Priming up for July 16-A A +A
By Ramon Dacawi
Friday, June 27, 2014
WHILE covering the aftermath of the July 16, 1990 killer earthquake, Willy Cacdac and I positioned our typewriters near the open door of the ground level of the city hall that now serves as office of the Association of Barangay Councils. We were ready to dash out to the open safety of the road should after-shocks reverberate and, as we imagined, could and would send the concrete ceiling crashing to the floor.
Our fears, of course, were unfounded. The three-floor city hall survived the 7.8 intensity temblor with nary a crack. It was built before the standards and strength of materials and construction work deteriorated. Seismologists then led by model civil servant, Dr. Rey Punongbayan, were also assuring us the occasional earth heavings on the heels of the big one were gradually waning, like a basketball dribbling towards stillness, towards what they call "an angle of repose".
(Fifteen years later, in 2005, paranoia again took hold of some people in and outside Baguio and the Cordillera. Notwithstanding the repeated medical explanations, they still believed they could contract the meningococcemia ailment should they get close to, or are looked straight in the eye by anyone from Baguio. This despite assurances from medical experts that the meningo bacteria can only be transferred through close contact with a carrier over an extended period. As the experts were telling us then, sporadic cases can occur anywhere there are humans, as the bacteria (not a virus)thrives in the salivary glands of humans. Despite these advisories, many still believed the bacteria can survive in vegetable, strawberries and non-living things.)
Through the open door of the media center, we saw people at the city hall frontage lining up for relief goods pouring in from all over.
Queues leading to feeding and relief goods centers were a common sight around a city whose main park had been turned into a tent camp.
Willy suggested we swing our news angle to Kabayan, the remote town in Benguet known for its centuries-old mummies. It was isolated when portions of the main road connecting it to the rest of the world were obliterated by the quake.
"The focus of relief operations is here in Baguio, so let’s focus our news on Kabayan before hunger creeps into the isolated community," Willy, seven years my senior, both on the beat and in age, said. So, in our dispatches, we tried to link Kabayan's role as the headwaters of the dams producing electricity that spurred the growth of the lowlands and Metro-Manila. We were hoping some Manila-centrics would read our stories and see the connection enough to support Kabayan back to its feet.
Just then, we heard a faint tap-tapping sound from the outside. "Tok, tok, tok", followed by "tiket, tiket, tiket". Somebody with a cane was groping his way into our media post. It was old man Elmer Mundo, the blind sweepstakes ticket vendor.
Willy looked at me with incredulity and then turned to Elmer for the obvious.
"No one will buy your tickets in this calamity," Willy said in Ilocano. "Why don’t you just line up outside just like the rest and receive relief goods?"
"Mas kayat ko ti aglako, isu nga gumatang kayo ti tiket ko (I prefer to earn my keep so you better buy my lottery tickets)," Elmer answered.
Surprised and disarmed by his terrible sense of dignity, Willy and I began emptying our pockets in exchange for tickets, leaving only our jeepney fare for home.
“Where were you when the earthquake struck?,” I asked, in a clumsy attempt to erase his knowing, who-says-business-is-bad-nowadays? grin. It was a grin I felt was bordering on sarcasm.
“Ah, I was on Magsaysay Avenue,” he began. “There was pandemonium. People were shouting and running.”
“So what did you do?” Willy pursued.
“Well, I noticed the traffic policeman was gone, so I went to the middle of the street and conducted traffic flow,” the blind man replied matter-of-factly, again trying to suppress that grin.
Willy looked at me, smiling ear-to-ear and shaking his head. “We needed that,” he later noted, after Lakay Elmer had moved out to search for his next prey.
Months into the recovery period for a city that outsiders then swore could no longer rise again, Lakay Elmer was back at the city hall. I escorted him to mayor Mauricio Domogan. The mayor immediately saw the point and began buying tickets from the old man for that special Valentine’s Day draw, proceeds of which would go to the rebuilding of Baguio and other areas devastated by the tremor.
I met Elmer again along Session Road after his photo with the mayor appeared in the Baguio Midland Courier to help drum up support for the special draw.
“Did you see your picture in the papers?” I asked to turn the tables on him.
“Yes, and I realized I’m that handsome,” he replied nonchalantly.”Please take and publish my picture again as people will surely buy tickets again the moment they recognize me.”
With one stroke, the old man turned us into his regular patrons. For years, Willy and I never bought lottery tickets from no one else.
Notwithstanding our loyalty, we never came close to even a consolation prize, something we kept on telling Elmer, especially after he missed us in one of his rounds. That was the time he sold one of the top-winning numbers.
Later, we learned that Lakay Elmer had passed on. Yet our memory of him lingers, this blind old man whose dignity and courage serve as a counterpoint to the blindness and finger pointing that we, lesser mortals with the gift of sight intact, are prone to commit in times when calamity strikes.
(This recollection primes us up for a memorial with children on the 24th anniversary of the earthquake come July 16 at the Busol Watershed. (e-mail: email@example.com)
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on June 28, 2014.