I first worked with Fernando Poe Jr. in his FPJ Productions’s pre-Metro Manila Film Festival offering My Little Christmas Tree, which screened on November 25, 1977, a full month before the MMFF. Also in the cast were Nora Aunor, Chichay, Dencio Padilla, Jimmy Santos, and Veronica Palileo. We were directed by Pablo Santiago, a long time FPJ pal since their Lo’ Waist Gang days.
Chichay had earlier on requested that she be let off regularly at 10 P.M., claiming that after that she could no longer recall lines. Chichay left the set the one day that FPJ came in late, saying, “Pakisabi, umalis na ako. Sa dami ng nakalinya ngayon, imposibleng matapos ako bago
FPJ arrived some 30 minutes later. I expected him to send his pal Rudy Meyer to fetch Chichay, but no. He looked at me and said, “Come, let’s get her. I have to apologize.”
We didn’t get into the back of his car for a driver to bring us to Chichay. FPJ drove, I sat beside him. The production person who delivered call slips was behind us, giving directions from the FPJ Studios in San Francisco, Del Monte, in Quezon City, all the way to Chichay’s house in Marikina. Chichay met us at the door, FPJ knelt, quickly, quietly, and humbly. Chichay forgave him, but of course, and rode back with us to the set, harrumphing while FPJ kept on chuckling. The day’s workload got done. Chichay was released on schedule. Before she left, Tita Amparing—as we called her—turned on her heel, shook a warning finger at FPJ saying, “Huwag ka na uli male-late, ha?” He put his palms together, bowed his head, laughed, and Tita Amparing cackled with him.
I’d already heard about how well he took care of people, not only those who worked for him, but even those he hardly knew; of how, on the way home, he’d stop to buy fruits and whatever else late at night to send street vendors home to sleep; have school roofs and classrooms fixed in areas he’d seen up close while shooting; pay for hospitalizations, funerals, and school fees of whoever approached him; prepare packets of relief goods for those affected by disasters, without his name or face on the bags—the Chichay incident confirmed the stories: may puso ang Anak ni Palaris.
From there, my admiration for him knew no bounds. Each encounter with him I filed in a folder on the desktop of my mind: his nuances, his manner of speech. He spoke English well, but was never wersh-wersh.
On board with TAPE, Inc. and Eat Bulaga’s Tony Tuviera and FPJ scriptwriter Manny Buising in the FPJ media group that put ideas for FPJ ads together, I wanted to do more. So when one day in January of 2004 I was informed by FPJ spokesman Congressman Chiz Escudero that for FPJ’s campaign for the presidency I’d be master of ceremonies in sorties and rallies in Borongan, Calbayog and Catbalogan in Samar, Tacloban in Leyte, Bacolod in Negros Occidental, and La Union, I immediately said yes.
A commercial plane first brought me to Tacloban, where I was quickly brought to a small hotel for the helicopter ride to Samar. FPJ was having breakfast with Senator Tito Sotto when I walked in. “Cause of delay,” my president ribbed me.
The first sortie was in Borongan. Waiting to be called on stage after the local candidates did their thing, we were somewhere in the back, kept from full view by tarpaulins and streamers and vehicles galore. I bragged to FPJ and Senator Sotto that I was Samar-born. A group of Warays spotted us. They recognized FPJ and Senator Sotto, but gushed excitedly about me. “See?” I proudly told the two, “They know I’m from here!”
Woman 1: “Agi, asya nama’t hiya, kay tikang it hiya dide ha aton!” (That’s her alright, she’s one of us!”)
Woman 2: “Agi, kay ugangan it hiya ni Armida Siguion-Reyna!” (She’s Armida Siguion-Reyna’s daughter-in-law!”)
Woman 3: “Asawa niya hi Carlitos Siguion-Reyna!” (She’s married to Carlitos Siguion-Reyna!”)
Woman 1, 2, 3: “Hi Maribeth Bichara!” (She’s Maribeth Bichara!)
My face fell. Tito Sotto got teary-eyed from laughing. FPJ laughed so hard he dropped down on one knee.
On stage, I did my spiels fluently in Waray. FPJ leaned over, mock-seriously whispered: “You’re good, Maribeth!”
Daniel Barrion had a sense of humor. He did well in Borongan.
For this trip we went by helicopter three times. Twice on the same day, from Tacloban to Borongan, then from Borongan to Calbayog. From Calbayog we went by land to Catbalogan via the Maharlika Highway, then we took the helicopter again to Tacloban the next day.
FPJ never mounted his chopper without looking for me. “Si Bibeth, si Bibeth?”
I was touched by the thoughtfulness, and I told him so. He shot back, “I have to take care of you, I’m afraid of your mother-in-law!”
In Calbayog, we were made to wait in the parish priest’s private quarters before the program started, shortly before lunch.
FPJ was looking out of the window when I asked what he thought of the sudden doubts thrown at his citizenship. He went still for a beat, but kept his eyes on the cheering crowd outside. “I vote, pay taxes, do everything required of a citizen, make films showing why we should be proud of who we are, of what we are as a people, then all of a sudden, I’m told I’m not Filipino?”
“Are you angry at the people behind this plot?” I kept at him.
He shrugged. “More sad than angry.”
Another burst of cheering from ground level distracted him.
I felt a sudden urge to smoke. I moved to the door. Reggie, FPJ’s aide, asked where I was going. “Maninigarilyo. Walang ashtray dito.”
FPJ left the window, walked to the bed, went down on all fours, confidently groped with his right hand on the floor, on the spot directly under the pillows, and—ta-dah!—brought out an improvised ashtray made from an old tin can.
“How’d you know that was there?” I asked.
“I used to be a sacristan when I was young,” he grinned, like a little boy. “I know the secret hiding places of ashtrays in a church.”
His father, Fernando Poe, wanted him to be priest, if not a doctor. He got his first FAMAS Best Actor Award in Mga Alabok ng Lupa (1967), for playing a priest who gentled toughies in the slums.
He was well-received in Calbayog.
FPJ fretted in the closed van assigned to us for the road trip to Catbalogan. He kept squirming in his seat. “People won’t see us here. They won’t know we’re inside. Sayang.” His sighs got longer. And louder. He told the driver, “Erap, ihinto mo.”
The driver did as told. FPJ went down. We all did, Senator Tito, Reggie, and I. FPJ paced the highway, his forehead deeply furrowed, making a plan he didn’t share with us. He stepped aside to let vehicles pass. Then, from a distance, he saw a truck coming through with an open load bed and wooden railings. He rushed to the middle of the road, flailing his arms. The truck pulled to a stop. The driver’s jaw sagged down in disbelief. Was this the FPJ before him?
FPJ rented the truck as well as a room in a nearby house to serve as a holding place for the goods the truck driver was originally transporting to Catbalogan, and got the truck driver’s services, too. “Erap, OK ba sa iyo kung ikaw na rin ang magmaneho sa amin?”
By now the other vehicles in our convoy had arrived. Up the truck we went. TAPE cameraman Mike Vicencio joined us, as did many others. We’d suddenly become a much bigger group of around 20.
Suddenly out there lining the Maharlika Highway, from Calbayog, passing by Sta. Margarita, then Gandara, then San Jorge, were people. People who came as if from nowhere, running in from stretches of forest, of trees and more trees. Where did they come from, from whose houses, from what communities, how did they know FPJ was passing through, in pre-smartphone days, when the phenomenon of every barrio person and his mother having a cellphone each had yet to be?
FPJ stopped the truck only twice on the way to Catbalogan, on both instances to talk to the owner of a horse and then in the next town, the owner of a carabao with “FPJ” painted on their animals’ bodies. “Water paint man la iton,” they reasoned out in Waray, then promised to wash the paint away before the day was over.
We reached Catbalogan a little over two hours from Calbayog at around 4 P.M. The plaza was so crowded that I wept openly to see my birthplace welcome my president. I wept even more when I saw older people in the throng crying as well, shouting his initials out, the only time I didn’t laugh at my ig kasi Waray’s talent of mispronouncing: “If-Pe-Ji! If-Pe-Ji! If-Pe-Ji!”
As soon as he heard that, If-Pe-Ji turned to me with twinkling eyes. It was as if Asedillo’s humor never left him.
Our group checked into Rolet’s Hotel after the citywide motorcade.
Right away I made pasyada with my cousins Mimay, Weng, and her husband Eamon. We went around on foot for about two hours. Back in the hotel to freshen up, Reggie was pacing in the lobby waiting for me. “Hinahanap ka ni Ma’ger!” FPJ’s staff affectionately gave him nicknames. Ma’ger was short for “Manager” and he was also Piryong.
It turned out he wanted a tabo in his bathroom, but didn’t know the Waray word for it. I translated: “Kabo.” Eseng ng Tondo was not one to impose himself.
Mediavillo took Catbalogan by storm—as he did Tacloban, and Bacolod, and La Union. Pangasinan. Ilocos. Mindanao, particularly. The others who went with him to other places predicted a sure win. “Daya na lang ang ikatatalo ng kandidato natin.”
We didn’t think his opponents would dare cheat, for judging by the reception he got from north to south of the country, only massive cheating could do him in.
But yes, they dared. “Hello, Garci?”
The day after the elections, we were at the Makati Coliseum, tabulating results coming in via cellphones. FPJ was ahead in Metro-Manila, but an alarming trend was fast appearing.
A street rally was called the night of May 11, 2004, to protest the increasingly apparent cheating. I was standing by the small truck commandeered as makeshift stage, waiting for my turn to speak, when Susan Tagle, FPJ’s Girl Friday, made her way to me: “Tawag tayo.”
FPJ’s white Land Cruiser was parked alongside the Mandarin Hotel. Tagle and I got in, and he told his driver Mario to leave us for a while. Then he let out his first question: “Why are we out on the streets? Are we not winning?”
“Sir,” I replied, calling him that for the first time since we’d become friends. “We were checking the returns. You’re winning greatly in the munisipyos, but figures are being altered at the end of the day at kapitolyo level. It looks like some people are ensuring your defeat.” Tagle agreed with me and said more.
He slapped his thigh with a resounding whack. “How low you think of the little people! Pareho pa naman kayong galing UP!” he said. “If cheating’s really been planned, you think there’s not one guard at the Comelec who will stand up to volunteer that he’d heard cheating being discussed? You think there’s not one school teacher who will come out to complain they’re being made to change tally sheets? You think the Church will just let this go by, the priests, the nuns? What about the students? Won’t they want to have their say?”
As he spoke, I recalled the “little people” in his films, where he never really won the fight on his own but always with the help of his community: neighbors would arm themselves with batya and palu–palo, dos–por–dos and dustpans, walis–tingting, kalderos and what-have-you, to combat contrabida goons. Even child actors joined in the finale fight, going back to as far as Jay Ilagan in Anak ng Bulkan, Bentot Jr., Dranreb, Niño Muhlach, and Vandolph, to name a few—and his voice cut off my thoughts. “Have faith in the little people. They will not let us down.”
An hour or so in the car with us, he never referred to himself as “I.” Winning, for him, was a matter of “we” or “us.”
On November 4 of 2004, my mother-in-law and my husband celebrated their birthdays at the German Club in Legaspi Village. FPJ was there, with wife Susan, who was Manang Inday to Carlitos and I, and Mama Inday to our children Aya and Rafa. The couple left earlier than others, and Rafa and I brought them to the elevator. Rafa said, “Good night, Mr. President.”
The image of FPJ’s response is still in my head, how he turned, how his mouth broke into an “o,” how with a slow smile he turned to face Manang Inday and saw her smiling at Rafa, too.
I underwent a mastectomy two weeks later at the Makati Medical Center. I woke up to see FPJ standing by my left side, his two thumbs tucked into the side pockets of his jeans, as usual. “How are you?” he quietly asked.
“Well, they took a load off my chest, so I guess gumaan ang pakiramdam ko.”
He giggled his FPJ macho giggle, his left hand flying to massage the bridge of his nose, right by his eyes, as he was wont to do when trying to control his laughter. “I’m glad you still have your sense of humor,” he said.
“What else does a woman do when she loses a breast, but keep what she can keep?” Bungisngis uli siya. We chatted for a few more minutes. I threw him a question, just as he was about to go. “I hear you’re being invited by the Powers-That-Be to discuss electoral fraud? Is this true?”
He turned to look at me. “Yes.”
“Are you going?”
“I’m not sure. Still thinking about it.”
“Why think about it pa?”
“I’m really not comfortable with the idea of another country deciding who sits in as president of our country.”
“But that’s what they’ve always been doing!” I exclaimed.
He wagged a finger at me. “You’re a leftist, Maribeth.” And then he was gone.
There’s so much more I’d like to say about that election year. But I stop here now, to just simply remind us all: he was Royalty. He was King. Ang Panday was the real winner of the elections of 2004.