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Ashes of Time: Short vignettes of a reporter over 20 years on the field

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Bangus belly

ACROSS TRINITY HIGH SCHOOL, Villamonte, Bacolod City (Sometime in 1994) – “Double Bravo, Saint Base,” my handheld VHF unit crackled.

Saint Base was the code for the control room of DYAF Radio Veritas, the Church-owned radio station that was my first employer when I was 19.

I was “Double Bravo,” a phonetic code for Big Boy, which I was in my younger years, chubby, small.

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“Go,” I said. “10-20?” the voice on the other end asked.

“10-7, sa Michelle’s (at Michelle’s),” I responded.

Michelle’s was the carinderia, a little eatery where we reporters of DYAF Radio Veritas used to eat regularly and sign vales that we would pay every mid and end of the month.

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I burped. Breakfast was good.

I had a big slice of bangus tinola, milk fish cooked in a milky white broth with batuan and sliced banana flower that gives the soup an earthy taste.

The milk fish belly was mostly fat. White, creamy goodness that gave way to the spoon the moment I cut into it.

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It melted in my mouth. Creamy, a bit fishy with a bitter finish from the bits of entrails left in the cut served to me.

“May taxi driver nga patay nakit an atubang Trinity (A taxi driver was found dead at Trinity),” Ben, our radio technician who looks like Abdul Jabaar, said.

That was the time when holdup incidents were frequent with PU drivers as the victims. There were no taxis then with meters but PUs, public utility cars that operate on fare guesstimates agreed upon by driver and passenger.

We jumped into our trusted mobile unit, a mint green Volkswagen Bettle as Narding, our driver who could have been an F1 driver in his past life, and rushed to the place

True enough, a body was sprawled beside the road, his taxi, an Isuzu Gemini, nearby.

“Sulod ko, sulod ko (I will report),” I told the base, pressing hard on on the PTT button of my 02N Icom portable.

“Subong sini yari kita Utod Eric sa dalan pasulod sa Regent Pearl Subdivision sa diin diri nasapwan ang isa ka bangkay sang taxi driver nga nagahamyangon sa kilid dalan tabok gid lamang sang Trinity High School,” the intro to my live report said.

Right now Brother (our on air common label for Veritas reporters) Eric we are at the road leading to Regent Pearl Subdivision where the body of a taxi driver was found just across Trinity High School.

I was a good 50 meters from the body when I started to report and I moved closer as I did.

I was standing over the body as I continued to report, describing the situation of the body, the location of the taxi and the location itself – basics to a live radio report.

The body was that of a man lying on his back, about 5’10’ with a stocky build and a bulging stomach with his fat seeming to drape over the waistline of his pants, a pair of black corduroy.

He wore a collarless white T-shirt that had a large red blot in the chest area from a stab wound.

As I moved closer, I noticed his stomach was exposed as his shirt seemed to have moved up.

There was a secondary wound.

“Duha pa lang ka pilas tuga sang pagbuno ang makita ko sa subong. Isa sa dughan kag isa sa iya nga tiyan,” I said, reporting that there were two stab wounds, one on the chest, the other on the stomach.

Then I saw fat oozing out of the wound on the stomach.

I pressed the PTT to continue the report then remembered the bangus belly fat.

I barfed.

Dead air.

Acts of Contrition

SOMEWHERE ABOVE THE GUIMARAS STRAIT (1995) – It was near noon.

“Bata, huwag kang lumabas sa chopper hanggat hindi huminto ang rotors pag nag water landing tayo (Kid, don’t get out of the chopper when the rotors are still spinning when we hit the water),” then police provincial chief Leopoldo Bataoil shouted to me as the Air Force helicopter we were riding was being buffeted by strong winds.

It was cloudy that day with a storm forecast to hit the province.

The Bell UH-1 Iroquois, more known as a Huey, seemed to groan, I thought, with the strong gusts of wind as it strained to cross the Guimaras Strait heading to Victorias City.

Negros Occidental could have lost two top officials that day, sometime in the mid 90s.

With me, the lone reporter on board, and then Colonel (formerly Senior Superintendent) Bataoil were Rafael Coscolluela, then governor of Negros Occidental, seated in the machinegunner’s seat, and Francis Gerard “Tanting” Tuvilla, then a councilor of Hinigaran town who later became board member.

Tuvilla died recently.

He rode shotgun that day and was silent through out that episode.

Coscolluela was practically dangling over the water.

He looked unperturbed, brooding.

I reached into my beltbag, got a pack of Camel cigarettes and took one stick out.

As I flipped open my military green baby Zippo, Bataoil gestured no with a hand.

I remembered. We were sitting inside a flying fuel tank.

Rain was starting to fall and the strong winds whipped it inside the cabin.

The unlit Camel was already wet to the filter. I threw it away.

The pilot managed to turn the Huey back to Iloilo City and did a pancake landing at Camp Martin Delgado in Iloilo City where Coscolluela and Bataoil attended an awarding ceremony of the regional police office earlier that day.

The grass was soaking wet as I bolted to the grandstand, half crouching because of the strong rotor wash.

I was then 21, a non-praying Catholic.

I could hear the sound of splashing feet behind me.

“Juls, Juls,” someone called out to me.

It was Tanting Tuvilla.

He laid a hand on my right shoulder, brought me close and whispered, “I prayed Acts of Contrition. I included you in my prayer.”

Brasilia

BUSAY, BAGO CITY – Land occupation or “L.O.” was in fashion those days.

It was the early 1990s.

The press organization of which I was secretary general was informed of a land occupation by a peasant organization that, we were told “wants to go back to the R-A.”

The Communist Party had just split and I was with a group sympathetic to the Reaffirmists or those who believe in Joma Sison, the “great Filipino revolutionary leader” living in the Netherlands.

This was before photos of him dancing with Ara Mina came out, of course.

Those days, I was part of the shock team, the first boots on the ground propaganda squad.

Sort of a Waffen-SS unit that worked with official Press cover but underground propaganda objectives.

I was then working for a local paper. A reporter-photographer who, at 22, was always gung ho, straining at the leash for frontline experience.

Our coverage vehicle was a Brasilia, a Volkswagen creation that seemed to last forever.

Ours looked like it had outlasted a village of grandparents except Juan Ponce Enrile although a week ago before the trip its muffler decided to divorce with the rust connecting it to the car.

It fell rattling on the national highway.

Our driver that day was a constant drinking buddy who died several years ago.

He overpickled his liver.

I told our driver to do a tactical parking, that is nose out towards the direction of the highway.

The testy driver that he was, he said it was difficult to do so because the road was narrow and besides, he said we need not fear because he had done this many times, he said, sounding brave.

On the right side, a group of farmers were starting to gather. They were the ones left out, they said, from the land reform program.

They wanted to take over the land through extra legal means and what was then fashionably discussed as “meta legal means” by Party cadres who prided themselves as part of the intelligentsia.

Most were long-time activists who dominate Scrabble matches with Party cadres coming from the urban poor and sugar workers, urban cadres who have mastered Mao’s Little Red Book or the Five Golden Rays, and the exhortations of other dead philosophers.

These exhortations have failed since 1968 to solve the nagging and often neglected problem of Supamil or Suporta sa Pamilya.

One of these bright cadres eventually took up Law but flunked. She is remembered as Miss Powder Puff who mostly does putting pressed powder on her face in an “insti,” short for “institution” or an office fronting for the Reds.

I digressed.

Across the hacienda road, to my left facing east, another group of farmers were gathered, some of them had cheap travelling bags, what one would recognize as a carpenter’s tool bag.

I spotted one that was open. I saw three pineapple grenades inside.

This group, men with sunbaked skin and calloused hands were the farmer beneficiaries who had started to till the land, grantees of the government’s land reform program.

This was the group the “other” side accused as being pro management, beneficiaries installed with the blessings of the landowner whose Chinese sounding surname I have forgotten.

The “other side” also had bags, too. Organizers told us they decided to “allow” some of the farmers to bring guns and “self defense” weapons as part of their “assertion of rights.”

It was not clear if they were ready to kill.

The “other” side started their “land occupation,”

A group of about 20 men ran to the middle of a rice paddy, all armed with scythes, a unnecessary tool for the planting season.

The “management” group also deployed. Thirty men, one bearing the bag with grenades, ran at a right angle to the land occupiers, like a flanking movement.

Tension was high at this point.

Our driver, who was with me most of the time had already ran to the Brasilia.

I saw him gunning the engine and was able to make the aging car face the highway in a jiffy.

We three reporters ended up pacifying both sides.

No one was killed that day.

Except perhaps for the ego of our driver who said he had seen it all.

Who is the chairman?

ABOVE MARINA BAY SANDS, Singapore (Summer of 2012) – The degustation we had of lobster braised in butter and finished in truffle oil at Waku Ghin, a pricey restaurant at The Shoppers here was not much for lunch.

“Waiting time here is around two months,” the maitre d’, a young, handsome fellow in tuxedo tells us as we, a diverse group of mid-level journalists from across Asia were ushered in to the dining area of Tetsuya Wakuda’s Michelin star restaurant here where a 10-course degustation dinner now costs upward of $450 per person.

I was one of the 15 fellows of the Asia Journalism Fellowship in 2012, a year after this luxury resort opened its three towers, each 55 storeys high on top of which the world’ s biggest infinity pool was built.

I nodded like a food critic as I speared the lobster cut with a snail fork, popped it in my mouth and said something about the sweetness and tenderness of the lobster that was, as expected, killed in front of us by a young chef who looked like popular 80s actor Aga Muhlach.

I was used then to lunch of two cups of rice and at least two viands and that fine dining degustation left me, a food barbarian, sorely wanting.

We had more schedules to catch, Alison, one of the Fellowship staff, reminded us.

We got out of Waku Ghin and passed by the Rise, a buffet restaurant we had lunch in the previous day and my stomach fluttered.

There was no lunch today at Rise, however, and we were to go to The Chairman Suite.

“I’m hungry, I want to pick a fight,” I whispered to Vaishalli, my fellow from India who became my best buddy in the Fellowship.

She laughed as we entered the elevator that would take us to the 53rd floor where we will have our tour of The Chairman Suite.

“You can have the most beautiful view of the city from there,” an employee of the resort who looked like a beauty titlist from one of those Arab countries told us in fluent English.

“She is beautiful,” Vaishalli whispered.

We entered the suite and were greeted by a grand piano in the receiving area.

It was indeed luxurious.

The resort employee, whom Vaishalli called beautiful started to tell us details of the Suite.

We gathered around her in a school circle.

“From the bedroom you can see the Gardens by the Bay,” she said as we went inside the bedroom facing the south side.

True enough we can see the giant articial trees below by the Gardens where we were toured before it even opened.

Details, details. More details, she told us.

Then she asked: alright, questions?

One fellow raised her hand. “Who is the name of the chairman,” she asked.

The resort staff looked at her and answered without batting an eyelash.

“There is no name. It is just the Chairman’s Suite.”

I snorted. Vaishalli elbowed me.

I hadn’t had a full lunch and I found it funny.

I bit my lip, silently went to the bathroom and laughed inside like a madman.

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Julius D. Mariveles
Julius D. Mariveles
An amateur cook who has a mean version of humba, the author has recently tried to make mole negra, the Mexican sauce he learned by watching shows of master chef Rick Bayless. A journalist since 19, he has worked in the newsrooms of radio, local papers, and Manila-based news organizations. A stroke survivor, he now serves as executive editor of DNX.
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