Book Signing in Grass Valley

Come one, come all, to a Read, Sign & Sell event sponsored by Sierra Writers. It will take place at The Open Book, 671 Maltman Drive, Grass Valley, on Wednesday, March 13, 2019. Six local writers will each have 10 minutes to read or talk about their book(s), followed by a 5-minute question-and-answer period. Afterward, there’ll be plenty of time for attendees to browse and visit with the authors and each other. This is a free event, open to the public. I look forward to seeing you there.

Patricia Murphy Minch, author of The Luckiest Guerrilla: A True Tale of Love, War and the Army.

A day that will live in infamy . . .

Exactly 77 years ago today, my dad, Arthur Philip Murphy, was stationed as a U.S. Army first lieutenant at Camp John Hay adjacent to Baguio, North Luzon, Philippines. Early that morning, as he and his housemate, Lieutenant Lars Jensen, were preparing to head over to the Officers’ Mess for breakfast, they got a phone call ordering them to report to the Post Adjutant’s office for a special briefing at eight.

Following a hasty breakfast, the two headed over to Captain Giitter’s office in the headquarters building. The room was strangely quiet as it filled with other officers and non-coms. As they waited expectantly, the captain didn’t even say “good morning.” Instead, in a voice hoarse with emotion, he said, “The Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor.”

Thus began an odyssey that would last nearly four years, would test the very core of Murphy’s character and endurance, and would forever change the course of his life.

Today, I remember Pearl Harbor, but more than that, I remember Camp John Hay. I remember Baguio. I remember my dad.

Paradise

It is the first week of November. Hubby and I venture out for an afternoon drive. Only a few hours, to drink in the intoxicating beauty that blankets our Sierra Nevada foothills each year as the seasons rotate. The spectacular reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds that shimmer on branches spread wide.The sky overhead an incredible blue, a small flock of fluffy sheep clouds frolicking on the breeze. The air crisp, exhilarating but not yet cold, perfect for turtlenecks and a light jacket. We park and stroll up and down a bit. So beautiful! So perfect! We exchange a nod and a smile, unspoken confirmation of our decision thirty years ago to uproot ourselves from a crowded coastal community and move to this paradise.

A sudden gust shakes a blizzard of leaves from their moorings and scatters them amid fallen acorns at our feet, where they whirl in a kaleidoscope of brilliant color. A stronger gust ripples our windbreakers and lifts our hair.

Last night the weatherman predicted the winds would pick up later this evening, but we don’t care. We love the cold night air, cranking open the window next to our bed, snuggling under a down comforter encased in cozy flannel, listening to the wind in the tall pines, oaks and cedars outside. Such nights spawn the most wonderful dreams, and deep, sound sleep. So peaceful. So perfect.

With the dawn, the devil comes snarling. A temperature inversion, they call it, whipping sweet breezes into a tornado—a hellish, fiendish monster of a wind from the northeast that races across forested ridges, ripping bone-dry limbs from the trees. Power lines high on a ridge arc, then spark. A tiny finger of flame erupts amid swirling leaves. In moments the tiny flame becomes a fire. Billowing, gray smoke filling the air. Then an inferno. Terrifying reds, purples, oranges, rusts, and golds.

Red-hot embers driven by 70-mile-an-hour gusts spread the fire at the speed of light, here, there, everywhere. Pines, oaks, and cedars now torches. Wild-eyed creatures flee this way, that way, up into branches, down into holes, anywhere at all to escape the searing heat—paws blistering, flesh sizzling.

Flames consume the first buildings and race onward, faster and faster—onward toward Paradise. Closer and closer. Propane tanks explode like bombs.

Screaming, wild-eyed people grab their children, jump in their cars and trucks to head downhill, away from the flames. Hundreds of them clog narrow roads. Traffic not moving, not even an inch. Fiery, shrapnel-like embers, whipped by the wind, overtake them, ignite the forest all around. Surrounded by fire. Nowhere to turn. Nowhere to go. No escaping the beast. Hotter and hotter. Blinding, choking black smoke. Visibility zero.

Panicked people abandon their vehicles and flee on foot—feet blistering, flesh sizzling. Chaos. Mayhem. Home after home, school after school, business after business ignites, solid walls of flame and death.

Screams of agony dance on the wind. Prayers, too, but no one is listening.

Paradise is lost.

Veterans Day 2018

Veterans Day 2018

Tomorrow is Veterans Day. As always, my thoughts turn to my favorite veteran, Colonel Arthur Philip Murphy, my dad, who spent nearly five years in the Philippines during World War II, most of that time listed as “missing in action” (translation: presumed dead). His was a fascinating story. During the last week of this month, November 2018, my book about his experiences will be published and available through First Steps Publishing, Amazon.com, and other sources. I’m excited and happy; writing it and following through to publication has been a long, sometimes arduous, though ultimately rewarding process. But on this Veterans Day I’d like to quote some of my dad’s own words, written in North Luzon, Philippine Islands, in mid-1945 as the war was drawing to a close, finally, and it was becoming more likely each day that he was actually going to survive to return home to his wife and family in California. His words doubtless reflect the sentiments of many veterans of many wars.

June 6, 1945: “War can be a boring thing. The trouble is you don’t have an opportunity for any other interests, so when the fighting isn’t exciting—which it is not most of the time—I’m like a fish out of water. I’m afraid that when I get home, I’m going to have to learn to have fun all over again. Sometimes, when I think of living back home with no war to engross me, it seems an incredibly boring prospect, and that scares me. You see, this war has calloused over many of my tender spots. When one learns to look at destroyed towns and cities without emotion, when one learns to give information to the Air Force for the wholesale destruction of others, when one learns to have little regard for the uniqueness of human life—‘We took Hill X cheaply, only ten men killed’ or ‘In Town Y are 100 Japs and 100 civilians; recommend bombing and strafing’—in the process one becomes hardened. During the [Japanese] occupation, many of our [guerrilla] soldiers surrendered to the enemy because their families had been imprisoned or tortured. We regarded them as traitors and, if we caught them back in our area, we shot them on sight. Cruel and tough, it’s true, but that’s the reason we survived and grew while other [guerrilla] units failed. The worst thing about this war is not the destruction and death that men have accomplished but the indifference with which they’ve had to learn to accomplish it in order to stay alive. Sometimes I think of the damage and destruction these years of war have done to the world and I shudder.

    Art Murphy, North Luzon, Philippines, 1945

“But I’m getting morbid. This is not the first war in the world’s history, and it probably won’t be the last. I suppose death and destruction will always be just another aspect of living. I only hope that when I come home, I can learn again to do the everyday, inconsequential things and get a bang out of doing them. Right now, that’s hard to imagine.”

August 16, 1945: “Well, the war is finally over, but the Japs haven’t started to surrender yet. The radio says the [Japanese] Emperor’s order to cease firing and surrender will be given sometime today. But just yesterday we had four men killed and twenty-one wounded up on our front, and last night a lone Jap was killed trying to attack one of our command posts. But there’s a general feeling that the big show is over. Anything after this will be an anticlimax. Not that the news caused any big celebrations here. Our principal reaction is that of a plow horse when his harness is removed at the end of a long, hot afternoon. He just feels like having some chow and resting in his stall, not going out and kicking up his heels. We’ll leave that to the people back home who can muster the necessary excess energy in spite of the privations they’ve endured.”

 

Harriett’s Gift

“You certainly do like yard work,” I called from my seat at the picnic table on Harriett’s screened-in porch as I waited impatiently for her to finish whatever it was she was doing in her yard that day in 1991. Since moving to the isolation of the Tahoe National Forest eight miles above Nevada City, I looked forward to the fiercely competitive rounds of Upwords that she and I played each afternoon, once she’d finished her chores for the day.

“I think of it as gardening,” she shot back, “not yard work.”

Though I’d known them only a few months, I loved our across-the-road neighbors already. Walt and Harriett had retired to their eight forested acres in the mountains after raising four strapping sons on a dairy ranch outside Santa Rosa. I guess you might term them old-fashioned farm folks—no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth people whose door was never locked, whose dining table always had room for unexpected guests, and who would do anything for anyone, once they perceived the need.

Tall and lean, Walt had a full head of silvery waves. Strikingly handsome in his plaid shirts, he could tell a good story and laughed with gusto whenever a new one tickled his funny bone. In addition to his boys, he loved three things in life: Harriett, his bride of nearly fifty years; his 150-pound Lab-Saint Bernard cross named “Hercules,” or “Herky” for short; and his John Deere tractor. Next down the list was his love of professional sports, especially baseball. Then came politics—the conservative Republican kind. He had a well-equipped shop and could build or fix anything, from toys to cars to tractors to washing machines and chainsaws.

Sharp as a tack, Harriett was tiny. Just over five feet tall, she weighed fewer than ten pounds more than she’d weighed at fourteen, when she and Walt first fell in love. Her face was weathered and lined now, the penalty for a lifetime of days spent in the sun. She wore her brownish hair short-cropped, without much plan but easy to care for. Her long nails, strong enough to double as screwdrivers, belied her image as a farm wife. She was inordinately proud of them and kept them polished bright pink. It was her personality I found most fascinating, though. With an acerbic tongue and a dry wit, Harriett never rattled on mindlessly. More often she listened, a sly, barely discernible smile playing around the corners of her mouth, waiting for you to hang yourself. Then, if she had something to say, she said it. Slow to offer an opinion, when she did, there was no point in arguing. Most often, she was right.

“If you’re in a hurry, you could give me a hand hauling this stuff to the burn pile,” Harriett called.

And so began my education, my transformation, my rebirth. In the coming weeks and months, as I trailed after her, helping with the chores, I peppered her with questions: “What are those tall things with the purple flowers?” “Why are you hoeing around those bushes?” “Won’t coffee grounds kill the plants?” “Why are you putting Epsom salts in your watering can?” “Why are you digging up your beautiful iris?” “Why are you burying nails under those bushes?”

Patiently Harriett explained, her incredulity only thinly veiled that the college professor’s wife from Aptos could be so dumb. She taught me how to double-dig; how to gather flower heads in a brown paper sack, secure the top with a rubber band and place it in the sun for days in order to harvest the seeds; how to carefully pinch the spent flowers from rhododendrons to avoid snapping off next year’s blooming shoots; which bushes and trees to prune after their spring flowering and which later on, in the fall; and how to divide rhizomes and bulbs in order to start new clumps or share. She taught me about nitrogen and potassium and phosphorus in the soil and how to enrich it by using what others might term garbage: coffee grounds and tea bags, crushed eggshells, ashes from the woodstove, dog droppings, shredded newspapers, and leaves. She even told me the best garden gloves to buy, not the little winky ones in pretty pastels that are marketed to women in the garden centers, but the more reasonably priced, heavier ones made by Atlas that lasted a whole season even under constant assault by her long nails.

Before long I began gathering boulders and muscling together low retaining walls to create paths and planting beds around our new home across the road. But Harriett rolled her eyes at my frequent trips to the local nurseries. “It isn’t about spending money,” she snorted. “Why spend a fortune on all those commercial soil amendments when all you have to do is go into the forest with a rake, clear off the top layer of pine needles, and gather all the forest mulch you want, for nothing?” She believed in doing it the old-fashioned way: composting, propagating, dividing.

“But that takes so long,” I wailed.

Again Harriett rolled her eyes. “Gardening is about patience,” she said, “and you’ll value the results more if you do it right. Like children. Who’d value kids if you just bought them in batches at the store? It’s the hard work and care and time and love that are important, not instant gratification. It’s about creating something uniquely yours, something beautiful and worthwhile; something that will reward you anew every spring; something that will enrich your life year after year. Your garden doesn’t care how old you are, the size of your bank account, how many teeth you’ve lost, how much you weigh, what you’re wearing—or not wearing—or your position in the local social hierarchy. Let other women have their Valium, their therapists, their retreats, their endless books on meditation and self-improvement; you’ll never need ‘em. Your garden will be all the sustenance you ever need. You’ll never grow too old to cherish an early morning stroll along your paths, coffee cup in hand, visiting your garden family and cheerfully planning your day.”

Now, more than three decades later, Harriett and Walt are both gone. But Harriett’s influence is not. I’ve created three gardens since those long-ago days, each more elaborate than the last, and every morning, as I stroll, coffee cup in hand, I think of her and the precious wisdom she shared. I smile as I tend the descendants of her early generosity—iris and carpet bugle and lamb’s ears and a variety of dianthus I don’t even know the name of but which blooms vivid hot pink every May and June and scatters its seeds widely. “Fingernail-pink,” I call it. I think of Harriett every time I pinch my Vulcan rhododendrons, expertly preserving next spring’s show of brilliant scarlet flowers. I think about her as I pause, warming my back in a patch of early morning sunshine slanting down through the towering Ponderosas. I think of her and of the wealth of knowledge she shared, about gardening and about life. I think of Harriett and her gift and I give thanks.