We Didn’t Know How to Use Molotovs
We didn’t talk about Rizal that day, when Professor Apolonio Bayani Chua decided to sit down with me and talk about revolution. For a change it was going to be his history we would be discussing on that afternoon inside the second floor lounge of the faculty center.
Stirring his warm black coffee as he sat in front of me wearing brown tinted aviator glasses, hiding his small, weary looking eyes, and his silver hair wrapped in a ponytail, he told me that he had just come from a screening he organized for a PI 100 class at the main library. Normally a very private man, who would much rather talk about the poetry of Lamberto Antonio, or the mark of realism that is found in Chapter 26 of Rizal’s Noli, for this afternoon he agreed to just sit down with me and try to reminisce about the First Quarter Storm.
Back then he was a finishing AB Filipino major, a shiftee from AB Journalism who had the unfortunate timing to be graduating when the First Quarter Storm was gaining in intensity.
“Back in the 70’s” he started, “you could leave your books there and attend a rally in Mendiola that same day, and when you come back by the end of the day the books would still be there.” And indeed, he considers that time to be somewhat safer overall, despite being a time of social turmoil and uprising. There is caution in his voice though, as he thinks of what to say next it all fades to silence for a moment.
I wonder if this is some form of distrust, a knee-jerk reaction when asked by anyone what exactly he was doing in those times of forced disappearances, oppression and struggle. But there would be no judging this afternoon, only listening as he would tell me a story or two.
When I ask him of his most vivid memory of the First Quarter Storm, there would be a brief pause from him as he tries to think back, staring at the side, his gaze going beyond the solid concrete walls just beyond the walls of the faculty lounge and the faculty center and fixating on the area where the previously burned down chemistry building stands.
He remembers running, panic stricken, and frantically passing by the corner of Quirino Ave. and Velasquez St. (or by the corner of the Chemistry Building and Nismed) with his friend and author Ricardo Lee, meeting with this young—and he remembers her as being pretty too—female chemistry student handing them these gasoline filled coke bottles that had cloth wicks stuffed inside them while she would look from side to side, infected with the paranoia going around.
Sir Apo could remember just staring at the bottle.
They stumble inside the Kamia Residence Hall, a dormitory exclusively for women and find themselves holed up in a room with similarly startled girls, wondering whether there were soldiers hiding behind the foliage taking aim at the dormers through the windows. Perhaps his head was already within the crosshairs of some rifle. He could feel his grip tighten around the coke bottle.
“They didn’t tell us how exactly to use it, later on I would find out that you would light it up by the cloth end and throw it…towards whoever it was that you had to throw it at, but at that time we really didn’t know. We didn’t know how to use Molotovs”. He laughs.
Hours would pass, the sun would go down and all would be dark, save for the streetlamps creating an illusion of a road of fire leading you out of the university. The scare would eventually pass, though many more would come, and he would still safely walk home (all the way to Tondo!), passing the University Ave. and into the greater Quezon City area.
Despite the feint presence of the military around (“There was one military jeep parked around there”) and the paranoia of being suddenly taken captive by soldiers and taken to god knows where and being at best, interrogated and sent home in one piece, he would never find himself being in such a situation, he would always make it home.
His friend, who would eventually go on to write many screenplays, and finish two novels while making a third would go home passing through Krus na Ligas and evading any patrol that would be after him or anyone else, a route that professor Chua was unfamiliar with and in hindsight could have used as an alternative to the University Ave (Later on he would also discover Katipunan as another way out of the university premises, but by that time he would no longer be part of the activist scene).
Other memories would be hazy or incomplete, he would witness a math professor heatedly admonishing the students and faculty at the lobby of Palma Hall for even daring to go and disrupt the order of the university, a few days later that same professor would be involved in a shooting of a student activist, and his car turned over and smouldering by the University Ave.
Sir Apo would recall riding on a red bus bound for the US embassy, with complete strangers mixing with familiar friends and classmates bringing signs and posters laden with the anti-administration slogans of the time, and their feet stamping violently on the pavement, shouting fiery statements and singing spirited songs, something he would later comment on with “the only thing that changes would be the name of the administration on those protest signs”.
He would think back to these songs he would hear, recite to me lines he would recall word for word, written and performed by artists (including, in his recollection a young Jonas Baes who would eventually become a faculty member at the College of Music, and compose more experimental music), and repeated by union leaders, workers or other students, many of whom would never see the light of stardom shine down on them.
Or for some they would never see the light of freedom ever again.
“Activism, he said, “was, back then more spontaneous. And there was no other discourse during that time”. The culture that they had spent the most of their youth in was to be a culture of reaction towards the Marcos dictatorship. It was the immediate agenda. And it seemed like whether you were a college student, part of the faculty, or as a worker, whether you had your denims or mini skirt and go-go boots on, you would be in the throngs marching towards the palace gates, ducking into alleys to evade the constabulary or throwing molotovs at a police car.
After the dictatorship, the spontaneity had diminished, and to some degree fractured. Professor Chua openly admits to not being part of the new activism of today, and so he cannot really comment on how the face of activism stands now. But he does observe that the university activism of his time has gone “On Hiatus”.
“Nung Cory na, wala na.”
I would tell him that there are still rallies going on today, with student-activists just as fired up as they were in his heyday, but he is right to some extent, activism now lies fractured on many levels, no longer under a red banner but with as many colors and methods as one can think of. But whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen.
Sir Apo thinks though that such a trait of the new activism of today can be an advantage if taken in the right direction. Today, after all is vastly different from yesterday. The issues perhaps may remain the same, but the people or rather their social consciousness is different, and who could hope for things to remain the same anyway? In the past three decades so much has already changed at a rapid pace, and yet Sir Apo just wonders why the spectrum of culture hasn’t changed.
When I ask him if there was anything else during that time that he would remember, he simply tells me that there isn’t. There was only this one vivid memory stuck in his mind that he would never forget out of order. Like an automatic recording it would go off, the moment he realized where he was standing.
When he would walk from the faculty center to the corner of Quirino Ave. and Velasquez Street that, by turning his head to the chemistry building he would see the terror-stricken students racing past, in the periphery of his vision, the wooden school chairs piled up as a barricade along Roces Street, blocking any attempt by the constabulary or the military to enter the university, and he would see, in front of him, this curious girl reaching out, handing him a coke bottle filled with gasoline.
His coffee has already gone cold.