Saturday, February 5, 2011

In Quest for a Niche

Leverage of Second Chances (4)

In Quest for a Niche

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

--William Ernest Henley, Invectus

Growing up in a farm, fifth in the picking order of over-achieving older siblings, did not make the mission to earn bragging rights on anything as easy as a Sunday morning stroll in the park. It was no secret that the reputation my parents were unabashedly proud of was their children being awarded top honors at the end of every school year. But finishing number one in the class after three siblings before me had already established it as a tradition, did not leave me much of anything to cackle about.

To make matters worse, it was an integral part of our upbringing that we were duty bound to emulate our older siblings, rather than endeavor to compete with them. Coupled with the schedule of domestic and field chores strictly assigned for us to dispose of there was hardly any chance to compete with our peers, i.e., children our own age other than in the classrooms. To earn any subtle praise, explicit accolades, or just a hint of recognition for the performance of any tasks within the realm of the routine, we needed to deliver with the bravado of shock and awe.

The first such instance I remembered my father exhibited open appreciation and compliments for what I had done was when he came home from the farm after twilight one day and I proudly showed him my handiwork. I crafted the handle of a flat-ended bolo, the kind used for digging out weeds, from a piece of the root of a mango tree. I knew that he planned to do the job the next day and the bolo was consigned to my personal use. I figured, my crafting the handle myself was a token initiative to strive to be independent of my father. After carefully inspecting the handle he squeezed my shoulders and told me in a quivering voice that he was proud to have me as a son. I was touched in no small measure because my father was habitually frugal in dispensing praise for his children's skills outside the classroom.

The second occasion I had a chance to be proud of myself vis-à-vis my role in the family was when I managed to serve the entire family, practically when nobody was expecting it, with a complete lunch consisting of dried fish in gabe stew and hard-boiled corn grits, the latter a perennial family fare. For some reason I could not remember, I was left all alone at home while the rest of the family went off to haul logs and lumber needed to complete the construction of the house. The materials were to be transported by boat from the lateritic iron deposit locality some thirty-five kilometers due south of our village, where magkono, the famed Philippine variant of the ironwood, legendary for its strength and enduring tenacity, thrived in abundance.

The prevailing wind for that time of the year would normally have been the landward northwesterly, translating into a forty-five degree tailwind for the homeward route. However, Mother Nature played its capricious tricks. For inexplicable reasons the exact opposite, seaward southeasterly, ruled that day. It meant a grueling forty-five degree headwind on the homeward leg of the trip when the boat was heavily laden with cargo. Unfurling the sail and maneuvering the boat forward in a counter-crosswind with over capacity cargo proved prohibitive even for a sailor as seasoned as my father. That resulted into an unanticipated delay of more than three hours without any provisions for lunch.

When there was no sign of the family hauling party by lunch time, I decided to prepare a meal for everybody. That was not the first time I cooked lunch. It however was my first attempt at a full complement of hard-boiled corn grits and a meticulous dish for viands. Because of the anticipated employment of hired hands for the construction of the house, there was a stack of premium dried fish in the pantry. They were absolutely appetizing but I demurred from consuming some just for myself. That propelled me to cook for the entire household.

From the nearby creek I harvested a couple of clusters (whole plants, really, consisting of tubers and leaves attached to longish stalks) of the vegetable wetland gabe, which abundantly grew in our farm since the early days of my grandfather's tenure. Saving the leaves for later use, I sliced up the tubers and stalks for boiling in the same manner I observed my mother had done on several occasions. I boiled the chopped ingredients, starting with the tubers, then the stalks, until they were thoroughly cooked to an even lumpy chewable gruel.

I threw in a couple of pieces of dried fish for flavor. Leaving the pot over charcoal embers to simmer, I sautéed it with coconut milk and garnished it with a moderate portion of scallions and ginger which I gathered from the back yard garden. Seasoned to taste with salt, fish sauce, and a splash of nipa lambanog, also popularly known as Gigaquit Rum, the alcoholic drink distilled from the sap tapped from the flower of the swamp-growing nipa palm, I kept the pot simmering over charcoal. When the starved hauling party finally arrived mid- to late-afternoon, I served lunch to the unconcealed delight and genuine appreciation of everybody.

Coming up with an element of a pleasant surprise was not a feat sustainable as a matter of routine, especially in a relatively well established farm, where desirable results memorialized by sheer repetition in the ruins of time precipitated the essence of success. I needed to discover areas of endeavor which I knew to have not been conquered nor claimed by any of my older siblings, to stake out a domain of sorts within which a measure of accomplishment could be claimed for myself, with some degree of excellence.

Night deep sea fishing with hook and line was one such field of endeavor. I was aware that our second eldest, Manong Titing, did occasionally get involved with night fishing but only for a short period and of the near surface dragnet variety. It was more a mobile operation and its typical target quarries were surface to moderate-depth near-surface prowling schools of fish which were unpredictably on the move. The net was cast within a fathom or so beneath the boat, which under the influence of both the wind and the current, was allowed to drift dragging the net along to trap any unsuspecting creatures in its path.

By contrast, hook-and-line deep sea fishing of the method I engaged in, required being stationary by dropping anchor and targeted three levels of quarries. These included, inter alia, sea bottom species such as barracudas, gropers, and rock snappers, etc.; medium depth prowling species like tuna, king fish, yellow-tail red snappers, sword fish, etc.; and surface to near-surface feeding species such as flying fish, squids, anchovies, sardines, sharks, butter fish, and several varieties of mackerels.

I got initiated into this enterprise by my father. One day, out of nowhere, while he was preparing to go out to sea he casually asked me if I thought I could handle keeping him company for the night's endeavors. When I assured him in the affirmative, he instructed me to pack our provisions for the night. These mainly consisted of freshly boiled cooking bananas and steamed cassava tubers moderately garnished with freshly grated coconut to preserve their delectable succulence, tidily arranged in a covered bamboo basket. This was supplemented with two bivouac-sized canteens of drinking water and a bottle of chili-spiked vinegar, for seasoning in anticipation of consuming some of the catch of the night for super.

This took place around the beginning of the period when I had to quit school for two years, after I graduated from grade school because our parents just did not have the finances to send any of us anywhere. Three of my older siblings had to quit school for three years so we were not exactly short of farm hands. My parents' financial demise came in the wake of our eldest, Mano Sering's, completion of college. Unschooled in the subtleties of college expenditures, my parents ended up committing every parcel of land they owned as loan collaterals to underwrite my brother's college career. They effectively became tenants to oversee the production operation of the coconut plantations that they had given their entire beings to develop from the bowels of the wilderness. It would take them more than a couple of years to as much as partially recover.

I was not sure exactly whether father's motivation was grooming me to inherit his craft as a fisherman or in his calculating ways he reckoned I represented a lesser drain to the pool of farm hands. On hindsight, I concluded the latter reasoning was operative and more plausible, although absolutely irrelevant. In the ultimate analysis, what mattered most was that the father-son bonding that ensued resultant to my accompanying him fishing was invaluable in more ways than I could catalogue for posterity. Most of all, the fact that up to that point no other sibling had the privilege of being with him that far away from land in isolation had the air of exclusivity I could hardly dare to fathom. It was an experience I treasured my entire life, long after it became just a distant memory.

Moreover, observing him up close apply his navigation skills to locate prospectively prolific fishing grounds made me realize just how resourceful my father was, given his rather limited schooling. There could be no more edifying experience to an eleven-year old soul than a first-hand confirmation that he had every reason in God's creation to emulate the grit, if not to altogether worship his father. Theretofore, I only heard glowing stories on the winning ways of my father's.

That first venture out to sea, I was awestruck at his tricks of the trade as he matter-of-factly explained how he was using the faintly visible mountain ranges, triangulating with the naked eye, to fix the direction we were heading. He further explained the relative positions of the three most prominent mountain peaks which would indicate our arrival at the spot where we intended to drop anchor for that night. He even baptized those peaks, which collectively he dubbed as the "three kings" (of biblical fame), with his own personal arbitrary labels, enabling him to explain how several other anchoring spots in that general vicinity might be located, based on the relative positions of the "three kings" with one another.

On hindsight, how father originally got wind of those fishing grounds was inexplicably amazing. To the best of my limited boyish knowledge there was no bathymetric chart of any kind to be found in our house. It was not exactly the kind of question I would be asking while being awestruck. Meanwhile we arrived at the spot where the top of the "three kings" depicted a perfect equilateral triangle. Father let loose the sail by facing the wind and I dropped the anchor which bottomed out at twenty-eight and a half fathoms. Allowing two more fathoms for tidal surge, I secured the anchor rope to the appointed latch and helped father roll up the sail around its boom and secured it to its appointed place on the boat safely out of the way of the night's proceedings.

The order of business for the night was centered around the two air pressure fuel-injected incandescent kerosene lamps mounted on both sides at the mid-section of the boat. The incandescence attracted surface-dwelling creatures which were somewhat rendered blind by the intense brightness and vulnerable to being harvested at will with hand-held fish nets. A sword-pointed machete, a harpoon-like hand spear, and a lead-plated mallet complemented the fish net as each person's on-board arsenal.

Out of the early surface catch we used the better portion for baits and cooked some to augment our provisions for dinner. It was one of father's cardinal rules to never fish with hook and line on an empty stomach, if you could swing it because only a starved fish would be tempted by a hungry fisherman's bait; no self-respecting fisherman would be interested in catching only starved fish. After dinner we set out for the night's agenda, essentially consisting of setting the bait, laying the line, and waiting for a nibble. Every operation was manually accomplished, devoid of mechanical assistance in any way, shape or form. We laid the line for three different depth zones: the bottom (hand held), the middle (tied to each knee), and three-quarters of the way up (tied to each ankle).

At the sign of a nibble, you gave the line a sharp vertical jerky tag, strong enough to cover the distance between the sinker and the hook to give a swift upward motion to the hook, hopefully catching the feeding offender by the upper lip. When that happened, the fish would pull the line and the contest boiled down to a tag of war between the fish and you. The trick was to keep the line sufficiently taut to prevent the fish from unhooking itself. If you got lucky and felt simultaneous nibbles, you snatched back at each line and hauled the one with the strongest tag back, as it usually meant the bigger fish.

On hauling the fish close enough alongside the boat, you scoped it with the fish net and load it on board. Depending on the size of the fish, you might need to disable it with the mallet or spear it with the harpoon before loading it on board. If the fish was too big for the net you latched on to it with the harpoon and killed it the most expeditious way you could, preferably with the mallet since the less blood you spilt, the tidier the proceedings would be. My prized catch for that first night was a red coral grouper, big enough to need disabling it with the mallet to the head. It was the biggest fish we caught for that night.

I passed the first night's ordeal with better than passing grades. First, and most importantly, I did not get seasick. Secondly, I hauled in the most prized fish for the night's catch. Thus my fishing apprenticeship with my father was launched. It lasted for about six weeks. It was interrupted when father suffered an acute episode of gout which lasted for about a week. The six weeks were essentially an uneventful break-even period. A night with moderate catch brought in enough provisions to our kitchen for about three days. Anything less was considered a poor outing. A bountiful haul would require preserving some for long-term reserves either as salted, smoked and/or dried. When we had to sell some to the local fish mongers, it was considered an extra bountiful haul.

In retrospect, that stationary hook-and-line fishing was basically an arduous waiting game, requiring the collective patience of a legion of saints, had its corollary benefits. The privacy imposed by the vast open sea in the deafening tranquility of the night seduced father to wax lively loquacious on his reminiscences of my grandfather. Thus my brief apprenticeship with him in night deep sea fishing assumed the added dimension of being a rite of passage into adulthood that I felt uniquely privileged to have been given the exclusive chance, unbeknownst to and unshared with my other siblings.

By the beginning of my out of school sojourn it was determined that our finances had moderately recovered. My three older siblings were slated to be sent back to school the following year while I would by myself remain on furlough to somehow soften the impact on the family coffers. Father had to transition back to being a farmer more than being a fisherman. The occasional escapades to sea did take place as desperate measures to put victuals on the table without further taxing the family coffers, especially when hired farm hands were expected to cover for the absence of my older siblings. Meanwhile I was deemed neither a dependable farm hand nor a fisherman expected to conquer, in all dimensions, the unfathomable vastness of the sea and the known vagaries of the vocation.

As a countermeasure to that imminent dilemma, father recruited the services of my first cousin, Hermogenis (Ingko Mening to us, for short), with a proposition he really was hardly in a position to turn down. Father offered him the use of all the equipment, with operating expenses on condition that he partnered with me on the fishing enterprise. The proceeds were to be equally shared three ways: a share each for the operating partners and a third for the equipment.

Ingko Mening was sixteen years my senior, four years older than Mano Sering, my oldest brother. My parents raised him as their own son up to and including the cumbersome process of getting married with all the orthodoxy that tradition required. I sensed that he resented the equal partnership proposition, for reasons that he was a seasoned hand at night deep sea fishing, and I was just a tiny little boy. But the arrangement offered him somewhat of a viable alternative to the waning fortunes from his farming endeavors. Thus my fishing career flourished further under his tutelage, replete with all sorts and flavors of exhilarating thrills and unsettling misadventures.

One such episode which left an indelible impact on my psyche was the sudden summer storm which found the family spellbound in a solemn novena for the safety of our flesh and the salvation of our souls, when we got home, pulled through by the grace of God, shielding the instinctive seasoned seamanship mustered under duress by my cousin. We set sail mid- to late-afternoon riding a moderately strong but soothingly pleasant steady breeze to our appointed fishing ground for the previous three successive nights, hoping our lucky streak would hold on for one night more. The promise of another dreamily intoxicating night under the stars, punctuated by the coveted tagging at the baited lines by the fish routinely feeding underneath, coming in monotonic intervals, permeated the ambiance of that late summer afternoon.

As the outer rim of the sun deigned to caress with a kiss the majestic top of the purple headed mountains receding in the horizon behind, as if at a flip of a toggle switch, a foreboding calm enveloped the entire Creation, reminiscent of the Rhyme sang by the Ancient Mariner of Coleridgian fame. We had to deploy oar and paddle to reach our destination. No sooner had we dropped anchor, than materialized a rapidly thickening ominous dark clouds, threateningly pregnant with mischief, imbued with the purplish hue of dark molasses by the lingering relics of the setting sun, to engulf the seaward eastern hemisphere with the unbridled fatalism of the Omar Khayyam quatrain:


And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,

Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,

Lift not your hands to It for help--for It

As impotently moves as you or I.

When the retiring Helios completed its surrender to the bowels of night, the sea which theretofore was as smooth as a cold vat of oil in a frigid Siberian kitchen began to stir with increasing hints of bubbles bursting out to the surface. It seemed the bowels of the sea were threatening to froth away to an impending boil. Forthwith, total darkness reigned supreme. The only remaining source of light came from the silver sheen ever fleetingly flashed by the persistently and boldly growing sneer of the awakening depths. The not too gentle breeze soon brought with it a wolfish howl heralding the gloom of oncoming doom.

To fully appreciate the gravity of the situation a brief description of our boat's construction would be instructive. The boat was designed to safely accommodate two adults sailing as far out to sea as desired, short of the inter-island trans-oceanic shipping lanes. The hull was crafted out of solid log with wedge-shaped prow and a roundish paraboloidal rare end, akin to the ends of a chicken egg. The transverse cross-section of the hull was a cross between a wedged "U" and a roundish "V" resulting from the personal proclivities of the designer. It was outfitted with a main sail and a forward sail, both supported by a shared single vertical pole located roughly between two-fifths to three-tenths of the length of the boat from the prow.

It had a vertical extension to its side walls built of pliable thick strips of bamboo skins intricately woven and sealed water-tight with the resinous balao glue locally made from the sap of the tree which thrived in most neighboring forests. These bamboo wall extensions, roughly two to three times the depth of the hull in width, were supported by studs anchored to the side edge of the hull reinforced on top with a wooden frame which circumscribed the working area of the boat. A pair of ballasts made of solid bamboo poles were attached to the body, on each side, with wooden and bamboo rafters about a third of the length of the boat distant from the side walls.

The design concept was intended to functionally achieve the happy compromise between strength attendant to bulk on the one hand, and agility implied by lightness on the other. Under normal conditions, the boat could withstand the rough and tumble imposed by the seascape but could be delicately vulnerable to wreckage under the extremities inherent to a storm.

Promptly my cousin tied a double loop mariner's knot closed with a fisherman's bend to both our waists and securely fastened us to the plank supporting the base of the sail pole with enough give for mobility on board. We pulled anchor and set sail for shore. Fortunately our onshore destination was squarely leeward of the storm. We only needed to directly ride the wind, avoiding a nosedive by judiciously modulating the wind intake to the main sail. The most hazardous hurdles were presented by a group of intricately dispersed shallow lying breaker reefs guarding the shoreline where my parents' property was located. They were a challenge to navigate through in broad delight. They became veritable death traps in the darkness and roughness of the storm.

My cousin's skilled seamanship proved more than equal to the challenge. Because of the storm-swollen tide we landed ashore under the coconut trees, much further inland of the shoreline, without losing a single item of property on board. Except for everything being thoroughly drenched the only casualty was the relatively short piece of rope we used to harness ourselves to the boat and to each other. This piece was pruned off a longer rope used to secure the boat at a moorage. We arrived home to the genuine grateful jubilation of both families when they were just concluding the novena on our behalf.

Another noteworthy episode pertained to the night we were literally overrun by a school of thirty- to fifty-inch long blue-backed tuna, with some even bigger appearing to be chaperon or parents or guardians to the smaller ones. It was one of those nights when the earlier part was practically uneventful. Roughly two hours before daybreak all our lines were jumbled and there was a sharp jolt on the boat from the bottom. A large school of tuna swarmed about, as if some of them were attacking our kerosene lamps.

I was acutely apprehensive that they would shortly turn the boat upside down with the momentum of their collective upward assault. Seeing that many big fish that close was the most terrifying event I had ever experienced at sea. It felt like we were at the biblical altar of reckoning brought face to face with our sordid intentions and evil deeds. We frantically had to disable them with our mallets and literally manually picked them off the water one after another by their tails, at a pace of singular frenzy.

Within thirty minutes or so our boat was overloaded with the catch. We had to head for shore before the rest of the school left the area. That was the only occasion when we had to tell the fish we have had enough of them. Unfortunately there was no way either to tell them to hang about because we would come back for the rest of them the following day or rendezvous with them for yet another day.

A few weeks later we were subjected through the agonizing ordeal of the counter bonanza. We typically laid out six baited lines each, as a matter of routine. For that entire night not a single hint at a nibble took place. Even from the surface dwelling creatures which used to be attracted by the incandescence of our kerosene lamps, not even a hint of a shadow of any one of them showed up that night. We were so unceremoniously snubbed by our quarries we had to ask for a couple of mackerels from another boat anchored some forty yards nearby so we did not go hungry for the night.

Those were the three most remarkable episodes of my fishing career. The other days were characterized by a humdrum monotony but by no means dull. It simply was conducive to letting my imagination go wild with introspective ruminations. For instance, I always found it fascinating to picture how my baited hook would appear to a fish routinely prowling about, minding its own business of survival. How the topography of the bottom where we were anchored at differed from the features of the coral reefs in shallow waters was the constant subject of my imaginary explorations.

We ventured out to sea five to six nights during the week depending on the cumulative catch for that week. If we had three bountiful outings out of five, we usually skipped the sixth. If we only had two of five, we ventured out on the sixth hoping for the third night to be bountiful. This much I could say without fear of having exaggerated my worth: during my fishing career, our kitchen was never bereft of a dish of fish for victuals. Also, I dared claim to have managed to contribute to the family cash flow, in no negligible measure. I was convinced that I earned some measure of success and accomplishment and it boosted my sense of worth and self-esteem, although I never discussed it with anybody until this writing.

My cousin was an accomplished fisherman on almost all counts. The one skill I sensed he was not equal to my father was in using triangulation, neither with the stars nor with the landscape, to find obscure potentially prolific fishing grounds. I sensed that he tended to join the crowd and dropped anchor in the vicinity where other boats were already anchored or were obviously speculating in doing so. I also confirmed that he did resent the asymmetry in our equal partnership because of the depth and breadth of experience he brought into the mix, which I willingly conceded were far superior to mine.

Unfortunately for him the events which made the confirmation possible ushered in the dissolution of our partnership. Everybody knew that I was heading for high school the coming school year, which was already loudly knocking at the gates. My fishing career was destined to come to an end unless I matriculated at the local high school which would have allowed me to venture out to sea some Friday and Saturday nights. The repercussions on me were far less severe than on my cousin. He had a family of four to support with nothing but farming and/or fishing skills to pull him through.

There were a couple of non-contiguous weeks when we were blessed with exceptionally bountiful catch. On a few random days in those weeks, my cousin decided on our way home to take a detour to a rendezvous point where the town fish mongers, as opposed to the ones serving our locality, congregated to procure their trading supplies for the day. We sold them a portion of our catch. He proposed to keep the sale a secret from my parents with an even split of the proceeds between us, as my incentive to stay mute on the matter. It was amazing how even the conniving innocence of youth was vulnerable to the friendly persuasion and promise of monetary gains.

I dutifully kept my end of the bargain. But in a small community where practically everybody knew everybody who was anybody, the illicit trade eventually reached the ears of my parents. The family protocol on accountability demanded that the oldest party in any conspiracy had to answer for all the ramifications of the sordid affair. I did not even get interrogated by my parents to confirm the breach of trust, let alone being admonished for it. My father did not exactly disown my cousin for it. But I suspected he never trusted my cousin on anything ever again thereafter.

Before the entire sordid affair sorted itself out to a relatively harmonious quietude, I was already engrossed on a disagreement with my father concerning the high school I should enroll into. My father's choice was the town high school slated to start its inaugural school year. I was intent on matriculating at the high school in the adjacent province of Agusan, where two of my older brothers were enrolled. Although he did not explicitly say so, I was absolutely certain that had I studied locally, I could for sure occasionally be deployed to the farm when the work load was at its peak, a prospect that I promised myself to avoid at all cost.

Moreover, at the conclusion of Mano Fito's freshman year, he was sent to Manila to represent the school at a national students' conference and my parents were vocally very proud of his feat. For reasons I really could not explain, I was equally certain that if I went to that same school I could replicate if not surpass the glory imputed to his achievement. I demurred from vocalizing these sentiments in such explicit terms. But without giving any reasons, I claimed open defiance as a badge of honor and went against my father's decision to the bitter end, for the very first time in my thirteen years in the sun.

It was one of my father's cardinal rules that as long as you lived under his roofs, you did things his way or hit the highway. Most probably emboldened by my success as a fisherman (or fisherlad), I was ready willing and eager to hit the highway had I not gotten my way. To my pleasant surprise, with my mother's relentless coaxing, my father relented.

Matriculating in the same school as two of my older brothers gave me an entirely new dimension in sibling relations management. While we adhered to the age-old familial protocol that the oldest, Manong Titing, had a final say on matters that affected the well being of any of us, the school hierarchy compelled us to compete with one another unfettered by any conventions imposed by family bonds. Manong Titing only had two subjects to take that year. They were the residuals from the three additional subjects added to the curriculum when he had a three-year furlough from school. He could only accommodate into his schedule one of the three during his fourth year.

He needed a fifth year in school to take care of the academic deficit. During that extra year he was exempted from operating an independent farm and engaged by the school as Assistant Farm Manager without remuneration. He was delegated to supervise the farm operations of all independent student farmers, and report to the Farm Manager, the second most powerful member of the faculty, anything he deemed untoward practices. A sense of empowerment was deemed sufficient compensation. It was the school's version of exploiting student labor akin to the way tenured professors exploited the services of graduate students in most prestigious universities.

Due to that special arrangement with the school, and to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, instead of all three of us sharing the same cottage, he made arrangements for both Mano Fito and me to partner with a full time senior student to share both a cottage with, and the required cultivation of at least a hectare of rice field as student independent farmers. That served the double benefit of being under his peripheral supervision while we endeavored to hack it out on our own. While he was only a part-time student in terms of academic load, he was eligible to join any extracurricular intramural competitions as a full time bona fide representative of his class year.

One established venue for such activities was the Future Farmers of the Philippines (FFP), an organization of all students in high schools with national agricultural vocational charters. The organization's architecture was vertically integrated on a national scale governing its proceedings. Its basic unit was the local chapter comprised of sectional chapters representing the various class years in the school. An arbitrary grouping of local chapters constituted a regional chapter. Competition on the national level was reckoned in terms of regional representatives. A direct link between the national and local organizations transcended this intricate hierarchical structure in the sense that the local chapters were required to vote directly in the election of national officers.

About the middle of each school year, before the onset of the rice planting season which fell in late November to early December for our locality, an FFP local convention took place to showcase the students' abilities in both vocational agricultural practicum skills and musical and literary talents, assessed in the context of a competition amongst representatives of sectional chapters. The winner of each event would represent the school in the regional convention, typically taking place during the period when the rice crop was approaching its flowering stage, about two months into the rice growing cycle. Whoever won at the regional gathering competed at the national convention which was typically held at the end of the school year.

It was during my first FFP local convention that all three Asumen brothers represented their respective sectional chapters in the extemporaneous public speaking event which was a perennial feature of FFP conventions, though rarely if ever, contested at the national level. The standard operating procedure for this event in essentials consisted as follows: Each contestant was assigned a subject matter to discuss by randomly drawing a piece of paper from a closed box. He was allocated one to two minutes to mentally develop the topic into a coherent speech and three to five minutes to deliver the speech. The performance was rated by a panel of three judges, each one independently making an assessment in terms of quality of the composition, diction, and delivery. The combined ratings given each contestant by all three judges decided the outcome of the competition.

It had to be acknowledged that the elements of chance, inherent to drawing at random the topic you needed to discuss played a major role in that competition. It was entirely possible that you could draw a subject matter about which you were an absolute ignoramus. At that particular setting however, I was very lucky to have drawn something that I could talk about. When the verdict was returned by the judges, for the first time in my life, I bested my two older brothers at something independent of any familial constraints, under rules of engagements construed to be a level playing field.

Needless to say, I was elated beyond words. But even more importantly, my older brothers made me feel they, although tacitly, were genuinely pleased and proud of my triumph. For me it proved that I had arrived as an individual on my own right, no longer just their younger brother. Furthermore, it vindicated my defiance of my father when I earlier insisted on matriculating at that school rather than at the one he had chosen. Having won that title contributed, in no small measure, to my being anointed to represent not only the school but the entire province to the 4H-Club national rally at the end of the school year. It validated my earlier held convictions that I could make a name for myself by studying in that school.

I defended the extemporaneous speaking championship title for three more years of high school. It was my personal trademark along with the distinction of being a master parliamentarian. I got stuck with the latter moniker after leading my regional team into capturing the national title in my junior year with my keen mastery of Robert's Rules of Order, the recognized parliamentary procedures bible governing the conduct of any formal deliberative assembly. I demurred from claiming the laurel because the feat was a team triumph. I was only presiding over the team's staged deliberations; and the strength of any team was determined by the strength of its weakest member, a designation I maintained to never claim for myself.

It might seem that high school was all a bed of roses. It would only seem that way if you didn't appreciate the inherently selective nature of memory. We had been most inclined to record and recall those segments that reinforced our will to live and propelled us to aspire for bigger and better things. But the tradeoffs we were compelled to make, the ones which made the difference between just getting by and going forward, that enabled us to put the other foot on the upper rung of the ladder, were never forgotten. They simply were not casually dwelt upon that often because they embodied the solemn purposefulness of the human soul. As such, they were imbued with some fleeting dimension of sanctity as a conscious inner conflict that defined the ultimate essence of being.

One such perennially recurring mundane tradeoff was between food and kerosene. The food we filled the belly with to fuel the body. The kerosene we fueled the primitive lamp with which we illuminated our books to feed the mind. In retrospect, it never ceased to amaze me how kerosene always won out over food. What made the decision somewhat easier was the abundance of wild water spinach [kangkong (Tagalog) or tangkong (Bisaya)] in the irrigation canals we could gather for free. Boiled to taste, they made a decent imitation of food for dinner. They were sometimes supplemented with the occasional mudfish which wondered into our earth worm baited woven reed basket traps at some strategic locations in those irrigation ditches.

On the other hand, there never was a convenient substitute for the kerosene lamp to make studying at night remotely possible. And there simply was no substitute for studying as it was the entire point of being enrolled in school. Ironically, making the tradeoffs seemed to have made life that much more worth living. Under the flickering glimmer of the kerosene lamp, I hacked and hoed for a way out of the bind with the somnambulant certitude of the desperate determination of youth.

So it came to pass that when I finally happened upon the niche I was in quest of, it was nothing more than the ever recurring struggle to repeatedly liberate myself from the clutches of the Chill Penury that was so solemnly immortalized in Thomas Gray's elegiac lamentations. The most crucial operative modifiers were repeatedly and ever recurring. I just could not muster enough acumen to generate the free energy sufficient to liberate myself once and for all to the point that I did not have to repeat the experience. Nevertheless, I still considered my high school years as definitely the Halcyon days of Yore, confirming once again that George Bernard Shaw's pedantical aphorisms, notwithstanding, youth absolutely had after all not been wasted on the young.