Coming from his short stint abroad as a seafarer, his first ever gift to me was a plastic sword, its handle laced with “gems” and “stones” of different colors complete with scabbard. While my playmates are satisfied with their improvised wooden swords, I scuttle and scamper with my toy sword given to me by my Tito Baby fixed in my hand.
Neighborhood kids especially those fond of reading a certain komiks novel in Liwayway Magazine are jealous of my latest apparel. The year was 1968 and a serialized novel written by Nemesio E. Caravana and illustrated by Nes C. Ureta titled, you’ve guessed it right, “Excalibur” was one of our favorites. My playmates and I do our sword fights from late afternoon till sundown.
His closest relatives call him “Baby” being the youngest in a brood of seven boys. But as years passed by it gradually changed into other nicknames: “Bebeng” to his classmates in elementary and high school “Joe” “Jay” or “Joey” to his friends and later “Ute” (but he spelled it as “Ottie”) as a grown-up man. Before he went to college in Manila, I was told by my Mamang that Tito baby was once a junior seminarian but bolted out of the school for reasons I didn’t dare to ask. As I have told you, he have been in many countries like Brazil, Kuwait, Italy and other places in the world that I can recall from his travel photo album way back in the 70s. He was a seaman for some time and turned into businessman and eventually became a farmer when he settled down as his family grows.
My late father and Tito Baby have many things in common especially when it comes to firmness in their decisions, hard work and compassion for the needy, a sort of trademark of the Novio’s of San Jose as one of its pioneering residents. Papa and Tito used to read pocket books particularly war and espionage novels. During their younger years, separately in their lives, they have been caught up in melees and minor offenses against the law and persons of authority. Their hand writings are the most beautiful compared to the rest of their brothers.
When he’s in his late 30's, Tito Baby encouraged me, his Kuya Manuel’s eldest, to pursue my long deferred college education. I stayed with them all through out until I finished my Bachelor of Science in Secondary Education. He stood as my second father at that time. He and Tita Nida bankrolled my studies, from school fees and allowances, all the way. I was their general factotum, like what Tita Nida jokingly used to describe what I am to them. And I became witness (and sometimes accomplice) to some of Ute’s little misdemeanors. Without the couple’s help, with all honesty I have to admit, because of my immediate family’s financial hardship, there’s no way I could earn a degree in college. I could have ended then as a career-less and jobless bum without their aid. Nobody asked me but my early poems and essays were published through Tita Nida’s portable typewriter trademarked Brother. I have learned many things about literature and writing from their bookshelf. Including baby-sitting, cooking, driving, hollow-blocks- making, palay-drying and acting as an apprentice to a canteen, to name a few.
But as a family man and as he grows old, Ute became a transformed individual. He paid a visit to my mother late last year in Bubog and that’s the last time I saw him. I only see him on special occasions because I, too, have my own family to mind and to attend to, until the news broke out the other day that Tito Baby succumbed to heart attack in Manila after few days in the ICU. The well-dressed and be-mustached man who gave me a toy plastic sword when I was 6 was gone but cannot be forgotten.
Thank you Tito Baby, for that magical “Excalibur” of “Education” that you gave me. This is a very potent weapon from pommel to point until now that I have drawn from the stone spelled L-I-F-E. Like the King Arthur legend, this “Excalibur” served me well and later I became a gallant king in my own right!
Just like how the legendary Excalibur taken back to the care of the Lady of the Lake, he, now in the hands of His Divine Creator, will remain in my memory forever…