Retelling my father’s lost stories

My father wanted me to write about him. My problem was: Where do I even start?

Once upon a time, when my father still flew planes, he experienced a hard landing somewhere on the West Philippine Sea. It was 1983. A confluence of elements and a bit of luck led to that — one moment, he was in the air, the next a crosswind was knocking him down and there he was, with a broken plane, in Palawan. It was no big deal; as a pilot for the Philippine Navy, maritime surveillance was part of his job, alongside personnel transport and med-evac.

So he was there in Palawan, thanking his luck while fixing his plane, when the news came over the radio: Benigno Aquino Jr., opposition senator, had just been shot while alighting from his plane at the Manila International Airport.

Dad in Paris, 1979. His caption for this photo read, “With France’s most famous landmark.” My Dad, too cool to type “Eiffel.”

I could tell that Ninoy story over and over; years working in a newspaper spawned in the midst of EDSA Revolution in ’86 meant that I had to know Ninoy’s life story—and martial law atrocities, and the timeline of the EDSA revolution—by heart. Or, at least, that’s what I want to believe, because for ten years or so, every year, my teammates and I scoured old books for untold stories for the paper’s annual remembrances around important dates: February for EDSA, August for Ninoy and September for Martial Law.

If you asked me to write something about Ninoy for Father’s Day or whatever, I would have known what to look for or which book to take out of the good ol’ Research stash.

But when my dad asked me to help him with his yearbook write-up for his Navy class, I was stumped as to where to start. How does anyone write about their father, really? Moreover, how could I not approach it like a newspaper requirement?

“So, do you want it to read like a CV, or like a featurized thing?” I asked. “How do you want to start?”

He said he wanted a summary of his three-decade service to the government, and brought me right to the start: Back to his days as air traffic controller in 1972, and how he went from tracking planes from the Iloilo Tower to flying Navy planes over Palawan and Zamboanga.

That I didn’t know much about my father comes as no surprise—I’m traditionally subservient, and I didn’t grow up asking a lot of questions.

Among my earliest memories of my dad was him coming home from a long flight and handing me a red umbrella as pasalubong. I vaguely remember my mother bringing me to the hangar and my father asking me if I still remembered him. I don’t know how these memories even exist, but they are there, as poignant as the aftershave my father wore that day.

The rest about my father, I tried to piece together on my own—his family tree, his educational background, the works. I never really got very far. I couldn’t even reconcile the whole “Navy=planes” equation up until that day he sat me down for twenty minutes to tell me about how, after the imposition of Martial Law in 1972, the Navy recruited officers in his hometown, and that’s how he got commissioned in 1975.

By the time I came along, it was already nine years later, and the Dad I grew up with was less military, more corporate government pilot. I suppose my mother had a thing or two to say to her husband who was in the military in a coup-ridden Aquino administration, because by 1988 they already had two daughters and I can only surmise about the adjustments that had to be made.

My mother passed away in 1997 — two solid decades this year, and still my father and I tiptoe around her like we’re wary of each other’s hurts.

“You should also mention I was able to build a family alongside my career,” he told me, like I were his biographer. “Mention your mom, of course.”

Of course. I wrote her in like I wrote in wives and offspring in the usual profiles I did once upon a time: “He was married to, who passed away in. He now lives with his wife, and their children.” Last paragraph, not because families are an afterthought or the least important, but because this write-up has other priorities.

“Oh, and I escaped a bombing once.”

“You WHAT?”

(2003, in Davao, when they chose to refuel instead of waiting at the pick-up area for Marco Polo, where the bomb went off.

“We heard the explosion. It was so loud. Had we been where we were supposed to be, we would have died.”)

I don’t want to think about why it is so urgent for my father to pass down these stories; he’s 72, taking maintenance meds, and is a regular at Veterans Memorial Medical Center.

He also happens to have a daughter who writes for a living; it was only a matter of time until something like this lands on my lap, anyway.

Last night, I was trawling through some old photos my father scanned to go with his write-up — yellowing, faded photos of old airplanes and bell-bottom jeans; of him and my mother side-by-side in a Navy function; of him posing with friends from Palawan, alongside other pilots, beside a plane. And yes, in front of the Eiffel Tower, which is my favorite among all my dad’s photos.

So this is what a full life looks like, I thought to myself.

I wonder how many more stories there are left to uncover.