Chapter 4 – Japan (1957-1960)

The TPF was getting used to not getting too settled in one place for long. Dad got orders to proceed to Itazuke Air Force Base on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. Did we regret leaving friends and everything behind in South Carolina? Yes, but it was time for new horizons.

Dad, Mom, Debby, Dan and I piled into our 1954 Mercury cruiser for the trans-continental drive from the southern USA to Seattle, Washington in the extreme northwest.

My father was the original inventor of the “make time on the road” paradigm. Any slowdown was an obstacle in getting from point A to point B. I realize now that he was just feeling the responsibility of per diem and completing the latest TPF mission. Things came to a head when we got to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.

As you know, Old Faithful erupts every 63 minutes, and has since records began. We arrived on minute 65 and missed the event. With new horizons ahead, Dad was ready to hit the road. Mom was furious and jumped out of the car and refused to move until the next geyser episode. That is how the TPF witnessed one of the greatest natural eruptions that nature has ever produced.

Say, that reminds me… I don’t remember which journey we were on, but we were outside the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. Dad did not want to pay the entrance fee for us all to tour the monument. He said, “I’ve seen it before, it’s not worth it. Give me a buck and I will tell you all about it.” Years later, I must say, Dad was right, “I owe you a buck Dad!”

Thanks to our “make time on the road” paradigm, we arrived in Seattle a week prior to our ship’s departure for Japan. From the central foyer of our hotel, the floors and staircases seemed to go on forever.

We made the trip to Japan on a troop transport ship, the USS General Mann. Two weeks between two worlds, sea and sky. The USS General Mann was the most wonderful thing I had ever experienced. It was painted inside and out in battleship grey and smelled of diesel oil and salt air. The crew allowed us kids free run of the ship, from engine room to bridge. Meals were announced by a steward walking each passenger deck playing chimes on a xylophone. In the evening, there were movies on the fantail. No school, no work, just enjoy the flying fish!

At night, regular lights were extinguished and the inside decks were completely illuminated in a red glow. I pity kids that have to make do now with video games.

Compared to modern cruise line expectations, we were travelling “hard class”; cramped cabins and open bay communal toilets. We soon got into the routine. Two weeks of no landfalls, or even sightings of other ships, created a peculiar feeling of what was probably a false sense of security. Instead of, “are we there yet?” we were saying, “oh no, only eight days left!”

The ship finally arrived in Yokohama harbour and we sat at anchor for a couple of days waiting for a berth. By now, we were used to the military axiom of “hurry up and wait”. The upside was watching the maritime activity that went on around us, with the backdrop of snow capped Mount Fuji.

The rest of our journey was on a sleeper train from Tokyo to Fukuoka. My abiding memory of the train trip was waking up in the middle of the night because the train stopped. When I looked out of the window, a sign on the station said, Hiroshima.

I was 9 years old when we got to Japan and 12 when we left. My sister Becky was born in Japan on April 29, 1958. The 29th day of April was an auspicious day. The emperors’ birthday was observed on this day between 1026 and 1989. Thirteen years later the 29th of April was again an auspicious day (I’ll tell you about that later).

Early on, our family lived off the base in the local Japanese community. Back in 1957, Japan was still trying to recover from the war. Crops were nourished with human waste from a symbiotic sewage system known as honey buckets.

Infrastructure, like clean drinking water was not available. A water truck came on even dated Tuesdays, and we filled containers with drinking water. Even then, all of us kids were plagued with painful boils and constant infections. In my experience, draining a boil is worse than having one.

As soon as he could, Dad got the family moved to military housing.

Itazuke Air Force base was a world of its’ own. My brother Dan and I had freedom to roam. We pretty much wore the Air Force Base and surrounding area out. We went everywhere and we did everything. We never once felt in danger or experienced any interference.

The base was like a small town in America… that is if the small town was able to provide a PX, commissary, gymnasium, movie theatre, parade ground, flight line, and an Olympic sized swimming pool.

The movie theatre was my cultural center. Sometimes, I went to the movies every night of the week and to matinees on Saturday and Sunday too. Audie Murphy was my hero. He reminded me of my uncle Jimmy who was a Marine during the war.

Japan was officially an occupied country up until 1952. There was still a lot of surplus used US military paraphernalia around. Amazingly, we could buy it from a surplus store on the base. I bought a helmet ($0.25), canteen with webbed belt ($0.25), retractable fox-hole shovel ($0.25) and a back pack ($0.25). My parents drew the line on me purchasing a four wheel drive Jeep. Talk about unfair… low mileage, hardly any bullet holes, and it was only $0.25!

The piece de resistance was a full sized parachute. The ultimate toy! On windy days we would take it to a field and see how many kids it could drag around. You could tie a rope around the apex, throw the rope over a tree limb, and voila… a giant Indian tepee. I kept that parachute for many years, until a feral cat had a litter of kittens deep in the folds.

The base was where we lived. But, there was another world on the doorstep. I explored the nearby mountains and farms, and took train trips to Fukuoka and played in the Pachinko parlours.

Itazuke AFB had a strong softball team and was always a contender in USAF sponsored Japan wide playoffs. Kids would hang around in the outfield hoping to “shag” a foul ball to add to their collection. Bats were made of wood back then. When a batter cracked a bat, it was no longer fit for purpose. We were allowed to keep cracked bats. I was a Louisville Slugger millionaire in the cracked bats market.

Watching the Squadron softball teams instilled an interest of the game in us kids. When Little League season arrived, we all signed up to join a team.

Every Squadron on the base sponsored a Little League team. We were supplied with bats, balls, uniforms, baseball caps and coaches. My green cap and shirt had “IEO Cats” emblazoned on the front and back (I don’t remember what IEO stood for). Competition was fierce between Squadrons and winning was high on every Little League team’s agenda.

I soon realized that the baseball we were playing was not a game… it was deadly serious. It was like the coaches’ pride and careers were at stake.

Full of confidence, at my first time at bat I hit a ground ball and made it to second base. Cheers and banter filled the air. My next time at bat, I struck out. No cheers, only banter filled the air. Maybe the pitcher was getting better?

Before my third time at bat, the IEO coaches had a quick parley and I was instructed to squat. As you know, in baseball, the strike zone is between the shoulders and knees. I was small for my age. Reduce the size of the strike zone and the pitcher has a problem getting a strike by you. One, two, three, four pitches out of the strike zone, and I had an easy walk to first base.

With this inspired piece of coaching, I was guaranteed a free base because no pitcher could reasonably get one by a short guy like me. Oh, you can also get a free base if the pitcher throws a ball and hits the batter (you).

The coaches on the opposing team had a quick parley with their pitcher. My next time at bat the pitcher bounced one off my right elbow. No big deal, just walk it off on the way to first base.

I don’t mind telling you that this strategy got old real quick. The opposing team realized they did not need to waste time trying to strike me out. Just hit me hard on the first pitch and get it over with.

In subsequent games I was hit in about every part of my body and developed a swelling aversion to playing team sports. Even when I was not instructed to squat, pitchers would bean me anyway, just to teach me a lesson. I don’t think the coaches ever learned.

Little League was my first experience of how something that should be pleasurable, could be turned into something the opposite. And, it coloured my feelings about team sports (and authority motives) to this day.

When the season was over, we played baseball like kids and just enjoyed the game. Without the help of a coach, I was a top player. (We maintained a no squat policy)

Baseball aside, I was still struggling with my lack of reading skills. A breakthrough came when I started getting interested in of all things, comic books. My favourites were Uncle Scrooge (with his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie) and Superman. Between Dan and me we accumulated a giant stack of comic books. At first I just looked at the pictures and ignored the text filled balloons. One day I happened to be browsing a thick comic book from the “Illustrated Classics” series. The pictures alone were not enough for me to understand what was going on in the story, but it seemed so interesting, that I decided to make an effort to actually read the captions. It took about a week, but with a sense of achievement and a new thirst for literature, I read the story from cover to cover. The title by the way was “Rumpelstiltskin” – it’s ironic that a book with a dyslectic-ly spelled name would provide a solution to my reading problem. I consequently went back and read our full stack of comics. I became a regular library user, avid reader and still enjoy the treasures found in the printed word.

Our tribe had grown to the point that Mom needed some help. A sweet Japanese girl named Lili (Urico Morimoto) was engaged as a live in maid. Lili took our family in, and imprinted strong Japanese behavioural traits on us kids. The oriental value of not losing face and avoiding confrontation is still part of my character. I have observed the same traits in Becky, Debby and Dan. When we left Japan and had to leave Lili behind, we all cried.

The trip home was like a rewind of the trip to Japan. We took the same train and even the same ship on the same day three years later. Only this time, we were headed for Syracuse, New York via San Francisco, California.

I just noticed that I said, “The trip home.” Actually, the TPF was leaving home and looking forward once again to new horizons.

In San Francisco bay, the USS General Mann sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge. Near the island of Alcatraz, we nearly rammed a Navy submarine. Suddenly, it was sirens, bells and “Reverse all engines!” I still take this encounter as a cardinal rule of travel, “A journey is not over until you arrive.”

We boarded a train in San Francisco for a three day transcontinental journey. Mom and Dad debated the idea of getting us all sleeper compartments. But, our growing family settled into regular day seating (hard class). Train travel still holds adventure for me. We crossed vast deserts, the Great Salt Lake, Nebraska cornfields, ragged edges of cities and the mighty Mississippi river.

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