Pagsanjan, a.k.a. Little Las Vegas

Old town gate, Pagsanjan

In Pagsanjan, it was altogether another life-style for the wandering Gomezes from Bicol. It was there that Tita Chita and I grew up as teenagers, and being mestizos, we were quite popular. On moonlight nights, it was customary for us teeners to meet after dinner, buy a bag of salted fried peanuts, and walk around the town, talking and laughing as we munched on those freshly fried peanuts. And, of course, pares-pares (paired off) but, would you believe, NOT holding hands? For a while it felt like the world was at peace.

The occupying Japanese soldiers were garrisoned in Sta. Cruz, the adjoining capital of the province, and for the most part left us alone. They would come and hold what were called zonas, when the male population were sequestered up in the schoolrooms on top of the hill where the school was, but these were more rest days for the men to be found at the time, usually lasting two days and nights. It was their way to look for those they suspected to be guerillas, I guess. They would haul off a few at the end of the zonas.

I should not end our Pagsanjan episode before mentioning that one of the ways we earned our bread and butter, aside from my Father’s casino, was our cigarette business. Yes, before Marlborough thought of its filtered tips, my Tita (Aunt) Nena Pimentel and my Lolo (Grandfather) decided that they would go into the cigarette business. But they were not using tobacco. For this they would gather dried papaya leaves, cut them very finely so that they looked like tobacco, rolled them in fine paper, and bordered the tips with colored paper. We sold these at the weekly cockfights held outside of town. We did not pass them off as tobacco, but they sold. We named our brand Chester so that they reminded smokers of the American brand Chesterfield. The rollers they used were those to be found among nga-nga (areca nut) addicts. With a little change in design, my Lolo and Tita Nena devised a contraption that would roll the papaya leaves in paper cut about the same size as regular cigarettes. Necessity is the mother of invention, indeed!

No, one thing we didn’t is starve during the war. My Father, Grandfather, and Tita Nena always seemed to find ways and means to put food on our table.

To keep us fed and roofed, my Father opened a weteng (illegal lottery) room, where people would come and play. I collected the tong (house fees). Also, the guerillas had made my Father their trial Judge, and he would be fetched, at night, whenever somebody was to be tried for collaborating with the enemy.

He also tried to work in Manila, staying in the city Monday to Friday, and be home with us on the weekends. This proved too taxing and he gave it up, concentrating on his casino, which by then included also poker, blackjack, and monte. Vegas in Pagsanjan, we liked to think of Papa’s joint.

Another activity my Father engaged in to earn our keep was the bakya (wooden slipper) business. Pagsanjan was known for the beautiful and colorful bakyas it put out. Actually, the raw products were carved in Paete, known for its excellent carpenters and wood carvers. Our cousins, the Palileos, would buy these carved wooden clogs, varnish and paint them so well, and made them into very fashionable footwear, a timely replacement for shoes, both for women and men. In fact, I worked for my cousins sanding and varnishing bakyas, and trimming the straps before they were considered finished products and ready to be sold.

I remember my Father and I brought a casco (barge) load to Manila. The barge was towed from Pagsanjan, via Lumbang, and docked at Quiapo, a trip that took almost a week. My Father and I spent four days and nights travelling to and from Pagsanjan and Quiapo. We made two such trips before we left for Manila.

But soon, our brief respite from the war came to an end. The grapevine had it that the Allies were making their return, as MacArthur had promised before he left Corregidor.

Next: HEY, JOE! Captain Farr…and the end of the war

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