Learning from the past

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE - Jim Paredes () - December 21, 2008 - 12:00am

Recently, I had the pleasure of dining with an uncle who is in his late ’70s. I’ve always enjoyed his company and his conversation for the wisdom, humor and the wealth of experience he enjoys sharing with others. On many different occasions, we have talked about various topics from economics to politics, travel, sex, the Mindanao situation, and life in general. But this time, we talked about his experiences as a high school student living in Ermita during the war.

I have always been a fan of war stories. I am in awe of the heroism of soldiers who survived the Death March, and those who fought as guerrillas against the Japanese. I look at them as patriots who had courage and daring that made them larger than life. Life dealt them a set of tough cards and they responded with greatness.

My uncle’s family lived in Ermita during the war years. Their lives were ruled by uncertainty. There was hardly any food. Their family of five survived pretty much on a cup of rice a day. There was no running water and so they had to look for deep wells to supply their needs. Needless to say, they must have had no fresh clothes, no clean toilets, no daily baths, and definitely no luxuries.

“It was the law of the jungle,” my uncle said as he described how tough and streetwise one had to be to survive. He talked about seeing people die by sniper fire as they fetched water from the wells. He saw Japanese soldiers slap or bayonet people for small infractions. There was no public transport so he learned to walk long distances every day. Once, he and his brother found themselves in a stampede caused by the sudden presence of Japanese soldiers. In an instant, people trying to get out of the room had caused a deadly body pile-up almost a meter high. He panicked because he could not find his younger brother. Looking at the mess, he saw a child’s hand reaching out of the pile of dead bodies. He pulled the hand and out came a little girl, still alive, whom he carried and put inside a grotto nearby in the hope that Mama Mary would protect her. He then proceeded to look for his brother who was also under the pile of bodies but miraculously survived.

Every day, his father put a little rice in small sacks that family members wore like a scapulars to make sure they had something to eat in case they could not get home. Everyday life consisted of looking for opportunities to make some money, find supplies to barter — from pieces of building material to light bulbs, or anything that was tradable. They did whatever it took to survive.

War can change a person. My uncle, who is one of the gentlest people I know, said that he was a tough goon type who would beat up people when necessary, to get access to water, or whatever he needed to get for the family. He was also a high school kid who assisted Jesuit priests giving extreme unction to the dying. He helped sit up the dying so they could whisper their confessions.

Having to be cruel and tough in certain situations in order to survive, and compassionate at other times must have caused psychological conflict and suffering to many during those difficult times.

While he was narrating his stories, I felt a loneliness engulf him as he allowed the images of war, loss and suffering to rush back to his consciousness. It was an angry time, he said. He felt robbed of his childhood and felt resentment against his father for choosing him among his brothers to do the more dangerous missions, even if he knew that it was probably because he was the most able-bodied of them. At the end of the war, his whole neighborhood was, as was practically all of Manila, flattened by the carpet bombing by the liberating American forces. 

As he told it, my own mother arriving from the province after the bombings, upon reaching Baclaran, broke into tears because no building stood between where she stood and the Manila City Hall.

He recalled that at the end of some major roads in the city, the Americans dug deep holes and bulldozed and pushed all the wreckage into them, including corpses. They were all thrown into the large pits and buried. For weeks, the stench of decaying bodies was in the air, making everyone sick as it permeated everything, including their clothes.

I asked my uncle what it was like to see so much cruelty and live another day and time as a normal functional human being. What makes it possible to suffer through all that and still move on? He said that to this day, he still has dreams about the war. Something as life-changing as that you never completely forget.

I could not begin to imagine how my generation and I would fare in such a situation. My generation, whose heyday consisted of the hedonism of the Woodstock-inspired ‘70s, the relative inconvenience that was martial law (compared to World War II), would not have survived such horror. More so the present generation which has never known deprivation.

I imagine that people who lived through the war — whom historians have dubbed as “The Greatest Generation” — must have never imagined where they got their strength and spirit to go through that crucible that shaped them. They just did what needed to be done.

There is so much suffering around the world — in Zimbabwe, North Korea, Darfur, Palestine and some parts of the Philippines. Suffering and death are happening non-stop, and people do the best they can in every situation.

Many who survive and are able to rebuild their lives and communities are people with the grit and grace, not to mention luck, to imagine something better and to do something about it.

My uncle not only survived but much to his credit, he thrived and prospered more than he imagined he would, in large measure due to the horrible experiences he had to go through in his formative years. The bad can be turned into good. The wreckage can provide material to build the foundation for something better.

I was shocked and scandalized at the realization that I, being born after the war, did not have an intellectual grasp, much less a feeling, of what the generation before me has gone through.

Every time a generation survives a great calamity, it vows never to forget so that lessons painfully learned are retained and passed on. And yet, most likely, they will, at some point, be forgotten, and the lessons will not be passed on, and so history will repeat itself over and over. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history,” wrote the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

These days, when I read the news, I am rudely reminded of the machinations that Marcos used to extend power not too long ago. The deception, the double-speak, the lies and the justifications for Cha-cha are once again let loose by our rulers to confuse us, with the aim of extending PGMA’s rule.

It is said that we Filipinos have short memories. With much of our history as sad as it is, why would we even want to remember it? And yet, we must. Especially at this time. It is again time to recall the stories of our recent past so that we may be spared from having to go through another long dark night.

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