Last Saturday we celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. More than 70 years ago, in December 1941, the same feast fell on a Sunday. For many among the almost 105 million Filipinos, this date holds no particular significance. But for a young boy growing up in Baguio City, Dec. 8, 1941, has always been a date to remember.
The month of December never fails to remind me of Baguio, the “City of Pines,” a place where I spent some of the best years of my life, including a few Christmases that can never again be duplicated or relived mainly because people who meant so much to me have long since passed away.
For those interested in a little history, the name of the city, Baguio, comes from “Bag-iw,” an Ibaloi word that means “moss,” a flowerless plant growing in green clumps or mats, and found in abundance in the area. In 1901, the Americans set up a hill station in Baguio as a rest and recreation center for their use during the hot summer months in the lowlands. The story goes that when Governor General William Howard Taft who weighed close to 300 pounds first visited Baguio during the early days of the American regime, he journeyed from Dagupan to the upland hill station on horseback, a distance of more than 50 miles (about 80 kilometers). Upon reaching Baguio, Taft sent back word to his staff that he had arrived safely. Manila replied, saying “Glad to note the safe arrival. How is the horse?”
In my youth, two strong feet were the only means of transportation in the city. For one thing, we did not have a car. I used to cover much of the city on foot, crisscrossing from one end to the other without much difficulty. The fresh air with the sweet scent of pines, made walking easy and effortless. Burnham Park at the center, named after American architect and urban city planner, Daniel Burnham, meant roller-skating, biking, boating, and going through the many bushes surrounding the lake in search for fighting spiders. The gentle slopes that could be found all over the city provided us with the best venues for testing our home-made racing carts fashioned out of discarded galvanized iron sheets. The dried pines that covered the slopes made possible the great speeds at which our carts slid downhill, making every get-together a thrilling racing event. With no serious care in the world, for me Baguio was paradise.
Then on Sunday, Dec. 8, after hearing morning Mass at the Baguio Cathedral, we were just about ready to leave for home when suddenly, a low-flying aircraft with a red ball on its fuselage, seemed headed for us with its pilot clearly visible in his open cockpit. Apparently he meant no harm and was merely doing reconnaissance work over the city. Nonetheless, my mother pulled me close to her side, and took me back inside the church. I could sense something was about to take place that would turn my world upside down for the next few years.
The following nights were spent in darkness, as people talked in hushed tones about a situation that we could not understand or fathom. Classes were suspended and the usual games and activities played with other boys came to an end. When we attempted to ask questions, we were met with curt replies and the admonition to keep quiet and not move around too much.
After a few days, possibly two weeks of uncertainty, we were told to go back to school. I do not recall any Christmas celebration. Instead, for the first time on my way to classes, I saw soldiers in strange uniforms with long firearms and bayonets. They wore rubber-soled canvas boots, split-toed with the big toe separated from the others. They had caps with cloth flaps at the back covering their necks. We were told to avoid them as much as possible. But in approaching our school, this was impossible as they seemed to be all over the place. At first, we would look at them through the corner of our eyes with a combination of fear and curiosity. But later on, we were trained to bow when passing guards at checkpoints.
A greater surprise met us at school. Instead of the usual songs that we had already been used to, mostly American anthems, we were introduced to a new sound with different lyrics. New faces also appeared in the classrooms, moving around monitoring developments, and making certain the revised program of instruction was carried out accurately. A new alphabet was slowly taken up, with strange characters and writings
replacing earlier lessons.
December would never be the same for me. A new colonizer was in town and for the next three-and-a-half years, we would feel and understand the meaning of enemy occupation. May our children and future generations be spared from a similar experience.
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