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Reclaiming Memories

Memories are bountiful in Facebook postings. While social media platforms have been demonized, there is closed group called “Memories of Naga and Bicol.” Dubbed “MNB,” the site is celebrating its fifth anniversary. It is that old. It has that durability.

Like the other members, I was invited to join it and I never regretted.

The person behind this is Alfred Vergara Yrastorza, a former Philippine Airlines Station Manager. Itos Gavino, Maria Clara Badong Archeta and Francis Peña serve as moderators.

I have written already about this platform some months back. But I am writing about it again presently having seen how rabid and passionate has the sharing of the photographs in the said site. Each photograph brings in varied memories. Each memory represents an age, a period gone by, almost always gilded by affection. The most interesting trait of this group is the constant reminder that debates and arguments are not encouraged among the members. As with memories whose control lies only in the one remembering, each recollection is left unfettered. If ever one attempts to make a correction of one’s remembrances, this comes in the form of another memory of that same event, albeit with a different contour, a counterpoint complexion. The latest to share a set of photos is Michael Calara, who showed us a set of pictures from the collection of his father, Atty. Alfredo S. Calara, Jr. Taken in the 70s, the images showed Naga when it was a quiet settlement, not as modern as the other big cities of the country but not as small as to be mistaken as a town.

Any photograph coming from the 70s is bound to be received with more vivid remembering as the people who were in their youth during those times could be in their 50s and 60s now. These are ages that allow persons to be philosophers who, in the words of German Romanticist Novalis, would think of “philosophy as really nostalgia, that desire to be home.”

This craving of a safe place, a return to a warm refuge turns even more acute as the shadow of old haunts, a vacant lot, a distant deck beckon from the distance created by the camera. Thus, the Calara photographs are now guiding the members of MNB to rattle off the names of the buildings shown and to ask what is missing there now and what is found.

From an angle that members say was taken from the present-day Holiday Hotel or Crown, one can see the wide stretch of Elias Angeles Street. Everyone notices a lot vacant except for four or five buses. This was the old Alatco terminal, which then became Philtranco. We all know it to be the site now of EMall. Gone is the black, sooty ground always slippery with diesel and gas.

At the corner of the street, one catches the signage of Caltex. All gas stations before were all called Caltex. A big square house stands beside Caltex. Someone remembers “King’s Grocery” there. Another member thinks an Arejola lived beside that huge house. Next to it is a tall building. That is the Old GSIS Building, which by the 70s has already moved to a newer building facing Barlin Street.

In the 60s, we had the GSIS-SLRO (Southern Luzon Regional Office) Christmas Children’s Party there. For some reason, I was chosen the King of the Party; there was a Queen, of course. For the prize, I got Chinese Checker, which I never liked. In the 80s, the second floor of that building was transformed into a girlie bar. The ground floor of that building now houses a café. Everytime I go there, I always have this idea that, if I go up, I would see, instead of hotel rooms, the offices of my father and all the other officemates still alive, working.

I have done my own sharing of old photographs. The pictures are from the archive of the Ateneo de Naga James O’Brien Library.

One photograph, which I consider rare, shows what must be the oldest photograph related to the Ateneo de Naga University. It is a photo of the groundbreaking ceremonies of the school. Bishop Pedro P. Santos holds a ceremonial shovel and beside him is Fr. Francis Burns, SJ, the first rector of Ateneo de Naga. When the photograph came out in the MNB, the writer, Kristian Sendon Cordero, commented on a person he recognized -Fr. Florencio Yllana of the famous Yllana clan, standing beside the Jesuit priest.

The new building was barely inaugurated when the Pacific War broke out. Members of MNB took note of that and many commented how the Japanese soldiers were the first to occupy the handsome building. The occupation forces must have grinned widely to see how majestic their garrison would be.

If we are to believe the stories that when one was brought to Ateneo de Naga during the war, you were certainly not going to be seen alive anymore, then the four pillars of Ateneo were the first and the last awesome sight these unfortunate men – and women? – saw.

I have a favorite among these old photographs from the Ateneo de Naga archive. It is the photo of the first alumni homecoming of the high school after the end of World War II.

This must be the most poignant and hopeful photos of young men after the war, I wrote on MNB.

How did they react upon seeing each other? When the roll call was called, and a friend’s name was mentioned, did they turn around to find out to see if he came?

“Memory can perform retrospective maneuvers to compensate for fate,” Eva Hoffman said. Destiny has not been kind to some generations before us but memory can always bring them back, if not by way of the heart and mind, then, well, maybe through the lens of a forgiving camera.

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