May 13, 1997
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column continues a series about a Merchant Marine voyage the author made at age 17.
We approached Okinawa on the gusts of Typhoon Cora in the East China Sea. Our destination, the port of Naha, had no available berths, so we were routed to the southeast side of the Island to Buckner Bay, named for General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., who commanded the American forces that in April and May of 1945 attacked the Japanese troops entrenched in Okinawa. This was one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II; thousands of Americans, (including General Buckner) and most of the 80,000 Japanese died. The battle for Okinawa, by the way, saw the greatest use by the Japanese of the kamikazes, the suicide- pilots who dove their bomb-laden planes into the American warships in the bay, where we came to anchor 24 years later in the midst of a new flotilla of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, destroyers, subs, and frigates.
Kamikaze (while we're in this historical moment) means "divine wind." It refers to the legendary name of a typhoon that in 1281 supposedly saved Japan by destroying the Mongol navy - just as I was pretty sure Typhoon Cora would finish the SS Del Valle, which in my log of August 22, 1969, I renamed the SS Delay, because by my count this latest pause in Okinawa was "Delay Number 157" since I'd come aboard the Del Valle three months earlier.
So we waited. While we waited, PeeWee and Vince were once again escorted by the authorities back to the ship. They looked mean, hung-over and not happy. PeeWee had no money and was wearing flip-flops, since he'd lost his shoes long ago back in Vietnam. He kept hitting us up for "loans," and jumped into our taxi when we left for Koza, a town close to the Navy base at Buckner Bay, where I was determined to spend some of my money to buy a Panasonic CX-888SU Eight-Track stereo home-car tape deck. Which I did, for the grand sum of $125, the price beaten down in a Koza shop courtesy of Jimmy the Oiler. I also scored an armful of brand-new eight-track 1969 rock and roll: Hendrix, Big Brother & the Holding Company (I'd named the Okinawa taxi rides "Cheap Thrills" after the Janis Joplin cut, since the drivers liked to gun it to 70 mph and pass on the sidewalk-side), Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield, Blind Faith, Turtles, Otis Redding ... for a teenager who'd spent a summer largely without music, I was now in stereo paradise. Not that the older crew members liked it, since I had to set up the tape player in the messhall, which had the only AC outlets.
Four days later we sailed around the island to Naha. PeeWee and Vince missed the ship as usual, and were brought aboard as we left Buckner Bay and immediately tried to fight everybody in the messhall. We got to Naha at about 4:00 P.M. and sailed around in circles until the pilot came out and took us into the harbor, where we docked at 6:00 P.M. Jerry and I showered and dressed, and, hiding from the Steward, who was looking for us to work O.T. storing food supplies, slipped off to go ashore.
The Okinawans we couldn't figure out. They certainly weren't Vietnamese, but we weren't sure if they were real Japanese. But they were polite and kept everything orderly and clean. The Seaman's Club was a palace, compared to the ones in Vietnam, but we soon tired of playing pool and caught a cab to go into town. We told the driver "stinko," which we thought he would understand as meaning, "Take us to a good bar, so we can get drunk and be happy."
The driver nodded, said something like "Noma Niu," took a left, floored it to a cul de sac, and dropped us there. I recall this being in a remote area, and my teenaged log described it this way:
"There were three buildings - on the left, was a low-slung modern extremely large and dark bar, but the combo played square music so we didn't even sit down. The middle place looked like a Tanner's Quick Lunch, except that they serve squid and pork rice and also raw fish (true! they call it sushi, or something) instead of hamburgers and french fries. We got out of there fast, too.
"The last place was the largest, about four stories with wide verandahs, painted in Chinese red lacquer and filigreed with dragons and all kinds of ornate decorations. I assumed it was a hotel. Anyway, we walked in and man was this place weird! The women in there looked exactly like the Japanese dolls you see, the big geisha hair with porcelain chop sticks pointing out, rice powder faces with painted moles, pouty smiling black-red lips, the very pretty and intricate robes (think these are called obi), all bowing and blushing and giggling and taking tiny little geisha steps. We stood there in the entry gawking like two American teenaged barbarians. Jerry said, 'Hi, y'all. Can we get something to eat here or what?'"
There seemed to be a meeting going on in the room next to the entry hall. A bunch of Japanese men in identical black ties and white shirts were standing around a foot-tall table with lifted cups of perhaps saki. Later, we'd see that every customer in this place was male, and (other than us) Japanese, and all of them dressed the same way, in white shirts and black ties - weird! The geisha girls giggled and motioned for us to follow. We went up these huge mahogany stairs and down a hall. The walls were all made of paper, and some of the panels weren't closed so you could see into rooms where customers in their white shirt uniforms bent over bowls of noodles and gobbled while lovely geishas hovered around them. Shoes lined the tatami mats of the hallway outside the rooms. Our guides had disappeared, or else we had gotten lost. Anyway, it seemed we were now on our own. I decided to go up the stairs.
"On the next floor, the place was swarming with Japanese doll-women! They were tuning oriental banjos that had maybe one string and chattered happily, ignoring us. Down a hall to our left, a woman knelt to play an odd kind of sideways drum and two others clicked wood castanets and another played the one- string banjo. Another, wearing a really beautiful robe, was dancing and posing with slow dignity. I couldn't see who they were playing for - was this all to be heard and seen through the paper screens, like a shadow play? Anyway, this seemed to be where the action was.
"By now Jerry was getting reluctant. 'We might get killed, Clark,' he whispered as we crept down the hall. 'This might be one of those Japanese yakuza places! We aren't supposed to be up here. Suppose this is some death ceremony or something?'
"Jerry stayed on the stairs and I walked on down the hall. There seemed to be a party happening. Dozens of Japanese men were sitting on the floor in a large bright room and all of them seemed well into the saki. I saw more dancers inside the party room, moving gracefully around the businessmen, who noodled and hollered and gulped saki -
"Suddenly a maitre d' materialized. He was very cool and he had a western coat on - he wasn't wearing the 'Customer' uniform. "May I help you?" he said freezingly.
Next time, the geishas...