by B. K. Fowler
As the conflict in Viet Nam escalates, army brat Ken and his hot-headed dad are suddenly deployed from Pennsylvania to a dinky post in Japan. Culture clash is just one of the many sucker punches that knocks Ken's world upside down. He struggles as his assumptions about friends and enemies, loyalty and betrayal, and love and manipulation are fractured. An army misfit, a Japanese girl and a martial arts master play unforgettable roles in Ken's rocky journey from a boy itching to get his driver's license to a young man standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his father.
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~ Between Purgatory and Hell ~
Everything was going wrong in Ken Paderson’s life. He was supposed to be practicing for his driver’s permit He was supposed to be part of a normal American family; you know a mom, a dad, and maybe a little brother on the way. During the endless flight from America to Japan, his dad had let him know he blamed Ken for this sudden transfer. And for the blowup of his marriage
“It’s only fair you suffer with me,” his dad had said.
Ken didn’t know why they were going to Japan instead of Vietnam, where an actual war was heating up. Best not to ask right now. He’d figure it out later.
Ken knew his fight with his dad’s commanding officer’s snot-nosed son wasn’t the only incident that brought about the abrupt assignment change. Politics, snafus…
“A beating’s too good for you, wise guy,” his dad had said. The sidelong looks and silent head shakings, accompanied by unnamable emotions Ken was reluctant to dwell on were worse than threats of beatings.
The pilot turned the airplane engines off. Their rumbling echoes pounded inside Ken’s skull.
The dark fuselage was thick with his dad’s sour smells and his own dread and suspense. His throat burned. Shit. This place makes me sick already. He swallowed hard.
Ken squinted against light streaming through the door into the belly of the U.S. Army transport plane upon which he and his dad had flown. The world was buzzing out there. He worked a pen under the cast on his broken arm but couldn’t reach the itch to scratch at it.
A backlit figure chasing a long shadow strode toward the plane and saluted with excessive finesse. “Welcome to Camp Zama, home of the 9th Theater Army Area Command.” The soldier yelled to be heard over the roar of an airplane taxiing nearby on the airstrip.
Ken returned the salute. Captain Paderson’s salute turned into an awkward flapping of hands as he tried to stand on a pair of legs that refused to follow orders.
“Whoa, watch your step, sir.” The soldier propped Captain Paderson up. “Don’t worry, a cup of coffee and you’ll find your land legs.”
“Are we in Okinawa?” Ken asked.
“Yes, indeed.” The soldier’s cigarette bobbed between his lips. “Like they say, ‘The island of Okinawa existing among the bases.’” The soldier’s grin lifted one side of his face, while the other side concentrated on keeping the cigarette clamped between his lips. “Follow me. Lieutenant Colonel Topker is expecting you at oh-nine-hundred hours.” He looked at Ken. “Follow me, cherry boy.”
Ken regarded his dad’s expression, but couldn’t decode what he might be feeling.
Lieutenant Colonel Topker, a muscular man, rose from his desk and leaned over it to shake their hands. He stood a head taller than Ken’s dad.
“Be seated,” Topker said. “I’m pleased to have you aboard. Both of you.” His gravelly voice reverberated in his chest in a friendly but forceful way.
“I’m pleased to be here, sir.” His dad’s talent for lying was extraordinary.
“You’re a lucky boy.” The colonel’s eyes, framed with fans of tan wrinkles, were smiling on Ken. “You’ve been on trains, a ship and a plane to get here from half way around the planet. A million boys would love to trade places with you, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes, sir,” Ken lied to be polite. Like father, like son.
The ceiling fan’s whirling blades sliced warm breezes off the ceiling, and made bright colored banners with emblems bearing a whole new set of acronyms to learn—USARJ, USARPAC—flutter against the wall. The roars of airplane engines revving for takeoff and the rumbles of others idling after landing vibrated the office window.
The window looked out on a field of tall grasses. Farmers with long knives chopped and bundled shanks of tall grass into sheaves. Giving Japs machetes seemed like a pretty stupid idea. Ken’s expression must have conveyed his misgivings, because the lieutenant colonel detoured from his conversation with Paderson about the army’s logistical bases in Asia and said:
“They’re harvesting sugarcane.”
“I know,” came Ken’s testy reply. Sugarcane? In Japan?
“Are you feeling sickly, son?” Topker asked. He rubbed his hands together, making a shishing noise. “I know what will bring you right around.” He switched on an electric burner and picked up a bronze bell: its peals sounded like a shower of thin coins on fine china. Within a moment a Japanese woman wearing a pleated skirt, neat blouse and straw slippers, noiselessly carried a tray into the office.
The lieutenant colonel spoke to her in Japanese. Ken looked to his dad for an explanation for this absurdity, but his father was working over a problem in his own mind. The woman nodded ever so slightly and placed a set of bamboo implements on the blue and white cloth she’d spread on the lieutenant colonel’s desk. She spent a considerable amount of time arranging and adjusting the implements and clay cups and teapot until she was satisfied.
Topker watched patiently, a faint smile tickling his lips. Finally she whisked green powder and hot water into a froth. She bowed, and then turned each handleless cup with smooth, precise movements. Before he drank, Topker bowed his head and rotated his cup between his large palms. He concentrated on something submerged in the green liquid.
The captain and Ken imitated the light colonel’s motions and contemplative expression as best they could. By now, as he brought the cup to his lips, Ken was painfully thirsty. The green tea smelled like stinking water from a stagnant pond. It curled his tongue. They told the Japanese woman the tea was delicious. She bowed and departed, taking Topker’s smile out with her.
“Next time when you visit longer,” he said, “Hiroko will demonstrate the entire tea ceremony for you. She reluctantly agrees to use the electric element instead of a wood fire because she knows how much I enjoy tea in my office.
“Our mission,” Topker’s voice was official again, “is to maintain storage facilities with capability to expand the Asia Pacific base. This is increasingly important as we beef up our involvement in Vietnam. As of today the U.S. has 183,850 troops in Vietnam.” He picked up a pointer and tapped a plaque behind his desk. The gold gothic letters read: We put boots on the ground through the Asia Pacific.
Ken corralled his attention in from the cane fields where a man was sharpening his machete on a whetstone. All his life he’d listened to secondhand stories of combat. He’d been soaking up blood and glory from TV shows, movies, books and from barracks officers when they thought no one else was within listening range to intercept snippets of the epic battles they spoke of. Now he was close to the action.
“This is terribly boring for you, son,” Topker said.
“Wait a minute.” The bell rained coins again, and again he spoke Japanese to the woman who’d appeared at the doorway within seconds. She left and returned with a Japanese child who was no older than a kindergartner, if he was old enough to go to school…if they had schools on this island.
“Michael,” Topker said, “this is Ken Paderson. He’s on tour with his father. We’re going to discuss business now. Show Ken your rock collection and bring him back in fifteen minutes.”
“Does he speak English?” Ken asked the light colonel.
“Do? You? Speak? English?”
“Naturally. I’ll show you around.” Michael took Ken’s hand and led him out of the office. “Okinawa is the southernmost prefecture of Japan. It has one hundred and eight islands. Did you know that?”
“I know and I don’t care,” Ken replied.
“I’ve got igneous and sedimentary rock samples in my collection. Do you want to see them? This island is made of volcanoes. Did you know that?”
Ken’s lie was preordained. “I know.” He yanked his hand free from the boy’s moist grip and followed him down a corridor, past doors where the sounds of typewriters clicking and telephones ringing trickled through heavy air.
“What part of the United States are you from?” Michael asked.
“Pennsylvania. Did you know the first Christmas tree ever was at the barracks where I live?” Where I lived. Past tense. He could scarcely think it, could not say it aloud because it would require acknowledging broken promises, crushed trust, a phantom life left behind.
“You mean the first Christmas tree in America,” the kid said.
“Any dummy knows that. Prisoners of war decorated a pine tree.” From his pocket, he started to remove the stone that he’d found in his grandpap’s garden to show it to Michael, but when they entered a room with glass-covered display cases lining the walls, he let go of the quartz. Stones representing nature’s treasure of hues and shapes were labeled with neatly typed strips of paper. Hematite. Rhodochrosite. Limonite. Galena. Mica. Granite. Jade. Gold. He pressed his thumb on a sharp point on the quartz in his pocket. “How long you been collecting rocks?”
“Ever since I was little,” Michael said. He lifted the glass top of one of the cases and pointed to the specimens, saying, “This is lava from Mount Fuji. This is a piece of columnar basalt from Scotland.”
“Gee. You were in Scotland?”
“Yes. My parents like to travel when my father is on leave.”
An image of this squirt and his massive father wearing Scottish kilts appeared to him.
“What are you laughing about, Ken?”
“Nothing. You’re too young to understand.”
Lieutenant Colonel Topker motioned Ken into the seat he’d sat in before. “We’ll only be a few more minutes. Did Michael show you his rock collection?”
“Yes, sir. It’s dandy.” He cringed. What a doofuss he was turning into.
“Thank you, Michael. Bye, bye,” Topker said.
“Bye, bye.” The boy wiggled his bent fingers in a childish wave.
Topker squared his shoulders and continued briefing Paderson. “In addition to the aforementioned items there are odd lots and nonperishable foods.”
“When do I get a look at the depot I’m in charge of?” Captain Paderson asked.
“As soon as the plane arrives. You’ll be flying to the depot with a shipment of provisions.”
“I hadn’t realized Camp Zama was that large, sir.”
“Your assignment isn’t on this base.” Topker handed Paderson a manila folder.
Ken knew better than to tell his dad, in a ranking officer’s presence, not to move his lips when reading silently.
“We can’t put all our eggs in one basket,” the light colonel explained. “You’re in charge of a remote post. You’ll have staff.”
A low-flying cargo plane, judging by the timbre of the growling engines, obliterated all other sound. Ken wanted to hop on that plane right now, fly back home and start practicing for his driver’s license test. Or he’d be super-nice to his dad so he’d break down and send him home. Better yet, he’d have a word, man to man, with the light colonel. He seemed like a nice enough guy. He’d understand and send Ken home. He was too afraid to do any of these things. He prayed real hard to God, a God that he never believed cared what happened to people’s lives. He prayed that his mom would phone long distance, admit she’d made a big, big mistake, and order the captain to put him on the next plane off that god-forsaken island. Send her boy home.
“You report to Major Bellamy,” Topker was saying, “He’ll brief you today. Twelve-hundred hours. At location.”
The phone rang. The lieutenant colonel listened, the lines around his eyes tightened. Topker hung up.
“That was the Bureau of Personnel,” Topker said. “Paderson, I’m sorry to do this at this time, on your first day in Japan. I’m obligated to inform you that if any further incidents transpire like that which occurred Stateside, you’ll be requested to resign your commission.”
“I’d hoped,” Paderson said, “personnel’s legendary lethargy would be on my side, just this once.” His dad’s dispirited laughter was saddening.
“Not in this instance,” Topker said quietly.
The meaning of what was said hit Ken and caught in his throat. His dad had been reassigned because of the fight Ken and his dad’s commanding officer’s snot-nosed boy got into. One more screw up and his dad was a goner. Could the Army do that to a man? Hold him responsible for something his kid did? Ken scootched to the edge of the chair and tried to think of the right way to ask the light colonel, all polite and everything, who did he think he was threatening his daddy, but a sergeant appeared in the doorway.
“Pardon the interruption. Captain Paderson’s transport to Kyushu Island is ready and waiting, sir.”
“Dad, where’s Kyushu?” Ken pronounced the word quickly, like a sneeze.
“Between purgatory and hell.”
“Don’t be so grim.” Topker stood, making the room shrink. “One day soon you’ll learn to love this archipelago.”
“I don’t think so, sir.”
“If you change your attitude first, you’ll discover that living here can be as agreeable as living anywhere else. It’s not likely to happen the other way around.” The lieutenant colonel looked pensive and then brightening with an idea said, “This is for you.” He forced a pouch into Ken’s hands. Inside the pouch were wads of dried green stuff.
“What are they? Silk worms?”
Topker’s booming laugh competed with a prop plane’s engine coughing to a start on the runway. “Green tea leaves. The dried leaves unfurl in warm water and emit a flowery aroma.”
Obliged to, Ken held the opened pouch under his nose, inhaled and wondered why adults thought they had to tell tall tales to get a kid’s attention.
“Don’t wrinkle your nose!” Topker laughed. “You’ll acquire a taste for green tea, I guarantee it.”
“Yes, sir.” Ken didn’t drop his salute until they were in the hallway. He had so many questions to ask. He started with an easy one. “Dad, who was that Jap squirt?”
“Michael is the lieutenant colonel’s son.”
“He can’t be!”
Paderson shrugged off Ken’s disbelief.
“The lieutenant colonel isn’t a Jap!” He trotted to keep up with his dad. He looked up to his father’s face to see if something in his expression held a clue. His father only stared ahead and kept striding toward the exit. Ken ran ahead of his dad and turned around.
In a weird gesture that appeared as if he were tugging a glove off his hand, Paderson tore the gold band off his finger. He tossed it into a clump of potted palms.
Ken lunged to retrieve the wedding ring.
His father croaked, “Don’t.”
“But you might need it again.”
“And you might need this.” He raised his good hand threateningly.
Ken retreated into himself and kept quiet during the flight to Kyushu, where they were to be picked up by Major Bellamy.