The End of the Beginning
IN the year of our lord 1948, in the hot summer month of July, the Philippines could look forward to celebrating its second birthday as an independent state. But that wasn’t what really interested people. Then, as now, what was on people’s minds was the coming election. It was a long way away — scheduled for November, 1949 — but nothing is ever too far away for a nation that made, then, as now, the greatest topic of interest among the haves and have nots the all-consuming tournament for power.
It was rumored that the Vice-President, Elpidio Quirino, was out of favor; that the president, Manuel Roxas, expected to seek a second term, was toying with the idea of finding a new running mate. A name was even being bruited about: Quintin Paredes, fiery former Speaker, now Senator, a man of great repute and potentially a greater vote-getter than his fellow Ilocano, Quirino. Those who claimed to be in the know said that President Roxas had already talked to Paredes; and that, with the Vice-President recovering from a heart-attack and currently on a cruise to the Visayas, all was coming together to enable a face-saving way out for Quirino, and a stronger potential partnership for Roxas.
As for Manuel Roxas, first president of an infant Republic, head of a party as young as the nation he headed, he kept his counsel. This was one poker player who kept his cards close to his chest.
This was the Philippines, in the year of our lord, 1948. In the month of July, in a year in which the nation felt it was sure that it could look forward to a steady, splendid preparation for the kind of activity it liked best: a presidential election, But for those who went blissfully to sleep in the evening of April 15 would wake up to find the 16th heralding a nation suddenly gripped with uncertainties that they thought could only come once in a lifetime.
AT six in the morning, Filipinos from all walks of life began to assemble at Manila’s main train station at Tutuban. It was Friday, April 16, 1948.
A detachment of white-helmeted presidential guards gathered in formation in the plaza in front of the station, and stood at attention; an honor guard bore the presidential flag. Policemen cordoned off the plaza, as other plainclothes cops surveyed the scene. Reporters jockeyed for good positions, some standing on the roof of the station; cameramen fiddled with their equipment. The summer sun rose. People began to perspire in the heat. A strange sort of vehicle made its way to the entrance of the station: an ambulance that looked more like a jitney.
A buzz started going through the crowd when the sound of an approaching train, steaming slowly down recently rehabilitated narrow-gauge tracks, was heard.
The train was bearing the mortal remains of Manuel Roxas.
The crowd watched silently, solemnly, with mingled shock and sadness, as the train stopped, at five minutes before nine o’clock in the morning. People craned their necks to get a glimpse when the curtains on the windows of one coach were parted open, allowing the public to see the President’s body. The passengers in the railroad carriage disembarked, and then the stretcher bearing Manuel Roxas’s remains was brought out of the train, followed closely by First Lady Trinidad de Leon Roxas, distraught, disheveled, clutching in her hand one of the President’s slippers. The remains of the President were placed in the waiting ambulance, into which the First Lady and her daughter, Ruby, also clambered.
The crowd, jostling to get a view of what was happening, were held back by policemen, while the presidential guards brandished their tommy guns at photographers, warning them not to take pictures of the President’s remains. The guards cocked their guns when some photographers insisted on taking photos” not a picture was taken as the President’s remains were moved to the ambulance.
Plainclothesmen jumped on the running boards of the ambulance, which then started up and drove slowly to the plaza fronting the station. The presidential flag was dipped in salute; a military band played the National Anthem. Then, siren wailing, the ambulance rushed to Malacañan Palace.
WHEN notice was given that the public would be allowed to pay their respects to Roxas, a procession of genuine mourners, the morbidly curious, and those anxious to be part of history or be at the seat of power, began.
Limousines — Packards, Cadillacs, and Lincolns, some new, others having almost miraculously survived the war — brought the privileged to the Palace from the few surviving mansions along Dewey Boulevard in Pasay or New Manila, where the more fortunate of the wealthy had begun building their mansions before the war. Men of wealth and influence were in linen de hilo or ‘sharkskin’ suits with black arm bands of mourning, black ties and black shoes; their wives in black ternos. The rest of the public went to the Palace as best they could: the middle and upper lower class living in undevastated Santa Ana and San Juan riding in taxis, in jitneys, or on buses. The very poor walked to the Palace in slippers or wooden clogs, the bakya that was every bit a reminder of the war as the ruins of Intramuros, Pasay, and Malate, where many of them now lived as squatters. Others were even barefoot. Everyone stood in line — the democracy of death. The queue was long, and slow; and as it was getting late, some decided to call it a day even before getting past the sentry gate.
The queue was a cross-section of Philippine society: Filipinos, Spaniards, and Americans, friends and admirers of the President. A newsboy in dirty khaki shorts and a striped T-shirt, still carried in his hands the newspapers that were his daily bread. Stout, elderly women bit their rouged lips, eyes red with unshed tears; some still carrying their shopping, their marketing. Silently, poor and rich alike climbed the Palace’s main staircase to the second floor and turned right to enter the reception hall, crossing to the Ceremonial Room. There, mounted on a low platform, was a black casket, in which the body lay.
Grief, respect, and loss were demonstrated in many different ways by the mourners. A woman past middle age, in a simple brown dress and shod in the bakya of the masses, kissed the casket. The presidential guards gently pried her away from the casket and so she moved on, but she knelt about a meter away, bowed her head, prayed silently, and then, making the sign of the cross, stood up and walked back to the obscurity from whence she came.
Each mourner cast one fleeting look at the dark features of the departed Chief Executive, then walked out of the ‘wealth-filled room’ — mute. Many did not find the strength to speak until they were back in the maze of Quonset huts and temporary offices that squatted on the Palace gardens.
Even those who had not been fond of him in life, paid their respects to Roxas in death: ‘I wanted to see him defeated in the coming elections, but I didn’t want him to die before his term was over,’ one such man said.
The youth, who had always been attracted to the relatively young President, mourned his passing especially keenly. One journalist jotted down the words of a young lady: ‘I had no chance to see him in life. I should have seen him while he was still living. They say he was a wonderful speaker.’
The Roxas family grieved in private, as telegrams flooded Malacañan. The process of remembering, of recapturing a life so swiftly extinguished, had begun with newspapers editorializing on his passing.
The pro-administration Evening Herald wrote,
‘In the death of President Manuel Roxas the nation has not lost only a leader, whose political career has been dedicated to the service of his people, but also a friend.
‘In his public life, from councilor of his native town of Capiz to President of the Philippines, the highest gift within the gift of his people, President Roxas had always only one objective: that of serving his people unselfishly…
‘He died at a time when the Philippines had hardly begun its rehabilitation and reconstruction program, worked out by him precisely for the uplift of the common man, and at a time when the world is again on the brink of another war.
‘We may not now realize the tremendous effects of his death on the political and economic life of this nation.
‘But we feel the impact at this very moment for, in this hour of bereavement, the man in the street realizes that he has lost a great patriot and the champion of the masses.’
The anti-Roxas Star Reporter editorialized on April 16, 1948,
‘He died in the line of duty, for he had just delivered a speech in which he pledged the Philippines to stand by the side of the United States in the event of any future war…
‘In the past 21 months [we have] been one of the bitterest critics of the public acts of Manuel Acuña Roxas as President.
‘In equal measure, we have showered him with encomiums whenever, in our opinion, he had done something of public acclaim. This had been our consistent policy because we believe that official acts are always subject to public scrutiny, and that the good deeds should be rewarded and the ill-advised measures should be criticized and even condemned. We did this because he is our President, the President of the Filipino people.
‘As President, Manuel Acuña Roxas had made many blunders. He had also done many things that will entitle him to the gratitude of the living, and the treasured memory of the dead. We have taken all these in their intrinsic worth, always single to the highest welfare of our country, the same country for which Manuel Acuña Roxas lived and died.
‘That he did his best as he saw fit, no one can deny.
‘That he was one of the most gifted men of our time, no one can challenge.
‘That he was loyal to the land that gave him birth, in his own lights, nobody will question.’
BEREFT, a nation, and, in particular, the cream of Philippine society — those that had clung to Roxas in life for leadership — now once more gathered at the center of power, to keep final vigil, clinging, in a sense, to his mortal remains even as they nervously anticipated the many questions his sudden loss posed for them and their country. They were the same people, but neither they, nor the nation to which they belonged, felt they would ever be the same again.
The dignitaries keeping vigil were already thinking of their political futures. The country had expected Roxas to be in office until 1949, and for four more years after that, if he won, as he was expected to, a second term. Now a country that had pinned its hopes on the youngest of the triumvirate of Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, and Manuel Roxas which had achieved the restoration of independence, found itself thrust into a new era. The three leaders who had controlled the destiny of the country for forty years were all gone: Quezon dead; Osmeña retired; Roxas, much younger than the other two, now dead as well.
And so the nation suddenly had to come to grips with the fact that so soon, so unexpectedly, an era had passed. As the wake went on, the coast guard cutter bearing Vice-President Elpidio Quirino steamed as fast as it could from the Visayas to Manila. Filipinos followed the traditional rituals of death, playing out the last acts of an era about to end the moment the Vice President stepped foot in Malacañan to take his oath of office.
The nation found itself feeling as if it had lost a giant, and began to question why.