President Fidel Ramos and I met a few other times, at a private reception in Malacañang Palace during his term, at the Philippine International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, and when I asked him to support a non-profit education foundation I chaired some years ago.
He was always direct with his words, but disarming with his charm.
Fast forward to May 2010. I flew to San Francisco on business. In the B747, I was seated beside Lucio Tan, the chairman of Philippine Airlines. I was curious about taxes and airline profits, but he only smiled tiredly and asked questions about the immigration form.
Debarking at SFO, I realized Fidel Ramos was exiting the airplane just ahead of me. You can’t mistake those ears for anyone else’s.
A week later, I flew out of San Francisco on PR105. Halfway to Guam, I put my book away, reclined my seat and looked sleepily around the cabin. With a start, I noticed a familiar profile across the aisle with a cigar in his mouth.
Of course, they didn’t let him light it. But President Ramos no longer smokes, anyway.
I passed him a note asking him to speak at a meeting of my Asia and Europe management teams. He read it and added it to the bottom of his large work pile. Then on afterthought he moved it to the top :) He worked during the entire night, attacking a large stack of reading material.
At a refueling stop in Guam, he came to my seat and gave me an article he wrote, published in the Manila Bulletin the day before. The consulate in San Francisco faxed him a copy at the airline lounge, before boarding. Vintage Ramos — the opinions were direct, substantial and provocative.
We went to the galley. Chatted about cigars, Pangasinan and the new President’s challenges. People came up to have their photos taken with him.
“You have to wait your turn, I’m talking to my friend, Tonet.”
Chagrined, I offered to take the photo as a woman and her children posed with him.
“See, children, this is President Ramos…!”
“Oh, stop that! They don’t know me, they were born after I was President, they are bored! Wait, where is your husband?”
“In the back, Mr. President.”
“Get him up here! Otherwise people will say these are my children!” And he told me to wait so that her husband could join the photo.
A male passenger wanted his photo too.
“Just the two of us? People will talk! We even came from San Francisco. We need a lady in the photo. Ask the flight attendant to join us.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
At 82 years old, Fidel Ramos still flies around the world to sell the Philippines. He was in the US to give a speech in New York and to attend the 60th anniversary of his West Point class. I asked him about his 1950 classmates.
“Sixty generals, three armed forces chiefs of staff, and one President,” he smiled.
From Guam we flew to Macapagal Airport, the former Clark Air Base, to wait for repair work on the runway at Manila to end. My Cessna 152 was in a hangar only a few hundred meters away.
“Mr. President, we can take my airplane to Manila.”
The flight attendant wasn’t sure if we were kidding.
“No Mr. President! You need to go through immigration and customs!”
The former head of state looked at me and said, “Ayaw niya. Mag-golf na lang muna tayo.” Maybe we can just do a round of golf while waiting.
I don’t play golf. I will always wonder — if I flew President Ramos to Manila in a Cessna 152, could I have used the most famous call sign in aviation?
Posted from Bangkok, September 5, 2010