Special to MindaNews
CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY (MindaNews/16 June) — On June 15, 2013, the iconic Lumbia Airport of Cagayan de Oro City ceased its domestic flight operations and was closed for good. However, to many of us Kagay-anons, we are still in the process of going through an emotional closure of this decades old airport that we simply call the ” Lumbia.” It has been part of our lives and of the city for decades.
Many asked me when this airport first begun its operations. Some guessed that it was in the early fifties. But I came upon a written account of the World War II exploits of Col. Fidencio Laplap, liberator of Cagayan who said that after he and his guerrilla group were successful in attacking the Japanese who fully occupied Camp Evangelista in Patag, they then proceeded to Lumbia Airport where they conducted a lightning raid, destroyed several planes and other facilities. The enemy ran and joined their comrades in the poblacion and took their final stand in town where the final Battle of Cagayan happened that day of January 1945.
This airport could have existed before the onset of World War II but other sources say that it was the Japanese Imperial Army that built it. There is a small Japanese altar for the dead that was set up on the small park near the main gate leading to the terminal building. It was placed there by the kin of the soldiers who died in this area in that last war. I do not know if this park and that memorial altar will remain when the airport is closed.
As a child, I loved going with my family on a ride to the Lumbia airport to meet relatives or my father who traveled a lot. Those rides were always a visual treat to many of us. Here we would see the utter beauty of the surrounding hills and from afar, the majestic mountains of Bukidnon. To the north is Macajalar Bay. On a clear day, you could see the outline of the mountains of Camiguin Island. There were lots of greenery and wide open spaces everywhere. Now there are billboards and houses along the way. It is ugly and it disrupts the otherwise lovely natural scenery that is so much part of our city.
My early recollection of Lumbia airport is that of a gray one story wooden building with a tall tower beside it. The gates for the arrival and departure areas were simple corridors that were not fully walled that it allowed the breeze from Mt. Balungkot in.
Between the three corridors were small open air gardens, each with colorful bougainvillea flowering plants. The gardens were enclosed with a thick hedge of greenery that bore violet flowers that we loved to pick and sip its sweet nectar. There were wooden high backed benches for both the passengers and their well wishers, usually a group consisting of family members and friends to sit. There was no pre-departure area then. When a plane lands or departs, the engines would scream and be so revved up with such force that those sitting on the corridors would turn their faces to the wall with their hair in disarray. The ladies would hold tightly to their skirts fearing that it might be raised up and expose their undies.
In those days, Philippine Airlines of PAL ruled the skies. I was told that a plane ticket to Manila on a DC-3 cost PhP15. Later, there was a night flight to Manila via a Fokker plane and it cost PhP 99 – a princely sum then.
The first Kagay-anon flight attendant is the charming Sylvia Cecilio. Her sisters, Joy and Kim soon followed her footsteps. Other local beauties became PAL FAs as we call them – Sandra Wilson, Mariles Lopez, the Fontanosa sisters, Angie Denosta, the Sontillano sisters and many more.
The only airport canteen was ran by Mrs. Chaves. It had starched white tablecloths and loud swinging doors. Governors, Mayors and other VIPs ate and spent time waiting for their plane to arrive. I remember seeing the British rock group the Zombies who sat there as they waited for their connecting flight to Davao. They were very polite though they looked weird to us for they had long shaggy hair.
The porters in Lumbia were so in demand because at that time the luggages were heavy and the big boxes that the passengers brought in had no trolleys like the ones that we have now.
These men were heavy set and strong. But what made them stay in their jobs for long was because they were unfailingly honest and polite. So it was common for families that often travel to have their own porter who was their suki. They relied on their porter even when it was just shipping some packages to Manila or Cebu for this was before the advent of the LBC and the like.
Lumbia was the scene of grand welcomes for our Presidents – the first one to arrive there by plane was Ramon Magsaysay. His predecessors usually took the Presidential Yacht when they visited Cagayan. The airport was also the scene of many victorious, joyful and at times sad events.
I remember that memorable welcome the city gave to the new Vice President of the country, Cagayan’s own Emmanuel “Maning” Pelaez. Many hoped that soon, he will be the first President to come from Mindanao. Years later, he failed to clinch the party nomination for President – it went to Ferdinand E. Marcos. But the people welcomed him with placards that told what was in their hearts – Bisag unsaon, Maning gihapon! This later became his political battle cry.
When Rene Barrientos, the adopted son of Cagayan de Oro, won the world flyweight boxing title, he was given a hero’s welcome. Local officials led by the governor met him in the airport. And who can forget that one sad day in October, 1964 when more than a hundred vehicles of all shapes and sizes along with thousands of people jammed Lumbia Airport, some even climbing to the control tower just to meet the plane carrying the body of the city’s beloved Mayor Justiniano R. Borja? To this day, no event can duplicate that nor the very long procession of cars, jeeps, buses and trucks that accompanied the hearse from the airport to the Borja residence in downtown Cagayan.
Then there is the story of an irate father who drove his jeep at full speed in the runway chasing in vain the plane that carried his daughter who eloped with her boyfriend to Davao. And old hands in the airport still talked about Jun, a college student of Xavier University, who bravely ran in the middle to the runway, with a bouquet of roses in hand, trying to stop a plane in its tracks. It was a daring deed all in the name of love. The plane stopped and many airport officials ran towards Jun who was pleading with the pilot to open the door so he can say goodbye to his Australian girlfriend. She was leaving the country for good. The officials in trying to calm him down, pleaded to the pilot in behalf of Jun. The plane door opened, the blonde girlfriend came down. Smiles, hugs, kisses and tears as she received the roses from her lover. Then Jun was escorted back to the airport where he stood transfixed – watching the plane fly till it was a small dot in the sky. Then, he left.
Like Jun, it is hard to say goodbye to Lumbia Airport for it holds so much memories for us. It is part of our lives and a part of our history. But memories aside, I think now of many people who lived and work there most of their lives. Some of them are second generation workers in Lumbia. When this airport is closed, many will be part of the nation’s statistics of the unemployed because the government failed to prepare or aid them for this grim eventuality.
I realized that this country is not about modern structures and roads – it’s all about people and what we all become. The tragedy here is that much of the focus and the main priority of the government was on the construction of the new Laguindingan International Airport. This is a sad fact that no thought and assistance was given concerning the future of the displaced workers and the families who built their houses and lives around Lumbia Airport.
To me, what made Lumbia Airport special and memorable are the people – the friends, the workers, passengers and even the strangers. Not cement, cold steel, wood, planes and conveyor belts. (Paulita Roa is a member of the Cagayan de Oro Historical and Cultural Commission and Deputy of the National Museum in Cagayan de Oro)