Michael Bishop


Washington Heights, Tokyo
A memoir by Michael Bishop

      The Bishops traveled to San Francisco [in early 1950] and set sail from there to Japan.  Our ship, the U.S.S. Darby, embarked in full California sunshine and docked however many days later in the paperweight opalescence of a Yokohama snowfall.  The journey itself took place in a pregnant silver-grey dream.  Our ship ploughed the swells like a floating hotel.  The cabin in which we huddled at night seemed more broom closet than bedroom, an anonymous cranny in the pitching superstructure.  High seas.  Chairs gliding past bolted-down salon tables.  Trays toppling.  Silverware racketing.  Seasickness.  Lifeboat drills during which people in inflatable vests lined up before the gunwales to stare in stoic agony over shifting saltwater crags.  What we ate, who we talked to, how we passed the voyage's terror-pocked monotony — all are blanks to me now.
      In Tokyo, we lived in an officers' enclave, a fake little America called Washington Heights, where dependent kids could play at cowboys year-round (even the Japanese-American kids among us boasting six-guns and yoke-necked shirts) and, on Halloween, cadge for goodies in improvised costumes.  I attended Yoyogi Elementary School, "where the cherry blossoms bloom."  My bespectacled kindergarten teacher bore the surname Fish, cheerfully.  At home, we had help: a part-time houseboy, Yasuda, and two maids, one of whom I don't recall and the other the delightful Chieko, whom earlier employers had nicknamed Peanuts.
     Family tradition, memory snips, and an old photo all attest that Peanuts loved me.  Part of her regard undoubtedly stemmed from the Japanese cultural imperative of tot worship, but maybe she also found it hard to resist the wrangler-esque figure I cut in my cowboy outfit.  She let me visit her paper-walled house, scrambled up eggs for me, and, in our own quarters, interceded when some mischief of mine prodded Mommy or Daddy, if not both, to the brink of corporal punishment.  At such times, Peanuts edged between my parents and me and, chirping in stereotypical pidgen, "Washy hands, washy hands," shoved me to the bathroom to await the passing of their wrath.  I have no idea whether, in our hire, she ever suffered the indignity of one of my dad's propositions.
     Maybe not.  But through much of his adult life, Lee motored along on libido and redneck charm.  The idea of his refraining to put the moves on a pretty young woman in his own household strikes me as naive.  Lee always claimed to have loved no woman the way he loved Mac, but he still played her false (as he did his second wife, Scottie).  By this time in our Tokyo stay, the union was unraveling again, and one of my parentsí verbal bouts left me bawling in my pajamas at a bedroom door.
     "He wants me," cries one parent, snatching me up.
     "No, he wants me," from the other, who snatches me away.  I dangle between the odors of lipstick and Old Spice, gingham and gabardine, until one adult — Mac, no doubt — sees the imbecility of this tug-of-war and restores me to bed.
     I don't remember that bed.  I don't recall the gist of my bedside pacification.  But this midnight set-to seared into my heart the knowledge that the single flesh of one's mother and father could rip like a decaying rag.  Our family would return stateside unmendably riven.
     Happier memories of Japan ease the sting.  On the Ginza, Tokyo's Broadway, I sometimes visted a department store whose top floor had a bumper-car rink.  These visits stayed with me so vividly that in 1980, when my British friend Ian Watson and I collaborated on a novel, Under Heaven's Bridge, with a Japanese protagonist, I used the experience to describe one of Keiko Takihashi's memories:  "Electricity crackled under the roof of the pavilion as adults and children charged their squat vehicles around the concrete floor, banging the cars together or whirling them in noisy holding patterns. . . ."   Keiko screams when a fleet of such cars converges on her own, but I always chauffeured myself with the elan of a pint-sized Richard Petty.  (Right.)
      Another adventure, pleasanter in the recollection than in the doing, involved an illicit journey from Washington Heights to the city center.  (Maybe we didn't get that far.)  Butch, a Japanese-American pal, and his brother led me — I lacked their navigational savvy — via a maze of sewage ditches, alongside their stinking khaki rainbow surfaces, into a canyon of gaudy pennants and groaning carts.  (Trucks called honey wagons hauled human waste from residential areas to treatment sites; their chance run-ins with other traffic sometimes produced aromatic Laurel-and-Hardy happenings.)  What we did in this distant place I forget, but we arrived home at bruising lavender sunset.  Peanuts, even if she hadn't already left for the day, could have done nothing to delay the tail-blistering I earned.

From "Military Brat: A Memoir", Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series
Published by Gale Research, © 1997.
Reprinted with permission from the author

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