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One Woman's Opinion

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A Year in Japan: 1965, Part 10

Mary Wakefield Buxton

by Mary Wakefield Buxton

Urbanna, Va.— When the USS Mars was in port at Yokosuka we made a point of seeing as much of Japan as possible. The ship’s Executive Officer (X.O.) and wife joined us one evening for dinner at the famous Oebi restaurant in Kamakura. We ordered specialties of the house: lobster, prawn and tempura.    

Saki was first course served in a small warm vase with a tiny glass. It was so strong it burned my throat going down. Salad of cold vegetables but with no dressing followed, fish soup, a bowl of steamed rice and basket of seafood. Finally, we were served a pot of green tea with more tiny cups. 

We entertained the waitresses with our use of chopsticks. My chopsticks seemed to be alive, dancing a jig and doing their best to make sure all food ended up in my lap. I laughed thinking of “Alice in Wonderland” as she played croquet with the Queen, her “flamingo-mallet” never quite cooperating.

We finished dinner, said goodbye, bowed at least 10 times to the smiling staff and made our way out into the winding streets of Kamakura. After turning many exotic corners the X.O. led us to a favorite spot he had frequented many times after the war. Would it still be there? Our eyes finally spotted the sign, “Club Margaret” behind Japanese lanterns swaying in the wind. I thought of Rick’s Place in the movie “Casablanca” and wondered what Humphrey Bogart character I would meet inside.

Yet “Club Margaret” was tiny and intimate, no larger than a small dining room and the seats and tables were small and delicate like everything Japanese. With great effort we four giant Americans wedged ourselves into a tiny booth.  

Then came a shock when my eyes adjusted to the dim light. I recognized the navigation officer from the ship sitting at the bar with a Japanese lady in a sexy sarong dress. His wife, who had chosen to stay in the States with their children, had been my best friend in San Diego. She had been there to help me when my baby was delivered while our husbands were at sea.

He turned and saw us, looked embarrassed, but waved hello. I knew this sort of thing went on in the Navy, the loneliness in the military experience was unbearable at times, but this reminder of how life really was outside my small-town Midwestern values bubble was painful.

Suddenly the X.O. exclaimed “Hiya Charlie!” We looked up in amazement to see a Japanese man with a pleasant face, wearing sunglasses, an ascot and a rich suede coat greeting the X.O. I blinked my eyes several times to make sure, but yes, here was a Humphrey Bogart character.

The X.O. introduced us to Charlie, an old World War II friend that he hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. At that time Charlie had befriended the X.O. and “showed” him Japan.

Charlie was an ex-champ boxer that had once fought stateside in the Cleveland Arena. Now retired, he owned a gymnasium, “Club Margaret,” and several other enterprises. Charlie was doing very well in business with his many American customers.

Charlie’s friend joined us. When he heard my husband was a Lieutenant JG he snapped to mock attention, gave a salute and his fine rendition of a “bo’swain’s whistle.” He had been a JG too in the war in the Japanese Navy serving on a destroyer, which had been sunk by the Americans. He told us about this with such a merry spirit we found ourselves laughing along with him. But I was struck with how odd it was that yesterday’s fierce enemies were today’s best friends. 

Meanwhile, Chip had struck up a conversation with a distinguished gentleman who was sitting in a corner sipping his sake and watching us. Charlie introduced him as a friend who represented a trading firm in Great Britain. He had a smile like the Cheshire cat, which made me very uncomfortable but it didn’t seem to bother my husband. I wondered if he were a drug Lord.

I found myself talking with the Japanese JG who wanted to discuss American foreign policy. I listened with interest. “The U.S. should withdraw immediately from Vietnam before it’s too late,” he said. “You should always meet the enemy on your terms and never in a jungle where a soldier can’t fight standing up.”

Charlie wouldn’t allow us to pay the bill. As we left the pair sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and the JG gave a snappy salute and a final bo’swain’s whistle.

All these years later I can still hear that sharp sound of the bo’swain’s whistle. No one, not even a spouse, who has ever served in the U.S. Navy, can ever forget that exciting, shrill of the bo’swain’s whistle. It calls to me even now. “Come out to sea!”

(To be continued)


posted 05.24.2018

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