It is not often that I think of the war years. There are days I can barely sort out the memories. But lately, I return again and again to an incident. Remembering the details can still trigger a sense of euphoria and paniceven to this day. The other is a placeseemingly unrelated to the warwhere recalling my moments there elicits a sense of peace.
The year was 1942.
The city of Manila was the capital of an American commonwealth: The Philippine Islands. But in 1942, the Americans abandoned the islands, pushed out by the marauding Japanese whose power spread like spilled ink on the map of Southeast Asia. Because Manila was declared an "open city," the conquering Japanese Army had free access to it. They took over the entire city.
My father had died the year before. In 1942, I was a recalcitrant teenager struggling to finish high school and was left in the care of my eldest brother and his family. He took charge and enrolled me at St. Scholastica's College because it was a few blocks from his home. The college building and the chapel were brooding edifices located at Leon Guinto Street, a quiet semi-residential street. I always wondered how the nuns at St. Scholastica felt when Germany declared war and there they were-stranded in American territory! After all, they were a German congregation! Not far from St. Scholastica's was De la Salle College on Taft Avenue run by the Christian Brothers, an American order.
On that one particular afternoon, almost all the students at St. Scholastica's had gone home. I was kept behind and dismissed a half-hour later because my Nippongo teacher continued to drill me in "the beauty of the Japanese language" as she so subtly put it. Couldn't she see that I could care less about knowing how to use "Ohayo," "Arigato" or "Sayonara"? I ran out of the classroom to catch up with my waiting friends. We all walked leisurely along Sandijas Street headed for home.
Piercing the afternoon calm was the discordant hum of airplanes. My heart stopped,
then raced uncontrollably as I scanned the sky.
Piercing the afternoon calm was the discordant hum of airplanes. My heart stopped, then raced uncontrollably as I scanned the sky. The others pointed frantically at the sight of two American planes and two Japanese planes careening in a dogfight just above the rooftops of De La Salle College. We ran to get a closer look. Then we stopped, formed a circle and began clapping our hands to cheer on the U.S. fighters. Suddenly, we were aware of a rapid spray of fusillade. Artemia, Betty and Angel quickly dispersed leaving Fides and myself standing there still bent on cheering our Yankee heroes. I watched as the trio ran and ducked inside an air raid shelter in the distance and stayed there.
"Sayonara, Nippongo!" Fides and I shouted shrilly, venting our feelings. Ping! Pong! Ping! The shrapnels zipped past Fides and myself. Zing! One flew near my ankle! Zinggg! Another went past her head! Zoong! It sizzled past my left ear! Zing- another barely missed her right foot! Meanwhile, the owner of the house where our companions went, stood by her window, making three hurried signs of the cross, nervously beckoning us with her other hand to go to the shelter beneath her house. But we stood our ground.
"Sayonara, Bangkay!" Fides and I waved and chanted a duet above the din. It meant "Goodbye, Corpses!" Finally, common sense took over. We ran excitedly towards the shelter and joined the others who were quietly praying in the damp, cement shelter.
"Do you know you both could have been killed!" The woman barked at us. We knew she was alarmed at our reckless behavior. Fides and I looked at each other and giggled. But her words had a sobering effect. I felt a delayed reaction and started to tremble.
"Our Father, who art in heaven, thank you, thank you!" Fides and I uttered repeatedly even on the way home. It finally dawned on the two of us that we could have been killed.
In the early evening and late into the night, concerned relatives, kindly neighbors and a motley of curiosity seekeers came to see me.
"Are you one of the girls who witnessed the dog fight this afternoon?"
"Are you okay now?"
"How do you feel about your experience?"
Each question reminded me of something that I wanted to forget. To each query, my lips would tremble and I would say "Thank you , Lord!"
Is that all?" Someone asked.
"She's touched in the head!" Surmised another.
* * *
In Navotas, at the outskirts of Manila, the war never showed its face. There the sea and crashing waves drowned out all man-made sounds.
In Navotas, at the outskirts of Manila, the war never showed its face. There the sea and crashing waves drowned out all man-made sounds. Somehow, a stroll by the seashore always refreshed me...
The empty bancas are anchored to the muddy sand like so many scattered twigs-each with a secret within its breast. Dawn comes. The village of forgotten bancas goes on sleeping. The end of the day for the whole world means the beginning of a new one for fishing folks who thrive on the bounty of the sea.
I trudge along the shore, wending my way among the resting boats, big and small, the new and the dilapidated. I stare at them and they stare back at me as if asking for some understanding and compassion, and seemingly eager to impart their fascinating tales. But I dare not break the silence.
With my hands clasped behind me, I continue my walk studying my footprints on the sand. I pick up a stick and trace one bare foot on the sandy shore. Then I sit on the outrigger of a mossy green boat, tracing and retracing the imprint of my left foot, then my right foot.
How lovely the feel of going unshod with the mushy softness of cloying mud and sand between one's toes! What a scintillating sense of freedom! Not even a screeching seagull overhead! Such a deafening silence as though one waits for eternity to arrive.
I gaze at the aging bancas, the dead flotsam, the carpet of sand and mud-my solitary kingdom for the moment-until one tiny crab surfaced from its underground hiding place ready for its morning air. It walked right across my bare feet leaving its giddy imprint on the timeless shore.
© Margarita Francia Villaluz
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