MANILA. PHILIPPINES. On September 21, 1972—40 years ago today, 56 year-old reelected President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared Proclamation 1081 and placed the entire country under Martial Law. And it was a period that lasted for nine years on paper (although the ambiance of martial law administration stayed on up until the Marcoses were driven out of power during the Edsa revolt in 1986).
That Fateful Day
I still could vividly recall that day. I was an 18 year old college sophomore playing basketball in the early morning of Saturday in the open court of Letran College in Intramuros, Manila. Out in the streets, we could hear sirens blurring out but it did not cause concern for us cagers. We stuck with the game and had hearty laughter every time a team mate fumbles the ball. We were young and carefree. We never minded the world around us. What was important for us at that time was to win the game even if it was just a practice session.
The War Zone
We were about to wind up when four playmates that went out of the school compound to buy cigarettes came rushing back. They were having a good laugh but their ashen complexion revealed something scary. They shouted, “Ven! There is war outside!”
My companions who were mostly in ROTC were jubilant to hear the hushed voices of my friends. “You mean we have to wear our combat uniforms already, hehehe!!!” came the cavalier response.
“Look, outside, combat tanks with mean looking soldiers, all armed to the teeth, are prowling and they are arbitrarily arresting students, anybody, and anyone especially those sporting long hair!” my friends answered back. The fashion at that time called for long hair among the youth. All my friends had a healthy crop as crown and it was almost taboo to see your earlobes. It must be covered by hair. I was sporting an athletic afro look since I have a curly hair. And if the warning was correct, we were supposed to hide from the so called combat zone. And so after we changed our clothing, we went upstairs, in one of our rooms to look down at the parking lot where according to my buddies, soldiers were already posted.
A Day of Living Dangerously
There were also a lot of students, most of them my classmates in other common subjects, monitoring what was happening in the classroom where we assembled. It was the only opened classroom at that time. I discovered that those seatmates of mine were activists and firebrand of left leaning sounding groups based on what I was hearing from their conversation. They were the ones actually being hunted by the military and the school campus was the safest place they could repair. For a while, I was, well, together actually with my basket ball team mates, huddled inside the room composed mostly of, if my hunch was correct, dreaded insurgents! I could see them folding what was like banners with red letters and the dreaded symbol of rebellion, the hammer and sickle. For that brief moment, my basketball team became also, by association, a communist front!
One by one, my team streamed back to the gymnasium where the ROTC office was located. It was for us an insured area since soldiers would never bother a unit recognized by them. We could mix along with the staff and personnel and try to be one with them if only to elude the heat. But our problem was, if indeed we were ROTC cadets, how come we sport long hair. Our power forward volunteered a solution, “Why don’t we have an instant hair cut, a crew cut, to appease any soldier we might meet should we go home or leave the school premises?” That was the dumbest suggestion we ever heard. No one can touch our long hair, even if it would cost our lives. We were even prepared to be driven out of our respective houses by our parents if they would pose as a threat to our lionesque mane. No way. We ignored the suggestion and went our separate ways. Some scaled the back fence and got lost in the maze of shanties of informal settlers doting the side streets. Others went back to the classroom to be indoctrinated. A few went to the faculty room to seek assistance from priests who were manning the admin offices. In my case, along with two friends decided to check it out on the street what was really happening. We merely took a shower so that our hair would thin out covered by a baseball cap, with hair combed up and gelled in pomade. All of us braved to move out until we reached home.
A Hairy Conviction
For us at that precise moment, martial law was not a threat to freedom and democracy, for us at that time, forty years ago; it was more of a menace to our lengthy fleece.
That was of course a Saturday. The succeeding days were a revelation. Two days later, a Monday, we, along with my classmates and fellow basketball players, were back in our classroom, sporting a different look and a brand new haircut, the high ‘n tight warrior hairdo.
Thus began our baptism of radical politics in the streets.
For a time, we, as a nation, hoping that giving up rights in favor of progress was what animated expectations. It came out different. Economic problems piled up. We could not hit back at the mass deception. We became sterile for a time. Consequently, we were ashamed to face irrational power and derisively labeled as that generation of cowards and a society of indifferent weaklings. There was little sacrifice and heroism during the course. We the youth at that time were more concerned about lifestyle and only a few dabbled in fortitude. But for those who remained steadfast, from their ranks today were, however, conscripted the champions of modern day principled progress.
Forty years after
Since then the country had difficulty achieving for its citizen the desired development. Today, when my children would ask how come we are still laggards compared with other countries in Southeast Asiak, I could only sigh. Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. Thereafter, they found progress. In our case, we were thrown to reinvent ourselves and for 40 years we are still in the wilderness unable to refresh our capability to mature into a well developed economy.
There was a specific line in the movie Spiderman which may describe modern day media reportage. It was a dialogue between the editor of a newspaper and his reporter. Their verbal exchanges began thus.
“What do you mean this hooded thing is doing the public a favor!!!?” the editor blurted out. The reporter snapped back meekly, “But sir, he is making good in his crusade and the people must know the truth.”
The editor hurled back, a crumpled report on his hand and declared, “You have made him a name because he is good, now make him bad!”
No wonder, our newspapers would contain snippets of good accomplishments made by some obscure personalities, until the public notices merits and distinction. Reporters would haunt tail and stalk the performing asset and public adulation follows. Behind the trailing reporter is another correspondent, the investigative and snoopy kind. He is fishing for bits of information that would lead to the weakness, perceived flaw, drawbacks, even stain in the past of the person so that when he achieves a certain degree of prominence, an information on any defect, imagined or otherwise, will make headlines and as commerce dictate, newspaper would sell like the proverbial hot cakes. Thereupon, media can have its cake and eat it too!
This happened to Al Capone, a small time, street corner gangster who gained notoriety due to his deadly exploits. Because of reports about his charity and mysterious gang land operations, he became an urban legend. Not long after, with a name already introduced in society pages, government moved in and charged him, not for murder, because his lawyers were quick to the draw, but for tax evasion, because he had a poor auditor. He was subsequently charged and incarcerated. He died in prison as a non entity while serving time. A few years later, he would be featured in a block buster film and the film producer along with his media outfit would have the last laugh.
Locally, there was this street urchin who would regale pedestrians with his acrobatic tricks and when as soon as he would be able to draw public attention, he would strike and snatch everything that fancied him, from wrist watches to shoulder bag, then run until he would be lost in the sea of humanity.
A newbie tabloid reporter, who was then passing through, was intrigued with the juvenile and made a feature about the exploits of the youngster. Journalists from other papers joined the fabled exploits and named the teenager as “Ben Tumbling.”
Ben Tumbling’s deeds and daring acts became a staple in tabloid. It was picked up also by mainstream newspapers. His feats were almost overblown until law enforcement units were formed just to neutralize a kid who served as embarrassment to them. Weeks past, newspapers were selling like discounted pizza, until the imagined happened. Ben Tumbling was cornered and slain. Here was a case where a lowly felon got prominence bordering on exaltation by the masses until he reached the end of the line and was taken down.
Feeling obscure? No recognition? Let it be.
Lest one may aspire to be an urban legend one day, let him observe first how news is formed.
“Pasisikatin ka muna, tapos titirahin ka na nila.” (“You will be made as a toast of the town first, and later you will be toasted.”)
Therefore, beware of the ides of media.
There is no other way we can skip a routine. We have to be exposed on streets almost daily, well, unless of course, we are bed-ridden. But going through the tedious, usually repetitive motion of taveling by foot or through any other means, it is oftentimes on the street that we will always find ourselves posted for a time. This is where our vulnerabilities are tested. This is where the gullible and the informed are segregated. This is where staying on course and falling out of bounds are defined. This is where success and failure in reaching home safely makes the difference.
How to survive and live through a multitude of challenges on the streets requires some lessons and understanding on the true nature of our favorite lane. If there is such a thing as rudiments in jungle survival, hereunder are the predatory fundamentals one encounters to surive while on lam in the city’s roadsides.
(Below is an excerpt from the PNP crime unit research on common felonies usually obtained daily as a regular, almost unchecked, feature.)
(1) Salisi, in hotel lobbies, cafés, business and tourist hangouts. Perpetrators are courteous and well dressed, with props like attaché case or jewelry to look businesslike and affluent. They pick out a victim who is so engrossed in talk or texting to leave belongings unattended. In swift motion they swipe the bag or laptop, and casually leave. A variant has one or two accomplices distracting the victim by striking up a chat, pretending to be acquainted or asking for a light.
(2) Tutok-kalawit, malls, sidewalks, outside schools, on buses and jeepneys. The conman or woman suddenly hugs the victim like they’re old friends. With a knife poked on his side, victim is ordered to quietly turn over cash and other valuables. In a variant, two cohorts falsely accuse victim of stealing. Naturally denying it, victim is asked to show proof of character. Once he fishes out an ID card from the wallet, the gang men grab the money and scram.
(3) Ativan Gang, in bars, tourist hangouts. Three to four males and females befriend the lone tourist. After gaining his confidence, they tour him around, then invite him to dine in their shanty. Ativan, a potent sleeping pill, is slipped into the drink. The drugged victim is stripped of belongings, then dumped in a secluded place. A variant would have a woman seducing the victim, then drugging him in the hotel room. Most victims are knocked out for days.
(4) Ipit Gang, in buses, trains and stations, crowded areas. Gang operates in threes or fours. Victim is shoved into distraction, while his pocket is picked or mobile snatched.
(5) Budol-budol, in malls, airports, classy hangouts. It’s a con game employing a bundle (budol) of cash, but the real money is only on top and below, padded with neatly cut newspaper in between. Victim, say, a balikbayan, is sweet-talked into helping in an emergency by swapping his dollars, mobile or jewelry with the wad of cash. A variant involves hocking a gold bar, fake and embellished with tales of treasure hunts. Some victims say they were hypnotized into parting with valuables.
(6) Kotong, in parks, airports, tourist districts. Foreign tourists or balikbayans are lured into exchanging their dollars for pesos at better than published rates. The pesos are counted in front of victim, handed over for recounting, then retrieved for wrapping. At that point, the con man, by sleight of hand, takes back a good portion of the cash, then slips the rest in an envelope for turnover to victim. It takes a while for the latter to realize he’s been duped.
(7) Laslas, in malls, markets, public transports. An adult or child, posing as a vendor or pretending to be lost, distracts the victim. A cohort swiftly slashes the victim’s pocket or bag to filch the wallet, etc.
(8) Ipit taxi. A gang spray-paints the taxi with a different name and license number. Not long after picking up a lone victim the cabbie stops on pretense of engine trouble. Two cohorts jump into the rear and sandwich the victim, demanding his valuables.
(9) Estribo Gang, on public transports. Robbers position themselves on the running board (estribo) of bus or jeepney, then announce a holdup. In a variant, the gang systematically picks the pockets of everyone boarding or alighting.
(10) Bukas kotse, on main roads during heavy traffic, or parking lots of malls, churches, schools. A pair of thieves forcibly would open the car doors to rob the motorist. Or they’d pick the locks to strip parked cars of accessories. Or they’d hijack the car.
(11) Dura Boys, in public areas, transports. A man would spit at a victim who, while wiping it off, is mugged.
(12) Akyat-bahay, in residential areas. A lone or gang of porch-climbers would invade homes left for the holidays or disasters. Youngsters are employed to break into small, unsecured windows.
(13) Pitas Gang, on public transports. A thief picks out a victim seated by the window, to snatch the wristwatch, necklace, or earring.
(14) Zest-O Gang, on buses (with apologies to the makers of the popular refreshment). The gang operates in threes, with one, in bus conductor uniform, asking the passenger, “Ilan ho (How many)?” Victim would reply how many riders they are. He is given the equivalent number of juice drinks, then charged a fortune for it. Burly cohorts menace him into paying up.
(15) Laglag barya, in public areas, transports. Coins or bills are dropped. As victim helps pick them up, his pocket or bag is picked.
(16) Baraha Gang, restaurants, department stores. The cashier, sometimes in cahoots with waiters, swiftly steals account info from the customer’s credit card.
(17) Best-friend Gang, in flea markets, bargain sales. A thief would pose as if a friend beside a shopper who is examining merchandise. The “friend” would borrow the item, then run off, leaving the shopper to be charged for it.
Paraphrasing the famous last lines of Desiderata, may I intone again, “ in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul (and take note of the above). With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful. Strive to be happy.”
My heart goes for those who met a tragic end and left a promising career that fateful Monday, claiming the lives of a national leader, SILG Jess Robredo, a veteran and Samaritan flight instructor, Captain Jessup Bahanting and a capable student pilot, Kshitiz Chand. I am especially drawn in a scenario which I could only imagine, using circumstances as basis for my supposition.
Here we have a government official who wanted to go back home after a hard day’s work but could not find a regular route. He may have overshot his schedule and he does not want to delay his trip any further. He must have to take the trip home using available means possible. He took one option: use a private plane.
We have at that instance Captain Jessup Bahanting, a veteran pilot and flight instructor, manning his aviation school along with his student pilots. Captain Bahanting rose to public consciousness when his plane was used for retrieving a medicine for snake bites in another island, a singular feat which saved the cobra victim. It was by any yardstick a heroic act. He probably received a call from a government functionary seeking aviation assistance for their boss. That was the time when Secretary Robredo’s and Captain Bahanting’s stars converge into a common cause.
On the flipside of destiny, we have a 21 year old Kshitiz Chand, Nepalese student pilot under the stewardship of Captain Bahanting’s school. The Nepalese student must be one of Bahanting’s ace student, one who is literally boarding within the tarmac barracks and ready at any given time to engage any of the flying machine available. Chand as a student pilot must have to earn his 150 flying hours so that he could get his “wings” and his pilot license. As it were, he may be a competent pilot already but must have to complete his flying hours requirements. I know because I have a son who is also a student pilot.
The three personalities came together that fateful day. Captain Bahanting rolled out his own plane, a Piper Seneca . He was on that day host to one of government’s most powerful official and therefore must have to show what he is made of. Captain Bahating was also proud of his students and so he allowed his pilot student to take the seat at the cockpit and complete the mission. That would mean so much flying hours for the student; that would mean another feather on the cap of Captain Bahanting; that would also mean arriving earlier home for SILG Robredo. All winners in the equation.
But along the way, there were tell tale signs of contrast. The weather was hazy and it was late in the afternoon and visibility could have been difficult. According to the survivor, another personality who was incidental in the scene, he noted that there were also blinking lights flashing warning on the dashboard when they were up in the air. As they were about to land in one airstrip, they have to maneuvre and shift direction. The plane was having some mechanical troubles. Pilots are trained never to be panicky and so they must have tried to improvise. This was where the entire mission was locked and proved fatal. The student pilot may have lacked that experience, that confident mind set to steer his plane into a mode of stability. Any experienced driver will tell us that at high speed, when his vehicle loses the breaks or conks out, he can still control the wheel and steer it away from danger. At that time the student pilot was nowhere that level of experience yet. Captain Bahanting must be smarting at that time and trying to calm his prominent passenger, probably explaining that it was just one of those occasions and that it could still be remedied.
The wreckaged revealed that Captain Bahanting and SILG Robredo was still buckled when they were retrieved. It indicated confidence and assurance. The student pilot was not in the cockpit anymore and was plucked out floating outside the plane. This meant that the student pilot could no longer contain his fear, still a novice at that and he had already unbuckled himself, ready to jump except that he was still with his poised instructor. Well, for the survivor who must have sensed danger but could not express it in the face of his boss, his demeanor was already in the survival mode. If at all the plane would crash, which he could have imagined earlier having noted the warning blinks, he would have to dare the elements, jump out and fight for himself.
Thus came the end of a tragic story as it began in a happy note.