Friday, October 16, 2009



Go West, Young Marine

Imagine how peculiar, to go to war all by yourself?

In the books and movies, you always go with a platoon or a Legion or 300 Spartans or some kind of a team. The team usually has a troubled inner-city kid, and an overweight, but lovable kid, and a hick, and a coward, and John Wayne. But I just bumped along, all by myself, in the spring of 1966, with a sea bag and my orders. Heading west, toward the Elephant.

I caught a flight out of San Francisco on a commercial jet to Tokyo via Anchorage. Yes, I have been to Alaska, if sitting on the runway for an hour while the plane takes on fuel and exchanges a few civilian passengers counts as a visit to “The Last Frontier.” I looked out the window. Rain. Fuel trucks. Slick tarmac. More rain. Alaska. What a thrill.

Flying by night over the north Pacific. I studied my Japanese phrase book, and created my own, slimmed-down version.

Bob’s Guide to Useful Japanese Language Suitable for One Night in Tokyo

Twenty Important Words and Phrases

Dozo please
Arigato thank you
Domo very much
Domo arigato thank you, very much
Do itashimashite you’re welcome
Konnichi wa hello
Biru beer
Ginza entertainment district
Konban wa good evening
Bijin beautiful woman
Domo gurai how much does it cost?
Hai yes
Iie no
Sukoshi little
Takusan many, much
Doko where
Benjo wa doko desuka where is the toilet
Ohayo gozaimasu good morning
Koibito girl friend
Sayonara good bye

By the time I had modified the phrase book to my own purposes, I was snockered. Remember I was only eighteen years old, and it in those days it was hard for a boy to get served alcohol--until we flew into international territory. My stewardess (no luke warm "flight attendant" nomenclature in 1966) was quite happy to serve one of the few, the proud as many beers as he could drink. I passed out.

The plane landed in Japan. I woke up. At the U.S. base outside Tokyo I learned an important lesson in military life. If you are carrying your own pay record, you can probably sweet talk the paymaster into giving you some cash. After inveigling a hundred dollars, I set off to see the sights of Tokyo, by which I mean, women. Surely a hundred bucks American was enough for one night of party. I had the idea that Tokyo was cheap. Remember, Made in Japan?

With the practical phrases of Bob’s Guide memorized, I figured I could nimbly handle myself on the streets of Tokyo. I grabbed a taxi at the gate and told the driver:

“Ginza, dozo.” (Ginza, please.)

Countries around the world brag about the daredevil driving antics of their cabbies. Don’t believe them. Tokyo taxi drivers are the worst, psychotic, suicidal lunatics who have recently escaped from the city’s psychiatric wards. Surviving the ride from the base to downtown Tokyo was one of the most terrifying episodes of my four years in the United States Marine Corps. I toppled out of the taxi and barely resisted the impulse to kiss the sidewalk.

But here I was, on the Ginza! Neon lights, exotic smells, music from numerous outdoor speakers, dense crowds of, well, Japanese people. What first? Food! I wandered around until I found an eatery that served something I thought I recognized, chicken-on-a-stick. I went in, offering various polite greetings that seemed to be appreciated. Seated, I asked if anyone spoke English. I figured, hey, a lot of these folk probably speak English, didn’t we conquer them twenty years ago? No. No English. From anyone. Then or later. My entire night in Tokyo I did not find a single Japanese person who spoke English, except for the bartenders, all of whom knew two words: “whisky sour.” I was on my own, just me and Bob’s Guide to Useful Japanese.

“Biru, dozo. Takusan biru.” (Beer, please. Many beers.)

After takusan biru’s and several plates of yakitori and raisu (my phrase book was now up to twenty-two useful words and phrases), I headed back out on the streets to resume my quest for female companionship. It was then I discovered two disquieting facts. First, I realized that I had already spent almost half of my money and needed to reserve some of the remainder for the (Oh My God!) taxi ride back to base. Tokyo, even in 1966, was NOT cheap. The second ugly fact was that I had neglected to research and include among my useful Japanese language, the word for prostitute, whore, lady of the night, working girl. The best I could come up with was “geisha.”

“Geisha wa, doko desuka?” (Where is Geisha?)

Strangers to whom I put this pathetic query, stepped back, looked at me with derision, and walked away as quickly as possible. Even the bartenders wanted nothing to do with my question.


“Whiskey sour, hai?”

“Hai.” Sigh.

I started drinking whiskey sours and further depleting my funds. Sitting in a bar where everyone carefully ignored me, I was getting drunker and drunker. Am I having fun yet? There was a raucous commotion just outside, and in through the door exploded a group of British sailors, in uniform, in their hilarious little British sailor suits, with the ribbons hanging from their caps. I started laughing at them. A pint sized runt of a sailor walked up and demanded?

“What’s so fuggin’ funny?”

That really sent me into hysterics. I fell off the bar stool, howling. They stood in a circle around me.

“Get up, Yank. Get to yer feet. We’re gonna kick yer bloody arse.”

Still giggling, I attempted to get up and assume a lethal fighting stance. What happened next was up to them.

“Fight me, or buy me a drink.”

Instead, they decided to adopt me for the rest of the evening, their own U.S. Marine. Fightin’ Fuggin’ Devildog. We partied together and barhopped through the Ginza. We swore oaths of eternal friendship and cried like babies over the sentimental confessions of our souls. We sang the great songs of the British Navy and the U.S. Marines.

“God Save our Gracious Queen!”

“From the Halls of Montezuuuuuuuma
To the shores of Trip Pooooo Leeeeeee.”

“A thousand gobs laid down their swabs
To fight one sick Mariiiiiiiiine!”

And that’s what I remember best about my night in Tokyo. Me and the British sailors, drunk and happy. Not a bad night, as these things go.

But in later years, I reflected back on my only trip to Japan with immense regret. My Ginza expedition was a modest success, lack of nooky notwithstanding, but I think of all the things I might have done, and was too young and ignorant to envision.

The Imperial Palace

Sacred Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines

A pilgrimage up Mount Fuji

A tea ceremony conducted by a real geisha

A ride out into the countryside

The Noh, Kyogen, and Kabuki theatres
(that most of all)

Even today, at this moment, I would like to send my apologies to Japan for such bad manners. To ignore the incomparable treasures of Nippon for a line of whiskey sours! To set my highest sights on getting laid by a hooker.

For shame.

I makes me blush to think about it.


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