The first time I brought my family to Legazpi City, I had only one agenda: I wanted my son Jacob to meet a living war hero. I wanted him to meet former Legazpi City Mayor Luis S. Los Baños, not so much because he laid the foundations of Modern Legazpi but because the character of this man personified to me the soldier’s old school virtues of Duty, Honor, and Country.
Despite our tightly-packed schedule, therefore, the Legazpi homecoming was going to be the highlight. For Legazpi is close to my heart. I had spent many happy years of my childhood in Legazpi. Mention a landmark -- any, Stilianopoulos Building or Rizal Park or the Legazpi Restaurant -- and I’ll tell you it never fails to draw happy memories of this beautiful city of my youth.
Because of our tight schedule, however, it was going to be a very brief visit; we had to be back to Naga by evening to catch the early flight to Manila and then back to New York.
I’ve always believed that in life, timing is everything. My son was in his most impressionable years and his Lolo Coeng, the old soldier I’d tell him stories about, was already in his nineties. Old soldiers, says the old army barracks ballad, never die; they just fade away. I wanted my son to be in the radar screen of a role model. If even a little of that legendary man’s character rubbed off on my son, that would be enough, more than enough.
That was in 1996.
When we returned to Legazpi in 2010, the old soldier had already faded away.
“I am very blest to have met him when he was still alive,” my son said, after we had kissed the marble surface of the grave.
We stood in front of Tio Coeng’s final resting place under the scorching sun but the breeze in the flower and tree-lined Bicol Memorial Park in the Gogon-Bogtong Bypass Road in Legazpi City hardly made us notice the heat, especially with the breathtaking view of majestic Mayon Volcano looming benevolently before us.
Tio Coeng was Legazpi to me and Legazpi was -- and still is -- Tio Coeng. If Manila has its “Yorme,” Legazpi in the 1960s had its “Ayor.” For that was what everybody called him in my young and easy years. It was the age of heroes, real-life and reel-life (The Magnificent Seven, High Noon, The Guns of Navarone). It was the age of courage, of palabra de honor, of civility, of dignity. To us, Tio Coeng embodied them all.
My mind moved back to that lovely afternoon in 1996 when I introduced my son to him. Because of my long absence and his advancing age, I had been forewarned that he may no longer remember me. So as soon as he emerged from his room to meet us in the balcón, I approached with the intent to remind him who I was. Before I could utter a word, he said:
I was shocked. Awel is the name my family and childhood friends would call me.
My wife and my son reverently kissed his hand. We embraced.
Tio Coeng was in great spirits. As soon as I sat on the steel white glider bench, he asked me how I was. I told him about my family and my life in the States. I told him my father, now with me in the US, sent his regards.
Although Tio Coeng was from Legazpi and my father from Naga, their friendship went a long way. Apart from being brothers-in-law (Tio Coeng married my mother’s sister Pura Ojeda), they were both comrades in arms -- veterans of the Second World War.
When the war broke out, Tio Coeng, a native of Legazpi, who just earned a business degree from De La Salle in Manila, was in Naga managing the family business, among them the Naga Theatre.
As soon as he heard that more advance landings were being made by the Imperial Japanese forces in Legazpi, he decided to rush back home to Albay and join the Guerrilla Resistance Movement in his home province. Unfortunately, he was detained in Naga. The reason is because earlier, while my father was secretly recruiting men for the resistance movement, Tio Coeng had personally met up with him and, in answer to my father’s call to arms, donated one of his favorite rifles to the Tangkong Vaca Guerrilla Unit.
That was a very risky gesture. It could have cost Tio Coeng all his businesses, if not his life, if the Japanese had found out. But Tio Coeng, according to my father, had already openly resented the invasion. He refused to pledge allegiance to the invaders despite their resorts to propaganda, bribes, and other “policies of attraction.”
True enough, the Kempetai raided his home and dragged him to a private house “for interrogation.” When his captors could not get him to talk, they tied wires around his thumbs and raised both thumbs until he was standing on tiptoes. Then they beat him up. It was only through the intervention of some prominent persons in Naga, who were alerted of the arrest, that he was granted “conditional release.” That gave him the chance to sneak out of surveillance and rush back to Legazpi.
The most painful part of the experience, however, Tio Coeng later recalled, was not the physical torture but his finding out that Filipino collaborators were behind the operation. But he had forgiven them all. Not an iota of rancor in his heart. It was a time of war, he said.
Meanwhile, his bravery in the battlefield became byword among his peers to the effect that he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
After the war, Tio Coeng returned to Naga. When he heard that war-torn Ateneo de Naga had no presentable venue to hold its first post-war commencement exercises, he offered Naga Theater -- for free. So on July 11, 1946, Naga Theater hosted the first post-war Ateneo graduation exercises.
Soon after, he sold his properties in Naga and permanently settled in his beloved Legazpi. His dream: to turn it into one of the best cities in the world.
It is on record that he served as city councilor without pay. Legazpi never forgot this. That is why even after he had returned to private life to attend to family business, and the city needed someone badly with an impressive track record of duty, integrity, and skill to lead the city, the people persuaded him to serve again -- as Mayor.
He ran the administration like a business corporation. He set for himself and for all public servants a work ethic unusual in his day: to be in the service of the city 24/7. I was too young at the time but I would marvel at the way he would work very hard even at nights personally doing the rounds with a pocket camera to make sure no policeman slept on duty.
His achievements are legion. I cannot name them all, given the space limit. Suffice it to say, here are some:
In 1963, the Committee on Research and Evaluation of the Philippine House of Standards and Evaluation Research voted him as one of the Philippines' Most Outstanding City Mayors because of his “Integrity, Leadership, and Interest in the economic, cultural, and moral well-being of his constituents.” These were the times when these words meant what they meant. In 1966, the United Independent Writers' Guild singled him out as the country’s "Exemplary and Outstanding City Mayor." To top it all, it was during his term that Legazpi City was declared "The Cleanest City in the Philippines" -- for the first time. For Legazpi, it was the best of times. She had the right man for the right job at the right time.
That, however, is not the raison d’être of this piece. It is the character of the man. If there was one thing that puts him head and shoulders above many public servants, it is this: he loved Legazpi. Passionately. And Legazpi loved him back. He did not have to prove it. It just flowed from his character. Integrity, sincerity, love -- these hallowed words -- you cannot fake them. They will eventually show. Respect, he once said, you cannot demand it; it is earned.
Most of the generation born this century think their elders have no idea how hard life is. They talk back at their elders. They find fault in everything. They easily get offended. They whimper at the drop of a hat. Even the simple request to wear a facemask in this pandemic, out of respect and consideration for others, arouses belligerency here in the US. I do not understand their sense of entitlement. I do not understand how they rationalize it by inventing their own narratives.
And yet these whiners enjoy all the comforts of modern living. They live in comfortable homes with electricity and running water, fully equipped with their i-pods, smartphones, laptops, tablets, with access to FB, Viber, Zoom, and all that.
None of these existed in Tio Coeng’s generation. Yet they never complained. In time of war, when the country, plunged in darkness, called for help, they responded to the call to arms, and rose to the occasion -- and to greatness. Tio Coeng belonged to that generation.
“He was a very generous man,” his granddaughter Regina recalls. “He would always walk that extra mile just to help a person in need. One time, after Mass, he asked me what I would do with the money I was saving. I told him that I was saving for a stuff toy. He told me, when the time comes when you have saved enough money to buy that stuff toy and someone came and asked for help, what would you do?”
Before she could answer, he said:
“Don’t hesitate to help even if it means giving up the stuff toy, because you can always save again. But the opportunity to help someone is priceless. When you are given the opportunity to help, do it immediately.”
And here’s the golden lesson her grandfather left her:
“When you give to the needy, he said, do it secretly.”
The family had no idea how many people he had helped during his lifetime, until they surfaced, one after another, after they learned that he had passed away, each with a story to tell of his boundless generosity.
For example, Regina recalls that during the wake, a man approached her father Gil and asked timidly if he would be asked to vacate the place where he stayed, now that Tio Coeng who allowed the family to live there was gone. Gil, his father’s son, told him to stay.
He was the proverbial favorite uncle. It was always a much-awaited event each time he’d visit Naga for the Peñafrancia Fiesta, and we’d prepare the best food in the house for “Ayor.” He was the clan’s hero.
When I told my brother Caloy I was writing about one of his favorite uncles, I got this reply: “He’s not one of my favorite uncles. He IS my favorite uncle, period.”
He wanted us to stay for dinner, but we really had to go. Besides, we did not want to importune him any longer. My wife held him reverently, as he stood up and walked us to the waiting car. We embraced. My son hugged him tight.
“Happy trip, Awel.” Those were his last words.
From inside the car, I took one last glance at Tio Coeng who waved at us. Everybody in the car waved back. I did not. Instead, I rolled down the side window and gave him a snappy salute.
Dusk was falling when we approached Camalig. As our car flitted in the light and shadow of coconut trees, the majesty of Mayon stood before us, and I thought again of Tio Coeng and the city he loved and served so well.
“Legazpi marches forward,” he assured his people in his State of the City Address in February 1, 1965. “With courage and with vision, with industry and with friendliness and with cooperation, together, the people and the government, under God, can make Legazpi into a happier, brighter, and more prosperous city.”
That’s what he promised, and that’s what he delivered.
Luis S. Los Baños: The Man and His City.
“He was the last of that rare breed of men you can truly call great,” my voice shook inside the car.
My wife, knowing me by the sound of that voice, handed me a handkerchief. I declined.
“It’s just the dust in my eye,” I said, as our car careened down the road going to Naga. I had to catch the early flight back to New York.