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.
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.”