When I came home to the Philippines last year, our schedule was so tight I only had a couple of days to squeeze in to visit my beloved Naga. My wife had urgent family matters in Manila and I was just tagging along. To maximize our time, we took the early Cebu Pacific flight to Naga.
Here I am at the terminal. I hear they do not serve free food on the plane, so I think of buying something to eat.
“Iha, pabili nga ng apat na siopao. Heto ang bayad.” I hurry back to my chair.
“Sir, Sir, sobra po ang bayad niyo,” the saleslady runs right up to me.
I am pleasantly shocked. “Thank you, Iha, it’s yours.”
She is pleasantly shocked too. And I thought the word “honesty” was archaic.
That made my day and I looked forward to a blessed couple of days.
I’m now eating the asado on the plane, and I’m so excited, as my mind races back to bosom friends I have not seen in decades. I open a magazine and the word “superhero” leaps out of the page.
Many years ago, Ernie Verdadero and I were exchanging pleasantries at the Ateneo de Naga softball grounds, right beside the gym. A boy of about 7 or 8 and his carabao were in the grassland right across the softball field. Suddenly we heard a scream. The carabao had turned berserk and kept charging at the boy.
Without a second thought, Ernie rushed towards the angry carabao to draw its attention away from the boy, while I sought assistance from a couple of students standing by the gym. Before we knew it, Ernie had already managed to keep the carabao at bay. I’ll never forget that scene: Ernie, like the brave matador, cape and all, quick as lightning, risking everything to save the life of a child, with no second thought. A superhero.
I smile at the recollection, and I think of another bosom classmate, George Caudilla. As far back as I can remember, George’s gift of humor had always lightened us up, especially during times we needed some sunshine. That was his talent. A great natural gift from God. He always made people feel good in his characteristic amiable way. My mother told me a story: one rainy afternoon she hailed a trimobile in the centro, and the driver whose face was partially covered was extra helpful to her. It puzzled her. Chivalry is not dead in Naga, she thought. She had a hard time getting down the cab but the driver immediately got down to steady her arm. My mother who was a stickler for good manners was impressed. That was not all. When she handed out her fare, the driver refused and hurriedly left. When the trimobile pulled off, he pulled down his “facial mask” to reveal his real identity.
“That’s my son George!” My mother would fondly call him “my son” each time he’d be around. I think it was because of the sunshine he’d always bring with him despite the rain in our lives. That’s George all right. The one and only.
And who can forget the ever amiable Monlee. The last time I saw him he came out of his quiet retirement just to meet me (“If you can’t come here, I’ll meet you anywhere”), and as always with Monlee we laughed and laughed the whole time we were together. Just like old times. It is impossible not to feel good in the presence of Monlee. His witticism exudes a universal atmosphere of good humor everywhere he goes. He has this unique gift of making the slings and arrows of life more bearable, however old or young you are. We grew up together in Naga. He lives in Manila now. I have to see him again when I get back to Manila. You see, we made this agreement: each time I’d visit the Philippines I will bring him news about the Philippines; and he in turn will bring me news--about America.
Monlee and George: two superheroes with superpowers to warm us with their wit like sunshine.
The plane has landed. Like all children of Naga, my first stop is the old Penafrancia Shrine, to visit my mother’s resting place in the family plot at the back of the church. The last time I saw Mother was when I joined the Pagoda during the Fluvial Procession in 2010. I was not able to say goodbye.
My brother Max comforts me and insists in treating us to Caceres Hotel.
The next day, after a breakfast of ibos con tsocolate, cuchinta, lugaw, tocino, and fried rice, we proceed to the centro to buy pili and other pasalubongs.
“I think I’ll walk around the centro by myself and buy pasalubongs and meet you where we parked,” I tell my sister-in-law Sylvia who is with my spouse. I’m not especially interested in the women stuff they’re shopping in downtown Naga.
“Don’t get lost,” they chime in unison. “Baka ma kidnap ka.”
Kidnap. Bah, taga Naga tabi ako. What a great moment walking in the centro of my youth. So many happy memories. I buy pili delicacies and pick up souvenir items along Elias Angeles St., right across Naga’s famous Oyster Restaurant.
While walking back, however, I notice a person mounted in a distant “riding-in-tandem” (that dreaded phrase I read about so often) pointing in my direction. My heart skips a beat, as the motorcycle roars directly towards me. Kidnap-for-ransom. Somebody tipped them I am a balikbayan. Taga Naga po ako. My wallet is on my left pocket. A bullet in my head. The duo screeches to a stop right in front of me. A quick prayer escapes my lips.
“Sir, you dropped this.”
The rider hands me a small bag I dropped, as I was busy in my nostalgic reverie walking and eating mazapan de pili and talking to my cell phone all at the same time.
The contents are nothing: just a bunch of souvenir keychains made out of pilinut shells. But the gesture is gold. They zoom away as quickly as they came, not even waiting for me to say Dios mabalos po. I did not see any capes flapping. The modern superheroes of the centro!
As soon as they disappear, however, I suddenly realize that in my panic the prayer I uttered in time of danger was Grace before meals!
From the centro we proceed to my sister’s house in Tabuco. My sister has not been well for some time now. She is being well taken care of by a dutiful son PJ who’s turned down an offer from a foreign company to take care of his mother. She took good care of him. Now it’s his turn, he says. PJ is starting a small home based business to make ends meet. I have no doubt he will succeed. He’s a good person. He has a motorcycle and a vehicle to take his mom around. I imagine PJ in his super motorcycle with his cape and attending to the welfare of senior citizens. Another superhero here.
There are too, too many more to mention, but they’re too, too modest to even want their good deeds mentioned. They come from all walks in life, from the tindera at the airport to the “riding-in-tandem”, the tricycle drivers, the people who make people laugh to the porters and employees of the hotel I stayed and most specially to my bosom friends in Naga whose first words when I saw them were: Is there anything we can do to make your stay enjoyable and comfortable? It is their lifestyle. Caring for friends and family. Living for others. Upholding good moral values for others. As I write this I am not bothered by the fact that I have forgotten many other superheroes. It does not matter to them but it does to me. So I have taken it upon myself to write this simple piece in homage to them.
They, and many other lovely people who prefer to remain unnoticed working behind the scenes to bring some sunshine to this difficult world, they are the superheroes of our lives.
Superheroes who don’t wear capes.