This blog has been quiet for some weeks, due to textbook deadlines but also, more pleasantly, because of a ten-day trip to the Philippines, where my wife’s father, Valentine Untalan, celebrated his hundredth birthday. Readers of A Little History of the United States will be familiar with his service as a Philippine Scout in World War II, where he joined thousands of other prisoners in the Bataan Death March. On that grueling trek, he attempted escape four times, finally succeeding and working his way back from Bataan to his home in Pangasinan province. He eventually became an American citizen and served tours of duty with the American army in Europe, Japan, Korea and Vietnam before retiring and returning to live in the Philippines. He remains active and engaged in farming mangoes and mahogany as well as bananas and fish.
History measured in biographical terms seldom encompasses 100 years. When it does, the events bracketing such a lifespan astonish. As Val Untalan’s daughter Virginia pointed out during his birthday celebration, in 1916 the Philippines remained under American rule. Woodrow Wilson was president, World War I was raging. The Filipino population stood at a little over 9 million; today, it’s over 100 million. Val grew up in a world where petroleum-filled lanterns lit the homes in his hamlet of Doyong, where one traveled in a calesa or ox-pulled cart, rode a bicycle if you could afford one, or simply walked barefoot along the dirt roads. There was not yet a radio station in the Philippines. When Val was still a young toddler, the flu pandemic of 1919 left him an orphan, to be raised by his grandparents. Now well into the twenty-first century, he has his own great-grandchildren who, if they share his luck, will live to navigate the early years of the twenty-second century.
And look back with astonishment to remember what? That people in 2016 got around in automobiles that still required drivers? That Miami and New York back then were not regularly plagued by flooding? That the United States, before Trump, was still a republic as well as the most powerful nation in the world?
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors