Monday, 9 January 2012

Tribute to an American Peace Corps Volunteer


AS A GRADE 6 student in 1961, my first encounter ever with a foreigner waswith Parker W Borg. He was a 22-year-old American Peace Corps volunteer fromMinneapolis, Minnesota, USA, who, as an English teacher, was assigned at ourschool apparently to help improve the teaching of English and to boost ourcurriculum.

Parker, who was among the first batch of PCVs who came to the Philippines in1961, taught in my school, the Jose Panganiban Elementary School (JPES), inJose Panganiban, Camarines Norte, Philippines.

Being a foreigner, he became an instant celebrity among the townspeople,particularly with the students and teachers. Likewise, he became acuriosity, which was not surprising, not because he was tall, good lookingand friendly, but because he was the first foreigner with whom young
students had a field day interacting with.

However, as far as I was concerned, Parker's first year in our town wasuneventful.

The next year, he moved to the community high school, the Jose PanganibanHigh School (JPHS), where I move in as a first year student.

It was at this time that I had worked closely with Parker. As part of hisjob to teach English and literature, he was also the adviser to the school'scampus newspaper, The Waves.

Incidentally, I had just been recruited to join its staff and showing up atthe campus paper's office for the first time where he was at work with someEnglish teachers, I knew I did not surprise him.

Parker knew me very well from his stint at the elementary school theprevious year. He was the one who helped me work my speech which I deliveredduring our graduation just three months ago. I was that graduation year's salutatorian.

For Parker, my joining the campus paper's editorial staff was just a matter of course and he expected it.

When we were preparing the paper's edition for the first grading period, Isubmitted a poem - my first - which I titled "The sky has a million eyes".

Taking interest in what I had written, Parker sat down with me to point outwhat was wrong with my stuff. Of course he was aware that it was my first attempt at writing poetry.

He told me that many poets started in the same way as I did. It was a bigconsolation for me simply because I had no idea how a poem looked like orhow it was supposed to be written.

A literary critique that he was, Parker minced my masterpiece - word forword, line by line and verse by verse - taking notes of the inconsistenciesin my rhythm, beat and meter - all basic ingredients that should strictlyplay harmoniously in poems with such a style.

Finally, he was satisfied with the changes and ultimately, with the finishedproduct, while I felt some numbness in my face due to embarrassment over myrubbish creation.

He explained that a poetry submitted for publicationshould not be edited - it is either accepted or rejected by the editor.

That's why when it is returned to the contributor, the editor would usuallyattach his comments on how he believed the poem could be improved.

In my case, however, or in the case of my submitted work, my "masterpiece"had to undergo such intense processing to extract the gem from the rawmaterials which actually were the words that I heaped all over the poem'sfour verses.

He told me: If you want to write poetry, you should start reading the worksof great masters like English poet Shakespeare or Spanish poet Lorca.

However, as a teenager and first-year student at that, my interest did notswerve toward reading the works of the masters but onto something else likeplaying the guitar and listening to the music of the Beatles who were thentaking the world by storm.

My poetry "The sky has a million eyes" finally saw print when The Waves waspublished at the end of the first grading period. It was also my first timeto see the byline "By Alfredo P Hernandez".

When Parker returned to the US in 1963 after finishing his two-year tourof duty at our school, he left with me all his pocketbooks and several otherreading materials. He told me: Get the habit of reading ... it will help youlater when you decide to write or become a journalist.

Twenty-two years later in 1984, I suddenly had an urge to find out about myfriend Parker Borg. That time, I was the deputy chief of the Japanesenewspaper Yomiuri Shimbun at its bureau in Manila, headed by a Japanesejournalist. Yomiuri was then and still today's biggest newspaper in theworld with a daily circulation of over 15 million - both in Japan and inJapanese communities across the US.

The truth is that I had just been sacked along with 24 other journalists atthe daily newspaper Times Journal where I previously worked for eight yearswhen the management learned of the labor union that we organized.

TJ was owned by Benjamin "Kokoy" Romualdez, brother of the former First Lady Imelda Romualdez Marcos. Losing my job at the Times Journal, I found a fresh startwith Yomiuri where I worked for the next eight years.

While having an after-hour drink at my favorite watering hole in Ermita,Manila, I happened to meet an American who turned out to be a former PCVholidaying in the Philippines.

I told him about my old friend Parker Borg. He suggested that I wrote the USEmbassy in Manila for a trace on Parker. Surprisingly, just three weeksafter I requested our contacts at the embassy for his whereabouts, Ireceived a surprise letter from no-one else but Parker Borg, who was now 46
years old.

Parker's letter was accompanied by a picture of him and his seven-year-olddaughter whose name I could not recall, who was mounted on a horse.Apparently, the picture was taken when they were on a holiday in Europe.

Parker, who looked very much different from what I used to see of him during those days, wrote that shortly after returning to Minneapolis, his hometown, he volunteered to fight in Vietnam.

Surviving it, he returned home, returned to the university for furtherstudies and later found a job at the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) inWashington DC as administrative staff.

When he wrote me in 1984, Parker was already a special agent working on thedrug cartel in a South American country. He told me that there were a lot ofthings about his job at the DEA that he was not at liberty to write about.Being a journalist, I understood his situation and so we shifted our subjectto something else.

He told me after Vietnam, he obtained a Masters in Public Administration(MPA) from Cornell University after which he joined the US Foreign Serviceas Foreign Service Officer-General in Kuala Lumpur where he learned theMalay language. Then he joined the Agency for International Development withthe CORDS program in Vietnam and learned Vietnamese.

Parker was pleasantly surprised to know that I pursued a journalism career,recalling his days at JPHS, particularly in guiding us produce the campusnewspaper.

I told him that he had inspired me to become a journalist, which was a farcry from the accounting degree that I pursued at the university.

"You were the first person to read my poem, and who mutilated it until anacceptable version emerged from the rubbish," I told him in my next letter.

He wrote back saying that he had no recollection of that particular poetry Iwrote but he recalled having taught us the basics in news writing andfeature writing, and the outing and camping which he had with the students.

Over the next few years, this exchange of letters between us dwindled untilone day, I realized that I hadn't written him for quite sometime. And worse,I could not find his letters after my (ex) wife and me moved to a new home.In the last letter that I received from him, he gave me his new residence
address just outside Washington DC. Having lost it, our communication waseffectively cut off.

About three years ago, I tried to get a trace on Parker through the US Embassyin Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, my home for the past 18 years. But theembassy did not respond to my request. Since then, I had been surmising asto what had happened to him and why the embassy was unwilling this time todisclose where he could be reached.

I knew that at age 70 he was already long retired from government serviceand must be spending a happy and peaceful life with his family after riskinghis life in the Vietnam war and in the war against international drugsyndicates.

Or he must be living a lonely life at the home for the aged, sickly andpractically abandoned by his loved ones, something that doesn't surpriseanymore. Many Americans face their twilight years away from home and frompeople whom they loved most.

But wherever Parker is right now, I wish him all the luck and the best ofhealth. I thank him for inspiring me to become what I am now. He had touchedmy young life.

One thing sure, though, is that the sky with its millions of eyes won't misshim when he happened to pass by.

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