Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Flow Gently, Sweet Afton - Memories of War

"Flow gently sweet Afton among thy green braes,
Flow gently I'll sing thee a song in thy praise"

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 one occasion warplanes fought just overhead, a plane simply burst 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. She was the widow of war hero, Col. Jesus Villamor, one of the greatest Filipino pilots in WWII. After shooting down a number of Japanese fighter planes, his own plane was hit and he died in the crash. Camp Villamor was named in his honor.

My classmate and I wondered why Mrs. Villamor was always wearing black. At one time she recited in class, Flow Gently Sweet Afton lyrics  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.

The first stanza is the 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

Thou stock dove whose echo resound through the glen
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den
Thou greencrested lapwing thy screaming forbear
I charge you, disturb not my slumbering fair

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighboring hills
Far marked with the courses of clear winding rills
There daily I wander as noon rises high
My flocks and my Mary's sweet cot in my eye

How pleasant thy banks and sweet valleys below
Where wild are the woodlands, the primroses blow
There oft, as mild evening weeps over the lea
The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me

Thy crystal stream, afton, how lovely it glides
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides
How wanton the waters her snowy feet lave
As gathering sweet flowers, she stems thy clear wave

Flow gently sweet afton among thy green braes
Flow gently sweet river, the theme of my lays
My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream
Flow gently sweet Afton, disturb not her dream

"Sweet Afton" lyrics 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.

Sweet Afton is a lyrical poem describing the Afton Water in Ayrshire, Scotland. It was written by Robert Burns in 1791 and set to music by Jonathan E. Spilman in 1837, under the title Flow gently, sweet Afton. Sweet Afton contains a lot of monosyllables, which contribute to a gentle, soothing rhythm. It can be seen as a hymn for peace. The poem is in the metre 11 - 11 - 11- 11, and is often sung to the tune of the popular Christmas carol Away in a Manger called Cradle Song.

I treasure the poem very much. I imagine my mother who died during the war and I was an infant then, lying in a tomb by the shade of an old acacia tree. Both the tomb and tree are now gone, but the breeze like the flow of Afton, takes me to some memories I'll never understand but can only feel as I read the poem or play on the violin its plaintive melody. There too, I see in my mind a great warrior in the sky, and a strong willed teacher telling us in school to go on with life, like a stream, gently flowing, gently flowing. 

NOTE: For his bravery as a pilot and ingenuity as an intelligence officer, President Ramon Magsaysay awarded posthumously Lieutenant Colonel Jesus Antonio Villamor the Medal of Valor on January 21, 1954. As a further tribute to one of the Air Force's greatest heroes, the PAF's principal facility in Metro Manila has been named Col. Jesus Villamor Air Base. x x x

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