Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Christmas in Occupied Japan

Rick and his father, Mark, on the beach at Karatsu, Japan, September, 1951 Hello, boys and girls. Much as I love struggling with the problems of being human and attempting to write about those problems in a way that can make us all laugh, sometimes it’s good to take a break and bring in another voice, and another story. This week the guest columnist is my husband, Rick Tuel. A Christmas memory came back to him, and he decided to write it down. Hope you all had a good Thanksgiving, and are taking care of yourselves as you navigate December, a month full of various kinds of social, financial, and familial landmines. But we’ll talk about those another time. Meanwhile, here’s Rick, telling his story of Christmas in Occupied Japan: This is how I remember it, 61 years later. I think it was December of 1951 when the first grade class of us Army brat kids was treated to a visit by Santa Claus. We were the children of the second wave of Army occupation forces in post-World War II Japan. My mom and I arrived one year earlier, joining my dad, who was stationed in Sasebo on the island of Kyushu. In October of 1950 we were moved to a new base in Kokura. After a year in Japan I was already starting to lose touch with many of my early mid-western notions and stateside memories. The Korean War had broken out four months earlier, but that didn’t concern us kids. That Christmas of 1951 we were just excited to learn that Santa Claus knew where we were. Our class was transported in a big Army bus to the airport on the base at Kokura. The airport was little more than a soaked, grassy field by the side of a dirt road. It was a cold, wet day, gray and cloudy, and we were all in our good shoes and school clothes for this special occasion. A squad of G.I.s had been transported with us on the bus, giant young soldiers they looked to us, in starched, pressed fatigues and spit-shined combat boots. We all got off the bus wondering where Santa Claus might be in this wet, empty field. Then what to our wondering eyes should appear But an olive drab whirlybird loaded with cheer! It dropped through the fog and set down with a squish Confirming the promise of each Christmas wish! It was a two-seater helicopter with a loudspeaker and clear Plexiglas bubble housing the pilot and Santa, both in helmets and flight gear. It circled the bus with Santa waving and shouting, “Ho ho ho! Mer-ry Christmas!” After one pass it set down in the middle of the soaked airfield and G.I.s began picking up kids and running us out to the helicopter-sleigh, held tightly in their arms. They ran us out one by one, their energy adding to our excitement. Santa rubbed our heads, gave us each a small wrapped present, wished us “Merry Christmas!” and sent us back to the bus. Our G.I.s dropped us off at the door of the bus as the driver checked us off with a head count. Shortly the whole class was back on the bus, and we were all excited and noisy, talking about Santa and the Christmas gifts we held in our hands. The formerly immaculate, spit-shined G.I.s were grinning and covered with mud. Santa’s heli-sleigh powered up and lifted off, with the Merry Christmases! and Ho ho hos! fading away into the moist gray fog.
When we opened our presents they turned out to be little hand-painted wooden Japanese figurines, about four inches tall, with clothespin heads, round bodies, and flat bottoms so they would stand up. They all had Japanese faces and black hair, and were all the same shape, but each one had a unique paint job, with different colored kimonos. You could play games with them, rolling them across the floor so they’d wobble this way and that, and sometimes they’d roll in such a way that they’d end up standing up. The bottoms were big enough to be marked with what in those days was an all-too-familiar logo: “Made in Occupied Japan.” I wish I hadn’t lost mine.