Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tondoman’s last flight

Commentary : Tondoman’s last flight
By Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

I once wrote a short story about a Filipino superhero by the name of Tondoman. He could fly like other superheroes, but unlike them he could be wounded and even killed. Like all of us he had to risk everything when he went to help the poor. He wore a blue and white costume with a long red cape and a golden “T” on the chest.

He was active in Manila’s Tondo district in the 1970s. You may remember the many good things that happened to the poor during those years. He was at the height of his powers then, but he was already in late middle age and soon after his powers disappeared.

We don’t hear much about the old age of superheroes. It is not a nice time. They can never marry, so they are alone in their last years. They are poor since they cannot take money for their services, much like the true faith healers. They have no close friends and most leave their families behind when they became superheroes. In many ways it is a curse to be a superhero. The life of a superhero calls for total dedication to the cause of justice, a life that is rewarded with an old age of loneliness and near poverty. They do receive a small pension—and powerlessness.

The following is what happened to Tondoman in the last years of his life.

He lived alone and very simply in a small apartment on Leveriza St., a kindly old man who was well liked by his neighbors. No one there knew about his past feats. Then one day a woman by the name of Maria who was about half his age came to see him. She told him the country needed him.

“The poor are suffering,” she told him. “Come back and walk among us once again.”

She was the daughter of one of the leaders he had worked with in Tondo years before.

“I have no powers,” he told her. “They’ve left me.”

“We will pray together and in the morning the powers will be back,” she said with the assurance of the true believer in the value of her cause.

“I don’t think I want to go back. I’ve come to believe it’s not good in the long run.”

“I hate to hear people talk about ‘the long run,’ Tondoman. It’s usually bad for the poor.”

“But it’s true, Maria. Look at Gotham City. Have the people learned to solve their own problems? Not at all, and neither has Police Commissioner Gordon. Whenever there’s a problem, they flash the Bat sign on the night sky and Batman comes to save them. It’s no good. The people never develop.”

“That’s the long run. We need you now. It’s an emergency.”

He remembered the many times people had come to him with emergencies. He smiled remembering some of the things he had done. Soon he was lost in reverie.

He remembered that years before, he had one day snatched the president of the country from the golf course, took him 2,000 feet in the air and told him that he would drop him if he didn’t give the urban poor people of Tondo the land they wanted. It was only a threat. He didn’t intend to drop the president, but something went wrong, the president moved suddenly or something, and Tondoman lost him. Down the president plunged screaming at all the world. Tondoman fell like a rock and caught him just a few feet off the 18th fairway. They were so close they could smell the grass. Then he took the president up high, and made believe the fall was intentional. He told the president he would drop him for good if he didn’t give the land. Sure enough, the people got the land.

He returned back from his old memories. “No, I don’t think a superhero is good for the people. They should do things themselves and not rely on superheroes or politicians or anyone. That’s what I feel now. After we won in Tondo, everything stopped. They weren’t ready for the next problem.”

“Tondoman, please come and talk to us anyway. I boasted I could get you to help us. Come to our meeting with your costume on and talk to us. Say whatever you will.” They prayed and the next morning his powers were back.

He flew off to the meeting, remembering the great flights of the past. The crowd at the meeting cheered when he arrived, but he sat them down and told them what he had told Maria.

“Yes, you must have supporters, but you yourselves must decide what you want to do and be in your lives. You must lead. Don’t rely on anyone, even on superheroes. Rely on God. God alone is always dependable and always seeks your good. It’s bad for your leaders to rely too much on them. They are then free to do as they want. We should instead watch them to make sure they do their work properly.”

“We can’t fly or do all those other things. We need you.”

“You really don’t. You have no idea how much strength and wisdom you have within yourselves until you begin to depend on yourselves and not others. Jesus told us, if you have faith you can say to a mountain get up, fly to the sea and throw yourself in! If you have faith, you can fly, at least as far as God intends you to fly. Believe in yourselves, believe in God.”

There was a thoughtful silence when he finished. They sat quietly, some with their eyes closed. Time to leave, he told himself.

He barely made it home. He flew just above the treetops. He couldn’t go higher. He was like a plane running out of gas.

He made it home, hung his costume in the closet for the last time, and sat down to have a night cap. Now for the rest of my life, he thought.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is

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