Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Manong Jim

A Tribute to
By my dad PEC

Manong Jim “kicked the bucket” at the ripe old age of 82. I mourn his passing but rejoice in the happy memories I hold of him.

I’ve known Manong Jim practically all my life. At 68 my memory now sometimes fails me, like when I cannot recall the name of a friend I wanted to introduce to another in a chance meeting. Embarrassing! But it is also reassuring and comforting that I can recall very clearly some memories of childhood, bits and glimpses of my life happily stored in my mind.

My first conscious knowledge of Manong Jim was of being carried on his back as a little boy. My family and our cousins, the Perezes, evacuated during the night from our home in Tuding (Itogon) at the outbreak of World War II. The Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and later took over Camp John Hay in Baguio. Our families found sanctuary in a secluded and abandoned mine adit of Baguio Gold, near a brook nestled in the mountains in a place called Rino. Manong Jim, then a teenager at 15, was the oldest in the brood. With my eldest brother Manong Boy (Emilio Frank), who was then 12, Manong Jim looked after the younger children until we got back to our homes.

I remember eating boiled kamote for most of my meals as a child. Later I was happily surprised to see and taste crackers, chocolates, corned beef, sardines and raisins that were air-dropped in parachutes by the American Forces as the tide of war changed. The Japanese surrendered, and I can picture clearly the long line of defeated and wounded Japanese soldiers, struggling as they marched in retreat away from Itogon.

Manong Jim would later tell me of a friendly Japanese soldier, a good Samaritan who shared some food supplies with him even before the Americans came to liberate us. The war ended in 1946, and I have no recollection of Manong Jim or his activities for several years until after I finished elementary school.

He worked as an expatriate in Guam for several years. At the time my family and the Perezes shared homes in Hogan’s Alley (now the Court of Appeals Summer Homes), and later in New Lukban, near Trancoville. When Manong Jim returned, the Perezes had reestablished residence in Tuding. Meanwhile, my father acquired a small house for our family in Pacdal sometime in 1949.

Tuding had its allure for me and my childhood playmates, Tony (“Oning”) and Joe (“Uti”), what with the rolling hills and steep slopes and valleys which opened up to fantastic views of the Cordillera where several gold mines were operating. Atok, Antamok and Sangilo were in the south, Balatoc and Acupan in the southwest, and Baguio Gold in the northeast. Pine trees were everywhere. There was an explosion of sunflowers, bougainvilleas and other flowering plants and fruit trees. Butterflies, birds and other insects could easily be found flying everywhere. Tuding was a vast playground and a secret garden to get lost in. My friends and I felt like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as we hunted for birds’ nests, spiders and frogs.

I remember the grove of coffee trees in the back yard which bore a lot of fruit in the summer. The kids would all help in the harvest and enjoyed getting a “high” from tasting ripe red coffee beans and spitting the seeds into pails to gather them. The coffee beans were later dried in the sun, and when they were roasted you could smell the rich, intoxicating aroma of coffee ready to be ground and brewed.

From his sojourn in Guam, Manong Jim brought home to Tuding a slide projector and hundreds of color slides, then a state-of-the-art marvel for me and all the kids in the village. We would watch for hours, over and over, beautiful pictures of Hawaii – its scenic spots, the images of lush, green vegetation, pineapple plantations, Hawaiian hula dancers with their colorful leis and flowers. The ones of erupting volcanoes were particularly awesome. Another set of color slides depicted the Royal Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, the first time I saw pictures of London, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Manong Jim’s accompanying narration made the glory of England’s pageantry and historical tradition come alive for me as the slideshow played.

My love of books was inspired by my older sisters, but it was Manong Jim and the Perez brood who created a circulating exchange library of children’s books. We began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys mysteries, and soon graduated to books by Erle Stanley Gardner, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo and countless other books as we grew older.

One summer during a high school break I stayed in Tuding with Manong Jim and the Perez boys, who had built a garage-cum-apartment unit on one side of the compound. On the upper slope beyond the grove of pine trees, we busied ourselves digging and transporting lime the whole summer. We learned how to produce hollow blocks by the hundreds. I remember the lavender color and pink stains of red ferric oxide on the lime we mined and screened, which gave a distinctive color to the Tuding-made hollow blocks, later used to build the fence around the house in Pacdal. Working during the day was tiresome but lots of fun. At night we would have a bonfire and barbecue some pork for supper. This would be followed by a continuing nightly Scrabble tournament with Manong Jim, Tony, Joe and Oscar (our Perez cousin from Anitao, Nueva Vizcaya). We tallied our Scrabble scores all summer and really enjoyed the camaraderie of boys living together like in a high school dormitory. It was a good preparation for college life in Manila.

Manong Jim acquired his own jeep for private hire. This was his mode of earning a reasonable income which also afforded him ample time for reading books or doing crossword puzzles in between shuttle trips for varied customers. If I recall correctly, Manang Nena was his Number One customer. I guess they got used to seeing each other every day. Manang Nena, being a widow, and Manong Jim, a happily independent bachelor, decided to live together. This would go on for 44 years!

In my high school days, I was drawn to Manong Jim, enjoying rides in his jeep for quick runs to Camp John Hay to borrow books from the Library where Manang Estella was the Librarian. Oh, what a wonderful and serendipitous life!

One lazy summer Manong Jim and I traveled a long distance in his jeep, to Masinloc, Zambales, to visit Auntie Andra whose husband was then the Oil Depot Manager of ESSO. They lived in a beautiful staff cottage by the seashore where the oil storage complex was situated. There was a wharf and a pier where it was my first time to try hook and line fishing by the sea (a far cry from my catching jojo eel with my bare hands in the brook by our house in Pacdal), and later gather clams and seashells at the shore. I remember a lot of coconuts and papaya trees in their back yard. We had plenty of seafood and fresh fruits every day, and enjoyed siestas in a hammock with the sea breeze lulling me to sleep. It was an idyllic week which I can never forget.

I was barely 18 when Papa died after lying in a coma at the Baguio General Hospital. I had to take a break from school at UP Diliman, to come home and console with the family and personally look into funeral arrangements. Choosing a funeral parlor and a coffin was strange and disconcerting, not to mention the grief of losing one’s father. Had it not been for Manong Jim who was at my side to support me in my role as “padre de familia” of the hour, I would have been lost and scared. Instead it became a learning experience in meeting life’s realities.

After college I joined a company where my job afforded me the opportunity to travel to the mines. At times I would drop by Tuding to say hello to Manong Jim and the Perezes on my way to Sangilo/Itogon and Antamok/Benguet, which became my big clients for decades. On my free time while in Baguio I would bring a cake or some raisin bread and have coffee with Manong Jim and Manang Nena in their trellised garden teeming with plants and flowers and canopied by taller trees. I would usually leave Manong Jim with some recent novels I had read, for I knew he was always eager for books.

At our Millennium Clan Reunion, Manong Jim was a fountain of relatives’ names and a reliable source of information. This feat of knowledge and memory enabled us to construct the first edition of a Family Tree from 1860 to 2000 – 140 years of family history representing seven generations. Almost 100 relatives attended our Grand Reunion in Baguio, Tuding and Bato/Naguilian. We also learned then that the Family is now a global mix of Filipino, American (also Navajo), Chinese, Mexican, Australian, Swiss, and German citizens.

Manong Jim found it futile to live forever. Two days before he stole a march on everyone, I had brought some magazines and raisin bread to Tuding hoping to share some coffee and storytelling as usual with Manong Jim in his garden, only to find out he was confined in the Notre Dame Hospital. I promptly visited. He happily greeted me, laughing with his toothless grin, after I challenged him to escape with me for some beer in town! Manang Nena later told me he settled instead for some slices of the raisin bread he loved so well.

I will remember Manong Jim as the gentlest person I have ever known – kind, honest and generous to a fault, happy and assured in his simple ways. Well-read, he enjoyed life to the fullest.

A philosopher aptly said: “Example has more followers than reason.”

November 2008

Published online with permission from the author, for family and friends.
Photos by Personal Geographic & Incredible Joie