By Juan L. Mercado
“THEY’RE NEVER the same twice,” marveled the high school classmate from half a century back. A saffron sunset framed Malapascua and Bantayan islands across the shimmering channel. On a northern Cebu beach resort patio, 15 of high school class ‘48 watched day fade. Stim, our valedictorian and retired Philippine Military Academy (class ’54) colonel, played host.
All of us were what President Bill Clinton dubbed “near-elderly.” One saw that in the stoop, wrinkles, even pacemakers, plus that tell-tale request: “Please speak a bit louder.”
Wasn’t this what Julie Andrews meant when, on her 69th birthday, she sang “My Favorite Things” with altered lyrics: “Back pains, confused brains, and no fear of sinnin’, Thin bones and fractures and hair that is thinnin’, And we won’t mention our short shrunken frames, When we remember our favorite things… And then I don’t feel so bad.”
But 26 in our class never grew old. In the unadorned simple words of the Mass’ canon, they were “called from this life” early on. Their names were recalled, in the anniversary Mass memorial. A classmate read John’s account. “I am the resurrection and the life…Whoever believes in Me, I will raise up on the last day”.
Classmates became businessmen, nurses, soldiers, architects, boat captain, doctors, and journalists even. Inevitably, others dropped from the radar screen with their career choices, distance and the in-between years. Nonetheless, “a man must have grown old and lived long in order to see how short life is,” Schopenhauer writes.
Our class basketball star became a prosecutor. He now hefts a cane while a uniformed caregiver trails him. Was it only yesterday when he bolted from his chair to join a few classmates being exempted from final exams? “Come back here,” the teacher snapped. “You’re not included.”
Another classmate lined up to enroll for engineering courses. “But the pretty chicks were in the next queue, signing up for pre-medicine,” he recalled. “So, I bolted to the next line.” To explain, he lifted the title of a song from “South Pacific,” Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway play: “There is nothing like a dame.” He became an internist and married a pathologist. Today, all their children sport MD degrees
Another classmate chucked his engineering degree for the cockpit of a P-51 fighter plane at Basa Airbase. He’s now a retired Boeing 747 jet captain who uses thick bifocals. None became priest, pastor or religious..
Stim taught at Philippine Military Academy. And he kept in touch. On his way to Cornell University, for a master’s course, he tracked me down at Holworthy Residence in Harvard Yard. We had a quick lunch by the Charles River. The first traces of silver streaked his hair then. That didn’t burn out his enthusiasms, whether helping indigent students get an education or heading civic groups.
When reunion rites came, most of us were grandparents. And a few were even widowers, proving the actuarial tables right. .
To advance in age, maybe wisdom but hopefully, in grace, is a gift denied to many. Scan the obituaries. You wince to see so many young lives cut short, some in brutal needless conflicts, as in Mindanao, or like tragic desaparecidos..
Tongue-in-cheek, the New York Times’ Wllliam Safire called those of our age-group as “junior-seniors”. A reunion triggers recollections, especially among the not-so-young. Images of World War II remain etched in our generation’s memories.
Daily, we’d buff up thin rice supplies with slivers of cassava or camote.or starve. Waves of carrier-based “Dauntless” dive bombers plastered enemy concentrations as we scrunched into ditches. A Japanese soldier, drenched in blood, moaned unattended in a gutter. Cebu City ’s skyline formed one firewall.
Tears trickled down the eyes of parish priest Fr. Ernest Heordemann, SVD as he gently adjusted, in the simple coffin, the battered body of his confrere: Fr. E. Bong, SVD,.had been tortured to death by the kempetai for being American. Cold sweat gripped us staring at the business-end of a Japanese sentry’s bayonet.
Even school pranks, after V-J Day, were shaped by war. Now and then, a bored student would lob, thru bomb-shattered school rooms, a smoke grenade, into the lower floor. Hundreds of these were dumped, by the American Division, when it left..
“Once you reach a certain age, there should only be one word left in your vocabulary,” Morris West writes. “Thank you.” And Stim planned a 60th anniversary reunion to give thanks.