By ALFREDO P HERNANDEZ
Batch '65 - Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
THERE was a time when Japanese men - not the World War II remnants but the clean-looking decent bunch - swarmed into the weekend breeze of Larap.
And their presence gave so much pleasure to many lovers of baseball - whether they were from the town of Jose Panganiban or Larap.
These foreigners were great athletes and their forte was baseball, which was and until these days is a national pastime back home and a rich source of money for the club members just like those franchised clubs in the US.
I would say our own teams - meaning the teams that were fielded by the different departments of PIM, also known in its long name the Philippine Iron Mines, had struggled to beat them or to even scored a game in a match.
It was no surprise for the visitors were well-trained and well-equipped up to the Japanese color that they waved every time a game was playing. And their passion for the game was overwhelming that it moved the entire nation into watching the game as if they're one mind.
The Larap teams came from the departments that included Engineering Geodetic and Laboratory (Engeolab) [I clearly remembered this because we have a neighbor who always wore his jersey Engeolab uniform at home], administration, mining engineering, construction and hauling, the labor group and some more which I could not recall anymore.
And who were supposed to be this Japanese counterpart that had always ran away with the honor of winning the weekend games at the end of the day
These were the crew members - sailors - of vessels that docked next to Calambayungan Island just a stone's throw away from the wide playground by the seawater, accessible by foot through a long, narrow railroad track bridge specially provided for the ore carriages pulled by giant locomotives traveling straight from the underground bowels of the mining camp.
Later, the mine installed a long conveyor starting from the crusher at the mouth of the mine tunnel up to the island, where its tip ended at the pelletizing plant to feed iron ore into the pelletizer. Then, the pellets are finally conveyed again to the vessel's hold.
With this, the hauling of iron speeded up, allowing the vessels to fill up and sail and come back immediately from Japan - for the crew's weekend games.
Comprising two to three teams, the Japanese ballplayers were a scene to behold.
As they disembarked from their shuttle busses that ferried them from their vessels, many women, especially those who were in the beginning of conceiving their babies couldn't help but shrieked in excitement seeing these men smiles in friendly gestures as their slit eyes shut out.
Waiting for their vessels to fill up with iron ore from the mine's open pit and underground bowels, as well as those hauled by trucking contractors from as far as Pinagbirayang Malaki, Dagang and Agusan -- three iron ore mining barrios in the neighboring town of Paracale - would be a great bore.
It usually took about a month before they could sail back home with their cargo of wealth. (Somebody told me in my young age that the Japanese brought the iron ore to Japan and cooked it, made into refrigerators and cars and thousands of other steel products and sold them to the Filipinos at premium prices. I did not understand how it could happen ... anyway.)
And baseball was these men's way of enjoying their stay in Larap - playing with local boys and beating them beyond mercy.
The year was 1957. I was in Grade 2 at the Jose Panganiban Elementary School (JPES). Then 31, mom was in her early stage of pregnancy with Edwin, the fifth child in the family. And she had cravings for some fruits and some eyes - yes! the Japanese eyes.
It was for this reason that mom never missed the weekend ballgames, but seeing to it that she tugged me along, knowing that I had the notoriety of making mischief whenever I was let loose outside the house and she was not looking.
May dad - Jimmy the mechanic - always an understanding husband to my mom-had tolerated mom's special likings for the Japanese eyes.
During ballgames, father would position her obliquely to either left or right behind the batting visitor so she would see his eyes smiled shut as he looked around every time he missed on the bat. And mom would cheer him on when he hit a homerun, to the chagrin of the local boys.
Some of the audience would be surprised by mom's going a gaga over this scene. And a lady friend of hers would explain: Napapaglihehan ho yong mata ng Hapon..."
And after the games, she would ask dad to bring her next to a Japanese guy making friends with the locals and, there she would stand right in front of him, hers fixed to the other pair of eyes.
When the newest baby in the family was born and we named him Edwin - he had what had everybody expected - a pair of Japanese eyes!
Nurses, including my Aunt Deling and her mates at the nurses' station of the PIM Hospital, fell in love with our baby brother, that they would snatch him from the crib while mom was asleep.
She would know later that her baby was taken by one of the nurses who had gone off duty to their staff house, just next to the hospital.
The Japanese men felt at home in Larap, meeting a lot of locals and on occasion bartered with them Japanese foodstuff that included Kikkoman soy sauce for their ripe, yellow banana and papaya. They loved monkeys too, which they kept as pets in their vessels.
It was then when I had my first taste of Kikkoman, which a neighbor who played in the team gave us. He said he got two bottles of the product as present from his new Japanese friend.
The ballgames went on towards the twilight years of the iron mines - that's the time when Japanese vessels would not be seen docked at Calambayungan for two or three months because the harvest of the mineral dwindled, that it had become unprofitable for PIM to operate.
The local boys still played their games and whenever the news of a vessel docking at the port was confirmed, it would be what they used to say - it's Japanese time!
And my mom, who's turning 85 next January, would break in a grin that was her trade mark every time it hit her how those slant eyes "thrilled her to the bones!"
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