All over the country trouble is brewing up, so is the rest of the world since the Kennedy assassination and before that the Cuban Missile Crises. Then the war in Vietnam, and Victor Corpus’ defection to the Communist Party of the Philippines. The dominoes are falling all over Southeast Asia. But to Gerald Borja the opening of school was more of a release from the tensions at home. His dad is with the Philippine Army a Lt. Colonel. He was always sent somewhere to god knows where. His dad is a nice person to begin with, a disciplinarian, never really the person who would lay a hand on his children but always talking them down to do the right thing. Like any teenager at that time they were all into the fad of things. And like any other teen, there are always angst. But to Gerald, it is mixed with euphoria.
The first day of school, and Gerald is excited, but the excitement was never on school of course. Gerald studies at the University of Southern Philippines, Lahug Campus. His house was about a mile away from school, he was taken to school by their driver, their car was the World War II type vehicle, a jeep to be exact, although slightly remodeled and decorated to a, maybe shall we say slightly baroque design for the sidings. As he walks up to his classroom, climbing the stairs and feeling gloomy, as he reached his floor, there she was, walking along the corridor, Joanna.
The students that go this school campus was either of the middle classes and children of the officers of the Armed Services in the Philippines, typically the Philippine Army and that of the Philippine Constabulary, also know as Papa Charlie to the rest of the armed services or simply as PC to the public.
Gerald’s face completely lit up, the doom and gloom of high school seems to just pass and fade away whenever Joanna is around. Everything that seems heavy seems really light for Gerald. That moment when she walks by him and she looks at Gerald and says hi, seemed like an eternity.
The saying ‘hi’ part was actually his imagination.
Let us move back a bit, there she was Joanna walking along the corridor as Gerald steps into the floor. They were about twelve feet away from each other, as Joanna looks at the spaced out Gerald who’s face looked like it was about to drool. She smiles and was about to wave and say ‘hi’ to him.
Then pesky Rodney, killed the moment. From right out the classroom he comes out and walks towards Joanna.
“Hey, Joanna, I think were on the same class. Can I sit with you?”
Being generally nice, she agrees.
“Okay, but teacher will have other ideas”
Rodney Quiñones is a jerk, he, nevertheless is Gerald’s friend. Gerald is no nerd, no sir, he has friends goes out and parties with them. Gerald is also a nice guy, or maybe quite naive, even though he is clearly being blown and fooled he still does not really take it seriously. He genuinely believes that all people are good.
Like a bee attracted to their queen, Gerald approaches her. He fumbles for words, that does not help him, yet nothing actually came out of his mouth, it was like a dry well. He cursed himself for saying those unclear things. In his mind he says.
Curse you mouth, why did you have to say those things, why can’t you say hi. Hi Ellen, there you go. What Ellen? Damn you Ellen, you are such a distraction.
All he did was open his mouth. Nothing came out. Ellen was one of their classmates. Who approached what seemed to have become like a gang gathering for plan, after all this was the 70s, the disco era.
Ellen opens up, “Say, we are all in the same class.” Ellen pointing to all of them, five in all. With her was Rica Blanca.
Joanna looks at Ellen then turns her attention to Gerald, and is about to say hello, when finally Gerald’s mouth started to work again.
“Hi, Joanna.” He almost stammered for a second, luckily he stopped.
Grudgingly he stares at Ellen, but is relieved to see her, maybe without her he may not have found his words, albeit just two.
Gerald tries to fake a happy voice towards her, well he is grateful deep down.
“Nice to see you.”
Gerald was shocked that he could say those words to Ellen yet not to Joanna. In his thoughts he mumbles again.
What? I meant that for you Joanna not Ellen.
Yet Joanna like Gerald saw it differently, they both expect only good in people.
“Well, I’m pretty sure that meant for all of us, including Jennifer Tabita Labangon here, she’s new here.” Joanna finishes, and points at Jennifer standing at the class bulletin board right outside of their classroom just a foot away from the door. She then moves towards her and to where the announcements were pinned to the board were the two pages the list of students one for the girls and the boys. Like a swarm of bees they all followed her like she was their queen bee.
They checked for their names to confirm and all of their names are.
“Hey Jen, these are our classmates.”
Joanna continued to introduce everyone to the new comer. Her friendly accommodating nature makes it sound like they have been friends with Jennifer a long time. But she is not, she was from another school where nuns were in control.
As she went inside the classroom. Pesky Rodney breaks the peace of the moment.
“Hey, you know what I have the perfect spot for you. And you have a view to the greenery.”
Two of his pals were sitting on the armchairs he sort of reserved, his so called friends were sitting there so no one would sit while he was away trying to woo Joanna. He approaches them…
“Guys, shall we.” he turns around and gestures with two hands to Joanna. “Your… our seats, await.”
But the guys did not budge. Pedro looked quizzical and John on the other hand was annoyed that they were replaced for a girl. But John had other plans.
“Rodney, does this seat have your name on it.”
Rodney was not fazed at all, he seems not even blushing or scared or white all over his face or ashamed of his selfish act. He didn’t tell the guys of why he wanted it reserved. They both thought that they were all going to sit at the back. Rodney, does not seem to have any feelings at all, if there is he is pretty good at controlling them.
“Come on guys, its our seat.”
“Our seat, Rodney our seat.” replies John, sounding firm and authoritative, but in reality, he is enjoying the moment shaming shameless Rodney.
Pedro parrots, “yeah, our seat, not theirs.”
“Come on guys, I asked you guys to hold on to these seats.” Rodney pleading at Pedro and John.
“Like you said Rodney…” John replies.
Pedro continues, “hold on to these seats.”
“So here we are holding on to OUR seats.” John’s voice was firm and strong.
But like a good weasel that he is, Rodney tries to talk them out of the situation, and they continued to haggle.
Joanna lost in the situation and pretty much confused of what has happened, and seems like she is not getting that seat. Which was not her type anyway, she rather sit on the first few rows at front even. She turns to the front of the classroom and there was Gerald sitting alone up front on the second column. Joanna looks at the girls, and they seemed to have the same thoughts or like a hive mind they all went and sat around Gerald. Joanna sat right beside Gerald, still to her left was the window and a view of the school’s yard and football(soccer for the Americans) field. While Rica sat at the back of Joanna, Ellen sat at Gerald’s back while Jennifer sat beside Gerald’s right. For Gerald it was like this day turned out right, ordained by god so to speak.
Joanna opens up to Gerald, “Hey, Gerald, your dad is with the Armed Forces right?”
Gerald loving the moment and turns, and smiles, “yeah, yeah he is”, and that was all that Gerald could muster for the moment. He could feel his excitement yet light when beside her. He is still dumbfounded at what has transpired. He could not believe that was all the words he could say.
But Joanna was quite interested, personally because of her family was quite similar to Gerald’s.
“My dad served the Austrian armed services during the 50s, grandpa also served the Austrian Army during the 1930s or before that I think, before World War II and luckily left before Hitler went gaga on Europe.” Joanna opens up to Gerald.
Gerald all the more believed this must be the hand of god at work. “Oh, really, my dad is a Lt. Colonel in the Philippine Army. Things did get crazy recently, and way before; that trouble in Mindanao. I would have wore my hair long, but you know. Dad, army and stuff.”
They talked awhile about their family, like all families they are bound to have similarities, all parents are after all parents are all the same one way or another.
Gerald’s sports a short hair not exactly the military style cut but somewhere along that short and clean. Like most of those whose families were educated, are usually descended from the Spanish and that of the Chinese who settled in the Philippines long time ago, before the Americans invaded the islands during the late 1890s and pacified the archipelago by the turn of the century. Gerald was a mix of three races, as the Spaniards usually marry into the Principalia class of the islands during their rule. The Principalia class is the descendant of the original Datu class, the natural leaders they say. Or as they say the nobility or rolyalty of the islands. Rich families during the American regime without the strict race separation of the Spanish authorities this time, were able to inter-marry between races, thus the Chinese upper classes were able marry into the Spanish as well. Gerald looked like Chinese, but does not really show that almond shaped eyes, his color suggests he is Chinese, but then he would also look European or of the Spanish stock, he does tan quite well and would turn brown when under the heat of the sun, and he’d be mistaken for a Chinese-Indian-Malay stock. Like most of the Cebuanos and the Visayans, Gerald and his family are Roman Catholics.
Joanna Ezren, on the other hand her father’s side is rather new to the archipelago. Being born of Austrian descent her grandmother was a mestiza, it was her mother’s side that was more like around Gerald’s ancestry. Her mother looked like Chinese but would be mistaken for a half Spanish or a mestiza, like her grandmother. Which was quite common among the middle and upper classes of the Visayas regions. Unlike Gerald, she, her mother and father are protestants. Her grandfather in Austria was and adherent Lutheran, but here a general Presbyterian would fit the description. They are multilingual at home, they still speak the Bavarian language and of course English since it was the medium of language in the islands, the national language and the local language as well. Spanish was sometimes spoken on her mother’s side, but the household would rather either speak Cebuano or Bavarian at home and English since his grandfather mostly dealt with the Americans back then.
The day ended well, quite well for Gerald. Unbeknownst to both of the them trouble is brewing, a lot closer than they could think.
Gerald was happy at the current status quo, their seats were or at the moment somewhat became their permanent seating position. He tries to talk to Joanna but could not find a perfect timing, while to his right was Jennifer who seemed to be an expert on love, and tells him how his face betrays himself that he seems to be in love. Ellen on the other hand, when he tries to open up a conversation with Joanna, turns it around into something really mundane and would make her sound like a rumor mill. Like on one August day, Gerald arrives early at school followed by Ellen, as both were quite and seated and waiting for the teacher to arrive which was still due around thirty minutes or even forty-five. Joanna arrives at the classroom, she walks by Gerald. And every single time that happens, it seems like a heaven of eternity or an eternity in heaven. There is this one little split of a second that — that moment it seems to Gerald that the world is paused, or everything seems to slow down, like she was floating in the air, or walking on air like a goddess, moving pass by him. Then reality sets in, she looks at Joanna taking her seat.
Gerald opens up, “you arrived early today, and you look really nice today.”
“I bet you say that to everyone, Gerald,” Joanna smiles at Gerald.
While in Gerald’s mind, he replies, I do not, I just feel this way when I am around her, what is really wrong with me, its like, getting spaced out but really stuck in one moment.
“Oh well, not really,” replies Gerald and trying to be modest.
Then Ellen cuts them both, “hey did you guys hear about what happened yesterday at the Capitol?” Ellen Francisco’s dad is an officer of the Philippine Constabulary. And she knows things that even Gerald does not know, specially when it comes to their dad’s jobs.
“No, not really Ellen, not interested.” Gerald tries to cut her off. But Joanna being really a nice person.
“No, Ellen but please do tell.”
“Well, dad got spit on by the demonstrators, and they called him, a Marcos puppy. Marcos lap dog”
“Oh that is horrible, getting spit on.”
And just like that Gerald’s momentum is gone!
After two months of trying to talk to Joanna alone, he finally was able to make a move on her, it was a Friday, after the first quarter exams September 22, 1972, and everyone seem really tired from the exams. For some reason school ended earlier. Ellen was picked up by her dad’s soldiers and taken home early, otherwise she would be babbling. Jennifer seemed left behind while talking to that pesky Rodney, and Rica talks to everybody, so she was left with the others. Gerald’s dad was called off on his job and was sent to another region, the orders was received on the evening of September 20. So to Gerald, the Saturday would be a good day to ask Joanna out.
Joanna and Gerald didn’t go out right away when the class was dismissed, so Gerald had the time to talk to Joanna this time.
“I hate the exams, do you?”
“I don’t know, I guess I am just trying to get through it.”
“Aren’t we all? I kind of like it when you say it like that, you seemed always positive in a way. A cheerful disposition if you must, which really fits you.”
“Why, thank you Gerald, no one has ever described me that way.”
“My dad is away, it seems that he won’t be around this weekend, and I may be able to go out, so I was wondering…”
Joanna tries to cut him off, but felt like she should listen.
“And you, I mean would you like to go out on Saturday, after lunch of course.” Gerald asks sparingly. “I’ve never been out with someone.”
“Okay, I’ve never been out too. But this sounds like a date. Is it?”
“Uhhh… well it is now.” coyly he manages to answer. “I was thinking if we could go out and see some movies downtown.”
“Yeah, I don’t know if I like what is on the theaters, maybe we could just stroll around town.”
“That will be fine too, there’s place we could eat before we head home. I will pick you right around 1 PM.”
“I’m sure dad will let me go, but if not”
“I could just stay at your place? And maybe I could buy some junk food or something.”
“Now that is a date, call me tonight if we should go out or you could just stay at home for the rest of afternoon.”
“Sounds, really like a date now.”
Both of them walked out of the building, still talking, and sometimes they do not know what to talk about, things seem to be a bit awkward now. Outside the school their respective cars were waiting and they each went to their respective homes.
After dinner, Gerald called Joanna. He dials, 8-67-53, and its ringing. With butterflies in his stomach…
“Good evening. Can I speak with Joanna please”, right about the same time another male older voice was heard. “Hey, is a uh… Mrs. Divinagracia about, I have billing issues.”
Unfortunately, someone beat him to it — party line.
“Hey, can you please put the phone down, party line. Please put the phone down.” The older man on the other line was asking Gerald to put his phone down. The other person on the other line, replied, “mom says she’s not around.” Gerald politely puts the phone down.
Gerald was surprised that they have a party line, back then phone lines were criss-crossed and you do sometimes end up with a wrong number. And in this case you have someone sharing the same line with you, only that it has a different number occasionally you get a wrong number calling you, because your phone rings instead of the other party’s line. What was surprising for Gerald was those in the Armed Services should not have a party line.
A few minutes have gone by, and it seemed an eternity with him. He called back, and waited for the dial tone, and this time the sound was solid, meaning the party line was not using anymore. He was able to go through and call Joanna. This time it rang and the other line answered with a male voice not deep but rather high pitched, like a singer of a tenor type, can somehow be mistaken as countertenor or even a female voice. But definitely it sounded her dad.
“Good evening, sir… Can I speak with Joanna” says Gerald trying to be reserved or polite or whatever it was, but it was scaring him the hell out.
Mr. Robert Ezren her dad calls Joanna, “Joanna, its some guy looking for you on the phone.” Her dad raising the phone up to her. Jokingly her dad added, “is that your boyfriend?”
Joanna seems rather not amused, but like all the girls then, they would right away say no. And she gave out an irritated look, and snaps back, “I… do not have a boyfriend”. Then she answers, with a rather cute voice.
“Hi, Joanna, its Gerald”
“Hello Gerald, nice to hear your voice.” Her face betrays her, instead of pretending to be irritated she looks more amused and happy.
“How are you? Did you had dinner yet?”
“Oh well yes, thanks, we did awhile ago.” She looks at her dad with a sense of dread, and her dad looks at her mockingly, and she seems to think that he is thinking otherwise or rather teasing her, because it seemed like her boyfriend.
“So have you thought of what we planned earlier, was that your dad who answered the phone?”
“Yes, we are going out tomorrow?”
“No,” Joanna confused on what to answer.
“What is it then?” Gerald confused.
“I mean, yes, that was my dad who answered, and I have not asked him that yet.” Gerald was alarmed that she has not and asked her dad yet. “Oh, dad? It’s my classmate, Gerald.”
“Uh hmmm…” was her dad’s mocking and teasing reply.
Rolling her eyeballs, she pleaded. “Dad? Can I go out on a date with Gerald tomorrow, he’ll come and pick me up.”
Bobby Ezren does not want her girl to go out on a date, since they have plans for the rest of the family, but why not and just let her go, might as well give her time to enjoy this part of her life, albeit brief. He and his wife have not told the rest of the family that they are moving to New York, USA in a few months.
“Yeah, sure why not.”
Surprised of how her dad reacted, she asked again, “Can I? GO OUT, with Gerald tomorrow?”
“Yeah, sure… you want me to change my mind?”
“NO, no, no… its okay. Thanks,” Joanna relieved of her dad’s answer, and so was Gerald who heard everything. “Okay so, he says yes.”
“Great, so I’ll pick you up tomorrow then?”
“Tomorrow it is.”
Bobby Ezren, aware of how girls tend to gravitate and hog on to the phone, warns Joanna. “Hey, Joanna, you want to go out tomorrow, stop hogging the phone, I am waiting for calls from the US.” Nodding, she grudgingly accepts.
“Hey, we’ll talk tomorrow, dad is waiting for a call.”
“Okay, bye, tomorrow then.”
“Bye, tomorrow then.”
“Okay bye,” Gerald does not seem to want to put the phone down but prefer her to put it down first.
“Okay bye,” so was Joanna. Annoyed by their long goodbyes, Mr. Ezren, interrupts, “Put the phone down already.”
Somehow is dad’s word became hers, “you put the phone down first.” She tells Gerald.
“No, you first.”
“No, you first.” Her dad, both amused and annoyed, snaps, “Come on!”
“No, you first. Ladies first you know.”
Eventually, she retreats and says her last good bye for the night and puts the phone down.
It was a wonderful day for both of them, seemingly excited for the next day, they could sleep late and wonder what would it be like tomorrow, both their first dates, its okay to sleep late, they are after all going out after lunch, plenty of time to sleep late.
Unknown to them, that same day, Ellen’s dad had started rounding up the usual suspects. Anyone who opposes the current regime were arrested, some were alive some died. Martial Law was been declared yesterday, and not officially announced yet. And anyone with a long hair were considered enemies of the state, being a hippie and all, they were being subjected to haircut regulation of the Armed Forces.
Saturday, the media was dead, silenced by the Armed Forces. There was curfew from dusk till dawn. Some classes were suspended, stores were closed. Because no one knows what will happen. Joanna’s dad told her to cancel her date, and Gerald’s dad called in early morning that they are all to stay at home until further notice. All the phone lines were completely shut, except for Gerald’s since his dad was with army, he was able to call Joanna the last time. Strangely enough Joanna’s number was not on the list of being cut. It seems all the numbers that began with “8” were spared as most of those in the Armed Services’ numbers started with 8.
Joanna’s phone rang, she has been waiting for Gerald’s call, ever since they heard President Marcos announce the declaration of Martial Law of the entire country. “Hello, Gerald?” As if she already knew it would be Gerald.
“Joanna?” Gerald surprised and glad it was her who answered the phone. “So, have you heard the news?”
“Yes, I have, dreadful.”
“I may have some bad news for today.”
“I have some too. So we are not going out right?”
“Yeah, dad called long distance, that we are all to stay put, until this thing dies down.”
“Dad felt the same way today.”
“Maybe, we could reschedule for next week then?”
“I’m afraid, I can’t.”
“I did say I have some bad news. We are due to leave for the US in the next couple of weeks. I am happy of leaving, and I am sad of leaving, I was hoping to go out with you, but it seems impossible now.”
Joanna and Gerald talked about what seemed half an hour to them but it was even barely two minutes, it was the longest two minutes for them, as Joanna was told to prepare her things that she will take with her to the US.
Before lunch time, Gerald called Joanna back. The dial tone was working, and solid. As he starts to dial, there was a strange hissing sound coming out of the receiver, it was not strong, faint, not obvious, but you can sense that something changed.
“Hello? Is this party line… hello. I was here first…” feeling a little hateful at the party line, he stopped and put the phone down hoping that dude on the other line would finish his call. He tried two more times to call Joanna.
Talking about paranoid, Gerald became uncomfortable calling Joanna whenever he calls her, he seems to notice someone on the other line is listening, and at first he thought it was the party line, but no one answered back. Unbeknownst to him, the military tapped a lot of phones, specially among themselves, to weed out the undesirables, to weed out another potential Victor Corpus.
A week after trying to call her, he was able to finally call without those pesky eavesdroppers, whom he still thinks was his party line. Only to find out that they left out in a hurry, to what seemed to be like running away from the authorities. The truth is, was that the dominoes were falling around Southeast Asia, countries were becoming communist. The Martial Law declaration was like a signal for Bobby Ezren, leave now!
Gerald didn’t get any forwarding address, and so did Joanna knows of Gerald’s address. The only person that made his day more bearable left, and it seemed like the end of the world for Gerald.
A few weeks later the classes resumed, the seat where Joanna was is now empty, Ellen had to step in and take the seat. But it was never the same without Joanna. His moment with his crush, now crushed, his date with Joanna crushed, his days with the love of his life crushed.
Part two coming… Crashed…