The Coming Sunset and Earlier Memories - VW Ignacio V. Illenberger

The Mario Pedroso Memorial School for Culinary Arts

    December 5, 2010.  This noon, I just came back from an overnight camp for YMCA Iloilo - College Y Chapters (part of my job as General Secretary). The venue was Dingle (pronounced ding-leh), a town in the central part of Iloilo province. On the way back to the city, one of my 5-year old tires suffered a flat.  So there I was near the town plaza of Pototan having the flat repaired, having coffee and writing down items needed for our camping diary. Then whammo! I remembered that this was the last year to my five-year deposit on our Pinoy Marine Corps mortuary fund and I needed to renew the plan for another five years (since I am turning 62 during the month). Then another whammo! This was Pototan, the hometown of the late Corporal Mario Pedroso, lead scout par excellent during my company commander days in the Corps. Toto Mario was killed in combat in Maimbung Jolo at the turn of New Year, 1978.  Heck, the camping diary can wait until the coming week. I need to write about our days together for the Labong website before Alzheimers (heaven forbid!) can lay claim on me.

    First, let me tell you about the rum busting town of Pototan. In the 1960s until the mid 70s, the town was an important way station to the then existing Panay Rail Road. PRR ran from the Muelle Loney river wharves in Iloilo City to the town center of Roxas City in Capiz, all of 123 kilometers.  The slow moving freight lines departed both cities at around 10 PM and would meet up at the switches in either Passi (around 20 kms north) or Pototan - sometime the following morning at about 4 AM. The recurring problem was the slippery night time conditions of the old rails (PRR started running in 1907).  The descending southward route was faster than the ascending northward route and thus needed to wait up for the slower Roxas City bound freight line. Another problem was that the faster passenger lines (affectionately called “suburban”) depart both cities at 5 AM. The net result was the traffic along the single rail line getting stuck at either Pototan or Passi. Passengers and freight escorts would take advantage of the waiting time and grab breakfast from the hawkers. The Pototan station was the livelihood center of Toto Mario’s family.

    As I recall, Toto Mario was the youngest of four brothers. He was an orphan from early childhood.  His mother brought up the family by selling “aspalto”, coagulated livestock blood with rice porridge (lugaw) and “alketran” viscous livestock blood (dinuguan) with rice cakes (puto), hot selling breakfast fare among stranded railway travelers. His two elder brothers lived in Manila, the eldest was a taxi driver and the 2nd was a pro boxer. The 3rd was a hearse driver with a local funeral parlor. Needless to say that as the youngest, Toto Mario was his mother’s sidekick and occasionally the stand-in for the hearse driver.  He hated his lot and wanted a way out, but he also wanted his mother to retire from the back-breaking work she was in. So, after graduating from high school, Toto Mario conjured this convoluted vision of his future: he will become the best warrior the Pinoy Marine Corps ever knew; will remain a bachelor for life (there were plenty of wide eyed maidens along the railway passengers who always had an eye for his boyish smile and funny ways anyway).  Should he get killed early, his mother can retire with the sizable insurance he contracted. If he survived until retirement, he and his mother can live on his pension. By that time he will have had so many nephews and nieces to support and they will become his family. Weird, no? But Toto Mario failed to contend with one crucial factor. He was a darned good cook and in the Pinoy Marine Corps that can also be a curse.

    During his boot camp days in the mid 1970s there was only one official award for training performance, the Silver Bayonet. I don’t know if the two other informal ones have since become official, the Top Gun and the Tarzan (for weapons proficiency and physical prowess respectively). Well, Toto Mario was clearly the Top Gun and the Tarzan of his batch. Failing to snag the Silver Bayonet (by the skin of his teeth), I think, was more because of his constant calculations about how much premium he can afford to pay for the best insurance policy he can get – but I only speculate.

When he was assigned to my company, I was glad there was a fellow Ilonggo with my outfit.  I’d get him drunk and listen to him blab away his secrets, including his cook stints by the railroad station.  When he realized after getting over his hang-over that the cook curse was already in him, he started to hate me (the wicked glint in his eyes was a giveaway). His Pototanon tough guy ways also got him into drunken fights with local punks. He was often in deep %$#@ with the company top sergeants.

    We had this First Sergeant, Alberto Doctore, a Bicolano. He was as soft spoken as he was a ferocious wrestler. When Bert returned to camp tipsy from a night out, he would remind his subordinates who was the Top Sergeant - not by talking. He’d corral the trouble makers and slowly wrestle them to the ground like a boa-constrictor. Then we had this operations NCO, Gunnery Sergeant Octavio Agag, an Ilocano who looked like a Samoan deckhand. Gunny Octave was big and he had fists like coconuts, knurled and solid. Octave had frustrated dreams to become an Olympics boxer. Trouble makers ended up with cracked ribs if they failed to notice Octave in the vicinity when they returned to barracks in the mood for mayhem. I am small by Corps standards but, well, I was the C.O. and I operated by Cuban Rules (rules ko ba). Bert and Octave were my enforcers.

    Toto Mario’s hidden talents were revealed when he started cooking delicacies for his squad mates. Soon Bert and Octave learned of this and wanted him to be the company cook. Toto Mario didn’t want any of this, he just wanted to remain the lead scout and earn meritorious promotions in rank as a combatant. Cook, hell, he’d been there and no way he was going to go back to that. But he was corporal and that rank doesn’t allow anybody to question the much higher wisdom (ha!) of top sergeants. Toto Mario got even by mixing recipes together in one serving. After the bossings got a taste of his prized pancit canton, dreamy pinapaitan, just right dinuguan, ensaladang puso, etc. he’d serve pancit canton at the bottom of the bowl and pour pinapaitan over them, or dinuguan poured on top of puto. For this, he’d get wrestled and bound by Bert to the nearest coconut tree and Octave would beat the daylights out of him. When we went on patrol, Toto Mario would vent his bitterness on the hapless rebels who got in his way.  In time he piled up trophy points towards another promotion - to buck sergeant. This he accomplished while living down the curse of being a topnotch cook.
    In the promotional cycle of 1977, it was announced that come March 1978, the promotion for enlisted ranks would take effect and Toto Mario was to become a buck sergeant. Together with this announcement was the inevitable redistribution of ranks among the companies in the battalion. Toto Mario sought to mitigate the cook curse by volunteering to be re-assigned to another company. In his new assignment, his worth as a very effective lead scout was more appreciated, he was not given cooking assignments.

But as fate would have it, he was killed during a night patrol on New Years Eve of 1977. His life insurance yielded 500T for his mother.

    Well, many times during my career, I had weirdo ways that often got me in the *%^$@ list of my superiors. Late 1987 was one of those times. After an argument with a brigade commander over a half assed deployment of our gunboats in Basilan, I found myself me relieved of my field duties and re-assigned as a training officer. Our training base in Ternate, Cavite was a forsaken piece of real estate along Manila Bay whose only redeeming feature was the unforgettable sight of sunset with Corregidor Island as back drop. After partaking of a meal consisting of chopped eggplant (sinibak na talong) flavored with dried fish (daing) and rice that had so many pebbles in, I found a way of perpetuating the memory of Toto Mario. I built a small makeshift kitchen, rounded up the best cooks among the recruits and NCO leadership students and unofficially opened the MARIO PEDROSO MEMORIAL SCHOOL FOR CULINARY ARTS. Word of this inauspicious event reached the top brass who reacted by: “get that weirdo out of there before the Corps becomes a bunch of wierdos like him”.  They ordered the ramshackle kitchen demolished and re-assigned me to yet another Siberia posting.  The Editor of the Corps magazine CiteMar6 is a thankless, boring desk job. Ha, the joke was on them, I still made it to general before I retired.

    End of story. As a prologue, I am seriously contemplating forming of a party list for marginalized trying hards. If (big one) I win a seat in Congress, my first act would be a bill for the establishment of culinary schools in all uniformed services.

From the Land of the Ilonggas


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