Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Tribute to Lyndon B.

Bor, I didn't get up to speak at your memorial service because I didn't think I could do you justice with an impromptu eulogy and so little time. This is my tribute to you.

On Sunday, October 25, 2015, I stepped out into the crisp, cool fall morning air as the cloudless Illinois night sky above slowly faded from black to a deep dark blue. The storm clouds that had set a fitting mood for the events of the previous days had all cleared out, as if the stories we had shared with each other into the early morning hours had also been a catharsis for the weather, ridding it of the vestiges of the gigantic hurricane that made its effects felt across an entire continent. Fitting indeed.

The breaking dawn was just starting to bleed vibrant hues of red and orange along the ragged horizon of the Chicago suburbs. As I looked up to the east, Venus, Jupiter, and Mars shone brightly as they converged in an area on the ecliptic that I could cover with my thumb held out at arm's length. To the south, Orion was still clearly visible, as if steadfastly standing guard to ensure that the three deities could complete their celestial rendezvous undisturbed. The ephemeral image that only heavenly hands could draw stirred up long-dormant memories of warmer daybreaks in the distant past. 

The Batang Gate 3 scavenger hunts, dubbed “Midnight Madness,” always culminated with the winners buying bags of hot pan de sal for the rest of the gang. Our Midnight Madness runs, inspired by a movie of the same title, were the brainchild of Tony Utzurrum and, I’m pretty sure, Berlyn, as Lyndon liked to call himself in those days. Those days were way back in 1981, when Gate #3 of Silliman University was our little enclave, where the "bad boys" of SUHS Batch '81 met to smoke, drink, ogle girls, intimidate passers-by, and just istambay, the Visayanized word for "stand by," or basically, hang out.

Lyndon Bernardez and Tony Utzurrum were neighbors, their houses straddling either side of Gate 3, one of the main points of entry into the SU campus west of Hibbard Avenue. Tony's house was on the inside of the gate and Lyndon's house was on the outside. Both houses were Silliman property and were used by faculty and staff of the university, which their parents were.

Tony's house was a smaller, more modern bungalow made of concrete. Lyndon's was a bigger, older, two-story house constructed mostly of wood. It was really a bungalow raised on stilts, with the lower level just a storage area with a dirt floor that was fenced off from the outside by bamboo lattice painted white. There was a big door facing the road that swung out so you could drive a car through it and park under the house, out of the elements. There was no car to park there though, so it was just a dimly-lit, dusty space where we would hide and do things we didn't necessarily want to be seen doing out in the open. (Note: The only image I was able to find of a house that was similar to the one that Lyndon lived in was one of the old Rowland house. Lyndon's house was very similar to it although the upper level was painted a dark brown, as I recall.)

Google Streetview shows that those houses are no more, with new buildings standing in their places. The old Gate 3 appears to be gone, a new iron gate erected and positioned closer to Hibbard Avenue. It even has mini portals that are the trademark of Silliman University entry ways. By contrast, the Gate 3 in our time was a rickety old wooden frame, about seven feet high, with either chain link or big four-inch wire mesh nailed over it. It remained open most of the time because it was old and hung poorly so you had to drag its heavy mass across the asphalt road to close it. I remember it had a rusty old chain and lock wrapped around one of posts, in case the security guards did decide to make the effort to shut down that access point.

It looks like there's a new guard house there, too. This one is about four times bigger than the old, ramshackle little plywood shed that the Gate 3 boys would often man. It's on the opposite side of the road leading into the campus from where the old one was. The former structures long demolished since I don't know when, they are now relegated to the memories of those who made that Acacia-shaded corner of our alma mater their stomping grounds so many years ago.

Lyndon was the youngest of four brothers. They had sisters, too, but back then I didn't know exactly how many there were. I just knew that he had at least two older sisters. His older brothers were Tani, Abra, and Evic, in that order. I only knew them by those names. The older brothers and their friends hung out at Lyndon's house so naturally, Lyndon and his friends hung out there, too. I don't remember exactly how I came to be part of their group but towards the end of my senior year in high school, in the summer of '81, I was hanging out with them regularly.

It was probably through my friendship with Tony U that I got sucked into this group of bugoys, or "bad boys". I remember them recruiting me into a "fraternity" that they started, giving me a few whacks with a paddle behind the soccer field near Daro as my initiation. I also remember them tricking me into eating dog meat for the very first time by telling me it was kalderetang kanding, or goat stew. It sure tasted a lot like goat meat so I didn't really mind it that much when they told me what I was really eating.

These were the same guys who introduced me to smoking when I was only thirteen years old. That was way back when we were just freshmen in high school. I think that was the same year they got me drunk for the first time, too. Or maybe that was our senior year, I forget. Come to think of it, by the time I was a senior, I was getting drunk a lot already, so yeah, it must have been my freshman year in high school, when we were just thirteen years old, that they got me drunk with my first taste of San Miguel Pale Pilsen beer.

Tony and I had been classmates in the fifth grade, under Miss Flores, and in freshman year of high school, in E.J. Cuevas' homeroom class. After our freshman year in high school, Tony got bumped out of the first section. It wasn't that Tony wasn't smart, because to me, he clearly was; I guess he just didn't care that much about grades. Not that I cared that much about grades either, which is why I always expected to be bumped down to the lower sections along with rest of the guys at the start of each school year. For whatever reason, I never was, despite losing my scholarship status from sophomore year onwards.

I don't think I was ever in the same section with Lyndon except for P.E., where two sections had to be combined because P.E. wasn't a co-ed thing. Even in that class, the boys from each section were seated on opposite sides of the room, maintaining a level of segregation that would be socially and politically incorrect these days. I always thought they had more fun on their side of the room though.

Those high school years were formative for the core Batang Gate 3 gang. Tony U, Lyndon B, Francis Nocete, Wawil Ferolin, Cisel Kiamco, Eric QuiƱanola, Alejo Necesito, Lloyd Tenaja, Edwin Mananquil, Carlos Roxas, Felipe Torres, and others whom I can't readily name now, were in the same sections throughout high school. We would always hear of them making teachers cry, arguing and debating with them, pulling pranks, skipping and boycotting class, and just being "wise" and "pilosopo" in general.

One story that I remember hearing about Lyndon was during Mrs. Cabanag's Spanish class. She had asked him to read "¿Por que?" and Lyndon pronounced it "Por KYU?" like the letter Q. When Mrs. Cabanag corrected him, saying "No, it's KEH, not KYU," he replied, "Sa ato pa, Ma'am, mo adto diay ko sa ilang Siega para mo palit og banana KEH?" (You mean to tell me, Ma'am, that I'm going to the Siega's to buy a banana KEH?), referring to the popular banana-que snack sold from under the Siega's house across the street from the high school. What a devilishly brilliant thing for a kid to say to a teacher. At least for us it was.

I went through most of high school just being on the fringe of the Batang Gate 3 gang. There was that one time when they brought me along to Carlos Roxas' house to watch Bo Derek in "10" on a BetaMax, which was still quite a novelty back then. That was kind of exciting and awkward at the same time, if you know what I mean. But it wasn't until that summer of '81, the time between our high school graduation and the start of our freshman year in college at Silliman that I really started hanging out with them a lot.

It was at Gate 3 that I learned how to solve the Rubik's cube and ride a unicycle. Tony, of course, was the best rider, since it was his unicycle. Lyndon was right there with Tony though, being one of the few who could ride backwards and do breakneck turns over the slabs of concrete that covered the canal on the side of the road. You had to be careful navigating around those slabs because the gaps between them were big enough for the tire to fall through. That would have been bad for both the rider and the unicycle.

It took me a good week of falling and scraping my knees and chafing my ankles and kigol before I could ride that darn unicycle a few meters at a time, but I eventually got good enough that one day, I rode it all the way back to Larena Hall on the opposite side of campus so I could show off my new skills there. I can still do it actually, although not as well as Lyndon apparently still could, even at our age now.

We even had a T-shirt printed for all Batang Gate 3 members. It was blue and the designs were printed in plain black ink. The front design was an intricate collage that was conceptualized and executed perfectly by Mark Cornelio, who was our class artist and kababata. I only remember that there was an image of a guy with a tirador or maybe it was an indian pana, some kind of street lamp, and various other typical scenes of Gate 3 life. On the back was a single large hand flipping the bird, our gang sign, I guess. I doubt that any of those T-shirts have survived through the years but I know that we all wore them proudly around the campus.

Anyway, shortly after the "Midnight Madness" movie came out in Philippine theaters, somebody, presumably Tony and probably Lyndon, too, thought it would be a great way to break the monotony of the nights we spent mostly just sitting around, smoking, drinking, talking and joking around, and singing to the accompaniment of an old, beat up guitar. The movie was about some college kids going on a crazy, all-night scavenger hunt. We were incoming college freshmen and we were kind of crazy, so we fit the bill perfectly.

Anyone who wanted to participate in a BG3 Midnight Madness run had to put some money—I think it was five pesos or something like that—in the pot and the team that came in first would win it all. If any of us had the foresight, he could have beaten Jerry Bruckheimer at his own “Amazing Race” by many years. As it was, we were just a bunch of teenagers fresh out of high school, living in the moment and having the time of our lives in the idyllic coastal city of Dumaguete on Negros island in the Philippines, where most of us had grown up together.

There were no consolation prizes in the BG3 Midnight Madness runs but the winners would invariably buy pamainit for everyone who had spent the last six hours running around in the dark, throughout the more than twenty hectares of the main Silliman campus. Teams of two or three runners followed the trail that wound around the campus, with each leg of the trail punctuated with cryptic clues that the devious and wily Tony U had authored and hidden at various landmarks the night before.

Like I said, I’m pretty sure Lyndon was Tony’s co-organizer for the runs but he may have also been running around with the rest of us. All I remember, after thirty-five years, is that the clues were hard but we always had lots of fun solving them, like the one where Tony used invisible ink and only left each team two matchsticks. I seem to recall that there were some teams who burned their clues down to ashes instead of singeing them just enough to make the dried calamansi juice on the paper turn brown to reveal the secret message. We all had a good laugh teasing them about their cluelessness. Good thing I was up to speed with my Hardy Boys. Or maybe it was Encyclopedia Brown. Meh. I just know my team won that race. I also remember that there was never enough pan de sal afterwards.

We were able to hold our intrepid and often frantic Midnight Madness runs because we were “lakas” with the campus security guards. It might have helped that Lyndon and Tony lived on campus and that Tani Ray Torremocha, who liked to team up with me, was a nephew of one of the security guards. Tony Boy would always make sure that the captain of the guards knew when we were having a race so they knew what we were doing.

So, whenever a group of young men ran across the paths of sikyu making their rounds in the wee hours of the night, they were simply sent on their merry way with a wave of a flashlight and perhaps a bemused chuckle and shake of a head after confirming that these were Gate 3 scavenger hunters and not burglars trying to make a quick getaway. I imagine the sikyu would have said something like “Sapat gyud kaayo ning mga Batang Gate 3 boys…” Translation: "These Batang Gate 3 boys are really (something)" — I don’t know if there’s an English word for “sapat”, the closest I can come up with is “mischievous” and “rabble-rouser".

I would have preferred that all those memories of fun and carefree days gone by had been brought back under different circumstances. As it was though, Lyndon Bernardez, aka “Bor Lyndon”, aka “Pugak", aka “BerLyn", aka “Don”, a kid I had known since I was in the fourth grade, a classmate in elementary and high school at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, Philippines, had passed away, surrounded by family and friends. His relatively short but valiant fight against cancer ended in the early hours of Thursday, October 22, 2015. Lyndon was only 51.

The news spread quickly through social media and text messages. I was sleeping on a couch in my office at home when my wife woke me up at dawn to let me know that my sister, Eda, had texted her to tell me that Lyndon had just died. Within 48 hours, people from all over the country, from L.A, New Jersey, Minnesota, North Carolina, and elsewhere, arrived in Chicago to pay their last respects to a beloved friend and classmate and to offer condolences and support to his grieving family. I made the six-hour drive up from Columbus, Ohio with my son, who had already been planning to spend the weekend at the University of Chicago with a buddy from high school who was on a football scholarship there. After dropping my son off at his friend's dorm, I drove north another hour and arrived at Al's house at about mid-morning, while Al was still out fetching other classmates from O'Hare.

Arnold Olegario, or Aploy as we call him, was flying in from North Carolina. Arlene Larot was coming all the way from L.A.  Eric "Bongky" Dumalag had flown in earlier that morning from New Jersey. Wawil Ferolin, Lyndon's best friend, had also flown in from New Jersey with his wife Brenda and was staying with his brother, who lived in the Chicago area. Felipe "Eping" Torres and Tonit Paraiso, a friend from college, were driving in from Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota and were still a few hours out. Egay Estimo was going to be there, too. He lived just south of Chicago, somewhere in Northern Indiana.

The viewing at the funeral home was scheduled to be from 2 to 4pm, followed by a memorial service. As we waited for Eping and Tonit to arrive, Al and Mayette filled us in on the events of the past few days and we laughed when Mayette told of how Lyndon was still joking and goofing around the day before he passed. Al, Aploy, and I decided that we would dress up in full suits because Lyndon would have liked it. We left Al's house with less than an hour to make it to the funeral home, which was about 40 minutes away. We got there at 3:50pm, with just a few minutes to spare before the service started.

There were many friends and family in attendance. There were people from his church, his pastor, and his boss from work. His wife and sons were there, of course, and all of Lyndon’s brothers and sisters, with the sole exception of older brother Abra, who joined through videoconference from Dumaguete.

Lyndon’s sister, Lulu, was first to give a eulogy. She told of how they considered naming him John, after the recently assassinated U.S. president, but ended up deciding that their new baby brother would be the namesake for JFK’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, instead. I wondered if Lulu knew of Lyndon’s other monikers, like Berlyn, which was a clever play on the first syllables of his name, as were the nicknames of others in our batch like Elmer "Elsid" Sidro, Edwin "Edmanz" Mananquil, and Joel Vito "Tovits" Villaluz. Lyndon was also often called “Pugak,” although I couldn’t tell you how he got stuck with that one.

Lulu told of growing up with siblings who all had a sense of humor, and of family and friends, especially friends, "many, many friends.” She also mentioned “secrets” that she and her sisters did not know about. “You’ll have to ask his friends to tell you those stories,” Lulu said.

In closing, Lulu speculated that Tatang and Nanang had probably called Lyndon home first because any of the other siblings would be boring in comparison. Lyndon may have been the runt of the family but he was also the clown who could make everybody laugh.

Al Gallogo, who with his wife and also high school classmate, Mayette, had been Lyndon’s surrogate family in Chicago for the last thirteen years, was called up to give his eulogy. He spoke of Lyndon’s devotion to his family, and his constant longing to be with them. He told of the times that Lyndon fell asleep in front of his computer while chatting with his wife and kids on Skype or FaceTime, wishing that he could somehow be transported through the screen and halfway around the world so he could embrace them, and how Lyndon worked hard, patiently and faithfully waiting for thirteen years to finally give those hugs in the flesh just two short years ago.

Al spoke of their backyard cooking sessions and outings with Lyndon. He spoke of Halloweens past when Lyndon would entertain the neighborhood kids on his unicycle and dress up Buddy, his beloved adopted pug, so he could help give out candy to the trick-or-treaters. Halloween will never be the same without Lyndon and Buddy, Al said.

Lyndon's boss, Elsie, spoke too. She told of how Lyndon adopted her pug, Buddy, and how she shared custody of her "son" with Lyndon. She told of how she had taught Lyndon how to ski and how the student quickly surpassed the master. She told of how, after just a day on the beginner's slopes, she had challenged Lyndon to go down the advanced slope. Always up for a challenge, Lyndon gamely started down the steep slope, only to end up going too fast, then tumbling down, head over heels in the snow. "I guess we forgot to teach him how to stop," said Elsie, smiling through her tears to a round of laughter. They hurried down to where Lyndon lay in the snow, afraid that he had hurt himself. They found him laying there, just laughing, of course.

Wawil Ferolin went up to share his memories about Lyndon. Earlier, when Lulu was giving her eulogy, I had glanced over to where Wawil and Eping Torres were sitting together nearby. I already had a lump in my throat and I saw Eping wiping away tears from his eyes. Wawil was clearly trying to keep it together.

Wawil was best buds with Lyndon and his account of some of the Batang Gate 3 shenanigans, while considerably sanitized, were gut-bustingly poignant, to say the least. I think Eping might have even started to blush as Wawil related how the BG3 boys would call out to unsuspecting girls walking past our tambayan and treat them to an impromptu “show.” I assure you that there’s a version of that story where viewer discretion would be strongly advised and the accompaniment of an adult highly recommended for those under 18. That was a time when we could get away with almost anything, including things that were highly inappropriate and could land you neck deep in hot water these days.

When Wawil finished, I considered going up to speak a few words as well but I was certain that I would break down and cry at the podium. Lyndon wouldn’t have wanted any drama from the boys, especially not from the bugoys of Gate 3, the tough guys and hoodlums who were so intimidating that many Silliman students who didn't know better avoided going by our "territory" for fear that they would be harassed and get pareglahan. So I just stood up, the lump in my throat even bigger now, and shook Wawil’s hand as he walked by, giving him a big hug of thanks for representing the BG3 boys.

There were others who shared their memories, too, but perhaps none more memorable than the eulogy that Lyndon’s three young sons shared. Luigi, the eldest, said that his Paping was a meticulous planner: he always had a plan A, plan B, plan C, etc.

That Lyndon was a planner is absolutely true. Only the most well-laid plans could pull off the framing of an unsuspecting classmate for cutting loose a humongous fart in class. Lyndon and his co-conspirators would sit in front, on either side, and behind their hapless victim (to protect the innocent, I will not mention any names) so that when a cohort did the dirty deed, everyone who would bear false witness simultaneously turned and shouted out, all pointing accusing fingers at their mark.

The victim was usually shocked into silence by the suddenness and vehemence of the charges directed at him or her (yes, it was an equal opportunity prank) and quickly realized that indignant protestation and denial was going to be an exercise in futility. All their victims—oh yes, there were quite a few of them—ended up just grudgingly resigning themselves to bearing the responsibility and concomitant shame for the malodorous offense. I witnessed them pull this prank one day in our P.E. class, while Mr. Romero was checking attendance and I'll never forget the look of shock, dismay, and embarrassment on their victim's face. A little cruel perhaps but hilarious nonetheless and absolutely classic Bor Lyndon.

Luigi also mentioned his father’s membership in the International Order of DeMolay and I had to hold back a chuckle when I remembered the pun on that name, “Di mo uli” (doesn't go home), and the time that Lyndon ran away from home to work in construction in Cagayan de Oro. Wawil later recounted to us how Lyndon had purposely gotten himself into trouble with Tatang so that he could have an excuse to layas.

I still laugh when I remember what Wawil said about their little misadventure back in the summer of 1981, right after we had graduated from high school. Apparently Lyndon was absent from Physics on the day that Mrs. Macias went over the principle of the lever. After having a good laugh at the spectacle of Lyndon straining his scrawny unassisted arms trying to bend iron rebar for a few minutes, Wawil mercifully showed him how to use a pipe and a couple of 4-inch nails to gain leverage and make the work of bending the bar into a square much easier.

After the service, we went back to Al and Mayette’s house and spent the rest of the evening and most of the early morning hours remembering Lyndon and all the good times we had with him. To the end, Lyndon played his part, the one that all the Bernardez brothers have played ever since we were kids. They were THAT family, THAT house, where all the neighborhood kids would gather and hang out. Tani’s friends, Abra’s friends, Evic’s friends, and Lyndon’s friends all congregated at that old house on the corner, next to Gate 3. Lyndon was THAT kid who brought together our bunch of misfits and miscreants.

As I recall, the older brothers and their friends always had dibs on the screened veranda that overlooked the street below. Lyndon, Wawil, Tony, Francis, and the rest of the core barkada would also hang out in that inner sanctum, but being somewhat of a latecomer to this elite group, I never really got comfortable enough to go any further than the wide wooden staircase that went up to the front door. Still, I was content to sit there, smoking Marlboro shorts and chatting with other friends of the youngest Bernardez brother. I can only imagine what Wawil, Tony, and the others in that inner circle must feel, knowing that it could be a while before we would see Pugak again. But for now, as we bid our farewells to Lyndon, I have no reservations in claiming my place in the circles that revolved around him, to be one of those he continues to bring together with his warmth, mischief, silliness, laughter, loyalty, bravery, compassion, and the ever-lasting memories we’ll share of him and with him.

Thank you, Bor Lyndon, for being there when the BG3 boys tricked me into eating “iro” for the first time, for showing me how to ride Tony’s unicycle and solve the Rubik’s cube, for letting me help you hand out class cards during enrollment time so we could check out the cute girls signing up for their classes, for hosting the Midnight Madness runs, for the inomtagay, and camaraderie and rabble-rousing that came with it, for letting me tambay on your front stairs and be a part of this band of brothers, and for counting me as one of your many, many friends.

To Lyndon's wife, Yum, and sons, Luigi, Bryan, and DJ, I hope this tribute will give you a better idea of the kind of boy, brother, man, friend, husband, and father he was. Please take these memories of him and the times we had with the Batang Gate 3 boys and make them part of yours as well.

To the Bernardez family, thank you for sharing Lyndon with us and welcoming us into your home and your lives. I hope you can take comfort and find some joy in knowing that many people loved and respected your baby brother and were touched by him in one way or another.

Finally, to Lulu, I think you were right about Tatang and Nanang wanting to have Lyndon first. I like to think that the three planets I saw converging in the eastern sky on that Sunday morning were not wandering deities of ancient lore but were actually Tatang, Nanang, and Bor Lyndon. And even though planets are not supposed to twinkle, I’m positive that one of them looked like the mischievous glint in Lyndon’s eye whenever he told a joke or was up to something and the three of them were up there, finally together again, laughing and looking down from on high while shining their light of peace, hope, and joy on all of us. 

Godspeed, Bor, and God Bless. 

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