Destined to be a hero

Another interesting conversation we had with Ninoy turned out to be the last. We were with a group of Filipino travel writers and editors who were invited by the defunct Pan American Airways to a familiarization tour of Las Vegas, Chicago and San Francisco in mid- April of 1983 and as soon as we landed in Las Vegas we immediately took to the phone and contacted Ninoy in Boston where he was temporarily staying with his family.

As usual Ninoy kidded us. “Padre akala ko ba ay nahihirap ang mga Pilipino sa martial law. Hindi pala pagkat nakapag-aaliw pa sa Las Vegas”. After more banters his voice turned serious. “Padre, I’m planning to come home, with passport or not in June. (Ninoy actually returned home on Aug. 21, the same year). As soon as you arrived in Manila asked Bren (former governor Bren Guiao of Pampanga) to consult our friends back home about my plan. Tell him to report to me about the feedback.”

And then he turned to us and pressed for our opinion to his plan. We warned him of the danger. We told him that we read from the Time Magazine a statement attributed to Mrs. Imelda Marcos saying that the Marcos government could not guarantee his safety if he would return home because in the language of Imelda “there is a group in the Philippines that we cannot control”.
Then Ninoy continued with his own prognosis. He said that there were four possibilities:
• That upon his arrival at the Manila airport he would immediately be arrested and brought back to Camp Bonifacio;
• That upon his arrival at the airport he would be escorted home by the military and be placed under house arrest;
• That from the airport he would be set free;
• That he would be executed.

Ninoy asked our opinion on what most likely to happen and our reply was in the form of another question:
“Bata ka ba ng Kano?’ (Are you an American boy?). There was a long pause. Then he said, “Why do you ask?”

“Because if you are backed up by the Americans then the fourth possibility you mentioned about which is execution will never happen. The US will protect you.”

And we were right. Ninoy decided to come home because he said “Filipinos is worth dying for” and the US did not do anything to stop his killing because he was not an American boy after all. We were right in arguing to Ninoy that America for its own interest never supported a popular leader whom they could not manage or manipulate. His decisions will always be anchored on popular opinion and will never dare to go against it without losing his popularity.

By his action Ninoy seemed to know when Martial Law was about to be declared on Sept. 21, 1972. He also seemed to know through his military grapevine that he would be arrested and rejected the idea of going underground. I remember Ninoy as a member of a Senate and House Joint Committee which was formed to reconcile conflicting provisions of a certain tax measure. It was most of the time represented by Senator (then and now) John Osmeña. But on the right martial law was proclaimed he took over from the senator from Cebu. Sonny is very much around and could shed light on what really happened that night.

Right after Ninoy was arrested by the military at the Manila Hillton (now Manila Pavilion) that early morning of Sept. 21, I was awakened by persistent ringing of my home phone and when I answered it, I heard a trembling voice. “Mang Kune martial law na po. Driver po ito ni Senador. Pinagigising po kayo niya para sabihing inaresto siya ng military. Sabihin daw po ninyo ito sa mga bata (meaning Senate reporters). Ninoy used to consult me on propaganda and PR matters during those days.

The next morning, I went to the house of Ninoy at 25 Times Street, Quezon City to find out what happened to his family especially his wife Cory. I met the former President there with Tessie Aquino-Oreta, who was later elected a senator, the favourite sister of Ninoy who was then pregnant. Her husband Len Oreta who was very close to Ninoy was also incarcirated, the longest among those who were detained. The two ladies judging from their appearances seemed unaffected by the development, not knowing perhaps that martial law would be harsh and would stay longer than they expected. Ninoy was held incommunicado and only Cory and their children were allowed to visit him.

When Ninoy was given a furlough, the late Bren Guiao called us to say that Ninoy wanted to see us in his house right away. Excited, I drove immediately to Times Street. There were many soldiers around, perhaps more than 500. Some of them on the roof of his house. Not so many people were inside the house some of whom I recognized as very close to Ninoy. Where is Ninoy? I asked Bren as I walked into the sala.

“Don’t you recognize him? He is right in front of you.” I was shocked because, seeing him for the first time since he was arrested, he did not look like the Ninoy I long knew. He was so thin but still looking handsome with healthy aura. He motioned to me to occupy the chair beside him, “Ano ang balita, padre?” he asked me not expecting any answer that being only his favourite expression.

I have many fond memories of Ninoy. Once, after breakfast from his house and while on our way to his Senate office instead of riding in his Mercedes car, he took the front seat of my Jeepstar, a surplus top down jeepney used by military officials during World War II that looked like a sports car. He waved to his driver and aides to follow us. We were kidding each other as we drove leisurely. But when we reached the corner of Ortigas and Santolan I slowed down because I was expecting the yellow light. But Ninoy prodded me to speed up. A runaway 10-wheel truck almost hit us. While I was scared to death, Ninoy was even thrilled by the danger we just avoided as he stomped his feet praising me for being fast enough.

As we write this, there is a book in front of us gifted to us by Ninoy shortly before he left for the US with his family. His dedication reads: To Cone: A true friend tested in the crucible of martial rule.

What is friendship? Two bodies with one soul – Ninoy. Cornelio de Guzman

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