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Dec 15

Travels with my father

Travels with my father

By Manuel L. Quezon III

 

THE first time we traveled was in 1972, and it proved an ill-fated expedition. Due to assume his post as Philippine ambassador to Brazil, we found ourselves in Mexico City when news came that martial law had been declared. My father promptly called the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Carlos P. Romulo, to submit his immediate resignation; and then a couple of months of waiting ensued –in the hope, my father told me, many years later, that martial law would collapse.

Those months were spent in aimless wandering, including, apparently, a period in Guatemala. My only memories of this time are retrospective: photos on the sacrificial altar of the Pyramid of the Sun, for example; and photos, upon our return, in 1973, sporting a hippie hairstyle in what was apparently a form of political protest. My father had heard the Metrocom were going around cutting the hair of hippies, so I came home a toddler hippie in protest against martial law.

The early years of martial law involved restrictions on the right to travel. Anyone who wanted to travel needed to secure permission from the government –and so, we didn’t travel. By 1980, however, we could go without asking for permission, and so, we went (and I remember the year only because it was the year in which Josef Brosz Tito, dictator of Yugoslavia, died on the day we visited Walt Disney World in Florida). We traveled from East to West.

But before we left, we first had to suit up. This was serious business, requiring repeated paternal injunctions to the effect that “when you travel abroad, you represent your country!” Complete with dire stories of people who dressed sloppily and ended up deported or simply becoming embarrassments to the country. This involved finding appropriately tiny suits since I was a pretty tiny child, and the marvelous contraption known as a clip-on tie, which is lots of fun so long as you aren’t, yet, thirteen (after that age, it becomes a disgrace).

We set off, looking like Ricardo Montalban and Tattoo (first stop at the airport, I actually exclaimed, ‘ze plane! ‘ze plane!”), on Pan Am (PAL was crony so verboten), and ended up in New York City, in what proved to be a depressing collision with the present for my father, and a confusing attempt to imagine the past, for me. Long stories of train trips from Washington to New York and back collided with an America long past the era of steam locomotives: Penn Station had, apparently, been demolished in 1962; Grand Central Station had thirty years to go before its renaissance and its own Apple Store –we got as far as cautiously navigating the street in front of Grand Central Station and then retreating from what seemed a murderous mob of hobos.

Not that our base of operations was much of a sanctuary. Recalling the days of his youth, and since this was our first trip abroad in many years, father had insisted in our being billeted in the Biltmore, which may have been a place to hobnob in 1943 but was, by then, on its last legs. It was enormous, but shrouded in gloom, and the liveried waiters –in yellowing white mess jackets and frayed, greying, white gloves—shoved china and silver dishes around with resentful scowls. Such was the terror they inspired that a desire on my part, one morning, for some additional strawberry jam was vetoed with a parental warning: “huwag mo hinggin diyan at baka saksakin ka pa ng butterknife.” Indeed, I never spoke as much Filipino with my father as we did on that trip. There are so many colorful ways to warn children of the perils that lurk in the dark recesses of American civilization.

It would turn out that the Biltmore would end up demolished about a year later, in 1981. At least we reached the Biltmore. A cloth bound guide to New York’s finest restaurants was part of our kit (Dining in New York with Rector), but proved, shall we say, rather out of date: since it was published in 1939, none of the restaurants cited (and fondly remembered) still existed: the formerly posh places of yesteryear had invariably become pizzeria and Chinese restaurants. We did, however, discover rotisserie chicken, which we would smuggle into our Biltmore room –flaking plasterwork, musty curtains and lumpy beds—with the kind of professional insouciance that apparently comes naturally to Filipinos since room service or hotel meals are generally considered a wasteful extravagance.

The highlight of the New York leg of our trip was a visit to Mrs. Jean MacArthur, widow of the field marshal: she was ensconced in the Waldorf=Astoria (a place too splendid for mere hyphen) and my first encounter with a bathroom attendant. There’s a Third World thrill in having a portly white person bristling with gold braid, handing you a paper towel, although giving a quarter was apparently embarrassing and father had to add three dollars to the tip salver which still didn’t seem to impress the toilet’s generalissimo. Suitably refreshed, we ascended to her suite, decorated extensively in powder blue, but not the suite she’d lived in when her husband was still alive. She pronounced my father’s nickname, Nonong, as “Nonan,” and by way of remarking that I was close to “Little Arthur’s” age when they were in Corregidor, told my father her son (Arthur) was a saxophone player in Greenwich Village.

From New York, we went to Florida, to visit Walt Disney World (the morning we went, was when news of Marshal Tito’s death broke) and to visit Aunt Gretchen, a German-American friend of the family’s, who’d served as a kind of housekeeper during their period of Washington exile during the War.

Aunt Gretchen lived in embalmed splendor in a roomy apartment stuffed to the rafters with Victorian furniture; her first husband had been an aide-de-camp of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and upon being introduced to her, she promptly told me about her first visit to Germany, as a new bride, during the Weimer Republic. Her husband introduced her to General Erich Lundendorff, with whom she attempted a halting conversation in German. Unsure of her articles, she kept referring to everything with the diminutive “-ischen,” so table, der tisch, was “den tischen,” or, for lack of a better translation, “of the itty-bitty-table,” eliminating the thorny problem of masculine, feminine, or neuter gender for words. After sentences full of itty-bitty this, or itty-bitty that, the retired general, former co-generalissimo of the Imperial General Staff, took off his monocle and bellowed, “Gnädige Frau! If you use –ischen one more time, I will scream!” Thereby according me the curious distinction of claiming six degrees of separation from Weimar-era Germany.

This would turn out to be the first of several trips in subsequent years, in which we zigzagged across time and space; meeting ghosts from the past and puzzling over the change to formerly familiar landscapes. And each time, I wore a suit so as not to embarrass the country.

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