Monday, December 31, 2012

Fr. James Bertram Reuter, SJ (1916 - 2012) -- a remembrance

(An old post, revised)

Remembering Fr. James Bertram Reuter, SJ

I first met Father during a production of The Bridge (a play Father had written and directed, about Matteo Ricci), and through rehearsals and tours of the Philippine countryside performing the play for various schools and colleges, learned the virtues of teamwork, friendship, loyalty, discipline, patience, hard work--everything I should have learned from the classroom or from my family but for one reason or another did not (either no one bothered to teach them--my school's main emphasis was math and science--or I just didn't listen).

Father helped me listen, think, grow. I joined his other productions: The Lady (about Our Lady of Fatima); historical pageants of one kind or another; a radio play; a short-lived TV series; a modern-day drama exposing the abuses of child prostitution. It was a priceless if unconventional education that I'd never trade for anything in the world, and if there's anything of value in me as a person and Filipino, I trace it the years spent earning that education--my years spent under Father's supervision.

Oh, and humor--humor was important. We'd pray before the start of every performance, and Father would rattle off the different saints, and end with St. Jude, who was special: we'd all go "Saint Juuuude!" probably not for any particular reason, but because it sounded so funny. Father always smiled; sometimes he'd stretch that last syllable with us.

He'd call us his "ducks." I never thought to ask why, it was probably a term of endearment, but for some reason when he said "Noel my duck!" it pleased me to no end; it lit a warm glow inside. I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one who felt that way, either.

One time he called me worse than a duck, and for good cause--I was playing a doctor, and in the play's final, tearjerking scene I was to check the patient's heart and declare her dead. I ran onstage, checked the patient's pulse, put my stethoscope's diaphragm to her heart--and immediately the audience started laughing. I didn't know why; I shook my head at the girl's parents, and they broke down crying and the audience was still laughing.

Then I realized what was wrong: I'd forgotten to plug in the earpieces. I basically declared my patient dead without actually listening for a pulse.

You could hear him over the backstage intercom: “Dammmit Noel! Damnation! Get him off the stage. Noel my duck! Over! Can anyone hear me? Dammit!”

Curtain call came and second to the lead actors I got the biggest applause, not to mention a few cheers. Needless to say I wasn't proud of the ovation I got that day.

He was also a stickler for punctuality: "Get the body here on time!" "Father, what if we're sick?" "Get the body here on time!" "Father, what if we're dying?" "I don't care what you do, just get the body here on time!" 

Father listened to people, once in a while when they have a good idea, he'd use that idea; once he even used my idea.

It happened when we were rehearsing the play about child prostitution. The original ending had the child saved by an honest cop and an idealistic young woman. I'd told Father: "Father, do you think this ending is realistic enough?" Father glared at me, but said nothing. 

Next rehearsal he was handing out a new script. "I made changes," he said. Now the police officer was killed and the gang had taken away the little girl, leaving the idealistic woman weeping over the dead officer's body. I didn't say anything, but I did think that when Father went all the way, he went all the way, no holding back, or doing things by halves. Even then I was learning from him. 

I even nearly got killed working for Father--well, that wasn't so funny. 

A performance of The Lady in Iloilo was held in the school's fourth-story auditorium. My part was that of a demon menacing the dos Santos children, and I had this crazy idea of making my entrance not from the stage wings but elsewhere. The auditorium had windows, and a ledge outside the windows that ran to the windows backstage--if I tied a rope out the backstage window I could easily climb out, walk over, and climb back into the auditorium, terrifying the kids (they'd never expect me to come in from that direction). 

It was worth a try, I thought; of course I stupidly didn't tell anyone of my plans. I grabbed the rope and carefully clambered out; when I pulled on the rope for support the line promptly snapped. I lost my balance, and fell some sixty feet to the concrete courtyard.

Not sure what happened after that; heard that a boy named Mikal saw me fall and told the others; that I was rushed to the hospital unconscious; that I was wheeled into the emergency room in full demon makeup and costume. I woke up with a dislocated wrist, a sprained ankle, a handful of shattered teeth.

Not sure what useful lesson I learned coming out of that incident except the idea that every year I've lived since is a totally undeserved gift granted to me, and that I'd do almost anything for Father. Well, won't be doing anything as stupid as that again, but anything else. He had that ability, of inspiring people to push beyond the limits of what was thought proper (sometimes beyond the limits of what was thought sane).

Also got a nickname afterwards--'Stuntman.' We used handheld radios to communicate backstage, and that was my handle; when we operated the CB radio network during the 1986 snap elections and EDSA revolt (more on that later) that was still my handle. I wore the monicker with cockeyed and embarrassed pride.

Not sure what Father thought of me, really; I remember one historical play he wrote where I recognized one of the characters--it was me.  Can't quote it exactly, but each character was being given advice, and to me he wrote something to the effect that I needed to read less books and live life more, go out in the world and do things. Afraid I haven't followed that advice as well as I should, but I never forgot it. 

Maybe my proudest moment involving Father was helping him run the secret radio network that operated during the 1986 snap elections, when president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos ran against housewife Corazon Aquino, and all that stood between Marcos and an uncontested victory was the citizen's watchdog group NAMFREL (National Movement for Free Elections).

Father's network of CB radio units, coordinating from his base of operations in Xavier House (a Jesuit residency/office located in Sta. Ana Manila), acted as a backup to NAMFREL. For two weeks after the elections, men and women who volunteered to work with Father radioed in the election results from NAMFREL's La Salle High School Greenhills headquarters to Xavier House, where it was stored in computer files. In the possible event that the La Salle location was raided (and there were one or two moments, with hordes of Marcos sympathizers hammering away at the school gate, when the possibility seemed real indeed), we would at least have the election results--the truth, in effect--squirreled safely away. 

Marcos 'won' the election on paper, but thanks to NAMFREL (and, I like to think, our little network) we had an idea of the magnitude of cheating involved in his victory, and the indignation inspired by that information grew into the EDSA revolt--but you know the rest.

 Reading those returns over the radio, I was conscious of being--no matter how indirect, no matter how small--a part of history (I was, what, twenty at the time?), of helping insure a better future for my country. If you'll forgive the metaphor, I imagined the numbers I yelled into the radio handset were metaphoric bullets fired into this seemingly invincible dictatorship, hoping against hope to bring it down. Oh, one might argue that "Father had snared you into trouble again," or that my role in the whole affair probably wasn't significant, but from where I stand I believe it was one of the most important acts I ever did as a young man--perhaps one of the most important acts I have ever done, period.

Father's help and guidance didn't end there. When I met the lovely, loving woman I wanted to marry, I couldn't settle for anyone else--it had to be Father who would wed us and I was grateful and honored he agreed. Not a big affair--there were maybe seven people at most at the church (I only had her and my measly salaries to spend), and by way of contrast the wedding before us had over a hundred people, elaborate decorations, an organ concert, and a rented limousine service to take away the newly wedded couple. But we had Father officiating our ceremony, and we were perfectly happy with that, even if he was half an hour late ("Father, I thought you knew the place, that you've been here before!" "I have, but that was back in 1938"). 

For all that my wife (who only met Father maybe three or four times in her life) loved him dearly and often talked about him, even today--especially today. She often said that if one of us managed to come back to the Philippines (we've been gone nine years as of today), she'd visit him and tell him all about our lives together, and of the family we've made.
That was eighteen years ago. Just this year my wife went back to the Philippines and managed to visit Father at his hospital. He was weak, but he remembered her, and me when she mentioned my name; he was glad we've stayed together all this time, that we've built a happy, beautiful family, and that our lives were more or less good. She could only stay a short time--he tired easily; before she left he kissed her hands, cheeks, forehead. It was like he wasn't just saying goodbye, he was saying farewell--as if he knew that was the  last time they would see each other. 

 And that was that; the next thing we knew he had passed away. 

He probably had an appointment, and he was never late for an appointment. Well, maybe for my wedding.  



howie said...

Sweetly said. ; )

Ramuel M. Raagas said...

Walang Pilipinong dapat maging "squatter sa sariling bayan" (Ka Lean Alejandro)

eric b said...

newspaper account was false. hope you have read the jesuits' official statement on the matter.

Noel Vera said...

"newspaper account was false"

You mean the Inquirer article? I heard. I haven't found an official statement, tho, would help if someone posted a link.

Inamo said...

This is so touching. Very well said!

Moving forward, we were asked by Fr's Ateneo Glee Club alumni to help in a fundraising effort that is aimed to build a hospital in Father's honor. This will kick off May 21, 2009- Papa Bear's 94th Bday!

How can we say no to that, right?

Sr. Maitel said...

Noel, made me laugh and cry....

Noel Vera said...

Thanks, sister!

Quentin Tarantado said...

We can't expect him to stay with us forever, but I love the way he lived his life, always doing things, never minding if he made history or if he's remembered. He simply did what needed to be done.
I remember joining my twin Noel for The Bridge, then Noel went on to star in all those other plays and the TV show (I even saw an episode of the TV show). But I was out of the Reuter Babies at the time, even during the Namfrel election. However, I joined Noel during the February Revolution itself, when he geared up again with CB radio to be the Reuter Baby at Channel 4. I don't remember doing much, but Noel knew what he was doing. He'd been doing it the past few years.

Noel Vera said...

Joel being with me that February was a surprise and great moral support--our family was against my even stepping one foot out of the house. He was a part of what happened as much as I was, as we all were.