Sunday, February 14, 2010

Toy Soldiers

(Thanks to James, who shared me this story and inspired me to write... albeit with a heavy heart...)

Some things take us back to the past. Others make the past a constant companion in the present, never to leave.

Sometimes, my kids would catch me going surreptitiously to the toy room, which I had personally requested to be built near the family library, when my wife and I having just settled down were putting this up, the house of our dreams, that was long before the kids came into our lives.

My wife on the other hand has long ceased to be amazed by my habit, and though she was shocked that a toy room would be on top of my plans when the thought of building the house was conceived now she perfectly understands what it meant for me and I love her all the more for it. In this room the treasures of my boyhood dreams are neatly kept, and a special place is reserved for the 24-piece toy soldier collection which I bought from e-bay. Unlike the others which are remnants of the past, they are a recent acquisition, the product of a long search in the internet and although I am not exactly eager to discuss with anyone how much it cost me to have them, to me they are well worth every cent.

It was summer time during the tumultuous 80's. My father was sent back home without finishing the two year tour of duty to war-torn Mindanao in the south following a close brush with death. He came home with his back pack on a Wednesday night, without any word before hand that he was coming, and unlike in previous times, he came home without the customary gifts, only the joyous confirmation that he is alive, and it was all that mattered to me, in fact, that day was the happiest day of my boyhood, my dad coming home with a dirty back pack and a hole in his stomach where the bullet had passed which means, he is staying with us at least for the year- long recuperation period. If you ever knew how it feels to see your father just once or twice every three years, his bullet wound was indeed a blessing, a morbid thing to say but I was a kid and I have the right to say it and under the circumstances, it was indeed, it really was a great big blessing.

He would take me for long walks... in the afternoons during a clear day, just when dusk was setting in, that by the time the sun was slowly disappearing in the horizon, we would be on top of the hill watching the world down below us change colors under the cascading hues and slowly and slowly the crimson light gradually fades into blue and then black. We watched in silence, my father has never been a man indulgent with words, which I guess is the way they all are in the marines. The war and its unspeakable horrors would leave a man to suffer in silence for life. He never shared his stories with me, perhaps thinking I was too young for them, too pure and innocent then, and in hindsight, I somewhat feel grateful that he didn't.

On the first month of his vacation, he asked me to go with him to the barracks to claim his paycheck. My father was exuberant on that day, the vacation has done wonders to lift his spirit and hasten his recuperation. He was glowing and beginning to regain his health, unlike when he came home one day wounded and starving.

They actually waited for payday to come; he had told my mother he would get his disability pay, in addition to the regular salary, and maybe a special commendation from the headquarters in Manila. On the way to the barracks, we passed by a flea market and as my steps slowed at the sight of the toy soldiers being peddled at a makeshift stall on the sidewalk, my father could almost read my mind. "We will get back here and I shall buy you those toys son, right after we get the money". I pressed his hand and his words put a spring in my steps and he knew what it meant.

Thirty years later, I would be scouring the internet looking for the same toy soldiers that my father had promised to give me the last time we were together. We never made it to the barracks. I have no recollection of what exactly happened then except for the few things I hear growing up during the hushed conversations every time that my mother and relatives would speak about the ambush.

I just knew it was the last day that I saw my father alive...