Why is it that revisiting an old haunt always gives one the feeling that one has just stepped off a time machine? This was exactly how it felt last week as I walked the streets of the Base for the first time in several years.
Time, in a way, is like air. It is just there. You do not really see it as it flows through. Most of the time, you hardly even notice its passing; and especially if you are kept in something of a trance by life itself, with all the expectations and the responsibilities that it burdens most of us when we become adults.
Revisiting an old familiar place that one has not been to for a while makes one break momentarily out of that trance; and to do so brings the realization of how much time, indeed, has slipped by. However, one is just as quickly sucked into another trance, the sort induced by the memories that reside inside one’s head.
So thus, as I walked past the Base’s main gate, I immediately became something of a somnambulist in broad daylight. I barely had a foot on the reality of the present. I just spontaneously started revisiting a reality that no longer exists: the reality of my own childhood.
Staring briefly at the tall trees across the front desk of the Air Police, I was instantly transported back to the sixties and inside my head could see Maryknoll nuns in their immaculate white robes supervising elementary children who had come for a day trip to what used to be called the picnic grove – there were wooden tables conveniently placed all around the place. The children were playing hide-and-seek among the tall trees or running along the open spaces right next to the woods. I could even see myself running from tree to tree.
As a young boy, I derived great pleasure from these trips. Mom would pack food inside those colorful tin lunchboxes that all of us children used to carry to school. Although I lived in the Base, I still had to go uptown in the Air Force school bus to meet up with my classmates. There was great anticipation in going to the grove because, in a way, it was also a chance to show off where one lived.
Sometimes, for no reason whatsoever, Mom would decide we would all have lunch at the grove. She would prepare rice wrapped in a large banana leaf and sprinkled with salt as was the authentic style of the bug-ong. We would have grilled pork or, perhaps, a whole tail of tanigue cooked over charcoal embers.
My reverie was broken as I neared the chapel. I paused for a moment; but only just. I used to go to Mass there as a matter of course when I was young. In those days, everyone had come to recognize the playing of the song De Colores over the Base’s public address system as the call to the faithful where other churches did things more traditionally and rang their large bells.
In the fairly recent past, however, the sight of the chapel has only conjured up sad memories for me. Who was it who said that that we who grew up in Air Force families became separated over time and seemed to come together frequently for funerals? That was so true. Even the wake for my own Mom we held at the mortuary beside the chapel. It is hard to believe that it has been 19 years since.
The kindly enlisted man at the gate had advised me to walk straight before turning right to my destination. I did tell him that my family and those of my contemporaries were pioneers to the Base. I was just returning his kindness; and that was my way of saying that I really needed no directions.
Like my feet had a mind of their own, they just instinctively turned right the moment I reached the corner close to the chapel. How many times had my feet done exactly that in years gone by?
To my right, the golf fairway. How many times did I climb the trees that lined the road so that I could shake for beetles to tie to strings and fly as toys? Or probably to reach some cicada sitting on one precariously thin branch?
How many times did I bring out an old basketball to kick and chase after on that very same fairway, not knowing that I would spend practically an entire lifetime in the game that I did not then even know was called soccer? And not just soccer; I played a sort of softball along the fairways with friends in the neighbourhood as well. Or hunted for grasshoppers for the sheer heck of it. Or flew kites. Or just played tag.
A few more yards and there it was. A pity students from a school inside the Base had all taken a detour along the very street where I grew up. In my time, the street used to be called Lawas. These days, I noticed from the sign at the corner, it has been renamed Zosa.
There it was: the large sewer pipe that I used to balance myself on. Mom loved to tell the story of my falling right into the canal one time when I was still small and it was filled with cascading rainwaters. One of the older boys in the neighbourhood plucked me out; apparently none the worse for wear although probably with a bruised ego. I do not even recall that incident happening.
What I can still recall is the sequence of owners of the houses that lined our side of the street: Averia, ours, de la Cruz, Aquino, Mendoza, Mijeno, Evangelista and Custodio at the corner. Funny that I can even recall this when I have forgotten so many things from that era.
Reluctant, I tore myself away from the street corner because I was expected elsewhere. I did stare briefly at the perpendicular road; and for a moment I could see myself atop my bike racing to Super to get the bottle of ketchup that Mom forgot to buy when she went uptown to the city public market.
To the left of the road, the canal that I used to jump across as a little boy; and I felt tremendous pride in having successfully landed on the other side the first time that I summoned the courage to make the leap. On the green grass of the other side, we ran for hours on end as kids most late afternoons.
Finally tearing myself away, I walked on to the parade ground where the Air Force football team was holding its training. I had meant to write about the team; and still will. But even watching the players scrimmage, taking pictures here and there, feeling a cool breeze blowing briskly against my face, I could not really focus on what I had come for.
I realized that I was loathing having been yanked back to the present because every step that I took on my way to the parade ground had that surreal feeling of being in another era. But not another place, because everything still felt remarkably familiar despite the many changes that had happened to the place since we left. After all these years, it still felt like home.