One summer day when we were young
It happened during the month of March sometime in the 1970s, when I was a child growing up in Navotas. School had ended and the summer vacation had officially begun.
For the three of us—my friends Tibo and Kaloy and myself—every single day of summer must be spent doing the most important activity of our young lives: playing under the sun. As soon as classes ended, we couldn’t stop planning the things to do and games to play. Spider fighting at Barangay Almacen topped our wish list, but as it turned out, as usual we didn’t have the money to buy those eight-legged little warriors. And although we had all promised to save a portion of our school allowance for this very expensive pastime, no one kept his word simply because there was not much to save. All three of us were very poor, which was what brought us together in the first place; it was our common bond. There were also wistful plans to go swimming at Tonsuya in the nearby town of Malabon, but this, too, cost money we could not raise even if we spent the rest of our childhood days trying.
Fortunately, we met Ken. So we decided to go biking.
Life during the 1970s was like being in a distant place, completely different from what we now have. There were no mobile phones back then, and the mere thought of it belonged to the realm of James Bond movies. The Internet was unheard of. There was no texting, just teks, a game of tossing cards in the air that boys loved to play in the streets along with patintero, tumbang-preso and trumpo.
For the children of my generation, the world was beautiful and there was no such thing as sadness for as long as our parents gave us permission to play.
The morning of the very first day of the summer vacation, with my heart pounding with joy, I left the house without telling my parents to meet my friends at our favorite hangout, the vacant lot in a shipyard near Policarpio Street. It didn’t matter to me that I was running barefoot. The strap of a slipper snapped the night before, but life was difficult and my parents couldn’t afford to spend money on anything else but food on the table. “Besides,” my mother told me, angry that my slippers had now been rendered useless, “it would keep you from roaming the streets.”
She was so wrong. Even then, I already knew that my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was way too important to make me surrender to any misfortune that life threw my way, like this little challenge. I wanted to tell her that I could live without slippers but not without my friends.
Tibo and Kaloy were sitting on the deck of a salvaged ferryboat when I arrived. We waited for Ken, who was supposed to join us there. Ken was our new friend who frequently spent his mornings biking in the shipyard. He was about our age, but he was also noticeably different, with fair skin and slanted eyes—he was half-Japanese, he timidly told us. And he wore clean clothes.
But I must emphasize that he was different in a good way because the first time we saw him with his new bicycle, he volunteered—rather, he actually pleaded with us—that we go ahead and try it out. He really wanted us to ride his bike, and while we were reluctant and suspicious of anyone who looked rich because of our unpleasant encounters with boys from private schools, our apprehension disappeared the moment we touched the bike.
Never in our lives had we ridden a bike before, so it was an unforgettable moment, a boyhood dream come true. The first time you ride a bicycle without falling shows you how it feels to fly, and the memory of that fleeting moment stays with you forever. Ken patiently taught us the important things about riding a bike, like how to balance and remain upright. He ran behind us like an exuberant puppy and grabbed the bike when we were about to fall. Although drenched in sweat, he never complained or showed signs of exhaustion.
A beautiful friendship was born on that day, and when it ended Ken took it upon himself to make a promise that he would not stop teaching us until we all learned to ride a bicycle.
In fact, it was his suggestion that we meet again on the morning of the first day of summer vacation.
But Ken never showed up. From morning till dusk we waited and waited—in vain. We left the shipyard feeling betrayed. We imagined that he must have been laughing at us secretly the whole time, for the fools that we were, for believing that we deserved his friendship. In fact, we never saw him again for the rest of our lives.
The bitterness from that experience lingered until one day we heard the story of the massive fire that broke out in another part of town on the same day that we waited for Ken at the shipyard. We learned that a boy had died in that fire, while trying to save his bicycle.
* * *
Recently I read a report in the newspaper about a deadly fire, and I realized that it’s now the month of March, and that I haven’t lost the memory of that tragic summer day. I’ve gotten older, but I still dread the feeling of finding a story about a fire whenever I read the news.
Adel Abillar is a private law practitioner with a small office in Quezon City where, he says, “I alternate between being boss and messenger.” He obtained his law and prelaw degrees from Manuel L. Quezon University and the University of Santo Tomas, respectively.
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