Let me share with you a coup d’oeil of almost a half-century of friendship in the diplomatic service.
I was present on Day One (January 22, 1966) when Norma Castro, radiant and blushing, joined Lauro Baja, Jr., handsome and beaming, at the altar and they vowed to keep and hold each other till death do them part. I was the cord sponsor and I tightened the knot a little bit so that wonderful couple would remain one and happy through the years.
And they have. Last January 22, 2016 was their Golden Wedding Anniversary. Again, I was around to reenact my role as cord sponsor.
Larry was one of the brightest, young foreign service officers at the time. He became the favorite special assistant of CPR – Gen. Carlos P. Romulo, “the best foreign minister,” according to then President Marcos, “the country has ever had.” Not totally true though, because we had Apolinario Mabini and Claro M. Recto before him – both intellectual nationalists; the former was author of the 1899 charter, the latter a leading founder of the 1935 Constitution.
CPR was brilliant, witty and mercurial. He could contend with the likes of the Soviet Union’s Supremo Nikita Khrushchev, who famously banged his shoe on his desk, trying to interrupt Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong, who was addressing the UN General Assembly. He would crack jokes at the expense, usually, of the guest of honor. He would dress down subordinates (Cabinet assistant secretaries, ambassadors, special assistants), especially in front of an audience.
I, myself, had a short stint with Gen. Romulo, as his special assistant. He was kind and fatherly. He was at the helm of the foreign ministry during what in my book were the golden years of Philippine diplomacy.
Baja and I survived the General. Larry was exiled to London, and I to Geneva. One time, I drove my beloved Volkswagen Beetle, to Vienna to join Larry Baja in a UN conference at the Hofburg Palace. When the meetings were over, we roamed around some quaint places in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Another time, in my Beetle, my family and Larry traversed the Bernese Oberland.
Then Larry was transferred to New York, Brazil, and Rome. Later on, Larry was “rotated” back to New York to be the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, where his skills, expertise, and experience in multilateral diplomacy earned the respect of his peers.
For those more or less indefinite postings, Larry and his family had several residences abroad. I can declare under oath, however, that they have only one legal residence or domicile and that is in Ayala Alabang. I mention this fact because should any of the Baja children enter politics and his or her residence is questioned, this could be the proof!
Lauro L. Baja, Jr. has been the recipient of awards and decorations. Behind Larry’s successes is a woman, namely his wife, Norma the Unsinkable. She has business acumen.
Larry and I retired. When an ambassador retires, he normally fades away. His GSIS pension is not enough to support his family. If sickly, he ends up in hospital charity wards. If he escapes some dreadful multi-syllable or foreign-sounding illnesses, he picks up a job, alien to foreign affairs. Or he becomes a gentleman farmer.
In my case, I now tend a modest white beach resort, by a mini-forest in Cagbalete Island. It is a little Shangri-la on the eastern seaboard of the country. As such, there cannot be “artificial islands” around. As to “drone stations,” this depends anyway, under the Edca, on the agreement of the parties on the “locations.” (The rule is: The US locates, the Philippines agrees and pays!)
The Edca is really simple. It is controversial only because we are a vibrant democracy. We have “majority” and “minority” views, as in the Supreme Court. Our society has the “Right” and the “Left,” as in US, UK, and France. The Right claims that nothing could he better politically than the Edca, the Left asserts the Edca is a crippling financial and political burden to be borne by the Motherland till the West Philippine Sea runs dry.
But going back to my friend Larry Baja. The Goddess of Diplomacy has made him more successful in retirement. While I watch the moon come out of the water big and yellow, hear songs of cicadas and birds, and count stars, Larry apparently is simply watching, counting and humming the figures in his bank account.
One day while we DFA retirees were having our regular reunion luncheons, the famous Kim Henares list, the TTTP (Top Ten Tax-Payers) of the year, was released and the name “Lauro L. Baja, Jr.”, was on it. So we congratulated him and Norma, the group sort of dancing and singing around them. Larry, half- protesting, thanked us. When we asked for our balato. Larry gave us only his usual Mona Lisa smile.
Johnny Ona told us later that it was actually the fils, Lauro Castro Baja 3rd, rather than the pere who was on the TTTP. No matter. Larry is one retired ambassador whose back rests on a solid wall, as the expression goes. And what a proud father he is besides, as shown by his remarks at the wedding anniversary banquet recounting how the captains of business and industry would compliment him for the important role the son plays in the country’s economy.
I cannot close without mentioning my visit to London during the first assignment of the Bajas in that capital. Consuls Raul Rabe and Johnny Ona met me at the airport. When I asked them in what hotel I was booked in, they replied: “Baja Hilton.” Norma gave me a big room; I believe it was the master’s bedroom.
The following morning, Larry, Norma and I, with baby Maribeth in her stroller, had a walk at Hyde Park. I pushed the stroller the whole morning to compensate somehow for my free board and lodging at “Baja Hilton.” Recalling that fine Filipino hospitality makes one’s eyes misty.
Nelson D. Laviña is a retired ambassador.