Chili Peppers and Plane Rides

M–, my classmate in first year high school, used to have a collection of model airplanes that he assembled by himself and glued together so painstakingly. I was so awed.

Part of it was the fact that I was a poor kid from the province and everything about the Big City awed me: the neon lights, the fast food chains, the supermarkets, and the fact that I was in the national science high school, away from my dark childhood, something I had fervently wished for, quite literally, on the first night star, every evening since Grade 3.

The other part of it was that he was so much like my brothers: A nerd to the core, with an encyclopedic knowledge of things that caught his fancy. If my memory serves me right, he said something like “Don’t touch them!” — and his voice had the same impatient, reverent edge to it that my brother would have had over a new book, or about some chess endgame laid out on the board.

I was five or six when my brother DJ– would force me to play chess with him, and I really didn’t mind, because it meant the undivided attention of my favorite brother, who was 11 years older than me. Now I realize that he was my first hero. Of course, he would always make me win and would keep me playing for long hours by convincing me that the chess pieces were made of real chocolate and that I could actually “eat” the ones he sacrificed.

At another time, of course, he convinced me that sili labuyo was a sweet cherry, with devastating results. But even then I remember thinking that it was quite funny to be fooled so.

Another thing DJ– would let me do was take long, early-morning walks with him up the mountains surrounding the La Trinidad, Benguet Valley. His absentminded lectures about Buckminster Fuller, movies and Nietzsche — which always began with something like “Imagine that we are just fishes in a fish bowl and that fish bowl is inside another fish bowl, which is inside another fish bowl, that is being watched by God –trained me to think outside tradition and to extend my childishly short attention span. Well, that and of course, standing for hours picking out my 40+ year-old-mom’s white hairs.

Today my brother’s lectures form the core of my stock knowledge. More than anyone else, it was he who taught me to always think critically, or at least, to always try. In college, he got into an argument with his Philippine history professor who was teaching her class Otley Beyer‘s waves of migration theory. Embarrassed, the prof flunked him. This was in the 70s, after all, it was a Catholic school, and DJ was always ahead of his time.

Of all the things my brother instilled in me, though, those I most value are, an imagination, and an unshakable sense of awe in all the world’s offerings. So of course I was awed by many things at Pisay. I think I spent my first year in a dream state, partly fomented by the muggy heat that I couldn’t seem to get used to, being the Baguio kid that I was.

The other thing that fascinated me, as a young in the city, was the bathtub in my classmate ML–‘s bathroom. Wow, she had her own bathroom! Wow, it was pink! Wow, you could waste all that water! As children, we were often called on to fetch water — though it never really felt quite like a chore but more like an adventure, with my brother-hero making it so by regaling us with all his interesting stories.

It was not the poverty, after all, that wounded us so much, but the unfaltering violence in our lives.

Watching Revolutionary Road with my dear, dear, friend R– made me appreciate how tough I actually am. Napaka-depressing naman niyan,he said, I can’t take it. And I thought, uhuh, that’s a two-hour taste of our childhood. Candy you can spit out. That was what our childhood was like. Every single frigging day. No exaggeration. Except that, unlike that movie where the adults tear each other apart, in our childhood, we kids, we were the tender morsels for the picking. Until we learned to pick each other apart, too.

Sophie’s Choice. Long Day’s Journey Into the Night. Prince of Tides. Those are some of the stories that come to mind when I think of my childhood. “My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call,” says Conroy, and I echo.

I think my older brother was destroyed by trying to protect us all. We were six younger girls after him, after all, and he must have collapsed under the great weight of thinking that it was his duty to protect us all. Especially so since he was brought up to believe that we were, like my mom, weak and helpless princesses. (We weren’t)

About 10years after M–‘s plane collection bowled me over, the man I still call The-Man-I-Loved-The-Most said wistfully that hobbies were the one thing that the poor couldn’t afford to have. I guess that was yet another reason why M–‘s plane collection fascinated me so.

The poor, with great effort, could excel in school, could learn new languages, could sing, could dance… But having a collection of something entailed a luxury of time, and meant spare cash — all indisputably part of middle class terrain. T-M-I-L-T-M was a farmer’s son who grew up with two or three books at home, but who was intelligent enough to end up with a full scholarship at The State University.

By this time, I was decidedly a National Democrat. I guess it was easier to focus on the “national issues” that were far less painful to dissect, and seemingly easier to solve. Of course it also provided a way for me to channel all that anger, and a way to befriend my shadow side.

Paradoxically, being a young activist also inspired me to bring out the best in myself, and to forever strive to become an evolved being, worthy of Darwin, Marx, Lenin, Bakunin, and Rosa Luxemburg.

And still, there is yet another reason why M–‘s model planes were so fascinating. My sister DT–, older by five years, once dreamed of being a pilot. She actually logged enough flying hours to qualify as a private pilot in the mid-80s. This she did while studying Aeronautical Engineering and working part time at McDonald’s, and part time as an assistant (then later instructor) at a flying school — and all the while living in some squatter’s shack in Leveriza Street (close to Mc. Donald’s Harrison), surviving on cigarettes, coffee and the one free McDonald’s meal a day. I often wonder how she did it, but she did it.

Some time in the 1990s, she applied as ground crew (airplane mechanic) for PAL, but wasn’t accepted. This, despite her intelligence and true grit, and definite willingness to get grease on her hands. PAL told her they didn’t accept women, but that same year it hired its first female pilot. The woman was actually applying as a stewardess, but PAL thought it was time to jazz up appearances and hire the lucky, good-looking dame. Oh, well, as I’ve said more than once elsewhere, we sisters, we look like our dad…

Nevertheless, I have had the joy of riding a Cessna 150 piloted by my own sister! It must have been the summer of 1989, and one of my sister’s rich-brat-kid-friends could afford to waste plane fuel, so she lugged me and my younger brother, and my three nieces and nephews, RR–, RDV– and GDV– down to the airport at Poro Point, La Union where we swam on the beach, pigged out on Chippy and Coke, and flew! We just went on the fly — like everything my sister did, at that time, which was quicker than life. She just went up to each of my harassed single-mom sisters (yes, that runs in the family, too, we’re allergic to men, but not to kids!), and told them she was taking the kids and would take them back before evening. Haha. We went sans swim suits, sans sunscreen, and knowing my sister, probably with just one-way fare and a few extra bucks on us.

I will never forget the look on RR–‘s face, at age five, seeing the sea for the first time. First, he squat and silently stared at the waves for a few moments, as if surveying the lay of the land. Then he yelled and tumbled into the water! Then, of course, the plane ride. The take off and the landing were smooth, unlike any ride in a car or in life, with my sister driving.

I remembered all these two days before New Year, with my money from a loan running out, I was close to broke, with my employer having suffered a sudden downturn, and putting us employees on a forced vacation. I was on my way to LBC Domestic to pick up a few thousand pesos from another dear friend (brother?) Andrei who sent me an emergency loan to tide me over.

The LBC office, it turned out, was inside the old domestic airport tarmac, and as I walked the stretch of the tarmac, the ghost of my sister, DT-the-pilot, came flashing back. Or bouncing back, as her chubby self did back then.

Oh no, my sister’s not dead, she’s just since reinvented herself. Where once her favorite pair of shoes (her only pair aside from school shoes, for heaven’s sake!) was a pair of earth shoes, she’s now into girl shoes. Where once she wore her hair, like mine, au naturel and yeah, bushy (even bushier), she has her hair now rebonded. Where once she spoke in short grunts like a guy, she’s now affected a Middle-class colegiala accent.  Can’t blame her, she learned her bitter lessons. But she’s a good mom. Impressive, in fact, considering where we’ve come from.

So that day, walking the length of the empty MIA tarmac (it was one of those not-Holiday, but not-exactly-working-day days) I saw her again, bouncing toward me in her earth shoes, jeans and trademark brown jacket with a cigarette burn on the collar. She could never leave home without that jacket, even on sweltering days.

When her days off coincided with my weekends, DT would drag me out of my comfortable home at the Pisay dorm to her uncomfortable rundown room in Leveriza, and we’d be at the MIA tarmac at the crack of dawn. We’d lie on some empty stretch of tarmac to watch the clouds and the planes. The Airlink guys (her friends and colleagues) were so welcoming of her eccentricities. At night, we’d watch the plane lights trail away.

Feb. 2 is my brother DJ’s 52nd birthday.

Feb. 14 was my Dad’s birthday.
March 6 is my sister DT’s birthday.
March 8 is my younger brother DI’s birthday. Happy Birthday folks. I’m choking on my water here. This is for you, and for that spunky little girl in the lost photos.

As another, dear, dear friend MRT said to comfort me once, “Lesser mortals would have crumbled.”


One comment on “Chili Peppers and Plane Rides

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