Freedom Village

By James F. Murphy Jr.

*Copyright 1993. Reprinted in “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul,” 2001.

My most vivid memory associated with the American flag flashes to Korea and a gray, clammy day in early August 1953. The Korean War had come to an end a week earlier, on July 27 at precisely 10 PM. I remember lying in a rice paddy and suddenly experiencing the thunderous, deafeaning silence of peace. The Chinese and North Koreans, surely as joyful as I, were singing and raising their flags less than two hundred yards from where my platoon sergeant and I sat smoking celebratory cigars. 

A military spotlight, affectionately referred to as “Moonbeam Charlie,” played along the valley floor and crept up the scarred hills, catching the Chinese and North Koreans in spirited dancing around their outpost flagpole. Their flags seemed to mean something to them, and at that time, I wasn’t sure what my flag meant to me.

James F. Murphy Jr., age 21, folding the American flag in Korea with a fellow soldier.

But that changed dramatically a week later, when I was a part of a contingent sent to represent my regiment at “Freedom Village.” 

“Operation Big Switch” was on. Our prisoners of war were to be returned to American hands, as the Chinese and North Koreans were to be returned to their people. Through the dim half-light of fading memory, I recollect that Freedom Village was in a scooped-out hollow with hills brooding over it from four sides. A few dwellings leaned into the village amid taut canvas hospital tents. 

We representatives of the United Nations stood at attention as ambulances and beat-up buses arrived from the north. The UN, American, and Korean flags hung limply in the humid August air. Photographers, Army and civilian alike, scurried about for good vantage points. 

The Chinese and North Koreans were the first to cross over “Freedom Bridge.” They were surly, healthy looking and well fed. Some carried signs decrying capitalism. Members of a Republic of Korea regiment scowled, and one of them sent a spray of saliva in his former opponent’s direction. The exchange had a tone of tense and bitter antagonism, and as young as I was, I wondered how long the newly inked truce would last. 

When the remaining Chinese and North Koreans had been herded off to their own vehicles, the UN prisoners were ushered from the trucks and buses and sent across the bridge to our side. The UN Honor Guard, combat veterans, and observers gasped when they saw the condition of their returning comrades, who struggled, hobbled and staggered, gaunt and emaciated, toward friendly faces. 

One after another they came. The next one was in worse condition than the one before. Long lines of dull-eyed soldiers of the “Forgotten War” inched their way to freedom, and out of their number, a gray-faced stick figure of a boy-turned-old man dragged himself along the bridge. His bony arms were held out like a sleepwalker. He staggered and swayed, and one time fell into the wooden railing. Every eye in that village was suddenly trained on that one figure. Even those on the northern side watched the gallant physical effort of the wasted soldier. Each tried, inwardly, to help, to urge him on, until finally, when he lurched forward, an MP major, a giant of a man, came up to help. The soldier waved him off with his skeleton hands and arms. Looking around at the grim faces, he caught sight of the three color bearers and shuffled toward them. When he reached the American flag bearer, he knelt on trembling knees before the flag as though it were an altar. He reached up and tugged at the flag. The color bearer, either by instinct or by some infinite wisdom, lowered the flag and the soldier covered his face with it, sobbing and shaking uncontrollably. 

Other than the clicks of cameras, the village was cemetery-quiet. Tears streamed from all of us. Cotton replaced saliva in our throats. After several moments, the stillness was broken by the sound of the heavy boots of the MP major, who came crunching across the gravel, his cheeks moist and glistening. He bent down and tenderly scooped the soldier up in his muscular arms and carried him off to a waiting ambulance, much as a father would carry a baby. 

There wasn’t a dry eye in that silent village, thousands of miles away from Main Street, USA. 

James F. Murphy Jr.

Casino by the Sea

Poetry and Photography by Sarah E. Murphy/Copyright 2002

I loved venturing up the boardwalk to Under the Sun

sandy bare feet slapping against hot planks

to fill brown paper bags with fireballs and bulls’ eyes. 

I’d always stop and peer in the windows

wanting to know if it matched my mind’s eye

women in pastel bikinis perched on barstools like exotic birds 

stirring colorful concoctions with tiny umbrellas. 

Men huddled over amber-colored pint glasses

as rings of smoke wafted above their heads. 

But this was the 70s and 80s

in the days of the Brothers 4 and the Oak Crest Inn

when the Heights was like Daytona

and the commotion in the streets at night became 

my summer lullaby.

Car doors slamming

the offensive blur of a radio dial

inebriated voices echoing across the ballpark

coaxing me to sleep. 

Two decades later

I would come to know it from the inside

where singles came together

for the proverbial nightcap

and adversaries sometimes came to blows. 

By midnight you could barely move

so conversations were finished on the deck

weaving through the crowd 

a sea of tank tops and flip flops 

jean shorts and baseball caps.

Escaping the smell of stale cigarettes and spilled beer

for the soothing embrace of salty summer air. 

Then the lights would suddenly come up

the music abruptly stopping

a brief silence punctuated by boisterous refusal.

Stumbling slightly

down that same boardwalk of my youth

while bouncers and summer cops

herded us like bar-hopping cattle.

Swaying lovers

and strangers who met moments before

would cling to each other

as searches began for missing keys 

and friends lost in the crowd

while parked cruisers offered a not-so-subtle reminder to 

“Keep things moving…”

How naive we were

to think those nights would never end

along with lazy Sundays

nursing a hangover

on the Heights Beach

coaxed in and out consciousness by the roar of the ocean

and cover tunes wafting down from the deck

with the promising scent of fried clams.

Our beloved summer castle 

washed away by an unexpected wave.

Poetry and Photography by Sarah E. Murphy /Copyright 2002

She Learns: Empowering Girls in Uganda

By Sarah E. Murphy

The Fourth of July is now a memory, and my husband and I have been in quarantine since before St. Patrick’s Day. While we’ve slowly but surely been getting out a bit more as the months creep by, the global pandemic persists. As I write this, it’s a flawless summer day, but I have yet to get to the beach this season, which is unheard of for this lifelong Cape Codder, who also happens to be a Pisces.

Italy has now closed its borders to Americans, after candidly pleading with the US not to make their mistake by underestimating the severity of the situation. I can’t say I’m remotely surprised, or that I blame them. Therefore it’s doubtful I’ll be making my fall research trip to Vatican City as planned, but thankfully, I can travel virtually, since my work as an advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors connects me to inspiring individuals all over the world. I recently had the pleasure of speaking by phone with Fred Sebaggala, founder and managing director of shelearns.org, a non-profit in Kampala, Uganda dedicated to educating and empowering girls and women.

Fred Sebaggala delivering supplies to a village in Uganda. Photos courtesy of She Learns.

Although it was nearly 9 PM his time, his day was not yet over, as he explained his motivation for starting the organization. Fred and his sister were raised by their mother Betty, a hard-working, single parent, who struggled and sacrificed in order to give her children all the things she lacked. 

“She was not an educated lady, but she did what she could to make sure we always had the best. In the traditional African setting, women are viewed as second-class citizens. They cannot speak out. If my mother had been empowered, she could have made a difference in the world. A woman with a voice is, by definition, a strong woman,” he said, referencing one of the slogans of She Learns. 

“I wanted to find a way to help other girls so they didn’t have to face the same challenges she did.” 

Despite the lack of opportunities afforded to Betty in her youth, she is changing the world through her son, who challenges African cultural stereotypes by promoting equality in education. The impetus for his initiative came a few years ago when Fred attended a gender equality conference and felt compelled to make a difference. Today, he and his colleagues visit schools to motivate female students about their societal worth and potential, while educating them to be financially independent and self-reliant rather looking to a spouse to fill that role. 

“We teach them that being a girl is not a bad thing. Girls deserve the same opportunities as boys. We challenge them to think like a ceo, a manager, or a preacher. How would they address their workers or their congregation if they were in charge? We build their self-esteem so they understand that their potential is already within them, because when she learns, she can win. When she learns, she can live a better life. When she learns, she can be anything she wants in this world,” Fred explained.

The organization also provides access to the most basic resources for girls and women, such as shoes and menstrual pads, for without them, they are unable to attend school or work.

“In some villages, it’s hard to get sanitary pads, and some girls can’t afford them. They worry people will laugh at them, which makes them feel pain and shame, and they can’t imagine how they could ever go to school in such a situation. So we bring sanitary pads to the villages, along with other needed supplies, like food,” he said.

The importance of a man working to end the stigma of menstruation, something so normal, which is often weaponized against women all over the globe, cannot be overstated. My respect for Fred is immeasurable. As a former Catholic, I experienced the shame that accompanied what should be welcomed as a healthy rite of passage, and many years later, I wrote an essay about how I learned about my period not from my mother, but instead from the awkward, cheesy filmstrip all the girls watched in sixth grade. My poor mom still apologizes for this, which wasn’t at all her fault, for she was a product of a religious system in which anything relating to sex was regarded as sinful and “inappropriate.” She was simply repeating the behavior she had learned from my grandmother, which was based in fear, more than anything else.

Instead of using religion to control women, She Learns does the opposite; it liberates them with references to the Bible, a concept so foreign to the patriarchal religion I left as a teenager.

“The Bible did not disparage women. God empowered both sexes, but the main way women have been put down in my country is by being silenced,” Fred said. “So we teach the girl child to look outside the box of the traditional setting. We teach her that women have value.” 

She Learns also works to eliminate child labor and child trafficking, and to educate in the prevention of domestic abuse, therefore Fred took on an African leadership role in the global organization SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), through his work with SNAP Vice-President, Ashley Easter, US advisor to She Learns. Ashley interviews Fred in this video about his future goals for She Leans, such as the establishment of trade school where girls and women can learn vocational skills in order to pursue a career.

Empowering those who are marginalized is Fred’s greatest joy, for he believes helping others is how we truly succeed. 

“If you want to build a strong woman, start with a girl. Even if it’s just one, behind that girl, there may be ten more. And when one girl is lifted, she can empower others. She can change the world.”

Visit shelearns.org for information and follow them on Facebook for updates. Click here to make a donation.