Childhood Reveries

The U.P. Carillon (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The U.P. Carillon (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Those of us who don’t know how to ride a bicycle joke about our “unhappy childhood,” overly protected as we were from the cuts and scrapes (and the possible broken bone) that accompanied what is a common rite of passage – learning how to bike. I remember sitting sullenly, longingly, on the curb as my best friend triumphantly rode away after falling twice on the asphalt, elbow bleeding, palms cloaked in mud. But she did it, and I didn’t, all because my mother didn’t want me to take the risk of hurting myself in an activity that she found unnecessary and too tomboyish.

The lack of biking skills was my shame when I was growing up, until I found others of similar sorry fates, and we found kinship in our childhood deprivation. We were a small group, true, but we learned to make fun of ourselves, making the sting less biting.

Bicycles aside, my childhood wasn’t all that bad it turns out. I was a campus brat, one of dozens (or maybe hundreds) of privileged children whose parents worked at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City and were assigned campus housing. We belonged to the first-generation campus brats (there in the early to late-‘50s) who share common (and vivid) memories of a bucolic time and place where everyone knew each other and our houses (except for a few) were Quonset huts with sawali (woven bamboo) ceilings and walls, previously occupied by American forces stationed in Camp Diliman during and shortly after World War II.

At the time, when the campus was still relatively new (UP moved there from its old campus in Padre Faura, Manila, in 1948), there was cogon grass taller than the average person on the fringes of the residential areas, un-asphalted roads that broke coeds’ heels. There were fireflies and lizards everywhere each night, bees and grasshoppers during the day enjoying -- just as we did -- the scents and colors of cadena de amor (fuschia), yellow bells, camia and rosal (both white), ilang-ilang (green), sampaguita (white), bandera española (red and orange), bougainvillea (various bright colors) and gumamela (red and yellow hibiscus) that adorned the campus year-round.

The sky was wide and blue, the torrential rains a source of intense pleasure, and the fruit trees were both welcoming and mysterious in our childhood memories. We became adept at climbing them to pick the ripe fruits, oblivious to the concepts of ownership and boundaries because we considered the entire campus our playground.

In the summertime, when the college students went home for vacation, we had the place to ourselves and that’s how we were able to explore every nook and cranny of our shared universe – where the canals flowed, where lovers trysted, where the winds swirled perfectly for kite-flying, where one could hide without being found when it was time for our piano lessons.

I remember the day that turned into night during the solar eclipse. It was around noon when the sun was gobbled up by the moon and we lay on the grass, our eyes shielded by photo negatives because there was no such thing then as sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV protection. Alas the excitement was all too brief; in less than an hour, the sun was back, the galaxy returned to its regular order. The memory of that event, however, has been permanently imprinted in our brains that, with just a slight jog, it comes back to us like it happened yesterday.

There were plenty of other things to be excited about in the idyllic campus paradise of our childhood. There were the Carillon bells that woke us up mornings at seven and sent us home at five in the afternoon. The Carillon tower itself posed a challenge to the more adventurous among us because climbing its narrow steps wasn’t for the faint of heart. There was Fr. John P. Delaney, the well-loved and controversial Catholic chaplain whose room in the old UP Chapel had two humongous tin bins filled with candy. He would let us scoop a handful if we dressed up as angels for a Holy Rosary procession around the block.

There was Little Quiapo, the only privately owned refreshment parlor on campus, which served the best halo halo ever. At the time, when low UP salaries made eating out in finer restaurants a luxury indulged in only during birthdays and graduations, the LQ as we called it, was our monthly treat, as eagerly awaited as the Magnolia carts with their ringing bells that plied the campus streets every afternoon. These ice cream carts loom large in my memory. Twice a week I would be allowed to buy a twin popsicle – either orange-flavored, strawberry, chocolate or mantecado (butter) – for ten centavos. If my yaya (nanny) was in a generous mood, she would buy me a pinipig crunch (rice crispy) for 20 centavos, quite a big amount then especially since half of it would drip down my shirt.

The biggest regular excitement for the campus kids, however, was – hands down – the coming of the truck that spewed massive amounts of DDT, to fumigate against the giant mosquitoes that proliferated in the previous swampland that was UP Diliman. Until I was five years old, the overwhelming smell scared me so much I would hide in the walk-in closet in my parents’ room and smother myself in the newly washed clothes until the smoke cleared. Eventually, as I became friends with the neighborhood kids, I overcame my fear and joined the crowd who would run after the truck, inhaling with gusto the poisonous smoke that was our version of fog.

I lived in the UP Diliman campus until I graduated from college and then I moved a mile away to UP Village. I still consider it my hometown, the place I return to in my mind, when looking back to happier times becomes my only defense against the inevitable sadness that accompanies adulthood.

There is not much left now of the campus I knew then. It has grown old, gnarled and chaotic, just as we -- first-generation campus brats – have. Yet, the university continues to renew itself with new buildings, new citizen students, new excitements. It would do us good to take the cue from our beloved hometown: No matter how much we’ve aged, we should continue to renew ourselves with new knowledge and passions to keep our minds and spirits young. Learning how to bike, however, is not a good idea anymore.


Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino