Ma’am Tels of Bombon
War wounds the body and soul so deeply that any human being who goes through it never emerges the same. The generation that lived through the horrors of the Japanese Occupation in the Philippines during the Second World War will bear witness to that.
If you want to get an authentic account of the actual events of the history of that time, the best thing to do is to approach an eye-witness to the event. You will not only treat yourself with a first person account of the events but also benefit from the added pleasure of being in the presence of someone who’s been there at an important time you only read in the history books.
Unfortunately, that good fortune is already a rarity these days. The Second World War broke out eight decades ago. Most of the generation that experienced it have all but passed away. Would that they were around. What stories they would be telling. And what lessons we would be harvesting from their wisdom to guide our lives.
Fortunately, I found one person who is not only an eye-witness but also an active participant in the resistance movement against the Japanese Occupation of the Philippines.
Her name is Estela Viola Aspe or Telang, Ma’am Tels, as she is affectionately called by former students and colleagues. She is turning 100 next year.
This is her story:
She was born in the idyllic Municipality of Bombon, Camarines Sur, on April 12, 1920. Her parents were both farmers. Bombon is famous for its Leaning Bell Tower.
Ma’am Tels is a born teacher. She was a great believer in the importance of education and in educating others even at an early age. So intense was this belief that she would walk daily the four kilometer stretch from her house to Calabanga to get an education, and did this for six years until she finished elementary school.
But she did not stop here. She went on to study at the Camarines Sur High School, finishing high school with second honors and a number of academic excellence awards. Again, she did not stop here. She studied further and earned her BSED degree at the Southern Luzon College (now UNC).
In 1940, she had her first teaching assignment in San Ramon, Lagonoy, Camarines Sur, at the Lagonoy Elementary School. A teacher at last and at such an early age.
In 1941, however, the war broke out. Her father fetched her, interrupting her teaching. There was no available transportation -- neither bus along the national road nor pamaba (a carabao drawn sled) -- from Lagonoy to Bombon. So they decided to walk through Mt. Isarog, a journey that took them four days and four nights, surviving on fruits along the way. When they reached Bombon, her toes were badly injured that she was unable to walk for a week.
She had a suitor named Narvez who promised to visit her but never showed up. One Saturday morning around 9 am while in the Bombon Plaza with her friend Jaime Villanueva her attention was drawn to a crowd of onlookers. When she came closer, she saw three men hogtied upside down from an acacia tree fronting the town plaza. To her horror, one of them was Narvez.
It was a turning point. She asked the blessings of her parents to join the guerrilla unit under Bicol war hero Commander Teofilo B. Padua. She was too young but her parents gave their consent. She was appointed head of the women’s auxiliary and was responsible for recruiting women from her barrio (Bombon), from Magarao, and from Calabanga. The women helped her cook and nurse the wounded soldiers. They would do this clandestinely and sometimes under enemy fire. They also took lessons in combat self defense.
Several months later her younger brother Piciong was intercepted along with around 20 other young Filipinos by Japanese soldiers while on their way to Calabanga. The young men were tied up and dumped in an army service truck. Because Piciong was thrown in first, he lay on flat on the steel floor, as the bodies were piled up one after the other on top of him that he almost expired from the weight and nearly suffocated. Piciong sustained injuries which caused deformities in both wrists. They were garrisoned at the Ateneo de Naga.
When she learned about this, she sought leave from her group in her camp and went straight to Magarao Mayor Parlan through whose intercession she was able to visit her brother.
It was a gruelling experience to walk Ateneo avenue lined with Japanese soldiers with their fixed bayonets pointed at them. More horrifying was the freshly dug excavation at the back of Ateneo (Queborac) where the prisoners would walk the plank, before they were beheaded and thrown in the open pit mass grave. When she saw her brother she could hardly recognize him among the prisoners with their sinamay shirts and pants. They were all bound together by the neck walking with their shovels. All of them bore signs of severe hunger and exhaustion.
Because of Mayor Parlan’s help, her brother’s life was spared albeit not entirely because he was transferred to the Naga City Police Headquarters beside Tabuco bridge. When malaria struck Naga, she brought her brother a mosquito net, a mat, a pillow which she found out later were availed of not by her brother but by the policemen. Two months later, her brother, barely alive, was finally released.
These are but a few of the many agonies she had undergone that are the consequences of war.
In 1946 she resumed her teaching career, this time as Home Economics teacher at Bombon Central School. In 1953 she met her childhood playmate Gonzalo Aspe Sr., a Bataan Death March survivor. They later married and had four children.
In 1995 her husband suffered a mild stroke which left him bedridden for eight years. She took care of him with nary a word of complaint. Meanwhile, she continued to serve her country until 2014 as the oldest post commander of the Bombon-Magarao District.
Obviously, I cannot go into all the details of her story because of the limited space allotted for a column. Suffice for me to have beamed the spotlight on some of the highlights in the life of this remarkable woman. Ma’am Tels still lives in Bombon with her yaya. Her daily routine consists in early half an hour morning walks under the sun, praying the Rosary, and receiving what she describes as her “Daily Bread.”
Except for a brief three-day stay at the hospital for osteoarthritis, she has no major health issues. She does not need reading glasses. She also does not eat meat.
She is a recipient of many awards. In 2012 she was awarded the most outstanding mother award by the Cecilio Nale Foundation in cooperation with the Mother Butler Guild.
During one inspirational speech she delivered last year before the Bombon Central School Alumni Homecoming, when asked the secret of her long, happy, and healthy life, she said, in sum: back to basics, no gadgets, no pills, no stress, daily Rosary, and most important receive the Daily Bread daily.
Why did I write her story?
Because Ma’am Tels is a national treasure, not only because she was an active participant during the war, but also because she is a teacher and a role model in the real sense of the word. I believe that a true teacher teaches more by example than by words. Ma’am Tels’ life confirms this. She is an inspiration. Her kind are a vanishing breed, for they are the paragons of the old school of palabra-de-honor, good manners, patriotism, and courage -- values we hold dear -- and sorely need.
While they are still around, let us listen to their stories, for they have much to teach. They are the bearers of lessons from which we have much to learn.
Ma’am Tels is turning 100 next year. She deserves all the honors that I earnestly hope will be awarded by a grateful nation.