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Looking Back

Jorge Vargas’ ‘lockdown’ diary

“O how wonderful it is to do nothing, and to rest afterwards,” goes an old Spanish proverb.

That was the welcome novelty of the lockdown in its first few days. But now on its third week, it has become, for me, a terrifying preview of retirement. No big classes to lecture to; no students haggling for higher grades and compassion for late submissions or failed tests; no department and faculty meetings to attend; more time to putter around at home. I now miss all outside activity that formed a life at work.

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Retirement it seems, is not the absence of work and a fixed schedule, but the power to choose what one really wants to do. The only constant these past three weeks has been my Inquirer deadlines. I am grateful for the Wednesday and Friday columns that has kept me from losing track of time.

Trying to carve out a sense of normalcy in these abnormal times meant maintaining contact with my students through online coursework and deadlines. I cannot enforce a fixed time to meet, because the two undergraduate classes have 90 students each and not everyone has access to stable internet connection. Coursework naturally comes second to maintaining student health and surviving the virus during the lockdown, but those who can and want to may continue learning using materials posted online. Unlike a physical class with a fixed time, online learning is 24/7, so the teacher must dedicate a schedule for marking papers and replying to student questions. The lockdown has forced all of us to rethink life as we know it, and it is hoped that we don’t just return to the pre-lockdown routine later, but to adapt to and adopt new ways in a new life.

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If my father were alive today, he would have taken to the lockdown with more good humor than I did in the beginning. All it takes for me to end my ranting is to remember my father’s stories of life and death during the Japanese occupation. All I need to persevere in trying times is just to remember my father saying: “Our generation survived the war.”

Reference to the war and the present lockdown led me to Jorge Vargas’ diary, written while in Sugamo prison in Tokyo from November 1945 to July 1946. In the VIP prison with Vargas were Jose P. Laurel, Benigno S. Aquino, and Camilo Osias, all branded as “collaborators” after the war, a charge they pleaded innocent to, claiming they only followed the final orders of Commonwealth President Manuel Luis Quezon and Commonwealth Field Marshal Douglas MacArthur, who abandoned them when the Japanese took possession of the Philippines.

Vargas’ Sugamo diary is relevant to the lockdown if only to see how a human being deprived of liberty tries to make the best out of a bad situation. Vargas experienced having his bags forcibly opened and inspected while he was out of his cell during outdoor exercise. Afterward, he found missing from his things the following: scissors, a pincer, nail file, safety pins, and two empty cans that his captors thought could be used to escape either by break-out or suicide. To make matters worse in his first days, Vargas was asked to hand over his stash of cigarettes and chocolates.

To personalize his bleak cell, Vargas opened the printed catalog of his art collection in Manila, cut out pictures of Fernando Amorsolo’s “Harvest Scene,” Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s ”Punta Santa Ana,” Fabian de la Rosa’s “Pasig River,” and Juan Luna’s “Galileo,” and pasted these on the wall with pomade. To further cheer himself up, he added family photos to the artworks, creating a wall of memories that sustained his longing to return home someday.

The prisoners played cards, argued over who would be the first to dip in the heated bathtub water, and noted the eccentricities of others. They dressed up for meals, but the two former heads of state from Burma and the Philippines sometimes came as they wished, and Laurel sometimes in pajamas. Laurel had the disgusting habit of dumping the ashes from his pipe on his dinner plate, or coughing out unchewed food onto the table.

On July 8, 1946, they were all weighed and measured: Laurel was 144 lbs., 5’4”; Aquino 148 lbs., 5’; Osias 152 lbs., 5’5”; Vargas 145 lbs., 5’5.” These details now make these historical figures human to us, and seeing them up close through Vargas’ diary reminds us that the lockdown is a test of character that brings forth the best and worst in human nature.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Jose Vargas, lockdown, Looking Back, retirement
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