My mother always thought that I’d grow up as a big time gambling lord. I went home late evenings with bulging pockets full of tansans, teks, kaha ng yosi, and rubber bands. At the age of eight she caught me tossing bingkong coins under the house of her favorite neighbor, Aling Maring. I got the pair of bingkong coins from Dupong, the son of the blacksmith, Mang Bestre. Dupong knew how to manipulate the one-centavo coin in everywhichway you want them to fall in tandem assuring the cara and not the cruz. It was then a series of getting caught red-handed: bunch of rubber bands, tansans, teks, assorted cigarette packs, all amassed in one fell swoop using my incredible skill in taching (probably rooted from touching) in Calauag, and peros in Quezon, Quezon. I was eight when I was nearly caught by Tata Terio, the cop on the bike. We were playing taching after school time in front of the Gabaldon. I carried a transprent plastic bag where I put my books and notebooks and placed them in between the iron railings of the school fence.
Most of my playmates’ bags were made of leather and they were hanging on the pointed rails. We were not playing tansans or teks. We were on the big time, this time playing real coins as bets. And then came the terror on bike, swooping down on us like a hawk marauding on lost chicks. He got a couple of us, Caloy and Jimmy. Tata Terio was the self-anointed marshall against truancy. His arrests can lead you to the the Municipio where only your parents can redeem you. A furlough in the Municipio meant severe beating of the cuero, the favorite device then for corporal punishment. As to the rest of us, we scampered in all directions leaving all our school stuff, the Tata swept them all and hang them in his bike’s handle. I was in near breakdown because it meant unimagined retribution as the sin for me was as big as Gabaldon. But I enjoyed my first miracle. My bag was the only one saved. There it was still snug in betwen the rails. I realized that the Tata wore dark glasses because of poor eyesight attributed to cataract! I was spared of the cuero.
At that tender age I knew the meaning of bato-taya, a devil-may-care attitude that I presumably carry up to this day. I had money then. I was a vendor of all kinds of goodies when I was seven. I sold ice drop of Kuya Dique, a variety of bread: pan de sal, bonete, pan de coco, pinag-ong, aglipay, everlasting, enseymada from sunrise to sunset. I have my siesta in Bangkalin, under the ol’reliable kalumpit tree. I know all the nooks and crannies of Quezon, Quezon like the hunch of my foot. I sold balut-penoy in the cockpit of Calauag when I was nine after a short understudy with Kuto. Dupong was my best friend, a young man at that time, he was my idol and I was his pajenante in his horse-urine reeking rickety calesa. I looked forward to our merienda of matamis na saging with ice in the turo-turo of Tajonera,beside the bakery of Decena, right across the house of Serrano, that my mother bought in 1964. Coming home, I smelled like horse dung.
Karias Putol, the jueteng collector who often loitered in front of the store of Aling Sining in Paang Bundok would exchange banter with me while he was counting the day’s collections. Once he got a winner, I was assured of balato from Karias. I was a fixture in the palengke being a great fan of Boy Francia, the protector of pula-dayon in Sabang Uno of Calauag.
What I am telling you now is that I had the wherewithal for puhunan. So whether it was taching or cara y cruz, or sabong in anticipation of sambot I know the rules of all the games of chance hereabouts, except mahjong. My mother suffers fainting spells whenever she sees mahjong ivories. That I’ll tell you why.
My maternal grandfather was a typical native of Quezon: with ample coconut and rice land in Quezon, Quezon, the character of the tree shaped the character of the man. He was what they called in Quezon a tajor, a master gambler. While he mastered the art of sabong he shied away from it maybe out of sheer discipline. Instead, he was a fixture in every card game in town. Later on, he concentrated only in mahjong. He was a good reader of character. He can size up a man by just a furtive look from any distance. He had his way of telling to whom trust should be reposed. He had his own peculiar style while seated on any gaming table and taught people what poker-face was all about. But sometimes he could not help giving himself away that he had a good hand whenever he let go a powerful spittle. Notwithstanding my tatay being a tajor, all his children were nonetheless college-bound. His puhunan was not limitless, he didn’t dare touch the tuition money for his children or he got a scolding from his one true thing, my grandmother whom I fondly call nanay who unbelievably struck a modus vivendi with my tatay. While tatay did not shirk his responsibility of supporting his family, my nanay on the other hand was supportive of my tatay’s gambling streak. Talk about an odd couple!
The people of Quezon, Quezon incredibly looked up to my grandfather as the oxymoronic ideal gambler. He had the respect of his family and the community and thus the best of both worlds. He could be anywhere: Gumaca, Lopez, and Calauag and pitted with the best of the best mahjong players thereabouts. Once he played in Paco, Manila and at the age of 60 nearly slashed the throat of a cheating youthful adversary who apparently underestimated his skill in the game. He sported a balisong antigo snugly hidden in his bulsa de reloj. One time he accompanied my mother in attending a court dispute. There was a commotion, and I saw my grandfather being pacified as he was about to attack the other litigant in that case. Had he had his way, he would have gone to the jugular as was his wont. At eight years old, I could have defended him at that time as I was gunning to be a cop at that early age. No charges were pressed as obviously the threatened party did not want to see my lolo again for the rest of his life. I had no idea then of what lawyering was all about.
Doubtless, my tatay was my idol for who wouldn’t, he spoiled me rotten. I was his first grandson and he played his favorite games while babysitting me.
I knew we had a good day if we had a separate bowl of steaming arroz caldo cum pecho and a bad day if we shared a glass of gulaman and a piece of marjuya. My vocabulary took-off first with escalera, siete pares todo pong, ‘lo dies, parada, tiope, jago, dejado-llamado, and soon expanded as to luckily include the Webster’s.
Under the tutelage of my grandfather, I learned how to count. Money in all denominations passed my little hands. My grandmother saw to it that I had a thorough washing once we got home. My nails were clipped short to ensure that no dirt seeped in my nimble fingernails.
One might say I had an awful childhood. But I lived with a husband and wife whose interests were whales apart. While my lolo was a fixture of gaming places, my grandmother on the other hand was a Church habitue being a member herself of the Manangs or the Magdadasals. Not a weekend passed did we attend padasal for the departed. Just by being there, I committed to memory the Latin mantra of Kyrie, eleison; Christe, eleison; Christe, audi nos; Christe, exaudi nos; Pater de Caelis Deus; miserere nobis; Fili, Redemptor mundi, Deus; Spiritus Sancte, Deus; Sancta Trinitas, unus Deus; etc. With my Nanay I became a linguist believe it or not. But most important, I was told that there was an omnipotent God. It was right after the Angelus that these prayer meetings took place and they were anxiously anticipated what with the festive merienda of pancit, pasingaw, minukmuk, sinukmani, served with hot cacao and a host of other kakanins. My tatay introduced me to cockpit Kristos and I knew them by name. I was at first confused when my nanay told me that there was only one Kristo, and he does not bet in the sabungan.
At an early age, I knew the different worlds where my grandparents moved and nobody told me I was in a wrong place in a wrong time.
The first and the last week of May every year are my most anticipated time of the year. Not Christmas because my ninongs were a no show. May 3 is the Feast of the Holy Cross in Quezon; and May 25 is the Calauag town Fiesta. Why are they special to me?
Feriantes in droves from all over the province descend these two towns. Fiesta Carnival or Enchanted Kingdom or Universal Studios or Orlando Disneyland was not in conception yet but the fiestas in Quezon and Calauag are simply too fascinating for a provinciano like me. There were circuses yes and unusual creatures, but they were not the object of my interest.
It was the beto-beto.
The sound of the three dice inside a bowl-like receptacle shaken against a platito (katak-katak-katak) had a hypnotic allure on me, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Year in and year out, I bet my bottom salapi in the beto-beto. At dusk fall I was all psyched up for the game, ready with all my day’s earnings whether from the ice drop of Kuya Dique or the tinapays of Nanang Puring. I was eight years old when it captivated me, and I remember quitting when I was thirteen.
I double bet and the triples. I placed my bets on the borders or shotgun bets. I mastered the technique on how the banker shook the dice. There were nuances in the style of shaking the ivories. I knew there was a trick somewhere but I placed my providential trust on the dealer. He could not cheat or my Patron Saint San Pedro or Majal na Sta. Cruz would send him to Hell. I squatted like a geodetic and levelled my vision on the table just to have a peek on where the cubes went or settled. There were enticing tricks like pooling the three cubes at the rim of the minibasin before completely covering them with nary a tremor tantalizing the clueless to place their bets on the obvious. Not me. I mastered how the dice moved about, their intricate cuts, uneven corners, and unequal weights; and that invariably caught the goat of the banker. I never went home empty handed. I was a young tajor in beto-beto.
Did I tell you I quit at thirteen? I shouldn’t have and continued to this day. It was May 27 and it was my fourth straight gambling night in Calauag having started on May 24. Talk about hypnosis. I don’t remember having taken a good bath or clothes change. Maybe I forgot that I have a mother who was looking for me all over the place. She found me. And I never noticed her beside me. All the bettors without me minding all cleared out. It was only me and my mother right across the dealer. I did not notice the horror on the face of the manager who just looked in the direction of the lady on my right.
“Kalugin mo na!” I demanded having placed all my double wagers on the uno and cinco being my favorite numbers since I was piling up in winnings anyway. “Ano ba, kalug na!”
I was thirteen then, and I told you I quit! I had a love affair with the cuero!
As to mahjong, I never touched an ivory to this day, and never cared to know its rules!