Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Hair-Raising Horse Run

Raul Agner 11/28/07

It has been celebrated more than sixty times already but people don’t seem to get tired of it. Each year, the so-called Leyte Landing Anniversary, popularly known as Liberation Day, is observed. People troop to “Red Beach” in Palo, Leyte where during WW II Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed on October 20, 1944 to fulfill his famous “I Shall Return” promise. From Leyte, the General, with his trademark corncob pipe, went island hopping until he reached Manila to wrest the whole archipelago from the clutches of Japanese rule. My family, when I was about six years old - must have been 1960 - was one of those who planned to go to the beach that year and this is where my story of the stubborn horse that rebelliously galloped us into a freak accident, begins.
Ideally, it was important to go early to Red Beach (so called because that was its code name during the War and not because the seashore was colored red with blood during the fighting as some mistakenly believe). Aside from being able to easily get a ride, one also had the chance to spot important people, like the President of the Republic, in attendance at the outdoor ceremonies. For some reason, our family was not able to leave early. Tatay and Nanay must have been very busy with house work and all that. We became ready to leave only at around noon, when the sun was at its peak and scorching hot, as in your skin will get tanned even if you go under it for only a few minutes.
In those days, jeepneys were not as many as they are now. A more common and less expensive form of transportation was the kalesa, better known in our province as a tartanilla, a horse and carriage ensemble that was slightly different in design than those you see in Manila. Our province’s version had its entrance at the back and the seats were parallel to the sides so that the passengers sat facing each other (unless they opted to turn their heads right or left to avoid looking at an unpleasant face or something) the way passengers in a jeepney do. Although Tatay had already hailed a tartanilla and settled the fare amount with the kutsero (the rig driver), still some preparations had to be finished. We the kids had to strip off the outer skin of the banana trunk we felled at the backyard which we planned to use as abayan or floater that we clang to as we swam further off the shore. The kutsero patiently waited, parking his horse and tartanilla under the cool shade of the nearby tree that had the thickest foliage so that he and his horse had a sweet time waiting for us to finally come down from our house. In a short while, all eleven of us were tightly packed with our belongings you would think the frail woodwork of the carriage could break from our compacted force.
Finally, it was time to leave. We were all excited and raring to go...
Except the horse!
Given the searing heat of the noonday sun, it was probably thinking there’s no way you’re going to have me step out of this cool shade even just a fraction of an inch. Sensing the sheer recalcitrance of the animal after the usual few whips that were supposed to jumpstart the four-kilometer journey fell on deaf skin, the kutsero increased the intensity and quantity of the lashes. Still no horse leg moved. With the wounded pride of a master who is disobeyed by his slave, he flagellated the 500-kg. catatonic repeatedly with all the strength he could muster that in a split second it darted and ran very fast, jolting us like passengers in a roller coaster that makes a sudden and treacherous dive. Every one of us suddenly felt very tense, instinctively holding on to each other as the horse ignored intersections and perilously dodged vehicles passing the highway. The galloping intensified, as if the horse was trying to give the statement that “this is what you get for forcing me out of the shade.”
Meanwhile, near where the MacArthur historical marker (the spot were MacArthur was believed to have landed and long before it was expanded into a park that resulted in the eviction of a whole village), an overloaded jeepney was slowly inching its way through the thick crowd of slowly dispersing spectators. It was three quarters past twelve, the ceremonies and speeches were over and those who had nothing else to do were on their way home. The jeepney was going back to the town proper. After crossing the Bernard Reed Bridge (named after the first American soldier to have crossed the river during the first Liberation), it turned right instead of going straight to the main intersection where the road bifurcated, the westward branch leading to the terminal at the town market. Little did the driver know that at the curved end of the road where he just made a right turn for a short cut to the paradahan or terminal, a bad surprise was awaiting him and his passengers.
Hard as he tried, our kutsero could not slow down the horse’s tantrum clip, much less bring the whole tartanilla to a stop. The more he pulled the reins, the faster the horse went his angry way until we reached a downward slope that curved sharply to the right. Because of the lush vegetation on both sides, there was no way the hapless kutsero could see any incoming vehicle. Still nervously huddled inside the fast-moving cart, we could only expect the worst. I’m sure Nanay uttered a prayer or two even before we passed the old adobe church a few seconds back. But it seems her prayers were not heard for in a split second, our tartanilla rammed straight into the side of the incoming jeepney the moment it made the sharp right turn! The left one of the two wooden shafts in between which the horse is hitched gored the jeepney’s right fender with a thud, crumpling its upper part to an irregular shape. On impact the shaft and the lower right portion of the windshield broke with a cracking sound similar to that of a long bamboo pole being split by the worker Tatay once hired to build our fence. Both the jeepney and the tartanilla came to a full stop, with our faces looking like a Richter scale registering an indescribable shock. I saw our kutsero fall flat on his stomach on the asphalt pavement. I heard the screams of my sisters, I saw the cover of our kaldero roll off with a clanging noise to the ground. I felt the pain of a slightly displaced pelvis and could not utter a word. But the horse, unhurt and unmindful of everything, stood still as if nothing happened, easily reverting to catatonic mode once more because the collision took place in a shady area!
We gathered our belongings and walked slowly back home, feeling very sad that our excursion to Red Beach was not pushing through, still shocked from the accident but thankful nevertheless that nothing really serious happened to any one of us.
A couple of years later, when Nanay and I were relaxing in our porch one somnolent afternoon, I was stunned by her sudden invocation of the names of saints. “San Pedro, San Pablo, San Juan, Por Dios Por Santo!,” she blurted out in loud litany. When I turned my head in the direction of the street, I saw a swiftly moving tartanilla being pulled by its horse but without a kutsero or passenger on board! I was stunned. What if the driverless moving carriage hits unwary pedestrians or kids playing in the streets? My fear turned to a sigh of relief when a few minutes later I saw the kutsero running as quickly as he could after the vehicle, trying to catch up with the wayward horse. Wow, Nanay’s litany was quickly attended to this time by the saints in heaven. We never knew, though, whether the kutsero caught up with his horse or not but the absence of news of anyone being hit by an unmanned tartanilla was enough to assure us that no accident happened. This was clearly a different case, not of a horse refusing to budge but of one wanting to move on on his own probably because his driver was too lazy to work.

No comments: