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Alas, Monching: How we miss you!

Mar 12, 2024
10 min read

by MX. V. Soliven
Published: 1 September 2004

Yesterday, the 97th birthday—if he had lived—of Ramon Magsaysay came and went—and the usual tributes were paid to his memory, and the annual Magsaysay Awards were fittingly dispensed with the usual fanfare. (The fighting lady I know best, and warmly applaud—Haydee Yorac—was truly deserving!)

Yet the young people of our country, if truth be told, don’t really know what The Guy, Monching Magsaysay, really did for our country. For me, and I’m forever prejudiced in his favor, he was the greatest President we ever had. Not because he was brilliant, or populist – but because he honestly believed in the greatness of the Filipino, and rallied our people around him to demonstrate to themselves that he was right.

Even today, that I am old, thinking of him brings me back to the morning of our lives, when he brought our nation to the threshold of self-confidence, dignity and hope – then was cruelly plucked from us, crashing in flame on a mountaintop in Cebu.

It was typical of him – and fatally so – that the Presidential plane which faltered and failed to climb over the peak of fateful Mount Manunggal was a humble, creaky, second-hand C-47, a surplus aircraft from World War II. It had been christened by him, if you’ll recall, The Mount Pinatubo, in honor of the area in his native Zambales in which he had fought the Japanese as a guerrilla.

The airplane’s name, indeed, had even led to a confusion of names when the wreck of the missing aircraaft finally was discovered by frantic searches. Had RM crashed on Mt. Pinatubo? Had “Mount Manunggal been the name of his Presidental airplane? It was finally, sorrowfully sorted out.

Even then, nobody guessed that Mount Pinatubo wasn’t just an ordinary mountain but a sleeping volcano, which had lain dormant for more than 600 years. It erupted on June 15, 1991, throwing millions of tons of ash and tephra 50,000 feet into the air, killing 550 people in the eruption and its aftermath, burying towns and devastating 100,000 hectares in boiling lahar.

When RM’s widow Luz Banzon Magsaysay died last August 17, at the age of 89 (she had been widowed at 42) we were all poignanty reminded of her graciousness and simplicity when she was First Lady and of the honesty and simplicity which Ramon Magsaysay himself had represented.

Precious and I, of course, rushed over to pay our respects at the wake in De La Salle (Mila Magsaysay-Valenzuela had been her classmate in Sta. Scholastica). And there, too, was Senator Ramon “Jun” Magsaysay – now an experienced and popular solon.

I remember many years ago after his papa’s death when he first made a run for Congress for his father’s former seat in the House as Representative for Zambales, Jun was so nervous because he had never made a public speech.

Mila and her late sister Tessie asked me to help coach Jun in public speaking – and, finally, overcoming his shyness, he managed to mumble his way to victory. He’s much more poised and self-confident now, but in those early, anxious months he – and all of us – were scared stiff he would climb up the entablado and be struck dumb, forgetting his lines entirely. Anyway, we reasoned, how could the son of Ramon Magsaysay go wrong?

RM himself had nagged me incessantly about getting him to be the Ninong at our wedding, but this was not to be. Months before the date, he crashed into the mountain. We got Raul Manglapus in his stead, but Raul forgot the date entirely and didn’t show up at Singalong church. There were other Ninongs, of course, including the late Sixto Brillantes, Sr., the Chairman of the Commission on Elections (father of FPJ’s lawyer, Sixto Jr.) and Foreign Affairs Undersectretary Chito Brillantes, our former Ambassador to Malaysia – both my cousins. Manila Mayor Arsenio H. Lacson also arrived at the church on time. But he dipped his finger in the holy water dish, made the sign of the cross, genuflected, and said: “There, I blessed you already!”

Raul was to tell me later: “What Ho!” (his favorite expression when he’d see me) in his clipped Ateneo-British accent. “By golly, sorry, Max! Was the wedding last week?” He was always so charming, we never held it against him.

After all, let’s not forget, Raul had composed the terrific song which helped bring Manglapus to triumph in his campaign to defeat the incumbent President Elpidio “Apo Pidiong” Quirino. Thanks to him, Mambo, Mambo Magsaysay aroused the people to dance RM to Malacañang, singing, “Our democracy will die, kung wala si Magsaysay!”

I can close my eyes and still hear the thunderous refrain, as a nation mambo’d in the streets. The Mambo of hope. “Mambo na, mambo na!”

As everybody already knows, the rebel Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan (“People’s Liberation Army”), the forerunner of today’s NPA, seemed to be winning everywhere at that time of despair, even maneuvering on the very outskirts of Manila.

Everyone Sniggered and waxed cynical when President Quirino sacked the well-known veteran, Ruperto Kangleon, as Defense Secretary and named an unknown 43-year old Congressman from Zambales the DND on Sept. 1, 1950. It was pointed out that Magsaysay had been so timid and tongue-tied in Congress that he had never worked up enough courage to deliver a privilege speech. The Hulks showed their contempt for The Guy by ignoring his appointment, not even venturing to make a sneering comment about it.

They were not to ignore him for long. RM, a graduate of commerce from JOse Rizal College (but without “distinction”) soon demonstrated that he had more than common sense – he had horse sense. He asked himself the simple question: Why? Magsaysay and his aides hunkered down to studying the tactics of the HMB.

The first thing he undertook was to restore to the army and the Philippine Constabulary their morale and their will to fight. Magsaysay Proved himself a magnetic personality – a man of few words, he however had the personal charisma of reaching out to people, one on one. He never forgot a name or a face. He was a perpetual motion machine – visiting the troops in the field at the most ungodly hours, risking his life again and again, without a care of his own safety. (As reporters, there were times we ourselves hesitated to go with him, he was so reckless. But there was method in his madness. By showing he was fearless, he inspired – or shamed – his men into being fearless themselves.)

He tackled the question of abuses by the military by announcing that any citizen who had a grievance could go to the nearest post office and send a ten-centavo telegram of complaint to him – and he and his military lawyers would act on the complaint in a few days.

No matter how long the letter of complaint was, it would cost only ten centavos!

Speedy courts martial showed the aggrieved parties that Magsaysay was sincere in pledging them justice.

The HMBs promised the people land. RM said: “Come to us and we will give you land. An opportunity for a new life!” He told the rebels that if they surrendered, except those who had committed crimes of murder, arson, and rape, they would be welcomed back into society with open arms.

He proved true to his word. Those who surrendered, he treated well. He warned those who continueds to murder, kill and burn that he would crush them. His policy was called, “All-Out Friendship or All-Out Force.”

Magsaysay overwhelemed everyone with the tidal wave of his sincerity. And when he ran for President in 1953, the job was practically his for the asking.

He donned Barong Tagalog and went to jauntily to be inaugurated, with Apo Pidiong doffing his hat to him. He decreed that basi (Ilocano sugarcane wine), and salabat, be served in the Palace. He threw open to the people the Gates of Malacañang. He was a shownan supreme. But it was to show people that he was the people’s President. He was firm, however, not a “give-away” President. He on all to be their best and to do their best – and an inspired and admiring nation rose to his challenge.

When will we see his like again?

One day, I was riding in the Matorco, the double-decker bus—with the top deck open to the sun—which used to cruise up and down Roxas Boulevard.

I heard my name being called from below, “Max, Max!” I looked down, and there was Magsaysay, galloping beside the slow-moving bus on a white horse – all by himself. I was so alarmed that I shouted at him: “Mr. President – Monching – for Chrissakes – where are your Presidential guards?”

He grinned and shouted back: “They’re half a kilometer behind me – I outran them!” (Those were simpler times, when the Presidential Guard Battalion was less motorized and more informal – owing to RM’s own happy-go-lucky example.) I called on the bus driver to stop, and clambered down.

“Mr. President, an entire squadron of HMBS, or even as assassin, could ambush you the way you’re going around without protection!” RM laughed and merrily said: “You know me well. You’ve gone into the field with me so many times. When it’s your time, it’s your time. If it’s not, God will protect you.”

His very disregard for safety was, in the end, his undoing. Only a broken arm saved me from going with him. Two weeks earlier, I had broken my right arm at the elbow playing basketball for the Manila Times team against the Philippine Herald. A doctor at the nearby Philippine General Hospital reset my arm – wrong. A week later, it had to be broken again and reset in the Singian Clinic, which was just down the road from Malacañang. Magsaysay had called up twice – he was that sort of friend – inviting me to go down to Cebu with him. I pleaded my broken arm, saying I was still in the hospital.

As the Presidential motorcade passed by the Singian Clinis on its way to the airport, Monching spotted me on the balcony, waving at him with my one good arm. He stopped his limousine for a minute, leaned out and urged mee to come down and join him; “Last chance!” he cheerfully called out, “Happy trip.” We were never to see him again.

God, perhaps, took away our most beloved President at the peak of his popularity and powers, to teach us that we must all together, not relying on one hero, work out our salvation. But we who knew and loved him miss Monching Magsaysay so! All these years down the road, I can never think of him without a tear, not merely in the eye, but in the heart.

For he was the best of us—and he taught us, whose lives he so briefly touched—that the Filipino could be among the best. I know he smiles down at us from above, among the stars.

Yesterday, our columnist and editor Joanne Rae Ramire, who knew Mrs. Luz Banzon Magsaysay and Mila well, wrote a wonderful column reminding us that RM—a President, mind you—had not died a rich man. She had interviewed Luz a few years ago. Joanne learned to her amazement that Magsaysay had left only P2,000 behind in a cabinet, one last paycheck (which Luz, sentimentally never cashed) and some land in Zambales.

They never ever owned a house in Manila! Friends, after Monching died in a burst of flame on that mountainside, had to pitch in to buy a home for his widow and children!

In this day, when they’re arguing over “pork barrel” and other multibillion-peso questions, and scams, one longs for that yesterday in which we had a man like Magsaysay, adored and followed in spirit by almost everyone (he had, of course, his vicious foes and detractors)—but steadfast in integrity and strength of purpose to the very end. He had faith in the Filipino, and the Filipino had faith in him.

The article was originally published by the Philippine Star. You may read a [reprint of the article]( shared by Preciosa S. Soliven, wife of MX. V. Soliven.