One afternoon in 1948, as I was watering my pechay plot in our elementary school garden class, I heard, “Psssst! Psssst!” coming from the direction of the bushes bordering the school grounds and the uplands ascending Mount Banahaw. I ignored the “psst!” And this was followed by “Hoy! Minyong!”
I looked toward the bushes and behind two, wide banana leaves I recognized the face of a man with long hair up to his shoulders, overgrown whiskers and a bony face with sunken cheeks. He was wearing a balanggot hat and frayed maong jacket. He looked scary.
“Minyong!” he called. “Si Erasto ito! May mga sundalo ba sa munisipyo?”
“Ah…eh…wala,” I managed to answer, a bit dazed.
Erasto was a tagalabas (Huk) who joined the communist rebels a year ago. He was my kapatid sa binyag by virtue of Inay Aurea, who stood as his ninang during his baptism. He was one of the boys in our group growing up in Bulac-bulac in the mid-1940s. I was shocked by his appearance. From the cheerful, good-looking friend that I knew, he now looked like a dirty Mexican bandit in one of those cowboy movies.
“Gutom na gutom na ako. Ihanap mo naman ako ng makakain,” Erasto pleaded, and I pitied him.
“Eh, titingnan ko kung may makukuha akong pagkain sa bahay,” I replied.
“Bilisan mo, gutom na gutom na ako. Di pa ’ko nag-almusal. Wala pa ring tanghalian.”
Our house was half a kilometer away from school and I could reach it in six minutes, running and taking the shortcut route by traversing the dry creek near our home.
At home, I found some bahaw (cold rice) in the kaldero and fried leftover hito in the cupboard. I placed them in the piambrera and added some red tomatoes and salt, and I ran back to the bush where Erasto waited.
Erasto’s face lit up and he took the piambrera eagerly. He dug into it with his hands, crushing the tomatoes, mixing it with the rice and hito, and wolfed it down fast, one handful after the other. He ate hurriedly. I pitied him for eating like a famished animal.
Erasto joined the rebels a year ago after he got into trouble by getting punch drunk with lambanog and scandalizing the whole neighborhood. His father, Mang Leoncio, lost his temper and punished him physically with hard slaps on the face. The following morning, Erasto went up to the Huk camp in Mount Banahaw to join the rebels.
From 1946 to 1948, many barrio boys and out-of-school kids in town joined the Huk movement, lured by soldiering and adventurism.
Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon became the battlegrounds. The barrios, hills and forests around Mount Banahaw and Mount Arayat became drenched with the blood of soldiers and Huks caught in battles.
In 1948, the Huks were 12,000 strong and were gaining the support of the rural population, who were victims of military abuses and injustices in the landlord-farmer tenancy system that resulted in unfair cropping practices and high interest rates.
The poor people ran to the Huks for their complaints, and this gave birth to “Huk justice,” a kangaroo court for oppressed rural folk to get justice. The Huks implemented the death penalty quickly on abusive landlords and katiwala of absentee hacienderos.
In the 1950s, the Huks were a formidable force imbued with Marxist-Stalinist ideology. They could take over towns to disarm town police forces and procure supplies. This was the messy peace and order situation when I was in Grade 6 in my hometown.
Erasto had emptied the piambrera clean, with not a morsel left. After he finished eating, his mood changed from hunger to anxiety to his usual easygoing and jovial self. I became more comfortable with his presence. I remember the times he told us stories about the many rites of passages as a boy grew up. He narrated to us the clean cut of his circumcision, done on Good Friday by the bank of Olia River, and what he wrote in his first love letter, his first attempt at a courtship visit to the pretty face Eliza.
But the strangest and most breathtaking story he told us was how he learned to masturbate. It happened on a branch of a santol tree he was embracing to reach the ripe fruits. As the branch swayed up and down, the movement rubbed gently on his organs and he gradually felt an erection. The more he shook the branch, the more of a thrill he felt under his pants. As he got down, his hands took over. Wow! What a blast! All three of us boys were wide-eyed and breathless as we listened to him, many moons ago.
Erasto, satisfied with his meal, fished out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and smoked the last stick. I asked, “Saan ang punta mo?”
“Papunta kaming Bicol. Napalaban kami sa San Antonio. Bumaba ako mula sa Caliraya. Nagbaka-sakali akong sumaglit dito sa atin, baka may pagkain. Buti nakita kita.”
Finagled from village folks
Erasto then complained about their terrible food situation. It always tasted horrible. Almost all the time they would dump whatever they have in a big kawa and boil it with salt and water—vegetables, canned sardines, saba banana, camote, sayote, smoked fish, pork and chicken, anything they could finagle from village folks along the way. Erasto went hungry most of the time.
“Pinasok namin ang Lukban noon isang buwan,” Erasto now talked animatedly.
“Eh gutom ako. ’Yang mga kasama ko sinamsam yung mga baril ng pulis sa munisipyo. Ako pumunta sa mga silong-silong ng bahay. Eh may nakita akong mama na gumagawa ng sorbetes, hinahalo niya. Nilapitan ko’t tinutukan ko siya. Taas ang kamay! Takot na takot siya. Ako naman, kinamay ko yung sorbetes. Ang dami kong nasubo, punung-puno yung tiyan ko.” He stood up to leave. “Pinururot ako!” he said, laughing. “O, salamat Minyong, sisibat na ako.” Then he disappeared into the bushes.
After a year, I learned that Mang Leoncio, Erasto’s father, went to the Huk camp in Mount Banahaw to retrieve Erasto. His father wanted Erasto to start a new life. He was shipped out to Mindanao, tagged as the land of promise during those years. Last I heard was that Erasto reached the frontier town of Gingoog, got married and settled there. I did not hear from him since then.
The Huk rebellion ended in 1954 with the capture of the communist leaders of the Politburo, and many Huks surrendered.
Today’s rebel group, the NPA (New People’s Army), took over from the Huks.
The same social injustice and gigantic poverty in the rural areas remain unsolved. Hunger, lack of health facilities, illiteracy and abuses in tenancy relations persist. Our incompetent government simply could not solve social injustices among our poor people.