Monday, July 11, 2011

Tun Mel's Story

THERE’S joy in a seven-year-old boy’s eyes as he volunteers to his sensei in cleaning his office.

And he makes himself available whenever opportunity presents itself.

But there’s more to cleaning the room than meets the eye.

As he goes about what he volunteered to do, his eyes wander. Curiosity overwhelms him in his scrutiny. Lying on the table is a stick of cigarette.

With the mischief of childhood, he checks if the coast is clear. He hurriedly stows the cigarette in his pocket and returns to cleaning the room. But in his mind a plan has been hatched.

Now 88 years old, Tun Jose I. Torres breaks out a smile to confirm that he’s guilty of lighting that cigarette 81 years ago and that began an 81-year habit.

Tun Jose or “Mel” to his friends is one of the oldest — if not the oldest congregate at the Office on Aging.

Born in Garapan, Saipan on Aug. 20, 1923, Tun Mel is the son of Felix Torres Palacios of Saipan and Carmen Iglesias of Piti, Guam.

He tells Variety, “I have two brothers — Clemente and Vicente and one sister.”
Picking a memory from his past is like putting together big shards of a broken jar.

His memory is still lucid; however, in the passing of so many years, something’s got to give.

As he sips his early morning dose of coffee, he tries to travel back in time — before the war years.

Asked if he also went to the Japanese school, he says, “Yes, I went to the Japanese school over there in Garapan.”

Tun Mel says he is fortunate to have had the opportunity to study during the Japanese period. “I studied for five years. That’s the limit.”

[According to Don Farrell’s “History of the Northern Mariana Islands,” Chamorros and Carolinians could attend school for three years; however, only special students get to enjoy two more years. The top students are sent to Palau for trade school.]

He recalls there are about 20 students in his class, all Chamorro and Carolinian.

He says, “The Japanese [students] are separated from the Chamorros and Carolinians.”
Like his other contemporaries, he too knows how to speak Nihongo.
Tun Mel narrates he worked for the Japanese military. He says, “I worked for the Japanese military before the war. I went to Pagan and I was one of those who helped build a road.”

He says it took only one year to finish the job.

From Pagan, he tells Variety that he went back to Saipan and worked for the Japanese military again. But this time in the former Aslito Airfield that later became the Isley Airfield.

“I worked there for one year and half. Then the war came,” remembers Tun Mel.

The cacophony of the bombing sends everyone scuttling to safer ground.

Tun Mel and his family escaped to Kannat Tabla and hid in a cave.

Asked by Variety how long they stayed in the cave, he says, “Close to one month inside the cave.” He tells Variety that he was with his parents.

Asked if there were others with them, he says, “No. I would ask those who came by to go and look for another place.”

He explains when it gets crowded in the cave, people tend to “talk, talk, and talk.” For him, this will betray their hiding place and make them easy targets.

“Sometimes I cried because I was scared,” admits the 88-year-old.

He also corroborates the stories of the other war survivors.

He says, “We survived on coconuts. There was no food. No rice.”

Not long after, he says, they were found by the American military personnel who took them to the stockade in Susupe.

There, Tun Mel narrates how the Japanese and the indigenous people lived in separate quarters.

“I can move about freely in Camp Susupe.” [Camp Susupe, in Farrell’s book, was called by the Philadelphia Inquirer as “the most amazing shanty town ever administered by the United States Navy.”]

According to Tun Mel, when the gates of Camp Susupe were opened, they were told to wear a read badge which for Tun Mel meant the Americans would easily identify them.

The conversation segues into the post-war years. He says he was employed by a local but later he says his boss asked him to work for the commander.

He also recalls working for an ice factory and not long after relocated to Guam where his mother was originally from.

He says he lived and worked on Guam for 29 years. “I worked on Guam for the big companies, moving from job to job trying to earn ‘big money.’”

During the intervening years, he says he hasn’t found someone to marry and build a family with. “I didn’t want to marry,” says Tun Mel who spent his bachelorhood in Guam.

With a grin, he tells Variety he bade bachelorhood goodbye four years ago.

Despite his age, Tun Mel says he still feels strong. “I eat the same. I eat anything.”

He says he has no secret to long life; however, he prays to God that he be given a long life.

Prodded by Variety to tell if he has other things that he does that’s out of the ordinary and helps him live longer, he says, “It must be coffee.”

Then he lets out a loud laugh before standing up to clear his throat.

Asked if he does exercise, he replies, “No exercise!” Then he laughs again.

The jovial Kannat Tabla resident comes to the Manamko’ Center every day. But in the days that he stays at home, he says he watches TV, eats, and drinks beer.

Then he retracts his statement. “Now I don’t drink anymore.”

Blessed to have lived longer than some of his contemporaries, Tun Mel imparts a message to the young generation.

He says he may not be a good example to the young but he wants them to know that smoking is bad for their health —that it can kill them.

He also says one thing he values and learns from the elders is respect that he would like the young to continue cultivating as a virtue.

With another sip of hot coffee, he stands up and walks to get his breakfast. He comes back to the seat he has staked claim on and waves his hand to bid this reporter, “till then.”

Then he raises his cup of coffee for yet another sip of what he jokingly refers to as the reason he’s still around.

[Tun Mel is probably the oldest man on Saipan. The Office on Aging has yet to update its records.]

[Spice is the newest section of Marinas Variety dedicated to people with interesting stories and events that matter. For comments and suggestions, email]

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