Book 4: Sweet and Sour

FOREWORD: One day when we were young by Teodoro Benigno

WHY is it that we always retreat to early youth when the present disturbs or repels like the ugly tummy of a turtle?  And youth here is one`s mid-teens when the man starts to come out of the boy.  The voice is heavier, the little hairs emerge above the upper lip, the desire for the other sex is keener, and the muscles begin to harden and bulge.  Everything, it seems, is dawn at that age.

            For our generation, youth was the Japanese occupation. Youth was Manila, more particularly Pasay, when life beckoned like a huge adventure and everything was to be conquered.  Not even the presence of a barbarous Japanese invading army could blight the wonders of adolescence.  The smell of Palmolive on a girl could be intoxicating, as was the scent of Colgate on her teeth.  To dance with her was to hold a bundle of heaven up close, speech coming hard because the senses danced on the edge of a thousand razors.

            Those were the days when barkada was really barkada.

            There were no drugs, no liquor, no guns, no switchblades.  Adolescent virility was honest virility of young blades drawn together by the sacraments of a neighborhood in fear of the Japanese.  That fear held us together, and every advancing day was a day that added manhood to our existence.  In actuality, however, it was rare that the dreaded kempeitai would barge into our streets to arrest a suspected guerilla member or spy.  We were left mostly to ourselves, counting the days, the weeks and the months when the Americans would come back.  What transpired was a neighborhood intimacy that never existed before or since.  Among us boys, there was a drawing of mental swords as we figured the day would come when we would have to fight the invader and protect our loved ones.

            We were a motley lot, our barkada.  Among them were Victor Lim, Felix (Fedy) Maramba Jr., Ramon (Moning) Osmena and brother Butch, Francisco (Ecot) Villa, Dondoy and Louie del Rosario, Larry Henares, Boy Daza, Louie Gomez, Nandy Sison, Baby Lopa, Tony and Monong Castillejo.  It was rare that we fought among ourselves, but we certainly picked up fights with barkadas of other neighborhoods.  Our basketball duels often ended in free-for-alls, where fists flew with deightful skill and abandon, for those were days when we could really fight with bare knuckles.  We hated most the mestizo gangs, the coño camarilla.  Spanish was spoken a lot during those days and we could speak a mean street Spanish.  We loved the mestiza girls, for their skin was fair, their curves taken from a banjo, their tongues at times wicked with innocent flirtation.

            The time came when we all had to work.  For the household budget then was quite limited, and we had to contribute our share, however small.  Work included bicycle repair in the Friendly Bicycle Shop, running errands and that sort of thing.  But work for the barkada was mostly full-time employment at the Industrial Products of the Philippines (IPOPI), owned and operated by the Maramba and Henares families.  Work was tough, gruelling, punishing latero work, so physically demanding that our hands often broke into blisters.  We would cut up and flatten empty oil drums with mace, hammer and blowtorch.  We would then remould them into cylinders that were IPOPI`s pride – the charcoal-fed thingamajigs that made vehicles run during the Japanese occupation.  Know how much we earned daily?  Fifty centavos.

The difference was that Larry Henares and Fedy Maramba did no physical labor at all.  After all, their families owned the joint.  Fedy was tolerable as an inspector-checker when we filed out of the factory for inspection after the days work.  But Larry`s eyes would give us the kind of once-over that slave dealers along Caribbean in the 18th century applied to human livestock who bent over so the slave traffickers could have a better look-see of their behinds.  We called that the Larry Leer and he has patented it ever since.  I kidded Larry about this recently at dinner with Moning Osmena and our host Mering Ramos and he roared with delight. “How can you write today with such self-righteousness?” I said. “You, hornswoggled the by-golly out of us with that fifty centavos, Larry, you were the original capitalist exploiter!”  Larry roared even more, slapping his thighs.  His eyes were near tears and the bulge of his belly did a berserk jig.

            By then, the night had become mellow so I recounted another experience while working for the Marambas and the Henareses during those days.

            Well, we had enough of IPOPI. we were offered another job, delivering milk on a bicycle for an afternoon`s chore, also for a pay of fifty centavos.  Were we game?  Hell, we needed the money.  So the barkada was at work again.  Gosh, the afternoon heat was terrible.  It slammed into your face like a furnace.  And so we had to wear those broad-brimmed balanggot hats that made us look like country bumpkins blundering into the streets of Manila.  No matter, the work was honest even if the pay was Henares pay.  That load of milk at the back of the bicycle was so heavy it tugged and pulled at the biceps as we delivered milk chug-a-lug from one house to another.

            One afternoon, I had a new delivery.  Was it Sandejas or Villaruel street in Pasay?  I forget.  At any rate, I spotted the house, a two story Spanish type house and there was a party going on.  Dance music blared as couples danced.  I spotted some people I knew.  One or two were my schoolmates at UP High School.  I don’t know whether they recognized me or not.  If they did, they pretended not to, as the music poured out in a pell-mell boogie beat.  The music stopped.  Normally, I would just knock at the door, or ring the doorbell and somebody would come for the milk.  This time I didn’t know where to go.  There was not one single family face around, or a friendly servant who would come to my succor.

            Suddenly, a mestiza girl, who looked like she was seven or eight years old, appeared on the doorway.  She saw me and sized up the situation immediately.  “Mommie,” she bawled, “Esta aqui el lechero!”  The mother came, a corpulent mestiza who if she were male would look like Tony Two-Ton Galento.  No, I couldn’t bring the bottle of milk up the front door.  She shook her head to indicate that was verboten, that I would defile her august premises if I as much took a step forward in my balanggot hat, my sweating shirt, my bedraggled pants, my forlorn rubber shoes, my bronzed face, my pedestrian gait.  “Alla, alla en la cocina!” she shouted.  She motioned for me to take a half-turn, and proceed to the kitchen where there the housemaid would take proper custody of the delivery of one quart of milk.

            As I was relating this, Larry Henares was fit to be tied.  He was rolling in his seat, his tongue lolling out in glee, his now bulky body shaking in great shivers of laughter.  “Fifty cents,” I said, “fifty cents, I went through all that for your lousy fifty centavos.”  But by this time, we were all laughing, Moning and Mering Ramos, for it was really a story that brought out the drolley of those years and its sometime ribald laughter, but most of all, the resiliency, the incomparable adventure of youth.  I was to recapture that youth years, years later when, nearing the age of 40, I took up my studies anew for a four-year sojourn in Paris.  But that is another story.

            In our youth, there were many gods worth worshipping, causes worth fighting for, but mostly there was the hot blood of adolescence and a flame that burned brightly in our fists and stomachs.

            We still meet in rare get-togethers, the members of that Pasay city barkada, and the memories run deep in these gatherings.  It is fun going back to those days for we ruminate a lot, laugh and kid each other a lot, and each mighty peal of laughter is a year falling off our shoulders.  Today, many of us feel like phantoms in a world that seems to have gone slightly mad.  Manila was kind to us then, and we were kind to it in turn.  The rains never turned our streets into horrid stretches of ankle or hip-deep water as they do now.  Manila has not only grown suddenly old.  It is now decrepit and rundown, wheezing and coughing like a consumptive, gnarled like an old woman of the desert is gnarled.

            So we who have lived long in Manila when it was still a comedy city are now appalled when it coughs and out come streaks of blood.

            Nothing is ever comparable to youth.  Its fingers are even on the move, feeling, touching, going over surfaces, and the touch of a beautiful girl is exquisite to the core.  Its eyes swim literally, gulping in everything that is new, that is exciting, that smells of adventure, and the sight of a girl’s ample bosom catches at one’s throat.  The world is one vast playground that beckons, and there are hardly any tomorrows.  For everything must be tried, everything must be consummated, everything must be known today.

            Doors then opened and closed with a rapidity that suggested the shuffling of a pack of cards, each card to be pulled out, then flung at the stars.  Today, the doors open slowly and close slowly with a wisdom that stays the wandering mind and the still throbbing heart.  Ah youth, oh Katerina, fluid, voluptuous and wild, get thine flying scarf that we may together traverse the raging rivers together again!

            Memory lifts, for there is that rapping at the door.  No, it is not the raven.  It’s the houseboy with the day’s delivery of newspapers and the headlines have to do with the 18th bombing spree in Metro Manila.

September 5, 1990

Columnist, Philippine Star
Former Press Secretary to President Corazon Aquino