Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flow Gently, Sweet Afton - Memories of War

Dr. Abe V. Rotor

WWII Memorial beside the St Paul University Museum, QC.
The school is remembered as a concentration camp of the Japanese during the War. It was later left in ruins after the liberation.

It was in the last year of the Japanese occupation that memories of World War II became vivid to me. In desperation the enemy killed anyone at sight in exchange for its apparent defeat. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were soon to be erased virtually from the map. I was then four years old. According to psychologists, at this age impressions become lasting memory.

Vigilance was the game. Far ahead of time one should be able to detect the enemy. Fear gripped the neighborhood and the whole town. We hid in a dugout shelter made of solid narra slabs several meters away from our house. Trees and banana plants hid it from view. At one time, I wanted to get fresh air, but my auntie-yaya, Basang prevented me to do so. Japanese soldiers were around the place. I heard them chase our geese and chicken. Then I heard my favorite goose, Purao, pleading - then it fell silent. Instinctively I rushed out of our hideout, but Basang pulled me back just in the nick of time.

Before this incident Japanese soldiers entered and ransacked our house. Two confronted Basang who was then wearing thick shawl and holding me tight in her arms. In trembling voice, she was saying repeatedly, “Malaria, malaria,” and begging the soldiers to take anything they wanted and leave us. One took all our eggs and started eating them raw, pitching the shell at us. One hit me straight on the face and I squirmed. Basang apologized. The soldier shouted. Then the other came back with a stuffed pillow case and signaled the other to leave, but before leaving he gave me a hard look.

It is a face I still see today, cold as steel, lips pursed into a threat, brows drawn down like curtain over sultry and flashy eyes. How I reacted on the wicked face, I don't remember. I must have just stared coldly. But deep in me grew a resolved never to be afraid of the Japanese or any enemy for that matter.

Images of planes in dogfight are still vivid in my memory. Toward the east is the Cordillera range that looked blue in the distance. The view was clear from our house, and hideout. Even if the old San Vicente church got across our view, we saw now and then warplanes passing above. It was also the first and only time I saw a double body aircraft flying. There was at least one occasion warplanes fought just overhead, a plane simply bursts into flame and dark smoke not far from our place. My dad prodded us to go back to our underground hideout.

When I was in high school I had a teacher in literature, Mrs. Socorro Villamor, a war widow. My classmates and I wondered why Mrs. Villamor was always wearing black. At one time she recited in class, Flow Gently Sweet Afton by Robert Burns, a famous 18th century English poet. She even sang it, then came to a halt sobbing. We were all very quiet until she recovered. The poem made us weep, too, more in sympathy to our teacher.

This is the first stanza, and most moving part of the poem, which is repeated in the sixth and last stanza.

"Flow gently , sweet Afton, among thy green braes;
Flow gently, I'll sing thee a song in thy praise!
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream -
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

"Sweet Afton" is thoroughly romantic in the use of natural objects as a background for human emotions, which in this case is symbolic of a sad experience that permeates into the heart and soul of a grieving person. The melody has a refrain after each lyric-stanza, slowly rising and falling within the standard octave, so that it can be sang with little effort, and in ones own cadence. It can be sang and recited in an alternate fashion taking liberty to pause now and then.

I treasure the poem to this day. Whenever I read the poem or sing its plaintive melody, I see in my mind a great warrior in the sky, and a strong willed teacher telling us to go on with life, like a stream, gently flowing, gently flowing.
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