A friend from long ago
When our youngest was born, I suggested to call him ‘Mariner’ in honor of an old friend Marinus whose name means ‘he who comes from the sea.’ To persuade my wife I used the pretext that the name ‘connects’ with her formal education as BS and MS in Marine Biology graduate from the University of San Carlos. She was not convinced, and of course I did not insist. Now, I’m doing the next best thing, which is write a pean about the unusual and unique person who I remember as clear as yesterday, though he died 30 years ago.
I knew Marinus in high school, through letters. Unlike today’s cyberkids who have access to the internet and could chat with the world in seconds, our time in the mid ‘70s seemed closer to the Pony Express era in the way messages were handwritten, and relied on what seemed like forever waiting for the response to arrive a month later. To compensate, I wrote lengthy and vivid narrations of school and home ‘adventures,’ ask questions (to keep the interest going) and share whatever odd schemes I would have fancied on at the moment.
The old post office was at the ground floor of a two storey private residence in upper J. Navarro Street beside tiny Osmeña bridge beyond which was our school. My buddies and I knew approximately when mails would arrive. With the patience of rock fans queuing for hours just to buy a concert ticket, we would waylay outside the post office building for the mail cars and watch postmen (among them the brother of our music teacher) disgorge letters from khaki mailbags instead of wait for the letters to be transported to the school library.
This was the time when there was not much to do in our small city, except eat Spanish bread at nearby bakeries where we also knew the schedule when hot bread was taken out and placed on top of tables in round nigo containers. And when the salesclerks turn the other way, some friends would put hot rolls in their school uniform pockets all for the fun of it. Some evenings we ‘joy ride’ on vehicles of rich friends, or join street corner ‘taxi’ (pay dance) discos in Mabini or Carlos Tan Streets.
But if there was one other activity I and a few other chums liked doing the most, it was pen-pal writing. This was how our naive and adventurous minds got their first inoculation of strange lands and on how faraway people lived. All through exchanges of letters, photos and stamps.
Even before high school, I had this burning curiosity as to how life is lived in the other side of the globe, where Christmas trees have real snow while in our case we put dried bubbles of Perla on the branches. So when the pen-friend craze hit our school, I was an easy convert.
This started when a lady classmate received fresh cuttings of ‘pen-friend’ columns from a newspaper in Hong Kong sent to her by her cousin. This was the time when we thought Philippine pen-pal advertisements were bogus and don’t answer, while Hong Kong pen-pal sites were not only real, but the persons advertised would end up marrying interested Filipinos. So we scrambled and scoured on the names, and each one of us appropriated several addresses for ourselves and wrote furiously to the ‘friends.’
A month later, I met our high school librarian walking down the stairs with bundles of letters. She handed to me two sealed foreign looking envelopes with my name scribbled on their face: one from a young lady from Malaysia who enclosed reserved leaf veins dyed in bright pink and tangerine, and another from William Ho of Hong Kong.That was the happiest day of my sophomore year and soon, my friends received their responses as well. I loved the smell of the mails and we treasured the letter and photos like relics.
One thing led to another and I found myself becoming a regular letter writer to people around the world of all shapes and sizes including a grandmother from New Zealand who, knowing that I collect stamps gave me stamps with pictures of roses from her country. By this time, I had become somewhat of a veteran in the epistolary art, and had written to and requested several magazines to publish my details where I usually say that I’m interested in all people of any age.
Marinus wrote me by way of a large card with a painting of a dream-like scene from the Amazon forest. He called the card ‘flamboyant’ but necessary to catch my attention hoping I’d write back. He found it curious a young man of 16 could be broadminded. As we exchanged mails, I learned he was a lithographer –whatever that meant- as well as homegrown philosopher from Fort Lauderdale, and in due time, I became his ‘student’ and friend. I regularly received books from him, many written by Krishnamuri, ratiocinating on the theme ‘truth is a pathless land.’ I would have twice a month dose of Marinus’ own mental meanderings and scribbled ‘philosophizings.’ I was a willing student and would write back about my reactions as well as what I felt I earned. From him I learned that happiness is the discovery of beauty beyond the self. My understanding of this is beyond the confines of our petty pursuits for money, success and recognition lies an immense wellspring of beauty, the kind one would find, say, in a dewdrop clinging for dear life on a leaf, the smile of banana vending village women, and genuine affection rooted in care for others.
Marinus refused guided tours - called them artificial - and liked to explore new places by himself. He preferred the wet market to talk with ordinary folks, hear their stories. He said this was how he got to know places and people, not through the studied by lines of tour guides waving measured smiles from air-conditioned coach buses. Before Marinus got sick, he visited us in Ormoc. I brought him to my parents’ house in the village and introduced him to my parents, family members and friends. At that time there was revelry and dancing at the village square led by my very own father who danced the curacha. This was in 1980, the same year Marinus died months after he went back to America. His death was a shock. He was 34. His twin brother telegrammed me about his passing – and how he chose its date and time, and that some of Marinus’ old clothes were sent to me. I never received them. And I never became interested in pen-pal writing again.
Now, 30 years after, the memories of those days are still intact. Marinus was a friend from long ago, my mentor, and the first to call me ‘world citizen.’ To him I dedicate these words from a sonnet of Shakespeare: ‘To me, fair friend, you never can be old.’
16 June 2012
16 June 2012