The Hula War – Paul Silverman
July 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
There were four of us on this jaunt in Japan. Angie and me, and the hula girl and the old soldier. It was a real east meets west thing, all of us crossing the long Pacific night, though the two of us had jetted from clam-frying Ipswich, Mass. and the two of them from somewhere desert-like and critter-crawling that sounded like a Mexican dish and was a coyote’s howl from San Diego. We all met by happenstance in Kyoto, did a few lunches of conveyor-belt sushi and decided to be travelers together for a few days when the official activities came to an end. Where we all fell in with each other for the very first time was the place the old soldier dubbed “flower headquarters,” making the hula girl and Angie chortle and give each other knowing glances, like sisters being silly. He said flower headquarters made him crack up because it was such a dumb-ass combo of a hard and soft word, just like “kitchen stadium” in the food network program featuring the so-called “iron chefs.”
Flower headquarters! In fact, this venue of horticulture was a surprisingly sleek and cool office building called Ikebana International, the focal point of the worldwide society of women (mostly) who do Japanese flower arranging and buy endless paraphernalia to assist them in their snipping and bunching: a vast array of precision tools and artful containers, all purchased from the association along with the lessons, etc.
Angie and the hula girl, whose real name was Christine, were members and official enrollees, occupying themselves dawn to dusk with classes taught by Japanese flower masters, and attending jam-packed exhibitions in a hall surrounded by a moat of swans. Me and the old soldier, real name Patrick, were the drag-along spouses, optional companions who were only there to partake of the discounted air fare and hotel rates and the legendary palate-challenging cuisine, which featured dishes such as boiled guts of slug.
But before they even got their certificates, before the four of us even climbed on the first bullet train, Christine gave us a taste of what culinary life was like back home with the old soldier. “He walks into the kitchen one day,” she told us, “holding this fat rattlesnake, and he expects me to cook it. So I ask him: ‘Where’d you get that?’ And he says: ‘In the backyard, where do you think?’
He tells me he killed it, and now it wouldn’t be right to waste it, and that I should go look at my chicken recipes. Well, I did and I cooked it. I looked the other way and dredged it in flower. But I made him skin the thing. What a mess! And I can tell you, it was loaded with bones.”
The old soldier got his way with the rattlesnake, bossing Christine around the kitchen, and he was the same way with us, bossing us around Japan. The first place we would go see was Hiroshima. There was no Plan B. He’d get this General Patton scowl on his face if we even mentioned anything else. So off we went.
The night before we left, Christine gave the Angie the lowdown on the old soldier, and she blabbed it right to me. He wasn’t even a soldier at all, he just had that look: John Wayne, Douglas MacArthur, the granite jaw, the 45-caliber eyeballs, that thing from the old newsreels and war movies. He was a military man in a way, but it was a crazy way. In his real job he was some kind of marketing man, he worked for a communications agency or something. But he was a nut for war collectibles, World War Two stuff always, although he wasn’t even born then. He sold them on eBay, but what he liked to do best was bring them to work. He filled up his office with them, floor to ceiling. Nazi helmets. Bayonets. Huge wall banners with swastikas and rising suns. He had old reveille bugles, sword straps and scabbards, minefield marking flags, gasmasks and artillery rucksacks – all of it carefully hooked and draped and tacked over much of the available space. He even had an old olive-drab metal desk. I can imagine it all gave the office a ferocity that baffled anyone who walked in, especially if their purpose was to discuss some label or coupon on a juice can or milk container. But that was Patrick, the hula girl said. “He liked to own the element of surprise.” The old soldier was quite the risk taker too, according to his wife. One of his possessions was this old pineapple-style hand grenade, scary-looking but totally harmless. He took it with him whenever he traveled – and once, right after 9/11, he was detained trying to board a plane at the San Diego airport and nearly charged with a federal crime. I still wonder if it ever occurred to Patrick that “pineapple grenade” was another one of those mixed-up terms, soft and hard at the same time – and when you thought about it, an even more bizarre example than flower headquarters.
But his most prized item of all, the one that he said inspired him every day, was a large print of a portrait of President Harry Truman. A civilian, yes. But perhaps the greatest commander in chief ever, he said. A true soldier’s grit and the ability to give an order in the face of the greatest adversity – that was Truman. To the core.
We arrived in Hiroshima at night, hungry as wolves. If Angie and I had been by ourselves we would have probably stayed put and dined on hotel fare, where there was enough English on the menus for us to point to something and know what they were cooking us. But Christine asked a few questions, we strolled a few blocks and soon found ourselves climbing a rickety staircase in a building that was dark on the first two floors.
On the third floor we found bright paper lanterns, noise and bustle, and lots of griddle-sizzle and mouth-watering aromas. The place was filled with locals swigging draft beer and chowing down. Nothing fancy, just long tables and cheap chairs. One of the waiters squeezed us in, Christine did the ordering, and soon we were digging into plate-sized pancakes layered with noodles, eggs, pork, cabbage, and I don’t know what – a kind of Asian pizza. Huge and filling, and impossible not to finish.
That was the beauty of being with Christine: she talked the talk. Angie and I called her the hula girl because she had grown up around Honolulu – in a land where they grew pineapples, not grenades – and that very first night back in flower headquarters she had given us a little demo of how she could still swing those hips. “If I had a fighter plane,” Patrick had bragged, “I’d paint her on the nose.”
Christine spoke the Hawaiian style of Japanese, maybe not the King’s English in Tokyo, but good enough to get us into doors vacationers from clam-land normally don’t even see. Angie and I were new at Japan: Angie had been doing the Ikebana arrangements for years, but this was our first trip there. What we learned that night, to our surprise, was that this was Patrick’s first time too.
“He knows nothing about Japan,” Christine said. “He thinks he does, but he doesn’t. Now that he’s met me, he can see the real deal.”
I took a long swallow from the iced mug of Kirin. “You mean the two of you aren’t an old married couple? You act it.”
It turned out they had only met two years ago, and they were still finding things out about each other. Patrick was pure white-bread Missouri, just like Harry Truman. Christine was all Japanese and her story started in California, near Sacramento.
“Go on, tell them about the cockroaches,” Patrick said. “They’re finished eating.”
His remark wiped the smile from her face as abruptly as if he had slapped her. What replaced it was a poker face, so polite and implacable it could have been on one of those dolls we’d seen all over the Kyoto souvenir shops. You could tell that, behind the frozen face, she was embarrassed – even enraged – at the mere mention of the word cockroaches. But Patrick had that drill sergeant look of his, and the hula girl went on.
“So, we were poor,” she said, “that’s a fact. My grandparents and future parents left everything in Sacramento. What we had in the islands were those island cockroaches, so big you could hear them before you saw them. We had this tomcat too. He’d catch the cockroaches at night and bite off one of their legs, just one, so all they could do was this spinning thing. In the morning we’d wake up and find six huge cockroaches, all spinning like tops. My husband thinks that’s funny…”
Patrick patted the hula girl’s shoulder. “At ease, private, you’ve done your duty. Now I’ll do mine.” He waved over a waiter and ordered us another round.
By the time Angie and I left the restaurant we understood why Christine was so frosted about the cockroaches. They symbolized her family’s exile.
“I mean, my grandfather wasn’t exactly small potatoes in Sacramento,” she said. “He had a dry goods store. Clientele mostly Japanese, sure, but the place was a goldmine. There were no cockroaches in that house, I can assure you. But maybe I can’t – I wasn’t even born yet.”
Patrick piped up, his voice slightly boozy. “Her family spent time in the original Hotel California. Guests of FDR.”
Christine froze her eyes on Angie, as though the men were not to be trusted with what she was about to say. “From hearing my mother tell it, the concentration camp wasn’t the worst part. That was later, after the damage had been done. I mean the home, the fine home that was destroyed, the reputations and connections …”
At that moment Patrick could have been Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, standing on the beach with the shells crashing around him, somehow immune and untouchable, as though war just couldn’t hurt him – and certainly not any conversation having to do with war.
“The worst thing,” Christine went on, “was the inspectors that came to the house before there was even talk of sending my family away. My mother said they combed through all of my grandmother’s possessions. Anything that was too Japanese they told her to throw out, and fast. She had recordings, Japanese recordings of popular musicians. They were especially menacing about those. They told her she’d better destroy every last one of them.”
After their release, the family never recovered. The store was gone. They fled to a place that was neither America’s mainland nor Japan’s, and years later Christine was born. “I was the Hawaiian Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” she said, eyes boring into Angie’s. “How the mighty hath fallen. From castles to cockroaches.”
Long, tall strips of neon marked the many towers muscling skyward in Hiroshima, and our hotel was one of them. The view from our panoramic window was all dazzle and flash, a thriving, rebuilt city showing its muscle. But in the morning we looked out on utter greyness: the sky, the buildings, the mournful geometry of structures and walkways and monuments created for a purpose so enormous it could never be attained on this earth: the atonement for the nuclear catastrophe, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima’s civilian population. We breakfasted quickly and left the hotel on foot for the memorial grounds, Patrick setting a rapid pace and moving stiffly, as though he were marching as much as walking. The contrast between the old soldier and the hula girl was extreme to the point of seeming insane. Her face was consumed by grief. His looked as though he might be parading into battle. They walked apart, in single file, each on a separate and evidently opposite mission. And although not a word was said, it was clear to Angie and I that we should let the two of them do whatever it was they had come to do. We hung back and let the crowd visiting the hallowed bomb site fold around us and sweep us from their view.
We re-connected with them that night at the hotel bar, but soon it began to seem that the old soldier and the hula girl might not survive another night as a couple, married or otherwise. Patrick drank hard and spoke violently, railing at something he had read on a diorama at the Hiroshima bomb museum. Angie and I had seen it too. It was a caption to a horrifying photo of burned, tortured human beings. The caption took a point of view on his hero, Truman, a perspective that Patrick found reprehensible. It said the U.S. had been ready to drop the atomic bomb on Germany as early as 1943, when the German armed forces were still strong and the outcome was still in doubt. Instead, the Americans held off. Only under Truman, when the Japanese had virtually surrendered in secret talks with the Russians, was the decision made to A-bomb civilians, and then only Japanese civilians. Far and away the biggest reason for the attack, according to the diorama caption, was that Truman and his power circle wanted to justify the billions of dollars the government had spent developing the monster weapon.
“How can they print lies like that?” Patrick raged. “Truman acted to save lives, American lives. Every schoolchild knows that…”
He drank hard and bellowed his case, turning heads up and down the bar. “I had two uncles who died in the Pacific. Brothers. They were blown to pieces. It left my grandfather staring at doors…”
As it happened, the purpose of Christine’s visit was to find a large tomb on the memorial grounds. In it were the unidentified bones of thousands of bombing victims. She was certain that some of them belonged to old family members, relatives from her grandparents’ generation, and she knelt at the great block of stone and prayed for their ancestral souls.
Although the old soldier stormed out of Japan the next day – booked a flight and stormed out forever, he vowed – the hula girl said she wanted to stay, and stay with us as well. She wanted to take us to the mountain country, she said, to view one of Japan’s many active volcanoes. We reached it by tram, on a day that was bright, but chilly and gusty because of the elevation. A metal fence separated the sightseers from the slope plunging thousands of feet into the caldera, and scattered all over the site were small, hard-roofed shelters – there just in case the mountain blew – and signs warning asthma sufferers to beware of the poisons drifting up from the vast simmering mouth. A guard assured us, though, that on a day this clear there was no danger at all, so the three of us stayed a long time, leaning over the metal fence and peering into the liquid chaos below – white-green, steaming and infernal, like a sea of lethal acid from a Hollywood terror movie.
When the tram bell rang for the return trip, Angie and I turned to join the crowd straggling back from the caldera edge. But Christine stopped us, and we turned back and lingered where we were, the three of us pretty much all by ourselves. Then the hula girl reached into the tote bag she was carrying and pulled out an oval object, that olive drab icon from a thousand war movies. It was Patrick’s old army surplus collectible, the pineapple grenade. “I snatched it from his suitcase,” she said, her voice fighting the brisk mountain wind. “By now he probably wants to wring my neck.” And with that she drew her arm back and pitched the thing over the fence. Her intention, of course, was to hurl the grenade into the boiling liquid below, but her lob only managed to lift it into a brief arc followed by a short spasm of bouncing down the lava rocks of the slope. Then the bomb that was shaped like a fruit came to rest where we could still see it, wedged there for as long as it would take for the volcano to cause its obliteration – either by slow, seeping fumes or a moment’s burst of overwhelming fire.