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.

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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.