Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Tales of My Grandfather

Tales of My Grandfather

Grandfather was the quintessential champion of self-reliance. One of his more than a few axioms was never outsource anything that you can do yourself because you are the best judge of the quality of workmanship that you need to put into a product to ensure its excellence. Therefore anything that is worth doing is worth doing well because the character of a person is embodied and exhibited in the quality of his handiwork or product. His descendants, as we endeavored to abide by this axiom, later affectionately and reverently referred to it as the Asumen code of integrity.

Under this philosophy, he managed to singlehandedly hack out a coconut plantation out of virgin forests homestead acreage. He built all the houses he lived in. He handcrafted most of his farm implements and fishing instruments, including his personal boat, a bandong, which consisted of one solid hulk carved out of a huge tree trunk as opposed to something constructed from component parts. (Its navigational advantages and logistical properties are delved into later below.)

The inventory of accessories he made himself reads like the items list in the village bazaar or an ethnic museum. He made his multi-season monsoon hat sarok from the nito a dwarf rattan-like vine that thrived as weeds in his land and the buli a stately variety of palm tree he planted and became a hallmark product of one of his land parcels. He made his smoking pipes both from the clay in the nearby creeks/marshlands and the various species of bamboo in his land.

He planted his own tobacco. Harvested the crop and treated the leaves for storage. He rolled his own cigar with his personal methods of aging them. He smoked the cigars to the last half-inch and saved the stumps to be chewed later mostly as pure tobacco chew and sometimes mixed with other ingredients in a Betel Chew (mamah), a concoction consisting of quartered nuts of the areca palm (mam-on), homemade lime from burnt choice sea shells (apog) wrapped in a leaf of betel piper vine (bodsyuh, boyu), a specialty plant grown or harvested in the wilds specifically for this purpose.

Grandpa Insoy, who has never seen or heard of a dentist all his life, uncompromisingly and proudly attributed his chewing prowess to this dental regimen. He sported a fully functional and healthy set of teeth until a full three days before he signed off from his mortal coil.

His strength was legendary. He could wrestle to the ground a young water buffalo bull. The main qualifications being that the horns should not be grown enough to have acquired the pointed tips and before they begin to assume the curvature manifested when the animal is a fully grown bull. Imagine the giant bodyguard to the hostage princess Lygia in the 1951 movie Quo Vadis.

A narrative usually told as a mild attempt to somewhat downsize his reputation for courage or a penchant for not backing out of any adverse situations but inadvertently celebrated his physical prowess, went as follows: one night he was fishing alone with hook and line in a bandong. This boat is constructed with relatively flattish bottom proportional to the cross-sectional diameter, shape and girth of the tree trunk it is made from. As such it is inherently bulky and traditionally used for group fishing activities and heavy haulage. A crew of three would barely comfortably handle an average size bandong in wavy waters.

Because of its bulk and size it is relatively stable and can be sailed through moderately wavy waters without the benefit of side ballasts. Sans outriggers gives it the added advantage of better maneuverability to go through narrow passages obtaining in mangrove forests and nipa swamps. Its flat bottom makes it most adaptive to shallow waters, as obtains in estuaries punctuated with transient silt deltas. Normal people would not use it for deep sea fishing, an operation which routinely drops anchor at low-lying reefs of fifteen to thirty fathoms deep.

While grandpa Insoy was fishing away, a heavy storm began to brew and the phenomenon of St. Elmo's fire happened unto his vicinity. In catholic superstation St. Elmo's fire is believed to be associated with a condemned soul with scores to settle on earth before it can proceed to Purgatory. Deciding not to tangle with the supernatural, Insoy Asumen proceeded to paddle his bandong shoreward before pulling anchor. He only realized he was dragging his anchor the entire way when he was safely at berth.

Legend has it that in his prime, he was an accomplished eskrimador, i.e., a practitioner of the Filipino martial arts of Eskrima, particularly of the defense-oriented weaponless variety. This version of the tale I heard mostly from my father. Grandpa's workout routine to hone his skills and reflexes was to lie down on his back at the bottom of a bandong wearing only his g-strings. He would have a half gallon of corn kernel freshly dyed with achiotes
a.k.a. lipstick tree sprinkled onto him. The object of the exercise was to prevent a single kernel of corn from touching his torso, using only his four limbs for a weapon.

It is indeed regrettable that to the best of my knowledge and belief, none of his descendants had inherited the talent or endeavored to acquire the skills. Hopefully some generations hence that particular property of the genes would show up somehow. That shall have been a fitting tribute to the memory of Tatay Insoy, as we all called him.

(He was born in Calape on the north western coast of the island province of Bohol about 41 km from Tagbilaran, the provincial capital which is within 75 to 90 minutes plane ride from Manila.)


  1. good piece uncle. somewhat summarized the sense of resilience we all seem to have, and the pursuit of excellence in everything we do, ie. the Asumen code of integrity.

  2. Bless you, Joy for posting your comment here. It is the most appropriate place for it. In case the subject is revisited at some later date, the comments can be readily incorporated into possible revision of the narrative.

    Compare it to posting comments on Facebook which would only fall in the wayside. Too vulnerable to the ravages of Time.