This story ends with a family reunion. But it revolves around a man who made the reunion possible—by hand-carrying 18 liters of diesel to destinations guided only by cell phone numbers, in the chaos and trauma following Supertyphoon “Yolanda’s” destruction of the Visayas.
The man, Army Sgt. Arnold Juntilano, was on a mission, actually a request from Odette, a friend of a friend of his superior. At 7 a.m. he and his brother rode a bus in their hometown, Catbalogan City, Eastern Samar, bound for Tacloban, Leyte.
Sergeant Juntilano would have set out the day before, had he not been caught in a kilometric line at a local money-transfer service from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It was just too late if he still had to buy food with the money that Odette sent.
Nighttime, he said, posed a lot of danger to people in Tacloban due to lawlessness and the fight to survive.
He had to accomplish his mission on this day, the soldier thought as the bus rolled on.
Flashback to the night Odette called him on the phone from Manila. She was worried, saying that loved ones were struggling in a broken city, and there was no way she could join them. Luckily, he was off-duty and, while not compelled by his job to say yes, was willing to do Odette a favor.
“I’m going,” he texted Odette. Two new cell phone numbers were now saved in his phonebook as Maribel and Job, Odette’s mother and brother. Both were in Tacloban City for Job’s enrollment. Otherwise, they would be at home in Caibiran, Biliran.
Odette had sent the numbers the night before so that Sergeant Juntilano may contact them. He had already registered for unlimited calls and texts, at his own expense, for continuous communication.
The road was better now. He did not have to walk the San Juanico Bridge, as he did the first time to give goods to now-homeless relatives in Tacloban. He planned to do as he did then: Pack goods in his jungle kit to camouflage these from looters.
Then Odette called.
She said her family did not need food anymore. They needed diesel. A truck had come from their hometown to fetch them, but they weren’t sure there was enough gas to make it back to Biliran.
Sergeant Juntilano was now carrying that request in a plastic container. He brought his brother along, as he did two days ago, for security.
At 11 a.m. the brothers alighted at a waiting shed in the outskirts of Tacloban. Sergeant Juntilano texted Job to say that he was wearing a white shirt and black-and-white shorts. Job replied that they were coming.
While waiting, Sergeant Juntilano and his brother spent a full hour observing the surroundings. The fields were not supposed to be brown, the veteran soldier thought; the sight resembled that of apocalyptic movies.
Then a white truck arrived. He wasn’t sure if Job and Maribel were in it. He didn’t even know their faces. But as the truck was finding a shoulder to park on, Job descended from the backside to find him.
One of the numbers in his phonebook finally had a face, and the other one was approaching. With them on the truck were six others, who came from Biliran the other day to visit relatives and help the two leave with some valuables from their rented apartment.
Maribel was morose, Sergeant Jutilano said, and Job looked exhausted. Nevertheless, both were thankful they can now go home. They talked for five minutes, Maribel thanking him and his brother, and handing a small amount he did not even want to take. “Pang-kain,” Maribel insisted.
The soldier and his brother were able to eat lunch in Catbalogan at 4 p.m.
Meeting Job and Maribel was brief, but it’s one of those moments that linger, Sergeant Jutilano said. He put a smile on the faces of people he just met, and gave Odette the sleep she couldn’t get since Yolanda struck.
I should know. Odette (real name, Claudette; Clu for short) is my boardmate and I saw her shed her strong personality as she watched the news trickling in from Leyte.
I felt her anxiety as she sought to find ways to help her family through my cousin’s high school friend, now a military man, who knew a subordinate who “might” be able to help.
That subordinate, a hero in my eyes, was back on duty in less than a week. And, as if his act of kindness was just another deed, he still thinks Clu’s name is Odette and is unable to recall the names of the people he handed the 18 liters of diesel to.
He has no social network profile so, just like Maribel or Job to him before their meeting in Leyte, he is a cell phone number to me; but it’s a number that will remain in my phonebook for a long time.
Clu took a flight to Cebu days after Sergeant Juntilano accomplished his mission and went home from there. She is now happy, reunited with her family in Caibiran.