Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Part 1: Sunrise - Memories of Childhood

Sunrise - Memories of Childhood
Abe V Rotor

Harvestime, AVR

"A thing of beauty is a boy forever, " acrylic AVR 2010

Farm Life mural by AVR circa 1994

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.

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 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.

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?”

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. ~

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