Those Were the Days

by Rene C. Vargas, M.D.

It’s been some time ago… So much muddy waters have flowed down the wide Agusan. Yet, certain memories linger on, fresh as ever…memories of life in old Butuan… memories…

I REMEMBER coming out of UST Medical School in 1962, I landed my first job as an Adjunct Resident Physician at the Butuan Hospital, the official name of the provincial hospital. I was paid PhP 32.00 a month. There was really no salary for the whole first year of service in compliance with government regulations of the time. The PhP 32.00 was the monthly laundry allowance. The sum was more symbolic than material for me; I had this feeling of fulfillment that, at long last, I was a doctor. Forgotten were the seemingly endless struggles of leafing through the pages of extra-thick books and the sleepless nights during the 2 years of premed, the 4 years of medicine proper and the one-year internship, all the while supported by my parents who were sending me a good portion of their hard-earned money. 

The following year, I was promoted, and became a Junior Resident Physician, this time with a salary of PhP240.00 a month. It was hardly enough to pay for personal expenses and transportation to and from the hospital which was then located near the present day Capitol – at that time considered as quite distant from the Butuan of my time. But it didn’t feel that far to me, now on my own, treating the sick, and assisting in surgery, and receiving remuneration, however inadequate the pay. 

People today will call it the era of frontier medicine. I REMEMBER that it was a time when disposable needles were unheard of. Needles for injection were used and re-used, repeatedly. They were sharpened again and again by rubbing them against a grinding stone. They were sterilized with a thin wire inserted into its hollow shaft to prevent sludge build up inside. Neither was there any disposable syringe. Syringes were re-used after re-sterilization, the matching syringe plunger was tied with a white cotton thread to the syringe body to prevent mismatch, because many different syringes were placed in the sterilizer at the same time.

I REMEMBER that there was no anesthesiologist then, it was a time when pioneering, yet skilled, surgeons were doing thyroidectomy, mastectomy, and even Cesarian Sections, under local anesthesia. The surgical suture needles were not disposable, they had tiny holes through which we inserted cotton or silk or gut threads that would strain the eyes of today’s surgeons accustomed to ‘ throw away ‘ ready-to-use threaded sutures. And yes, the needles were re-sterilized and re-used again and again, until they were no longer sharp enough.

I REMEMBER that we used scraped soap for washing and scrubbing our hands and arms before surgery. PhisoHex came later, Betadine even much, much later. And the brushes we used were re-used repeatedly after re-sterilization. Today’s age of throw-away paper masks, paper caps and paper boot covers is a far cry from the time when cloth was used, laundered and sterilized after each use. The hospital had a sewing department to cut, sew and fabricate all these stuff. For skin antisepsis, the use of merthiolate and mercurochrome was the vogue; both are now banned because of their mercury content.

I REMEMBER the many times when the lights went off during surgery, and those dark times were not uncommon. Yes, those were the times when the surgeon had to keep his cool, a time when the circulating nurses had to be adept at starting the Petromax fast, and at focusing the flashlight unto the depths of the surgical incision for the surgeon to see what he was doing.

I REMEMBER the nightmare of the Cholera El Tor epidemic that devastated Butuan and the entire country. It was an overwhelming experience for a green doctor fresh out of medical school. Dozens of seriously ill patients were brought to the hospital in near death from severe diarrhea and dehydration, their skin so dry and without turgor that long after being pinched the skin remained curled up, their eyeballs deeply shrunken, their voices husky and reduced to a whisper, their bodies so severely emaciated that weight loss was evident in just hours, the skin of their hands were so wrinkled, disheveled, and rumpled that they were described as ‘washerwoman’s hands’.

Intravenous fluids were dripped into veins so fast just to keep up with the huge losses of fluids from the diarrhea that, many times, we had to have one needle in each arm and leg at the same time. Blissfully, the Department of Health had a good supply of intravenous fluids. Many times we saw patients losing water and salt so fast that their kidneys refuse to put out urine.

Unable to stand, much less walk, they arrived at the hospital in makeshift stretchers, benches, hammocks, or on other’s backs. When the hospital ran out beds, patients’ families ran back home and brought their own beds. Those living in far-flung areas who were without their own beds, had to sleep on the floors. Hospital doors were unhinged and removed, and laid flat on stands to serve as beds. Plywood beds were constructed in a big hurry, a circular hole was cut at the site where the patient’s buttocks should be, and a commode was placed underneath to catch the watery stools that flowed almost endlessly from the bowels. The cause was the cholera el tor germ in contaminated food or water.

I REMEMBER Butuan during those difficult years. There was no potable water supply to speak of. Water chlorination was unheard of. Drinking water was rain water collected from roof gutters or was fetched in pails from deep wells, or collected from the salty free-flowing artesian wells. In the rural communities, water was fetched from streams.

I REMEMBER old Butuan where flush toilets with septic tanks were a rarity. Today, sanitation and public health are many multiples better, but back then the so-called Antipolo toilets were in use. Without the water trap and the sealed system in use today, the Antipolo toilets of those innocent times allowed flies and vermin unhampered access to cesspools, carrying the vibrio cholera el tor germ and other microbes to the kitchen and unto food or water. It was a miracle so few had died.

I REMEMBER that, as the epidemic was raging, hospital resources and staff were severely strained. The usual stab wounds, fractures, pneumonias, malaria, infectious diseases, gunshot wounds, falls from fruit trees, pregnant women in labor, injuries from brawls, all of them had to be attended to as well. It was a time when there was only one “public” hospital, there was no city hospital. People seemed much, much poorer then than now. Patients from all over the then undivided province of Agusan favored the provincial hospital over the smaller private hospitals for economic and other reasons.

I REMEMBER the great flood, the heavy downpour, the Agusan River swollen and overflowing, dumping its brown waters unto the community. The river dike we have now was not yet conceived in the early to mid-60s. The deluge lasted an unbelievable 3 months. The whole city was underwater. Whatever vegetables, fish, or meat there was, were sold on the roof of the market building, or at the kiosko at the Rizal Park (it was called Guingona Park then), others were peddled from floating barotos.

The ground floor of the hospital was submerged deep under flood waters. Patients were transferred to the second storey, crowding even the hallways. Due to lack of space, patients were now packed like sardines, lying next to each other. The Lord must be kind to Butuanons because there was hardly any cross infection. Doctors had difficulty making patient rounds because there was hardly any space between patients. From their homes, the hospital staff had great difficulty coming to work, riding on barotos without outriggers. Many came late for work, others simply did not show up. Many were the nights and days I stayed on duty in the hospital, sometimes for a stretch of 2 or 3 days, because the reliever, himself a flood victim, couldn’t make it through the flood waters. But there were light moments too. Our chief of hospital had fun hunting wild ducks and snipes from the hospital window with his .22 caliber rifle. Yes, ‘them were those days’ indeed.

I REMEMBER the Obstetrics practitioner at the public hospital sending hospital utility workers into the nearby swamps to catch frogs. A “frog test” was the pregnancy test at that time. While today the test is done so simply and conveniently by the patient herself at home without sacrificing those poor amphibians, at that time it was not that simple. So, off went the aides to the marshes to gather the frogs.

I REMEMBER the x-rays taken during those years. One x-ray plate was used for several patients. Each patient’s radiograph took up space of only just over an inch square of the whole plate. One plate contained exposures of several patients. Radiologists today would think of it as a big joke. But that was the practice at the Chest Center in the 60s when the economy was still so bad just 20 years after the Second World War.

The “micrograph”, as it was called, saved on the cost of x-ray plates. But of course, the films were not developed until the entire plate had been used up by many patients. Patients just had to wait for the results else the rest of the plate would be wasted. The Radiologist at that time would cut the plate to separate each patient’s micrograph, mount the tiny square piece of the plate under a huge magnifying lens the size of present day viewers, and lo and behold, the image becomes big enough for diagnosis to be made. The service was free of charge to patients, part of the country’s program to control tuberculosis then so rampant in the Philippines. Today of course, with the advent of digital imaging, there is no more use of plates and no developing the films as there simply are no more films used.

I REMEMBER patients waiting to have their x-rays taken. The city’s electric utility was unreliable then and they had to wait for the availability of electric power. While the Chest Center had its own generating unit, there were many times when the machine broke down. People today take many things for granted, but those of us who lived through those lean years appreciate more the conveniences we experience today. 

I REMEMBER the Butuan we left in 1965… the tartanilyalamaolambog… Manapa…Tinago…Then, I had my residency in General Surgery at the Hospital of the Medical College of Ohio and Affiliated Hospitals…Was extremely excited to be back home in 1971…then, Marcos promptly declared Martial Law the next year… militarization… violence… night curfews… check points… Being stopped at night on the way to the hospital to answer an emergency…Bright lights flashed on my face by black uniformed military men in a military jeep… A different Philippines emerged…Left my home country in 1983… practiced my profession in Ohio… Returned soon after EDSA to serve my fellow Agusanons again… But that’s for the next chapter in the book of my life.

♣  ♣ 

Butuan: My Hometown Story

by Mark F. Villanueva

Dating back to when I was young, at a time when almost everything came to me as news, I was dumbstruck to hear for the first time about the Zero Pilots of the Second World War. When my father told me how they intentionally crashed their warplanes into enemy territory during battle, rather than accept defeat, and that they did it for pride and absolute love for their country, my first question was, how big is Japan? How could you love something you could not even hug?

It was such good news to me as a kid that love was no longer proportionate to girth or reach; that it was bigger than anything. I said I was going to learn to love our huge gas stove at the bakery, our old Ford automobile, and our two-storey home at the corner of Gomez and M. Calo Streets. In my renewed notion of love, I actively mentioned random things we owned, according to size, in my prayers before meals until I was given shorter ones to simply recite. Then and only then did I stop saying things like, thank you Lord for the sofa, the television, yada, yada, and for the food on the table. Amen.

Each night before I slept, Dad shared stories from the Bible, but not before talking about boxing, recounting the genius of Muhammad Ali in the ring, the Japanese and our wars. It was almost always that way for a time, such that boxing and the wars were my lullaby to sleep, yet I never got tired of it.

He told me a little bit about the Spanish era, too, and the First Mass in Masao, where he said our history had started. I never quite understood what that “First” really signified, so I simply associated that with “birth” on account of my limitations as a child. Since then I have always looked at my hometown of Butuan City as a mother.

Whenever I’m back home I like to take solitary walks downtown to revisit places that remind me of who I am or once was. When my mom passed away early last year I stepped inside the cathedral for the first time in my life without a living parent. I felt so lost and searched for the familiar Maya birds ’round its corners and high ceiling ’cause I’ve always liked the sound of them against the compact silence. It always, always gave me solace.

Once outside, I remembered the popcorn stands and balloons sold at the plaza on Sundays after mass, and that old traffic light hanging above the intersection too loosely, a bit awry. I gazed past that at the Police Station, and I could still see in my own eyes where the Hall of Justice used to be. I could still see Dad taking a break from work as the city judge, ordering pospas right beside it.

Walking down the narrow streets in the old sections of Butuan City for me is like tracing the lines of mother’s palm with my finger. You come across a network of paths like nerves and reach the gushing Agusan River that gives me an impression that I must be close to mother’s heart.

I retrace old steps down to Joyce’s Bazaar, Girlie’s Burger, and Urios High School for a glass of juice and bananas served with ketchup for only PhP 1.25. In the vicinity of the Magsaysay Bridge was Plaza Mart where I got my first Walkman that played songs too fast whenever a new set of batteries was used. I didn’t mind that at all when my cousin (Carlo Villanueva) and I jogged to and from the Capitol at dawn. In fact, we didn’t mind anything much at all because life in our mother city was simple, and whenever we re-enacted the movie, The Lost Boys (Corey Haim/ Kiefer Sutherland), every Sunday, we reached all sorts of places even without a coin in our pockets. Those were the best days, really. Not because we didn’t have money or anything, but ’cause we never even bothered to think about it. It was all good energy between us. Except when it was late at night after an Atari challenge, and we wanted Rubante’s barbecue at 50 cents a stick.

I never have to think of valid reasons just to travel back home once in a while. It’s always good to go back even if your new friends from the metropolis don’t get it and want you to stay.

We don’t always get along with our mothers but we love them dearly and with all our hearts, and saying this now reminds me of the river. You just love and do not let anyone tell you why. It’s who you are. 

 ♠ ♠  ♠

My Lolo Joaquin, the Hero

by Marilou Monet-Solidum

Years ago, I was introduced to a dear old lady named Manay Alita Torralba-Lish, who was in her late 70’s then. She’s a dear aunt of my fellow dentist, Dr. Winona Torralba Bernas-Amante.

As in any normal introduction, my friend mentioned my name to her. What followed was the usual follow-up question, “Kanin-o ba kaw anak, Ne?” I replied that my father was Juanito Monet. And she immediately asked, “Monet? Ono mo ba si Joaquin Monet?” I told her that he was my grandfather. Upon hearing my reply, her eyes just widened all of a sudden and she became teary eyed.

She excitedly told me that she could never forget my grandfather because he saved her from drowning in the Agusan River when she was a little girl. She remembered that during her struggle to save herself, a tall teenager pulled her out from the water and saved her. And that tall teenager was Joaquin, my grandfather.

I grew up knowing that the Agusan River has always been synonymous with my home city of Butuan. My father used to tell me stories of his childhood when they would spend their free time jumping off from the bridge into the river below.

I could not imagine anyone doing the same today until I computed the years and realized that the bridge he was talking about was the old wooden bridge that spanned the river before the Magsaysay Bridge was constructed. Perhaps that was the advantage of someone whose house was just a stone’s throw away from the water. Until now, our ancestral house still sits on a lot at the corner of Del Pilar and Silongan Streets.

Earlier today, I again met Manay Alita Torralba-Lish. She is now 85 years old. And of course, she could no longer remember me. She just had this polite look on her face as she looked at me while I was talking to her niece, Dr. Weng.

However, when she was reminded about my name and who my grandfather was, her face lit up like the sun, and she excitedly told us once again about that momentous incident when she almost died in the river. And of course, my lolo Joaquin was again, her hero.

Time passes quickly but stories like these make unforgettable memories about our river.

♥  ♥ 

Where Do I Begin to Write You My Letters

by Jasper Caesar Espinosa Jampac

Dear April,

I always hated you, and somehow secretly sought you out – you, with the sunny personality yet scorching temper: beckoning us to come out and play with you but searing us at midday.

One early morn, mommy dearest brought me to a tabo-an (Sunday street market) in the mercado (public market) when I was about four years old. The maddening crowd amazed me, my eyes lit up, and my frail hand slipped away from dear mother. But I held hands again, only to find a stranger holding me. I quickly took my hand away and walked off. I didn’t find mother, but I miraculously found my way home.

I hid under our staircase, scared to get a kusnot (pinch) from mom when she would get home. Instead of a pinch, my family was just so relieved to find me; surprised at how I managed to come home all by myself.

Mommy sat on the piano chair and played her favorite piece, lulling me as I watched, a little scared.

I always look forward to your coming, April – summertime, sea, sand, siesta, school-off, yet you make me cry.

In my boyhood days in Butuan of the Eighties, your coming meant the commanding sullenness of the Catholic world of Christ Jesus’ death, which translates into the No TV, No Meat policy, extended to a week of sacrifices that happily ends with the dawn procession called Sugat (the Meeting). Everyone congregates at the Provincial Capitol compound wearing their Sunday’s Best (translation: most decent attire for a Church Mass or something probably picked out from Grand Collection, Klothes Korps, Annie’s or Jerry Shoppers’ World, whichever suited your budget and taste), on Easter dawn to take part in ceremonies that feature some of my schoolmates hanging like silly seraphim, they who did little angelic acts at school anyways. 

No one would mind the week-long puasa (fasting) for Girlie’s burgers across Rizal Park were the prize for the sacrifice. And more. For Easter Sunday is a big fiesta.

Later that day, and almost by no coincidence, I see half of Butuan at its coastline, garbed in their ubiquitous bathing attire of oversized shirts over puruntong shorts (dungarees): enjoying the grey, powdery sands of Tinago beach, munching on puso (rice cooked inside diamond-braided coconut leaves), kinilaw (Filipino ceviche) and lechon (roast pig).

Easter is the only time I see familiar faces from school as after, I am back around my neighborhood playing street games like kariling (rolling bike tires), tagu-tago (hide-and-seek), and bahug-bahug (base takeover a.k.a. agawan base). If school rivalry had its beginnings, for me, I learned it all from these games. It was a test of character to be taunted or hailed, but in the end, friendships prevailed.

Growing up, summer meant a rite of passage: of many boys crying in overhyped pain, and of some girls changing and becoming slightly stranger; of leaving boyhood through tuli (circumcision) and of metamorphosing girlhood through ear-piercing. This gave me a gender bias that earrings were made for girls, more so when years later, my passionate Religion teacher declared with conviction that boys who have their ears pierced are ‘kampon ni Satanas’ (the Devil’s advocates). To this day, April, I wonder who else believes in that crap as I honestly do. But Miss Romano will be so proud of me. Don’t you think so?

Your temperature’s soaring, April, and there was no way that we could play with you all day. After enjoying the antics of Gleek and the Wonder Twins from Justice League, it was time for siesta. My summer siestas were spent poring over books of my mother, and of being enchanted by the world of imagination beyond my gaze, and of curiously wondering what’s out there.

Outside my shell was a world to discover. April left and I met May.

 JC

____

Dear May,

There is no mistaking that pomp and pageantry start with your arrival – you, with your feminine gait, your luxurious tresses and your beautiful blossoms – that made me take a second look at you. You are the enviable kiss in one’s midsummer night, or a longing for some place I have never travelled to.

The moment I learned to cycle, I pedaled as fast as I could, around and beyond the city, enjoying every journey I made and all the scenery captured in my head. That long, breezy, quiet drive from the City Hall to the Provincial Capitol was, by far, my most favorite ride. With rice fields on one side and cogon grasses on the other, this tree-lined pavement was unimpeded by structures, save for a few government buildings. The curve where the old rickety wooden City Hall stood, provided makahiyak (tummy-heaving) moments in one’s speedy turn. The Iglesia Ni Cristo temple offered me a Disney-esque feel as I pass by it while the grand majestic Provincial Capitol of American architecture, at the end of that road, lures with its magnetic appeal.

All roads lead to the Capitol, where Butuanons either converge, jog, hang around or find love. No one pesters promenaders around the Capitol, not even the guards from one security agency with an ironic promise: “gamay’ng kasikas, mata dayon” (a little stir and we’re awake). This is the same road where agony and beauty walk; where the once silly seraphim have now all turned into captivating Maria Elenas and Santa Cruzan beauties parading with their handsome consorts for the Flores de Mayo procession.

As unhurried life plods onward, Butuan’s simple joys include a walk of distinction – to be chosen as one of Butuan’s Santa Cruzan and Flores de Mayo beauties and consorts during the Balanghai Festival. You either get elected or invited to its roster of muses and escorts – a particular proud moment, and a step higher than being crowned as, say, Queen Anna I of Barangay Dumalagan after the final canvassing of monetary votes during its fiesta, with one’s new royal moniker emblazoned on the wall using silver-dusted styrofoam letter cut-outs tacked on either dead maroon or red satin drapes.

By the time a barangay coronation of a Queen One is completed, the lights dim, and the bayle (communal dance) ensues within a perimeter of the kasagingan (banana plots), bordered by fuchsia crepe paper cross lines. The boys ask the girls for their hand – 25 cents for hot music and 50 cents for a sweet dance.

Oh no, May, it is an excuse for merriment, socials, gossip, love and perhaps fame.

At 15, I unsuspectingly agreed to a barangay evening affair, only to find out that I was to escort the new Queen One. As I stood on stage all night with pellet-sized sweat pouring down my back, I only had one fervent prayer: Dear God, if you be so kind, please don’t let any of my classmates come near this open-air event or I’d be scarred for life. Otherwise, please let the earth open up and swallow me instead. The following year, my fortunes improved as I became a Flores de Mayo consort. Years later, I hosted the Mutya Hong Butuan pageant and co-directed it twice over.

With wide-eyed awe, I stare at the stars that all glitter in your nights, May, that somehow give my otherwise sleepy hometown a reason to return to. You deserve a mañanita (dawn birthday serenade) each day, if only for your blossoming beauty and brains. To me, in my day, you are Maria Dalsa Montalban, the last Miss Urios of her kind – a sixth grader who won the title over the entire school cohort. To most of Butuan, you are Joy Busa – hailed as the city’s most beautiful.

As beauty flourishes, so shall it fade. May happened and June came.

JC

————-

Dear June,

Why rage with ruthless fury and abandon me with deathly stares? I have known you to be extremely dichotomous: beginnings and endings, joy and grief, yin and yang. But I await your coming, June, as school beckons to reunite me back with my Urian classmates. You bring me excitement for a whole new world of discoveries, and of returning to rigor and regimen once more.

I start my day when the AM radio at home starts blaring at full volume at 5:30AM. The familiar vendor’s call of “itlog mo ’Noy, orins” (boiled eggs, sir, or Tru-Orange) comes ringing across the neighborhood. Dragging my feet to the bathroom, the super-cold shower wakes me up. Afterwards, I hurriedly eat my breakfast of fried panit (tuna), scrambled eggs, rice and sikwate (homemade hot chocolate drink).

My siblings and I leave the house before 6:45AM, giving our dad the courtesy mano (Philippine custom of respect upon leaving and arriving by putting an elder’s hand on one’s forehead), before taking the tricycle, if he won’t be driving us to school. From Janet Cinema, we dash to the Urios gates along San Francisco Street.

My desire to discover had the utmost impact on my education, inquiring about just anything, even the silliest of things.

“Why do you girls not come to class with fully-dried hair? It keeps the shoulder portion of your uniforms wet.” I wondered whether this was a way to make their stringy hair look straighter.

But, you know, June, I could be wrong. Like how wrong I was about you.

I thought you were all excitement and rebirth. However, you sometimes came with wrath from your winds, with rains that never end. You wreak havoc – even in the hearts of men, by sending beauty to madness.

The first beauty I knew in life who I adored, you took away from me and my family. On that 5th day of June in ‘82, at the 6th of the eve, my mommy dearest lay on her bed lifeless. Holding her cold ankle, I asked whether she was coming back to life – or at least speak for one last time. But I never got an answer. I was seven.

The day we laid her to rest was as sunny as April, as beautiful as May and drizzled the way that you are, June.

I continued on with life in Butuan without a mother. One day, I sat on her piano chair and discovered her favorite piece, A Love Story. I looked at the dog-eared sheet of music and remembered the last time she played this on the piano.

“She fills my soul with so much love,                                                                        That anywhere I go, I’m never lonely, with her along who could be lonely,              I reach for her hand, she’s always there.” – Where Do I Begin (Love Story)

JC

♣  ♣