Ken Autrey
NONFICTION
 
Radiation

With my first visit to the main office of the Hiroshima University Foreign Language Department, my surroundings already felt familiar: filing cabinets, pigeonholes for faculty mail, computers, a fax machine, cluttered secretaries' desks, even the faint smell of coffee. Because the Japanese university system is based on the American model brought in during the occupation after World War II, some resemblance in environment as well as curriculum might be expected.  Having just come from the airport, located east of the city not far from the university, I dropped my suitcases just inside the office door.  My welcoming party, Chris Schreiner and Tom Dabbs, Americans who taught at Hiroshima, brought me to the university even before taking me to the apartment that would be my home for the coming year. 

In previous e-mail correspondence and trans-Pacific phone conversations, Tom stressed the importance of reporting to "Hirodai" (short for Hiroshima Daigaku, or Hiroshima University) as soon after arrival as possible.  This urgent need to make my presence known at the office—although classes wouldn't begin for another couple weeks—was an early indication of the well-defined, even rigid, procedures and protocols lying beneath the decorous and accommodating surface of faculty life in the university.  The head secretary, Araki-san, did not bow meekly as I anticipated.  Instead, she smiled broadly, offered a firm handshake, and gestured for me to take a seat beside her desk.  "Will you have coffee?" she asked.  I needed it.  I hadn't drunk or eaten anything since buying a pulp-filled canned grape drink in the Seoul airport, and despite my excitement at finally arriving in Japan, I'm was already feeling the jet lag.  After all, it was about 4 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.

As Araki-san washed her hands at a sink, I noticed a rack of drying dishes, a microwave, a refrigerator, and a glass-front cabinet containing cups, saucers and a bottle of Johnny Walker Red.  I saw that she was wearing an apron as she handed me the coffee along with a rice cookie. Already I began to see that some aspects of the work environment are different here.  Shifting roles from hostess to office administrator, speaking just enough English to get the job done, pausing occasionally to struggle for a word, she handed over an array of papers and forms, all of which were completely inscrutable to me.  My study of Japanese began two months before with language tapes and conversation books.  But for non-native speakers, reading even rudimentary Japanese becomes possible only after years of study.  My absolute reliance on Araki-san as a translator and information source had begun.

She took from her desk a black leather case about the size of a tube of lipstick.  Inside the case is my inkan, a two-inch white plastic cylinder at the end of which was an engraved stamp representing my name.  She explained that I was to carry this with me at all times and use it when an official personal stamp was needed.  It is the equivalent of a distinct signature.  Foreign inkans usually consist of katakana symbols, sounds approximating one's initials.  My stamp, however, was the kanji (word-character) symbol meaning "big bird."  This was Araki-san's idea, based on my name, which sounds similar to "ootori," or "big bird" in Japanese.  As far as I can tell, this moniker, while it would elicit chuckles from the Japanese who saw it, did not usually suggest the TV character known as "Big Bird," despite the popularity of Sesame Street in Japan.

After the official preliminaries, we three Americans took the 30-minute train ride into central Hiroshima. We landed in a sushi restaurant in the basement of the railroad station, one tiny room amid a warren of bars and eateries.  After a couple rounds of Sapporo beer, I was so tired that I could barely stay awake enough to speculate on the identity of the seafood and wisps of bland white angel hair on my plate. 

I was just alert enough to notice how everyone pronounces "Hiroshima" with a slight emphasis on the second syllable.  The name still carries for me the ominous resonance it acquired forty years ago in Mrs. Edwards' history classroom, where she pronounced it Hee-ro-SHEE-ma, drawing out the "ee" sounds.  The details of World War II history left me once the test was over, but I had no trouble remembering that the atomic bombs ending the conflict with Japan were dropped two and a half months after I was born.  And the names "Hiroshima" and "Nagasaki," whatever their proper pronunciations, acquired a permanent place in my lexicon.

The nuclear age ushered in by the Enola Gay and the cold war fifties brought an aura of dread that we school kids ducking beneath our desks in air raid drills were ill-equipped to handle.  When I lay in my bed at night I worried when airplanes flew over, propellers droning, and wondered whether the asbestos shingles on our house would provide any protection if the terrible flash came.  Years later I realized that youngsters all over the country had tossed and turned through the same wide-eyed panic.  The fact that we had less reason to worry than, say, kids in Japan or any number of other countries didn't seem to matter.  Even now, a prop plane, especially in the dark, sounds ominous to me. 

Our fears were linked to the cultural memory of Hiroshima and exacerbated by such events as the Bikini Atoll incident, in which a U.S. nuclear test spread fallout over populated areas.  The only Movietone News footage I still remember after years of Saturday matinees is the Bikini Atoll newscast: grainy black and white afterimages of fishermen on sun-drenched boats, a report no doubt followed by a Roadrunner cartoon.

If we kids were puzzled about such events, we felt no confusion about the grim, terminal sound of the word "radiation"—or about how horrendous a nuclear war would be.  A few years ago, I read Tim O'Brien's novel The Nuclear Age with a shock of recognition when the fictional narrator acted out the same fears I had lived through thirty years earlier.  O'Brien, apparently working his own psyche, portrays a boy's irrational and occasionally hilarious responses to the the threat of the bomb, though his behavior is really no more extreme than that of countless families who constructed and stocked bomb shelters or of government officials who worked out elaborate civil defense systems, even plastering yellow and black circular symbols on buildings where citizens under attack could find basement stashes of food and water.

When I was born in 1945, 74 days before the first atomic bomb was dropped, my father was in the Navy and had already made one trip to various islands in the Pacific, his ship laden with beer for U.S. troops.  Following that first Pacific voyage, Dad was on leave with Mom in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on my due date.  Unfortunately, I was born a few days late, after Dad had to return to the naval station in Norfolk.  As his ship was leaving the harbor on its next voyage to the Far East, this time without a cargo of beer, a signalman flashed a message from shore to ship spelling out the details of my birth: 8 pounds, male, healthy.  My father didn't see me for 10 months. A photo taken on the day of his return the following March shows him in an ensign's uniform smiling as he holds me rather gingerly for the first time.



50 years later almost to the day, I spent my first night in Japan.  Standing on my narrow balcony in north Hiroshima, I gazed down on the city of over a million that has rose from the ashes of half a century ago.  I was startled out of my weary stupor by the sprawl of city lights before me and the dark surrounding hills that cradle the flat populated area.  I watched a bullet train on elevated rails, a pencil of light, slide quickly left to right, east to west. 

"Hiroshima," which means "broad island," is built on a delta formed by the fingers of the Ohta River as they reach to the Inland Sea.  Later I would find that on a clear day, my mountainside vantage point enabled me to see beyond the flat city center south to the port that made the city a prime military target.  I would discover amid the cluster of tall buildings the tiered roof of Hiroshima Castle, rebuilt after the war, barely visible from this distance.  A kilometer from there I'd visit the monuments in Peace Park, as well as the skeletal remains of a government building left as a reminder of the atomic bomb's destructive power.  That first night, I envisioned what this scene, this panorama, must have looked like 51 years ago, 3 months after my birth.  I tried to imagine the distant drone of two airplanes at 8 a.m., teams of students already busy in the streets dismantling houses to create fire lanes in case of attack, trolleys crowded with workers, the awakening city, and then the terrific blast several hundred feet in the air at a point a mile or two straight ahead of my balcony.  Once I unroll my futon and collapse amid the grassy smell of fresh tatami floor mats, bags still unpacked, none of these thoughts trouble my sleep.

My Dad's second (and final) voyage took him to Japan, with the primary mission of transporting troops back to the States.  Like many men of his generation, he was reluctant to discuss even such relatively tame military experiences.  Gradually, though, little details about his naval duty surfaced, as did the artifacts purchased when he was overseas: a small carved Buddha, a lacquer box, a silk coin purse.  He got into the war late, and by choice, walking away from a college teaching job and signing up to become a "90-day wonder"—a civilian trained in a three-month crash course to become an officer.  The Pacific War was over by the time Dad completed his training, so he never saw much action.

In his final years, Dad became less reticent to talk about the war.  He told how, anchored off the coast of Japan not long after the second atomic bomb was dropped and the Emperor surrendered, he and several reckless buddies took a landing craft ashore to buy silk.  Oblivious to their vulnerability as victors in a war-ravaged land, they gestured to an amiable old man to show their interest in buying kimonos.  He nodded and motioned for them to follow.  When he ushered them into a large house, they realized he had misinterpreted them and thought they were signaling an interest in women.  He had marched them to the local bordello.  According to Dad, they beat a hasty retreat.  Somehow, though, before leaving the Far East, Dad managed to find a brilliant red silk outfit for Mom, which she wore to costume parties throughout my childhood.

Only recently, when I decided to come to Japan, did I take any real interest in Japanese geography.  I had the traveler's sudden urge to orient myself, to anticipate the terrain I was about to inhabit.  I learned that Japan is actually several islands rather than a single long island, that Japan is about as large as California, that Japan's population of 110 million squeezes onto the 20% of the country that is inhabitable.  No place in the country is more than an hour from the mountains and the sea.  I also noted where I believe my Dad went ashore in 1945—Sasebo, just north of Nagasaki. 

I had been in Japan a month when The Daily Yomiuri, an English language newspaper, announced the discovery of 10 photographs of Hiroshima taken only a couple weeks after that August 6, an important find because most of the photographic documentation of the bomb's effects came after a typhoon swept through in September, itself changing the landscape considerably.  The photograph accompanying the news article showed a solitary American soldier, hands in his pockets, gazing out over blocks of rubble.  As I examined the photo, I imagine Dad as that soldier surveying the devastation.  Did he visit the ruins of Nagasaki?  Were such sights humbling?  Befuddling?  A source of pride in U.S. military might?  I wonder how thoughts of his wife and unseen child figured into what he saw and experienced in his one trip to Japan.

I called Dad from Hiroshima on Father's Day that year.  Nearly 80, Dad had Alzheimer's Disease and was unsure where I was.  Like many Alzheimer's victims, he remembered events of 50 years ago more readily than the tuna sandwich he had for lunch.  Taking refuge in the past, as his brain has forced him to do, has had the lone benefit of rendering his distant memories a little more accessible to the rest of us.  His old reservations about rehashing the war and its aftermath gave way to a fuller recital of past events, as though with Alzheimer's came a loosening of previously well-stitched inhibitions. After returning from Japan, I was more interested than ever in Dad's war experiences, but it was too late to get the full story, and he died shortly thereafter.

My teaching schedule took me to the University three days a week.  My six classes were large, each containing between 35 and 65 students.  The students, freshmen and sophomores, were generally conscientious, but prompting them to speak out in class was as big a challenge as getting them to understand my own simplified, de-accelerated English.  There were little unexpected triumphs.  One day when I announced that my oldest daughter would visit classes when she arrived for a mid-winter visit, the students perked up.  Shima Naho timidly asked whether I had a photo of my daughter.  When I pulled snapshots of both daughters out of my wallet, the class's usual sense of order and decorum broke down, and they all rushed forward for a glimpse.  Later, when Nell visited two classes every student was present and prepared.  I had asked each to bring in one statement concerning something important about Japan that Nell should know and one question for her about her life or ideas. 

Nell responded with humor and aplomb to questions like, "How do your parents get along?"  I was proud of her—and of my students for being so responsive.  For lunch I took Nell to the main office, where Araki-san had ordered both of us a bento, a neatly boxed lunch with rice, fish, tempura, and various other samples of Japanese food.  The other secretary, Uni-san, as well as various colleagues, were anxious to meet Nell.   There were jokes about how, as the daughter of "Big Bird," Nell must be "Little Bird."

Over winter vacation after New Year celebrations, Nell and I traveled northeast to Kyoto and southwest to the island of Kyushu where we visited a castle in Kumamoto, a volcano in Aso, and hot sand baths in Beppu.  We considered taking the train down to Nagasaki and Sasebo, where Dad made fleeting contact with Japan, but we ran short of time, and Nell had to return to the U.S.

When I was sixteen, my Dad gave me his Navy watch, the only one he ever owned.  He never wore a timepiece except during his military years when it was required.  The watch, made in Switzerland, lasted through my college years.  Finally, it stopped, and I replaced it with a newer one.  But it came to represent for me those months of waiting my Dad spent aboard ship in '45 and '46 before we met for the first time.  Would we have been closer if my Dad had held me soon after my birth or been there when I first laughed?

Back when Nell graduated from college, I gave her the watch, the face of which had become so faded you could barely make out the numerals.  I told her the watch had come to signify for me the necessity of sometimes waiting patiently for the good things. When I left for my year in Japan, Nell and my wife Janne saw me off at the airport.  Nell handed me a fat envelope with instructions to open it on the plane.  In the envelope was the watch, along with a note that in part read, "Little did I know when you gave me this that you would be the next to keep watch on foreign lands.  I give it back as a loaner now. We will be watching time much more closely here at home as we wait for your return.  The hands no longer work and the numerals aren't in Japanese, and it won't help an international traveler make any of his flights on time.  However, it has always allowed me to see back in time to when it was much more functional.  I hope it will allow you to see across oceans."

A year later, back in the U.S., I returned the watch to Nell. I hope she was serious when she said the watch enabled her to look back in time.  Perhaps she meant the watch took her back to when her grandfather was as vigorous and astute as he was in his Navy years.  I want the broken timepiece to remind her how Dad, after he retired from a career in college teaching, was still able to work a full summer day cutting down trees or roofing a house.  I want her to remember the hours he spent fishing with her and my other daughter Tess and the stories he told around the dinner table, stories occasionally touching on his Navy years.  I want to remember all those things too. On lonely evenings, as I looked down on Hiroshima from my balcony, the watch lay like a heavy coin in my palm. Its dial glowed as dimly as an ancient story, its subtle radiation a half-life away from those nights when Dad stood duty on the chilly deck of the U.S.S. Sappho in a darkness broken only by a scattering of stars and a few faint lights on the coast.

 


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