Martial Law Stories 1: Curfew

Martial law declared (Source: Official Gazette)

Martial law declared (Source: Official Gazette)

When, after a 24-hour media blackout that initially baffled then later terrified the nation, the press secretary came out on television and radio to announce that martial law had been declared on September 23, 1972 and a nationwide curfew would be in effect from 12 midnight to 4 a.m., life as we knew it then ground to a halt.

For our generation born after WWII, curfew was just a word or, at best, an occasional punishment by strict parents when one had overstepped some familial rules. On a nationwide scale, imposed to underscore a new political order that gave the military dominance, it was horrifying, spine-chilling.

In one fell swoop, Manila’s night life ended. Gone was the soundtrack of a regular evening – the late-night ambulant vendor shouting “baluuut” in a tune all its own, the tinkling of beer bottles during midnight toasts, the drunken laughter of night owls in street corners, the revving of car engines at 2 a.m. when parties were over and it was time to go home. Gone too was the crowd in Aristocrat on Dewey Blvd. where partygoers, hungry after a night of dancing, would congregate for a pre-dawn feast of delicious chicken barbeque with atchara and java rice. Or, in Quezon City, gone too were the cars that queued for root beer, burgers, and French fries at A&W, the only drive-in in town.

The upside was that thieves and criminals were likewise temporarily unable to work their evil deeds in that four-hour period. Curfew time would have been the safest time to be in the streets of the city, if only one was allowed to enjoy it.

It didn’t take long for the people to find ways to work around the restrictions. A spell of obedience and good behavior was palpable at the beginning, undoubtedly triggered by the sight of groups of people – curfew violators -- pulling weeds and picking trash around the area of Camp Crame on EDSA in the mornings, stories of long-haired youths getting awful haircuts from their temporary jailors, and rumors about celebrities, including a popular noontime TV host, ordered to bike around the camp for hours. “Sa ika-uunlad ng bayan, disciplina ang kailangan (For the nation’s progress, discipline is a must),” Vic Silayan’s unmistakable baritone would blare incessantly from radio and TV throughout the day, spawning instant jokes that only Filipinos can manage.

Stay-in parties became the norm. Since the most dangerous time to be in the streets was 11 p.m. onwards, most people preferred to stay the night at their friends’ houses than risk their lives racing through the streets like race car drivers. In situations when one really had to go home, taxi drivers were kings – they chose the passengers based on where they were going, and how much extra money they were willing to shell out to make the effort and the risk worthwhile.

I’m wondering now how many romances blossomed during stay-in nights and how many marriages were saved because spouses had to be home before the curfew bell figuratively tolled.

I had my close brush with curfew one night a few months after martial law was imposed. My brother had already been captured and imprisoned in Camp Crame, so I was no longer as careful about my movements (before his capture, I couldn’t afford to be careless lest the military pick me up for some minor infraction to be used as leverage for my brother to surrender. This in fact happened, though it wasn’t as scary as we anticipated, but that’s another story).

I can’t remember anymore where I was coming from, but I was driving at 11:45 p.m., enough time for me to comfortably get home to UP Village with some minutes to spare. Suddenly, somewhere on East Avenue, I had a flat tire. Horrors! I didn’t know how to change the tire so I tried flagging down a car or a taxi, anyone, whizzing by trying to beat the curfew. No luck, of course.

Before the stroke of midnight, I just sat in the car to await my fate. I was already having visions of spending the night in Crame, how I would be one of those picking trash in the morning. Not a happy thought but Crame, where my brother was detained, was no longer as scary for me since I was already going there to visit him three times a week anyway.

It didn’t take long for a car, the make of which I recognized as one of the fleet of unmarked cars used by the Philippine Constabulary (the military unit in charge of rounding up curfew violators) to stop behind mine. Two guys in plainclothes came out and approached. They were perhaps braced to make an arrest; I certainly was resigned to be arrested. But when they shone a flashlight on my face, one of them said “Miss Nemenzo?” They turned out to be part of the unit that had my brother in custody, and arresting curfew violators was not one of their duties. They stopped because they saw the car tilted as with a flat tire and were ready to help. I dodged that curfew bullet and was escorted back to the house after they fixed my flat. Whew! From that night on, I never took chances with time. I made sure to be home before 11 p.m.

Curfew lasted until 1977. A few nights each year, it would be lifted to commemorate some holiday or another. When that happened, there would be a large crowd that would flock to the Luneta to spend the night, just to savor the freedom that was unceremoniously denied them.

We would go as well, to enjoy the sea breeze, to stroll in the park, and buy taho (hot bean curd) or sweet bread from ambulant vendors. More importantly -- now this can be told – it allowed us to meet up with friends in the underground who, on those nights when curfew was lifted, would be hiding in plain sight, shielded by the company of strangers.

Gemma Nemenzo

Editor, Positively Filipino