Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Taking Cover

We had two drills at Kittredge Elementary school that were created to foster conformity--rather than panic--the moment the Russians dropped a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles. The drop drill was a monthly affair that was meant to catch us unawares, but somehow it always leaked out that we would have one. The teacher would ask for our attention. Then she would shout, "Drop!"

We were to dive beneath our wooden desks and curl into a fetal position, cradling our heads in our hands so as to stave off the flying ribbons of glass. We were to hold the position until she had completed the tour of the classroom, correcting the slackers who used the opportunity to giggle. Then she would say, "All clear" and we'd climb back into our seats, all a-twitter and ruddy faced.

The second drill was called "Take Cover" and was held at irregular intervals, yet we'd know it, too, was coming. The teacher would shout, "Take Cover" and we'd push our desks to the center of the classroom, then run for the nearest wall, where we'd lower the shades and cower beneath the windows, backs to the imaginary blast.

The drills may have satisfied the school district administrators but did little to palliate my fears. I knew better. I had seen television clips showing classrooms and buildings swept away by the atomic thunderclap, entire walls and windows converted to a river of plasma that blew across the darkened landscape. I had nightmares of turning into a flaming corpse or a widening stream of particles into thin air. Neighbors were buying and burying atomic fallout shelters in their yards, but not our family. I never asked.

When Soviet ships carrying missiles sailed into Cuban waters, my mother joined the millions who raided supermarket shelves for powdered milk, canned soup and vegetables, and bottled water. We were as ready as we could be, although we knew we were only kidding ourselves....

* * *
The bullet train from Tokyo rocked gently along the Kansai plain, passing through flooded rice fields and small villages, hurrying along the countryside where Mt. Fuji rose white-capped and majestic into the pale blue sky, stopping briefly at at dusk in Nagoya, then in Osaka with its garish animated billboards for Coca-Cola and Toshiba, then sweeping westward through the quiet night to Hiroshima Eki.

I was there to take a teaching job with Junichi-san and his language school. The school was located in a bustling section of the city on the third floor of an office building. The school offered English lessons by native speakers to school-aged Japanese children, to businessmen, and to senior citizens. Junichi-san was working a ploy where he kept a line of plates spinning in the air, hoping that his dreams would come true. To me, he reported having secured a government educational grant to pay my wages. To the government, where he was but applying for a grant, he said he had rounded up a native English speaker for his staff. If the timing worked out, he'd have the teacher and the money to pay him at the same time.

It did not. Junichi-san advised me that it would be preferable if I demonstrated gratitude for the opportunity, agreeing to work only a few part-time hours until the grant came in. Slim chance of my affording big city housing, the expensive food, and transportation on the few Yen I'd receive for teaching an hour or two a week.

To try me out while I mulled over his skimpy offer, Junichi-san said I could take the Gray Hairs class. These were senior citizens--mostly widows--who were looking to increase their cache by learning some English. It was like a sentence-quilting class for seniors. But these were special widows, survivors of the first atomic bomb dropped on a human population.

Though I was ashamed to ask, my curiosity won over and after class I asked a woman in a violet polka-dot dress and matching hat with a spray of white flowers if she would tell me about that day. My Japanese was poor--considerably poorer than her English, which was limited to salutations, dates, and numbers. But she did take a city map from her purse and pointed to the A-Bomb memorial with certain insistence, and I got the message.

Hiroshima is home to a historical castle and a heritage dating back to 1589 A.D. Nestled in the Piedmont of the Seto Inland Sea, it is ringed by the Chugoku mountains and forms a delta for three rivers. It had been a manufacturing city on the morning of August 6, 1945, which made her a prime military target. The parts and machinery built there could be put on barges and shipped out to sea, onwards to the war.

The museum is located in a lush park at ground zero, at the confluence of the Ota and Motoyasu. The bomb went off around 8:15 am and for days afterward, thousands of newly orphaned children wandered the streets of ruins, many of whom would die of leukemia over the next 20 years. The numbers of dead were staggering, numbing. But it was the drawings made by children on the museum walls that ripped my heart out: painted scenes of blood-red rivers choked with bodies, a ceiling beam thrust like some mad atomic spear into the chest of a mother as her child weeps at her feet. Flesh running like melted butter from limbs, shadows of human forms burned into the concrete.

After a while, I just couldn't take any more. I went in search of a florists shop, found a bouquet of white lilies, and brought it back to the grounds where I knelt at a memorial shaped like a blossoming nuclear cloud. It was easy to cry, but it sounds cheap and insufficient, or self-aggrandizing, to say so today.

I wasn't there very long when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was an elderly Japanese man with a trimmed gray mustache in a tidy suit and polished shoes, holding an umbrella over his shoulder. I stood up and looked him in the eye. You can study literature for decades and not find words.

But he knew. "War is over," he said.

* * *

Before I left Hiroshima forever, I took a day-trip to the shore. You can board a ferry for Miyajima Island. So-called Shine Island, Miyajima is renowned for its temples, gardens, and thousands of wild, red-assed baboons. The vermilion gate that stands at the entry is considered one of Japan's Three Essential Views--luring students and native vacationers here all year round. You pass beyond the gate and land in a paradise of bamboo forests, hidden courtyards, and melodic streams trickling through granite. School kids in their black and white uniforms pass happily between tall rows of bamboo. They stop and take your picture. "Look at the foreigner," one says, pointing, shouting the Japanese word for beard. Then off they go along the stream, around the bend and into the woods.

Suddenly you're hit with a powerful force. How quiet it is!

1 comment:

tangobaby said...

The experiences you write about here are so personal yet also so universal that I can see myself there too. Who could not be moved to stand in that place? I think you were very brave to do that, and I'm glad that man was there to make the slate clean.

I wish every child that had to "duck and cover" in school would be able to read this story.