September, Some Forty-Nine Years Ago



In 1972, a bridge had collapsed in our city. With the Traslacion held on the second Saturday of September by tradition, which was the eighth day of the month, the fluvial happened on the sixteenth of the same month.


All that sense of death vanished too quickly when a week after the Colgante tragedy, a nation collapsed: Martial Law was declared all over the Philippines. While the twenty-first of September is marked as the date of such declaration, there are differing dates in other documents and sources.


To us, college students of Ateneo de Naga, it was on a Saturday, the 23rd of September, when we were told about the declaration. The silence of the radio stations that morning was deathly apparent. On that same Saturday, more than a hundred deaths were already accounted for. The people were talking of filing a case against the local government of Naga.


We found out about Martial Law while we were waiting for the start of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) drills. In those days, it was compulsory for all young men of a certain age to go through military training. The minds behind the ROTC were all shaped by the experience of the World War II, which caught Filipinos unprepared.


On the grassy lawn fronting the administration building, guarded by the Four Pillars, we stood there for about an hour. The officers were moving about. We were happy not to be marching even if the morning sun was not that hot yet. Finally, the news filtered in, and the commandant through our Company Commanders and Platoon Leaders began informing us about the situation.


We would be going home. We would wait for the announcement for classes to resume. Please be careful all of you.


We were confused and yet a bit excited and giddy. This was something new – to be sent home and be told to wait it out. This command happened only when typhoons were about to hit the region. But we were good with typhoons.


Will we be good with Martial Law? What is Martial Law anyway?


From the time Marcos was reelected, the buzz about the declaration of martial law had always hogged the imagination of the public. Many had foretold his ambition. And yet, Marcos always had this presence that reeked of statesmanship. He was fluent, articulate, not the bumbling politicians we commonly have at present.


In 1971, following the Plaza Miranda bombing (where Liberal Party senators turned out to be the victims), Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus. Political observers saw this as testing the ground for a bigger ideological action, the declaration of martial rule.


I do remember the talks then, at home, in debates in the classrooms and public gatherings, even in our Plaza Rizal before the theologians went for the more incendiary discussions on Man/God and the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Would Marcos be reckless enough to impose Martial Law with the world looking at him?


The simplistic (it is now) notion that there was always America, the Big Brother, who would not allow the military to reign over the civil society in our country was a thread in the popular discourse. We believed in our heart America would always protect us. We also had this sense that any martial rule would be done in the improvisatory Filipino way: It would be temporary; the military would not be harsh; the local police because of social kinship would watch over us. Then, we looked at the First Family: the innocent-looking Marcos children and the genial and gentle and beautiful First Lady.


But Martial Law did come. We never knew what military rule was, the last collective memory being was the American Occupation at the turn of the century and the Japanese presence in the last World War. While scholars generally painted a more benign picture of the Americans, documentations about the Japanese left vicious memories implanted in our psyche.


Back in classrooms under the dictatorship, we studied other things but never touched on the topic of Martial Law. The closest we got in examining our life then was when our Political Science 8 professor, Atty. William Dy-Liacco, asked us to read Plato’s Republic in its entirety. Two realizations: our library had numerous copies of the book and it was easy to read. Things had to be academic, for thoughts sheltered in classrooms made us safe and made the putative nation safer.


Months after, one of my friends and a classmate also reading Plato, a very good poet, disappeared. The last time I heard she was in one of those mountains in Davao, still alive. Everywhere killings took place but no newspaper wrote about them. Writing was silenced. The only writers alive were those who thrived under the reign of the dictatorship.


As for the Colgante tragedy, no investigations followed, its data shelved. There was just another memory and those were about the White Lady, her luminescent form grievous on the late evening sky of Naga, days before the fall of the bridge and the Republic.