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We often heard stories from old people that life before was very hard. Money was scarce and that kids were encouraged to help their families financially. Advocates for children's rights were unheard then, so is child labor. It was the time before Pearl Harbor.
In my dad's family, two of my uncles enlisted in the Military. An aunt worked for the Bases' laundromat and my dad worked at a bicycle shop. He also became a houseboy to some military families. Our family hails from Lubao which is the last town of Pampanga, just a few kilometers away from Bataan and Olongapo.
My dad 's family was dirt poor. He was orphaned at an early age and grew up without a father.Though he was a product of a third marriage and had three siblings, he also had half brothers and sisters which really did not matter even then. Grandma tried all sorts of jobs, so she can feed her kids. Dad once told me that they would have cooked rice and salt for their meals. He and his youngest brother Pinong, whom he was really fond of, would add water and salt on the cooked rice, so it would have some taste. These were days when they were lucky. Some days were not. And my grandama could not help but shed a tear, while they were gathered together at the dinner table. That was enough for my aunt Afric and my dad, who was the second eldest in his brood, to leave Lubao, and try his luck at Fort Stotsenburg. And true enough he did.
At the bicycle shop, dad's boss was an American, thus he learned his English firsthand. Day by day, my dad did not only earn a living, he also earned a teacher and a friend. The American will teach him the basics of his work and my dad would follow. Day by day, he learned to forget how lonely it was to leave his family in Lubao so they could eat regular meals, choosing not to be a burden instead. My aunt Naty recalled those rare days when he get to spend some time with them, when dad took her and uncle Pinong to the bycicle shop as a treat. He bought them bubblegums which were too big for their small mouths to chew, that they could not even open them to speak. And my dad would laugh at them, because he knew his siblings were overwhelmed not only with the taste of candies but of the stories that needed to be shared for the short time they were together.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed and the war broke out, life became chaos. It became survival. Dad was trapped in Angeles City while his family in Lubao evacuated. It may have been months, maybe years. Most people were not mindful of counting how long the war will last then, but how soon it would be over. My dad's family thought he was already dead. They lost track of him. It was very painful but each of them hope, that one day they will all be together. Never did they thought that the American boss and my dad went into hiding.
Because of the uncertainties the war had created, the American had grown to care for my dad. During those dark days, his boss did not only become a friend but acted more of a father, protective of his son and his welfare. He too, wished that both of them will survive. After a long time, when the war was nearing its end, and it was safe enough to come outside, my dad had to say the inevitable. He told his boss that its time for him to head back home. The American, was hesitant to let him leave. He told my dad that he may not find his family anymore, that they may have not survived. He even offered him to start a life in the US, adopt him as his son, so he can have a better life. He was so touched, not only by my dad's sense of professionlism but his love for his family as well.
But my dad declined.
He told him that he will always be grateful for his kindness but he will try to pick up the pieces of his life, or of what's left in Lubao. And that he can never leave his family behind.
It was then that the American let him go. I am not sure if he even helped my dad assembled a bicycle so he can get to Lubao much faster. In a way, the bicycle was not just a gift, but a bond, a reminder of a friendship that will never be forgotten.
The trip from Angeles to Lubao was a painful one. My dad let go, not only of an opportunity but a dream that could have changed his life. Still, he chose to be with his family, if he will be lucky enough to find them.
After passing many towns, destroyed by the war, asking around about his family, he finally found what he had been looking for. What more they had all survived. The emptiness that he felt so long suddenly was replaced by happiness now that he is back. The pain of waiting was all worth it.
This story was a product of the bits and pieces of stories, randomly told by my mom, aunt Naty and sometimes by my dad. Now I know why we he named his kids with American names. Now I know why we grew up watching mostly American shows, even documentaries in which I am now thankful of. Maybe this explains why, when my dad had a bicycle for a gift, took good care of it even to his last days.
Perhaps, he remembered, how it felt to have a father and how he had found a friend during the time of war.
And just maybe he remembered, his humble beginnings, at a place once called Fort Stotsenberg.