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Lionel Fisher

A Eurasian Finally
Plays His Race Card

by Lionel Fisher

They met in Hong Kong in the summer of 1926, an improbable couple in those primly proper British Colonial times. He, Cornelius Stanley Fisher, Sr., 28, an Englishman born and raised in London, a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Navy; she, Mercedes de Ocampo, a 27-year-old schoolteacher from a prominent Manila family, alone on her first two-month holiday abroad. He was in Hong Kong because his ship, the H.M.S. Kent, was in port for several months. She had treated herself to a vacation on the Isle of Victoria after two years of teaching English composition at a Women's college in Manila. In this romantic setting, they met, fell in love and were married on May 2, 1929, two days before he resigned his Royal Navy commission to begin a new life and a business career in the Orient.

She would bear him three sons and a daughter in Hong Kong: Arthur, Lionel, Elinor, Robert and a fourth son, Stanley, in Manila, where they had moved in the fall of 1938. The youngest boy was born on September 26, 1941, nine weeks before another fateful event. On the Monday morning of December 8 -- Sunday, December 7, in Honolulu -- Japanese planes struck at targets throughout the Philippines, as they did simultaneously at Pearl Harbor.

In the ensuing weeks, the air raids over Manila intensified until, on December 15, General Douglas MacArthur transferred his headquarters to the island fortress of Corregidor. A month later, Japanese troops engulfed the defenseless city, stranding thousands of British, American, Dutch, Polish, Spanish, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Cuban, Russian, Belgian, Swedish, Danish, Chinese and Burmese civilians, our family among them.

The Japanese cannily selected the University of Santo Tómas as an internment camp for the large population of enemy civilians trapped in the cordon of the invading army. Occupying sixty acres in the dense heart of the city, the venerable institution founded by Spanish Dominican priests in 1619 was surrounded by high masonry walls with an ornate iron palisade guarding its imposing entrance. The rectangular campus with its massive buildings and spacious dormitories was ideally suited for its grim new purpose.

The first 300 internees entered Santo Tómas on January 4, 1942. When the camp was liberated on the night of February 3, 1945, it held 3,700 men, women and children. During the three-year Japanese occupation of Manila, a total of 6,874 civilians of countries at war with Japan were interned at Santo Tómas and a second civilian internment camp built in 1943 at Los Baños, 35 kilometers away. A total of 362 internees died in the two camps, most of them from starvation, almost all at Santo Tómas.

"The rescue at Santo Tómas came on the eve of the 1,126th day of imprisonment," reported The New York Times on the front page of its February 6, 1945 edition. "It came in time to prevent further deaths from malnutrition, principally among veterans of the Spanish-American war, old men whose diminishing stamina could not withstand the ravages of beriberi, pellagra and other diseases."

Marooned in Manila at the outbreak of hostilities, my mother, father, sister, two of my three brothers and I spent the war inside Santo Tómas. I was seven years old when we walked through those tall, ornamental gates in January of 1942, ten when we were liberated and expatriated to the United States in March of 1945. We returned to the Philippines in May of 1946. The New York firm that had employed my father before the war had asked him to reopen its Far East branch in Manila, a city once called the Pearl of the Oriented, devastated by the war but resolutely rising from its ashes. And so we went "home" again. Four months later, I watched my father die. He was 46 years old. I was 12.

Confronting a Lifetime of Denial

Here at the beach a half-century after what happened in those early morning hours of September 17, 1946 in Manila, I finally allowed myself to remember, to grieve at long last, to make peace with the shattering events of my childhood, with my resolute denial of them and the lifelong disavowal of myself.

After my mother died of cancer in a New York City hospital in the winter of 1981, I took the scrapbook she had given me back to Oregon, along with the 13 single-spaced pages she had typed in her bed during her last pain-ridden months. She had done it for her grandchildren, she said. Those pages tell of her life in Manila and Hong Kong, and they are priceless to me now. But after she died, I hid the words away, along with the clippings. I couldn't bear to look at them. I didn’t try for another 20 years.

On the Pacific Northwest beach to which I’d retreated to face myself alone, to confront my deepest disquiets, my lifelong unease with who I really was and all I would never become, I finally read the yellowed, crumbling newspaper clippings my mother had preserved in a cardboard scrapbook along with the telegrams and letters of condolence she had received. I had never asked to see them; I had never wanted to.

Now the memories came flooding back, coursing over the weirs of denial I’d built to hold them at bay for as long as I can remember. With them came the remorse, the renounced sorrow of a lifetime of failed choices, lost opportunities -- all the irretrievable acts of love and courage and kindness never consummated because I hadn’t understood their importance until it was too late.

The boy was 12 when he watched his father die in a suburb of Manila on the night of September 17, 1946. The September 18, 1946 issue of The Evening Herald, Manila’s English-language newspaper, carried this front-page account of the crime:

Briton Killed by
Five Gunman
In Pasay Home

Cornelius Stanley Fisher, manager of the Specialty Corporation and a native of London, was riddled with bullets in his bedroom at 923 F.B. Harrison, Pasay, at around 3:15 this morning by five unknown men who broke into his residence to rob.

In the investigation conducted by Detectives P. Penaranda, C. Lagadi and D. Tugade of the homicide section, it was disclosed that five unknown men entered the house by cutting the wire screen of the window at the kitchen.

Pio Teves, the houseboy, who sleeps in the kitchen, woke up because of the commotion, but before he could call for help, one of the men pressed a revolver behind him and ordered him to keep quiet and to lead the malefactors to the room of Fisher.

Two of the unknown men stayed on the ground floor to act as guards while the remaining three went up with Teves who brought them to Fisher. Fisher, at the sight of the men in his room, tried to reach for his .45 caliber revolver which was grabbed by the robbers.

The family of Fisher was herded into the room with a lone armed guard while the two ransacked the rooms for loot. It was at this juncture that Fisher grappled with his guard for the possession of the firearm. The pistol in the course of the struggle went off attracting the robbers who were busy taking loot.

The robbers went into the room to help their companion and they riddled Fisher with bullets, killing him instantly.

Found missing from the Fisher household after the hoodlums had fled were P300 cash money, Fisher’s .45 caliber pistol and personal papers.

Cornelius Stanley Fisher, who is a British subject, has his office at the Wilson Building at Juan Luna. Fisher is survived by his wife, Mercedes DeOcampo Fisher, 45, and five children.

Allowing Himself to Remember

What the old man remembers of that night fifty years ago begins when he is shaken awake. He opens his eyes to see a man bending over him. The man’s face is covered by two white handkerchiefs, one tied around his forehead and flipped backwards over his hair, the other tied across the bridge of his nose to hide his face, leaving only a slit that reveals his eyes. He remembers thinking in those first confused moments that Blanca, the family dog, was having her puppies and he was being called to watch.

He remembers being led to his parents' bedroom where his mother and father are seated on the bed, just to the right of the door. He remembers seeing another man in the room with his parents, handkerchiefs also hiding his face. The man tells him to sit and the boy sits on the floor next to his mother and father, his back resting against the bed.

He remembers seeing his father stand up suddenly and lunge at the man, clutching him around the waist, grabbing at the wrist of the hand that holds the gun. He remembers watching the two of them struggle, sees the man shoot his gun at the ceiling.

He can't remember whether he is standing now or still sitting, but he is very close to the two men locked in their frantic embrace because he remembers the puzzled, plaintive look on his father's face as he grapples with the gunman, as if asking himself, "Why did I do this? What do I do now?"

The old man remembers his mother holding desperately onto his father as he struggles, pleading with him, "Sit down, Stanley, sit down, let him go," and saying to the man with the gun, "He doesn't mean it, he'll sit down, he doesn't mean it," then again to his father, "Let him go, Stanley, let him go, please let him go, it will be all right." He remembers this most of all.

"Mrs. Fisher was helping her husband, biting at the gangster," one newspaper reporter wrote the following day, but that's not what the old man remembers because he can still see his father's stricken eyes, can hear his mother's pleading voice. And that is all he remembers of that night.

He doesn’t know whether he turned away or chose to forget the rest of what he saw. But he doesn’t remember his father being shot, doesn’t see him fall, doesn’t see him die.

There’s a picture in his mind of the dead man lying in the bedroom on that night long ago, but it came from a black-and-white photo in one of the news clippings that he waited fifty years to read. In the grainy image preserved on yellowing newsprint his father lies on his back, feet bare under striped pajama bottoms and a light-colored bathrobe. His left leg is bent, the knee propped on the wall against which he must have fallen before slumping to the floor. His face is turned toward the camera, but the features are obscured in the shadow of a dresser. Only a dark stain extending down the left shoulder and across the upper chest of the light bathrobe is plainly evident.

"Against the five masked gunmen," reads the caption under the photo, "Mr. C. S. Fisher had no chance."

Putting down the faded newspaper clipping, the old man picked up the phone and called his bank to inquire about the U.S. dollar-Philippine peso exchange rate. A clerk told him it was currently .02612 and offered to do the math for him. A few moments later she said, "At today’s rate, 300 pesos is worth $7.84."

"Why did he do it, die so pointlessly?" the old man asked himself, then remembered the reason his mother gave a long time ago: "His favorite expression was ‘My home is my castle.’ He said it often. He died because he loved his family, because he was English and he was proud and he loved his family. That’s why he died."

An everlasting regret is that I never asked my mother to tell me about herself and my father, about our family and the early times of our life together. In her last painful months, it would have been an act of kindness and grace for me to have sat and listened to her talk about the halcyon years in Hong Kong and Manila. But she is gone and there are things I will never know because learning was painful and knowing not important until it became too late, and I am left with what I can remember. Now I yearn to tell my children so much more than what I know about this strong, complex, courageous woman. But I can't, and their loss is as great as mine.

Black, White and Brown in America

And so I rose and went to my Innisfree by the sea, to a snug little house, not of wattles and clay in a bee-loud glade as in Yeats’s poem, but where the murmur of surf on sand lulls my gimcrack spirit. At the beach, when the old man allows himself to remember, he realizes he must accept and forgive yet another denial as great as the boy’s disownment of his father’s death: his lifelong repudiation of himself in search of someone he would never find, the person he could never be.

He recalls words he once read, what another Eurasian author had said about her own yearning for acceptance: "Everywhere I belong, and everywhere I’m an outsider."

He remembers a story his Filipino mother told him when he was a boy in Manila, a story his English father had laughed at heartily. "When God created man," his mother said, "God fashioned a figure out of clay and stuck it in the oven. But God took it out too soon. And the white man was born.

"So God tried again, but this time left the clay figure in too long. And the black man was born.

"Then God tried once more and took him out exactly on time. And the brown man was born."

So the boy learned God finally got it right on the third try.

But as a U.S. Marine stationed in America’s Deep South in 1957, he discovered a different set of partialities.

After his graduation from boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, the young man was assigned to the Second Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Soon afterwards, he and another marine, who also had enlisted in New York City and gone through boot camp with him in the same platoon, visited a town near the sprawling base. As the two PFCs were about to enter a restaurant in the small rural community, a man barred their way. After peering intently at both, he told the 22-year-old English-Filipino Marine from Manila, "You can come in." To the 19-year-old African-American Marine from the Bronx, he said, "You can’t." Both men left quietly.

That evening, back at the base, the two were told a saying they would hear many times again. "Around here," another Marine cautioned them, "if you’re white, you’re all right. If you’re brown, you can hang around. If you’re black, stand back."

The Eurasian Marine had come to America when he was 18, dispatched to a Catholic boarding school for his senior year of high school from a distant land and far-different culture peopled no longer in familiar shades of brown and tan but in starkly contrasting tones of white and black.

He arrived at the most vulnerable time of his life, not man or boy but something in-between, feeling lost and separate, excruciatingly alone -- neither white nor black nor brown but an ambiguous alloy of indeterminate origin, desperately wanting to blend in and belong, to be simply, indistinguishably American.

Such, the old man realizes, is the power of denial, "vanishing cream for the mind," as English writer Jeremiah Creedon calls it, a comforting ally in our struggles for survival, a fierce foe in the quest for ourselves.

He understands finally that much of what he disavowed in himself before recognizing its irretrievable value, most of the heartache he caused himself and those who chose to love him, came out of that repudiation of his true self.

And he learns this about regrets: they don’t go away. Most things distance themselves with time and space, to eventually slide off the edge of our consciousness and disappear forever, but not regrets. You can shove them aside, disavow them for a lifetime, but they always return. And the longer you deny them, the more they punish you when they can no longer be held at bay.

Regrets, he has found, are particularly poignant for the old and the dying, those who have used up most of the chances they’ll ever get and are left to make peace with their failed choices.

We are the sum of our choices, he now knows. The right choices result in our goodness and character. The wrong choices harden into bitterness and despair. And if we don’t have the wisdom to make good choices when we’re young, we need the grace to make peace with the bad ones when we’re old. Luckiest of all are those who still have the time to replace their bad choices with good ones. Good choices in the nick of time can banish regrets.

Regrets are a constant visitor to the old man at the beach. They come and they go at all hours of the day and night. He lets them in, barring none their entry, allowing all their full measure of blame so that when they return the next time, and the next, they will be a little less hurtful.

By remembering, he thinks, he will understand. By understanding, he will be able to forgive -- himself above all. And through forgiveness, the regrets will begin to resemble hope.

© Copyright 2004 Lionel Fisher. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this article are excerpted from Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001).

Lionel Fisher
Lionel Fisher
is an author and freelance writer who self-syndicates several humor/lifestyle columns, including "Past Meridian" for those he describes as "nearer the end than the beginning of their journeys of life." Spiritual in nature, though often lighthearted with a realistic edge to them, a central theme of his insightful essays is the need for us to find our happiness and fulfillment in ourselves rather than steadfastly seeking it in others. A former journalist, newspaper columnist, corporate communicator and advertising creative director-copy chief, Fisher lived and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Miami and Portland, Oregon, before moving to Southwest Washington's Long Beach Peninsula where he wrote Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude (Beyond Words Publishing, 2001). He also is the author of On Your Own: A Guide to Working Happily, Productively and Successfully from Home (Prentice Hall, 1995) and The Craft of Corporate Journalism (Nelson-Hall 1992).

Celebrating Time Alone: Stories of Splendid Solitude is about living well enough alone, even magnificently, in a world that goes around in twos or more and is wary of solitary travelers. Fisher’s reflections on solitude came into sharp focus on the remote Pacific Northwest beach to which he moved 10 years ago, where he kept a detailed journal to record his thoughts, feelings and emotions during this climactic period of willful isolation. He interweaves his own insights and experiences with the true stories of "new hermits" he interviewed across the country, men and women who have stretched the envelope of their aloneness to Waldenesque proportions, achieving great emotional clarity in the process, as well as their urban counterparts who through necessity or choice prefer to savor their individuality in smaller servings. The author interweaves their real-life stories with his own insights and experiences to offer counsel, inspiration and affirmation on being alone well. His book’s central premise is timeless and simple: "There are gifts we can only give ourselves, lessons no one else can teach us, triumphs we must achieve alone. It affirms that it’s all right to be alone, to want to be alone, even to be lonely at times because the rewards of solitude can make the deprivations so worthwhile. It sings the praises of those who have found amazing grace alone. They lead us in quest of our own undiscovered selves."


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