The rumor being brulted about late last night turned into a reality today: “Manila, Open City.” All the dailies carried the news. It was contained in a proclamation issued by General MacArthur, after consultations with
President Quezon and High Commissioner Sayre. If we were all pervaded by some sense of relief, it was not so with my father, who read between the lines of the official declaration a covert surrender of the capital city.
“How long have London, Berlin and Rome been enduring enemy attacks? Has any one of them been declared an open city? On the other hand, has the will of the population been ascertained reliably? Who is there to say that we are no longer willing to resist and endure?” my father asked himself loudly.
I was inclined to agree with him. Particularly so, when, upon returning from attending the Holy Mass at the parish church, all our friends and neighbors I met on the way, expressed some similar sentiment.
“Why, we have not even started to fight!” boasted one of them.
Upon reaching the house. | realized that we had omitted reading one of the press stories, It concerned a dispatch from the Japanese news agency Domei, which stated that Japan did not recognize the declaration of Manila as an open city because such had not been relayed un due form to the Japanese government.
“But, how can our leaders be so sloven in their actuations?” my father asked.
For my part, I felt hat we should not hastily admit the truth of the story. The Japanese are so sly and insincere that, for all we know, they might have simply launched the allegation with not a speck of truth. This is all the more so, when one considered that the very same dispatch assured that Japan would be amenable to Manila being declared an open city only if the Filipinos made common cause with the Japanese imperial forces by rising up in arms against the United States. Such nonsense!
I could not forget that today was Christmas. I was more reminded of it by the presence of my youngest cousin, who was staying with us. I remembered the day when we were getting ready to evacuate to Montalban. I caught sight of him as he was stepping out from his room. Aware of his precocious intelligence for all his four years of
age, I was prompted to ask him:
“Why are you so dressed up? Are you stepping out?”
He replied, “We are going to the hills, because bad men are coming.” Then, weepingly he added, “Santa Claus cannot come anymore!”
Instantly, I recalled the recent months past, during which, with all earnestness and efforts, my cousin had endeavored to be an obedient and “good” child, as we had been urging him, to deserve toys from Santa Claus.
I cursed the war!
This Christmas morning I said to myself that this child’s misfortune ought to be remedied. Quickly, in the company of one of my elder cousins, | repaired to one of the big toy stores at the Escolta open to the public for holidays. We both agreed to purchase a toy, which might not be too proper for a little boy, but which, indeed, agreed with the present circumstances: it was a miniature set of warships.
Once back home, with the help of some improvised Christmas trimmings, we hid the gift on one of the furniture pieces of the house. After advising the rest of the household, I went in search of my little cousin.
“You know what? Santa Claus came to the house while you were asleep. It seems he has left some toy for you. Would you like that we help you in finding it?” I asked him.
With no loss of time, he joined us in our search from room to room. It was a genuine pleasure to watch the combination of impatience and expectation written all over his face! How much happiness in his eyes and such clapping of hands when, at length, he located the gift! We all smothered him with kisses and embraces. . . even as our hearts were breaking under such conflicting sentiments.
What we had just witnessed reminded us once more that it was Christmas day. True to the family tradition, therefore, we seated ourselves at the table this noonday to share the Christmas dinner. The reigning conditions, however, did not allow us to regale ourselves with a special menu, but we managed to let the true Christmas spirit-which is love—be present in us all.
The rest of the day was spent within the four walls of the house.
At about four in the afternoon, we received advice that we had better get ready to leave, for in a brief time the oil tanks in the nearby district of Pandacan would be blown up under controlled demoljtion as part of the plan to leave nothing useful to the enemy, now that Manila was an open City.
My father called our attention, “This confirms my suspicion. Manila is being turned over to the invader!”
We all gave our assent.
Hastily we picked up a few necessary things in the event that we must abandon the house. As we were about to finish our preparations, we heard several explosions that threatened to damage our ears. We went down quickly. From the street in front of the house we could see the gigantic flames and the thick smoke coming from the tanks visible from a distance. Since there was no fire-fighting unit to control the fire, the flames spread unchecked. After more than an hour, the whole gas plant had been consumed by the fire. Fortunately the tanks were on an isolated platform away from the rest of the installations. We then figured out that the fire was no true danger to us. At last, it died out for want of materials to burn.
In due time, we all returned to the house.
Unexpectedly, the elephone rang. It was my brother.
“Can someone pick me up?” he asked rather anxiously.
“What’s the matter? Are you all right?” | asked him in turn.
“Yes, yes; but I have to go home,” he insisted.
After consulting my elders, I replied, “Yes, we will pick you up. But tell me, why must you return home?”
He answered, “You will find out eventually; I cannot tell it over the phone.”
Very shortly after I hanged up, the phone rang agaion. It was my cousin quartered in the Adamson College, who made the same insistent request, explaining likewise that he could not give more details over the phone. I assured him that he too would be fetched.
For this reason, my father asked my eldest cousin, “Please, drive my car and fetch them at Letran and Adamson. Drive carefully, for I know you have no driver’s license as yet.”
Not long after, they returned without any trouble. Once convinced that both were quite well, we asked them to explain themselves.
My brother did so first. “We have been released. We were told that our demobilization was due to lack of combat uniforms and scarcity of weapons.”
The explanation did not convince me at all. It struck me as childish, particularly when my brother added, “We must, however, remain in the house and report any change of address, so as to be contacted early next year to join the ranks again.”
There were but very few days left for the coming year. By that time surely sufficient uniforms, arms, and ammunitions must have been obtained. I did not see that such should be possible, however, unless by then the much vaunted aid shall have arrived from the United States.
Upon further questioning from the relatives, my brother resumed his tale, “I have no complaints. During my stay at the College, turned into a garrison, I experienced nothing untoward or vexatious. Our chores confined themselves to the training in the employ of the weapons. The only inconvenience was provided by the night patrol duty; but, even so, we were so many that each was assigned but very few hours and at long intervals.”
For his part, my cousin gave us his version. “My experience has been almost identical. Nevertheless, during one of the air raids, I was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit set up at the Luneta Park. It was very exciting to fire against the enemy, even if soon we realized their superiority. | must confess that, notwithstanding the high nervous
tension, I cannot say that I experienced any fright. It was something that defied description. One is so immersed seeking to hit the enemy planes and such is the din and rumpus of shells and cannon shots that there simply was no time to be afraid.”
Almost at the same time that I began to regard my cousin as a hero, I felt, on the other hand, a great void, a sense of abandonment and insecurity, as if suddenly we were left alone and bereft of any orientation.
It was then that my father commented, ‘I know, yes, that Executive Secretary Vargas is engaged in conversations, as mayor of Manila, for the turnover of our capital to the occupation army, but I do not see that such should be reason enough for the authorities to be seen nowhere in the city or that they should simply tell us nothing.”
I began to realize that anxiety could lead to choking. | recalled the French philosopher Gustave Le Bon, who once wrote: “A people may live without truths but not devoid of certainties.”
And because of this uncertainty that reigned over us, we sank in agony.