April 6, 2011
Fifteen boys came out of the van, ages ranging from seven perhaps to 18. They were held up in traffic and were late and I was getting a little peeved waiting.
They had come from the Pangarap Boys Shelter and their volunteer leader, a young German named Felix was sheepishly apologetic.
They looked out of place – not the jeans or the oversized t-shirts or the sneakers - in the American Military Cemetery. It was in their faces:
Why are we here? Who is this guy greeting me?
Looking detached, they looked hardened.
Felix contacted me weeks ago asking if I could give his boys a tour. I said yes, hoping to find a sponsor for them but if not, I’d do it for free. I heard good things about the shelter taking care of 100 male street kids and several dozen girls.
The smaller ones got to me, some bearing scars on their faces, a few looking too skinny. The older ones, having lived on the streets weren’t sure how to deal with my do-gooder smiling face. But despite appearances, I caught their stolen gazes of the whole expanse. Acres of perfectly landscaped garden, endless precise lines of crosses, never before seen huge trees, and an unusual open sided cylindrical building. They were at least curious.
I faced the boys slightly nervous that my Filipino language skills were being put to the test and even more important, calibrating my tour to children and young people which I’ve always felt to be challenging. But there was Felix, an idealistic German who came to the Philippines to offer a year of service with poor boys, probably paid nothing. He guilt-tripped me. But he wasn’t helpful by whispering before we started, that the tour may have been a silly goody-two-shoes idea. These boys have had it tough, many sexually abused and a cemetery wasn’t exactly on their bucket list.
A light-bulb moment. It was a week now, writing letters, signing petitions, going into a full Facebook war against advertisers, Channel 5 and Willie Revillame who decided in one of his sleazy segments to get a crying boy to dance like a hustler and have the crowd hooting like savages. (Since this piece was written, the show has been temporarily cancelled set off by a massive exodus of advertisers).
So, I decided, if that bully was going to make a boy cry and dance like a sex toy so he can get ten grand, Screw It, I’m going to give 15 boys with REAL LIFE nightmares the grandest tour they’ll ever know if only to relieve them of the REAL pain they’ve been through.
We started with the huge war maps, a challenge since it wasn’t a TV screen. They had to get out of their couch potato passive mode and make them examine countries, battleship formations, the arrows of engagement with the enemy, the history of World War II in the Pacific. Yes, the whole Kaboom for a bunch that were not my usual overeducated guests. My scholarly illuminations would have to be put on hold.
Where is the Philippines in this map, I bellowed for attention?
Aha, yes, young man you got it.
On this battle map of Manila, where is your home? There was quiet. Some mumbled, we have no home.
Shit, wrong question.
Ok, where is the shelter? They strained looking for a clue and I kept egging them on. A boy found it, shouted “Pasay” and his finger aimed directly to the place they now called home.
Each time they bested me with the correct answer, I allowed no time for gloating. Off we went to the next wall and to the next and to the hallways outside before they could act indifferent.
My usual lecture script was out the window. What do the boys frigging care about the battle of Guadalcanal, or the China Burma Theater or the expansionist motives of super powers. That’s for another day.
So I got them to touch the smoothness and porosity of the Travertine walls. I made them look up to the frieze, commanding them to read important battle sites, Bougainville, Leyte Gulf, Bataan, Solomons. I made them stroke a gravestone, reading the engraved words together,
HERE LIES A COMRADE WHOSE IDENTITY IS KNOWN ONLY BUT TO GOD.
They pronunciation was askew at times, but they read it loud and in unison. I tried explaining the problems faced with the over 3,000 remains that were not identified. That was hard until a boy said quietly:
It’s like me before I got to the shelter. I didn’t know who I was.
We walked to a vantage point in the cemetery with a commanding view of the long entrance, the memorial court, and the chapel. I made them appreciate the straight lines of the Mahogany trees, the Memorial circle, the color of grass, the composition of the Acacia trees, framed by Travertine columns, and the vertical secular chapel. It was a crash course on aesthetics.
It’s usually halfway through the tour when I consciously stop talking to look back at my guests. The boys were now quiet, some taking in the distant clear views of Laguna Lake, and the mountains of Antipolo. Others had fingers tracing the etched names of the departed. Others were filled with awe and the majesty of space. They had lost their hardened, cynical looks, replaced with serene faces. They were engaged once again with their humanity.
They started to whisper among themselves. I sensed a question. The group chose the smiling one who asked:
How do you engrave a name? Can I learn that?
Another asked: Is it hard to climb a tree and trim it?
And another: Will I need dark pants to apply here? I like this place.
I looked the other way when they asked, so they won’t see my lament and rage. This is the sort of Q&A that you don’t see on TV. Instead we have shows that dangle thousand peso bills provided by Belo, or Smart, or Pepsodent, or Knorr, to dancing boys, girls, and begging old women for guffaws and a perverted notion of instilling brand loyalty and audience ratings.
Here in this expanse of green, mosaic patterns and a sheltering sky, these boys were checking their self worth and the possibility of a decent job. A few days or months before, a few of them probably had to macho dance for some pedophile before the Shelter saved them. How bizarre if not abominable that there are TV programs, supported by companies that mimic what poor boys actually do.
We rounded the memorial circle examining all the maps which fascinated them and ended inside a 60-foot tall chapel covered floor to ceiling with a mosaic of a maiden bringing flowers to lay beside the gravestones. The artistry and the diligence in creation captivated them, seeing yet another vocation to learn.
I told them about the lives of some of these young men, how they fought bravely, how they saved their comrades, how they died many, barely 20 years of age. They listened intently to the carillon striking the hour and playing a hymn.
The boys are light footed, expansive, with smiles all around, having seen something today other than shampoo commercials, macho dancing, or the grime of their neighborhood. The unusual breezy day is tonic; they fill their lungs with rare clean air.
It was hard to say goodbye to them. I told Felix to send me more and I’ll find the sponsors. He said thank you and I told him THANK YOU for being the foreigner who cared for our boys. Better than the local turds who’d peddle them on the street or on television.
I shook each boy’s hand giving them a lesson in civility.
I said Thank You. They said Salamat.
I said Salamat, looked quickly away and walked briskly to my car.
If you want to know more about Pangarap, make a donation, or sponsor the activities for the boys and girls, please call Tel: 834 1061 / 551 3733.