Points of departure

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 26, 2018 - 12:00am

I was born in Basa Air Base, Pampanga. My mother taught in school, my father was a soldier. The military base sits in Floridablanca, a scoop of land between the Lubao plains and the Zambales mountain range.

Like most children, I played a lot when I was young, especially when it was summer. Summer meant I did not have to stay awake until I had memorized “The Little Gentleman” to be delivered the morning after class. Summer meant I did not have to know again by heart the multiplication table, since our Arithmetic teacher demanded quick answers to every white card that she flashed. Summer meant I did not have to plant monggo (mung bean) seeds in a can for the Science class, measuring the plants’ growth every day with a long, wooden ruler.

Summer meant games that ran from day to night. We splashed around in the early morning sun, our young feet damp with the dew on the grass. We dug holes in the backyard as fox holes for our games with marbles. I saved coins in a small tin can of evaporated milk so I could buy those marbles – and the cards. We called the card “teks(“isa, dalawa, tatlo, tsa!”), rectangular carton paper on which were printed the comics stories of my day: “Captain America,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Longest Day.”

But even as a child, I was already clumsy. I could not spin a top for all world to see. I only stood in the yard, burning with envy at my friends who spun the wooden tops so easily, even on the palms of their hands.

We were forced to take our siesta every afternoon. I rebelled at the thought of being forced to take a nap while my friends were out there in the fields, hunting brown swallows with their slingshots, or flying their home-made kites. The wind carried their voices into my room, where I pretended I was sleep, and until now I still recall the pang awakened by those voices. But my yaya (nursemaid), actually a second cousin, was single-minded about the afternoon nap, so I just lay there, flat on the wooden bed, while she listened to her transistor humming with the endless stories in Ang Inyong Lingkod, Tiya Dely.

But after the nap and the glass of warm milk, I would leap out of the house and join my friends. Sometimes we played softball. If we were still hungry, we climbed the fruit trees surrounding our yard, or our neighbors’ yards. There was nothing sweeter than the fruits of memory: guavas, star apple, duhat. Up there, under a sky of luminous of blue, you’d understand the American playwright Lillian Hellman when she said that she climbed trees to flee the adults she could not understand.

But as soon as the sun began to dip behind the mountains, I had to be home. My father always told us to be in the house when the chickens had begun to roost in the star-apple trees. The housemaid said that the spirits would be roaming by then. So we stayed at home and ate our dinner, together. Before and after supper was time for watching television. Our heroes were Shazam, the wizard with a ponytail sticking from the top of his bald head, and Gigantor, the flying robot. We also rooted for Mighty Tor, the caveman with the magical wooden club, and joined Gulliver in his fantastic travels. During weekends, there was Casper, the Friendly Ghost and Popeye, the eternal sailor of childhood.

But then, summer nights were warm and lovely, and we had to play. We were allowed to do so, especially if my parents were in good spirits (Mama’s plants had begun to flower; Papa had won in the cockpit.). But we only played within the block, in that section of the base called the White House, called thus because, well, the houses were painted white. If there was no moon, what else would we play except hide and seek? The yard – with its orchard and its pigpen, its chicken coops and its two huge acacias – was our enchanting kingdom. And there we hid, high up in the trees, beside the pigpen, near the sleeping ducks and chickens, behind the acacias. And there we ran, in the yard alive with the smell of my mother’s roses, our hearts pounding.

But if the moon gleamed in the sky like a new silver coin, we played patintero, of course. We would run to the faucets, filling our cans with water, then return to the yard. Lit by the moon, we poured water on the ground, drawing parallel lines that soon darkened as the water seeped into the earth. And then we played, running like deer in the forest, our young voices shrill in the wind, while in the sky, the stars of summer shuddered.

I also loved to read. My uncle gave us a gift I will forever be grateful for – ten books in the Classics Illustrated Edition published by Holt, Rhinehart & Watson. If I was sick, I would just stay at home and live in the world of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, marveling at the long, golden hair of Queen Guenevere and the magic of Merlin. I cheered silently for Robin Hood in the green depths of the Sherwood Forest. And then I sat, open-jawed, as the mother of all storytellers, Scheherazade, spun her Arabian tales of a thousand and one nights.

Sometimes I would be assigned to pull out my father’s white hairs, a growing army of white beginning to invade his otherwise black mass of hair. My father and I sat under the dapple of leaves. I pulled out his hairs with a tiani (tweezer), five centavos for five white hairs. Business was brisk, and five centavos in the early 1970s was enough to buy two caramel tarts, or one Chocnut, or one big rectangle of chicharon (pig crackling). Fifteen white hairs meant a cold bottle of Coke.

Sometimes, my father also brought me to the so-called movie house. Every other Saturday, a foreign movie was projected onto a big white cloth strung between two wooden posts in the middle of the park between the elementary school and the commissary. Most of the movie were old war movies (cousins of “Combat,” which we watched unfailingly), or inane comedies, or sappy love stories. I had forgotten those movies shown in those nights, al fresco. But I still remember the moviegoers, sitting on newspapers or low stools that they had brought with them. I would look at their faces glowing in the dark, locked in terror or love, and marvel at the power of the images flashing on the screen. Those days passed in a blaze of happiness, and sometimes I wonder why the present is always less happy than those days of yore.

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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