A GOOD CAUSE
Dave Shaille stared dismally out of the window of his hut into the dusty trail outside. It was hot that day as it was every day, even when it rained. The twenty two year old law student from Berkeley, California had answered President John F. Kennedy’s call in 1961 with the surge of idealism that swept American youth when the youthful-looking president was inaugurated into office. JFK was one of them, a beacon drawing them into political participation, even if this noble aspiration proved to be delusional. Like many other Peace Corps volunteers, Dave was going to change the world. He was one of twenty two young men and women assigned to The PACD, a community development agency in The Philippine government working in isolated rural communities attempting some cohesion and cooperative action among people that had no ties, and who had nothing in common. Many were reformed HUK insurgents forcibly transplanted from Luzon, and promised land by then, deceased former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s agrarian reform program. The land was in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, in Central Mindanao, the second largest island in the southernmost Philippines. The land redistribution itself ignited new unrest because they were traditionally owned by Moros, Moslem Filipinos, who had not bothered to register their claims or obtain titles. Their ancestors had owned the land for centuries. Why should they bother with legal formalities at this late date?
That was academic. They had been effectively dispossessed. The intruders knew little about farming, and more about weaponry. They were more familiar with explosives than fertilizers, and were less inclined to the back-breaking labor involved in cultivating the soil. Instead, they squatted on their haunches, waiting for the time, the agricultural fields would undergo the inevitable conversion into real estate. Eventually, the traditional owners would clash with the newcomers, but that would occur later.
Dave Shailles’ assignment was to cultivate solidarity, among people with irreconcilable differences. The HUKs (Hukbong Bayan Laban Sa Hapon), originally organized as
the resistance against Japanese Occupation became The Peoples Liberation Army, six distinct factions with their own leaders just as inclined to fighting each other. The late Philippine President had “solved” The Huk insurgency problem by offering amnesty and proffering land to the guerrillas who surrendered. Then, he double crossed their leaders by ordering their arrest for “crimes against the state.,” locking them up and throwing away the keys. The rank and file were uprooted and “exiled” to distant locations, where the pledge of land-ownership could be redeemed. Unequipped emotionally to be pioneers, they were to be commended for their adaptability. They built shacks for habitations, cleared a section of the forest for the center of the town, and despite their bellicosity, managed to organize some form of a municipal government, albeit, a factious one. Dave Shaille’s arrival did blunt their enmity. The novelty of a foreigner living among them was appeasing. . He shared their problems and inconveniences. The erratic transportation, unreliable electricity, and worse of all, the crushing boredom. The only thing they could count on was running water. It was lite-rally running water, which cascaded into homes through pipes with no regulating valves or faucets from seemingly endless mountain streams. What water was unused drained into the parched earth, whose thirst seemed unquenchable . Undefeated in Central Luzon, the major island in the chain, the unforgiving terrain here vanquished them. As the song said, “They’ll never take arms no more.” It was Dave Shaille’s eighteenth month. He had diligently served his frustrating tour of duty with no tangible progress to flout proudly for his efforts. No rice stalks crowned the fertile soil, inhabitants, insisting on subsistence farming. Trees were hewed down, denuding the forests, lumber exported as logs rather than finished products. There was not even a public market, just an occasional transient vendor from a more enterprising neighboring town sold produce, meat, fish, and other staples from pick-up trucks. His tour of duty was about to end in four months. He settled down to execute his tasks, as languidly as the rest of the population. He sighed as he thought about his chore that evening. Another town meeting with municipal officials. The day’s objective was to promote local solutions for the town’s needs, but all that was ever accomplished were bombastic speeches expounding on their individual pipe dreams, without any valid proposals of methods to implement them. Heavily lubricated with “tuba,” the potent sugar cane wine,
they were reminiscent of Black Panther civic action programs that deteriorated into shootouts and abortive bank robberies in California, during the early 60’s. Their bull sessions would likely last well into morning after which their heads would be pounding with massive hangovers. Still, he was resigned to attend. He had made no close friends during his long stay. Despite their cordiality, he sensed an invisible barrier between them. He wondered if it was really possible to cross cultural boundaries. As he strode to the municipal hall, he was about to witness an aberration, one which would furnish him a clue into a hidden face of the alien society.
It was in the person of an alert, emaciated, eleven year old boy trying to scrounge transportation for the corpse of an elder man, presumably, his father, to a distant town one
hundred and twenty kilometers away. Not too great a distance unless one didn ‘t have the
wherewithal for the job. Conventional bus lines refused to haul a corpse in a passenger conveyance. It was “buisit,” or “bad luck.” The boy beseeched the municipal officials for assistance. The municipality was obligated to extend such assistance to their citizens. They agreed, conditionally, but the corpse had to be encased in a coffin, in other words, “No coffin! No truck! ” Like Sheriff Will Kane, in the movie, “High Noon,” the boy was forced to cross the town several times in search of a benefactor generous enough to donate a wooden box. There were none. Investigating, Dave Shaille discovered the dead man had expired from cirrhosis of the liver from imbibing one too many during town fiestas for a number of years. Dave sympathized, but was not in a position for altruism. While The Peace Corps did provide a stipend for his living expenses, he was shamelessly overcharged by store proprietors when he shopped for his basic needs. Like most of the residents, he lived hand to mouth. They would snicker among themselves about how they sandbagged him. Dave was aware of this, but impotent to remonstrate, he had to shrug it off. A second irritant that estranged him from the town was the constant matchmaking. Matrons continually paired him with their homely daughters. After his final rebuffal, they gave up on him, speculating that he may be a homosexual. There were occasional comely girls, but even those were regarded with some suspicion. Dave surmised, correctly, they were only looking for a legal
entry into The United States. Dave Shaille was deeply interested in how the young waif would resolve his problem, regretting that he was unable to help him. The lad’s name was Willie Reyes, “Reyes” was Spanish for Kings. There was indeed a regal set to the boy’s countenance.Looking deep beyond the grime that smudged his face, an acute intelligence was discernable. His eyes were calculating, almost predatory. He met Dave’s gaze levelly, expecting no favors, and asking for none. He was physically smaller than he should be from malnutrition. He was representative of the people the idealistic Peace Corps volunteers were trying to save. Willie turned away to resume his lonely quest, while Dave headed for the town hall.
The following morning, Dave was in his favorite coffee shop in the center of town, nursing a hammering hangover. He had no recollection of the town meeting, only that it had
started acrimoniously, and had become more and more mellow as the contents of their wine caskettes diminished. He tried to remember their discussions guiltily, feeling an obligation to, but could not dredge them up into his consciousness. The strong coffee did not excise his headache, but it did revive him. He watched the listless people in the streets, discouraged that he had wasted his time in The Peace Corps, trying to do some good in a town, resentful of foreigners’ interference into their business. Then he perked up, attentively as he spotted Willie Reyes, almost not recognizing him. He was better dressed than when he saw him last. Dave hoped he had solved his problem. Willie was happier. He had, obviously, devised a plan for raising the required money.
Gambling was forbidden by law in most towns, except those designated for casinos, but their were occasions when custom allowed a dispensation: Raising money for a good cause. This was certainly one of them. Willie had applied for a gambling permit. Where he obtained the money for it was no one’s concern. He would still have to “arrange” the proper venue, possible with shrewd “horse-trading.” He negotiated the use of a local ampitheater , which would suspend gamecock contests, the townsfolks’ favorite pasttime, for an appropriate “cut.” Furniture craftsmen would loan their tables and chairs for promotion.
Recycled plastic cannisters would be used for the table’s share. Admiring his enterprise, a boarding house “benignly” offered him lodging for the duration. A local tailor provided duds
which had been rejected by a dissattisfied customer. He could finally take a proper bath, and not resemble a pathetic Dickensian character. Although too young to smoke, young Willie was seen smoking a cigar. Willie’s casino was in business That evening, a festive air reigned at the Town Cockpit. The corpse reposed in the center on a long table, equally neatly garbed. It rested on a white cloth with embroidered edges. Four candles were respectfully positioned at each corner. It was fortunate decay had not yet set in. Willie’s wake was well attended, for lack of anything else to do. And, oh yes, as a gesture of good will, a local cafeteria provided complimentary refreshments. David Shaille, having a little money to spare, took his time before deciding what game he would join. There were poker, mahjong, and panguingue (A game played with 8 decks of standard cards with 8, 9, and 1 cards removed.), a more complicated native version of Gin Rummy, played with a total of 320 cards. It was Dave’s choice for his game. It would allow him to stretch his investment and continue his somewhat clinical observation of Willie Reyes, who had piqued his interest, for reasons he could not fathom. Wagering so preoccupied him, he forgot his headache. Willie Reyes sat adjacent the corpse, watching the kitty pile up. The townspeople gambled on, happy at the diversion he had conjured up to brighten up their drab lives. The wake broke up at dawn, when the tired but pleased participants separated to return to their homes. Only the town treasurer and Willie Reyes remained to tally their portion of the receipts. It was substantial for a small community The wake had raised sufficient funds for a presentable coffin and a memorial plot in town, which the treasurer, cognizant of a domestic investment, urged him to consider. “Now, you have enough money to bury your father with appropriate respect without having to cart him out of town.” The boy responded with bland innocence. “He wasn’t my father.” and walked off into the brightening morning, leaving most of the money that had been collected, after deducting a small “commission.” The amount was not large enough to tempt the treasurer, venal as he was, to embezzle. Besides, there were too many witnesses. But it left him with a dilemma. No one had taken the trouble to ascertain the dead man’s identity. They had just assumed, he was the boy’s father He had to be
interred. Early signs of decomposition had set in. It was beginning to smell. He had an inspiration. It didn’t matter who he was. The wake had provided a legal excuse for gambling and bonded the town together in such a manner government community development officials , and even a Peace Corps volunteer were unable to do. After a hasty consultation with the mayor and the town council, it was decided an official funeral would be held that very day attended by the entire population . A granite slab would be commissioned to be placed above his grave. It would have a single inscription: Reyes! It may not have been his real name, but what the hell? The funeral ceremony was similarly a success., providing the men of the town another occasion for libation.
Upon repatriation to The States, Dave Shaille become a civil rights attorney in Berkeley, California. He liked to recount the story of a young boy who outfoxed the stratified system (An exploitive one that grinds down each layer underneath.) to execute a good deed when it was disposed to let an indigent’s corpse rot with callous indifference . He had concocted a ploy to raise funds to bury a stranger almost as if just to prove he could. The town eventually evolved into a prosperous city. While Dave would have preferred to believe he was the catalyst, he knew very well, it was because of its proximity as the nucleus of an island rich in natural resources. It was surrounded by forests, rock quarries, fruit orchards, agricultural fields, and was not too distant from coastal fishing villages. It was a trading crossroads. Nevertheless, Willie Reyes’ gambling wake was perhaps, the finest example of self-help he had ever observed. He tried to find out what happened to Willie Reyes on his frequent nostalgic visits to Malaybalay, but it was a common name, and there were endless parades of them, and he could not be located So, his motives would forever be a mystery. As for Dave Shaille, his attitude about his service there had changed. It had not been a waste of time, after all. He now often describes it as the most rewarding experience of his life. He had not been dispatched for any earthshaking purpose. Just to make friends for America, which all the Peace Corps volunteers did in spades.