Camera Familia #21 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. Circa 1958. I remember very little about my enlistment in the Philippine Cub Scouts, but there’s no refuting photographic evidence — I was in it. There was a guidebook, tasks to accomplish, skills to acquire. We must have gone on outings. I appear to have made acquaintances. I don’t recall any unpleasant moments.

The goal of the organization was to build virtue, self-reliance, good citizenship. As far as I know, it worked.

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Camera Familia #20 — John Dyer Writes

Botocan, Philippines. Circa 1957. The life we imagine for ourselves is not necessarily the best life for everyone, but ideas will spread, and people will make choices. Filipinos valued their culture, but postwar Western nations had a lot to offer.

Population was expanding. Cities were growing. Modernization outward was essential, if for no other reason than to increase crop yields. In the provinces, traditional ways would eventually be displaced.

Thankfully, we were there in time to witness that which came before. In the photo, a man smiles at the camera, apparently serene, living in the moment. At arm’s length, a water buffalo, a cart, a harvest. I suspect he knew, as all of us should, that the most important things in life are usually right there, at arm’s length.

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Camera Familia #19 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. Circa 1957. Hard times make people grow up faster, a quality that can often be seen in photographs. My siblings were born in 1941, at the beginning of World War II. Some of their peers were toddlers at the Santo Tomas prison camp during the Japanese occupation.

A few, like my brother, arrived in Manila half-grown, rough and tough. Mike used to hang around the Manila Yacht Club waiting for members to get off work. He crewed sailboats, raced dinghies, explored the caves at Corregidor, and put some adventure under his belt.

My shift started during the prime rib buffet. Mike left for college. Our parents played golf. Mom was in art class. My cousins were hunting, fishing, racing jalopies around the back roads without drivers licenses, but they were half a planet away. There was nobody to show me how to do those things.

I’m not complaining. I had a great life growing up. My wife says she’s jealous. Mind you, she was riding motorcycles at the age of eleven. I could easily be jealous of that.

In the photo on the left, my brother Mike dancing with our stepsister Carolyn. On the right, their friends, also sixteen years old, looking way more grown up than I did at that age.

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Camera Familia #17 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. 1956. Lucina de Llacuna was poised, dignified, and rich with virtue. Also kind, steady, cheerful but not jolly, a bit on the stoic side as witnessed by the photo. According to my brother Mike, Lucina was plenty shrewd enough to handle our mother, which might explain how they got along. No disrespect intended to Mom, but consistency was not her strong suit.

Lucina was from Laguna de Bay, which I always assumed bore some relationship to her surname. It did not. Taxonomy — Llacuna, a town near Barcelona, Spain. I didn’t look into it until starting this essay.

We never knew her age. Malays have a tendency to wax ageless. The information was not volunteered. Dad thought it would be impolite to ask. We’re thinking close to Dad’s age, forty-one at the time.

My parents may or may not have known what became of Lucina’s husband. If they did, it was never mentioned. I was six. Lucina was my amah. My instructions were to show respect, do what she told me, and stay out of the way. At no point in our relationship did she tell me the story of her life, and I can’t say I was curious about it. I knew my Uncle Bill for fifty years, and never asked him any questions either.

Occasionally, in the presence of my parents, Lucina might say in Tagalog something along the lines of, “I know what time you came in last night” — without using the word ‘hala’ (shame on you), because they knew what it meant. I wasn’t afraid she’d tell on me, but her approval mattered. I would ask forgiveness, and make promises I couldn’t keep. It was a ritual, an affirmation of her authority, and a great deal more. I’m sure it brought her joy.

Lucina stayed with our family for the duration — eighteen years. Dad established a pension account in a Manila bank. Last I checked, it was still paying out. That would have made her one-hundred-nine at the time. It’s not impossible, and besides, there are boundaries to honor. If she was still living, good for her. If not, it’s none of my business who’s cashing the checks.

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Camera Familia #16 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. 1956. Our first chauffeur did more than drive the car. Leno Lenore was guide, interpreter, teacher, guardian, mechanic, emissary, courier and caregiver. He was a very nice man. Life would not have been the same without him.

Around 1960, my parents sponsored a stint in technical school, after which Leno took a job at Meralco’s meter repair department. I understood the proposition. I was happy for him, but it was a sorrowful loss.

Twenty years ago, his daughter tracked me down and I called him. He told me about retiring from Meralco with a pension, and how grateful he was for Dad’s patronage. It was a wonderful conversation. He’d experienced a successful, rewarding life.

If I’d any sense, I would have asked more questions. The chauffeur always knows the family secrets.

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Camera Familia #13 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. 1956. Everyone in this photo has an interesting story to tell. Most, but not all, were foreign nationals and of these, not all from the United States. Many of the parents were in-country on temporary assignments. Others had resided in the Philippines for decades. A few of the families were Philippine citizens, firmly established but not necessarily Filipino.

There were said to be fifty-thousand Americans living in and around Manila when I was there. Military kids typically attended school on base. There were other private schools, including Catholic institutions, teaching classes in English. Mail-order home-school academies were an option. We were not the only world-traveling first graders in town.

At the American School campus near downtown Manila. The chemistry teacher was German. The music teacher was Russian. I was awkward and shy. Pretty much everyone else was swash-buckling.

Readers are invited to share memories, stories, observations, whatever, in the comments below. If you’re enjoying these essays, please subscribe to receive notifications.

Camera Familia #12 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. July, 1956. Electric companies are among the largest of all industrial enterprises. The product is manufactured by the Generation division. Delivery is carried out by Transmission and Distribution. Alan Razovsky’s job was Manager of T & D. Draw a box around the power plant. Assign someone to be in charge of everything else. Mission. Apparatus. Logistics. Staffing. The big part. The spread-out part. For workers, the dangerous part.

Linemen were paying the price for inadequate tools. Dad’s assignment was to build out the infrastructure. His personal mission would be to serve the workforce, and in doing so, save their lives. By the end of Dad’s tenure, Meralco would be a reliable power utility, operating with first-class line service equipment and a model safety program. In this photo, Alan Razovsky and his colleagues, about to roll up their sleeves and get it done.

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Camera Familia #11 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. June, 1956. My brother Mike was fifteen. He’d been in boarding school since our father died, so I barely knew him. My step-sister Carolyn was fourteen. For her, the arrangement was supposed to be a summer visit. That’s not how it worked out. There was drama involved.

Carolyn says she might have been nervous about the flight if Mike hadn’t been along. Mike reports the flight attendants were good-looking and personable. He remembers Manila International Airport as fancy, ultra-modern.

I met Carolyn for the first time in Manila. I was six, untroubled, with no reason to be otherwise. I showered her with kisses. That’s the kind of days those were for me.

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Camera Familia #10 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. March, 1956. San Lorenzo Village was (is) an Ayala Group planned community, established 1954 in the sand flats east of Manila proper. The name of the district, ‘Makati’, is a Tagalog word meaning ‘itchy’. At the time, local leaders explained the symbolism with words like ‘itchy to grow’ and ‘restless’. You didn’t have to drive far to visit historic landmarks, but you couldn’t see them from where we lived.

Our address was 16 Nakpil Street. We had a four-digit phone number. The next-door neighbors were French. The Philippines is a beautiful country. Filipinos are a beautiful people. It was not a hardship post. Far from it.

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Camera Familia #9 — John Dyer Writes

Manila, Philippines. February, 1956. Our first couple of weeks were spent at the Bay View Hotel. Mom snapped a photo from the room. I remember a trundle bed, and an instance of lunch in the restaurant, where I ate frozen dairy for the first time in my life.

I don’t know how long they let me call it ‘Manila ice cream’. Until the novelty wore off, I guess. If my parents were in any way intimidated by the changes going on in our lives, I sure didn’t pick up on it.

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