Today’s Weekender: It don’t mean a thing

(Note: This story won Honorable Mentionshort story category, 1994 Student’s Literary Contest, Dept. of English, U.P. Diliman)

It don’t mean a thing
By Manuel L. Quezon III

IT must have been around Mayor June, 1941. My father, who was mayor of our town, danced one tango too many at the Casa Mañna while he was in Manila “on official business,” had a heart attack, and died. I got the news a day or two later in Washington, D.C. where I was studying. About a month after that I reached home.

Settling my father’s affairs didn’t take very long. I was all set to go when Don Carlos, who was an old friend of my father’s and the biggest landowner in the province, dropped by to talk to me. It seemed the party (you must remember this was 1941, and at that time there was only one real party, the party of the Administration) couldn’t find a suitable candidate for mayor for our town. Old Tio Pidiong, my dad’s vice-mayor, now acting mayor, was getting increasingly flatulent and was getting to be an embarrassment to the town. Vice-President Osmeña had dropped by the Presidencia (although we weren’t allowed to call it that anymore, but old habits die hard) and the acting Mayor had honored Don Sergio with a nineteen fart salute, which mortified the elders and made him persona non grata to the powers that be.

Don Carlos asked me bluntly if I’d run for the mayoralty in November. He said it would be a sure thing and that I’d be doing him and the party a big favor, which he wouldn’t forget, wink, wink. Not to mention the usual appeals to my conscience, patriotism, and family pride. So I accepted.

So in November of 1941 I became the mayor of the town of San Emigdio, named after the patron saint of earthquakes in an area that has never had even a tremor since people were brought under the bells when the town was established. I had an easy campaign, really. Don Carlos had his tenants write “Partido Nacionalista” over and over again for a whole month before the election. Party-list system and all, the party in power steamrolled to victory over the rag-tag opposition. Tio Pidiong was put out to pasture. We made him superintendent of the jail which allowed him the opportunity to mix business and pleasure, since he bred fighting cocks and our jail served as the local cockpit. We didn’t have any crime to speak of. The occasional errant citizen might have to white-wash the jail and clean the benches and endure an atmosphere poisoned by Pidiong’s emissions, but that was fine. At least his breaking wind served as a deterrent to crime.

I looked forward to being a very bored mayor presiding over a town full of characters, which suited me just fine. There was Coronel Panfilo, who was a veteran of the Revolution and father of my best friend Enriquito who was staying in Manila. The Colonel was very serious. He was the most dignified man in the province. He addressed everyone as “po,” kept an autographed picture of Aguinaldo in the living room, and always referred to the General as “My President,” with a pointed look toward me if I happened to be within earshot.

His archy-enemy was the parish priest, Padre Urrutia. He was a real fraile, and Augustinian Recollect who it was said had escaped from Colonel Panfilo’s troops by dressing up in woman’s clothes. After the Americans won he came back and took up residence again in our town. Old age and his experiences during the Revolution must have made him holy, because everyone was shocked by the restraint and sobriety of his life when he returned. His only weakness was an addiction to churros which was harmless enough. Oh, and records of Caruso.

Every morning after mass he would walk slowly from his convento and cross the plaza to the post office beside the mayor’s office at about the same time that the Colonel would be leaving his doorstep (which also faced the plaza) on his way to his barber, where his old Revolutionary cronies would already be waiting for him. As they would pass by each other the old priest would lift his straw hat and bow ceremoniously toward the Colonel who would bow towards him, too. They would never say anything, though. I heard they hadn’t spoken a word to each other in fifty years. But they were enemies of the old school so they remembered their manners. As soon as the priest had passed, though, he would shake his left trouser leg as though he had stepped on something. The priest, I noticed would give the hem of his habit a little shake as if he were trying to shake off dust that had clung to it. Those were the only outward signs of their antipathy.

The rest of our town’s eccentrics belonged to the town band, known throughout the province, even as far as Manila. The conductor of the band was an ex-Constabulary sergeant who had managed to be sent to France along with a few other Filipino soldiers near the end of the World One. He always said with pride that he had been ten feet away from Tomas Claudio-“the only Filipino who managed to spill his blood in defense of Europe and Democracy”-when Claudio had his head blown off by an Imperial German shell. On his way back he had ended up in New Orleans and developed a love for jazz. When he returned to the Constabulary band Col. Loving, even though he was a Negro, couldn’t stand innovations like the “Tiger Rag” which led “Ole Jimmy,” as he liked to call himself, to resign in disgust. He ended up in our town and soon got everyone infected with the New Orleans Jazz bug. Like-minded musicians were drawn to him and soon we had a thriving colony of musicians who became the local celebrities.

Ole Jimmy, besides playing a mean trumpet and having the biggest collection of Louis Armstrong records this side of the Pacific, didn’t limit himself musically. He kept in tune with the times, learning all the latest hits. He soon had a large following among the younger set. His band grew into a big-band orchestra. He even played in Manila. They said even Tirso Cruz, the famous big-band leader, admired him. We loved him and “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” became his signature tune. His only bad habit was a weakness for old World War One soldier’s songs, specially when he was drunk. Even the saintly Fr. Urrutia was said to have muttered a “puneta” or two whenever Ole Jimmy wailed “Over There” once too often on a quiet night.

We expected the war to come, but somehow we weren’t all that worried about it. Enriquito would sometimes come home for a visit and show off his uniform and once he recounted how the UP. students had laughed in the face of the President when he made speech saying that the Civil Liberties Union people “should be hanged from the lamp-posts.” Some other friends from Manila would drop by to tease me about my new position, while I would jokingly remind them to come to the defense of my town if the Japs invaded.

A week after the bombing of Fort Stotsenberg troops started moving through our town on the way to new positions. One group spent the night camped out on the outskirts of the town. The next morning Fr. Urrutia said mass at their camp site and blessed the troops. He looked like he was giving the benediction to crusaders. The troops marched through the town as the band played and we all gathered to watch them tramp by. The reason for all the ceremony was that Enriquito commanded the unit. He had also managed to have many of the men who enlisted from our town join his command. We were bidding farewell to many friends.

I stood beside my best friend as his troops marched past and the band played “Onward Christian Soldiers,” none of us feeling the slightest bit self-conscious despite the heavy sentimentality of it all. As the soldiers passed by, one by one Ole Jimmy’s musicians, already in uniform, mess kits ready, got up and joined their units. Poch, a wiry guy who played the piano like a friend got up first, followed by overweight Jake who played the tuba. A couple of violinists followed next, then a clarinet player, and so on. Soon only the old originals, too old to fight but young enough to feel the urge to do so, were left, playing “Autumn,” a hymn that the band of the Titanic played as the ship sank. How fitting.

The old Colonel stood stiffly at attention by the window of his home that overlooked the plaza, watching the soldiers, watching his son. He had been furious when Enriquito took his officer’s training, saying that he regretted living so long as to witness his son become an officer under the command of the enemy. This led to a falling out which meant that the few visits Enriquito had made to his home town were marked with coldness on his father’s part. As Enriquito left my side to follow the last of his troops, I looked up at his father and saw him slowly salute his son. Enriquito snapped to attention and gave his father a salute, got into a staff car, and left.

The Japanese marched into our town a week after the New Year. Don Carlos, who had left our town for the safety of Manila the day after our soldiers had marched off, passed on a message from the Governor that I should make sure that everyone was instructed not to antagonize the Japanese in any way. There would apparently be a caretaker government whose instructions we were to wait for. So I hid away our American flag and put the portrait of the president in a cabinet and hoped for the best.

Our town was assigned a minute garrison of about twenty troops under the command of a Major Noguchi who, thank God, spoke English. He had been educated in London and was a cultured man: one of his first acts was to commandeer all of the priest’s Caruso albums. He commandeered my house, too, so I moved in with the old Colonel. The soldiers, bivouacked at the jail, promptly massacred Tio Pidiong’s fighting cocks. They wanted to keep him as a sort of valet but his malodorous characteristics rapidly put them off. The town was laughing about “Pidiong’s secret weapon” for weeks.

We had very little news of what was happening elsewhere. All the news we received was Japanese propaganda. One day I arrived at the Colonel’s for my siesta and found him sitting very erect, listening to the radio. It was Aguinaldo broadcasting an appeal to the troops on Bataan to surrender. After Aguinaldo spoke, he remained lost in thought and finally told me, “So, my President has spoken.” He sighed, got up, and entered his room, I suspect to grieve for his son, unnoticed.

It only took a few days for Major Noguchi to learn about the town band’s (no longer an orchestra since two-thirds of the musicians were at the front) reputation. He ordered a “command performance.”

We gathered under the trees from which were suspended little coconut-oil lamps which provided illumination little better than that from the stars above. We all stood respectfully when the Major and some of his men arrived. We continued to stand stiffly while the band played the “Kimigayo,” then we sat down. The concert began.

Jimmy and the band started playing “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” but before Nena, his obese wife who doubled as the vocalist for the group, could even sing the first line, Major Noguchi stood up in a fury. “Sirence!” he bellowed. Jimmy nearly swallowed his trumpet. I thought to myself, Oh boy, we’ve done something wrong and we’re gonna get it.

“How can you pray such music!” Noguchi screamed. “We are here to riberate you from American Imperiarim and you continue to pray their firthy music! No! Pray Firipino music, instantry!” He sat down with a clatter from his samurai sword and glared at the band while Jimmy had a hurried conference with his nearly prostate wife. Mopping his forehead with a handkerchief he made several bows towards the Major, turned around, nodded at her, and he began to play. Nena who looked like she was in danger of popping a blood vessel or two began warbling “Maalala Mo Kaya,” eyes switching between her perspiring husband and the Major. None of us breathed normally until the Major began to nod his head. When he clapped his hands at the end of the song we applauded with him lustily, we were so relieved.

Ole Jimmy and his wife were the ones who suffered most during the occupation. The Major developed a taste for having the band serenade him with German and Japanese marching songs while he ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Visiting officers developed the habit of dropping by our town to enjoy impromptu concerts organized by Noguchi. Months before the rest of us started to lose weight due to the scarcity of food, Ole Jimmy already looked like a wraith. As for poor Nena an unvarying diet of traditional songs (“I would say I’d vomit if I have to sing anything with the word “irog” in it again,” she whispered to me once between clenched teeth, “but I know until MacArthur comes back I have no choice”) led to the reappearance of all sorts of curves that even her husband probably never saw before.

1942 came and went. The picture of Jorge Vargas that I had hung up in my office was replaced with Laurel’s. We were allowed to sing our national anthem again as well as fly our flag. Bataan and Corregidor had long since fallen, we had heard about the death march, but no one came back. I got news that the Governor was under virtual house arrest and that Don Carlos had joined the puppet National Assembly. We even heard rumors that some of our townmates had joined the guerrillas. They were in hiding in the mountains.

We didn’t know if this was true. If they had become guerrillas they were the most inactive guerrillas in the archipelago. Life went on, the Japanese grew fat as we grew progressively thinner, and secretly in our hearts we gave up hope for the missing and buried them in our memories. We became very adept at bowing. We got used to things. Ole Jimmy increased his meager repertoire of kundimans. He even made a beautiful arrangement for an old revolutionary song that the Colonel dug excavated from one of his old bauls. It was also a kundiman, titled “Joselynang Baliwag.” The old prune-faced clique of the Colonel loved it. Whenever he would play “Maala Mo Kaya” with his wife singing along, they would look at us and their eyes would tell us, “Yes, can you remember?” and we would remember the good old days of “peacetime.” That was as far as our heroic resistance to the Nipponese went.

Around May, 1944, we finally heard from the up-to-then apocryphal guerrillas. Tio Pidiong who had nothing better to do than figure out novel substitutes for toilet paper had been gathering some leaves in the forest whose absorbent qualities he claimed were “far superior” to that of any other of the local flora when he heard a “psst” from the bushes which led to his losing whatever vestigial control he retained over both his bladder and bowels. It turned out that a scout wanted to establish contact. He passed along a note which Pidiong memorized. Pidiong then used the note to clean up his soiled trousers. I don’t think anyone could have found a more fool-proof way for disposing of incriminating papers! Eventually the guerrillas began writing their notes on leaves which he carried around openly, for besides obtaining a new lease on life as a courier, Pidiong had cornered the market in toilet leaves.

My best friend had become the chief of a small group of guerrillas who had been busy spying on the Japanese all over the province. They hadn’t bothered to mount a raid on our town since the Japanese garrison was so small, as well as to avoid there being reprisals against their loved ones. Enriquito let us know he was all right and that “Uncle Sam was coming back soon.”

The news spread faster than a flu epidemic. I have to hand it to my town mates, though, no one spilled the beans. But, Colonel walked ramrod straight again, the priest mumbled his prayers less, even Ole Jimmy let an occasional swing-like flourish intrude into his staid arrangements and I must confess I checked on the condition of that long-buried American flag. By mid-August we started getting the occasional chocolate bar wrapped in red-white-and-blue wrappers with “I shall return” printed on them. Then we started getting matches, cigarettes and real news.

Noguchi acted as if he and his fellow sons of heaven had nothing to fear. The daily serenades continued, he continued to grow corpulent. He started the new habit of dropping in people’s homes fro dinner (at least he brought his own supply of victuals so the host family had a decent meal). He tried striking up conversations. He made and effort to be pleasant. This habit continued for a couple of weeks until the night he had dinner at the Maigupos (they were the formerly rotund parents of the overweight tuba player, Jake). Jake’s only sister, still a little girl of about seven, caught the Major’s attention.

“Harro, ritter gir-uh,” the Major said, grinning from ear to ear. “You are verry pretty. What is your name?”

“Susana,” she replied, scowling.

“Ah, so! Verry good name,” chortled Noguchi. “You must be a verry crever gir-uh. Do you pray the piano?” He asked, looking at the piano in the sala.

“No, but I can sing,” Susana replied, looking at her mother. Mrs. Maigupo laughed nervously, looked at her husband, smiled at the Major and said, “Susana, hija, why don’t you excuse yourself from the nice Major and go see if the Major’s nice aides don’t want to join us?”

“No, ha-ha, it’s aright,” said the major, waving toward the vicinity of the silong where his guards were sitting. “They’ve eaten aready. Tell me, Susana-it’s Susana, right? What can you sing?”

“Actually I only know how to sing one song,” Susana replied quietly.

“And I’m sure you don’t want to hear our little girl sing, Major,” Mr. Maigupo said, chewing his lip.

“No, no, I would rike to hear her. I have also a ritter daughter in Hokkaido,” insisted the Major good-humordly.

“But really, Major, don’t you want to eat? Your chicken might get cold,” insisted Susana’s mother as the little girl began to look sick.

Noguchi gave them a cold look. “She wir sing. Then we eat. Ritter girr-uh, you sing, now!”

Poor Susana looked at her mother and father, shut her eyes, and began to sing “God Bless America.”

The amazing thing was that the poor family wasn’t shot on the spot. Instead, Noguchi growled, muttered something in guttural Japanese, got up and stomped out of the house, bewildered bodyguards in tow. He didn’t leave his (actually my) house after that. The daily serenades were stopped. Everyone, including the garrison, crept about fearfully, wondering when Noguchi would unleash his wrath on us all. But all we heard day after day, night after night, was the scratchy sound of Caruso singing “Nessun Dorme” over and over again.

Then came September, then it was October. There were a lot of troop movements. Truck after truck full Japanese soldiers passed through our town, headed for points in all directions. The garrison was seen to be cleaning their weapons more thoroughly than usual. Formerly benign sentries started getting into the slapping habit again. Fr. Urrutia was instructed not to ring the bells anymore. Enriquito sent word that the Americans were back.

I continued to be a purely titular Mayor. There wasn’t anything for me to do. Occasionally during anniversaries like the Emperor’s birthday or the anniversary of the Puppet Republic’s inauguration I’d have to address the townsfolk at the plaza and wave a little Japanese flag. But I had it easy compared to many of my colleagues n other town in other provinces. There were no Constabulary patrols sent to “persuade” guerrillas to surrender. Not a single Kempeitai officer honored us with a visit. All we did was plant vegetables and gossip in whispers. We started to miss listening to the poor band grind out fascist marching songs. The musicians wisely made themselves scarce.

Shortly before the onset of 1945 a couple of Imperial Navy officers in battle dress drove into town in a camouflaged Packard. Noguchi issued an order that there would be a concert. The first one in months. Everyone had to attend. We congregated in the plaza as night fell. The headlights of the officer’s car were used as floodlights to illuminiate the stage. Ole Jimmy and Nena (thanks to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, now quite sveldt indeed) stood on the improvised stage. He played a short, mournful trumpet solo, then she sang “Maalala Mo Kaya.”

The whole town, there in full force, was hushed, silent. The air was already quite cool, but there wasn’t even a breeze. We sat practically in total darkness. Only Jimmy and Nena could be seen under the harsh glare of the headlights. You couldn’t see the other musicians very well, they were behind the little stage. The only light came from the glowing tips of the Japanese’s cigarettes as they chainsmoked. No one seemed to breath, or cough. Nena sang the last stanza of the song, accompanied only by her husband and his mournful trumpet. The song ended. Jimmy wiped the mouthpiece of his trumped and nodded toward the guitarist. Nena began to sing “Joselynang Baliwag”

As the last note faded away the old trupmet-player and his wife look at each other, then at all of us in the audience. I think I saw tears in their eyes, but I can’t be sure, for we were all crying. Even the officers looked sad. Perhaps they knew their time was up.

You see, the following day American aircraft flew overhead for the first time. They even dropped leaflets that said “The day of your liberation is near.” The leaflets informed us that our province would be overrun soon as the Americans began their big push towards Manila. Without anyone telling them to, everyone flocked to the Church. The women knelt, praying the rosary. The men sat in the back and gave each other sly smiles. Even the Colonel, a staunch Mason, made an appearance at Church with his aged compatriots. They all knelt to (as the Colonel put it) “meditate in solidarity” with us.

Later that afternoon Japanese troops started passing through our town, headed away from what we presumed was the location of the American forces. The sentries disappeared; someone whispered that they had packed up and were preparing to evacuate. This is it, I thought. Noguchi’s getting ready to scram. We asked Tio Pidiong if the guerrillas weren’t going to strike, finally. The time was ripe. He shook his head. He didn’t know, and he shuffled off in anticipation of his unreliable bowels not being able to take all the excitement.

Night fell, the activity continued at Noguchi’s. After dinner we could hear (but not see-the windows were all closed) loud talking. The Japs were getting drunk. Over their loud banter we could hear the priest’s Caruso records being played over, and over again. Ole Jimmy visited me at the Colonel’s. “Why isn’t that friend of yours doing something?” He spats. “If I was a guerrilla chief I’d come in now and slit their throats.” The Colonel cleared his throat. “No sense in putting the town in danger,” he said gravely. “But I can’t stand the tension!” complained Ole Jimmy. “Bueno,” replied Col. Panfilo. “I see our Japanese guests are drinking, so why don’t we?” He gave us a naughty wink, disappeared into his room, and came out with two dusty bottles of brandy. He filled our glasses and offered a toast. “To Victory, Gentlemen.”

The last thing I recalled was Ole Jimmy singing “Ober Der! Ober Der!” I must have passed out. The next morning I was awakened by someone who was shouting “They’re here! They’re here! I can hear vehicles coming!” We all got up and peeped out the window.

The plaza looked deserted, but if you looked hard you could see that everyone was hiding in their homes, risking an occasional furtive peep every so often. I could hear something like very loud trucks approaching. The sound got nearer and nearer. Then I heard Ole Jimmy gasp. “Geddemit!” he shouted. “It’s a geddemed tank! An American tank!” And sure enough a olive green tank trundled into the middle of the plaza, accompanied by a couple of halftracks.

We all started cheering. Windows opened. Women screamed, grown men hugged each other, children jumped around, Ole Jimmy started singing “Ober Der.” Even the old Colonel slapped his thigh in delight. In about a minute we had all rushed down and surrounded the American vehicles. Ole Jimmy was joined by his wife an they began to sing “God Bless America.” We felt so patriotic.

I had just introduced myself to a young blond Lieutenant when Tio Pidiong came up to me and started shouting into my ear that the priest had to talk to me urgently. Then a shot rang out. Everyone-even the Americans-hit the dust. “What in the hell?” blurted out the lieutenant. “Mister Mayor, are there enemy forces in this here town?” “I don’t know sir,” I answered. The American ordered us to clear the plaza. Another shot rang out. Then another- they were coming from the convento!

“Lieutenant, the shots are coming from that building over there,” I said helpfully as the other civilians scurried to safety. “That’s what I wanted to tell you, cono!” came a voice from somewhere under one of the halftracks. It was the priest. “Those sinverquenzas took over my house and that hijo de puta Noguchi has a towel around his had and he says he’s going to make a last stand. In my house!” One of the soldiers retrieved the irate Spaniards from under their vehicle and dumped him where he would be safer.

“Shit,” cursed the Lieutenant. “Sorry Padre, but we’re gonna have to blast those Nips to kingdom come.” He sounded exactly like John Wayne, although I wouldn’t see any of his movies until long after Liberation. I suggested to the officer that instead of shooting at the convento at point-blank range with the tank’s cannon they should rake it with small arms-fire. “OK.,” he agreed.

The soldiers started peppering the house with bullets. The Japanese couldn’t shoot back. A solemn delegation led by the Colonel approached. “Senor,” intoned the Colonel. “I would like the honor of firing a shot in defense of my town. I am a veteran.” The bemused American handed Col. Panfilo his rifle. The old man lifted up the rifle, took careful aim, fired a shot. His old gang croaked in admiration. Making a slight bow toward the American, he whispered “Thank you,” then handed the rifle to his fellow veterans who started taking turns taking pot-shots at the convente. They all broke into gummy smiles when they heard the friar exclaim “Good! That’s it, boys!”.

Soon all the able-bodied men had joined us. They asked the Americans for rifles. Their womenfolk cheered everytime a shot rang out. A G. I. suggested that they storm the place. With a whoop the men ran into the building. We could hear them shooting inside. A grenade exploded. Then, silence. The G.I.’s looked grim. A little brown head poked out of one of the side windows-an old veteran! “We’ve won!” he cried, as his shout was taken up by everyone in and around the plaza, “Victory!” The officer grinned. “Congratulations. From the look of it I guess I’d better confirm you appointment as Mayor,” he said to me. I shook his hand.

Noguchi and three men, it turned out, had elected to make a last stand. The others had fled. When we went upstairs to look at their bodies we saw empty bottles of mass wine and brandy. Half-smoked special cigarettes from the Emperor littered the floor. Two soldiers had been shot to death. Noguchi had blown himself up with a grenade. Disgusting. The priest’s room was a wreck. Urrutia said that it was worth it, since his albums had survived “miraculously.”

As we were collecting the corpses we heard a funny thumping sound outside, accompanied by-was it a trumpet? We looked out the window and saw the most glorious sight.

Ole Jimmy was marching towards the convento with his band, strewing sheet music right and left-the scores of those hateful marches. They were playing jazz! People started clapping as the band broke into a ragtime version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.” They stopped under the window. Ole Jimmy called up, “Hey you guys! Get those bodies down here. We’re goint to give those bastards a real New Orleans Jazz funeral!” Let me tell you, he sure did. We paraded those corpses around town, the band belting out half-forgotten tunes and a couple more they made up. Fr. Urrutia rang the bells. It was probably the only New Orleans-style funeral in Philippine history.

That night the guerrillas arrived. They had taken part in the liberation of the Provincial Capitol. Everyone was reunited. The Colonel embraced his son, the Maigupos marveled at their sons muscles, the orchestra was reunited.

We had a victory concert. For the first time since ’41 we had a fully-illuminated stage, courtesy of the US. Army. The orchestra played and played. The Lieutenanteven sang a duet with Nena. When Ole Jimmy stood beside his wife, and she began to sing “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If Ain’t Got That Swing).” We went crazy. We were free.

Much later when the weary orchestra was playing Glenn Miller tunes, as the reunited couples danced slowly, I left the party and went for a walk. I decided to take possession of my old home. When I got there I couldn’t quite gather up the guts to walk in. I sat down on the front steps and had a smoke. The sky was clear-the moon was full-a slight breeze blew. A crumpled sheet of paper rolled by. I picked it up idly. I unfolded it. It was a sheet of music-“Maalala Mo Kaya.” I smiled, crumpled it up again, and threw it away.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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