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The time to look back is when there is still sufficient light to see the past. Soon enough that we can still remember and the mind can still distinguish what was and what was not. Long enough that pain and bitterness have turned to “sweet sorrows” and that laughters have aged to fine wines. This is for those who will remember and for those who may forget. It is my tribute to those whose presence in my life made the journey I have to be thankful for. As the one way train goes around the bend, through cob webs and dust, I write what I can afford to recall. May I do justice to history’s truth.
In Praise of Plebes
1. April 1st, 1973, Fool’s Day was when the Masikap story started. Marcos’ Martial Law was almost 7 months old. The idealistic, the activists, the brats, the bewildered, the uninspired, the cornered, the genuinely committed and even the leftists saw Martial Law’s opportunities and promises and took the PMA entrance Exam in December of 1972. Over 12,000 young men from all over the Archipelago stepped forward. Making the grade was just the first step. After a series of neuropsychological Exams, Physical Fitness Tests, background investigations and interviews, we, the arguably cream of our generation, made the irrevocable move. PMA, here we come!
2. We took the buses from Camp Aguinaldo in the early morning. We barely heard the goodbyes. Our ears were deaf with anticipation. To most, PMA was an unknown. It was where toughness was king and that only the brave lasted. It was where glory lived and that each was a knight in shining armour. The thunderous roar from the Plebe Details that afternoon not only shocked those fantasies, Plebehood reality settled in like a cloak of darkness in the sun’s fading light. We have never wanted home nor water more than that night. As our shaven heads hit the mattress (as Plebes we did not deserve pillows), we wished all was a dream. The bugler’s Reveille as the majestic pine decorated sun rose, sounded it was not.
3. Plebe year was measured in Saturdays. Yes, the parades and inspections and the mass punishments afterwards. We learned how to produce perspiration not in trickles but spoonfuls. We were told that such was for strengthening the sinews, the muscles and the heart. And that the will and the resolve would grow strong, too, in the process. Slowly, our number was whittled down. “You’re in the Army, now”, was not a song everybody was meant to sing. We looked at our departing classmates in the privacy of our rooms wondering how the die would roll next. Back then they were just the casualties of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. We realized later they were the casualties of fate. We might have known them for days or months. Still we would be classmates forever.
4. Incorporation Day was when the Plebe Corps got to join the rest of the “Immaculates”. Three months of summer camp, of breaking down the civilian laxities, of instilling military discipline, of making sure we as dumbguards were worthy of wearing the “Dress Gray”, the “Full Dress Coat” and would be the embodiment of the shiny 34 buttons. Were everything just for show? Would the spanky uniforms reflect the character within? Each one of us answered but to oneself.
5. In addition to the Upperclasmen and the Officers of the Tactics Group, the Academic year ushered in the teachers and professors we must deal with. The parades and inspections continued like clockwork while we trotted and rotted knowing no difference between the two. Respites were given in cross country runs and so many rounds around the parade ground. Borromeo Field in the very early morning without the “Uppies” was the closest to being in heaven. That and Manansala’s basement, poignantly referred to as Fourthclass Club. We slept when and where we could, body position notwithstanding. We ate when and where we could, circumstance notwithstanding. Sunday after lunch at the Fourthclass Club, a 2 liter of Coke, a loaf of bread and a couple of slices of beloved Cinnamon bread were devoured in minutes. We met no calories we did not eat.
6. Plebe scents consisted of dried sweat, “pan de sal” in Dress Caps, “bukayo” in hidden Dress Coat pockets and the ever effervescent week old black socks. No, it was not for lack of hygiene. Plebes were ordered to take a bath before each meal and must comply or be asked to do so every hour on the hour. So why then was the repugnant odor? To understand and to tolerate Plebe smells, one only had to be a Plebe.
7. Hazing could be anything that would inflict pain, suffering, debasement and degradation. As Plebes, we were supposed to be subhuman whose sole purpose for existence was to cater to whatever an upperclassman desired. There was the noble notion that the lesson of hazing was to never forget the mistakes committed and to prepare the sinews, the brain, the muscles, the character and the spirit to life as a soldier. A life dedicated to mission accomplishment above everything else. Did we feel good after hazing? Were we more resolute and tougher? Did manliness really showed? As Plebes, we did not have the right to answer. We did what must be done. The thought of squealing was thought of as taboo. The code of Omerta lived within regardless of righteousness nor morals. Looking forward, we, too would be hazers.
8. Our original Class Motto was “Makabago” reflecting Martial Law’s New Society. Second thoughts and several reconsiderations after, we changed it to “Masikap”, the indefatigable, the industrious, the ever aspiring, the one who never gave up and who always believed that “the greatest failure is that never attempted”. “Makabago” regardless of meaning and implications was old right after its adoption.
9. The grind of Academics and Tactics plus the 24/7 pressure of upperclassmen took their toll. Dismissals and resignations spelled our reveilles and taps. We were told that the retrenchment was as definite as death. Still, the departures of those we knew and shared what would be our best and our worst could not just be ascribed to fortune’s heartless whims. We missed them like the fleeting shadows of Mount Sto. Thomas in the the day’s vain attempt to cling to the sun. Once a Masikap, always a Masikap.
10. Thanksgiving day was more than an attempt to ape the American’s Turkey Day. The significance was Martial Law’s aspirations and hope and that the New Society was for everyone to be thankful for. We decorated the Mess Hall as ordered by the Upperclassmen, spending sleepless nights in search of the artist in each Plebe. The grandiosity of the Upperclassmen’s vision was doomed to fail. Still, an attempt must be made. An attempt that ended being torn apart and eaten afterwards. But then, the Day came and each one smoked and ate like the Romans of yore. We never realized the potency of Ilocano Tobacco until the earth spun and we were throwing up. Apparently that was what we should be thankful for. In retrospect, that night was a milestone. Our days as Plebes were getting shorter. We were halfway to Recognition Day.
11. The 100th night Show was a tribute to the graduating class. It was a show presented by the whole Corps not only for themselves but for the public as well. In the coldness of two December nights, the actors known as Cadets proved there was no limit to the Academy’s push for excellence. There was no field of endeavor that a Cadet could not excel. Or at least, attempt to excel. No acting award was awarded. No statuette was handed down. For a couple of nights, though, no thespian, living or dead, had given more. As a reward, we were ordered to load and load while Christmas break waited in the wings. Up in the mountains as the cool air got colder, we realized that Christmas would be different.
12. The upperclassmen left with an admonition for us to behave and not be very lax. As the last of them exited Fort del Pilar, we were Kings of Barracks with nothing to fear. And Kings we were! Reveille sounded with only one message. Eat, relax, enjoy. Did we go back to civilian antics of laxity and carefree ways of youth? Surprisingly, we cautioned each other and behaved like we must, as Cadets. There must be truth in what our Upperclassmen preached.
13. Christmas away from home. To most that was the first time. There was the longing for the traditional and the familiar. Of being with family and friends. As we heard mass on Christmas morning, we realized that we were among our “family” and friends. That our classmates were the brothers we adopted regardless of wombs. That the Academy was the womb we all belonged to. And yes, such was destiny embraced by each one. Beyond blood, parentage and origin, we were brothers.
14. The Class of 1974, our Firsties, graduated on January instead of the usual March. The acceleration was due to the intensified fighting in Mindanao. We were recognized by them but the Cow and the Yearling Corps deemed it necessary for us to finish Plebe Year. And April 1973 to January 1974 did not equate to one year. But by then, our attitudes were focused on the finish line. There was no way we would lose sight of the prize. We could take whatever the Upperclassmen could dish out. Resignation? Quitting? “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
15. It was not long after Class 74?s graduation that we heard the sad news. Four of them had perished in an ambush. In eerie quiet, the Corps stood still in a One Minute Prayer tribute that took a lot longer. Such was the profession we had chosen. Those were the men we have broken bread with. Those were the men we had known. We prayed for the peace of their souls and that God receive them in His kingdom. In the privacy of our hearts, we prayed for strength, for the courage to face whatever challenge, for the right to march with them who have given their all and be a part of the long Gray Line. Plebe year was the start. Just the start.
16. The sun shone it all its majesty on our Recognition Day. As “Strong Hearts” filled the expanse of Borromeo Field, tears gave way to feelings of relief, of self-congratulation. We made it! Congratulations and embraces from our Upperclassmen cum tormentors meant “no more hunger and thirst”. That we hurdled Plebe year. That we belonged to the “Immaculates”. In triumph, we bowed our heads in reverence and gratitude to Him Who made such a possibility. Victory could only be savored because one was humble. There could only be emptiness in beating one’s chest and self-proclaimed accomplishment. Plebe year’s lesson would always be silent humility. We should never forget, would never forget.
Next: Yo! Yearling!