Wednesday, July 23, 2008

AN UNTOLD STORY OF HEROISM

Nature has replaced the vast gravel and sand area with hectares of fertile land.

My mother was a laundrywoman. For that obvious reason, a big portion of my childhood was spent in the river—with my mother. Every time she washed clothes, I would bring her food for lunch and when she was done, I would fetch her to carry her stuff. That is also the reason why, although not expertly, I know how to swim. Almost everyday, my childhood friends and I would take a bath as our mothers washed clothes.

After I finished grade school, I stopped studying. Ours is a poor, big family and poverty had denied me access to any high school's gate. But I was a very studious child and really wanted to study such that when I stopped studying, there was not a single day that I did not cry.

After I had grown tired of crying, and since no miracle happened, my young mind resigned to the harsh reality that not all children are destined to go to high school. So, instead of wallowing in self-pity, I decided to find some odd jobs to earn money so I could make things happen.

Hoping I could save enough money for my tuition fee come another school year, I engaged myself in various economic activities. While most of my childhood friends in the neighborhood attended high school, I carried sacks of rice husk for use as fuel from the rice mill to a nearby store that made puto (rice cake). I manually filled our neighbor's water tank using a device that I alternately pulled and pushed. I also sold ice drop, sweepstakes tickets, and boiled corn. But of all the money-making activities I engaged myself in, I devoted much time selling cigarettes in moving passenger buses. I was actually a working child until I reached 14 years old.

Compared to other children of my age, I was taller and bigger in build. During that time, I was standing 5'6" or 5'7" already. So, I could easily jump from passenger buses as they slowed down. As I sold cigarettes, I would reach as far as Cabanatuan City in the north and Baliuag in Bulacan in the south.

But since my mother was washing clothes in the river, I still frequented that place bringing her food for lunch and fetching her in the afternoon.

One summer's day, after I had brought mother her food for lunch, I took a bath somewhere at the northern part of the river not too far from where my mother was washing clothes. I liked it there because the water was deep. I knew how to swim, anyway.

As I was taking a bath, I noticed two hands waving at me. I found out that they belonged to a young lady in her teens and who was gasping for breath as her head gradually submerged in the water. Seeing she was drowning, I immediately swam towards her and rescued her. I did not know how long she had been drowning but she looked tired and somewhat shocked.

After taking a brief rest, the young lady told me she was brought there by the strong current that headed towards a far deeper portion of the river. She thanked me before she went back to her companions who were not too far from my location and who had no knowledge of what had happened. She was very grateful to me and although I failed to ask what her name was, I was able to remember her face vividly.

Since that incident seemed but a trivial matter to me, I easily forgot it. And although I had mentioned it to my mother and some few friends, it passed naturally like an ordinary incident.

Meanwhile, even if I had enjoyed selling cigarettes and temporarily forgotten my big frustration, as the new school year was about to come, and after being away from school for almost two years, my ardent desire to pursue my studies started to show again. Since I was able to save enough money for my tuition fee, I took the entrance examination at the Nueva Ecija South High School. Fortunately, being one of the Top 10, I was chosen one of the ten recipients of the Senator Antonino scholarship that gave me the opportunity to study for free.

Having been away from school for two years, I needed quite a great adjustment. I developed inferiority complex and was ashamed with my former classmates in grade school whenever I met them on the way. They were already junior students then while I was just a freshman.

But it was good, Nerie Pangilinan whom I fondly called Ine, my childhood friend who, like me, also stopped studying, was always with me. At least, I was not alone.

One vacant period, as Ine and I were walking inside the school campus heading towards the Old Building, we came across her elder sister, Linda, who was with her classmate. Linda's classmate's eyes and mine met. And she smiled at me. She asked Linda if she knew me. Linda looked at me and answered, "Ah, yes, he's our neighbor." Linda's classmate continued, "He was the guy who rescued me when I got drowned in the river."

"Oh, yes! She was that young lady!" I whispered to myself. I could still remember her face. And I smiled at her, too.

Linda introduced her to me. Her name was "Nilda", from San Lorenzo, a barrio adjacent to ours.

"You're studying here, too?" I asked Nilda. She nodded.

Four decades had passed since that incident and one free day while on vacation leave from work, I made a nostalgic visit to the place. Although the river is still there, that once vast gravel and sand area was a sight no more. Nature has replaced it with hectares of fertile land planted with onions and other vegetables. The water is now just some few meters wide and only almost knee-deep. There is no trace it was once big and deep and capable to claim lives.

I do not know where Nilda is today. But I love to remember her not only because she valued the good thing I had done for her; not only because for quite some time, she had not forgotten me; but most importantly because she helped increase my self-esteem and gave myself by way of that incident an intangible medal for an act of heroism.

The river in its present geographical form may not support this personal account and those who hear or read my story may even dismiss it as false and a hoax. But that once young lady will always be an unfading indelible mark and proof that I have contributed something good in this world and that no one can ever distort or erase it because it has become an integral part of her own life story. For if ever someone succeeds in distorting the truth and erasing this act of heroism, the story of one's life will never be complete.

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