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OTHER WORKS BY THE AUTHOR
Dance Weirdly, My Love
Our Buhi Language
Aswang
 
THE WAR YEARS
by Benjamin A. Claveria
 
The following stories were first published in the 37th Anniversary Magazine, April 1994 of the KJS of Buhi.

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor marking the beginning of the Pacific War changed the course of my life, as it did those of countless others. All schools were closed and, suddenly, I was a 23-year old public elementary school principal out of work.

Paradoxial though this may sound, the war years were the happiest in my life. A combination of circumstances made them so. Not that I was calloused or indifferent to the sufferings that war always brings. Not that I was disloyal or unpatriotic. The war years just happened to be that way to me.

Time for Relaxation
Not Too Pro-American
Not Too Anti-Japanese
Time for Reading & Writing
Time for Fishing & Farming
I Find A Wife




I. TIME FOR RELAXATION
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Unitl the war broke out, I had never been given enough time for unhurried relaxation, I had never enjoyed real vacation. Life was not easy during my early years.

I first went to school when I was five and was preoccupied with my schooling until I was 18. By then I had recieved a diploma from the Philippine Normal School, now the Philippine Normal University, certifying that I was graduate of the two-year normal course for teachers. This was an impressive qualification then, unlike today when most public school teachers are holders of bachelor's, masteral or even doctoral degrees. At that time many teachers were not even high school graduates. It was not surprising, therefore, when after teaching Grade III in Baao Central School for one year and Grade VII in Pili Central School the next year, I became the youngest public elementary school principal in Camarines Sur when I was 20. I was assigned to the sleepy town of Gainza, and I was there when war broke out.

When I started schooling, Spare the rod and spoil the child was still a basic rule of pedagogy. A parent would often tell the teacher, "Maestra, the flesh of this child is yours, his bones are mine." In effect, the parent was telling the teacher that she could employ corporal punishment on the child whenever necessary. Unfortunately, many of our teachers took advantage of this permission given to them by custom too harsh and too often despite the official injunction against it.

For example, in the catolico class, which was the nearest equivalent of our prep and kindergarten today, I had a very strict teacher who believed that not learning one's lesson was a punishable offense. When we arrived in school, which means the small house of our teacher, we would shout to no one in particular, "Buenas tardes," then take our seats on the hard bamboo floor. Our main activity was to prepare for the leccion or oral examination period by reading in a sing-song voice "d,a,da,d,e,de,d,o,do,d,u,du" or whatever our assignement might be, the louder, the better. Then it would be time for the oral examination. We would be called one by one to stand by the teacher's chair and read aloud our lessons. Those who passed the examination by not making too many mistakes in their reading would be given a new assignment for the next session. Those who failed would have the same assignment. That is why whenever we arrived home from school, the usual question our elders would ask us was "Ono ika ibinalyo." If our answer should happen to be no, we would be scolded for being dull or lazy.

My next teacher in the next catolico class had the habit of ordering one of the older boys just before the start of the leccion period to gather some tough twigs from the scrubs growing nearby to be made into a switch. He held the switch while conducting the oral examinations. When a pupil made a mistake while reading he might be whipped or made to lie face down on the floor and continue reading so that the next time he made a mistake the switch could be applied at once on his buttocks. One classmate who was dull and over-age was usually ordered to lie down on the floor at once before he began to read his lessons because, the teacher said, he would be sure to make a mistake anyway. As a consequence, the poor fellow always made mistakes because his attention would be partly on the book he was holding and partly on the ever ready switch held by the teacher.

I knew other teachers who were quick to use the rod in order not to spoil the child. That is why it is not unusual, especially just after the opening of classes to see a parent beating his child with a stick and forcibly escorting him to school. School time was not a time to relax. Going to school was not something we look forward to with pleasure.

When I became a teacher myself, I soon realized that a teacher's work is never done. Even during the summer months which are supposed to be vacation time, I was always utilized by my principal and my supervisor to help them in their work. I did not complain because I knew that one way to get promoted is to walk the proverbial extra mile. That is why when war broke out in 1941 I realized that for the first time I had enough time to relax, that I was having the first real vacation in my adult life.

II. NOT TOO PRO-AMERICAN
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I think another reason why I enjoyed the war years was that I was not too pro-American. Like most Filipinos, I wanted the Americans to win. But I harbored no illusions about them and their coming to the Philippines. I knew only too well that they were not the completely unselfish benefactors of the Filipinos, not our brother Americans some people would make us believe them to be.

The Filipino forces defeated the Spaniards in the Philippines 20 years before I was born. Aguinaldo was supposed to have obtained the help on the Americans for this purpose. But the Filipinos would have overthrown the oppressive Spanish rule even without American help. Yet in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War, it appeared as if the Americans should be credited principally with defeating the Spanish forces in the Philippines. The Filipino envoys to the treaty negotiations were ignored. By the terms of the treaty, the Philippines was ceded to the United States for US $20 million. This was tantamount to selling what does not belong to the sellers. Spain had no more right to sell our country to anybody because we had already won our independence from her with the blood of our heroes.

The Filipinos had no choice but to try to protect their hard-earned independence against the Americans in what we call the Filipino-American War and what the Americans choose to call the Philippine Insurrection. In fact it was neither a war nor an insurrection, it was a massacre. The Americans were too well-armed and too many. That is why at Tirad Pass the dashing Gregorio del Pilar and his men were killed to the last man without any American casualties. So no matter how unfair it was, the Philippines became an American colony. As has often been said, might makes right; or, as they say it in Baao, Oda matanos sa raog.

Of course we have to admit that the American occupation was not without its blessings. For example, it made our country a democracy just as the Spanish occupation made the Philippines a Christian country. The Americans also gave us the English language and the American system of education that made the Filipino a true cosmopolite, at home anywhere in the world. But the American occupation could not make us Americans or the brother of Americans despite the contention of some that we would have been much better off if the Philippines had become another star in the Star-Spangled Banner. And we cannot forget that the Americans came to our country against our will and not for purely altruistic motives.

III. NOT TOO ANTI-JAPANESE
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Soon after the outbreak of the war stories began to circulate about Japanese atrocities. We heard about tortures and executions of suspected anti-Japanese. We heard about the Death March, the concentration camps and the maltreatment of prisoners. On May 12, 1942 Buhi was bombed by Japanese planes because of guerilla activities here. Our big house in San Buenaventura was burned to the ground and my elder brother almost died from a gaping shrapnel wound on his thigh and extensive burns on his body. One time we received a warning that the Japanese were about to arrest So San Co and So Son Kua, two Chinese friends of my father who had come with us to our evacuation place. I was forced to take my sisters, Conching and Nena, to Itbog at midnight in our very small banca with only my youngest brother, Jim, to help me. We were afraid we might meet the Japanese so we stopped now and then for the sound of paddles. All these were not pleasant things to contemplate.

However, just as I knew that the Americans were not always right, I also knew that the Japanese were not always wrong. An example of this was the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on what Franklin D. Roosevelt called the "Day of Infamy." But the Japanese militarists believed that this was a matter of necessity to them as it was the only way Japan could have a chance of defeating the admittedly superior American forces, and any way, all is fair in love and war.

One time I asked a friend and apparently well-educated Japanese sergeant if it was true that Philadelphia had already been bombed. I doubted this bit of rumor because if it were true, it would mean that the attacking Japanese planes had flown east from the Pacific Coast across the whole continental United States. The sergeant first looked around to make sure that nobody else could hear him then he placed his forearm beside mine and said, "Look, you and I, brothers, not white like Americans. But I tell you Japan cannot win; America too strong."

Perhaps another reason why I did not hate the Japanese too much was because it happened that the only Japanese I personally encountered were not the monsters some people pictured them out to be. The nearest to a cruel act by a Japanese that I saw was that of a non-commissioned officer whipping a private with a leather belt because of some minor complaint made against the private by a Filipino woman. I talked with a certain Lieutenant Papaya who told me that he was a dentistry student at Tokyo Imperial University from which he was taken to a troop ship that took him to the Philippines. He had not even been allowed to say good-bye to his parents. Captain Ishibashi, at one time the highest-ranking Japanese officer in Buhi, was a highly cultured person who could dance superbly and sing English songs with hardly a trace of Japanese accent and without changing the l sounds to r as many Japanese do because their alphabet does not contain the letter l. And I also noticed that many of the Japanese enlisted men were wearing uniforms that had been darned so many times they seemed ready to fall apart. I saw how meager their rations were. I remembered these poor soldiers when after the war I saw the fat and healthy Japanese POW'S at the American camp in Iriga.

I was convinced from the beginning that the war was one between the Americans and the Japanese. The Americans should be thankful that the Filipinos were so loyal to them unlike the Indonesians who did not have the same feelings toward their former Dutch masters and no matter how much I wanted the Americans to win, I never came to the point of thinking that the war was our war and that an American victory would be our victory.

IV. TIME FOR READING AND WRITING
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I have one vice which I feel I could not do without. Reading. I must read everday just as my brother Abraham must smoke his expensive, imported aromatic tobacco everday. When he smokes his pipe there is such a pleasant aroma that I like to sit near him even if I do not smoke myself. My advantage over him is that I do not have to spend so much on my vice. He must have spent a fortune on his.

My problem, however, is that since I fell in love with reading when I was six, I never seemed to have enough time for it. In the intermediate grades I was probably the only pupil in the whole intermediate department who borrowed books regularly from our little school library. Miss Amparo Mirando, our librarian, must have considered me some sort of nuisance. One time she told her pupil assistant, "Ta iton na man si Benjamin. pa soblia na iyan ta di na man iyan mag alin siton."

When I was in high school, I usually had four library books at home, two from our school library and two from the public library. I was such an avid reader that I once tried to read two books at the same time. (It cannot be done.) I would read at twilight. I would read by the flickering light of one-centavo candle. I even read by the light of the moon. My elders warned me that I was ruining my eyesight. But while I had to use glasses for reading when I reached 40, since I reached 70 and until now I read without glasses anymore even at night. I am inclined to believe that even habitual reading in a dim light does not affect one's eyesight at all.

When war came, I suddenly found that I had all the time I wanted for reading. My eldest brother, Abraham, whom we sometimes refer to as Patriarch, after his Biblical namesake, had bought shortly before the war broke out a set of thick giant books containing the complete works of such literary greats as Shakespeare, Maupasant, Emerson, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Poe, Kipling and others. I read and re-read these books so many times during the war that I must have acquired more than the equivalent of an ordinary college education.

I had become such a proficient reader that when after the war I went back to college to work for my B.SE. Ll.B, and M.A. degrees, I had a decided advantage over the ordinary student. I was oftern the only one in our law class who could complete the long library reading assignments because I could read so fast. And when I was reviewing for the bar, my landlady told me that many student reviewing for board and bar examinations had stayed at her house but I was the only one who never went to bed later than 10:00 p.m. It would be difficult to find someone who has obtained college degrees with seemingly less effort than I.

The war years also gave me all the time I wanted for writing, an activity I enjoy almost as much as I enjoy reading. Every time my family would go to the poblacion, I was the one left behind as our evacuation place. I did not mind being left alone because I had my reading and writing to keep me occupied and I had always rather enjoyed solitude anyway.

I did a lot of writing during the war, both prose and poetry, However, I never cared much whether my writing was published or not. In 1968, on an impulse, I sent a story that had been lying in my drawer for years to the Philippine Free Press. Usually a writer receives many rejection slips before he gets published for the first time and I was expecting to receive one. But my story "Dance Weirldly, My Love" was accepted at once and published without any editing. It was the last time I had a piece of writing published, until my nephew, Elmer Sergio, asked me to write something for his KJS publication.

As far as I am concerned, the act of creating a story, an essay or a poem is pleasure and satisfaction enough. It must be true that creation is always pleasurable. That is why when I retired from regular employment 15 years ago at the rather early age of 60 and some friends predicted that I would get bored to death, I just smiled. I knew that their dire prediction would never happen so long as I had some nice books and periodicals to read and paper and pen for writing.

V. TIME FOR FISHING AND FARMING
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One time during the war, Father asked me what was the best thing to do with the war going on and no immediate end to the hostilities in sight. I replied that the only thing to do was take good care of our health and wait for the war to end. Then he asked what about getting some money from our palay, coconuts, fish and other products that our family could not consume. I replied that it was not important. I was sure that the 'Mickey Mouse' money that the Japanese were forcing us to use would be valueless after the war except in the extremely remote possibility of Japan emerging victorious. In fact when the war ended, a rich man in Buhi nearly went crazy trying to find out what to do with the several petroleum cans of 'Japanese money' he had hoarded.

Since our evacuation place in Comagaca was by the shores of Lake Buhi, Father decided that we catch fish at least for our own consumption. I was delighted for I had always been a devotee of the sport of Izaak Walton. Father asked his compadre, Menes Merilles, to teach us how to catch fish by tambong. We also caught fish by hook and line, by dip net and even with our bare hands during canoba when the waters of the lake became sulphurous and the fish became groggy. We soon became such expert fishermen that we caught morrethan we could possibly consume. We caught pleanty of fish for the mere pleasure of catching them. I do not remember that we sold any of our catch.

A similar thing happened with our farming. We already had plenty of coconuts and palay. But we also planted and produce plenty of camotes, pineapple, pechay, tomatoes and other crops. I learned how to gather tuba from our coconut trees and we enjoyed drinking the tinamis or sweet tuba. What we could not consume, we placed in big jars and it became first-class vinegar after a month. I remember that when we availed of the services of my cousin, Dr. Honorato Fabul, we just gave him tuba and vinegar because he would not have accepted cash anyway.

VI. I FIND A WIFE
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Perhaps the principal reason why the war years were the happiest in my life was that they brought me my wife. Even if the other reasons did not exist, this alone would have been sufficient to make the war years the happiest years in my life.

On Valentine's Day in 1942, Antonia the only child of Pablo Sabinorio, a well-to-do businessman and politician, held a birthday party and dance at the old Gabaldon-type school building located where the new municipal building now stands. Helping her manage the affair was Paching Tayag, who later became my sister-in-law. I had few friends and acquaintances in Buhi then because I had been studying and working most of the time in other places. Antonia and I were only nodding acquaintances. I was probably invited to her party because of Paching whom I had known since our primary school days.

During the dance, Paching devised a Valentine game. Hearts were cut out of white cardboard and a Valentine message or joke was written on each. Then the hearts were irregularly cut in two and one half of each heart was given to a boy and the other half to a girl. Then the boy recepients went around to look for the girls holding the corresponding halves of their hearts.

In a short time I located my partner whom I had not known before. I felt that it would be too embarrasing for me to ask her to tell me her name. So I asked a friend and he told me that she was Atang Bernardino and that she probably knew me already as she was the friend of my socialite brothers, Abring and Basting, my other brother Jim being too young to be seriously interested in girls at that time.

Soon afterwards, a cousin came to me and begged me to exchange his half of a cardboard heart with mine. He refused to tell me the reason for his request. I told him that I had already found my partner and that she was a girl I had not known before, so it would be most ungentlemanly of me to exchange her for another partner.

A few minutes later, Paching announced that there would be a special dance piece exclusively for the partners, but that they would first parade around the hall. Only when we were going around the hall in pairs did I learn why my cousin had tried to exchange partners with me. He could not have been taller than Health Secretary Juan Flavier but had had the ill luck to get as his partner the tallest girl in the group. She was so tall she was often jokingly called Tocon or beanpole.

After the dance, I escorted my partner to her home at the foot of Malancao Hill. We seemed to like each other from the moment we first met. I found out that in many ways she was different from any of the girls I had previously known. For one thing she was a good listener and she did not talk about the usual topics girls prefer such as boyfriends, girlfriends, clothes, movie stars and parties. She had no pretentions whatsoever. She was not afraid to be herself. One time while I was on my way to visit her I found her fetching water from a public pump well some distance from her house. Another girl in her place might have nearly died from embarassment, but she acted as if it was the most natural thing in the world for us to help carry the heavy can of water to her house and have a nice chat along the way. She was absoloutely honest. Until now, 50 years later, I have never found her maliciously telling a deliberate lie.

A few weeks later, we the officers of the ronda or watchmen who had been organized to help maintain peace and order in the town, decided to hold an officer's ball. I was picked to manage the affair, and I agreed on condition that each officer would invite and bring to the dance only one girl. Someone objected that we could not do that in Buhi because here when you invite a girl to a party or dance, you address your invitation to her parents "and family". I answered that I knew of no rule which says that a boy cannot invite a particular girl to a simple dance. When my suggestion was accepted, I wrote the following poem:

Below the Western Hill
Has gone to rest the silver moon,
Now all is dark and still
And peaceful in the sleeping town

And while I sing of you
Out here in the dark and the cold,
I think once more of all
The sorrows and the joys of old.

Is it your face I dimly see
In the dark where night winds blow?
Is it your voice I faintly hear
From the stillness whispering low?

I mind no more the lonliness
And the cold; my heart is free.
I may be far away from you
But you're dreaming, dear, of me.

At first I thought of making the title, "Below Malancao Hill" but I realized it would be too obvious whom I meant. I took the poem to my friend , the very able musician Martin P. Ailes, and asked him to set it to music. Then I went to Atang's house to ask her to be my partner.

The scheduled dance had become the talk of the town. Of course all the eligible young ladies wanted to be invited to such an exclusive affair, the first of its kind in Buhi. Not to be invited was a major dissappointement to some of the girls but of course it was not their fault that there happened to be no ronda officer who wanted to invite them. I found out later that my intended partner had already been invited by two ronda officers. She should have accepted one of them as she had no reason to expect me to invite her. We were just new friends. But some hidden instinct must have prompted her to wait for me. She accepted my invitation at once.

Contrary to the dire predictions of some and the sourgrapings of the others especially among the girls unlucky enough not to have been invited, our dance was a complete success. "Below the Western Hill" was played by the orchestra for our special piece and sung by a trio of the best male singers in Buhi: Luis Feced, Salvador Tayag and Eulogio Demagante.

After the dance, people were convinced that Atang and I had been sweethearts for a long time or else why should I have written a song especially for her? Nobody would believe that we were just friends. But as they say, fate is fate, que sera, sera. We could not wait for the war to end before getting married.

That was half a century ago and many things have happened since then. But the war years will remain the happiest years in my life and without doubt, also in Atang's life, and "Below the Western Hill" will always remain to be our song.


 

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