I Love a Man in Uniform

At least as far as my ranting goes, this is not a rant. It’s long, but I’m going to try to be as objective as possible about this, because in fairness I only stuck around for a grand total of six hours. You could choose to look at six hours as a quarter of a day, 3 movies, six trips back and forth between Makati and Cubao via Edsa in medium traffic or a flight across the country (probably). I was timing myself yesterday at Balay Expo, it takes less than ten minutes to sort through a sack of clothes and even less to prepare and repackage a relief kit for a calamity stricken family. Either way, six hours is a lot of volunteer work.

Stating that September has not been kind would be dead obvious. I spent a lot of time last week reeling from it and hating people in general; leaving my volunteer efforts to a bare minimum by just going to the grocery and through my closets to donate stuff, then holing back up in my room and sleeping. I did however anticipate that the guilt would be monumental when I woke up in my cozy little house which had been spared by the deluge. So when my friend Brian called regarding a “change in plans”, I gladly accepted.

Brian had just gotten back from New Guinea and we were supposed to hang out the next day. I mentioned that I hated people, but Brian was an exception, even if hanging with Brian meant obliging to a politely made request at 11.30 at night:
“Do you want to come with us to Cainta tomorrow morning?”
Sure I did, I was in no shape for smiling politely and passing rice packets along, but I did feel like shoving mud and debris around. Why not. There was a catch though:
“We have to be at Camp Aguinaldo by 6am. We’re going with the army.”

Now, I was never a big fan of the army (can anyone actually say this with a straight face? “Oh yeah, me? Big fan of the Philippine army.”) or any government institution devoted solely to national security, especially because one of the most salient aspects of September is a general atmosphere of compromised security. But I was willing to have my mind changed about the whole thing by getting my hands dirty side-by-side with our country’s defense units, so again, why not.

Next day, I got up at 5 am, stuck a shirt in my pocket and waited for my ride. Brian arrived at 6am with a backpack demanding, “Where’s your towel? Your gonna need a towel!” Nevermind that we were running late, apparently towels are a matter of life and death. So I run back in and get one. It’s five minutes past the 6am call.

It’s Wednesday, day four of Ondoy relief operations and the air in Camp Aguinaldo is surprisingly calm. There are no signs pointing us to where the volunteers should congregate, just some vague directions on how to get to the reserve command. The reserve command is to the left after you pass four roads to your right. The reserve command is after 2 corners and a left. On the way, we pass a press conference, we pass joggers, we see a field where an army truck is loading up people in track suits…either civilians or joggers. But that wasn’t it.

Finally we make it to the reserve command (or is it command reserve? Verb-verb agreement) and there is a bus in the driveway as expected, but the air is still strangely calm. Brian and I figured by now that we were the only ones holding the bus back and that these guys would be hustling, but apparently the calm is really what it is: inactivity. Our friend Zito comes out and informs us that the troops are just being briefed inside and that we should be leaving for the deep east any minute now.

Any minute now.
Z and Brian sit and smoke a few cigs.
Any minute now.

Their friend JR comes out and calls us in to join them in the office of Col. Shahin. “Don’t worry, you can smoke in there.” Shahin’s office is a typical government office: couch here, scattered desks, coffee paraphernalia, giant TV in the corner. We take our seats, they smoke some more, chit chat, smoke, another man in uniform comes in and salutes the colonel. It’s a little past 7am and I hope we’re ready to leave.

The man presents a plate of puto and sets it down on the colonel’s table next to another plate of puto that’s already there, then he leaves. We are not ready to go.

As if to dissipate the boredom and create an air of urgency, the colonel’s daughter (by the way, the colonel’s daughter is with us) starts changing into uniform. “Ang laki naman nito!” she fusses with the uniform’s waist, pulling it up and around her own, “Wala bang extra eXtra EXTRA small?” Somebody please hit her. Hit her with something blunt and hard before she opens her mouth again. “Wala akong boots!” “Ba’t kay daddy kasya ang beywang?” “Bibigyan ba ako ng baril, kahit squuuuirt gun lang?” No one bothers to hit her.

Another uniformed guy steps in and salutes. We are ready to leave…or not! This one’s got bread, which he sets down on the table next to the double dose of puto. And then he leaves. It’s 7.30 in the morning.

Apparently we’re waiting for some chief or someone’s dad. I figure as long as I’m nowhere near the time I usually wake up, I’m not wasting any time…not really. Another guy comes in, this time with an attendance sheet. I’m number 47, so we are a group of at least 50 or so because at this point there’s no end to the people who just come in with random trinkets then leave. The president could come in, tell a couple of racist jokes, change into a tracksuit, I won’t even notice anymore.

I ask the colonel’s daughter, “Saan ang CR?”
She answers, “Ay, second year pa lang ako.”

When I come back from the bathroom, JR comments on the time, saying it’s already past 7.30 and where the hell is Commander something. The colonel shrugs. JR continues that he’s okay where he is (really), but…but…“Paano ang mga nasalanta?” After all, isn’t that why they called for 6am? The colonel shrugs, mumbles, shrugs.

Brian calls me to come outside with him. “I hope you weren’t listening to what they were talking about in there.” I told him I couldn’t understand most of the mumbling and my hair smelled like club f*ing dredd on a weekend.

We sat around.
We waited.
Men in uniform roll in on a BMW with green plates. “Is that our captain?” I ask Brian. He laughs. It wasn’t a joke. That’s when I notice the absence of calamity-response equipment. We are not being briefed on what we’re supposed to do. We’re not looking at maps. There are no shovels piled up. No dozers, no wheelbarrows, buckets, or sacks. Maybe–dear god, please–they are in the bus.

We go back in, Col. Shahin is gone and sitting at his desk is his daughter surrounded by people making dumb jokes about how the colonel’s got boobs, the colonel looks like a girl; the colonel’s daughter makes her own little contribution, you know, to lighten the atmosphere:
“Maghuhukay ba tayo ng patay?”
(Will we be digging up the dead?)
…and she giggles.
I’m glad no one’s giving me a shovel while this woman is in the vicinity. But to make things worse, another woman in uniform cracks another “HAHA dead people” joke. “Nakahukay na yung mga yun eh! Tayo ang taga-libing!” (They’ve already been dug up! We’re just gonna bury them!). Comedy gold.

Sometime around 9am, we are lined up outside the office. Possibly about 40 or so strong, some people are still loitering inside and outside, the nurses are on one end. We are finally being “briefed” if being briefed means standing around while a soldier kind of walks back and forth in front of you mumbling. More mumbling. And then we are in the cars, a convoy of eight including not one, but two sedans. There is a bus in the parking lot, but it’s not coming with us. Save for the nurses and ambulance, we are not carrying any equipment or relief goods, and the colonel’s daughter is still in slippers.

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