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Soap

In times of war, life is as fragile as it gets. One moment you are pleased as the proverbial contented cow. In another moment, your life could be ended so abruptly. Everything you value and everything you take for granted could be gone in a split second. And all of these can happen beyond your control. Let me tell you about an incident that will be etched forever in my memory.

Almost overnight, the Americans were gone and soon there were Japanese soldiers
wherever we went.

At the start of the World War II, Japan overran Southeast Asia including the Philippines, which was then a territory of the United States. Almost overnight, the Americans were gone and soon there were Japanese soldiers wherever we went. Manila was quite deserted as fighting went on. Many of the people left for the provinces. After a while, a government with a Filipino president came into being. We called it a puppet government as we knew the Japanese selected the men and were pulling the strings. As relative peace set in, many came back from the provinces and people started to come out and do their business. We stayed in Manila even though we could have gone to Laguna or Tayabas.

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, our family made do by selling soap at the Aranque Market on Azcarraga Street in Manila. We had a stall fronting the street. Actually, it was my older brother Kuya Bino who was running the business and I was his second in command although I was barely nine years old. Inay as I called my mother and Ate Panching, my older sister, helped by minding the stall every so often. That is when they were not at the Quiapo Church praying for all of us. Inay had become religious after my father died. Initially, she prayed for our daily food as we were dirt poor. Later she prayed for our well-being, our safety during the war. She even prayed for lost objects. They would light votive candles and pray to St. Anthony, St. Jude and all the saints. They would spend a whole hour with the Blessed Mother Mary saying the rosary. Sometimes, Inay would drag me along but I always complained that kneeling was hurting my knees. We needed divine assistance since my father left nothing to my mother but a bunch of young children.

We sold laundry soaps of all kinds: round ones, square ones and long bars called Luto. Early every morning, I would go with Kuya Bino to the cottage soap factories and would help him cart them in those deep bags called bayong. We had no motorized transportation; so we carried the goods on foot with frequent stops. I was a scrawny kid but full of desire to help. I had a younger brother Alex but Inay thought he was too young and too small to help, so he stayed home. Home was a cheap downstairs apartment on the edge of the slums between the districts of Tondo and Santa Cruz. The cottages were not really far and we got the soaps to the market in no time. Half an hour tops.

The pile of money
on the table
reminded me of those gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson
or George Raft.

It was a good business and at night, I would help Kuya Bino bring home the soaps and our earnings. We also brought them in bayongs, big ones for the goods and a smaller one for the money. Often, I got to carry the money bag in one hand for it was lighter than the soaps. Kuya Bino carried the heavy stuff. Counting the money at night was a ritual and this is where my younger brother Alex helped. His job was to pile up bills of the same denominations. At seven, Alex was quite adept at counting and pattern recognition and my mother had visions of Alex becoming a banker. At the beginning, Kuya Bino would check his work but he never found a mistake. So he stopped checking it. After the Americans left, we had new paper money. And because everything was more expensive, we spent more and more pesos to pay for what one peso used to buy with change to boot. When Alex had counted to a hundred pesos, he would tie them up with a rubber band. The pile of money on the table reminded me of those gangster movies with Edward G. Robinson or George Raft. I thought we were pretty rich.

We had a thriving business that was the livelihood for a widow and her brood. Money was flowing in steadily with little disruptions. Kuya Bino liked to tell people, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness. And soap is what you need for cleanliness." I never liked using laundry soap for bath because it stung like hell when it got to your eyes but we had no choice. People could tell when we kids had a bath because we had the sweet smell of fresh laundry.

Occasionally, Japanese soldiers would saunter along and help themselves to our merchandise. No big deal as our kababayans, local policemen, did the same thing. Kuya Bino declared them as goodwill losses but as I said, business was good so we really didn't mind. What we minded was any potential harm to our persons or lives or even dignity. As happened one day when a soldier somewhat exceeded his capacity for alcohol and was bent on having some fun.

We could see him coming from down the row of market stalls selling dried fish such as tuyo and daing, local veggies, cigarettes, dried goods, etc. By the time the soldier got to our stall, he had toppled a few stalls and messed up others. This was not the first time such things had happened and we have grown callous to it. Our policemen were no help as they were just as scared of the Japanese as we were. We were gearing ourselves for the worst damage to our business when the soldier caught sight of Ate Panching. He stared at her and gave a lecherous grin.

Ate Panching was really good-looking although Kuya Bino could give you a good argument that she wasn't. She had almond eyes, fair skin, black flowing hair to her shoulder and a winsome smile. She had also covered her few pimples with well-placed dabs of powder. She was about nineteen then and proud of her obvious womanhood. She had two brassieres that she used alternately. I knew because I had seen them hanging to dry in the bathroom. She was just a couple of years older than Kuya Bino but they fought like cats and dogs. To me, they were like my second set of parents since my father died four or five years before. And they behaved like parents too, giving me a whack or pinch whenever they thought I was out of line. Kuya Bino's favorite corporal punishment on me was to pinch my ear while I scream "Aray ko po!" so loud our neighbors could hear it. That explains why my left ear protrudes a bit more than my right.

the soldier approached
Ate Panching,
his samurai sword swinging by his side...

As the soldier approached Ate Panching, his samurai sword swinging by his side, we began to tremble in fear. Inay started fumbling her rosary beads. I could hear her mumble the Lord's prayer, the Hail Mary and the Glory Be in Tagalog and I just mimicked her. I used my fingers to count the beads in each decade by pressing them one by one against my stomach. We were afraid to move and we simply stood where we were and waited for the worst consequence.

"Huwag kayong lalaban. Don't fight. He will probably just give Panching a kiss or a hug," cried our friend Aling Petra from the stall across the aisle. Time stood still for we had no thoughts of fighting the intruder, the drunken son of a bitch. Nobody in his right mind would dare. Other vendors were making the sign of the cross and mumbling prayers I supposed.

He unbuttoned his fly,
pulled out his aching
penis, and
started to pee,
splashing all over
the pavement and
some on the stalls.

We all froze. But God must have heard my mother's prayers. For no sooner had the soldier gotten to my sister than he rushed back. He knocked down a few bars of soap but he got to the aisle. In front of the large crowd that had gathered, the soldier yelled "Kura, kura" scattering them. He unbuttoned his fly, pulled out his aching penis, and started to pee, splashing all over the pavement and some on the stalls. We all stared in disbelief but we wouldn't dare speak a word. He must have drunk a gallon of San Miguel beer, I thought.

But we were not waiting for him to finish as Inay stole Ate Panching away and disappeared. I was sure they headed home. Despite the inglorious and overwhelming stench that the soldier had wrought, Kuya Bino and I stayed to mind our stall. Not indiscreetly, Kuya Bino muttered softly under his breath, "Supot pala ang gago." I don't know why Kuya Bino put so much importance to such irrelevance. Who cares if the Jap is circumcised or not. Until I was six, I wouldn't join my playmates to pee in the open vacant lot next to our apartment lest they found out about my uncircumcision. In my indiscretion, I could be the butt of endless jokes. I knew the ceremonial in some secluded place where I had to chew guava leaves, plaster the incision with it and wrap it with a clean old rag. I saw Kuya Bino's circumcision and for a week he was walking like a crab with a huge infection. I wouldn't go for that and I opted for the dispensary at the University of Santo Tomas on España Street. But that was another story.

When the soldier had finally relieved himself, he started to walk away. Suddenly, he turned back as if on second impulse to look for Ate Panching. He was screaming something in Japanese, something fearsome and totally unintelligible. We thought that the call of nature might have diverted his quest for his Holy Grail. But no such luck. The rush of blood to his face must have drained the blood from ours. He continued to scream in Japanese like the rat-tat-tat of a machine gun as Kuya Bino and I, ashen face and all, stepped back and stood still.

He took a big swipe with his hand at our merchandise, spilling the soaps that I painstakingly stacked up that morning. When he tried to do it again, he came tumbling unceremoniously to the ground. He must have stepped on soap wet by his urine or he was just too unsteady from his drunkenness. The whole situation was funny but nobody dared to snicker let alone laugh. He got to his feet and was angrier than before. He was screaming in Japanese at no one in particular. (Later, Kuya Bino, who studied Niponggo at Araullo High School, said that the soldier wanted to know who pushed him. My God, the jerk had a sense of humor!)

I was ready to
bolt for my life
but Kuya Bino
had his grip on my arm. His fingernail
had dug into
my upper arm but I did not feel a thing.

In an instant, he had pulled his threatening samurai sword and was swinging it like a mad man. By this time, the curious crowd had dispersed to a safe distance. There were screams of "Inay ko po!" coming from the crowd. Kuya Bino and I too would have called for our mother but we had probably swallowed our tongues. Even Aling Petra was nowhere to be seen. She had left her stall completely unattended. I was ready to bolt for my life but Kuya Bino had his grip on my arm. His fingernail had dug into my upper arm but I did not feel a thing. Only the next day did I see the bruise and my whole arm was sore.

God was kind to us for the drunken soldier was only intent on wrecking our little store. He had just toppled our table of soaps when the distant roar of Japanese army trucks became louder and louder until a convoy stopped not far from us. A soldier jumped down from the leading jeep and proceeded to summon our predator. In some disarray, the drunken soldier straightened his uniform, sheathed his sword away, stood at attention and answered, "Hai!" or something that sounded like it. I understand that the drunk was really an officer for only officers were equipped with those long samurai swords. With dutiful compliance, he got into one of the rear trucks and the whole convoy whisked away.

Kuya Bino and I frantically picked up our toppled table and the scattered and broken soaps from the ground. We packed everything in our bayongs and he decided to call it quits for the day. I was shaking and in tears but Kuya Bino was stern as ever. I did feel some comfort in his steadfastness. Years later, he confided that his heart was in his throat and he was about to burst out crying. Inay and Ate Panching stayed away for a while and didn't get back to the stall for the longest time. I continued to help Kuya Bino in obedience to Inay although I had become taciturn, thinking what might have been and whether it could happen again. Inay decided that she and Ate Panching should go to Quiapo Church to do the Novena to thank the Blessed Mother for protecting us and they did. Inay went so far as to go on her knees from the front door of the church to the altar as others were doing. She recited the rosary along the way.

Days later we heard that a General Yamamoto passed by Azcarraga Street, a main thoroughfare in Manila, on his way to the provinces. We dreaded and hated the occupying Japanese army but on that day we were grateful to the general. Kuya Bino delighted in telling how he bravely defied the soldier. I stood as his witness, confirming it with "Oo nga." every now and then. In the end, he would say when he finished retelling the incident, "Thank God Yamamoto passed by. Otherwise, we're goners."

To this day, at family gatherings, I would call to Kuya Bino and ask him to tell us how General Yamamoto saved our lives. It wouldn't take much to egg him on. Perhaps a San Miguel beer.

© Eusebio L. Koh

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