WAYWARD AND FANCIFUL: Knight Errand of the Order

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/28 May) — In comes Custard, golden and well-fed. With his signature rolling gait, he sidles up to his master and, as if balancing on his frame the ponderous weight of the world, he carefully drops on his haunches beside the familiar shoes. Evoking the unhurried dignity of royalty, he turns his head and brings his muzzle within touching distance of the outstretched hand holding out a biscuit. Hand and head freeze. Then the magic word comes. Custard immediately snatches the food and gobbles it up.
A second biscuit appears on the hand. Custard brings his nose close, ears up. He freezes yet again. Benign master and alert dog form a tableau, until the magic word is sounded again.

The sequence plays out with soothing predictability. Never mind that this display bucks the expected receding threshold to canine gustatory satiation. Mind over stomach. Time leisurely passes until it’s polite for me to take my leave.

In the past couple of years, there had been several occasions when I’d walk in on Father Samson with merely a phone call to his staff minutes earlier to warn him of my impending ascent. Still I would be cordially received and attended, my business heard and dealt with the minimum of fuss and small talk, except on this occasion approaching Christmas last year when a visiting German ethnomusicologist remembered having met Father Ting two decades back and desiring to renew acquaintance while he was still in campus. Twenty years. A long time in between. Perhaps we were running out of words to say. No worries. Custard saved the day.

I left the President’s office with something that suspiciously sounded like Pavlov’s bell echoing in my ear. There was something about Father Ting that I came to realize just then: Custard was how he hoped his students – all of us, that is – to be. We ought to be able to resist temptation. He really would want us all to be golden and well fed.

I think maybe I should stop there. Except the Dean’s memo is quite clear that this assignment is for a project called “Encounters with Samson.” Plural form.

So let me tell you about the time Father Ting needed to have my mother-in-law’s purchase of hardwood patio furniture moved out of the tool shed to make room for his new orders. The monstrosities were a bargain, really. They were selling for twice, thrice as much in posh home furnishing shops. From Malaysia, Ma reads the writing on the wall and instructs me to lug the benches home sight unseen. Ma had served in this University a long time. Among the things she told me about the people here is that Father Ting had an eye for what’s beautiful. She trusted his taste to make her porch look good.

I am – as my husband is relieved to know – a loving and dutiful daughter-in-love. But have you ever tried to budge any of those wooden benches now littering the campus? The manong johnnies take one look and drag their feet when called to move them about or hoist them even just a hair’s breadth off the ground.
Local artisans had crafted these from solid slabs resurrected from their graves in the bogs of Agusan where for a hundred years they had slept in uneasy peace. Distilled to a petrified core, they have stood the test of time. They are so heavy from having been pushed down by the weight of the world, all remnants of fluff and marshmallow squished out of them. Solid. Hard to imagine that these are made of electrons that pop in and out of existence.

I tried telekinesis, but it was an off day for me. I had to commission a military transport and three able bodied sundalo ng bayan to sweat Project Relocation. Effort, yes. Lots of it. But it can be done. Make no mistake about it – you’d know when the job is done.

Father Ting is leaving. You know what I’ll miss most about him? He doesn’t.

I’ll miss the Arr-neow accent. The rhythmic cadence reminiscent of rainmaker beads rolling around inside a bamboo cylinder. The breathy affluent shape of words. The gusty laughter, so rare – he must mean it every time he lets it out. The twinkle in his eye, like a choirboy with a secret.

They tell me Father Ting has been known to bluster and blow, like he came into this world just when the North wind was in high dudgeon. Such a shame I’d been denied the sight of him in his elemental glory. Some of us – especially those hunkered in the bomb shelters of the Finster Hall Basement – only have their word for it. Yes, that makes me feel extremely cheated.

Father Ting leaving is like the chivalrous knight departing, his job done. Samson, the knight errand of the order, who is sure to come to put matters right when things are in shambles. Who says the age of the knight is long past? I caught the tail-end of the era here at the ADDU, Home of the Blue Knight.

Sometimes, I do wonder what his 25- year stint in Mindanao has brought to Father Ting. An intensely private man, he’ll tell of what he had hoped to do in that time, but he’ll rarely speak of what it cost him. Mum’s the word. Grin and bear it. Between him and his God.

We don’t need to ask him where he’s going. He told us anyway. He was wearing it on his head as he went about performing his last ceremonial ritual as University President.

He goes to guard the Lord’s tomb.

And if I could just transport myself back to Lothlorien or Rivendell in Middle-Earth, I’d weave him a mail of mithril and send him off with a basket of lembas.

I can’t. The shieldmaiden of my childhood is now a denizen of the dungeon. I have laid down my sword and taken up the pen. So instead I write these words and hope they will see the light of day:

Instead, I bless Father Antonio S. Samson every day of my life for teaching me to resist temptation, to wrestle with substance rather than form, to be in my element, to put order to shambles and to keep what it caused to me between me and my God. Most importantly, he taught me that at the end of it all, I should keep Holy that which is Sacred.

(Gail Ilagan is the current Editor of Tambara, the Ateneo de Davao University Research Journal)