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Fiction #81
(published Early, 2002)
It Don't Mean a Thing: Part Two
by Manuel L. Quezon III

Around May, 1944, we finally heard from the up-to-then apocryphal guerrillas. Tio Pidiong who had nothing better to do than figure out novel substitutes for toilet paper had been gathering some leaves in the forest whose absorbent qualities he claimed were "far superior" to that of any other of the local flora when he heard a "psst" from the bushes which led to his losing whatever vestigial control he retained over both his bladder and bowels. It turned out that a scout wanted to establish contact. He passed along a note which Pidiong memorized. Pidiong then used the note to clean up his soiled trousers. I don't think anyone could have found a more fool-proof way for disposing of incriminating papers! Eventually the guerrillas began writing their notes on leaves which he carried around openly, for besides obtaining a new lease on life as a courier, Pidiong had cornered the market in toilet leaves.

My best friend had become the chief of a small group of guerrillas who had been busy spying on the Japanese all over the province. They hadn't bothered to mount a raid on our town since the Japanese garrison was so small, as well as to avoid there being reprisals against their loved ones. Enriquito let us know he was all right and that "Uncle Sam was coming back soon."

The news spread faster than a flu epidemic. I have to hand it to my town mates, though, no one spilled the beans. But, Colonel walked ramrod straight again, the priest mumbled his prayers less, even Ole Jimmy let an occasional swing-like flourish intrude into his staid arrangements and I must confess I checked on the condition of that long-buried American flag. By mid-August we started getting the occasional chocolate bar wrapped in red-white-and-blue wrappers with "I shall return" printed on them. Then we started getting matches, cigarettes and real news.

Noguchi acted as if he and his fellow sons of heaven had nothing to fear. The daily serenades continued, he continued to grow corpulent. He started the new habit of dropping in people's homes for dinner (at least he brought his own supply of victuals so the host family had a decent meal). He tried striking up conversations. He made an effort to be pleasant. This habit continued for a couple of weeks until the night he had dinner at the Maigupos (they were the formerly rotund parents of the overweight tuba player, Jake). Jake's only sister, still a little girl of about seven, caught the Major's attention.

"Harro, ritter gir-uh," the Major said, grinning from ear to ear. "You are verry pretty. What is your name?"

"Susana," she replied, scowling.

"Ah, so! Verry good name," chortled Noguchi. "You must be a verry crever gir-uh. Do you pray the piano?" He asked, looking at the piano in the sala.

"No, but I can sing," Susana replied, looking at her mother. Mrs. Maigupo laughed nervously, looked at her husband, smiled at the Major and said, "Susana, hija, why don't you excuse yourself from the nice Major and go see if the Major's nice aides don't want to join us?"

"No, ha-ha, it's aright," said the major, waving toward the vicinity of the silong where his guards were sitting. "They've eaten aready. Tell me, Susana—it's Susana, right? What can you sing?"

"Actually I only know how to sing one song," Susana replied quietly.

"And I'm sure you don't want to hear our little girl sing, Major," Mr. Maigupo said, chewing his lip.

"No, no, I would rike to hear her. I have also a ritter daughter in Hokkaido," insisted the Major good-humordly.

"But really, Major, don't you want to eat? Your chicken might get cold," insisted Susana's mother as the little girl began to look sick.

Noguchi gave them a cold look. "She wir sing. Then we eat. Ritter girr-uh, you sing, now!"

Poor Susana looked at her mother and father, shut her eyes, and began to sing "God Bless America."

The amazing thing was that the poor family wasn't shot on the spot. Instead, Noguchi growled, muttered something in guttural Japanese, got up and stomped out of the house, bewildered bodyguards in tow. He didn't leave his (actually my) house after that. The daily serenades were stopped. Everyone, including the garrison, crept about fearfully, wondering when Noguchi would unleash his wrath on us all. But all we heard day after day, night after night, was the scratchy sound of Caruso singing "Nessun Dorme" over and over again.

Then came September, then it was October. There were a lot of troop movements. Truck after truck full Japanese soldiers passed through our town, headed for points in all directions. The garrison was seen to be cleaning their weapons more thoroughly than usual. Formerly benign sentries started getting into the slapping habit again. Fr. Urrutia was instructed not to ring the bells anymore. Enriquito sent word that the Americans were back.

I continued to be a purely titular Mayor. There wasn't anything for me to do. Occasionally during anniversaries like the Emperor's birthday or the anniversary of the Puppet Republic's inauguration I'd have to address the townsfolk at the plaza and wave a little Japanese flag. But I had it easy compared to many of my colleagues in other town in other provinces. There were no Constabulary patrols sent to "persuade" guerrillas to surrender. Not a single Kempeitai officer honored us with a visit. All we did was plant vegetables and gossip in whispers. We started to miss listening to the poor band grind out fascist marching songs. The musicians wisely made themselves scarce.

Shortly before the onset of 1945 a couple of Imperial Navy officers in battle dress drove into town in a camouflaged Packard. Noguchi issued an order that there would be a concert. The first one in months. Everyone had to attend. We congregated in the plaza as night fell. The headlights of the officer's car were used as floodlights to illuminiate the stage. Ole Jimmy and Nena (thanks to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, now quite svelte indeed) stood on the improvised stage. He played a short, mournful trumpet solo, then she sang "Maalala Mo Kaya."

The whole town, there in full force, was hushed, silent. The air was already quite cool, but there wasn't even a breeze. We sat practically in total darkness. Only Jimmy and Nena could be seen under the harsh glare of the headlights. You couldn't see the other musicians very well, they were behind the little stage. The only light came from the glowing tips of the Japanese's cigarettes as they chainsmoked. No one seemed to breath, or cough. Nena sang the last stanza of the song, accompanied only by her husband and his mournful trumpet. The song ended. Jimmy wiped the mouthpiece of his trumped and nodded toward the guitarist. Nena began to sing "Joselynang Baliwag".

As the last note faded away the old trumpet-player and his wife look at each other, then at all of us in the audience. I think I saw tears in their eyes, but I can't be sure, for we were all crying. Even the officers looked sad. Perhaps they knew their time was up.

You see, the following day American aircraft flew overhead for the first time. They even dropped leaflets that said "The day of your liberation is near." The leaflets informed us that our province would be overrun soon as the Americans began their big push towards Manila. Without anyone telling them to, everyone flocked to the Church. The women knelt, praying the rosary. The men sat in the back and gave each other sly smiles. Even the Colonel, a staunch Mason, made an appearance at Church with his aged compatriots. They all knelt to (as the Colonel put it) "meditate in solidarity" with us.

Later that afternoon Japanese troops started passing through our town, headed away from what we presumed was the location of the American forces. The sentries disappeared; someone whispered that they had packed up and were preparing to evacuate. This is it, I thought. Noguchi's getting ready to scram. We asked Tio Pidiong if the guerrillas weren't going to strike, finally. The time was ripe. He shook his head. He didnŐt know, and he shuffled off in anticipation of his unreliable bowels not being able to take all the excitement.

Night fell, the activity continued at Noguchi's. After dinner we could hear (but not see-the windows were all closed) loud talking. The Japs were getting drunk. Over their loud banter we could hear the priest's Caruso records being played over, and over again. Ole Jimmy visited me at the Colonel's. "Why isn't that friend of yours doing something?" He spat. "If I was a guerrilla chief I'd come in now and slit their throats." The Colonel cleared his throat. "No sense in putting the town in danger," he said gravely. "But I can't stand the tension!" complained Ole Jimmy. "Bueno," replied Colonel Panfilo. "I see our Japanese guests are drinking, so why don't we?" He gave us a naughty wink, disappeared into his room, and came out with two dusty bottles of brandy. He filled our glasses and offered a toast. "To Victory, Gentlemen."

The last thing I recalled was Ole Jimmy singing "Ober Der! Ober Der!" I must have passed out. The next morning I was awakened by someone who was shouting "They're here! They're here! I can hear vehicles coming!" We all got up and peeped out the window.

The plaza looked deserted, but if you looked hard you could see that everyone was hiding in their homes, risking an occasional furtive peep every so often. I could hear something like very loud trucks approaching. The sound got nearer and nearer. Then I heard Ole Jimmy gasp. "Geddemit!" he shouted. "It's a geddemed tank! An American tank!" And sure enough a olive green tank trundled into the middle of the plaza, accompanied by a couple of halftracks.

We all started cheering. Windows opened. Women screamed, grown men hugged each other, children jumped around, Ole Jimmy started singing "Ober Der." Even the old Colonel slapped his thigh in delight. In about a minute we had all rushed down and surrounded the American vehicles. Ole Jimmy was joined by his wife an they began to sing "God Bless America." We felt so patriotic.

I had just introduced myself to a young blond Lieutenant when Tio Pidiong came up to me and started shouting into my ear that the priest had to talk to me urgently. Then a shot rang out. Everyone—even the Americans—hit the dust. "What in the hell?" blurted out the lieutenant. "Mister Mayor, are there enemy forces in this here town?" "I don't know sir," I answered. The American ordered us to clear the plaza. Another shot rang out. Then another—they were coming from the convento!

"Lieutenant, the shots are coming from that building over there," I said helpfully as the other civilians scurried to safety. "That's what I wanted to tell you, cono!" came a voice from somewhere under one of the halftracks. It was the priest. "Those sinverquenzas took over my house and that hijo de puta Noguchi has a towel around his head and he says he's going to make a last stand. In my house!" One of the soldiers retrieved the irate Spaniard from under their vehicle and dumped him where he would be safer.

"Shit," cursed the Lieutenant. "Sorry Padre, but we're gonna have to blast those Nips to kingdom come." He sounded exactly like John Wayne, although I wouldn't see any of his movies until long after Liberation. I suggested to the officer that instead of shooting at the convento at point-blank range with the tank's cannon they should rake it with small arms-fire. "OK," he agreed.

The soldiers started peppering the house with bullets. The Japanese couldn't shoot back. A solemn delegation led by the Colonel approached. "Senor," intoned the Colonel. "I would like the honor of firing a shot in defense of my town. I am a veteran." The bemused American handed Col. Panfilo his rifle. The old man lifted up the rifle, took careful aim, fired a shot. His old gang croaked in admiration. Making a slight bow toward the American, he whispered "Thank you," then handed the rifle to his fellow veterans who started taking turns taking pot-shots at the convente. They all broke into gummy smiles when they heard the friar exclaim "Good! That's it, boys!"

Soon all the able-bodied men had joined us. They asked the Americans for rifles. Their womenfolk cheered everytime a shot rang out. A G. I. suggested that they storm the place. With a whoop the men ran into the building. We could hear them shooting inside. A grenade exploded. Then, silence. The G.I.s looked grim. A little brown head poked out of one of the side windows-an old veteran! "We've won!" he cried, as his shout was taken up by everyone in and around the plaza, "Victory!" The officer grinned. "Congratulations. From the look of it I guess I'd better confirm your appointment as Mayor," he said to me. I shook his hand.

Noguchi and three men, it turned out, had elected to make a last stand. The others had fled. When we went upstairs to look at their bodies we saw empty bottles of mass wine and brandy. Half-smoked special cigarettes from the Emperor littered the floor. Two soldiers had been shot to death. Noguchi had blown himself up with a grenade. Disgusting. The priest's room was a wreck. Urrutia said that it was worth it, since his albums had survived "miraculously."

As we were collecting the corpses we heard a funny thumping sound outside, accompanied by—was it a trumpet? We looked out the window and saw the most glorious sight.

Ole Jimmy was marching towards the convento with his band, strewing sheet music right and left—the scores of those hateful marches. They were playing jazz! People started clapping as the band broke into a ragtime version of "When The Saints Go Marching In." They stopped under the window. Ole Jimmy called up, "Hey you guys! Get those bodies down here. We're goint to give those bastards a real New Orleans Jazz funeral!" Let me tell you, he sure did. We paraded those corpses around town, the band belting out half-forgotten tunes and a couple more they made up. Fr. Urrutia rang the bells. It was probably the only New Orleans-style funeral in Philippine history.

That night the guerrillas arrived. They had taken part in the liberation of the Provincial Capitol. Everyone was reunited. The Colonel embraced his son, the Maigupos marveled at their sons muscles, the orchestra was reunited.

We had a victory concert. For the first time since '41 we had a fully-illuminated stage, courtesy of the US. Army. The orchestra played and played. The Lieutenanteven sang a duet with Nena. When Ole Jimmy stood beside his wife, and she began to sing "It Don't Mean A Thing (If Ain't Got That Swing)." We went crazy. We were free.

Much later when the weary orchestra was playing Glenn Miller tunes, as the reunited couples danced slowly, I left the party and went for a walk. I decided to take possession of my old home. When I got there I couldn't quite gather up the guts to walk in. I sat down on the front steps and had a smoke. The sky was clear, the moon was full, a slight breeze blew. A crumpled sheet of paper rolled by. I picked it up idly. I unfolded it. It was a sheet of music "Maalala Mo Kaya." I smiled, crumpled it up again, and threw it away.

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