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Fiction #80
(published Early, 2002)
It Don't Mean a Thing: Part One
by Manuel L. Quezon III

IT must have been around May or June, 1941. My father, who was mayor of our town, danced one tango too many at the Casa Manana while he was in Manila " official business," had a heart attack, and died. I got the news a day or two later in Washington, D.C. where I was studying. About a month after that I reached home.

Settling my father's affairs didn't take very long. I was all set to go when Don Carlos, who was an old friend of my father's and the biggest landowner in the province, dropped by to talk to me. It seemed the party (you must remember this was 1941, and at that time there was only one real party, the party of the Administration) couldn't find a suitable candidate for mayor for our town. Old Tio Pidiong, my dad's vice-mayor, now acting mayor, was getting increasingly flatulent and was getting to be an embarrassment to the town. Vice-President Osme had dropped by the Presidencia (although we weren't allowed to call it that anymore, but old habits die hard) and the acting Mayor had honored Don Sergio with a nineteen fart salute, which mortified the elders and made him persona non grata to the powers that be.

Don Carlos asked me bluntly if I'd run for the mayoralty in November. He said it would be a sure thing and that I'd be doing him and the party a big favor, which he wouldn't forget, wink, wink. Not to mention the usual appeals to my conscience, patriotism, and family pride. So I accepted.

So in November of 1941 I became the mayor of the town of San Emigdio, named after the patron saint of earthquakes in an area that has never had even a tremor since people were brought under the bells when the town was established. I had an easy campaign, really. Don Carlos had his tenants write "Partido Nacionalista" over and over again for a whole month before the election. Party-list system and all, the party in power steamrolled to victory over the rag-tag opposition. Tio Pidiong was put out to pasture. We made him superintendent of the jail which allowed him the opportunity to mix business and pleasure, since he bred fighting cocks and our jail served as the local cockpit. We didn't have any crime to speak of. The occasional errant citizen might have to white-wash the jail and clean the benches and endure an atmosphere poisoned by Pidiong's emissions, but that was fine. At least his breaking wind served as a deterrent to crime.

I looked forward to being a very bored mayor presiding over a town full of characters, which suited me just fine. There was Colonel Panfilo, who was a veteran of the Revolution and father of my best friend Enriquito who was staying in Manila. The Colonel was very serious. He was the most dignified man in the province. He addressed everyone as "po," kept an autographed picture of Aguinaldo in the living room, and always referred to the General as "My President," with a pointed look toward me if I happened to be within earshot.

His arch-enemy was the parish priest, Padre Urrutia. He was a real fraile, and Augustinian Recollect who it was said had escaped from Colonel Panfilo's troops by dressing up in woman's clothes. After the Americans won he came back and took up residence again in our town. Old age and his experiences during the Revolution must have made him holy, because everyone was shocked by the restraint and sobriety of his life when he returned. His only weakness was an addiction to churros which was harmless enough. Oh, and records of Caruso.

Every morning after mass he would walk slowly from his convento and cross the plaza to the post office beside the mayor's office at about the same time that the Colonel would be leaving his doorstep (which also faced the plaza) on his way to his barber, where his old Revolutionary cronies would already be waiting for him. As they would pass by each other the old priest would lift his straw hat and bow ceremoniously toward the Colonel who would bow towards him, too. They would never say anything, though. I heard they hadn't spoken a word to each other in fifty years. But they were enemies of the old school so they remembered their manners. As soon as the priest had passed, though, he would shake his left trouser leg as though he had stepped on something. The priest, I noticed would give the hem of his habit a little shake as if he were trying to shake off dust that had clung to it. Those were the only outward signs of their antipathy.

The rest of our town's eccentrics belonged to the town band, known throughout the province, even as far as Manila. The conductor of the band was an ex-Constabulary sergeant who had managed to be sent to France along with a few other Filipino soldiers near the end of the World One. He always said with pride that he had been ten feet away from Tomas Claudio—the only Filipino who managed to spill his blood in defense of Europe and Democracy—when Claudio had his head blown off by an Imperial German shell. On his way back he had ended up in New Orleans and developed a love for jazz. When he returned to the Constabulary band Col. Loving, even though he was a Negro, couldn't stand innovations like the "Tiger Rag" which led "Ole Jimmy," as he liked to call himself, to resign in disgust. He ended up in our town and soon got everyone infected with the New Orleans Jazz bug. Like-minded musicians were drawn to him and soon we had a thriving colony of musicians who became the local celebrities.

Ole Jimmy, besides playing a mean trumpet and having the biggest collection of Louis Armstrong records this side of the Pacific, didn't limit himself musically. He kept in tune with the times, learning all the latest hits. He soon had a large following among the younger set. His band grew into a big-band orchestra. He even played in Manila. They said even Tirso Cruz, the famous big-band leader, admired him. We loved him and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" became his signature tune. His only bad habit was a weakness for old World War One soldier's songs, specially when he was drunk. Even the saintly Fr. Urrutia was said to have muttered a "puneta" or two whenever Ole Jimmy wailed "Over There" once too often on a quiet night.

We expected the war to come, but somehow we weren't all that worried about it. Enriquito would sometimes come home for a visit and show off his uniform and once he recounted how the UP. students had laughed in the face of the President when he made speech saying that the Civil Liberties Union people "should be hanged from the lamp-posts." Some other friends from Manila would drop by to tease me about my new position, while I would jokingly remind them to come to the defense of my town if the Japs invaded.

A week after the bombing of Fort Stotsenberg troops started moving through our town on the way to new positions. One group spent the night camped out on the outskirts of the town. The next morning Fr. Urrutia said mass at their camp site and blessed the troops. He looked like he was giving the benediction to crusaders. The troops marched through the town as the band played and we all gathered to watch them tramp by. The reason for all the ceremony was that Enriquito commanded the unit. He had also managed to have many of the men who enlisted from our town join his command. We were bidding farewell to many friends.

I stood beside my best friend as his troops marched past and the band played "Onward Christian Soldiers," none of us feeling the slightest bit self-conscious despite the heavy sentimentality of it all. As the soldiers passed by, one by one Ole Jimmy's musicians, already in uniform, mess kits ready, got up and joined their units. Poch, a wiry guy who played the piano like a friend got up first, followed by overweight Jake who played the tuba. A couple of violinists followed next, then a clarinet player, and so on. Soon only the old originals, too old to fight but young enough to feel the urge to do so, were left, playing "Autumn", a hymn that the band of the Titanic played as the ship sank. How fitting.

The old Colonel stood stiffly at attention by the window of his home that overlooked the plaza, watching the soldiers, watching his son. He had been furious when Enriquito took his officer's training, saying that he regretted living so long as to witness his son become an officer under the command of the enemy. This led to a falling out which meant that the few visits Enriquito had made to his home town were marked with coldness on his father's part. As Enriquito left my side to follow the last of his troops, I looked up at his father and saw him slowly salute his son. Enriquito snapped to attention and gave his father a salute, got into a staff car, and left.

The Japanese marched into our town a week after the New Year. Don Carlos, who had left our town for the safety of Manila the day after our soldiers had marched off, passed on a message from the Governor that I should make sure that everyone was instructed not to antagonize the Japanese in any way. There would apparently be a caretaker government whose instructions we were to wait for. So I hid away our American flag and put the portrait of the president in a cabinet and hoped for the best.

Our town was assigned a minute garrison of about twenty troops under the command of a Major Noguchi who, thank God, spoke English. He had been educated in London and was a cultured man: one of his first acts was to commandeer all of the priest's Caruso albums. He commandeered my house, too, so I moved in with the old Colonel. The soldiers, bivouacked at the jail, promptly massacred Tio Pidiong's fighting cocks. They wanted to keep him as a sort of valet but his malodorous characteristics rapidly put them off. The town was laughing about "Pidiong's secret weapon" for weeks.

We had very little news of what was happening elsewhere. All the news we received was Japanese propaganda. One day I arrived at the Colonel's for my siesta and found him sitting very erect, listening to the radio. It was Aguinaldo broadcasting an appeal to the troops on Bataan to surrender. After Aguinaldo spoke, he remained lost in thought and finally told me, "So, my President has spoken." He sighed, got up, and entered his room, I suspect to grieve for his son, unnoticed.

It only took a few days for Major Noguchi to learn about the town band's (no longer an orchestra since two-thirds of the musicians were at the front) reputation. He ordered a "command performance."

We gathered under the trees from which were suspended little coconut-oil lamps which provided illumination little better than that from the stars above. We all stood respectfully when the Major and some of his men arrived. We continued to stand stiffly while the band played the "Kimigayo," then we sat down. The concert began.

Jimmy and the band started playing "It Don't Mean a Thing," but before Nena, his obese wife who doubled as the vocalist for the group, could even sing the first line, Major Noguchi stood up in a fury. "Sirence!" he bellowed. Jimmy nearly swallowed his trumpet. I thought to myself, Oh boy, we've done something wrong and we're gonna get it.

"How can you pray such music!" Noguchi screamed. "We are here to riberate you from American Imperiarism and you continue to pray their firthy music! No! Pray Firipino music, instantry!" He sat down with a clatter from his samurai sword and glared at the band while Jimmy had a hurried conference with his nearly prostate wife. Mopping his forehead with a handkerchief he made several bows towards the Major, turned around, nodded at her, and he began to play. Nena who looked like she was in danger of popping a blood vessel or two began warbling "Maalala Mo Kaya," eyes switching between her perspiring husband and the Major. None of us breathed normally until the Major began to nod his head. When he clapped his hands at the end of the song we applauded with him lustily, we were so relieved.

Ole Jimmy and his wife were the ones who suffered most during the occupation. The Major developed a taste for having the band serenade him with German and Japanese marching songs while he ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Visiting officers developed the habit of dropping by our town to enjoy impromptu concerts organized by Noguchi. Months before the rest of us started to lose weight due to the scarcity of food, Ole Jimmy already looked like a wraith. As for poor Nena an unvarying diet of traditional songs ("I would say I'd vomit if I have to sing anything with the word "irog" in it again," she whispered to me once between clenched teeth, "but I know until MacArthur comes back I have no choice") led to the reappearance of all sorts of curves that even her husband probably never saw before.

1942 came and went. The picture of Jorge Vargas that I had hung up in my office was replaced with Laurel's. We were allowed to sing our national anthem again as well as fly our flag. Bataan and Corregidor had long since fallen, we had heard about the death march, but no one came back. I got news that the Governor was under virtual house arrest and that Don Carlos had joined the puppet National Assembly. We even heard rumors that some of our townmates had joined the guerrillas. They were in hiding in the mountains.

We didn't know if this was true. If they had become guerrillas they were the most inactive guerrillas in the archipelago. Life went on, the Japanese grew fat as we grew progressively thinner, and secretly in our hearts we gave up hope for the missing and buried them in our memories. We became very adept at bowing. We got used to things. Ole Jimmy increased his meager repertoire of kundimans. He even made a beautiful arrangement for an old revolutionary song that the Colonel dug excavated from one of his old bauls. It was also a kundiman, titled "Joselynang Baliwag." The old prune-faced clique of the Colonel loved it. Whenever he would play "Maala Mo Kaya" with his wife singing along, they would look at us and their eyes would tell us, "Yes, can you remember?" and we would remember the good old days of "peacetime" That was as far as our heroic resistance to the Nipponese went.

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The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #81):

It Don't Mean a Thing: Part Two
by Manuel L. Quezon III

The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #79 thru #75):

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The Dream of Maxen Welig
translation by Lady Charlotte Guest

The Story of the Good Little Boy
by Mark Twain

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