Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
Dread and wall shadows were all I knew in Plato's cave. Captors said we were lucky to have been born captive, warning: outside is far worse. They were infallible, so captives couldn't learn otherwise—except maybe teen males, who were let out for wars.
If we survived, we'd return to cave and attest that life elsewhere is indeed dire. I survived but didn't return. War had provided escape velocity. Stayed abroad until my four-year enlistment was done, thrice declining orders to homeland bases. I wanted more of life elsewhere, even war zones because they earned you R&R to other countries.
What I saw confirmed: "normal" is relative, and my birth cave medieval.
Thirty years later I revisited my home town. Drove there with my foreign-born wife, she my anchor to now. Informed no one of our visit and left before sunset, fearing recapture.
It took decades, but via college, travel, and hindsight mined on long runs—I realized there had been another like me in that damn cave. Worse, he was a captor.
Kneeling in dark with fingers laced, I speak with Jesus through perforated plastic. He sits with head slumped on right palm, like he needs Prozac.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last confession. These are my sins: I said four curse words... twice I stole a quarter from Mom's purse... I talked back to Dad once... I boasted lies twice to friends..."
"Three H'Marys," Farrow growls, slamming shut a wood panel as I grin and Jesus leans left to hear another's hooey.
Father Farrow's speed as a confessor was the stuff of legend. A squat, coal-haired, thick-brogue Irish immigrant, you knew he was working when cars were double-parked near St. Paul's church. Some sinners left motors running, he was that fast.
Each Saturday they'd flock to the two unlit booths on either side of Farrow's confessional for the same reason McDonald's thrives—convenience. He asked no questions, gave no advice, required no contrition, and assigned only token penance.
Other confessors dozed in their dark booths as sinners queued for his no-fault absolution. Some drove from other parishes for a Farrow quickie rather than deal with priests who'd seek details, preach, expect reform.
I relied on him to interrupt, absolve, and dismiss before I'd finish reciting my weekly sin list. Of course I saved the worst for last, although as a virgin altar boy, mine rarely varied. The truth is I invented most 'cause nuns harped on how sinful we all are, so I felt laggard with too few.
Curses said, coins stolen, fibs told. Never with Farrow did I get to my dreaded "impure thoughts" before he'd dismiss, which was why we queued for him. Week after week for years, he'd hear the same schlock from serfs offloading guilt to the institution that had sown its seeds. He endured because sinners valued his fast-food absolution more than they minded his alien quirks. Farrow couldn't change their ways, so he didn't play the charade of trying.
Yet I'd wonder: Is he harsh 'cause we're sinners who won't change? Or (dare I even think this) does our sinning lack gusto in Farrow's eyes? Most who queue for him are adults offloading mortal sins versus my invented venials. Yet he's brusque with all. Why?
Gruff in confessional, Farrow was evasive outside. After mass, if an altar boy spoke to him as he removed vestments in sacristy, he'd turn head away slightly, using the frame of his thick black-rim glasses to block eye contact. Always bare bones replies. My guess was Farrow didn't belong on stage (at least not a marble one), so he did ritual at warp speed to exit ASAP.
Parishioners, hoping to follow his mumbled Latin at mass by reading from a missal, couldn't keep pace. Altar boys dare not daydream lest we miss his hurried cues to ring bells, fetch wine and water, respond in Latin. Trying to genuflect in sync with him was tricky 'cause he'd barely bend knee while charging through Catholicism's most sacred sacrament.
A weekday mass—no sermon or basket-passing—normally takes 30 minutes. Blitzkrieg Farrow could do two in that time. An altar boy pal timed him one dark snowy morn when Farrow did a mass at the parish convent—in a howling 11 minutes. He blitzed the ritual as though miffed at having to perform at such an ungodly hour; as though keen to return to bed, the orcas be damned.
Groggy nuns expecting the usual snoozer mass flopped like flounders on boat deck, unable to kneel, stand or sit in unison. Farrow speed-mumbled sacred Latin devoid of punctuation or word spacing, then hurriedly plopped Host on morning-breath tongues as though running to catch a train.
Yet the nuns didn't bitch 'cause Farrow scared them. Parishioners said he didn't mesh because he's a Celt from the old sod, whereas our other two priests and the parish monsignor were US-born Irish. After saying mass, young Fathers Deegan and Gogarty would banter with altar boys in the sacristy and sometimes join us at stickball in the schoolyard. Farrow mixed with no one we knew.
Some said he'd crossed swords with Monsignor Fartney, our haughty bishop wannabe who shared the parish's spacious three-story rectory with three subordinates and a housekeeper. Lush surrounding lawns were wide enough for touch football.
Fartney drove a shiny black Buick, cultivated wealthy parishioners, and was offended by the working class. He showed special contempt for mick families sired by barfly dads and ruled by waitress moms. Like mine.
When report cards were distributed, His Nibs would appear in one grade or another to hand students theirs. He'd enter a classroom bedecked in crimson-and-black power silks, nose high as though wading among ring-kissers.
In fifth grade I received mine from Fartney, thanked him as instructed, turned and took two strides toward my desk before he said loud enough for all to hear, "Tell your mother I'm still waiting for tuition for you and your sisters."
That from a bird-leg potbelly who, as a result of nuns ordering students to badger parents for forced "donations," flew to Florida each summer for a deep-sea fishing vacation, courtesy of parishioners.
"Fishing for tarts" was Mom's view of His Eminence.
I didn't know Farrow and spoke with him only in confessional—but I admired the language of his behavior. Like him I was quiet and wary, traits causing eighth-grade classmates to vote me Most Likely to Become a Priest.
Had he been herded to Holy Orders by obtuse classmates and family zealots like my maternal granny, who yearned for a priest in the family? Seven grandsons yet none had shown signs of The Calling. I was her last hope. She'd mail me scapulars, medals, holy cards, rosary beads, and tiny bottles of miracle water from Lourdes I'd dab on my pitching arm. When she and granddad visited, Nana would distract me from carnal TV dramas. As hero was about to kiss heroine, she'd ask, out of the blue, "So, Joseph, what did you learn in catechism class today?"
Farrow was on the same team as our violent nuns and Fartney, but he self-ostracized, which awed me. He was a magnet for sinners—yet his indifference enabled their continued sinning. Perhaps with increasing gusto because we all knew he'd absolve and dismiss before hearing our worst. He was unique as hell, but Farrow's behavior said he wanted to be elsewhere (mine also, although I hadn't yet realized it). His ways were none of my business, and I was just a kid eyeing adult behavior, but I notice oddballs.
Farrow interested me not as a priest but because he seemed real and willful, traits nuns sought to eradicate from first grade. That's why I went to ground after Mother St. Elias face-whacked me for an unauthorized smile on day one, age seven. My first-ever day in society taught me to show deadpan, speak monotone, evade beams from guard towers. Sounds harsh, yet years later in Japan I'd learn low profile is their society's "normal."
"He's black Irish," was how Mom explained Father Farrow. "They're Celts, the original Irish before St. Patrick-the-Brit sold out Ireland to Rome's legions. Behind those legions came swarms of priests who'd convert at sword-point. Underneath, Celts are still pagan."
Parish grade school led to regional high school, hospital janitor job after graduation, mail from the Draft Board, join Marines to spite Army, Parris Island, jet-mech school, Vietnam. Escape a nun-run stalag only to get shanghaied for war two years later. Joe Nobody from Nowheresville, going nowhere via dead-end jobs, equals prime cannon fodder.
Swept up into a war-tornado, like Dorothy's house on her way to Oz—to defend Democracy, so I assumed male classmates would enlist before me. Especially boys who were rah-rah-sis-boom-bah in high school, which I wasn't. Nuns described Viet Catholics fleeing south in fear of northern commies, so of course Yank Catholics would lead our righteous war.
Wrong. My high school class graduated 154 boys. Four of us served in Nam (KIA: 1, WIA: 1). School jocks, student council officers, debate-team boys—alphas I assumed would lead—were no-shows, using college as storm cellar Dorothy and I found locked against us.
My generation's war ran longer than most, spawning a decade-long, ocean-wide surge of troops and treasure flowing west between San Diego to Seattle on the US side, Subic Bay to Hokkaido in Asia. To remind us of what we were defending, Bob Hope brought starlets, jocks, comedians, and preachers to Nam each Xmas.
For most-likely-to-become-a-priest me, Hope's show paled beside the crimson-silk hypocrisy of Francis Cardinal Spellman. America's top Catholic prelate, he visited Danang in mid-December to bless marines—with sign of cross and sprinkled holy water—for killing "godless communists."
I read his words in the Stars & Stripes—an obscenity that wouldn't let go. Rome had edited the Fifth Commandment:
THOU SHALT NOT KILL*
*Unless We So Order
Absolutes tainted with asterisks, like Roger Maris' home run record. No such exceptions had been taught during a dozen years of daily catechism classes—where I'd excelled and would've noticed split hairs.
Spellman's atrocity made me appreciate Mom. In high school she was keen I read Huck Finn. It was an eyeopener. I searched the library for more Twain, finding a darker work whose evil Spellman had echoed.
"O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells... to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain... to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire... to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief..."
War plus prayer equals hypocrisy.
"Listen up!" says Staff Sergeant Clements, NCOIC of my F4 squadron's flight line at Danang Airbase. Day crew was arriving at 0600 and night crew hadn't yet left.
"Bob Hope's Christmas show is Monday, and of course, we're all going" he says. "Only problem is one of us must stay to mind our warbirds."
Some exchange unworried glances, knowing the latest arrival would get that shit detail.
"That means you, fuckin-new-guy Cooper," Corporal Pittore says to the PFC who'd arrived last month, two after me. Cooper grins, knowing shit rolls down hill.
"Fear not, Coop," says Alexiani, "we'll show you photos of Lola Falana shakin' ass."
"Clem," I say to SSGT Clements, "I'll stay. I got letters to write."
"Whoa!" says Dukes. "Mofo Joe throws hisself on grenade to save Coop!"
Dukes' grin tells me I won't have to explain further. Fact is I was boycotting Hope's T&A show and Spellman's obscene theism. Nor was I any longer in a rush to go home.
Having enlisted for four years and sent straight to war after aviation school, I'd still have more than two years to do after the first tour. Being a stateside marine meant endless chickenshit from lifers at a remote base. Scant time for that at war, plus the only danger for airbase marines was night rocket attacks—diddly compared with what grunts faced.
So I chose war, boycotting Hope while excavating dogma implanted daily by nuns who forbade questions. Extending thrice (in six-month increments) my stay at war longer than the 13 months required of marines, I'd finish an extension with orders to a stateside airbase (Beaufort, SC; Cherry Point, NC; or Yuma, AZ). Would leave my squadron as though going home, but on Okinawa I'd tell admin clerks I wanna go back to Nam. On learning my MOS (jet mech for F4s), they complied as Phantoms had become war's workhorse.
I was at Chu Lai for two more of Hope's Xmas shows. Boycotted both via the same shit detail. Self-ostracized, like Father Farrow. Only when RELAD (release from active duty) orders arrived would I return to homeland. Zeal for it had ebbed along with my theism.
Always undermanned, we were too busy launching Phantoms 24/7 in support of grunts to keep boots shined, hair trimmed, trousers bloused, or shirttails tucked. Constant launch/recovery of F4s loaded with napalm, cluster bombs, rocket pods, daisy-cutters, or a torpedo-size gun pod centered under F4's belly. Or hung with Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles for sorties against MiGs.
Outside all day on a white concrete flight line, seared by tropic sun or bone-soaked by monsoon. Running, climbing, lifting, towing, refueling, changing tires, hand-hanging from F4's tail to stuff drogue chute with boots, pre- and post-flight checks for battle damage. 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM for day crew. Working shirtless, during rains we'd blow-dry by standing on edge of jet exhaust from an idling Phantom in between launching or recovering warbirds.
All of us young, lean, and tireless.
A small joy was reading the Stars & Stripes nightly, cover to cover. Changes at home I read about were apparent in marines who arrived a year or more after I did. Unlike me, they'd enlisted already having antiwar and antimilitary views—but not enough to flee to Canada, go AWOL, or risk prison. Their gripes were less from ideology than vogue donned like bell-bottoms and tie-dye. When women become antiwar, males follow else they don't get dates. When females favor long hair on guys, even hippy-hating rednecks grow mullets.
The music GIs brought from the world was post-Motown: Stones, Doors, LSD-Beatles, acid rock. For them boozing was for lifers and rednecks. When off-duty we'd sift apart. Juicers were pro-war (vaguely), anti-hippy, liked C&W, and went to a thatch-roof club (aka, the "slop-chute") nightly for hours of warm beer. Heads were antiwar (vaguely), pro-hippy, liked rock, and gathered in individual hooches.
One evening after chow, shower, read news then Tolkien, I stopped by Rabbit's hooch, located two over from mine. All were Seabee-built wood shacks on stilts to keep them off sand during monsoons, with half-screen sides and plywood storm flaps. Six marines per shack. Hundreds of hooches sprawled on the seaside of Chu Lai airbase, aligned in rows and linked by grate-metal pallets laid atop white sand. Dense with marines of one A4 and three F4 squadrons plus various support units.
Seated on makeshift stools and Rabbit's rack, he and two others are talking while listening to In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida via tape. Three large posters are tacked above his rack. One shows a young blonde woman with a goofy look. After a few minutes blending to their chat, during a lull I ask, "Who's she?"
"Goldie Hawn," Lutz says, then they resume chat.
At another lull I ask, "Who's Goldie Hawn?"
Their chat stops, and all look at me like I'm joking.
After a pause Dukes says, "Joe, how long you been here?"
"Two years and a few months," I say.
"Did you see Laugh In before you left the world?" Rabbit says.
"No... is it a movie?"
They look at one another then back at me.
"Dude, you been gone too long," Lutz says.
Dukes: "Rip Van fucking Winkle."
I came to war for nation. I extended not for nation, Corps, or domino theory, nor for a conjured deity. The only reason left was hope ordnance our Phantoms delivered would help grunts avoid becoming KIA, WIA, MIA. Fuck the rest.
War taught me what Father Farrow likely knew when bored hearing unoriginal sins. Gods and an afterlife are at best wishful-thinking and at worst smoke and mirrors, which was why he blitzed the ritual. I suspect he was as godless then as I'd become—yet Farrow remained at his post in the Oz booth, working levers to keep the docile kneeling before cave shadows. Of course I wasn't supposed to see what I saw. "Pay no attention to that man behind perforated plastic... The Great, Powerful Fartney has spoken."
No longer Catholic or even Xian, I couldn't figure why Farrow stayed—till I recalled terror a nun had implanted in high school.
Sister Moxa stresses how fortunate we are to have been born Catholic. The rest of humanity is bound for everlasting hellfire, she assures my sophomore religion class.
Questions during catechism class were verboten in grammar school. But in high school nuns might sometimes be diverted from the day's dose of rote to answer a query—if gingerly worded. Moxa seems spunkier than usual that early spring day, so I raise my hand, then stand when acknowledged.
"Sister, my neighbor said his father was Catholic but isn't any more. How can that be?" (faux-naïf to grease her skids)
Moxa warms to the challenge.
"Hell's worst depths are reserved for lapsed Catholics," she says, adding that apostate priests are the lowest of the low. I wanna ask about apostate nuns but dare not.
"They who've been most blessed will be most damned—if they reject God's call."
She lets that sink in, knowing its effect on kids who, after graduation, will cease attending confession and mass. Till marriage, offspring, and normalcy's undertow bring 'em back.
Lapsed is passive (non-practicing), apostate is active (rejection). I'm the latter. Fearing Hell's depths, Farrow is neither.
As war escalated, Yank bases flourished in nearby nations to service weapons—and adjoining bar-towns to service GIs. Most became ghost-towns after Saigon fell, but while troops and treasure flowed from DC, they were raucous boomtowns. Wild young lusty ports, details of which kin at home feared to learn.
Wishful-thinking families, who hugged the delusion our crusade was righteous based on lies from generals, blessings from clergy and cave shadows from Bob Hope. After boycotting three at war, I finally saw Hope's Xmas show six months after discharge, at Mom's LA flat via NBC-TV. Edited so zooms on mugs of horny GIs cheering for Lola's booty and Raquel's bazoom are read on home front as zeal for crusade. Our boys in white hats vs. evil commies in black PJs.
PsyWar 101, deployed to keep fodder flowing from family to military to war. Two years hence, USMC Nam vet Daniel Ellsberg would expose the ruse via the Pentagon Papers, dispelling delusion that propaganda, like a Claymore, is aimed only outward.
I wasn't supposed to notice that, either.
The spring after discharge, when home from morning classes and before afternoon work as a janitor, I heard Hope interviewed on radio. He was being lauded for entertaining troops at war. It was a call-in show, and most praised him to high heaven. Except one, a WWII vet.
"Your Christmas shows were appreciated," he said, "but you made millions from them plus later in Korea and now in Vietnam. That, my friend, is what I call war-profiteering."
Hope's reply came too quick.
"The Pentagon has never paid me a dime for those shows!"
The caller had already been cut off, nor did the show's host challenge America's darling. I said aloud, "Pentagon didn't, but NBC paid you millions."
Regimented since age seven, I didn't need a PhD to recognize herding. Corporate TV reaped tens of millions more than the millions it paid Hope for Xmas agitprop, logistics provided by the DoD, sanctity by Spellman.
Twain: "...in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener."
In exchange came a decade of body bags returning in such escalating evening-news numbers that draft-dodgers cowering in college who'd hoped it'd end before graduation scrambled to get bone spurs certified when it hadn't.
Base-certified bars, brothels, eateries, and tailor shops were the interface via which Yanks and Asians mixed from dusk in scenes lit with pink neon and choreographed by Motown. Bar towns half way round the globe from home's inhibitions, where married GIs removed wedding ring before exiting base in droves to buy what they insisted real men gotta have.
Behavior that belies sermons, as with Fartney, Spellman and Hope.
"God, Country, and Corps!" lifers would proclaim are loyalties (wife excluded) a patriot MUST have. Ergo patriarchy equals patriotism (females dismissed as Adam's spare rib).
A PoV not restricted to the military, as I'd learn 13 years after discharge. While riding Tokyo's Yamanote Line commuter train with a Yank professor (PhD, wife, two kids, three years my elder, draft-dodger and my employer), he declares, "Any man who doesn't cheat on his wife is either a liar or unable to attract women."
He's theist, I'm not—yet he excludes marital fidelity as a third option. Behavior that belies.
He cheats, and bothered that I don't, is keen I adopt his version of "normal." Why does my compliance matter?
I saw how males bond years before college or war, when Mom sent me (age nine) into the Starlight Tavern on a payday to fetch Dad. She'd let our taxi go and stood outside in cold drizzle as he bought drinks for males whose interest in him would end when freebies ceased.
In my teens male peers sought underage beer and ciggies. Son of a drunk, I'd decline both. If they pressed me, I'd avoid them.
I'd like to believe no one taught me such, that it's just me. In fact I was self-ostracizing, like Father Farrow, Twain, Bartleby.
Two squadrons I served with in Nam were among several taking turns rotating northeast to a Marine Air Station at Iwakuni, Japan, for three-month stays to repair battle-scarred Phantoms, update gear, train crews. In Nam air-wing marines weren't supposed to exit base. But 90 days in Japan gave me time to explore, like mouse leaving baseboard hole in ever-widening circles.
Such was the start of me "going gook," as marines say, although I'd date it farther back to Spellman's blessing, and via hindsight to alien Farrow's confessional. Later in college I'd learn "deracination" is how science labels the process. To lose one's roots, dictionaries explain, only I don't see the process as one of subtraction but rather addition. My roots are intact, enhanced via exposure to cultures unlike that into which I'd been born.
A novel read in college said it best: "Perhaps the most terrible (or wonderful) thing that can happen to an imaginative youth, aside from the curse (or blessing) of imagination itself, is to be exposed without preparation to the life outside his or her own sphere—the sudden revelation there is a there out there."
War revealed much, as did Mitch.
Resulting from two 90-day rotations to Japan before finally receiving RELAD orders, I took two five-day R&Rs from war to Tokyo. From there I rode a night train many hours southwest—to visit a certain woman I'd met when my squadron was at Iwakuni.
Marines had warned: "Steer clear of that bitch. Better men than you have re-upped for her, only to be dumped after she pockets his re-enlistment bonus. She's heartless."
Their warnings drew me to her lair, the Bar Kafka.
Owned by an Australian who, as part of Allied occupation forces, had parachuted into the area soon after Nagasaki's A-bomb ended his generation's war. He returned as a civilian, became fluent in Japanese, was based in Kobe where he'd founded an import business that thrived with Japan's resurgence. He soon outgrew Iwakuni as larger affairs kept him at Kobe, leaving the Bar Kafka well managed and staffed.
The Aussie knew GI bars thrive during wars and made sure his was classier than most. It wasn't an O-bar for officers only, nor a hee-haw joint for rednecks. The Kafka's women dressed to kill. That and their scheming ways spooked GIs who'd rather buy quick sex on Creep Street than risk the silken webs of women like Mitch.
"Mitch" was as close as GIs could get to pronouncing her given name, Michiko. Her defenses were indeed daunting, like Everest eyed from its base camp.
From a stool at bar's end, I'd nurse a weak drink while watching her pluck GI turkeys in booths. Taller than most, she'd wear short black dresses showcasing legs that stole male breath when she clip-clopped in backless lamé heels to fetch drinks from bar to booth.
High-collar dresses leave much to male imagination in a culture where eloquence is what's left unsaid. The three women in Bar Kafka (Mitch, half-Aussie Yumi, Naomi) all wore off-black, bangs-to-eyebrow wigs that, along with seductive makeup, black lighting and the effects of booze, left most clients unable to recognize them during daylight hours around the ville. Few GIs went off base during days-only working hours anyway, enabling bar women to do chores sans warpaint and wig.
Son of matriarchy, I was used to unfettered females. So as a teen I'd been surprised by male peers who spoke of girls as though they're a subspecies. Not in my family.
Son of a drunk, I went to the enlisted club in Nam once and never again. Thatch roof on a long cinderblock room dense with shitfaced guys at circular tables moaning for home over warm beer. But when my squadron rotated to Japan, I'd barhop religiously—because of women therein.
Mitch didn't smoke or drink save for whiskey-colored water. Her sorcery was denying males fruition—yet most would return keen to try again. She made guys laugh while thwarting them, each thinking he had an inside track to her sanctum. Emotionally her drawbridge was rarely down, like mine since that face-whack for an unauthorized smile, age seven.
My squadron's mail clerk was sent in shackles to Leavenworth Penitentiary for stealing from the envelopes of fellow marines, much of which he spent buying Mitch pricey water. She'd place his wad of yen notes unfolded in his shirt pocket so she could access them as she downed colored water (occasionally a ¥10,000 "zombie") and him beer. When his yen was gone, she'd hail him a cab, warn him not to cheat on her, send him back to base.
Guys like him paid just to be seen with Mitch at a popular eatery after the bars closed. That sounds like fiction, yet such is why the military drafted males still living with parents—get 'em before they learn otherwise. Naïfs of patriarchy were easy prey in the Bar Kafka.
We'd glimpse one another at midnight eateries as I dated her peers and she mine. During rare lulls in Bar Kafka, she'd ease dolphin thighs onto stool next to mine for verbal sparring—without requiring I buy her teawater.
"Why do you watch me?" she said, pretending she didn't know why.
Her candor caught me off guard.
"I... admire you," pretending I wasn't smitten.
Admire how she handled herself in the violent patriarchies into which all of us are born. As I admired Father Farrow's willful ways in my parish. Also Mom, who kept family together despite a no-account spouse and merciless clergy—before welfare, before women's lib.
Eventually we paired. After the bars closed, we'd walk through flurries to the Anchor Restaurant on the Imazu River for midnight suppers, talking for hours. Of she putting a younger brother through college since father died, of my hard-working Mom and boozy father, of me being the only son in a female-dominant family.
After weeks of oblique probing, she finally said, "So you know women," her eyes on mine but face unsmiling, unreadable. Couldn't tell if it was a question, statement, complaint, or challenge. I sensed the moment's importance but didn't reply. Couldn't reply. Speech seemed less than eloquent eyes.
Frost spread on candle-lit windows as our waiter waited for us to leave so he could close. Sleep didn't matter for us—yet I could tell she wasn't close to trusting me. Her interest was as high as I could aim.
After walking Mitch near to her tiny house (but not close enough to learn its location), I'd forego a taxi in winter to speed-walk a mile-plus to my base Quonset hut. Scheming on her all the way.
Being from Italo-dominant NJ, I dressed to please women—an advantage when among jarheads who think such unmanly. Most would chow after work, change uniform to PX civvies then exit base to get drunk. Some didn't bother to shower, much less dress to please women.
"They're just whores. Why bother?"
Clad in chinos and short-sleeved shirts (with pointy collar and buttons—jeans and t-shirts were "improper civilian attire" then), ciggy pack rolled into sleeve to blare Born-to-Raise-Hell tattoo, they'd barhop as a loud group, then stagger back to barracks well before midnight. Some slept hugging barf-splashed toilet bowls.
For sex these macho studs would bond by queuing at an alley dive off Creep Street known as the Hog Farm, paying to take turns atop the same woman... "Next!"
Marines (also frat boys & team jocks) came to mind years later in grad school, while reading Gertrude Stein: "Men fear women, they fear each other, they fear their neighbor, they fear other countries and then they hearten themselves in their fear by crowding together and following each other, and when they crowd together and follow each other they are brutes, like animals who stampede."
After chow I'd shower and nap to refresh gray matter for a night of what a black pal called, "schemin' on 'dem hamlets." Arise, turn on Motown, dress to kill. Choose like gigolo from suits and turtlenecks made via tailor shops as per GQ. Japanese women were keen for all things hippy—dress for them.
Lennon shades, thin strand of day-glow neck beads, rings, middle-parted hair, fabrics sizzling under black lights in hip bars. None was hipper than the Bar Kafka, where Mitch kept its jukebox ripe with the latest.
I'd barhop solo. Enter, pause for effect, glide to stool at bar's end, sip absinthe. Wraparound shades enable watching her without turning head.
Women fetching drinks for booth turkeys pick a slot between barstools via which they fetch. I'd hear the clip-clop of Mitch's lamé heels, inhale her as she leans close—brushing ever so slightly. A wisp, known only to us.
My garb and modus operandi earned jeers from Creep Street jarheads.
"He's pussy-whipped!" these macho buyers of street sex would guffaw mornings in our flight line Quonset hut, clumped as they gulp black java for hangover. "Prob'ly marry a gook bitch—har, har, har."
Stein: "...they are brutes, like animals who stampede."
Iwakuni ROCKED in those war-fueled years when $1 bought you ¥360, so even a corporal could rent off base. Some GIs took up "ranching": paying the rent of a bar woman to stay at her place nightly. That left ranchers enough yen to booze & bond with pals while avoiding risky bars like the Kafka, whose artful women were deemed insufficiently servile.
When a war-torn F4 squadron arrived from Nam with hundreds of starved males, the ville outside base became Woodstock. Dense with youth flowing like lava from the base's main gate. Walk a narrow two-lane street a quarter mile to the intersection at Four Corners, and straight another quarter mile to Three Corners, then right onto Creep Street.
Slinky women vogue-pose outside bars to lure flared-nostril GIs streaming by as Indian males hawk before tailor shops. The street leading from the base's main gate had so many hole-in-wall bars, some jarheads who exit gate by 7:00 PM to barhop can't even reach Four Corners before staggering back to base, shitfaced.
To get as far as Three Corners before bars close (11:00 PM) requires prudence. A young buck thinking he'll stop at a bar for a quick drink with pals gets targeted by vamp keen to separate him for plucking. She pats his thigh while laughing at jokes she doesn't get, or asking him what Born to Raise Hell means. If he's dumb enough to flash his whole wad of yen when paying for drinks, she calculates how long he'll have her attention.
During a three-month posting to Iwakuni, most jarheads won't go much beyond that half-mile of bars, eateries and tailor shops before circling back to their bunks in Quonset huts on our "little-America" base. It has everything GIs should need: chow halls, post office, PX, commissary, sick bay, cinema, bowling alley, chapel and chaplains, plus clubs with booze aplenty.
Yet at dusk the ville lures them, like Greeks to Sirens.
Young adults—Yank and Asian—far from their hometown taboos. No kin, classmates, neighbors, catechism, or clergy to hinder. Well beyond the pale. Winter warmed by youth's hormones, booze, and the proximity of small bars. Exit one, cross street or round a corner to another.
Decades before opioids, cocaine, speed, meth, and just before pot. Don't need a car 'cause the ville is walking distance plus skosh taxis are plentiful and cheap.
Shore Patrol cruises in covered navy-gray pickup trucks via which the rare rowdy drunk is returned to base. Quietly, so even his unit may be none the wiser, much less kin half way round the globe.
"Mitch, somebody should write a book about Iwakuni!" She heard that often, especially from career officers who'd been posted to Asia's raunchier GI towns.
Let loose like we dare not at home, before Fate sends us back to a war whose logic we've lost.
Single women came from all over Japan to earn good money, have fun, get wooed by foreign devils. They wanted in on the hippy boom. I'd enter a bar, and a lithe hostess wearing granny glasses would inform she had the latest Doors album so let's listen after midnight.
Unlike Michiko (known to failed conquerors as Bitchiko).
The first time I returned from Nam via a five-day R&R—a long-long journey specifically to see her—we had midnight suppers as usual but no more than a single goodnight kiss amid light snow. On my second R&R, (a month before I returned to USA for discharge after 33 months abroad), she let me stay at her house—on condition I sleep fully clothed above covers as she slept below.
I'd met my match.
Mom and my sisters had fled NJ to LA before I'd left for Nam, so I need return no farther than there to be "home." But my circle felt incomplete till I reached NJ, where my coast-to-coast hitchhike with orders to war had begun. The day after Neil Armstrong stepped into moon dust, I started the CA-to-NJ hitch. Could've gone Greyhound but wanted to see the land—and a certain confessor.
He was a dozen years or so my senior, but war had etched me closer to his age. Returning amid antiwar fervor—after My Lai and before Kent State—I wanted Father Farrow to show me Yahweh's will in Vietnam... Napalm. Carpet bombing. LT Calley. Fraggings. Hope's T&A shows. Agent Orange. Spellman.
Hear my sins. Offload guilt. Absolve.
He was long gone when I reached St. Paul's. None knew his current posting, but a pal home from college said Farrow had been ill and was moved to a Missouri parish years prior. Nor could I ask Monsignor Fartney: just back after 33 months at war, my every other sentence contained an obscenity, de rigueur for marines. It would be years for that to ebb.
I'd planned to stay two weeks but left after one. After Asia and CA, NJ seemed old world.
A year after discharge I returned to Iwakuni during summer break from my first year of college—to disprove a certain woman's prophecy.
When I'd visited Michiko via those R&Rs from Nam, she'd observed no GI had ever returned to Iwakuni after leaving for the USA and discharge. Many had griped about lifers as first-termers—yet re-upped and become lifers to afford marriage with women met at Iwakuni.
None had returned as a free-and-clear civilian. Ever.
"Once you're back among American blondes," Mitch forecast, "you'll forget. They always do. Out of sight, out of mind."
As a morning collegian, an afternoon janitor, and a night-school student of Japanese, I bunked on Mom's sofa to afford summer airfare to Tokyo. Lessons included writing and reading Japanese, to send Mitch letters.
Come June I'd arrived at Iwakuni two hours prior. Via bullet train from Tokyo but I'm waiting (jet-lagged yet pulse gone wild) at an Indian friend's tailor shop. I know from 6:00 PM she'll be where she'd become infidel to empty words from males.
We'd been writing, so she knows I'm due yesterday, today, or tomorrow. No clients when I open the Bar Kafka's door that muggy evening—hair to shoulders, elephant bells on old denim, fringe stash-bag on belt.
Mitch is standing back to door in a far corner, speaking with Naomi, whose jaw drops and eyebrows arch on seeing the ville's first-ever longhair. Knowing from Naomi's face it must be me, Mitch turns already beaming a smile I'd not been shown prior. More breathtaking—the look in her eyes as she clip-clops toward me. Emotion that drawbridge people rarely show.
No embrace—Japan's norm of public decorum fits me better than does that of my heart-on-sleeve homeland. Used to only GI buzzcuts, Mitch and Naomi fuss with buddha-curls of an Irish afro. Japanese pay for perms to curl hair, so they assume I have mine done.
She gives me the key to her house, saying I should bathe and sleep. I do till awoken near midnight by that smile and those eyes... for Joe Nobody from Nowheresville.
A week later came my first Toto-we're-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment.
After curry rice I'm sipping cool barley tea while watching local TV one sultry weekday afternoon with Mitch and Miki, a neighbor who handles cash behind the Bar Kafka's counter. It's a daily how-to program for housewives, this day demonstrating cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.
Several women from the audience have volunteered to learn CPR skills then practice on a "victim" laying on a table. The instructor diagrams technique on blackboard then monitors each woman as she tries it on patient.
I can't yet follow rapid dialogue, so I don't know why Mitch and Miki suddenly are laughing. Then I see the volunteers likewise are giggling as camera pans from them to the beet-red face of victim (a college-age male).
Mouth-to-mouth from women leaning over him has triggered a normal response—an erection. In my homeland such a scene would've been edited out (to say the least). But Japanese see no sin in nature. More astounding, the camera pans s-l-o-w-l-y from the lad's closed-eyed, blushing mug down torso to the bulge in his beige chinos.
The host, housewives, CPR instructor, Mitch and Miki are howling. Only I'm agog: 12 years of rote catechism haven't prepared me for this.
"Jeezzzz..." I say while thinking, "How would I confess the sin of watching that?"
Seeing me flushed and wide-eyed, Mitch snuffs what remains of my theism with a Cheshire smile: "Welcome to Japan, Joey-boy..."
I stayed with her that summer and the next, transferred to a Jesuit-run university in Tokyo for senior year via a scholarship, and was hired by a newspaper. I returned to USA only for grad school, then abroad again—my response to "Love it or leave it!"
My turncoat homeland... where draft-dodgers, the Vietcong and the NVA were now described in heroic terms. And native sons who served and died scorned as baby-killers. Which was why two marines I served with in Nam left for home lording their advantage over we they were leaving behind—yet within a year both returned to war. Voluntarily.
"It's ass-backward at home, Joe," Lentini said. "We're supposed to be ashamed for serving as we were raised to do."
"Ain't that some strange shit," Dukes said, "when war vets come back to mofo Nam rather than stay where they ached to be when here their first tour?"
It proved a view seen on Zippo lighters GIs used at war: "We are the unwilling, led by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary, for the ungrateful."
Like me, Mitch was born into matriarchy (family) within patriarchy (society). Her parents had divorced, which is dire for offspring in Japan, where it happens far less than in my homeland. In Japan's logic, divorce implies character flaws in both spouses. Their offspring would have that held against them when applying to universities, and at firms when applying for jobs.
Mitch was like Scarlett O'Hara post-war—determined to succeed without having to depend on males. I know this about her because she visited SanFran during my third year of college there. Gone with the Wind was showing at a neighborhood artsy theater. Reared Catholic (think Legion of Decency), I'd neither read book nor seen film, knowing scant of its plot. Mitch had read the book in Japanese but not yet seen the film.
Three hours and 58 minutes. Mitch often leans forward on edge of seat, eyes gleaming. She's smiling and I know it's not for Rhett but Scarlett. It ends, lights come on, audience files out. We move to better seats, take a pee break, get more popcorn and watch it again, all 3hr 58min.
I ask as we walk to car, "Okay, you're Scarlett. But am I Rhett... or Ashley?" She smiles, tilts head slightly to left while hiss-intaking air then says, "So desu, ne..." Indecision meant to tease, I hope, rather than infer I'm more latter than former.
When her brother graduates college, Mitch will finance him and their mother owning and running a clothing store in Fukuoka, to assure their income after she quits Bar Wars. Nor did she intend to take off from work just because I'd returned. But she did spare a few days that first summer to take me to Beppu. A coast city famous for its thermal springs, it's where her grandparents and an aunt share a house, on Japan's southern-most main island of Kyushu.
We take a bullet train there and settle in an upstairs room of a new home in sedate neighborhood. The next day she takes me to a spa where we're buried side by side wearing light cotton yukata robes in warm black lava sands, our heads wrapped in white towels. That night, on futon spread across tatami mats, she awes me.
"I bought the land and had this house built for them. Even if I marry and move to America, this room will always be waiting for me."
The son of such a woman, I know when to be silent.
"I do not have to stay with any man who doesn't deserve me."
We're laying on our side, each propped on an elbow, my head on right hand and hers on her left, eyeball to eyeball. Her words are meant to intimidate, so I quell a smile that would reveal my admiration. For naught as she reads my eyes and blush.
War-tornado had brought me to an Oz where nonverbal comm is far richer than in my heart-on-sleeve homeland. Where emotions are covert, sincerity treasured, and a spoken "yes" could mean an unsaid "no." Values not at all inscrutable for one who, face-whacked at age seven for an unauthorized smile, had rigged a defense MO: quell emotion—poker face—read behavior.
If, seeking agreement, you question a Japanese and their response is to hiss-intake air, tilt head like the RCA dog and say, "So desu, ne...", withdraw your query. Based on their version of "normal," them saying "No" would be rude. If instead you press them to agree with your PoV (as you might with a fellow Yank), you may finally receive a limp "Yes." More likely it means they understand your view even though they disagree but don't want to offend by saying so.
In college I'd visit the library most evenings to do homework, then use its card catalog to research all things Japanese. Shared values motivate behavior, so I was keen to learn Japan's version of "normal." Judeo-Xian values for Yanks and Euros; Buddhist, Shinto and Neo-Confucian for Japanese.
The best sources were not translations of Japanese writing for other Japanese, but rather non-Japanese immersed in Asia who could translate concepts and values alien to those born into Judeo-Xianity. Donald Richie nailed the thrill of being a gaijin living in Japan, "Like a child with a puzzle, I am forever putting pieces together and saying: Of course."
That summer in Iwakuni after first year of college, I lived in the ville and couldn't go on base even if I'd wanted to. Mouse had outgrown its baseboard hole.
Bar Kafka was off limits because my presence would hinder Mitch. Nor did I barhop or drink. I'd watch sumo till 6:00 PM, have the best BLT west of CA at Sako's on Three Corners, jog some evenings along the Imazu River's bank, or visit an Indian friend's tailor shop for long talks.
Even ran into two marines I'd served with in Nam. Because MCAS Iwakuni is a strategic U.S. base in east Asia, marines and sailors who became lifers were likely to be posted there more than once. Both had re-upped and were sad characters.
Ron Mickle was shoved through a plastic sliding window of an eatery where I was having gyoza. He'd been fighting in an adjacent alley. Short of stature, his upper torso landed atop an empty table next to mine. Me being the only longhair in a ville full of buzzcuts, he was stunned when he looked up to apologize. More so when I grinned and IDed myself. He'd lost rank since I knew him two years prior in squadron 122.
Another was shitfaced and singing way too loud while stumbling solo toward Creep Street on a warm night. I heard him before I saw him and immediately recognized his nasal voice. I'd last seen him at Chu Lai in Nam, three years prior. Jogged to where he was weaving in shadow between two low-watt street lights erected too far apart.
"Sergeant Schlaff!" I say when ten yards away.
With streetlight behind me and him in shadows, he sees a tall silhouette approaching, hair to shoulders and in hippy garb. Could tell by his face he's spooked.
"Don't recognize me, do ya?" I say.
He shakes his head in agreement.
"Joe Nickerson, formerly a corporal when you and I were with [squadron] 115 at Chu Lai."
He seems to recognize my name—but my appearance is too unlike the jarhead he once knew by that name. We weren't pals in Nam, just coworkers, so I don't press the matter. That plus he's too drunk. Tomorrow he'll think I was a hallucination.
A week later near the same spot I'm talking with Murli, an Indian friend, on a muggy night in front of his tailor shop, located midway between Four Corners and Three Corners. Marines and sailors on payday-night liberty flow by, bar-hopping to shed taboos brought from distant hometowns. Some will wind up haggling with streetwalkers on Creep Street, wedding ring left in barracks as though adultery ain't sin when done with a pagan.
I hear a guy singing among a group of GIs emerging from darkness toward the moth-buzzed neon in Murli's shop window. What catches my ear is the tenor's brogue. As a lad I'd confessed mock sins as he sat and I knelt in darkness, each whispering lies through perforated plastic. I don't need light to recognize Father Farrow.
He nods to Murli as his group passes. I ask the tenor's name.
"That's Chief Farrow," Murli says. "Navy corpsman who works at the base hospital. I've made suits for him."
"Is he a chaplain?"
"Him! Are you kidding? He's been married to Japanese and divorced. A big drinker. Likes to party and sings like an angel. I heard he was wounded in Nam as a battlefield medic. Got a medal for bravery ... a silver ribbon or something."
"Silver Star," I say while turning to look at what I cannot believe, "and a Purple Heart."
Doubting my senses, I jog up close behind Farrow's group as they walk toward Three Corners. When he's in its rear rank I near him and speak in the only way we'd ever communicated.
"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been ten years since my last confession..."
He stops on a dime, turns to face me and seems instantly sober. His loud pals keep walking, unaware of my arrival or his halt.
Farrow's black-Irish hair is shorter and flecked with gray. Mine is a bushy afro, mutton-chop sideburns, bandito mustache, hippy bellbottoms. He's slimmer and noticeably etched by the same damn war. I was in fifth or sixth grade when last he'd heard my unoriginal sins.
Brow furrowed, he squints at me through black-rim glasses as though peering down a kaleidoscope, trying to fathom shifting bits of colored glass. He'll not recognize me by my appearance, so I say the usual.
"...I said seven curse words, twice stole coins from Mom's purse, told three lies and..."
I'm thinking he'll punch me but instead Chief Farrow throws his head back and roars laughter. Then he blesses me with sign of the cross, absolving my sins.
"Three H'Marys... Next!"
My homeboy apostate turns and is singing again as he rejoins his pals. I stand watching what I can't yet grasp. At Three Corners Farrow and pals go right, onto Creep Street.
I turn and look upstreet toward Bar Kafka.
If not for her, I don't see him.
If not for war, neither.