Matchsticks can save and burn

MATCHSTICKS provide that iconic way of saving people who found themselves lost in the wilderness, stranded in total darkness during disasters, or desperate to light a cigarette when overwhelmed by anxiety.

With them, a lot of games and puzzles were invented for killing time and for nothing better to do while suspended in thought before attending to the more important things in life.

In this age of gas-filled plastic lighters, matchsticks have become the vintage habit of the romantic and dreamers of the good old days of the “posporong gitara” (Guitar brand matches) when lighting your cigarette with a burning matchstick in your cupped hands was “macho.”

In this pandemic when we spend much of our time closeted in our own homes, the image of the matchstick comes flashing back to me with a sense of déjà vu.

When I was in prison, it was a single unburned matchstick that saved me from boredom and claustrophobia. A fellow political detainee at the Youth Rehabilitation Center in Fort Bonifacio handed it to me and told me how prisoners use it to keep their minds busy and sane. He told me to measure everything with the matchstick, repeatedly if needed.

There were prison cells of choice that were really “bartolinas” or isolation cells that could be locked only from the outside but were locked only during red alert by the guards. They were usually assigned by the detainees’ committee to those expecting conjugal visits who were at the same time given special prison assignments. I got one as I was designated storekeeper of cleaning materials and donated items that were allowed to be stocked inside.

My “bartolina” was 75 matchsticks long, 37 matchsticks wide with a ceiling of chicken wire some 70 matchsticks high. It had a door window, 8 matchsticks by 5 matchsticks, where you show your face when demanded. There were catwalks on top from where guards sometimes checked on us. My “tarima” or metal double-decked bed was 48 matchsticks long and 23 matchsticks wide.

I inherited my special cell from a captured leading NPA who was wounded in his leg during an encounter. It turned out he was a big matchstick waiting to ignite. We were all still in the “box” when I learned about the explosive story he was carrying. When we were all out of prison the big matchstick ignited and burned the commonly known narrative of the Plaza Miranda bombing blaming Marcos for the dastardly act. It turned out I was also a matchstick and consequently burned my own bridge to the cause that was pitting Filipinos against Filipinos in a bloody conflict.

I imagine matchboxes lying everywhere in this pandemic with some matchsticks still inside waiting to ignite in freedom from the virus and with much hope for the better. I have the gut feeling that some will ignite with more fire and turn a lot of popular narratives into ashes.

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