Peñaranda River


Nueva Ecija

He who does not look back at his past (where he came from) will not be able to reach his destination ~ Philippine Proverb

Tagalog Translation: Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa nakaraan, ay hindi makakarating sa patutunguhan

My father has been in my dreams almost every night for a week. I’m not really sure why, but there he is. Sometimes, he is with my children, but they are younger, and sometimes, he is with my mother, and it is almost like it was yesterday.

Carabao Plowing Rice Field, Raissone 1938

I wrote a poem several years ago about my father’s hometown, a small village on Luzon, one of the northern islands in the Philippines. This poem is based on real events from the time that we spent in the Philippines as a family after my dad retired from the Navy, and then from before, during the beginning of World War II. Before my dad joined the U.S. Navy he was a guerrilla in the Philippine Army. He was only 16 years old.

A few notes of explanation: A caribou (last syllable like boo), which is a reindeer, lives in cold weather like Alaska. A carabao (last syllable like bow), which is a water buffalo, is the national animal of the Philippines. These animals are actually very gentle, even though they may not appear to be so. They are still used to plow fields.

Rice Paddy

Gapan, is the name of the town, and Nueva Ecija is the name of the eastern, landlocked province on Luzon. Nueva Ecija was created in 1715 and was named for the Spanish governor’s native town. The Spanish heritage is still in the bloodlines of those born in Nueva Ecija: my father’s mother was half Spanish. Nueva Ecija is the biggest rice producer in Luzon.

Cabanatuan is one of the four cities in Luzon. In World War II, Cabanatuan was the site of the infamous Japanese Prisoner of War camp; in 1945, Philippine guerrillas were responsible for liberating the Americans held captive there. 

Tagalog is the most widely-used language in the Philippines. Babinka is a sweet cake that is cooked in a banana leaf. Mangoes grow freely in trees in people’s yards.

The Peñaranda River, a narrow but deep river, is now part of Minalungao Park; however, years ago, there was no Minalungao Park.

Ang araw bago sumikat nakikita muna’y banaag. ~ Philippine Proverb (Translation: Early dawn precedes sunrise)

This particular poem is very personal, and I hope that you enjoy it.



Gapan (Nueva Ecija), 1967

The women still come to Piñaranda River

in the early morning

to wash the family clothes on rocks

beaten smooth by many generations of use.

They gather at the bank, squat

along the muddy shoreline, and

pummel the fabrics of their lives

amid idle chatter of children and babies

and the lazy stares of carabao

that stand knee deep in the water.


Brown, hand-rolled cheroots dangle from

their mouths as they twist and

wring Peñaranda from threadbare shirts

and house dresses sewn by hand.

They can point to the places where

foolish young men have lost their lives,

testing their newfound manhood against

the swirls of the rushing water that swells

during the rainy season.  They

point to the place where the river, pregnant

with the rains of monsoon, swept

into the village and laid waste to houses

chosen by God for destruction.


My mother tentatively asks one woman nearby

about the time of the Japanese.  Her

brown eyes, hardened by time, drift

across the river to the rice fields

that lie on the other side, expanses

so green and fertile that the images

of famine that she speaks of

are hard to reconcile with the beauty

that is now.  She speaks slowly,

as if the memory is still too near,

“All gone,” she sighs as she points,

“only the okra left.”  As she looks

at my mother, it is clear that

the woman believes that my blonde

mother with light skin cannot understand

want and grief.  Later,


my father explains that the okra plants,

grown in hidden gardens behind the houses,

were the only crops that the Japanese

did not take.  The only rice the village had

came from the few grains spilled in the dirt

where the Japanese stores had lain.

Those desperate enough to steal rice

were beaten (or worse) if they were caught.

He tells me this as we near

the large house that was once the

fortress of the occupiers.  Two carved

lions still remain to guard disuse.

Through the gates, deep holes

dot the dirt yard where two Americans

have been digging for Japanese gold.

“Someone sold them a treasure map,”

my father laughs, shaking his head.

“If there were gold, don’t you think

we would have known about it?” he asks

of no one in particular.


As we walk down the dirt road towards the

ice truck that is parked at the end, I notice

the heat rising in thick waves from the ground,

and I long for ice cream and slurpees.

My father points to another house,

“That is where the witch lives.  She

has put a curse on your grandfather.  Now

He will not come to this end of the village.”

As we walk back, I pull the wagon carrying

the straw-covered block of ice, glance

back nervously at the witch’s house.


Once more we pass the two lions, and

and my father stops. “Right here

is where they shot your uncle for

taking a walk at night.  The bullet

went through his leg, so he lived.

We never knew why they didn’t finish him.”

He looks into the eyes of a lion,

pauses and then tells me painfully,

“It was a Filipino sentry.  He was

working for the Japanese.”  He spits

into the dirt and walks on.


That afternoon I watch my grandmother

wring the neck of a chicken from the yard

and clean it for dinner.  While she cooks

I polish the dark floors of their home

with the halves of coconut shells

strapped to my feet. My toes curve downward

as I half skate half slide across the tiles.

Afterwards I take a shower

with cold water poured from old

coffee tins carried from the river.

The icy water is the only respite

from the heat that has seeped into

every corner of the shaded house.

Only when I am called twice do I leave

the comfort of the stone enclosure.


For dinner that evening we have

roasted chicken, sun-dried fish,

sweet bread and fresh mangoes.

Only years later do I realize what a feast

my grandmother had prepared for us.

Later, most people visit in their front yards.

My father takes me to a stand where

a man sells babinka—sweet, steamed

rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves.

He stands and talks to the vendor

in Tagalog while I eat the cake with

my fingers, sticky grains of rice

sticking to my hands and mouth.

I ask for seconds.

My American generation does not know want.


That night, from the safety of the

gauze mosquito netting, I overhear my father

telling my mother about those days,

how his mother hid from the Japanese

with her twin babies in the mountains,

how she lost both to hunger, how

the villagers caught one of the traitors

and turned him over to the guerrillas.

They skinned him alive before

finally killing him.



More later. Peace.

All The Joy That Is Mine Today

My Perfect Day



Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

Probably few of you remember John Denver’s song “Today” (words and music by The Minstrels Randy Spark). It was one of those folk songs that spoke of love and forever, and I still like to hear it occasionally. Denver’s voice always had an innocence to it that belied the troubled man behind it.

If I could have one perfect day, just one day that I alone could orchestrate with no outside forces to interfere, I wonder what it would be, from start to finish. I’ve given this some thought, and I think that this would be my one perfect day. (First, I would have to preface it by saying that I would have no pain anywhere in my body so that I could do all of the things that I would like to do on my perfect day.) That said, here is my perfect day:

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring

We awaken around eight, completely refreshed and ready to go, with the sun shining through the window. The temperature is already about 60 degrees with no humidity. Corey and I breakfast outside on the back porch on strong coffee and fresh fruit: mangoes, strawberries, and pears. We drink freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice. Fresh gardenias sit on our table, and once in a while a light breeze drifts across them and release their scent while we relax with our second cup of coffee.

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

Then we have a long shower in our double shower (which doesn’t exist yet). Corey washes my hair, which always relaxes me. After our shower, we dress for a casual day, but we make sure we pack our bathing suits and towels. Corey puts some bottled water in a cooler, and a few Pepsis for me. I grab my camera and a hat, and we jump in the car and head towards the Outer Banks for the day.

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing

peaches-at-farners-marketOn the way, we stop at our favorite farmer’s market and buy a peck of delicious peaches, some ripe tomatoes for Brett, some peanuts for Eamonn, and some honey. I bite into a peach, and juice runs down my chin. It is succulent and I devour the rest, reaching over to give Corey bites in between. We are both sticky from the juice. I open a bottle of water and pour some on my hands and wipe off Corey’s face with my hands. He turns away because he doesn’t like the stickiness, but he doesn’t like the wet hands either. I laugh loudly and without restraint, and he begins to laugh too. I wipe us both off with napkins. It feels so good to laugh like that again.

A little farther down the road we pass my favorite gift store. We stop in, and I immediately go to the coffee mugs. Corey reminds me that we already have too many mugs. I find one with a hummingbird that I must have. In the meantime, he has migrated to the cooking spices. We wander through the store for about 15 more minutes, and then we get back on the road. After all, it’s beach time, and the temperature is rising nicely.

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

outer-banks-beachWe finally get to Kitty Hawk, which is the first part of the Outer Banks, and traffic is light because it’s a weekday in late spring, and school isn’t out yet. We find a place to park in one of the public access lots, and we walk down to the beach. The day is perfect: just a few puffy cumulus clouds dot the sky; the temperature is about 80° F, and the breeze is light. Sometimes the wind off the water can make it downright uncomfortable on the beach, but not today.

We put out our towels; we’ve already changed into our suits at a rest stop. We leave our cooler full of water and Pepsi on the towel, and we take a walk down the shore. There are very few people about, a family of four about 20 feet to our left, an incredibly buff and bronze woman about five feet to our right under an umbrella reading a book, and a scattered few others here and there. We start off to the right, scanning the shore for any interesting shells, finding only two this time, before we head back. I throw myself on the towel, feeling completely relaxed, and immediately fall asleep.

After about an hour, Corey nudges me and asks if I would like to have some lunch. It takes me a moment to remember where I am, but then when I come back to the real world, I say yes. We rinse off under the outdoor shower in the lot and put our clothes over our suits, and head over to one of our favorite seafood restaurants where we have a wonderful lunch. After that, it’s time to make the drive back home.

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

As we make our way home, I feel completely relaxed and contented. We stop by our favorite sushi bar, Sakura, and order obx_sunrisetakeout. When we walk in the door, the boys ask where we’ve been, and the dogs jump all over us as if we’ve been away for months. After we give the dogs treats, we tell the boys that we spent the day at the outer banks. They are both jealous that we didn’t take them. School, we remind them. We take another long, hot, cleansing shower. Then we sit on the back porch with the tiki torches lit and eat our sushi with chopsticks. I drink a Pepsi, and Corey has one too. And then to bed and each other’s arms.

It’s the perfect end to a perfect day. Neither one of us answered our phones or texted anyone. Neither of us got on our computers. We spent the day with each other and nature. It will probably be years before we have another day like this. It’s almost like something out of a song or a movie.

A million tomorrows before I forget all of the joy that was mine on this perfect day. Peace.