poisoning?

I can “cure” a person who is naan-annungan.

An-annung is the Ilocano of nasapi-an. Spirits cast spell on a person, the old folks say. The victim may suffer of stomachache or headache accompanied by cold sweat, body weakness or feeling of exhaustion.

Well, take this case. It was dusk when a tenant of ours insisted of climbing a betel, Areca catechu to gather its nuts (nga-nga). My dad objected to it, but somehow the young man prevailed.

The stubborn young man was profusely sweating and was obviously in pain, pressing his stomach against the tree trunk. Dad called for me. I examined my “patient” and assured him he will be all right. And like a passing ill wind, the spell was cast away. Dad and the people around believed I had supernatural power.

There had been a number of cases I “succeeded” in healing the naan-annungan But I could also induce – unknowingly - the same effect on some one else. That too, my dad and old folks believed. They would seek for my “power” to cast the spell away from - this time – no other than my “victim”. What a paradox!

When I grew older and finished by studies, I began to understand that having an out-of-this-world power is a myth. I read something about Alexander the Great consulting the Oracle at Siwa to find out if indeed he is a god-sent son. “The Pharaoh will bow to you, ” the priestess told him. And it did happen - the pharaoh kissed Alexander’s feet. The great warrior died before he was 33.

Manong Bansiong, the kite maker

Kites always fascinate me, thanks to Bansiong, nephew of Basang my auntie-yaya. He made the most beautiful, often the biggest kite in town. His name is an institution of sort to us kids. But remote as San Vicente was, we had the best kites and the town was also famous for its furniture and wooden saints.

Manong Bansiong made different kites: sinang-gola, sinang-cayyang, sinang-golondrina (in the likes of a bull, a bird with outstretched wings and legs, and a maiden in colorful, flowing dress, respectively). His kites were known for their strength, stability, beauty, and their height in the sky. In competitions he would always bring home the trophy, so to speak.

Because of Manong Bansiong I became also a kite maker of less caliber, but being an endangered art there is not much variety of kites flying around. The kites I make are not common, and they probably exude the same feeling to kids today as during our time.

I made kites for my children when they were small. Kites fascinated my late first-born son, Pao. It was therapy to his sickly condition. We would sit down together on the grass for hours holding on to the kite, the setting sun and breeze washing our faces.

When my youngest, Leo Carlo, took part in a kite competition at UST, I helped him with the sinang-cayyang. It did not win. But in the following year and the year after Leo Carlo became the consistent kite champion of UST, and so he carries on the legend of Manong Bansiong.

Draining a fishpond with centrifugal pump

We were perhaps the first in town to own a centrifugal pump, a three-horsepower Briggs and Stratton with a two-inch-diameter pipe. Which means, we can now irrigate whole fields, or drain fishponds.

One summer when the water was low, dad decided to use the pump in our one-hectare fishpond by the estuary in Nagtupacan, a coastal village of San Vicente. He put me in charge of the operation. I was a high school sophomore then. I stayed with the pump in the shade of nearby spiny candaroma (aroma) trees, sleeping under the stars at night. I learned that high tide followed by low tide occurs during the day, and repeated at night. That means the pump must overcome high tide that pushes water from under the fishpond and through the base of its dikes.

What we thought to be an easy operation probed to be an unending battle. Finally we gave up. We lost, but not entirely for we were able to harvest some fish from a drained area. Above all, I learned a lesson, which I was to use in my teaching in the university. On the part of dad, he told me, “Machines are no match to the enormous power of nature.” A few years after, the machine broke down, so told dad in his letter. I was then in Manila earning a college degree. That night I imagined the spiny candaroma and the stars and the tides.

Blackout and A Blue Baby
Basang, my auntie-yaya used to recount this story on how I came into this world. It was Japanese invasion. At night no lights were allowed for fear of the Japanese bomber planes. The whole town plunged into a blackout when I was born. It was October 22, 1941. The partera (midwife) worked under a flickering candle. I came out a blue baby, hind first (suni). And knowing I did not have any chance to live, the carpenters in my father's furniture shop started making me a coffin.

But there was an old woman, Lela Usta (Faustina Ramos), a good neighbor and distant cousin of my dad who did not believe I was dead. She bundled me up and kept me warm by blowing over my cuppo-cuppo (bumbunan) with her breath as she chewed ginger. An hour had already passed and the kind old woman, now covered with sweat and tears, noticed a faint pulse, and then heard a faint sound. She continued on until I started to breathe. Not for long, I cried and drew the small crowd to a cheer.

Shhh.... my father cautioned everyone, and I, too, stopped crying.

I remember the Japanese

It was in the last year of the Japanese occupation that memories of World War II became vivid to me. In desperation the enemy killed anyone at sight in exchange for its apparent defeat. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were soon to be erased virtually from the map. I was then four years old. According to psychologists, at this age impressions become lasting memory.

Vigilance was the game. Far ahead of time one should be able to detect the enemy. Fear gripped the neighborhood and the whole town. We hid in a dugout shelter made of solid narra slabs several meters away from our house. Trees and banana plants hid it from view. At one time, I wanted to get fresh air, but my yaya, Basang prevented me to do so. Japanese soldiers were around the place. I heard them chase our geese and chicken. Then I heard my favorite goose, Purao, pleading - then it fell silent. Instinctively I rushed out of our hideout, but Basang pulled me back just on time.

Before this incident Japanese soldiers entered and ransacked our house. Two confronted Basang who was then wearing thick shawl and holding me tight in her arms. In trembling voice, she was saying repeatedly, “Malaria, malaria,” and begging the soldiers to take anything and leave us. One took all our eggs and started eating them raw, pitching the shell at us. One hit me straight on the face and I squirmed. Basang apologized. The soldier shouted. Then the other came back with a stuffed pillow case and signaled the other to leave, but before leaving he gave me a hard look.

It is a face I still see today, cold as steel, lips pursed into a threat, brows drawn down like curtain over flashy eyes. How I reacted on the wicked face, I don't remember. I must have just stared coldly. But deep in me grew a resolved never to be afraid of the Japanese or an aggressor for that matter.

My mother lifted my mosquito net – it was her ghost!

It happened in Manila in a rented apartment along Laong Laan street. There she was standing tall and smiling at me. She was all dressed in white. I immediately sat on my bed frozen with fear and shouted, “Go away, go away!” Manang Herning, my cousin, then a high school teacher who was sleeping in the adjacent room was startled and comforted me. My mother’s visit was almost real. The fact is, I never saw her in real life.

Mom died when I was around two years old. She died of hemorrhage after giving birth to a younger sister who also died a few weeks later. It was the peak of the Second World War and the Japanese had occupied the islands. Vigan, three kilometers from our hometown was a major garrison of the enemy. Many people were killed or captured. No one was safe. There was very little food. There was no doctor or nurse. There was fear everywhere, people fled to safety in the mountains at the Western edge of the Cordillera. Dad and our family decided to stay put, and made a dugout not far from the house, a sort of tunnel to the fields.

This was not the first time I noticed my mother come – at least in my mind. It was one night at home in San Vicente when I was preparing to go to Manila to pursue my studies. I was trying to snatch a few hours of sleep. I slept on the floor beside dad who was sleeping on his favorite bed. For years I used to sleep near him because he had a poor heart and he would snore very loud and then suddenly stop. I thought it was not safe for him to be alone.

I clearly heard footsteps of old fashioned shoes in the sala. Someone was casually walking around. I thought it was my sister, Veny. “Manang, is that you?” I peeped and saw her fast asleep, so with Dad. Suddenly I noticed through the mosquito net a tall figure in white making her way across the room, moving as light as the wind, followed by the sound of footsteps fading out as she disappeared through the backdoor. There was an ensuing silence. I knew it was time for me to go, and told myself that my mom just came to see me off and bid good luck. I related to dad and Manang what happened and they both agreed mom came to say goodbye.

I dedicated my studies in memory on my mother and since I graduated she never appeared again. But I always remember her in my prayers.

Part 2: Sunrise - A Boy's Story

Dr Abe V Rotor

Watching war planes in dogfight.


It was the last year of WWII, 1945. I was going four at that time and the images of planes fighting are still vivid today. Toward the east is the Cordillera range that looked blue in the distance. The view was clear from our house, and hideout. Even if the old San Vicente church partly got across our view, we saw now and then warplanes passing above. It was also the first and only time I saw a double body aircraft flying. There was at least one occasion warplanes fought somewhere above Vigan, and a plane simply bursts in flame and dark smoke. My dad prodded us to go back to our underground hideout.

When I was in high school I had a teacher in literature, Mrs. Socorro Villamor. She was the widow of war hero, Col. Jesus Villamor, one of the greatest Filipino pilots in WWII. After downing several Japanese planes, his own plane was hit and he died in the crash. Camp Villamor was named in his honor. My classmate and I wondered why Mrs. Villamor was often wearing black. At one time she recited for us Flow Gently Sweet Afton. She even sang it, and then came to a halt sobbing. We were all very quiet and let her recover. I could only imagine that up there fighting the Japanese is the great Colonel Villamor, whom my teacher was still mourning ten years after.

I believe that the pain she was then carrying made her the best literature teacher I have ever met. Today I still can recite a dozen selected passages from great American and English poets, and my favorite comes from Flow Gently Sweet Afton. Now and then in my lonely moments I hum its plaintive melody.

The Case of the Empty Chicken Eggs

Soon as I was big enough to climb the baqui (brooding nest) hanging under the house and trees. I found out that if I leave as decoy one or two eggs in the basket, the more eggs you gather in the afternoon. Then a new idea came. With a needle, I punctured the egg and sucked the content dry. It tasted good and I made some to substitute the natural eggs for decoy.

Dad, a balikbayan after finishing BS in Commercial Science at De Paul University in Chicago, called us on the table one evening. "First thing tomorrow morning we will find that hen that lays empty eggs.”

It was a family tradition that every Sunday we had tinola - chicken cooked with papaya and pepper (sili) leaves. Dad would point at a cull (the unproductive and least promising member of the flock) and I would set the trap, a baqui with a trap door and some corn for bait. My brother Eugene would slash the neck of the helpless fowl while my sister Veny and I would be holding it. The blood is mixed with glutinous rice (diket), which is cooked ahead of the vegetables.

That evening I could not sleep. What if dad’s choice is one of our pet chicken? We even call our chickens by name. The empty eggs were the cause of it all, so I thought.

In the morning after the mass I told dad my secret. He laughed and laughed. I didn't know why. I laughed, too. I was relieved with a tinge of victorious feeling. Thus the case of the empty eggs was laid to rest. It was my first “successful” experiment.

In the years to come I realized you just can’t fool anybody. And by the way, there are times we ask ourselves, “Who is fooling who?”

The caleza I was riding ran over a boy.
Basang, my auntie yaya and I were going home from Vigan on a caleza, a horse carriage. I was around five or six years old, the age children love to tag along wherever there is to go. It was midday and the cochero chose to take the shorter gravelly road to San Vicente by way of the second dike road that passes Bantay town. Since there was no traffic our cochero nonchalantly took the smoother left lane fronting a cluster of houses near Bantay. Suddenly our caleza tilted on one side as if it had gone over a boulder. To my astonishment I saw a boy around my age curled up under the wheel. The caleza came to a stop and the boy just remained still and quiet, dust covered his body. I thought he was dead. Residents started coming out. I heard shouts, some men angrily confronting the cochero. Bantay is noted for notoriety of certain residents. Instinct must have prodded Basang to take me in her arms and quickly walked away from the maddening crowd. No one ever noticed us I supposed.

Eugene and I nearly drowned in a river.

There was a friendly man who would come around and dad allowed him to play with us. People were talking he was a strange fellow. We simply did not mind. He was a young man perhaps in his twenties when Eugene and I were kids in the early grades in San Vicente. One day this guy (I forgot his name) took us to Busiing river, a kilometer walk or so from the poblacion. The water was inviting, what would kids like best to do? We swam and frolicked and fished, but then the water was steadily rising so we had to hold on the bamboo poles staked in the water to avoid being swept down by the current. I held on tightly, and I saw Eugene doing the same on a nearby bamboo pole. The guy just continued fishing with his bare hands, and apparently had forgotten us. Just then dad came running and saved us. We heard him castigate the fellow who, we found out that he mentally retarded that he didn’t even realized the extreme danger he put us in.

Paper wasps on the run! Or was it the other way around?

This happened to me, rather what I did, when I was five or six - perhaps younger, because I don’t know why I attack a colony of putakti or alimpipinig (Ilk). It was raw courage called bravado when you put on courage on something without weighing the consequences. It was hatred dominating reason, motivated by revenge.

I was sweeping the yard near a chico tree when I suddenly felt pain above my eye. No one had ever warned me of paper wasps, and I hadn’t been stung before. I retreated, instinctively got a bikal bamboo and attacked their papery nest, but every time I got close to it I got stung. I don’t know how many times I attacked the enemy, each time with more fury, and more stings, until dad saw me. I struggled under his strong arms sobbing. I was lucky, kids my size can’t take many stings. There are cases bee poison can cause the heart to stop.

Trapping frogs

It was fun to trap frogs when I was a kid. I would dig holes in the field, around one and one-half feet deep, at harvest time. Here the frogs seek shelter in these holes because frogs need water and a cool place. Insects that fall in to the hole also attract them. Early in the morning I would do my rounds, harvesting the trapped frogs. Frogs are a favorite dish among Ilocanos especially before the age of pesticides. The frog is skinned, its entrails removed, and cooked with tomato, onion and achuete (Bixa orellana) to make the menu deliciously bright yellow orange.