Memories Are Made of This – My Friend, Arthur Custodio

Arthur Custodio

Arthur Custodio

Let me begin this story by way of an allegory.

More than 50 years have gone by since my high school days, and still lots of us have never learned to love math. To be sure, there is beauty and magic in numbers. Yet very few realize that there are more than just integers, fractions, algebraic equations and transcendental numbers. We all learned that there is what is called imaginary numbers, without which the family of numbers would never be complete. Without it we could never hope to solve for some roots of negative numbers. Like, what is the square root of –4? Thus, imaginary numbers complete the family that mathematicians have named complex numbers. Heck, you couldn’t reach the nearest star if you tried to navigate without it.

If anyone ever saw a living, breathing complex number, it must have been none other than Arthur Custodio. He was a real person, yet unless one got to be up close and personal with him you could say he was an imaginary character. One could say that he was just like math, hard to love but easy to appreciate; full of surprises, enigmatic, even magical. At times irrational, at times radical, and all the time there was method in his kind of madness.

To begin with, Art was pretty good at numbers. Figuring things out was for him both a science and an art. He had both canny and uncanny abilities of discovering the best route to success, which is simply the shortest path that offered the least resistance.

My first encounter with Art was in 1956. We were then nearing the end of our third year, and film technology had just given birth to an extra-wide-and-tall screen known as cinemascope, along with sense-surround audio that would make the theater tremble with the power of full stereophonic sound.

Art invited his friends from among the junior class to see the movie that was supposed to eclipse all other movies – Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” It was shown in one of the first-run Manila theaters sometime between October and November 1956. The movie was spectacular in itself, nearly four hours long with an intermission break so that movie-goers could relieve their bursting bladders.

Art was even more spectacular, having paid for the admittance of at least 20 of us, plus cigarettes (yes Virginia, at that time smoking inside the theater was not only allowed; it was de rigueur), popcorn and soda pop and a group snack-out afterwards. I recall the going rate was P5.00 per head, orchestra section. A hundred bucks at the time was something as scarce to high school students as the number of known prime numbers! If you must know, at the time the exchange rate was P2.00 to $1.00, with President Ramon Magsaysay at the helm of the country. Miguel Cuaderno was the Central Bank Governor.

And here was Art, was spending big bucks like there was no tomorrow! Art believed that spending money rather than keeping it in a bank where only the bankers earned from it was good for the economy. You know, I think he’s right.

That singularity made Art a “champion,” as our favorite expression then was. He was to us the ultimate “galante.” But Art did not come from Forbes Park; in fact, he was what you would call a promdi (slang current at the time, a contraction of promdiprobins). That begs the question, where on earth did the money come from?

At the time, Art’s father was the Mayor of Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija –– a rural municipality given to agriculture, notably rice farming. Mayor Custodio had a sizable area planted to rice, and had just harvested several hectares worth of palay a couple of weeks before the first screening of “The 10 Commandments.” This bounty he stored in a large kamalig, exhorting his caretaker to carefully watch over it lest pests of the two- and four- legged variety make off with the fruits of his labor.

Art, being the family’s bunsô and apple of his father’s eye expressed a sudden interest in the goings on of the palay business. Under his father’s tutelage, he learned a lot in a short time about the production, storage and marketing of palay. Being the bright boy that he was, he decided to test if there was indeed a mathematical limit, e, insofar as paternal ire was concerned; for Art had concocted a plan that bordered on sheer genius if only for its deviousness and audacity.

First, alleging that he was acting on behalf of his old man, he sold the palay at a slight discount to a well-known grain buyer in the next town, on condition that buyer was to pick up the goods himself at a pre–arranged date and time whereupon payment would be made in exchange. Next, at said prearranged date and time, Art just happened to be in the vicinity of the kamalig when the grain-buyer arrived; and forthwith he assured the caretaker that his father had indeed sold the goods and he was assigned to receive payment thereof. Third, as soon as he had the cash in hand, he immediately got on a bus and headed for UP campus, where he met a willing collaborator in Alejandro “Boy” Dalao.

Alejandro “Boy” Dalao

Alejandro “Boy” Dalao

Boy D. deposited the proceeds in a bank under his name. My conjecture is that it must have amounted to at least ₱10,000. From that day on, Boy became Art’s trusted executor for deposits and withdrawals. You can think of it as the original money laundering scheme. Who could do wrong, having such funds? It has been said that the love of money is the root of all evil. I beg to disagree: the lack of money is evil’s true root. 

As it turned out, Leonhard Euler was right all the way. Just as the sum of an infinite series is connected to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter (aka π), there is a connection between a father’s love for his youngest son and the limits of his anger at the son’s wrongdoing. Art wriggled out of that one by rehashing the drama of the flat-broke prodigal son. Suffice it to say that he was disarmingly honest about his dishonesty.

Be that as it may, Art always had this cavalier attitude towards money; legal tender after all is nothing until it is exchanged for goods and services. Not that he was living the life of Riley. To be sure, there was wine, women and song; but a good part of whatever he had went to support friends in need. And in later years as a married man, he proved to be a good provider for his own family.

Art told me later that he was hurt not so much by the criminal charges, but that the family of Rolando Galman would think of him as the person who betrayed Rolando -– a childhood friend no less –– by selecting him to be Aquino’s assassin.

After high school, he opted to join the Armed Forces of the Philippines, just as his eldest brothers did. After spending the regulation four years schooling at the Philippine Military Academy, he received his commission as a second lieutenant. He then joined the Air Force, where he became one of the few F4 Phantom jet fighter pilots then (by the way, as I was writing this story, there were no more jet fighter pilots in the Air Force for the simple reason that there were no longer usable jet fighter planes). Art saw action during the war against Muslim separatists in the Zamboanga-Basilan-Sulu-TawiTawi sector. He survived a crash landing with another officer, Philippine Constabulary Col. Dictador Alqueza, who incidentally also hails from UP High. Ultimately, Art achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel.

After the armed conflict in Mindanao, we had many colorful adventures together all over the Philippines. Under the administration of President Marcos, I was with the Ministry of Human Settlements; Art was seconded by the Air Force to the MHS to help in our livelihood development programs. It was time to make love, not war, with those opposed to the state. I was amazed that wherever we went Art knew someone whom we could trust to help and guide us.

Then August 21, 1983 burst upon us. The after-effects of Ninoy Aquino’s assassination caused a cataclysmic change in the political landscape, some say for better; others say for worse. For Art, one episode in his life wounded him deeply. Rolando Galman, Ninoy Aquino’s alleged assassin, was his childhood friend in Zaragosa, Nueva Ecija. Galman was everything he was touted to be –– gun for hire, hold-up artist, killer, kidnapper –– but he was not the hell-raiser you’d think such a person would be. He was a pensive, caring person, for all his criminal bent. Most of all, he was Art’s buddy. And Art would never let a buddy down.

Galman’s eldest son, Reynaldo, then 10 years old, testified that it was Art who came along with some “military- looking types” to pick up his father; he added that it was the last time he ever saw his father alive. Art was arrested and incarcerated in the stockade along with other officers and enlisted men accused of participating in the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. According to the conspiracy theory, Galman was promised that things would be arranged so he could make a clean get-away; instead he was killed to preclude any connection with his handlers.

Art told me later that he was hurt not so much by the criminal charges, but that the family of Rolando Galman would think of him as the person who betrayed Rolando -– a childhood friend no less –– by selecting him to be Aquino’s assassin. While he admits that he did introduce Galman to certain high-ranking officers who requested him to supply a highly qualified assassin, he did so as he was made to understand that the subject of executive action would be a person who truly deserved such punishment –– such as a drug lord; or a corrupt government official whose investigation would result in embarrassment to the administration; or perhaps a ranking leader of organizations sworn to destabilize the state. Like it or not, Machiavelli’s tenets are the guiding principles of any regime; Art really thought Galman was going to be used for a righteous, albeit illegal, cause. He thought it was right down Galman’s alley, that he was doing Galman a favor by providing him “work,” wet as it would certainly be.

He was unable to connect the number one assassin to the number one target of the day. It was a problem with only one unknown, equating to zero. It was the one point in his life that Art truly miscalculated.

Art was later exonerated of the crime by the Sandigan Bayan. While he was not removed from the roster of officers, his military career had plainly come to an end. He retired from the Air Force and returned to Zaragoza, where it all began. He immersed himself in municipal politics, and like his father before him, was elected Mayor for three consecutive terms. Before he could be sworn in for the third time, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the colon. He died three months later. He left behind his wife, Helen; a son, Francis; and two daughters, Bambi and Christine, all of whom have successful careers in their respective fields. Francis, following the footsteps of his forebears, is also into the politics of Zaragoza.

For the record, Alejandro “Boy” Dalao also died of cancer of the colon.

So, I ask myself, is there an exotic connection? They were both prime friends of mine. They were, and always will be, a part of the equation that is my life. It is from this friendship with them that I learned that the game of life is a situation where participants can all gain or suffer together. It does not, as some fatalists believe, have a zero-sum property, wherein the gain of one is the loss of another. They have multiplied the richness of my own life experience, and I rightly claim that because of them, my life must amount to something after all.

Albert J. Lesaca

Albert J. Lesaca

Perhaps this refrain from Frank Sinatra's song best describes who I am and what my life has been like:

"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king

I've been up and down and over and out, and I know one thing:
each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race..."

While the song of my life is not exactly classical, nevertheless I hope that when it ends, it will be like the closing echoes of a hymn sung in a great cathedral.

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