Sunday, August 26, 2007

College Days At Random (early sixties)

During my college days I remember getting into a fight in Quiapo. Jing Montealegre together with Jun Molabola and I just finished a few beers in one of the small restaurants along Quezon Boulevard near the Times Theater. I had a 7:30 class in Humanities and would just have enough time to negotiate the distance to the University gates and would probably be in time for my name to be called at roll call. Both Jing and Jun didn’t have classes anymore at that hour and would be proceeding to the Radio Room in the Science Building as was their usual wont. The Radio Room was the office of Sarah Joaquin, the head of the Speech and Drama Department. The room was used as a place for doing play rehearsals, a hanging out place and a place where the drama guild officers discussed projects and forthcoming activities.

As I hurriedly stepped out of the restaurant I bumped into a tough looking young man who was playing cara y cruz by the sidewalk with his friends. He lost control of his toss and the coins went tumbling and rolling a few feet away from where they were squatted in a huddle. He did not listen to my instinctively blurted apology; instead he grabbed me by the lapel of my shirt with his right hand and threw a punch with his left. I parried his lunge but got my cheeks grazed with his watch. Not letting go of his hold on my lapel he was down on his haunches and was poised to deliver a follow up blow when all of a sudden his right hand grip loosened and the wiry body crumpled on the pavement floor. Jun hit him on the nape with a karate chop that needed no follow up. He went out like a light. At first the rest of the guys stood up from their huddle to get into the fray but seeing their friend slumped and Jun putting on a menacing karatedo stance, they slinked away one by one into the interior of small shops in between restaurants, department stores and movie houses. Jun was a blackbelter in Karate, a graeco-roman wrestler and an amateur boxer for the university. He looked formidable and intimidating with his cauliflower ears, scarred brows and knobby fists.

Jun, who was used to brawls in city streets pushed Jing and I forward and told us to walk briskly and not to look back. He will take care of the rear. We could not stay a bit longer. He knew that the guys will regroup, probably armed, will come back to assuage their hurt pride and wreak vengeance on us.

The moment we crossed Azcarraga we knew that we were home safe. The university entrance with its guardhouse was just a few meters away from the corner of Azcarraga and Quezon Boulevard. The security guards who were mostly students belonging to the martial arts and boxing teams of the university were friends of Jun and I was acquainted with quite a few. Some of them were my classmates while others were nodding friends from my hanging out in the security headquarters with my friend Rollie whose father was the chief of the security forces in the school.

The following day the radio room was bustling with activity. There were two plays that had finished its casting and were now at the phase were the cast were throwing lines as early preparation for staging. The first group was a small one and they found a place at the far end of the room after the tv set, while the other group a much bigger crowd sat in the sofa and the side chairs near the door.

Job Montecillo was directing the play “Incident At A Graveyard”. In his cast were Waldy Carbonell, Lynette Siapo and I think Nelson Padilla was in it too.

I was with the play of Lorraine Hansberry “A Raisin In the Sun” with Amiel Leonardia as director. I had a minor role as George Murchison while Chito Avelino and CielitoPilar played the lead roles of Joseph Asagai and Beneatha Younger respectively. We were going quite smoothly until Chito had the case of the giggles. He was delivering the line “You’re breaking my mother’s good china…” which sounded like “…breaking my mother’s vagina…” he got himself into this laughing rut and we had to skip to the next act because there was no way he could go on with the line.

Jing had a role in Job’s play but he was nowhere around. Conspicuously absent too, was Flo. Flo, was one of the more mature ladies who hang around the radio room. I think she was secretary to an admin department. She was a fixture in the room together with Sonia, a lady who taught English and who was madly infatuated with my Humanities professor, Jes Cruz; and then there was the department secretary, Nicky, Miss Goody Two Shoes who was confidant to all.

Flo was never away from the Radio Room and Jing to be not around for initial play practice was unheard of. I was the least surprise because I knew that there was something going on. Flo was quite the experienced woman. She, at that time, was rumored to be in dalliance with one of the university biggies. Jing was the easily seduced little lost boy with mestizo charms who sang protest songs like “…they’re rioting in Africa, they’re starving in Spain; There are hurricanes in Florida; and Texas needs rain…” to put on the radical chic effect which was cool at that time.

Job was the president of the Drama Guild while I was his vice president. It was surprising that they voted me into that position when I was not a Speech and Drama major. I just hang around the Radio Room for the lack of place to go and also to be around a pretty thing who started appearing in the radio room. Alma San Juan was newly transferred from UP and had just enrolled in FEU for a Speech and Drama course. I was not into Speech and Drama but every now and then I would be given a role in a play only because there wasn’t anybody else. Job was a very responsible person who truly deserved to be president of the guild. I was glad he was the president because I didn't have the ability nor the inclination to do things for the Guild. He was also a serious student of Drama. Job who was a Cebuano was a good singer who sang Sinatra songs and was also adept, like most Cebuanos, at playing the guitar.

It was a great time to be a literature major in FEU. Despite its checkered reputation for academic excellence the Institute of Arts English Department at that time boasted of having literary luminaries like Jose Garcia Villa in their faculty. Villa who was also known as Doveglion, dove-eagle-lion because of his literary prowess that soared and roared bravely in Philippine literature with his avant garde verses and “comma-tose” (an unfortunate pun) poems. Villa was among those who recognized the genius of Nick Joaquin and helped Joaquin's first access to literary limelight. Another literary lion who taught at FEU at that time was Greg Brillantes, brilliant raconteur and master of the written word whose pieces like “The Distance From Andromeda” shone brightly underneath the Philippine literary firmament. The short story was the genre of competence for him. Other short stories like “A Mission for Heroes”, “On a Clear Day in November…” and “The Cries of Children…” will etch his name deeply in our literature. He taught short story writing in FEU.

Another slightly less heralded genius among the literati was Dr. Benito Reyes who taught Oriental Literature at the Institute of Arts and Sciences at FEU.
Dr. Reyes wrote the lyrical “Moments Without Self”. I was so inspired by him as he introduced us to Asian mystic and religious literature like Ramayana, Bhagavadjita, Zend Avesta , Mahabharata and the Panchatantra. Through him I became aware of the vivid imagery of the writings of India’s literature laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. Reading a few lines from Gitanjali and I was a captive for life of his work. Later on I would discover Khalil Gibran and add him as one of my idols.

Dr. Reyes said that the world abounds in beautiful literature and it would be enough if one were to concentrate on a few well chosen works and really squeeze every little juice of enjoyment from them. I remember him encouraging us to do this. In fact he posed a challenge to our class that if we were to memorize the “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” in its entirety we don’t have to attend his class but appear on the last day and recite the Rubaiyat. Just one day in his class and we get the passing grade. I passed up the challenge because there was so much to learn in his classroom and I could always refer to the printed Rubaiyat at anytime if wantedto learn and enjoy a few stirring lines.

One fellow who took up the challenge was Jing Montealegre. After Dr. Reyes made the proposition, Jing stood up and said “…you’re on. See you in three months”. I did not witness the recitation myself but my classmates said that Jing recited the Rubaiyat not in the classroom but in the faculty room of the English Department where he was given an ovation by the faculty members who were there at that time.

It was a nice experience. It was as if you were touched by a god. To be in the classroom with these special personages was an experience that would stay on for a long time. However, in retrospect, I find that it did not do much for me except for having been awestruck and starstruck for some moments. I don’t remember having completed my classes with Villa nor with Brillantes for it seemed that they had the privilege to be inconstant with their classroom appearances.

One can understand that much of their time was sought after by so many and appearing in the classroom in FEU was the least that could compete with the other options they had for their time. And so it goes. I was quick to lose interest after their consecutive non-appearances and dropped out on them to pursue other more interesting in-school endeavors.

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