The Laurels, father and son
Salvador H. Laurel is remembered as: the son of J.P. Laurel, former President of the Philippines; a Senator of the Republic until 1972 when martial law led to the the Senate being closed, literally, by a padlock; a fiery oppositionist in the Marcos years who later rose to become Vice President of the Philippines in 1986 after giving way to Corazon Aquino. That was as close to the Presidency as he would get. I met him during his term as Chairman of the National Centennial Commission when he was referred to in the office by his initials “DHL.” He said I should call him Doy but being too young to do so he became an instant relative as in “Tito Doy.” He gave me my first pipe and told me many stories about his father and the martial law years.
While filing books and papers recently I came across a forgotten little pamphlet, “A Child’s Footnote to History,” that formed his first-person account of J.P. Laurel’s 83-day odyssey from Baguio to Tokyo in the closing days of the war. Doy wrote this when he was 15 years old, long before politics would enter to complicate his life. Laurel filled a stenographer’s notebook first using a pen and when that ran out resorted to a pencil. It was written on the run “telegraphically with my very limited English then, I even had to sketch some of the places when I found it difficult to describe them in words. I jotted down whatever I saw, wherever I was, whether on board the truck, while walking in the mountain trails, or while crouching in dug-outs and air-raid shelters. I personally edited the diary 44 years later to fill in the missing prepositions and to complete the sentences.”
Diaries, being personal accounts, provide the human side of historical figures who are usually fossilized in bronze and marble, their memory muddled up by official commemoration and textbook history. It was a surprise for me to read about J.P. Laurel’s table because what was often served on it during the war years was not the fare you would normally expect on a presidential table. For over a month in Baguio the Laurels had tuyo and mongo with their rice. So one meal was tuyo and mongo while the next was slightly different as mongo and tuyo. Monotony was broken by garnish: kangkong, ampalaya, kamote, talinum, spinach or alugbate, whichever was available. The household was overjoyed when the Japanese ambassador saw this and offered to send fresh meat and canned goods to the Mansion, but the joy turned into disappointment when Laurel tactfully declined, saying with a smile: ”We should not get used to good food. Times are hard and we might become cowardly.” Doy thought his father was joking, then came the punchline: “We cannot enjoy good food knowing our people are suffering.”
So it was that on the President’s 54th birthday on March 9, 1945, they had their first taste of tapa in a long time but the suspicious Doy asked in his dairy: “I wonder what kind of meat it was?” Food was scarce in Baguio at the time and the Igorots refused to accept the Philippine-Japanese currency best known as “Mickey Mouse money” so barter was resorted to with hats, shoes and other personal articles exchanged for food. As many people who survived the war will tell millennials today, in those hard days a kilo of kamote was worth a thousand pesos in Mickey Mouse money.
Drinking water was a major concern when they trekked from Baguio to Tuguegarao; they always boiled water collected from mountain streams and rivers but thirst makes one desperate. On March 29, 1945, “We found some stagnant water in a rusty oil drum. The water was dirty and a little greenish but there was no other water around so we decided to boil it for drinking and cooking. Our food supply was just enough for one more day… we found some unripe papayas, some bataw, a raw jackfruit, some pepper leaves, and a ripe lemon. We were able to make a plate of bulanglang. For dessert we had pineapples and some cacao. We boiled and boiled the greenish water before drinking it but we had no rice left. If we stayed another day we would have nothing more to eat.”
A son’s account of his father’s greatness may not be the best source, but seeing how J.P. Laurel did not take advantage of his position to get better meals is one reason he should be reassessed and if possible rehabilitated.
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