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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Ruben G. Alabastro, 83, friend more than a news adversary

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“Ben had a dream: to write a novel. Where the main characters were Ricarte Apitong and Homobono Calderon”

MUCH has been said about Ben G. Alabastro, (1941-2024), the true-to-type friend more than a news agency competitor we had the courtesy to meet one morning in Binondo in 1969 through Reuters Manila bureau chief Mike Marabut.

The Manila office of Agence France-Presse, where he was next in command to bureau chief Teodoro Benigno, a former amateur boxier who shared our language, was at the 8th floor of the Trade and Commerce bldg. in whose 3rd floor Reuters Manila bureau was.

Forthwith, through endless cups of coffee in mid afternoon six days a week before we sent our stories at 6.15 pm via telex machines we knew we were better friends than competitors in a thankless calling.

COMPETITORS BUT FRIENDS. Ben Alabastro (left) of Agence France-Presse and the author (right) of Reuters in a news flash they covered together in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy: Rachel Alabastro-Federez)

We had attentive ears to the authors and books he dittoed on afternoons of steaming cups of Hills Bros at the ironically named Cool Spot Cafe beside our nearly 115-feet high concrete building we immediately evacuated every time a temblor on the Rossi-Forel Scale of 9 shook the capital.

He would talk about the American literary innovator Henry Miller and the French writer, feminist, social theorist, and existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. No, we did not talk about Miller’s five wives.

We agreed Miller was infamous for breaking existing literary forms and developed a new a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association and mysticism.

We remember his dream when he was off that zone of noctambulism, after consuming over 40 cups of coffee that day: to write a novel where Ricarte Apitong and Homobono Calderon were the major characters.

Ben’s attention must have been engaged by us at one point, while walking home along Escolta from Juan Luna to Quezon Boulevard for yet two more coffee cups at the Best Cafe from across the Quiapo church, he asked us, again, if we also read books.

Like thunderclap during the monsoon we said yes.

We still remember his sneering smile in the dusky shadows of the concrete buildings along Escolta when we nonchalantly replied books on “Poet and Peasant,” “Song of India” and “Czardas” when we were not playing our B-flat trombone.

OLD FRIENDS MEET. At the wake of Ben Alabastro on June 22 at the Loyola Memorial Chapels in Makati City, friends from old times reunite (from left) HBC of Reuters, Francisco Tatad, secretary of the Dept. of Public Information; Fernando del Mundo of UPI Manila; and Fenny Cantero-Tatad. (Photo courtesy: MR Cabie)

That must have checked him from admitting he liked to accompany himself on the guitar while singing “Dream” in A flat major. But we knew he was biased for Matt Monro’s “Walk Away” while we preferred Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” or “Blue Suede Shoes.”

We reported for different time zones but we often sat beside each other – watching international games like baseball (he was a letterman), the first leg of the Asia Golf Circuit – the world basketball championship between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1978 and, three years earlier, news conferences in the prelude to the “Thrilla in Manila” between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali.

We also covered flyweight Erbito Salavarria, junior lightweight “Flash” Elorde, and light welterweight Pedro Adigue; or beauty pageants like the Miss Universe in Manila in 1974.

Or papal visits, and the Pasay court’s conviction of Bolivian painter Benjamin Mendoza who said in his defense he merely wanted to kill “surrealistically” visiting Pope Paul VI in November 1970.

When we interviewed American survivors of an engine explosion in one carrier which docked at the Subic facility of the US Seventh Fleet he indulgently transcribed the garbled English of the Americans caught by our shared tape recorder.

We raced against each other to the nearest available telephones, with UPI and AP competitors raising hell with telephones having no dial tones during the surrender in Manila of hijackers who lifted off in Mindanao.

In coverages outside Manila, including the surrender of Japanese straggler Hiroo Onoda on Lubang in Occidental Mindoro, Ben struck me as irredeemably honest – returning to his office the last few pesos he did not spend from his per diem.

We covered demonstrations in front of the US Embassy and ran like startled rats to different directions when molotov cocktails were lobbed by rallyists and truncheon-wielding police closed in.

In court martial proceedings at military camps we never felt left out despite the overwhelming numbers of competitors.

Off deadlines, Ben would invite us to his family’s Alabastro residence in San Andres for Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve celebration or to his parents’ residence in Quezon City’s Heroes Hills for chocolait drinks.

We kept in touch with each other even when we were in Reuters regional office in Singapore.

Many have called Ben a top-grade journalist.

We remember him as a family friend.


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