When we saw Nick walking toward us waving, we were sitting on the patio at Zantaka Hotel. We were sitting at a table facing the Sulu Sea watching boys dive for dimes. We were sitting with our backs to Nick when we heard him yell. We were glad to see Nick because we never expected to see him again.
It was not only unexpected but also exciting, at least to me, to see him. I still wanted to suggest to him that he come with us … that he leave the Philippines and search for Elaine in the States. The odds of our running into Nick, it seemed, were next to impossible. It wasn’t planned. The odds of him leaving with us were even slimmer. And I wasn’t sure it was worth bringing up.
The timing seemed implausible. It couldn’t have been a coincidence. We usually didn’t eat at Zantaka because it was so expensive, but ambiance seduced us. Sharing a moonlit table overlooking the Sulu Sea sounded so romantic. Then Nick showed up. You may remember we met the American fisherman (David) from Basilan and his Philippine girlfriend there. Remembered Nick was with us that evening.
To be perfectly honest, Nick was on my mind when Susan and I decided to stay at the Zantaka (though we couldn’t afford it). I knew Nick would be in Zamboaga, so fate didn’t have much to do with it. For Susan to be skeptical was a given. It would be hard for her to believe that Nick and I hadn’t planned it. One could hardly blame her for being skeptical, or blame her for being suspicious and angry.
As the evening progressed, we discovered that Nick hadn’t lost his revolutionary zeal; to use the word zeal was an understatement. So he dismissed the idea of leaving the Philippines and going with us. Instead, he talked about taking up residency on nearby Basilan. There was no mention of Elaine.
Nick had definitely changed. I could sense it. Susan and I saw it. We saw it as Nick drank. We all drank too much, and along with it there was a whole lot of gloom. This was around the time opponents to Marcos, members of the liberal party, planned a campaign rally at Plaza Miranda back in Manila. The bombing at the rally in August caused nine deaths and injured ninety-five others. Almost everyone on the stage was injured, including Sergio Osmena Jr., a son of a former president, Sergio Osmena, Sr. Marcos took the opportunity to seize emergency powers, suspend writ of habeas corpus, a prelude to declaring Martial Law.
Susan later said that she felt like we were ganging up on her. She hadn’t wanted me to get involved with Nick again. My doing so she feared could delay our departure, or worse it could place us more in jeopardy than we already were. I didn’t see it that way. Instead the reporter in me saw a good story, but I was beginning to question my objectivity.
I felt I crossed the line of objectivity before then … that I got too involved, and instead of being an observer, I became a participant in the bloody demonstration in front of the Congress building. It was a defining moment for me, just as it had been a defining moment for everyone involved. Afterwards, I sounded more like a propagandist than a reporter. Nor could I reassure myself that I wouldn’t join Nick in Mindanao and Sulu.
I couldn’t help but be curious. My instincts came into play. If I ended up dead, I felt it would be for a worthy cause. At the same time, I knew that it wasn’t my fight. And I had Susan to think about.
Could I run? I had been running all my life. I’m thinking here of my Filipino friends: especially Nick. They all seemed willing to sacrifice so much. But it wasn’t my country. Take Nick. Goodness! There were then over two hundred students who were ready to launch the Moro National Liberation Front and openly declare secession … and waiting for a spark, which Marcos soon provided.
I’ve often wondered where we would be had we not met Elpidio. We had been on Basilan with him. I went back to see him. And I’ve always thought it was remarkable that he and Nick joined forces when they did. A star pupil of Mao hooked up with a star pupil of an oblate friar. They also became close friends.
“Elpidio and Nick were both patriots,” Fr. Deon later told me. He explained how his star pupil always defended the Moro cause. He always defended the Moro cause, even though he hadn’t always been a radical. Fr. Deon always knew the boy would become a leader, and indeed he became one. He had to be a star…not only in a classroom but also on a soccer field. Encouragement played a part … Fr. Deon’s encouragement. If it hadn’t been for Fr Deon’s encouragement, Elpidio probably wouldn’t have gone to MSU, regardless of how bright he was.
“Are you patriotic?” Nick asked me. “Could you be, if it weren’t for Vietnam?” Remember my closest friend died in Vietnam.
“No. I’m not sure that I am.”
I asked how he found Elpidio.
“It was easy, and the risk wasn’t very great. Basilan isn’t that big and Elpidio wasn’t hard to find. He has a base near Isabela, and he’s quite famous on Basilan. Everyone knows him or knows of him. And police and military don’t seem interest in him. I don’t know if it will change, but they’re not interested now. Elpidio is planning accordingly. Anyway, I’ve decided to stay with him, partly because I believe in his mission.”
The ILAGA gang was at it again, killing and mutilating Muslims. You couldn’t blame the Moros for their reaction. It had the look and feel of an all-out war, so the reporter in me kicked in. Whoa! Take a moment. Think! You’re not dead yet. Think! It’s not your country. It’s not your country. We had bought our tickets, and the backdoor of the Philippines wasn’t very far away. So leave! As planned. Leave!
Elpidio and Nick seemed destined to become legends. And the way they were going they seemed destined to live short lives. I should’ve seen it. I think I saw it. I saw it. They were destined to live short lives and come to a tragic end. It wasn’t my destiny. I wasn’t dead yet, and I had Susan to think about.
Had it been a waste of time? Was it a terrible waste? And it seemed sad to me, and I could’ve easily gotten caught up in it. Even sensible people got caught up in things that were out of their control and out of their reach … none of their business. It wasn’t my country. Even careful people find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. I didn’t go to the demonstration in front of the Congress building with any intention of getting involved. I went as a reporter.
There had been other times too like being on a bus that was almost hijacked, surviving it and afterwards feeling guilty. We ran into Nick just as we were leaving the Philippines. How did he know where we were? Susan was certainly suspicious. Nevertheless, Basilan, up until then, was relatively quiet. Even with the ILAGA menace, it was relative quiet, and this allowed Nick and me to reassure Susan. “It’s safe,” I said.
Nick was the most militant and strident of the two. The story of his trip to China preceded him to Basilan. When he arrived he was immediately given respect because of the trip. He soon however acknowledged that the Moro struggle was different from the one he had been involved in Central Luzon and Manila and had nothing to do with communism. He was strong, ruthless, and honest and seemed to be always on the go. Elpidio, on the other hand, suffered from inner turmoil. Because of his connection with the Norte Dame school on Bongao and Fr. Deon, he took attacks of Christians very personally, and while he defended the Oblates whenever he could. His problem was evident, and I wondered how it would play out.
I wouldn’t have long to wait. 1971 is generally recognized as the start of the Moro War on Mindanao and the Sulus.
By then Nick was a very close friend of mine. One of the last memories of him I have was seeing him wrapped in an American towel. We enjoyed beautiful Alano Beach, as peaceful then as I assume it is now. We took the opportunity to soak up a tropical sun and float in crystal blue water. Elpidio invited us to go. As appropriate, Susan kept her head and body covered. I was gratified that she had enough sense to do it and that she appeared relaxed. Susan had a very well defined figure, large heavy boobs, and was very beautiful. Remember she played the Virgin Mary on national television, but there was nothing virginal about her looks.
Nick entertained us all day long, running in and out of surf and showing us how to enjoy ourselves in spite of uncertainty. At one point, he launched into Bayang magiliw perlas ng puso sab diddib mo’y buhay, or the national anthem. He sang it as loud as he could. We stood at attention with our hands over our hearts, as he sang as loud as he could. He continued to sing, loved to sing, and also sang Philippine folk songs, such as “Maria Went to Town” and “Where is My Ring.” Sometimes he was flat, but it didn’t matter to him. He was proud of his voice.
At the port, we saw more boys diving for coins. We first ran into them beside the sea-front patio at Lantaka Hotel. The port was where we bargained for a boat that we needed to get to the beach. We had the beach to ourselves. There we spent one of our most memorable days in the Philippines. It included Nick’s singing. I always remember how he sang … sang loud and off key. He didn’t care. He loved to sing. We went scuba diving, and Susan had a good time in spite of herself. It was one of the best times we ever had.
Back on campus, Nick often stayed in the background. He enjoyed the world of ideas and was considered a thinker, as he tried to figure out where he fit in. (Nick couldn’t mention Rizal without mentioning Mao, as if there were a connection between the two.) Maybe seeing violence as a boy affected him. Growing up in a HUK family gave him the right credentials but not a taste for action. And it certainly gave him a distaste for violence. But that apparently changed when he joined the Moro movement.
Like Elpidio, Nick was a patriot. When I first met him, I was impressed by his intellect. Likewise, Elpido impressed me. Both of them were leaders, but differences between the two were striking. Elpidio had a dark, moody side, while Nick always seemed impulsive and unpredictable. Elpidio seemed deliberate, while Nick nearly always improvised.
As we played in the sand, the idea of beachcombing came to me. I wanted to explore the shoreline and a nearby Muslim cemetery. A picnic had been prepared. We preferred it to eating at a nearby resort. There was still time before the beach would become crowded, and we sat in a nipa cabana around a table as if we were family, Elpidio, Nick, and me, with Susan sitting across from us. Susan insisted on taking a picture, the only photograph I have of the three of us. We soon demolished a table full of food: Muslim dishes of tyula itum, pianggang manok, and baulo, and a mountain of rice.
Over such a spread, eating with our hands, with fresh limeade…and no flies…every one of us had a good time and regretted when it was over. We all agreed that it was great. I rated this day, as I’ve said, as one of the best we had in Philippines; and we also knew it would be one of last relaxing days we’d have. This allowed us to enjoy the day more than we otherwise would’ve, but knowing that it had to end made it bittersweet. We tried to draw it out, a technique for which all of us lacked. If we realized the significance of this day, no one mentioned it.
As we combed the beach, Elpidio was the most somber. Susan wasn’t far behind him. She often came up with a worse case scenario. And I chided her for it, and she pouted. Unfortunately, she was often right. I chided her on many occasions and nicknamed her “the mother of doom.” I don’t how she managed to be right so often when I deserved to be right as much as she did.
“What a disastrous way for a day to end,” she said. “If we hadn’t had such a wonderful time…”
“Here you go again!” I screamed. “You see a tornado in every black cloud. I guess it comes from growing up in West Texas.”
“Well, it’s gunna to rain.”
And sure enough, it did. We had two choices then: to run for more substantial cover or stick it out in a leaky nipa cabana.
Since Elpidio and Nick represented different sides of a conflict, you wouldn’t have thought that they would’ve joined forces. They arranged to meet by writing to each other. While Nick was still in Manila; several letters went back and forth. It took a while for Nick to make up his mind.
He flew to Zamboanga. He went after he became a wanted man. He needed to get out Manila then because the police and military wanted him. He met Elpidio at Lantaka Hotel because they liked the atmosphere and food, and it was where he also ran into us. Nick was a thinker, and that made him valuable to Elpidio. Almost from the beginning, they played off of each other. Most people said they were equally intelligent. When they verbally dueled they dueled to a draw.
Social conditions rather than dogma motivated Elpidio, but he never objected whenever Nick interjected Mao into their conversations. As a college graduate, he enjoyed intellectual banter as much as Nick, so sitting out a storm under a nipa cabana, to Susan’s dismay, he engaged in it. I thought Elpidio held his own. Not only was Elpidio coming up with his own ideas about the Moro case, but in my opinion he also vulgarized dogma of Marx and Lenin. His Christian education betrayed him. Though he was Muslim, his Christian education betrayed him. But in the end all they did was bicker.
With only a peephole-view of Maoism, Nick tried to convince us that history was on the side of communism. But Elpido got further with his argument because he talked about Muslims losing land. He had our sympathy because we didn’t like to see anyone lose land. I didn’t agree with Nick when he said, “Land belongs to everyone.”
Elpido was on his own turf, even though we weren’t on Tawi-Tawi or in his hometown of Bongao. It was clear where his heart was. Unlike Nick he hadn’t gone to Red China, which was a defining moment for our mutual friend. To hear Elpidio talk about why he now was willing to give up confronts of home for danger … dangers of an insurrectionist … was rather like listening to a Sunday school teacher talk about shame and guilt.