Sunday, June 14, 2015

The White Cross - A Short Story:

Dr Abe V. Rotor


Mysterious white cross beside an old bangar tree, San Mariano, Isabela
He graduated from the famous Philippine Military Academy on top of his class. On the day of graduation his father, a general from the Philippine Air Force, and mother, a dean of the University of the Philippines, proudly pinned the Medal of Excellence on their only son and child. Nobody could be happier. God smiled at them. The world loved them. And they loved the world. What more did they wish?

There was none, although his mother said in prayerful whisper, looking up to heaven, “How I wish we are like this forever – happy and united.”

Secretly his father wished his son to become famous. He knew that a military career awaits many opportunities of greatness to one who adheres to his pledge to defend his country and countrymen. His thoughts gleamed with his medals he received for participating in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He treasured most a medal given by the President of the Philippines for serving as a military adviser during Martial Law.

Those were troubled times, he thought, and put away his fears that his son would be placed in a similar test.

The young Lieutenant was looked up with pride and praise. How many young men in the world are endowed with caring parents, good school, intelligence, good looks and excellent health? Heads turned as he walked. Young women saw him a knight in shining armor. Children looked up to him a model, a hero of sort. Would they grow up just like him? Dreams! Air castles!

But he was real. He dressed up simply. He was friendly. There was no air of arrogance in his actions and words. He liked people. And people liked him. Many times he would go to the village of his birth in Pangasinan – Bigbiga, near Anda. He talked to farmers and fisher folks for hours. At harvest time his presence alone was enough to draw people from their homes and other work just to help harvest the golden grains. How the field beamed with laughter and music and joyous company! It's reminiscent of Fernando Amorsolo's masterpiece, "Harvestime."

Surely there were many stories to tell, many pleasant memories to recall. Housewives on errand bringing baon to the workers would make up all sorts of excuses for returning late. Passersby who were not from the place, when they heard the name Lieutenant Carding Lopez, took off their hats in greeting - and always, they got their reward of recognition. Children playing nearby would caution each other not to be rowdy, and they would display their best to impress their special guest.

And months passed. The monsoon came and the young lieutenant joined the planters in the field as he did at harvest time. Came fishing season, and he would join the fisher folks pull in the daklis (seine) net to shore. And when they gave him his share of the catch, he would politely decline or give it to the old people in the village.

One time he stopped to greet a crew draining a nearby swamp, the lowest part of the village. While relating how the Panama Canal was built, people the next day came by groups armed with shovels, crowbars and all. The swamp was drained in a short time. Incidence of malaria and dengue drastically fell. Farmers planted melons and watermelons on the reclaimed mudflat and made a lot of money.

But it was the marketplace he was fond of visiting on Sundays. The barangay chairman saw to it that everything and around appeared clean and orderly. More vendors came to sell their wares and products. And more people came to buy them.

Once strolling on a dirt road, he paused to put some stones to fill up a rut. The next day a gravel truck came. With it were workers. What took an hour to reach the market, could now be reached in half an hour.

General Lopez and Dean Lopez who were living in a push subdivision in Manila began to wonder at the kind of life their son was leading in the province. Surely it is very strange to know of one who is full of dreams and raring to seek a bright future. Not for a young and ambitious man, and a Pemeyer. No, not their son and only child, Carlito.

“No, no, let’s talk to him,” the mother rose from her lounging chair. “Hush, hush, let him be,” replied her husband soothingly.

One day the young Lieutenant received a call to report for duty. In the next few days he was flying over Sierra Madre on a mission. But alas! His plane disappeared in the sky and crashed on a misty slope covered by forest, far, far away from civilization. No one witnessed the accident, but guesses are not rare for such news. The plane plunged into the sea where three islands make a triangle, ventured one mystic who knew about the Bermuda Triangle that mysteriously “swallow up” airplanes and ships.

Maybe it crashed on one of the Philippines’ tallest mountains - Mt. Apo or Mt. Pulag. That’s how high jets fly, said an elderly native who knew too well about the flight of the Philippine eagle. Oh, exclaimed an activist, who said the young Lopez was an idealist, who must have sought refuge maybe in Indonesia, or New Guinea - or somewhere else.

Guess turned into hoax, rumors died down, only the enigma on how a promising young man suddenly disappeared without trace persisted. General Lopez shook his head in disbelief. Even in times of peace, he realized, danger hangs like a Damocles Sword. You can’t rely on technology, he muttered. Those planes – yes, those planes he remembered, they were very old. He knew it; they were donated by the US soon after the Vietnam ended. Mrs. Lopez had retired from the university, but how could you enjoy retirement if you were in her place?

It had been five years since the young pilot mysteriously disappeared. The village people of his birth put up a cross in his memory at the center of the village cemetery. At all times they kept it white, and not a single weed grew around it.

Tourists today come to Bigbiga, now a progressive community. It boosts of a model cooperative. It is a persistent winner of cleanliness in the whole province. A church has been built, around it is a park and playground. Not far is the cemetery. Classes are no longer conducted under the big mango tree. Floods that accompany the monsoon are a thing of the past. The market is a village mall of sort, attracting people from nearby towns. An institute of science and technology was recently inaugurated. Young men and women are returning and changing the concept of balikbayan, at least in Bigbiga. They call it brain gain, whereas before we called it brain drain. The fields are green and at harvest time under the moonlight, some people would swear, they would see a young handsome man inaudibly talking and laughing – men and women and children huddled around him.

The general and his wife did not live long in their grief. A new leadership had taken over the reins of command in the military. A new president has been installed in MalacaƱang. He is young and handsome, and there’s something they like in him - the way he talked, his actions, his friendliness and warmth. They trust him. Those who knew the late Lieutenant Lopez liken him to the new president.

One day there was a flash report that a community was discovered somewhere between Nueva Ecija and Aurora. It is ensconced in a valley shrouded by forests and clouds, accessible only on the Pacific coast. That is why it remained obscure for a long time. "There must be some mistake," a Manila-based government official commented. So a survey team was formed.

It is like searching a lost city in the Andes, or in the Himalayas. But it is true. There in the very eyes of the team unfurled a local Shangrila - the former Dakdakel, a remote barangay of San Mariano, Isabela, now transformed into a model community.

The people in that community are peace loving, self reliant, and respectable. They are farmers, craftsmen, many are professionals. They have children studying in Manila, and relatives working abroad. There is a cooperative and a progressive market. A chapel stands near a cemetery. In the middle of the cemetery rises an immaculate white cross, and no weed grows around it.

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