For your Thanksgiving feast today, let me regale you with a story about working birds, not the ones you eat, but the ones that bring you food. My Dad liked it when people were working. This apparently applied to birds, too.
He often described to me his visits to Japan and the marvels that he was privileged to witness there. Obviously, these trips reached him on some deep level. Looking back, I can piece together several of these sojourns to the land of the rising sun, based on memory and souvenirs. In my post last week HE WAS RICHLY STUNNED, I recounted how the currency exchange clerk followed him back to his hotel to refund him 50¢ in overcharges. Dad was not the only one who was touched by his experiences in Japan – Gloria was too, and I will circle back to her at the end of this post.
The Japanese have a custom where they give each other small presents or keepsakes on the occasion of significant meet-ups. It denotes respect and dignity for the relationship in a culture that is not outwardly expressive of such emotions. Once, for example, while I was working at Mitsubishi International, my boss’ boss took a personal vacation to Mexico. On his return, he presented every member of the entire department staff – including me – with a small bottle of Mexican hot sauce. In fact, the verb in the Japanese language “to give” is hardwired to imply that one gives upwards to the receiver (ie., the giver is small). Likewise, when you receive a gift, it is understood that you are receiving down (ie., the opposite, the receiver is small). Harmony and grace are the operative assumptions of a culture where the population is crowded together in large cities and personal space is minimal.
There was a knock on the door of a guestroom at the New Otani Hotel in the Kiocho district of Tokyo. It was early 1971 and Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Olcott were relaxing on their first full day after arriving the day before from JFK. Dad had just come back to the room. He had gone downstairs to exchange $80 into yen, the local currency.
“Were you expecting anyone?” Gloria whispered to Dad. He shook his head and wandered over to the door. He had brought Gloria with him to Japan as part of his 1971-72 world tour to roll out his new wife (number 4). See my post THE BALLAD OF BERN AND GLORIA as to exactly how I had been informed of the new marriage.
There was another quick rapping on the door. Dad hastened his pace and opened it to see a diminutive bespectacled middle aged woman, bowing profusely. “Yes?”
She rattled away in Japanese, and with more bowing, gave him a receipt and 60 yen in coins (worth less than 50 cents). Dad recognized her as the lady at the counter at the Bureau de Change, where he just been not more than 20 minutes ago.
Remember that scene from “The Wizard of Oz” where, after the tornado, Dorothy gets out of her black and white bed, walks over to the front door, opens it to find the technicolor scene of Munchkin land?
The moment when Dad and Gloria opened the door was kind of like that for me. As Gloria walked in to say hi, it was very much a wild segue in my life from “On The Waterfront” to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” complete with sitars playing. Today, I think of that door opening as the transition in my life from ancient to modern times. All memories before, stained in sepia tones. And everything afterwards, vibrating colors! My modern era. After all, I was 13 in 1971. On with the show!
I have written earlier that I knew wife no. 2 best because she was my Mom. Gloria and Rosemary, wives nos. 4 and 5, were modern era experiences for me and I got to know them both very well. Graciela, at no. 3, was way before, owing to both the shortness of their marriage and to my tender years (though I got to know her better later on). But wife no. 1 was always shrouded in mystery to me, until I finally met her on Dad’s 95th birthday.
It was early summer 1971. School was out. Time for my annual flight from Orlando to New York, uh, I mean New Jersey. I rode the plane up North like a nice person (as usual). Disembarked at the brand new terminal at Newark Airport. Ran into my Dad’s arms. We got into the car. Everything normal.
“How was your flight?” Dad asked as he tried to merge into the right lane, some angry driver honking furiously. I looked to my right to see a cobra-faced man spewing venom in the car next to me. Reflexively, I turned my gaze away, out the front. A flock of New Jersey state birds let loose and took to the skies.
“Great,” I lied. Seventh grade had been a tough year at Trinity Prep School, my new school that year. What exactly had been “great” was that it was summer vacation and it was over. On the last day of class, everybody had tossed their books to Hoe Brown, the class beast, who manually tore up each one into several strips of paper.
“How are things with you?” I asked.
He ignored my question and said, “I have something to tell you.” He looked at me for a moment. We had survived the merge okay and were headed northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike, toward the glistening swamps and after that Weehawken.