Saturday, June 15, 2013

Father's Day: Remembering My Lolo Bitong, A Life Well Lived

June 6, 2013 was a pretty busy day since it was the first day of Prep school for my little girl.  My mom who does volunteer work as the parochial pre-school administrator was also busy getting ready to come along with us.   It was only after I brought them to school and leaving for work that she casually said, "today is Papa's birthday".   "Papa" was my grandfather, Lolo Bitong and it was his 109th birth anniversary. 

Captain Norberto Y. Riego

Norberto Yanson Riego was born on June 6, 1904 to Deogracias Escaro Riego and Emilia Rivera Yanson of Ilog, Pulupandan and Valladolid, Negros Occidental.  He was the eldest son and second child of a family of six children.  When he turned 15, he decided to find his place in the sun, leaving the town of Ilog because according to my mom, he was afraid that he would live out the rest of his life as a "manangite", translated in English means a toddy tapper (a collector of palm sap).  That time in his life is a little vague but I guess he was able to live out his dreams of adventures and travel, because he eventually became a boat captain's apprentice, and a few years later, earned his captain's hat.  By the early 30's, he was working as an inter-island ship captain for the Compañia Maritima.  It was in Cebu that he met my grandmother, Estrella Guingona Meñes, a pharmacy board topnotcher who was hired by the Gullas family to work in their pharmacy business.   However, sometime in the mid-30's, one of his children died while he was still at sea, and this prompted my grandfather to move his young family to Manila where he began work at the Philippine Nautical School.  So that when WWII broke out, his family was right in the middle of it, since they were living in Pasay City right near Nichols' Airbase where the bombs were falling.  During the Japanese occupation, my grandfather was one of those who were "asked" to re-open the nautical school.  This in a way helped eased the difficulties of raising 6 small children during the war years, the oldest of whom was only 9 when the war broke out.   A few months after the war ended, my grandmother was sick with Tuberculosis and was sent to the United States for treatment.  I guess this was made possible because together with 5 other colleagues from the Philippine Nautical School, my grandfather was tapped to be a harbor pilot by the US Navy.  This became his life from then on.   He was a founding member and an officer of the Harbor Pilot's Association of the Philippines together with Captain Mauricio Gallaga (grandfather of Director Peque Gallaga) and Captain Andres Suzara. He was also awarded Most Outstanding Harbor Pilot of the Philippines.  I have this clear memory of Lolo standing on the tender boat as it approached the ship we were on, and as it came near, he would reach out for the ladder and come up the ship with the ship's captain greeting him with a salute.  This remembrance always makes me teary-eyed.  You see, my grandfather was an international harbor pilot of the port of Manila, but he always made it a point to be the pilot to guide the docking of the inter-island ship from Bacolod that his daughter (my mom) and his grandchildren (us) were on, every time we come to Manila to visit.  It was always such a thrill (and proud moment) to watch him standing tall and dignified while his tender boat approaches the ship.  I know I would shout loudly (or was that more of a scream?), Lolo, Lolo!  

My grandfather with his 4 sons circa 1956
To say that he loved his family is an understatement, because he not only loved us but spoiled us all.  He was kind, generous, loving, understanding (although, he was a master of Spanish curses) and forgiving.  He was just and fair to the household help, preferring to be called Captain, than what was popular then in Spanish speaking families, the more subservient "señor".  He was funny too and tolerant of his sons' misdeeds.  When my mom married right after college, he was disappointed but supportive.  He lived a life of faith and good deeds.

Captain Norberto Y. Riego passed away in November 23, 1964, one day and one year after JFK was assassinated.  He was 60 years old.



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