"Today, the surviving vets and their kin are still pushing for equitable treatment by a government that conscripted them and occupied their country for most of the first half of the 20th century." -- "Bill would give full benefits to Filipino veterans"
I wrote the essay below in October 1998 to pay tribute to my lolo, who died unrecompensed for his and his generation's great sacrifice. We are the children of their heroism. Let us not forget.
GOODBYE, OLD MAN
MY ONE surviving lolo passed away a few weeks ago. He was 85 years old.
Right up to the end, he was lucid and calm. He recognized faces and was occasionally cranky, quick to snap at things that vexed him—wayward newspapers perhaps, or a tepid soup. Except for a distressing case of dermatitis that had left his skin chapped and hard, he didn’t suffer from any major illness. He died of old age, as they say--his systems just finally crashing from the wear and tear of the years.
Lolo was born in 1913. That was merely 15 years after Emilio Aguinaldo had first unfurled the Philippine flag and 17 years after Jose Rizal had consecrated the grounds of Bagumbayan with his blood. Lolo would eventually look back to this time with bittersweet sentiments. His youth was a time of heroes and martyrs, when giants walked the land and history was in the very air he breathed.
He was a gangly man of 22 when that fiery ilustrado, Manuel Luis Quezon, took his oath of office as President of the Commonwealth Government. He was 28 when the first bombs began dropping on Pearl Harbor, and by the time the first Japanese forces landed in Lingayen Gulf he had become a full-fledged guerrilla.
The rest of his life would be lived out in the shadows of that great conflict. The American government hemmed and hawed in granting him and his compatriots the benefits due them as enlisted soldiers in the then United States Armed Forces in the Far East. By the time such a bill was passed, battalions of Filipino veterans had succumbed to old age and neglect, and the hardy few who were alive made a pathetic sight--shrivelled, stuttering, mostly impoverished.
Lolo never bothered to apply for US citizenship, although he could have. While conditions here weren’t much better, the prospect of migrating to a strange country in his old age didn’t appeal to him. He chose instead to live his sunset years the only way he knew how--actively.
ItT was Lolo who brought me all over Manila and showed me the many sights, dank and dazzling alike, of this formidable city. An inveterate perambulator, he loved walking his old jounts in Quiapo and Malate. He could never get lost in these warrens; every corner or side street was as familiar to him as the lines on the palm of his hands.
To him, walking was therapy, prayer and exploration rolled into one. In the village where he lived with my aunt, he tramped all over the nearby cogon fields to collect empty cigarette wrappers, bottle crowns, whatnot. These he assiduously kept for the next big promo that would come along.
Eccentric? You bet he was. As he grew frailer in strength, Lolo refused to be dragged quietly into the night. He found ways to occupy his time. He read the papers everyday to keep himself up to date. He waxed rhapsodic over his enduring passions—basketball, boxing, opera and the classics.
He loved shoes, and he bought them. When he died, his two daughters, one of them my mother, found boxes and boxes of shoes stashed under his bed, all shiny and ready for perhaps one more spin on the ballroom floor.
He was, to use a cliché, a gentleman of the old school. He could not stand vulgarity, and easily got exercised over the rudeness and incivility he saw in public discourse. Chivalry was important to him. I remember how he once fumed at then Vice President Doy Laurel for waging a public war of words with President Cory Aquino. To my lolo, Laurel was no gentleman—only sorry proof that chivalry and gallantry, those two knightly chestnuts, were dead.
Had he been alive during the preparations for his interment, he would have clucked imperiously at the callousness and inutility of government bureaucrats. When my aunt went to the Philippine Veterans’ Affairs Office to present my lolo’s death certificate and ask for a Philippine flag to drape over his coffin, the clerk curtly told her, “Out of stock ang Philippine flag namin e.”
We had to make do with a flag borrowed from my aunt’s office. Ah, the imbeciles.
Lolo was at peace when he died--rested, tranquil, finally free. No doubt he glided to heaven on the wings of Bach’s "Air in G." That’s how I’d like to imagine it, anyway. He lived a long and happy life, and he deserved no less.
[photo: "An Untold Story" website]