Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Being Henry

Dreams are where living and dead friends meet.
--William the Henry

This is a story involving events before I retired from People's Tonight in 2004. I am no longer connected in any way to the paper, which has now passed on to a small-minded and malignant entity, or to the firm which owns it.

Ody: Friend and mentor
Photo courtesy of Noelle Fabian
I don’t know why, but one night I dreamed of my friend Ody Fabian, who died of a heart attack in 2005. He was 47, and I was about to turn 50.

I noticed that in dreams people you love – my parents, Ody and his wife Beth -- live on: they talk, they interact in scenes scripted by slumber. Those scenes existed in my mind, somatic if not strictly real; that dream is now part of this warped universe.

Ody was a journalist in the faithful sense of the term – alert, not corrupt, temperamental but innately kind, intelligent, grammatical, raw and somewhat rough in manner. Highbrows less intelligent might call Ody and people like me lowlifes.

Indeed, we are misfits in polite society: our hair, if not shaved off, is as unkempt as our manners are coarse. We smoke, we drink, we gamble everything away, even our lives. Ody died; I survived two heart attacks and an aneurysm. I am a dead man still making observations on life, now with a better perspective on its priorities. I'm serious, I'm fun. A specter straddling two lives.

When Ody brought me to Manila to work as a correspondent for People’s Tonight, he gave me my penname Henry. I used it as a journalist and I use it now in ebay. Insiders and friends at People’s Tonight called me William, the name recommended by the midwife to my parents when I was born.

I had second thought about being “Henry” at first. I considered Henry a wimpy name, but I did not want to contradict one of the three real friends I will have in this life (a fact which I would realize years later). Ody obviously thought the spoofs I had been writing for The Voice, the Pampanga tabloid he was managing then, are as lighthearted-funny as O. Henry pieces. O. Henry, by the way, is the penname used by William Sydney Porter.

At that time, I had improved my reading level and consigned O. Henry to a position just a notch above timewasters like Robbins, Ludlum, Sheldon, Wallace, Christie and others. I would have preferred the “Henry” in H.L. Mencken, one of my lifetime mentors in reading, thinking, and writing.

After two months on the beat for Tonight, I was promoted to copy editor. Personnel asked me for papers to formalize my inclusion in the firm as a regular employee. To make a long story short, I got, with assistance from a veteran and wily Tonight reporter, the required police and NBI permits, medical certificate, and even a new SSS ID, all under Henry. So I had Henry IDs to replace the William entity. A new name to shed an obsolete life. The year was 1994, five years before my first myocardial infarction.

When Boss Fred, our Managing Editor, sent my promotion papers to Personnel I asked him what name he had submitted for promotion. “William, of course,” he said, his eyebrow a question mark. I need not have worried: after two months I knew almost all the employees in the building; I even shared beers with the guards during Yuletide and Lenten holidays. Any document bearing the William name would be automatically converted to Henry in any Journal department. I was Henry legally, William personally.

Ody has gone before me, but I have retained the Henry part of my life. My email address is triggered by Henry; I get and pay my ebay remittances through my Henry registration, but my username in Facebook is William. I answer reflexively to both names, although I will certainly be surprised, and irritated, if a close acquaintance or relative addresses me as Henry. William is connective, Henry a fence, Willy a rare endearment.

Boss Fred, Ody Fabian, Franklin Cabaluna have all closed their earthly accounts. A stroke in 2004 forced my retirement from the tabloid, surviving to see how sordid and petty all things still are, to see ex-friends vainly fight for positions and perks which they think will not end.

What brought this on? In the wee hours of this morning, I turned on the TV and chanced upon the tail-end of the 1973 Best Picture The Sting, where in the closing scene a woman embraced Paul Newman and said, “Oh, Henry!” Through the years I still think conman Henry Gondorff is cool. A lowlife, but cool -- like a journalist.

Then my mind meandered to Band of Brothers, which in another channel this morning was keeping company with insomniacs like me. In Henry V, William Shakespeare wrote: 

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…”

Elegant characters crafted by great artists bearing my name and alias. I can live happily with that. Call me William the Henry.


Ahoy! Ahoy! Look what I found: one of the articles in Mencken's Damn! A Book of Calumny. I print it in full.
A Mencken biography


Why doesn't some patient drudge of a privat dozent compile a dictionary of the stable-names of the great? All show dogs and race horses, as everyone knows, have stable-names. On the list of entries a fast mare may appear as Czarina Ogla Fedorovna, but in the stable she is not that at all, nor even Czarina or Olga, but maybe Lil or Jennie. And a prize bulldog, Champion Zoroaster or Charlemagne XI. on the bench, may be plain Jack or Ponto en famille. So with celebrities of the genus homo. Huxley's official style and appellation was "The Right Hon. Thomas Henry Huxley, P. C., M. D., Ph. D., LL. D., D. C. L., D. Sc., F. R. S.," and his biographer tells us that he delighted in its rolling grandeur—but to his wife he was always Hal. Shakespeare, to his fellows of his Bankside, was Will, and perhaps Willie to Ann Hathaway. The Kaiser is another Willie: the late Czar so addressed him in their famous exchange of telegrams. The Czar himself was Nicky in those days, and no doubt remains Nicky to his intimates today. Edgar Allan Poe was always Eddie to his wife, and Mark Twain was always Youth to his. P. T. Barnum's stable-name was Taylor, his middle name; Charles Lamb's was Guy; Nietzsche's was Fritz; Whistler's was Jimmie; the late King Edward's was Bertie; Grover Cleveland's was Steve; J. Pierpont Morgan's was Jack; Dr. Wilson's is Tom.

Some given names are surrounded by a whole flotilla of stable-names. Henry, for example, is softened variously into Harry, Hen, Hank, Hal, Henny, Enery, On'ry and Heinie. Which did Ann Boleyn use when she cooed into the suspicious ear of Henry VIII.? To which did Henrik Ibsen answer at the domestic hearth? It is difficult to imagine his wife calling him Henrik: the name is harsh, clumsy, razor-edged. But did she make it Hen or Rik, or neither? What was Bismarck to the F├╝rstin, and to the mother he so vastly feared? Ottchen? Somehow it seems impossible. What was Grant to his wife? Surely not Ulysses! And Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? And Rutherford B. Hayes? Was Robert Browning ever Bob? Was John Wesley ever Jack? Was Emmanuel Swendenborg ever Manny? Was Tadeusz Kosciusko ever Teddy?

A fair field of inquiry invites. Let some laborious assistant professor explore and chart it. There will be more of human nature in his report than in all the novels ever written.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Deaths in the countrysides

The bird

One morning, in a small hut in a small farm in the countryside, a boy was dreaming of the glory of war he had seen in a film -- particularly of the scenes, in black and white, where the good guys shot the bad guys. Then a noise outside roused him from his reverie.

The noise was caused by a branch heavy with coconuts cracking and crashing to the ground. As the boy went out to clear the debris, he saw among the coconuts the scattered straws of a nest, three bird eggs, their shells cracked open by the fall, and one baby bird thrown off its shattered shell.

The baby bird had its mouth open in the silent scream of one who had been born too soon, its eyes still closed, to a world to which it arrived unprepared. The soft, tiny flesh, nestled in the boy’s small hand, quivered.

The boy gently touched the wide-open mouth with his little finger, and small feeble beaks softly closed upon it. It didn’t hurt, but somewhere deep inside, the boy felt a spark of pain.

“Are you hungry?” the boy thought. The eyes remained closed, the mouth was still open – trusting, waiting. Then the boy realized the bird was dying.

"Where is your mother!” It was the boy’s silent scream. “She doesn’t know…”

Quickly he wet a little finger in a small tin of water and gently let a drop into the bird’s mouth.

“Live!” he whispered. “Live…”

With a fingernail he cut a sliver from a grain of rice and turned to feed the pulse of life in his palm. Then he realized it was too late.

He plucked a leaf and covered the lifeless body. He left it under a mango tree just starting to grow, its parted seed still clinging on to the stem that served as its trunk.

The boy turned his back, his eyes stinging with tears of indignation. He knew that along with the bird, he had lost something valuable.

The man

One afternoon, a burly man crouched behind a boulder in front of a hut in a farm in Tucaan Balaag, Davao del Norte. His companions had already spread out, their camouflaged uniforms blending with the bushes and trees nearby. Their M-16s were pointed at the hut.

Inside the hut nested four rebels -- one pregnant woman and three men -- who had just come in from the rain the night before. They left their wet clothes and shoes outside to dry, a mistake that would cost them dearly.

Unknown to them, a comrade they had sent to get some supplies in the poblacion was caught by the military. He was “persuaded” to lead the soldiers to the hut. The rebels’ clothes and shoes outside the hut betrayed their presence.

The soldiers opened fire.

Inside the house, the rebels took cover and assumed battle positions. Their commanding officer stood by the door and shot it out with his AK-47.

After the shooting stopped, the bodies of the CO and one other rebel lay dead amidst the scattered debris in the hut. Barrio folks carried the corpses to Tagum town.

The pregnant woman and the other guerrilla were wounded but alive. They were taken outside: they huddled under a coconut tree while the soldiers deliberated on what to do with them.

They decided not to bring anyone back alive.

The woman was shot first, her body with her unborn child was left under a coconut tree.

The remaining guerrilla was led to a nearby tree; the burly man shoved a .45 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet shattered the back of the rebel’s skull and, exiting, scarred the trunk of the mango tree that was just bearing fruit.

“He was a sparrow, you know,” one of the soldiers told the executioner.

The burly man merely turned his back and walked toward the hut.

That night, in another hut in a farm in the countryside, a man thought about the gory war, where the red blood flowed when the good guys shot the bad guys.

“I shot the bad guy,” he told himself, “but I don’t feel much like a good guy.”

But he was not thinking of the dead sparrow at all. In fact, nothing much had moved him since that day a long, long time ago, when he was a boy, when he saw a little bird die.

It was a bitter lesson he had learned that day. He knew that when he gained the wisdom of the world, he lost his innocence.

Eman Lacaba, poet, activist, and rebel,
was killed in Tagum in March 1976

Note on the story: This is a blend of facts and fiction. Part 1 really happened: I was the boy. In Part 2, the burly man who shot Eman was a creation of my mind. The real executioner was a captured comrade of Eman, who was given a gun by their captors and forced to shoot him. The encounter and other details are factual. For what really happened to Eman and other details, go to, where I got his image.

Image of bird I snitched from a Beatles photo, which I retouched.