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Childhood summers

Every year for the past 16 years I could remember, long after torrential rains had punished the ground and potholes sprung like mushrooms in our unpaved roads, and before the endless reruns of “7th Heaven” during the Holy Week had concluded, I and every kid my age would smell the familiar smell of the drying earth. We would know then that summer had arrived.

When I was much younger, summer meant catching dragonflies, grasshoppers, and damselfies in the rice paddies, our small feet leaving marks in the muddy earth. That was my earliest recollection of summer. My two younger brothers and I joined the neighboring kids and created our own misadventures. After waking up to find that our parents had gone off, we’d knock on the doors of familiar houses to round up the gang. Soon after, I’d relish the adrenaline rush of climbing mango trees and becoming a bandit looting the hanging fruit. We’d dangle precariously from the tree branches and leave everything to chance: Will we be able to climb down in one piece?

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Eventually we would move on to tackle the guava, santol, and our neighbor’s coveted star apple trees. That nailed the coffin for the dragonflies and grasshoppers for me.

We spent some summers learning a new hobby, instrument or sport. But as always, after those drudging long classes in school, we would come back and play tag with the neighboring kids. Oh, the games we played! We enjoyed habulan, patintero, luksong baka, taguan, tumbang preso, holen, pitiw, langit-lupa. And probably every conceivable variation of each game… The list goes on!

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Summers also meant that we could eat at any time of the day. Who would miss the world for a merienda of banana cue, mais con yelo, saba con yelo, kakanin or halo-halo?

Hot and humid days were spent following a beaten path down to the river, while breezy days were reserved for kite-flying. I can vividly recall making my first kite and my first working kite, learning painstakingly in between despondent moments, what to improve to make it fly. We also played an improvised paintball game using hollowed-out bamboo (which we called “sulpot”) as the makeshift gun. The ammunition came in the form of soggy newspaper pellets which, when ejected rapidly, emitted a distinct “plop!” On rare occasions, when a steady downpour quenched the parched potholes, we would patiently wait for our father to inadvertently fall asleep; and then we’d sneak out and frolic under the rain. We would then return home feigning a cold to parry our dad’s reprimand.

A few years ago, I came home to find that some of my playmates were graduating from college as well. One had died battling brain cancer while others settled down and worked, unable to afford college. It was the kind of change I never expected, especially since these people lived in my memory as active children. It was a dulling sensation to know that things had drastically changed, and equally numbing to realize that I had also changed.

The last time I came back, there were a lot of new kids on the block, but only a handful played sulpot or flew kites. On breezy afternoons, they would huddle together in a nearby computer shop, choosing to spend their days indoors, glued to Counter Strike. The kites we played were eventually clobbered by a flock of Angry Birds. The grasshoppers, butterflies and damselflies were eaten by the Zombies, while the troupe of Fruit Ninjas hacked the neighboring fruit trees.

These days, when I tell people that I managed to grow up without owning a family computer, a Play Station, or any game console, for that matter, their faces would shut like creaking cupboards, then they’d queasily give me a consoling look: What misery my childhood must have been!

But they can never be more wrong. I have never regretted playing those games even when everyone thought I was missing out on the cool gadgets then. While the classroom taught me that winning isn’t everything, it was the streets that taught me how to be magnanimous in defeat. I learned that I can challenge the winner to another bout, that there are some games where I win almost always, that it gets boring to win all the time, that the people we think are weaker than us can win, too, that we can’t win all games, and that eventually we also have to lose. Those bits of lessons have been ingrained in my life, long after I ceased to play the games. And it’s a constant vindication for me to know that Farmville, or any Android game, for that matter, will never come with an “insight upgrade.”

I write this as a recollection and as a parting shot because this is my first summer working as a professional. So this year, and probably for the years to come, I won’t be returning to my province to spend the summer. This is my way of committing to memory the games that I played and how I will finally cease to play them come summer’s end. But I will still observe similar potholes, albeit this time in asphalt or concrete, being dried by the sun in another place. Then next year, when puddles begin to dry and the breezes scorch, I will yearn again for my childhood summers.

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Michael R. Tan, 22, graduated from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City (BS Materials Engineering, 2011). He is now working in a multinational company.

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