Monday, May 16, 2016


BABY LOVE. A Kapampangan baby from Sta. Rita wears a coral bracelet to ward off afflictions of unnatural causes, like "asug". Corals were believed to be imbued with divine powers.

Since the dawn of time, man has been warding off earthly perils— the elements, disease, and threats from fellow human beings—arming himself with tools, weapons and all sorts of ammunitions. But when the danger is unexplained and unusual, he seeks assistance from other worlds—the supernatural. Thus, in our recorded history, we transformed through rituals and incantations-- metals, wood, stone, cloth, barks and herbs into weapons against evil.

Urban legends recount how revolucionarios went to the battlefields protected by oracions (prayers) written on their undershirts. In recent memory, the fantastic escapes of the 50s Cavite gangster Nardong Putik (Leonardo Manecio) were attributed to the power of his anting-anting that he inherited from Santiago Ronquillo (alias Tiagong Akyat). The government threw everything it had into capturing him, but to no avail.

 Closer to home, Jose Maria Henson (1820/d.1867) of Angeles was said to possess a magic sword that can render a person immobile just by pointing the sword or throwing the sword at him.

But what about helpless babies brought out into this world? How can he protect himself from the “evil eye” of a stranger which can hex a baby’s health? “Asug” ("usug" in Tagalog) is a term for such an affliction characterized by fever, convulsion, stomach ache and colic. This unintentionally inflicted folk illness is also widely known in Caribbean countries and Mexico as “mal de ojo” It is the belief that the child’s distress can be eased by asking the stranger to rub his saliva on the baby's tummy, shoulder or forehead and other body parts before leaving the house, while muttering “pwera asug…pwera asug” several times.

In the 19th century, newborn babies were protected from maladies by having them wear coral bracelets. Corals were believed to possess divine powers. A Greek legend has it that that when Perseus beheaded Medusa, he laid the Gorgon’s bloodied head on a bed of seaweeds, turning them into corals.

 In the Middle Ages, people kept pieces of corals in their purses, as talismans against witchcraft. Because of their shape, coral branches were also thought to protect the bearer from lightning strikes. For Tibetans and American Indians, the coral was an effective protection against the evil eye, while for Christians, the coral pink color symbolized the blood of Christ.

No wonder, coral jewelry became traditional gifts to both expectant mothers (for its blood-rejuvenating property) and their newborn babies (as protective amulets). Greek mothers hung coral strands on babies’ cradles while Romans strung coral necklaces for their kids. Coral was also used to prevent teething problems, which, in the early 19th century was believed to be responsible for many infant deaths. It was incorporated into teething rings to prevent bleeding gums.

 Silver objects were popular christening gifts in early 18th century Europe, as the precious metal was believed not only to have purifying effects but also repulsed evil of supernatural origin effectively. Silver rattles, bells, whistles and teethers –many made with coral trims--were standard presents to children of wealthy families, a tradition that did not catch on in the Philippines.

Of course, while Catholic sacramentals like medals (St. Benedict, patron against contagious diseases, is a popular choice) have replaced expensive coral and silver charms, there are still a few charms to help safeguard babies’ health and wellness.

Currently available is a “kontra-asug” bracelet that mimics those rarer and more expensive coral jewelry. Made of red plastic and black plastic beads, the bracelet comes with a red cloth sachet with a cross outside, containing seeds and dried plants, which can be pinned on the baby’s shirt. The bracelet serves to prevent “asug” as well sorcery.

So next time you bring baby out, never fear! He is not just powered by his vitamins and minerals to help build his ‘resistensya’, but--according to the old folks--he has sure protection against all sorts of maledictions, thanks to a charm bracelet that even Wonder Woman would want to wear. “Pwera asug!”.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

*403. TOTS IN STOTS: Life as a Soldier’s Kid in Clark Field

CHILDREN GO WHERE I SEND THEE. A military officer and his wife, hold their Pampanga-born twin babies in front of their Stotsenburg quarters. It was a challenge to raise kids in a camp before it became an urbanized, self-contained community in the 1970s. ca. 1920s.

The expansive sawgrass-carpetted land northwest of Kuliat that soldiers of the U.S. Army claimed in 1902 and later named Fort Stotsenburg had, by the 1920s, become a liveable place with a growing reputation as a preferred assignment by military servicemen. The camp became a self-contained community with many amenities that improved immensely its social environment.

Many American officers were given the privilege to bring over their families to the Philippines and reside inside the camp, helping them ward off homesickness and boredom. In 1909, there were just about  95 dependent children of both American officers and enlisted men, but by the mid-1930s, almost all of the American officers came with their wives and children. The birth of American babies further increased the child population, posing several issues such as finding domestic helps as well as establishing a school system on-base.

There was no problem looking for nannies, as labor was plentiful and affordable. American officers’ wives not only had Chinese cooks,  gardeners, lavanderas at their employ, but also had Filipino, Japanese or Chinese nannies and nurses to look after their babies and toddlers. When the sun went down at the camp, nannies would take their wards to the Officers’ Line (now the Parade grounds) for their regular afternoon promenade, a  leisurely stroll likened to a veritable “march of nations”.

In the course of the year, a program of events was planned for the amusement and social entertainment of Stotsenburg children—ranging from birthday parties, elaborate picnics,  aircraft rides at Kindley Field, animal and pet shows, to Santa’s visit  every December. Christmas trees were shipped from the U.S. and were set up on the porches, which kids then decorated.

Schooling of kids proved to be a challenge in the early years of the camp as there were not enough students to warrant a full-time school. The post chapel, in the 1900s, served as a school house, and there was also a separate school for the children of African-American soldiers by 1922.  Tutors were employed to teach five grades in one room , including a certain Miss Edmonds who was hired after a fruitless stint at a local Filipino school.

Two schools were built inside the camp in the 1920s—the 4-room Dean C. Worcester School (1925) and the Leonard Wood School (1929) which offered instructions from Grades 1-12. The schools flourished until the early 1930s.

It was only after World War II that the base went on a school-building spree, including an array of secondary schools for dependents. In 1949, the first Clark Elementary School for grades 1-8 was constructed near the site of the  future Wurtsmith/Wagner High School site. Six sawali buildings housed Grades 9-12. Eight teachers from the U.S. arrived in June 1949 to complete the faculty.

The Clark Dependents’ School, which started in 1950, evolved into the Wurtsmith School that offered both elementary and high school level education  The new Wurtsmith Memorial High School building was opened in 1961, and was designed for “tropical teaching and learning” (it was air-conditioned). On the other hand, Wagner High School, named after the WWII pilot Lt. Col. Boyd David Wagner,  was inaugurated in October 1962.

During school breaks, parents enrolled their hyperactive kids at the Hobby Shop that taught arts and craft subjects like pottery and leather-tooling. Other air force kids favored swimming and going to the outdoor theaters to while their time away.

Sadly, many of these places closely associated with the growing up years of American children in the heyday of  Clark,  are all gone, devastated by the great eruption of Mount Pinatubo. So, too, are the children who once had a run of the place—they have moved on, with many returning home to America as adults, fathers, mothers, grandparents themselves. But for many of them, a part of their childhood remains in a once-mighty military base that became their temporary home far, far away--Pampanga’s Clark Air Base.