Notes from a General’s Daughter

There is a film called “The General’s Daughter,” which I thought summarized my often strained relationship with my father, sans the rape story, the murder, the military cover-up and John Travolta.

No doubt, I’ve always given him cause for exasperation, engaging in hyper-emotional (on my part) debates about the merits of communism, habitually picking unsatisfactory boyfriends, down to smoking “secretly” in the bathroom, the ventilation fan failing to dissipate the smell of burned tobacco.

But unlike the harsh and unforgiving Lt. Gen. Joseph Campbell in the movie, my dad has always tolerated me, and over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the value of his lessons (“Less think, more feel, hija, feeeeel), his insistence on denying us safety nets so we could learn to stand on our own (My brother, after being involved in a traffic altercation once, called our dad expecting some advice, but was met with a stony, “Well, figure it out”) and what I believe to be his clean rise through the ranks, marked by our  austere, though comfortable, lifestyle compared to the affluent families of the top brass.

Philippine Military Academy (PMA) homecoming 2010, the year my dad’s class celebrated 30 years in the service. The gray material of plebes’ uniforms is wool, a cruel choice when you have to do drills under the hot sun.

It would be a bit inexact, then, to say his was a rags-to-riches story — because we are adamantly middle-class — but I guess that sentiment fits.

He was the son of a farmer and a dressmaker, one of numerous children (I have failed to keep track of how many aunts and uncles I have). He had to walk barefoot to school, often did not have enough to eat, had to work the fields on top of trying to maintain his valedictorian status, and, with his friends, was chased away by a rich landlord who detested the children’s malodorous sweat as they stole ganders at his television through slats in the living room.

He once told me he’d had to sleep on a ruler in military school to correct some spinal disfiguration from years of back-breaking farmwork.

My father ended up joining the service by accident. Already on his way to becoming a chemical engineer, he tagged along with a friend to PMA tryouts. My dad passed; the friend failed.

Several years of obsessive shoe-shining, a brief scandal involving a classmate dying from a shot-put dropped on the stomach from standard hazing (a hot-button issue in all macho institutions, from fraternities to police academies) while my dad was on sentry duty, and then marrying a sexy woman under a canopy of silver sabers later, my father became an officer.

My dad (far left), then a lieutenant colonel, at a press conference with the vice-commander of the Southern Command in restive Mindanao. Behind them is a captured leader of the rebel group Abu Sayyaf. Mindanao wants autonomy from the grip and abuse of Imperial Manila. Photo: Armed Forces of the Philippines

As any military brat will attest, my childhood seemed set to the soundtrack of brass bands, splashed with camouflage, endless salutes and viewed with some circumspection by friends who always assumed I was raised with iron-fisted discipline. This is far from the truth — in fact, it was my father who would throw away my notebooks while I crammed for an exam, ordering me to relax and watch television (one of many drills meant to mellow me out) — though I think he is the exception to the rule.

Dad chose a path far from combat, though we always worried about him. I remember him best as the SouthCom spokesman, a job that helped him get chummy with the media, and which subtly inspired me to be on the other side of the fence, tape recorder aimed at my target. I sat next to a map of our country in sophomore year of high school, taking note my dad was at that moment living and breathing in Zamboanga, the tip of a penis-shaped peninsula in the southernmost Philippines.

Dad pointing out either the site of a helicopter crash or armed encounter. Among his other notable assignments are peacekeeping missions in East Timor,  procuring bullets for the army in Serbia and Cape Town, and being a starry-eyed tourist in Europe. Photo from Times Union.

There is pomp, ceremony and stringent hierarchy — even coded language like in secret societies — the familiarity of which awarded me the insider’s knowledge to cover, more than 20 years later as a cub reporter, the Armed Forces of the Philippines with ease and facility. (This was a beat I relished, but its run had to end at some point due to the prospect of conflict of interest.)

That was two years ago. This week, I returned into the fold a duller instrument, with just vague ideas of “military reform” and memories of sitting in front of our pepper-haired former Secretary of Defense. I was now completely out of touch with the (crumbling?) state of the military — but nonetheless excited to see my father finally awarded his first star.

A photo from my brother, captioned “The general and his commanding officer on the way to Malacanang [the presidential palace].”

My mission, according to my mother, was to wake up at 3am for make-up, wiggle into a yellow Filipiniana dress, an embroidered, thoroughly unflattering contraption I had trouble coming to terms with both for its itchiness and the presumption of modesty that came with it.

And for the rest of the day — for a total of 12 hours — it was a stream of bus rides to and from various military headquarters and the President’s official residence, for intricately choreographed ceremonies such as oath-takings and gun salutes — interspersed with cocktails and one sit-down meal.

Our president, Noynoy Aquino, strode into the gilded hall, rosette domes crusted with chandeliers overhead, took the microphone and, without pleasantries, read the standard oaths. This was followed by a rapid-fire assembly line of handshakes, with each family allowed a five-second photo-op with Aquino, him briskly shaking hands with each member of each family.

I contemplated asking him something, perhaps about the South China Sea dispute, or whispering “I miss youhhh” just to weird him out. But the turnover was too quick, and just as hurriedly as he’d come, Aquino left the room, leaving us with the impression he had more pressing matters to attend to. (A policy to finagle, perhaps. Maybe a hot date with a Korean radio jock or a new video game?)

This is a food blog, after all. Malacanang finger food, including one of the best empanadas I have ever tried. Photo by my brother.
A blurry photo of a photo of our brief meeting with the president. At the far left is SecDef Voltaire Gazmin, whom I had failed to notice standing there, and whom I had once described in an article as “Noynoy’s nanny.”

In speeches, some of the higher-ranking generals invoked the standard buzzwords: reform, modernization, courage, service — ebullient concepts disparate from the military’s tortured history and conflicted roles. (state apparatus or defender of the people? Meddle in politics or remain neutral at all costs?)

Someday I would like to sit down with my father — when he is retired, further baked by rounds of golf (the sport of choice for lawyers, politicians and military officers) and far removed from the armed forces — and ask him how he really views the AFP and its role in society. But for the moment, I was watching him march to the brass-band tune of “Leron, Leron Sinta,” a children’s song about a boy climbing a tree to snag some fruit but causing the branch to snap.

Dad in the middle. They are wearing the “white duck” uniform, which I feel has nautical origins.

In nominal terms, becoming a brigadier general doesn’t do anything drastic to your payscale, but it does earn you more clout, and I guess is affirmation of your talents and abilities. As a milestone in our lives, the only concrete change his promotion has caused so far is to cause my mom added stress, worrying about whether she should change her wardrobe for what has suddenly turned into a busy social calendar.

I’m not sure if the daughter gets any perks, either. I suppose people expect me to have extra bodyguards, shuttle services in armored cars or, I don’t know, a sparkly tiara to mark out my dad’s new station in life. But I can’t see any other benefit besides a feeling of pride at his accomplishment; particularly how far he’s come from that starved, impoverished background. (I doubt that little bare-footed boy imagined this future.)

Even now, however, I was still earning some chides from him, such as when I’d give him the thumbs-up when I’d catch him looking (as usual) quite pensive, and he’d respond with something puzzling like, “Focus on substance.”

I try to think of all the times my Dad and I (even my brother Nico and him) made a battlefield of our clashing ideologies, our pained requests for a little more latitude (for me, to date far-too-young boys) or our similarly stubborn temperaments. I’ve definitely had misfires, he’s scored some victories in our mini-wars, but then at the end of the day, we’re unquestionably on the same side.

Having a military man for a father comes with its challenges (I had trouble reconciling this with the Marxist-Leninist lessons in college, for instance), its nauseas (try taking that winding highway to the Philippine Military Academy when you’re four years old and prone to motion sickness) and, yeah, its perks (who’s got the top-secret document now?).

But no matter what happens, he always deserves our salute.


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