Last week, I presented five photos of spectacular sunsets that I captured during the forest fires we had experienced repeatedly during the past five years. Red skies and fiery clouds were the hallmark during these frightening summers. Today, I will show a few more sunsets that are a bit less dramatic but give you the feeling of peace and serenity. After a few more rainy days with cooler temperatures, the air is clear now and the sky is finally changing from toxic-gray to the brilliant blue we have been missing all summer long. Enjoy.
With more time for thought and reflection, Papa, making full use of his poetic talent, began to describe his life as a POW more vividly and in much greater detail. To make it easier for the reader to decipher this unusual piece of literature, he underlined the rhyming words and indicated with a slash the end of each line. Papa often went beyond a mere description of the good and bad times at camp.
He began by reflecting upon what makes a man truly free and what makes him a prisoner, not just in the literal sense of being surrounded by miles of barbed wire fences and guards ready to shoot at anyone attempting to escape. Freedom for Papa was more than having food, drink and shelter; slavery more than being deprived of these things. If the human spirit prevails despite severe deprivations, it is free. If, on the other hand, it drowns in a flood of material goods, it becomes a slave, not of some exterior force, such as a dictatorial political system, it puts on shackles of its own making. Papa stated in his notes that something very positive came out of these horrible times at camp. He appreciated food, even the simplest meals, so much more. (Indeed, he would get furious when his children refused to eat what was so lovingly prepared and often left on the plate what he would have gladly eaten while being a POW. ) He addressed the reader directly by saying, ‘There is a sense of fair balance in human life. The hungry and deprived individual relishes a slice of dried bread and finds that it tastes much better than a rich man would ever experience eating a sumptuous gourmet dinner. Indeed simple, modest food will spare the less fortunate in life many diseases afflicting the wealthy gluttons in society. Dear reader, remember that times of adversity can be helpful. So if you don’t forget them, you will savour even the most basic food with great enjoyment when you are doing better. The more you are mindful of your past ordeals, the more you will thank God and be content when you receive your daily bread and no longer suffer from your hunger pangs.’
We all heard about the devastating effects forest fires can have on wildlife and humans. The destruction of homes and entire communities was horrific especially this summer. It also appears that the fires become more frequent and more destructive with each new year. However, it is easy to forget that there is a positive side to nature’s rebellion against humanity. The wildfires are also a form of cleansing creating new feeding grounds and much needed habitats for wildlife, and getting rid of pests and diseases from ailing forests. For the photographer, wildfires are also the cause of spectacular sunsets. Here are a few examples from the past few years from my archives. Enjoy.
Finally, on May 7, the weather showed signs of improvement, and on the following day, the sun broke through the cloud cover, bringing much-needed warmth for body and soul. However, Papa’s feet and toes were numb; he felt a tingling sensation throughout his lower limbs and could barely walk. His heart began to give him trouble. He knew that he would not have lasted much longer. But now, as he was feeling better and his feet were no longer bothering him and after he was finally able to clear himself of all the dirt on his body, wash his shirt and socks, a sense of new optimism was surging through his entire being. Rumours were also circulating through the camp that the POWs would get permission to go home. The war was over now. Why would the Americans want to keep them any longer? Would it not be cheaper to make them go home and save the expense of looking after, feeding and guarding 80,000 men? But just as Papa was looking in vain for blue patches in the leaden sky, so all his hopes for early dismissal vanished into thin air. Camp life went on with its daily routines. The camp guards became rather more severe as days dragged into weeks and weeks into months. They meted out ruthless punishments after some POWs in constant search for firewood had ripped off some of the toilet seats from the camp latrines.
Papa was not the type who would not want to idle away the time by just sitting around in the sunshine or play cards for endless hours, even if it was his favourite card game, ‘Skat’. He wrote his notes now on slightly larger paper but continued with the same microcosmic handwriting. Of course, Papa knew that it was strictly forbidden to record his experiences at the camp and therefore was extremely careful not to let anyone see him write. I guess the reason for these rules was that nothing should ever go out to the outside world that might tarnish the image of the Americans.
Gone is the dense toxic smoke, gone is the blood-red sun and gone is the feeling of tense anxiety about the imminent danger of the wildfires all around us. The joy of being free from the oppressive atmosphere that dominated our lives during the past two months let our spirits rise in jubilation. Prompted by the fortuitous turn of events, my wife and I decided to go on a hike on a rarely used trail past the Needles cemetery that led us straight to the Whatshan waterfalls. Here is a brief virtual tour to one of the oases of peace in our region. Enjoy.
Suddenly, the weather changed from one day to the next and brought rain and more for the next seven days. Temperatures plunged to near freezing at night, while water soon filled their clay huts and made it impossible to sleep on the ground. Poor Papa Panknin tried to sleep while standing on one leg for a couple of minutes, then switching to the other. Once, he succeeded in catching a few winks, only to wake up in horror discovering to his utter dismay that he had plunged face down into the mud. He summarized his dismal experiences as triple torture of standing, starving and freezing. From the highest-ranking officer down to the common soldier, every POW had to endure the cold nights and the rainy days. The weather made no distinction. It fooled the prisoners by raising their hopes when short periods of clear skies promised a sunny, dry day, only to revert to more rain during the day.
In the first week of May, the sun did not show its face for five long days. Papa was constantly scanning the sky for a sign of change in the weather. His long gaze created the hope that if he looked hard enough, he would perhaps discover a patch of blue on the murky horizon. Indeed, Papa thought he had found a definite shift from gray to blue. When he proudly announced his comrades the changes he had observed in the clouds, they all laughed at him. Like a desert traveller fancying an oasis, where there is none, so Papa had fallen victim to the mirage that had formed in his desperate mind. Perhaps hot, nutritious meals would have helped a little to provide some strength and warmth. Alas, the thin soups were getting lighter and often arrived cold at their swampy mud hole.
During one night, Papa tried to find some rest for his tired feet by sitting on a water container, but completely exhausted fell two times asleep and into the muck. Unkempt and unshaven, covered in filth, he felt more like an animal than a human being. There was strife and petty spats over tiny morsels of food. There was no wood to make a fire, not even for roasting the few potatoes that had been made available for the hungry men. Papa built a primitive grating tool out of a tin can, into which he had punched some twenty holes. Now he could shred a potato into a porridge-like pulp, which he ate raw to get some badly needed nutrients, minerals and vitamins into his belly.