Sitting on the bench, back to the wall, was a middleaged man. Medium built. Close cropped hair, graying. Weatherbeaten face as brown as a nut. Callused knuckles on those hands holding the tabloid open. He had on a dark blue shirt that had seen better days and cargo shorts in olive camouflage print – not exactly regulation cut. Or regulation print, for that matter. A pair of crutches rested against the grill, an arm's reach away.
I studied my companion as I lit a cigarette and sat down opposite him. He was engrossed in the paper. Was I being rude scrutinizing him this way? Sometimes I forget that I am not exactly invisible when I do this fly on the wall bit. Or when I go on the clinical mode.
I was curious where his left leg went. Land mine?
"Manong," I quietly tried for his attention. "I don't mean to disturb you, but how did you lose your leg?"
He looked up to fix a myopic gaze on me. I kept my face friendly. I presented him with a picture of a female sans make up in white long-sleeved shirt and gold mules peeping out from under ankle-length skirt. Harmless enough, I'd hope he'd think.
"Neng, it was a bullet," he said.
"When?" I persisted
The paper rustled as he closed it.
"In 1987," he murmured, looking uneasily everywhere but at me.
"Makati? How did a bullet get to hit you in Makati in 1987?" Gee, that was very remarkable and I couldn't keep the wonder out of my voice, though I tried to keep the volume down.
"Well, not exactly in Makati. I came from Makati. I was on my way to Tandang Sora in Quezon City. I lived there then. I got hit by a bullet coming home." He fixed his eyes on the tabloid resting on his lap. There his eyes stayed for some time.
"Just one? Must have been a special bullet to shatter your femur."
"There were many bullets, actually. There are three here inside still lodged on the bone. Doctor won't take them out."
"Do they give you pain on cold days?"
I checked the time on my cellphone. I had ten minutes before I had to face my class of Marketing freshmen. Time enough to play twenty questions to indulge my morbid fascination for war stories.
He said his name was Rey. He was painter. Still is. Oh well, it had been all of three seconds that I took him for a former soldier who tripped a landmine.
In 1987, he was working on a building in Makati when some soldiers decided to undertake a coup attempt. Manong Rey remembered that the foreman told them not to go home, but he did not listen. He took to the streets where all manner of transportation had been suspended as the mutinous soldiers roamed the thoroughfares to sequester or secure vital installations. Nervous civilians hurried home, walking in the middle of the highways to avoid pockets of battle-ready soldiers and military transport that were on the sidewalks.
It was along EDSA fronting Camp Crame and Fort Aguinaldo that the bullets started flying. Manong Rey got hit. So too did many pedestrians, among them a pregnant woman who was walking right beside him. She died on the spot.
Some hours after the guns fell silent, they took Manong Rey to the Ospital ng Bagong Lipunan. He stayed there a month. He said he did not pay anything. He remembers that the wards were full that night with people who were similarly situated – hit by stray bullets for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After being discharged from the hospital, he took one month off to recuperate. They gave him money. He does not know who they were. When the money ran out, he had to go back to work. It was kind of inconvenient, but he got used to being one-legged after a while. It does not bother him anymore.
"Manong," I asked, "do you know who mounted that coup attempt in 1987?"
"Gringo Honasan," he said. His face lights up with a pleasant memory. He told me that just after EDSA 1 in 1986, Honasan had paid him PhP9, 000.00 to paint three cars and a refrigerator in his home. Yes, I could say he knew Honasan, though the business engagement was a one-time thing only. He hadn't worked for Gringo even after he had been back here in Davao.
Manong Rey said he was born in 1956. I said he'd probably seen a lot in this life and does he think that these coup attempts brought any good to this country?
"Hey," he said, like he just belatedly realized something. "Are you going to write about this?"
"Maybe," I admitted. "It's what I do." I pointed to my picture on the poster for my book. "Would you mind if I did?"
The tabloid restlessly rattled in his hands as I lit another cigarette, waiting him out. It was not an effort at all to hear him. If I didn't have class, that conversation would have been longer. My new friend sighs as he comes to a decision about what to do with me and my questions.
"If you ask me if coup attempts bring anything good, my answer is no. People get hurt." And he told me about the pregnant lady who died right next to him. There was blood thickening on the streets, like paint spilled.
"Did it scare you, Manong?"
"The bullets were flying and I was bleeding away. Right next to me was a woman, pregnant and dead. That was twenty years ago."
"Last question, Manong. Did you vote for Gringo Honasan?"
"Oh, why not? Yes, I voted for him every election he was in the running."
"And Ping Lacson?"
"Why not?" (Wayward and Fanciful is Gail Ilagan's column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. Ilagan teaches Social Justice, Family Sociology, Theories of Socialization and Psychology at the Ateneo de Davao University where she is also the associate editor of Tambara. You may send comments to [email protected] "Send at the risk of a reply," she says.)