Friday, May 28, 2010

The Thirty-Eight-Year Itch

by Pa Rock
Globe Trotter

I flew out of Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco on Ground Hog's Day 1972 headed for a one-year military assignment on Okinawa. It was a long flight (especially for a country boy who had flown only a few times previously), followed by a brief stop in Hawaii, followed by an even longer flight. I have no idea how many hours the entire flight took, but it was early on the morning of February 4th when I finally set foot on America's most far-flung possession in the Pacific. (The flight did cross the International Date Line, so one day was effectively lost, not to be regained until I returned to the United States the following year.)

My time on the tiny island of Okinawa was full of learning and challenges and fun. The first military job that I had there was as a stevedore platoon leader at Naha Port where I supervised the loading and unloading of container ships. That was definitely a learning experience and a challenge, because up to that time I had never seen a container ship, much less had a clue as to how one operated. My other jobs while there included being a light truck platoon leader as well as a company executive officer.

Okinawa is a very small island at the southern end of the Ryukyu's. It is approximately eight miles wide and sixty miles long, and sits between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. President Nixon returned the island to Japanese control while I was there - on May 15, 1972.

Okinawa was its own island nation for centuries until it was taken over by Japan, only to be lost to the United States during World War II. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting during that war. Many people on the island did not appreciate being "returned" to Japan, feeling instead that they should have been granted independence. Labor and independence protests by the local nationals were not uncommon while I was there.

Today Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture, or state, of Japan, and it is a popular quick getaway for tourists from Japan who come for the warmer weather and nice beaches.

The southern part of the island, from Sukiran south to the capital city of Naha, was very crowded. Traffic was a mess, and going places in the small taxis called skoshi cabs was the most common way of getting around. Skoshi (Japanese word meaning "small") cab drivers were aggressive and fearless. They would rip around long lines of stalled traffic (sometimes by driving on the sidewalks), and then smile and wave politely as they cut in the head of the line. People suffering road rage would not do well driving on the island of Okinawa.

The very southern tip of the island was called Suicide Cliff, a park of war monuments where supposedly hundreds of Japanese fighters chose to walk off of the high cliffs as the Americans advanced, rather than face the dishonor of surrender. We visited that area several times.

There were still many caves on the island in the early 1970's that had been dug as defensive structures during the war. We were constantly warned to stay out of them because many were still booby-trapped.

Northern Okinawa was agricultural at the time I was there. One weekend I drove north with friends and wound up in the middle of a pineapple plantation. We visited with a mama-san who was harvesting pineapples, and she gave us two just to get us on the road and out of her way. I understand that the Japanese have built many expensive hotels and resorts along the northern shore since the time that I was there. Supposedly, there are now roads that encircle the island.

One of our favorite places to eat was a fancy restaurant called Sam's Anchor Inn. It was a colorful eatery with a jungle motif and parrots that screamed and whistled while the customers dined on superb Kobe beef that was prepared at the individual grills on each table. The food was to-die-for!

I was married to my college girlfriend while on Okinawa, and our oldest son, Nick, was born there at Camp Kue Army Hospital. (I understand that hospital has since closed, and a new medical facility has been built on the island that is one of the best in the Pacific.)

We sat through one major typhoon while I was stationed on Okinawa - a massive hurricane whose eye went right up the center of the island. Most of the buildings are block and cement, so the storms are relatively safe if people have the intelligence to hunker down and stay put until they pass. I also remember one minor earthquake that rocked our house. It wasn't much, but it was very disconcerting, especially to a young fellow from Missouri, to feel the earth shifting beneath his feet!

Another unique phenomenon of the island is the presence, ubiquity actually, of small geckos (lizards) that dwell in abundance in most houses. They run around on the walls and ceilings, and have a tendency to fall down onto the dinner table or bed when one least expects a drop-in guest. These creatures make a loud sound that resembles a bark, and they are definitely not as personable or appealing as the Geico gecko! They are prized as house guests, however, because they eat the local insects.

I am headed back to Okinawa this July to do the same work there for the military that I have been doing at various stateside bases for the past five-and-a-half years. My tour will be a minimum of two years. I never thought that I would get the chance to return, but I am looking forward to reliving some memories and seeing how things have changed in the past thirty-eight years. The people I know who have lived there since I left, and some who are currently there, all have good things to say about their experiences and adventures on the island.

I am also looking forward to being able to show Nick, and his son Boone, where Nick was born and where he first lived. I plan on having my other children and their families visit while I am there as well, and my sis, Gail, has said that she will fly in for a visit also.

My next supervisor asked me over the phone if I had any questions of him. "Just one, sir," I said. "Is Sam's Anchor Inn still there?"

"Yes it is," he assured me, "and it's wonderful!"

Crank up the parrots - I'm on my way!

1 comment:

Reed said...

Sam's sounds like my kind of place.