Beautiful Thailand, Pt. 2

My little bungalow was located down the road from my duty station by about three kilometers.  That meant that I had three methods of getting to and from work.  1) I could take a Baht Bus, which was the highway equivalent of a milk run train as it stopped everywhere along the road at the wave of a hand.  2) I could ride my bicycle, which was what I did most of the time.  Or, 3) I could spend about five Baht (around a dollar) and take a taxi.

In a small bungalow about two doors down resided a cab driver.  He could be found most all the time shining up his electric blue Toyota cab.  It was a beautiful machine.  He’d spent quite a bit of money on it for chrome accessories, loud pipes, window fringe, and lighting – lots of lighting.  At night, his cab looked like an ocean liner with all portholes ablaze.

He and I became fairly good friends because he liked to go zooming around getting stuff for the Americans that lived on Soi Pongsak.  He could also get me to work in about six seconds if I was in a hurry.

One evening, I came home from work and found his modest hovel had burned to the ground.  He was pretty stressed out because he had to find a new place to live.  Now, when I moved in to my bungalow, I took note that on the ground floor was an old pen where a water buffalo used to live and a little two-room place to live.  I thought that if I talked to the Mama-San I might be able to let him move himself and his cab into the space.

I mentioned before that pretty much everything in Asia is run by the Mama-Sans.  They wield the real power in almost any situation.  If one gets on the good side of them, there is hardly any limit to what you can accomplish.  I’d made very good friends with the owner of my bungalow by simply paying my rent on time improving her cash flow), taking quick showers (conserving our limited supply of fresh water), and employing several of her girls in my household (I didn’t reeeealy have to, but they worked for next to nothing).

Anyway, I asked her if this could happen and she said she saw no reason why not, so the driver backed his cab into the slot and took up residence in the little farmer’s hut under my house.  After that, I don’t think I ever paid for a ride again.

– – –

My skills at speaking Thai grew almost exponentially as I interacted with the girls around the house.  None of them spoke any English at all except my Honcho (boss) housegirl, Nang.  She was educated up to high school level and spoke a little English so between the two of us we taught each other our languages.  One thing she was able to do was obtain some basic readers from the school her eight year old son, Supavit, attended.  It might have looked a bit strange to see the three of us sitting in the living room taking turns writing on a small slate but  I can’t think of a better way to learn any language than to start with children’s texts.

At first, the kids thought it was hilarious but then they devised ways of competing with me.  I was always careful not to win too many times.

Before I left Thailand, her son spoke English very well but with the added skill of being able to write a lot of it also.  After two months, I could pick up a newspaper and read headlines aloud.  Thai is a somewhat complicated language, but fairly easy to learn if you apply yourself.  It is what I call a ‘pictorial’ language.  The phrase “good morning” is written thus:  สวัสดี.  As my comprehension of the language grew, so did my reputation.  Soon, I had a lot of Army guys asking me to go along with them downtown to buy stuff.

It was interesting to go into a shop and listen to the clerks wondering among themselves how much they thought they could get from this American.  In one store, we were haggling merrily away (in English) and then I started to shift into Thai.  We went several rounds before they realized I was speaking their language.  Surprisingly, they began laughing about it and reduced prices accordingly.

– – –

As I said, when I moved into my bungalow, there was a vacant stall under it for a caribou (water buffalo).  Once I got to know the Mama-San a bit more she told me she was planning on buying a neighboring paddy of land behind her house and planting rice there.  Unfortunately, she didn’t have a buffalo to drag the skid for her.  I knew where this conversation was going, especially when Nang got into the act, so I just went with the flow.  After several crafty moves by mama-San, and a bit of bumbling gullibility by me, I helped buy the beast.  Somehow, I had ended up part owner of a water buffalo.

On my days off, I might be found dressed in a sarong, with a reed hat on my head, riding the buffalo around as it pulled a huge, flat rake through the muddy water.  Hey, it was actually a lot of fun!  It also led to several other native activities of which I am still very proud.

– – –

After about five months, Nang and I were good friends.  As I said, she would accompany me downtown when I went on liberty and kept the bar girls from crowding me too much.  She never drank, so she was available to make sure I got home in one piece.  When I first met her, she seemed a bit shy, but began to open up more.  One evening, she told me about her home town of Ban Non.

This is a tiny little hamlet of about 20 small huts on stilts, built in a square around a central meeting house.  Her mother lives there as well as her various uncles and aunts.  She and her son live in one of the rooms in her mother’s hut.  She was pretty fired up because there was going to be a festival on the weekend and she wanted me and some of my friends to come up and visit.  According to her, we would be the first Americans to ever visit her hamlet.  I told her I could probably locate a few guys that would love to make the trip.

I did indeed gather six of us and luckily we were off-duty that weekend.  I cautioned them that they had to be on their best behavior so we wouldn’t look like a bunch of hooligans.  It was to be a formal affair; or as formal as it could get off in the hinterlands.  I was not quite right about that.

Using my live-in cabbie, and four of his friends, we wound our way up the highway towards Nong Khai on the Laotian border; which was actually the Mekong River.  About 8Km south of the border, we turned west on a deeply rutted and muddy track.  After a kilometer or so, the track petered out into pretty much nothing.  Two of the cabbies stopped and refused to go onwards so they parked and walked in.  The rest of us kept going until we reached Ban Non.  The two weren’t worried about their vehicles because any passerby was likely to be completely ignorant of how to drive a car.

When we arrived, the entire town gathered around our caravan.  Throngs of kids were poking into every bag and box we’d brought.  I found out later than there was a school just down the track that held around 60 kids ranging in age from seven to twelve.  All of them had turned out to greet us.  We were literally mobbed as we struggled to get stuff into Nang’s mother’s house.

The novelty of seeing us never really wore off, but it did wane somewhat.  At least it was enough so we could get out of the house and wander around taking loads of pictures.  The kids were fascinated by our cameras.  I’d brought my Polaroid with me and around thirty packs of film.  I must have gone through five packs of eight each taking pictures of kids.  Lots of yelling and pushing ensured when a new picture came out of the camera as they all wanted to see themselves.

As the evening wore on, the kids were replaced by curious adults.  At first, it was just ‘the guys’ that would ask questions, but between Nang and her mother, some of the wives joined the conversations.  Pretty soon, after the application of about six or eight bottles of what could only be described as moonshine, we were all sitting in a big circle in the main room singing songs and having a grand old time.

Various musical instruments were brought forth and impromptu sessions sprang up.  It was really amazing the sounds that three Khlui’s and two Sueng’s made.  A Khlui is a vertical wind instrument that is made up of two vertical rows of hollow bamboo pipes with a central hole you blow through.  Fingering holes in the pipes, various tones can be heard.  A Sueng is sort of a lute and is plucked.

This is a Khlui.  It’s like a giant harmonica.

 

What they didn’t know right at first was that I was recording them on a portable cassette player.  I had about twenty minutes of their music so when they took a break, I played it back.  That really got their attention.  I was greatly surprised that Nang herself was a very good Mor Lam singer.  Mor Lam is a kind of rural rap sung by the Lao people of northern Thailand.  Every song tells a tale in conversational style of the various trials and tribulations of local folk.  It isn’t unusual for each little hamlet to have their ‘own’ song.  Most of them are highly romantic in nature – love won, love lost – that sort of thing.

As the night passed, more and more of the firewater was brought out and passed around.  It came as four bottles to a straw bundle.  To open the bottle, which was tightly corked, you held it vertical, and then struck the bottom hard with the palm of your hand.  The cork would pop out and fly about the room.  Sort of farmer’s nitroglycerine.

Things got a little blurry around two in the morning.  We were all great friends now.  I was out of Polaroid film, but by then but it didn’t matter.  I have searched for a long time for those cassette tapes I made of our singing and haven’t found a one of them.  It was a wonderful party.  We spent the remainder of the night and woke the next morning to the sounds of crowing chickens and laughing kids.  Yeah, they were back.

 

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Beautiful Thailand, Pt. 1

Let me state at the very first:  Thailand is a beautiful country, filled with very friendly people and a very colorful history.  Having said that, there was only one flaw I noticed.  It has but two seasons: 1) hot and wet, and 2) hot and dry.

Being stationed in far northern Thailand at Ramasun Station (near the hamlet of Non Sung), I was quite a ways away from the city life of Bangkok which was my introduction to Thailand.  Non Sung was a sleepy little town split by highway 2 on it’s way north to Udon Thani three kilometers away.  Udorn Air Base was located in that town and is now called Udon Thani International Airport.

Google Maps time:  If you search for Udon Thani, then go south on highway 2 until you get to Non Sung, you will see a huge circle off to the east of the highway.  This was our antenna and I worked in the Ops building attached to it.  Be sure you are in Satellite View to do this.

At first, I was assigned a room in the Army barracks.  The whole base was Army and there were only seven Navy guys there.  Outside of the Officer in Charge (OIC), a Warrant Officer, and a Senior Chief, I was third in command.  Within the second week we were there, several of us were on liberty and found out the next day that the Chief had gone down to his favorite bar and had a fatal heart attack.  This pushed me into a management position at once.

The operators (there were only three of them now) had to go into a three-section watch; which is no fun at all.  Basically, you are on watch or sleeping before/after a watch with virtually no time off.  This went on for a month until our host command at Clark AB in the Philippines sent over some more operators.

During this evolution, the Army augmented it’s personnel and we got kicked out of our barracks rooms and were forced to take quarters off base.  Most of our guys were already off base, despite having rooms on base, and living with indigenous personnel.  I managed to find a bungalow that was being vacated by a departing Staff Sergeant who had established his whole household.  I assumed his household personnel which consisted of a wash girl, a yard boy, and a house girl.  The bungalow itself was two-story and built of mahogany.  It’s windows had steel grills over them to deter thieves; which were rampant in and around bases.

There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, a small ironing room, and a completely tiled bathroom with a shower.  Water was supplied by two roof-mounted metal tanks.  The shower was heated by an instant-on heater powered by propane.  During the rainy season, these tanks were refilled by hand-operated pumps from concrete cisterns at ground level which captured rainfall from the metal roof.

My entire rental fee, including propane and electricity (240v @ 50Hz) was only $150 a month – the Army paid me $200 a month to live off base so I had a $50 buffer for food.  Mostly, I asked my wash girl or yard boy to go to the corner noodle cookery (or noodelry cooker) and bring back some Pad Thai

Before anyone does a wink, wink, nudge, nudge let me state that both of the girls working in my household were hired to do just their assigned duties.  Being a mostly Buddhist country, females were protected and to be treated with respect.  In fact, a male wasn’t even allowed to touch them at all.  A lot of guys would head downtown and find a girl to share their houses with.  I did not; but I did form a working relationship with my housegirl.  She would occasionally go downtown with me to the various night clubs and bars as camouflage to keep the rest away from me.

Liberty in Thailand was like none other I’d encountered.  To begin with, most bars would not serve you hard liquor at all.  Some would have beer on hand, but to get any kind of mixed drink you had to carry your own bottle.  You first went to the Class VI store (an on-base liquor store) and bought a bottle of Old Stumpblower – the bigger the better.  Then, you zipped it up on a combat bag which was just an elongated backpack with a strap for over your shoulder.

Armed with your weapon of choice you grabbed a Baht Bus (roaming buses that ran up and down highway 2 and cost one Baht; about 12 cents, no matter how far you went) and headed to town.  In Udorn (which is what base personnel called the town) there were perhaps two hundred bars and nightclubs.  They ranged from three-stoolers to huge clubs with fifty or sixty tables.  Every one of them had a proportional amount of girls on standby.  They all wore numbered tags on their clothing.  If you liked one, you told a passing waiter (they were always males) you wanted to talk to number ‘whatever’.  They would send the girl over.  Even within the numbering system there was a hierarchy: two levels of girls.  Ones who would sit with you, laugh at your jokes, and drink weak brown tea and one who would make it known the didn’t have a date for the night.

As in every country where American personnel were, arrangements for transportation of female companionship away from their place of business was made with the Mama-San on the way out.  If you got downtown early, you had the pick of the crop but ran the risk of not making it into the night.  Get there later, you still found nice girls.  If you waited too long, there was always the Bay of Pigs.

This name was applied humorously to the wide veranda around the swimming pool at the Holiday Hotel downtown.  Starting about eleven PM, girls who hadn’t yet been selected would arrive and begin circling the swimming pool.  Guys who hadn’t made their selection yet would sit at tables and watch them pass.  Hence:  The Bay of Pigs.

In any bar or nightclub you basically bought set-ups.  Coke and Pepsi were big, as well as lemon soda, for some reason.  A glass with ice came with the soda.  You added whatever amount of your booze you wanted to your drink and zipped the bottle back up.  Frankly, I thought, and still think, that this is really the way to go.  A lot of times I was accompanied by my housegirl.  She would not touch any liquor at all, but was definitely into Coca-Cola.  Where she put it I’ll never know, but she stuck by my side and was prepared to repel all boarders at the first hint of “I love you, buy me drink”.

She had a relative (Jimmi) that was the manager of one of the biggest nightclubs in town, the Junpen Club.  This huge club had the very best in bands, the very best in floor shows, and the very best in ice cubes.  Normally, you ran the risk of getting some tropical disease from bad ice, but they used frozen bottled water for their clientele.  They were always having various contests and one evening I was roped into being a judge for a beauty contest.

The girls were extraordinarily beautiful as only a Thai girl can be.  I was hard pressed to pick one, but I finally did.  It turned out that all seven of us judges voted for the same girl.  The house was packed with loads of Americans.  When the contest was over, many started drifting out and heading to other clubs.  Suddenly, there was a huge BOOM and the smell of cordite drifted into the building.  Someone had detonated some sort of explosive device right in front of the club.  Nobody got hurt – unbelievably – but a hole two feet deep and six feet across was put in the concrete road and a Samlar (covered, three-wheeled pedicab) was destroyed.  A stark reminder that I was still in what was considered a combat zone.

Speaking of combat zones.  I was sitting in my living room one evening watching television and there was a loud crack from our fiberglass ceiling near the bathroom.  It was followed by a long drawn-out rattle.  I jumped up, closely followed by my housegirl, and we found a spent .45 slug spinning on the floor.  We had no idea where it had come from but probably someone had fired his handgun into the air.

Japan, Part 3

My day had finally arrived.  My family was flying in from Tokyo today.  I was ready to go down to the air terminal and pick them up in the car I had bought last week.  This car, which looked exactly like a New York taxi, was called a Nissan Cedric.  It was black, boxy, and very comfortable.  It was also a right-hand drive vehicle because the Japanese drove on the left.

Getting used to driving on the left took very little time.  It was strange at first, but there was a small area on base where you could practice.  You just had to wrap your mind around seeing stop signs on the left, looking left instead of right before moving forward, and forcing myself not to panic when I swept around a blind left curve.  That last bit kept bothering me for a while because I was thinking that there could be a big truck heading right for me around the curve.

Driving downtown and in the countryside was really very nice.  Most sharp corners and blind curves had convex mirrors placed so you could see around them.  Large trucks also had a set of warning light on the roof of their cabs.  Three green lights were placed to you could see them as the truck rushed towards you.  If all three lights were lit, then the truck was speeding.  Usually, they approached with two solid lights and the third flashing like a demented traffic signal.  Those drivers knew exactly how fast they could go without indicating to the local cops they were actually speeding.

When navigating the narrow streets of a town, you always had to be aware of the Benjo ditches alongside the road.  Those were the open sewers and they usually ran about a foot deep.  Drop a wheel into one of them and it was a given you’d either blow a tire or break a shock absorber.

Anyway, there I was, sitting back in our new quarters waiting to drive down and pick up the wife and daughter when the phone rang.  It was my wife.  I immediately thought that her plane had been cancelled or something like that but she told me she was ready to get picked up.  Picked up?  From where?

It turned out she was put aboard a jet transport instead of the normal C-130 (prop job) and was almost two hours ahead of schedule.  Yowza!  I jumped into the car and hurried down to get her.  After fourteen months she sure looked good to me.  I was amazed at how much our little girl had grown also.  Once back in our quarters, she related her entire trip from the States to me.  If I can, I’ll see if I can get her to put it down here in this blog.  You’d be interested because a lot of it is funny.

Our first stop was the Commissary (base ‘grocery store’) to pick up food that we needed.  Since I was a watchstander I usually subsided on whatever the little snack bar inside the operations building had to offer.  Now, living in the housing area, there apparently was more to eating then hamburgers, hot dogs, and grilled cheese.

For the most part, living in base quarters was pretty good.  For a while, I had a nasty Army guy living next to me who loved to parallel park his huge American car so far forward in his assigned slot that about a foot of his car pushed into my space.  It got so bad, that I would (if I got there first) back up until my back bumper was flush against the white line.  I ended up with a lot of little dents in my back bumper.  He eventually got reassigned and normal parking resumed.

My wife was soon zipping around on and off the base with aplomb.  Aplomb wasn’t my daughter’s real name though.  Sometimes she would drive up to what we called ‘Security Hill’ and let me drive home instead of having to take the bus.

Our Cedric was a standard, stick-shift car; the normal column shift “H” pattern of American cars from the fifties except you shifted and clutched with the left side of your body.  It was a bit awkward at first, but soon became automatic (if you’ll pardon the play on words).

One of it’s foibles was to lock up between first and second gear.  The little hinged shifter levers would hinge the wrong way and you had to lift the hood and use a large screwdriver to force the hinge the other way while another person was wiggling the gearshift handle.  On one occasion, it probably looked a little strange to have my wife with her head under the hood while my seven year old daughter pushed the shift lever up and down.

It gave us wonderful mileage and we used to take it on day trips all over the area.  Our favorite picnic spot was on the shores of Lake Towada.  This was the lake formed in the center of a volcano and was in the middle of a preserve so no buildings interfered with the scenery.  A small grassy area was laid out with picnic furniture.  Another area we loved was shopping in Hachinohe.  On the four corners of central downtown stood four huge department stores.  As usual, each one had a restaurant on top that served great food.

My other favorite spot was down a small alley to a tiny little hobby shop.  I was fully into model trains while I waited for my family to arrive, but since I lived in the barracks I had no place to actually set anything up.  I did, however, buy lots of items for eventual use.  They also carried plastic models of pretty much every locomotive and rolling stock in Japan.  I loved to build these models.

– – –

Approximately 9.00001 months after my wife arrived in Japan, our second daughter came into the world.  Nothing quite so dramatic happened while traveling to the hospital as in the Philippines, because the hospital was just across the base.  This time I was on watch, so I got permission to leave early.

Both my daughters have a very colorful display of birth certification.  The Philippines required no less than four birth certificates and Japan was runner up with three.  I like to think that both of them are really fond of telling whomever asks that they were born in their respective countries.  It sort of sets them apart.

– – –

Our quarters, as I said before, were built using lath and plaster.  Pretty much every wall was cracked in one place or another.  This was from the hundreds of earthquakes we had.  I am fairly certain that we had at least one or two a day.  Some went unnoticed, and others were quite memorable.  There were two that stick in my mind.

The first earthquake I really felt hit just as I left my car and was walking into our Ops building.  The ground began to sway from side to side – which made this an important quake – and I actually lost my balance.  I looked up from my kneeling position to see the tall water tower actually rocking from one leg to another; or, at least, appearing to do so.  People poured out of the wood frame buildings surrounding our concrete Ops building and stood in the street quietly.  Hardly anyone except a rank newcomer even bothered to comment on most shakes.

The second one occurred sometime in the dead of night while we were all asleep at home.  With no preliminary, the whole house jumped about three inches upwards and slammed back down.  This was a four-family, two-story, wood frame building and it actually did jump around.  I shot up and over the bottom of the bed and grabbed my older daughter while my wife shot across the bed and pulled our infant second daughter out of her basket.  We blew downstairs and out the front door.  I do not remember actually touching any stair treads on the way down.  The whole operation took approximately fifteen seconds.  The building continued to creak, groan, and make crackling sounds for about two minutes.

Earthquakes and tremors were a way of life there.  I thought I had a flat tire once and pulled to the side of the road.  Even when I’d stopped the car kept bouncing.  Another tremor.

As much as we liked living in Japan, I eventually got orders again.  This time, it was to be an unaccompanied twelve-month tour back in the war zone.  I was lucky enough to have time to take my family back to Colorado before I headed back East.

 

Japan, Part 2

Before my wife arrived, my parents decided to make a trip over and visit me.  I had just taken possession of what was to become my family quarters so they had a place to stay while visiting.  Since my dad was a retired Colonel in the Air Force, he had ‘space available’ transport on military craft available to him.  He took advantage of this and they flew over to see me.  We poked around the Misawa area for a while and then they decided to hit Tokyo.

You could get there in three ways: car, plane, and train.  I advised against plane because they were small and the seats too cramped for Western fannies.  Car was out because rentals were very expensive and you couldn’t rent one and leave it somewhere else.  We opted for a train.

We went over to the base travel office and were told that all First Class train tickets for the next three days were sold out.  My mom thought about it and then said “well, what about Second or Third Class?”  This seemed to stun the guy because he’d never heard of an American wanting to take Second Class or Third Class transport before.  Three Second Class tickets would be waiting for us that afternoon.  The agent also tried to get us to stay at one of the hotels on the Ginza, but my mom was adamant about staying in a Japanese hotel.  He found one for us but admonished that it would be primitive to American standards.

Train travel in Japan is very punctual.  If it is supposed to arrive at 14:37 then you can set your watch to that time.  At exactly the right time, our train pulled into the Misawa station and we boarded one of the Second Class cars and settled down in a pair of facing bench-style seats.  Scores of giggling teen girls filled the car.  They were headed from Misawa down to Sendai for a field trip.  My folks and I sat three-abreast so we could make room for three girls across from us.

Not understanding a word, we were slowly drawn into the conversations.  They spoke a little bit of English and, with the help of several of their chaperones, we got along famously.  This was an express train, but did stop from time to time and at every stop there were vendors lining the station platforms selling everything from dried squid to Sake; fiery rice wine.  Eventually, after several stops, we were topped off with all sorts of delicacies and rice wine.

Drawing pads came out and the three of us illustrated (crudely) the mountains of Colo-Rado for the girls.  We also passed around some pictures my mom had taken of the snowfall two days before they left Boulder.  That was impressive even to kids who normally had three feet of snow every winter.  The men in the car, attracted by our boisterous laughter began to join in.  Soon, the entire car was a huge party.  My mom and dad wandered around the car being chatted up by people trying out their English.  It was a great time.  By the time we reached Sendai, and the girls and their chaperones left the car, they were being replaced by older persons with better English skills.

My parents wrote out their addresses to perhaps a hundred people while we traveled and talked about all sorts of things.  They told me later that perhaps twenty of them had begun to correspond with them back in Colorado.  We reached Tokyo and were met by a old guy who looked as if he were about to collapse.  He picked up all our suitcases and trudged across the street from Ueno Station and down a small alley to our hotel.

The agent was right – and he was wrong.  The hotel was very tiny, as Japanese hotels usually are, but clean and very friendly.  The owner and his family lined up along the desk and greeted us.  I’d already given my parents a brief rundown of how to meet and greet and such things like taking your shoes off and all that so they did a proper bow and we were off to a good start.

We had asked for a single room for three people.  When we got to the second floor, we found two beefy guys sliding shoji screens around.  They were ‘making’ our room.  The entire second floor was a big, flat area with grooves in the floor and ceiling.  To make a room, they just inserted screens and slid them to enclose an area.  There were no such things a room numbers and the like.  In ten minutes, we had a very cozy room with makeup table, television, telephone, and three low cabinets that contained our futons.

In the large, modern, hotels you tip everyone you see.  In the smaller hotels, and especially hotels that don’t cater to Western trade normally, you just tip the owner when you check out.  I’d pre-warned my parents about this but added that it was acceptable to leave some change in the little dish on the make-up table for the day-to-day help.

I’d also given my parents a short course in Japanese.  Words like ‘where bathroom’ and ‘left’, ‘right’, ‘slow’, ‘fast’, and especially ‘stop!’.  Our toilet was down the hall and a half-floor below us but the hot baths were also on a lower floor so when my mom, dressed in a kimono, headed down the hall to the bathroom she was intercepted by a maid.  The maid tried to explain that the hot tubs were busy but wasn’t getting through.  My mom solved the problem by saying the word for ‘toilet’ (Toire) and pointing to the stairs.  The maid dissolved into giggles and let her pass.

Later that night, my dad and I went down to the hot tubs and soaked for half an hour.  The water was extremely hot so we ended up looking like boiled lobsters but really relaxed.  My mom went next.  We spent a couple of hours scanning Japanese television (which they really loved – especially the Eleven PM Show.

This show, which started at ten PM, was in the format of a talk show, but had really funny skits, blackouts, and just plain slapstick in between visits by luminaries.  At exactly eleven PM there was a strip show.  Tastefully done, but nevertheless a strip show.  Naturally, the American troops everywhere loved this show.

We visited a lot of places in Tokyo.  I dragged them through Akihabara, the electronics warren, and my mom took us to see Tokyo University to visit a friend of hers who taught there.  All travel was done by subway.  The subway system in Tokyo is like none other.  A lot of the lines run above ground but are still called subways.  They are painted a distinctive color for their basic area of travel with numbers to fine-tune them.  The color schemes were very much like the pastel painted airplanes of Braniff Airways on their ‘freedom flights’ back to the world from Vietnam.

To go anywhere all you needed was loose change and the color/number combination to take you there or transfer point.  One of the great areas to shop (but not buy) was the Ginza itself.  Enormous prices were asked (and received) for items you could by anywhere else for half price or less.  Against my advice, my dad wanted to go into a bar and have a beer.  We got hit with a ‘cover’ charge of 7200 yen ($20) on entering.  A single Kirin beer was 1800 yen ($5).  He had his beer and we retreated.  If we had asked for table snacks we would have been hit with a ‘food charge’ of around 3600 yen ($10).  As I said, very expensive.

Walking down the street we spotted a theatre showing the movie “Tora Tora Tora”.  This was a new movie I hadn’t seen you but really wanted to see.  We paid for First Class tickets (surprisingly cheap at about $2 each) and were shown to our soft reclining seats.

The movie was great.  We all loved it.  During some of the more intense battle scenes an old guy behind us chattered incessantly to a kid who could have been his grandson.  Later, we felt that maybe he could have actually been at the raid on Pearl Harbor and was giving the kid a running commentary.

The movie was in both English and Japanese.  When English was being spoken, Japanese Kanji characters appeared in the upper right corner; when Japanese was being spoken, English sub-titles appeared at the bottom.  It wasn’t until we were walking out when I finally realized that while the battle was joined, most of the excitement by the audience was shown when the Japanese were attacking, not while we were defending.  All in your point of view I guess.  Nevertheless, it was a strange feeling to be the only Americans in a theatre filled with Japanese; and watching this particular movie.

My parents spent four days in Tokyo and then were slated to take a flight back from Haneda Airport.  We said goodbye and I went back to the hotel for a last night.  Before we left the hotel the final day, my parents settled the bill with a lot of smiles and bowing.  They also made a ‘presento’ (gift) of some trinkets they’d bought around town for the maids and porters.  They also gave a very good tip to the owner.  As for me, I asked then for a single for the night so I could catch the morning train back to Misawa.  They quickly reconfigured the walls and made me a single room.

The next morning I bid the hotel staff goodbye, took a few cards from the holder, and promised to be back down again.  The porter insisted on carrying my small suitcase to the train station and putting it aboard for me.  I thanked him, bowed, and went to get my seat.  The trip back was not quite as eventful as my trip southward, but it did have it’s high points.  I leaned out the window and bought a jug of sake and shared it with three teachers on their way up to Hachinohe.  We swapped language phrases, tips on how to behave in areas not usually seen in the big cities, and generally had a great time.

In a couple of days, my wife would arrive.