Inner Peace and Serenity
That afternoon I contacted a friend who worked in the kitchen. “Not much,” I said, ‘just a pinch. He gave me a small bag of salt and the next morning I gave this to the dying man in Ward 0. He didn’t have to thank me; his eyes showed his gratitude. I kept the supply of salt coming, and each morning he seemed a little stronger. I was able to spend some time with him. We had conversations either inside Ward 0 or outside on the ground where he lay while the ward was cleaned up. Miraculously, for more than four months, he had survived the horrors of Ward 0. I cannot even begin to estimate how many men I had seen carried out of that dreadful place, and each morning when I arrived I didn’t know if l would see my friend lying on the ground or else heaped up among the dead waiting to be carried to the cemetery.
But he was always there.
After another two months in Ward 0, a total of six months altogether, the man finally managed to get on his feet, and slowly he got better. By sheer determination to live, he continued to improve until he finally was dismissed from the hospital and assigned work on the farm. But his first day on the farm proved to be too hard for him. They carried him back on a stretcher and placed him in Ward O again, naked, and with his head against the wall. He endured the impossible conditions of the ward for another month. Then one morning, he was gone. I was certain he was dead, but when I inquired if he had already been buried, they informed me he was still alive. But he had contacted another disease. They had carried him to the tuberculosis ward. He now had another battle to fight.
I was at Cabanatuan about three months when I began to have trouble urinating. I had the urge to urinate, but the only liquid I could pass was a few drops of blood, accompanied by much pain. I went to sick call. The medical officer examined me but all he could do was shake his head. That was the extent of his ability to help me cope with my problem. My thoughts focused on Ward 0 and death. I wouldn’t let that happen. In two weeks my urination became normal. Much the same happened with my battle with malaria. I had it bad and continued to have attacks. There was no quinine or Atabrine to help me, and all I could do was let the fever run its course. Somehow it always worked. I never ever knew how sick I really was until my comrades told me afterwards. They said that I jabbered like I had gone insane. There was nothing anyone could have done to help me anyway. Help had to come from within me. I can’t explain it, and I don’t think any medical scientist can either-but it did work.
I tried not to think of death but sometimes it was unavoidable. At times our subconscious thoughts and even our dreams take over and we have no control. I am back in San Francisco with a gang of boys, romping around in the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
Anyone who is observant and strolls down Geary Boulevard in San Francisco can’t help from pausing at Jordan Avenue and marveling at the domed structure that stands at this most unnatural setting. The doomed building is a columbarium, and over years it witnessed the changes that came to the area. Once the cemetery stretched from the foot of Cross Hill to Arguello Boulevard on the west, and from Turk Street on the south to Geary Boulevard, near our family home. The Odd Fellows Cemetery back then was enclosed in some sections by a concrete wall, and in others by board fences.
When we first moved to our new neighborhood, we listened with awe to the many tales people had to tell about the graveyard. For us youngsters, Old Fellows became a place of mystery and intrigue, and each one of us hesitated to venture near the place. Our parents cautioned us to keep out of the place.
But in time our curiosity overcame our fear. The day arrived when we mustered up enough courage to cross Arguello Boulevard and have a look for ourselves. Peeking through knotholes in the fence, we were amazed and fascinated by the scene before us. High grass, tangled bushes, tall trees, and tombstone of all inscriptions blend to form what appeared to be a wild enchanted forest.
Finding a hole in the fence, we cautiously crawled through and commenced to explore a small area. We left the cemetery feeling confident now. A few days later we returned, and explored a bit farther. After that we became bolder, and soon we knew every corner of the entire cemetery.
How clearly at night in camp I could recall that cemetery. In the center stood a large crematorium. Its windows and doors were barred, and on the east side of the structure towered a square, concrete chimney. Looking down through gratings, we could see a murky abyss and occasionally we caught the glimpse of a rat or snake stirring in its depths. The building had a sinister aspect, and we were afraid to venture too close.
During our explorations, we peeked into open tombs, climbed trees, crawled under bushes. We wondered about different statues, and read names and dates on the graves. We discovered that the bushes made excellent hideouts and the trees and tombstones gave us a good view of the surrounding area. The grounds abounded with all sort of wildlife: quail, robins, woodpeckers, sparrows, and many other species of birds. There were also garter snakes, and, we learned, a few vicious caretakers.
I remembered one day we entered the cemetery and saw a caretaker cleaning up around the graves. Everyone wanted to dash out into the street again before we pounced upon us.
“Now listen, you guys,” I said, being the wise one.
”What are you afraid of? Have we done anything wrong?” “Nope,” answered a little fellow, “but I’m not taking any chances.”
I took up the challenge. ‘Well,” I relied boldly, “if he comes up here, I’m staying.”
About then the caretaker saw us, and leaving his work, he dropped his shovel and rapidly strode toward us. Immediately, the gang scrambled to the fence and disappeared through the opening. I stood fast, acting nonchalant, as if I had done nothing wrong. He walked up to me, grabbed my arm and swung me around. He then booted me twice in the seat of the pants and gave me a shove toward the fence.
“Get the hell outa here, you squirt,” he shouted in anger. Tears rolled down my cheeks. Between sobs, I cried, ‘Just wait till I tell my father. He’s bigger than you are!” Greatly chagrined, I hurried back to the street. Some of the gang had heard what I had said, about my father being bigger than the caretaker, and they began laughing and teasing me. I was so angry I wanted to fight the whole bunch.
My standing up to the caretaker paid off. He became sympathetic. On Memorial Day he paid us to clean the graves. Our pay was fifty cents for a single grave, one dollar for a double and as high as five dollars for multiple plots. I can still hear our cries as we walked through the cemetery shouting: “Graves cleaned and watered.” We sometimes made fifteen dollars apiece on grave cleaning days.
At Cabanatuan the Japanese allowed us to have a service on Memorial Day. The whole camp crowded around the graveyard where we conducted our own ceremonies. I was most impressed by the service given by a member of the Jewish faith. The man was about sixty years of age, over six feet tall, and had a big bushy beard. He resembled a portrait of Moses. He was deeply tanned and his only clothing was a tattered pair of shorts. In a deep resounding voice he sang his service. We all were deeply affected by his presentation. When the time came for the bugler to blow taps, he was usually so overcome with emotion that he could hardly blow his horn.
Every time I gazed out over the graveyard, I couldn’t help thinking of our many dead buried there. They had suffered greatly, needlessly, and with as many as twenty or thirty at a time dumped in a common hole, they could truthfully be called “unknown soldiers.” Their bodies could never be identified.