Manila, a Roots Journey

Truth be told, the main reason we went to Manila is because it was the cheapest destination from Southern California. But we could have just changed planes and blasted onward to Bangkok. Instead we ventured into town to seek whatever shreds of Wolfe family history remained.

Steve’s grandfather packed up his wife and baby daughter and journeyed to Manila in 1913. His mission (for he was an official missionary) was to convert the natives to the teachings of the fundamentalist Church of Christ. Steve’s grandmother birthed two more daughters and a son in the Philippines. Steve’s dad, the youngest, was born in 1919, departed for college in the States in 1937, then joined the Navy. But the elder Wolfes remained in Manila and were interned during the Japanese occupation. The patriarch (Leslie Edwin) survived the ordeal but just barely; he died just days after Los Banos prison camp was liberated. Carrie (Steve’s grandmother) remained in the Phillipines for several years, continuing to serve the church.

Steve and his parents visited her during the summer of 1958, when Steve was just shy of 9. He has some vague memories of staying at her compound — chasing chickens in her yard; playing with some other missionaries’ kid. But nothing beyond that. Both of us had the impression that today — more than a 100 years after the Wolfes arrived in Manila — little of their life there remained.

Still, we found some clues to where it had unfolded. Two of Steve’s aunts wrote memoirs that mentioned addresses for family dwelling places. More encouraging was our discovery that the church Leslie helped to build in 1930 still existed; indeed its website made it sound like it was thriving. Our hotel within Manila’s old walled city wasn’t far from these sites, and with the help of Google maps, I created a little walking tour.

When we set out a little before 8:30 a.m. Friday, the air was already hot and so full of moisture it clearly had the potential to drench us. But the thunderstorms my i-Phone had been predicting every single day for Manila for weeks weren’t actively storming. We left the walled city, found a route that took us to a bridge across the filthy-looking Pasaig River, and proceeded deep into the neighborhood of Quiapo.

I’d read comments online about the thuggish behavior one might encounter in this part of town, though the consensus seemed to be it was safe enough to walk through in the day. Our snap judgment was: very very poor but so jam-packed with people that the only likely threat was being pickpocketed. (Indeed, at least two locals warned us to beware of that.) Manila is more densely packed with people than Calcutta, and on that walk yesterday morning, it was easy to believe. We stepped around people sleeping in the street, passed naked children and hundreds of vendors selling thousands (millions?) of items. Not just the ground, but the very air seemed crammed, dense with smells and soot and diesel fumes and a furious level of noise — jackhammering diesel engines and squealing motorcycle brakes being the biggest component. Among the jostling vehicles, Manila’s jeepneys stand out. I’ve never seen anything quite like them anywhere. They made me think of a mutant cross between an ambulance and a fire engine. Passengers climb in and out through the open back doors. The sides and front are gaudily decorated and most flaunt names. I jotted down: Nazareno, Speed Bird, Ramboy!

It was all most diverting, and we didn’t feel so bad when we found no trace on Recto Street of the lovely two-story house where the Wolfes first lived. The stretch of Gastambide Street where Steve’s dad was born was quieter, and we lingered quite a while at the intersection near which the family must have lived. Indeed two of the four corners held old wrecks of buildings that may have been the ghost of the building we were seeking, but there was no way to confirm it in the short span of our visit.

Finally, we headed for the Church of Christ at Cruzada, where Leslie’s church has grown into an imposing complex that fills most of a block. A padlocked gate barred the massive front door, and we were resigning ourselves to leaving with only photos when a lady from the neighborhood approached and told use to try a side gate. Not only was it open, but several staff members were toiling in an air-conditioned office. When the youth minister learned who Steve was, he toured us all around the premises. “Brother Wolfe was very helpful to many Christian churches in preserving our religion and our freedom,” he said solemnly. Then he packed us off with bottles of water and a firm injunction to come for services the next time we were in town.

It was close to 11:30. My clothes were so soaked, I think I could have wrung drops of sweat out of them. Rather than slog back to the hotel, we hailed a “tricycle” — one of the class of vehicles that competes with the jeepneys for most atrocious road behavior. Some are powered by bicycles and some by motorcycles, but in each case, they’re welded to little sidecars that bear the passengers. Our ride (motorcycle-powered) was the closest I’ve come to experiencing a real-world version of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The driver went the wrong way down streets, wove his way in and out of crazy vehicular thickets, then finally stopped and turned off the engine when he came to an intersection where he said the police were doing something that he didn’t understand. Disgusted, we disembarked, paid him a tenth of what we’d agree on, and got no argument from him.

We walked back to the hotel, showered, and ate some pizza in the cool, elegant hotel restaurant. Then we set out on our last Roots-related mission: a visit to Leslie’s grave.

The concierge helped us find a taxi driver who agreed to take us to the American Cemetery, wait while we visited the gravesite, then transport us back. His name was Bong and he muttered dark warnings about how awful the traffic was likely to be. It might take an hour or an hour and a half each way, he predicted. But he agreed to be our chauffeur for a little under $30.

Bong turned out to be a talkative and sociable fellow, which is why I can tell you that he’s 64, has had four wives and 13 children, used to play drums in a rock band, and thinks Ferdinand Marcos was the best president the Philippines has ever had. These and other tidbits entertained us on the drive through mile after traffic-choked mile. As things turned out, it only took only 45 minutes to reach the enormous expanse of land where the cemetery and memorial are located. It took less than a minute for the cheerful young women at the visitor’s center to find Leslie in her computer and direct us to his resting place.

Like Arlington National Cemetery and Ft. Rosecrans in San Diego, Manila’s American Cemetery contains simple unormented white crosses (and occasional stars of David). Leslie’s in row 192 of Section D, maybe 20 graves in. I’m not a huge fan of military death displays, but I have to admit this was beautiful — the gently rolling sea of green grass dotted with the grid of pure white points. A few massive trees looked beautiful and serene, contrasting with the beast of a city encircling the distant perimeters.

Most of all, I liked my sons’ great-grandfather’s headstone. It lists his name, the day he died, and it says simply: Civilian. Although I never met the guy (indeed Steve never met him), I feel like I know him a little better.

2 thoughts on “Manila, a Roots Journey

  1. Natalie Fiocre October 11, 2014 / 3:37 pm

    Thank you Jeannette for your writing. What an interesting story. Bon Voyage

  2. czatkin October 12, 2014 / 3:49 am

    Considering the traffic and humidity, that was quite a commitment to track down the family history.

    Christy ****************************** Christy Zatkin 6346 Via Maria La Jolla, CA 92037 858-454-0985 h 619-204-9530 c


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