Every Saturday of the week, we would be at Kalayaan Hall in Villamor Airbase at such ungodly hours to board an Air Force Fokker jet to accompany the president to one of his provincial jaunts.
As we were milling outside the gate to Malacañang Palace after a busy morning running after secretaries following another Cabinet meeting, the president’s vehicle drove past us to take him to a private engagement somewhere in the city. The veteran reporter beside me suddenly expressed, “Oh, he has a different license plate.”
Apparently, rather than the usual “1,” Fidel Valdez Ramos preferred “RFV 318,” his initials in reverse and his birth date, 18 March.
And that was not all that was unusual about the late president Ramos. He was also the most approachable of presidents. Although he had topnotch security around him — and you wouldn’t expect less from a man who was former Armed Forces chief of staff — it was not difficult to come close to him when the opportunity presented itself. We had a weekly press conference, televised live on the government network, when we could ask him a couple of questions. After that, when he was not in a hurry to another meeting or engagement, which was rare since he was such a workaholic, he would allow us to come to him for an extended chat. His security would be milling around and among us, but you wouldn’t notice the intrusion. Maybe it’s because for half of the reporters covering the beat, these were the same men FVR had with him in the AFP and Defense department. Truth is, I was only at the Palace for two years, and I swear I saw him almost everyday. That is something most reporters who have been assigned to Malacañang can claim of their president.
Talking about workaholic, we rarely needed to leave Arlegui to cover president Ramos, because he brought all the engagements to the Palace. You want him to speak at your company’s founding anniversary, at the awarding rites of your foundation, you booked Heroes Hall and one of Malacañang’s preferred caterers and FVR would definitely be your guest of honor. I wasn’t surprised at the amount of souvenir photos that flooded my newsfeed immediately after his death last 31 July. It seems everyone had a photo with him to just about any kind of event.
Workaholic FVR also gave me the chance to travel extensively around the country. “Mula Aparri hanggang Jolo”? Nope, more like “mula Batanes hanggang Tawi-Tawi.” Every Saturday of the week, we would be at Kalayaan Hall in Villamor Airbase at such ungodly hours to board an Air Force Fokker jet to accompany the president to one of his provincial jaunts. Davao City was a four-hour flight, so that meant leaving Metro Manila at 3 a.m. It was standard that we would be at Villamor at 4 a.m. to get to our destination by 7 a.m., often just minutes before the president’s jet landed.
The only problem was Villamor was closed to the public until 5 a.m. Taxis weren’t allowed inside until that time. So most of the time, I would be walking from the gate to Kalayaan Hall, a 20-minute trek through a poorly lit road, unless if you were lucky and managed to hitch a ride from either a Malacañang staff or another reporter in a company car. I walked that road even in the rain, armed only with a jacket and an umbrella.
Eventually I would wise up. Like an experienced traveler, I would skip destinations I’d already been to, or where the itinerary was basic, where nothing earthshaking was expected to happen, but with FVR, something was still bound to happen. I tell you there were so many surprise events at those trips that were not on the itinerary that it was wiser to just join each and every trip.
All the reporters who had a chance to trail FVR have a wealth of stories to tell. And so do I. With such an outgoing man who wanted to be in touch with every Filipino, it wasn’t surprising that he was literally all over the country. And so were we.
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