My Fellow Americans [Part I]

March 2007

There she was, dominating San Diego’s Harbor Drive the way she’d dominated the docks of Yokosuka 20 years earlier. I stood on the pier and stared at the wall of gray that seemed to soar all the way to the sun hanging in the clear March sky. Pipes tangled between portholes and catwalks. A line of red planes adorned a section below the enormous 41 painted in white. Above all this, the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze.

Island Superstructure

A conference had brought me here to San Diego, where my younger brother Nathan now lives, working as a probation officer. He took Friday off and we headed for the harbor. I could see her island superstructure from the street where we parked.

The man in the yellow CV-41 hat sat us down in a waiting area roped off at the base of the island. He explained how this was going to work. We were going to be climbing. “All the way up there,” he pointed. He told us how he flew Phantoms from this very flight deck, back in the early Seventies when Midway patrolled Yankee Station in the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin.

I could see his younger self, strapped into the cockpit of an F-4, climbing to avoid radar lock as the threat warning blared in his ears, waiting for the MiG on his six to stall out so he could drop in behind the Gomer and shoot a missile up his tailpipe. I didn’t ask how many kills he’d had.

We climbed a ladder, walked down narrow passageways, past doors with cryptic red labels, ran our hands over the steel “Ouija Board,” peered through portholes down at the water. The pilot lead our group through Primary Flight Control – a bay window overlooking the jets, the choppers, and the tourists.

Up another ladder, the bridge opened around us, windows on three sides. In the distance, USS Nimitz lay on the water like a skyscraper on its side.

“This is the captain’s chair.” Green velvet, worn through in patches, cracked vinyl armrests. “Nobody sits in the captain’s chair.”

I raise my hand. “Actually, I have.” Everybody turned to look at me.

1985

Twenty years ago, I was a missionary kid in Japan. We lived in Yokohama, halfway between Tokyo, where I was born, and the US Navy base at Yokosuka. We lived on a compound left over from the days when there were just about as many missionaries as there were Allied servicemen, sent by hundreds of churches to convert the defeated, benighted Japanese.

The first “American house” I’d ever lived in was one of four ranch-style monstrosities that sprawled on two acres in the middle of carrot fields on the edge of the Asahi and Midori districts. The houses had Japanese-style maid’s quarters. Nobody had maids anymore. The schoolhouse built to provide an American education for the offspring of God’s workers stood empty except for dusty desks and peeling linoleum. The shelves were well-stocked with textbooks, National Geographics, and encyclopedias from the Fifties and Sixties. The playfield was overgrown with weeds and the swings had no seats.

All of us who lived there went to the local Japanese school. Though my white father was the last of his kind, the neighbors were mostly Japanese-Americans who were getting in touch with their roots. Some of the neighbors had school-age children. When we walked off the compound toward school, my neighbors had names like Sharon and Paul. By the time we got to school, they were Fumie and Masato. They hated me for speaking Japanese as though I’d lived there my whole life. Of course I did. I was born there. They were all from California, where my grandparents lived. I hated them for blending in so well despite their obvious stupidity.

Some Saturdays, we’d drive to the base for church. As we neared Yokosuka, we’d pass gaudy signs for restaurants and various services I wouldn’t understand for several more years. At the gates, we’d wait in our car for the Marines to ask my father some questions, make a call, and then wave us through. Blue pants with a red stripe, bright brass buttons, white gloves, “Yes sir” and “Please wait here, sir” – Nathan wanted to be just like them someday. He pressed himself against the car window and watched everything they did. I never understood why they wouldn’t just let us through. We were fellow Americans, after all.

After what seemed like an hour, the Marine waved our car through the gate and we were on the base. The Sunday church we rented on Sabbath mornings was strange. The hymnals were different. You could fold down a little padded shelf from the pew in front of you when you prayed. A table stood in front of the pulpit, with gold words written on the tablecloth in a language I didn’t know. Big silver cups and stacks of platters sat on the table. Crosses decorated every surface.

One of the 7th Fleet chaplains gave the sermon. My father had the day off.

He sat in a pew with us. I sat on his right and Mother on his left, Nathan beyond her. When we stood for hymns, I could hear him singing the way he sang early on Sabbath mornings, before the rest of us were up. When he was nine, the new music teacher at his school thought he must be fooling around, not taking her seriously, the way he closed up his throat and made sounds three notes flat through his nose. She kicked him out of the children’s choir. That’s just the way he sings, especially Sabbath morning, as he gets ready for church, combing his dark hair flat, pulling on the black socks that leave lint between his toes when he takes them off and I wash his feet for communion. I always knew he’d finished his sermon the night before, because it’s what we’d talk about over dinner on Friday night – usually cobbler with candles. Point by point, he’d step through the sermon with us, trying out his ideas with us before taking them to his flock. Lying there trying to sleep for just a few more minutes, I could hear him humming “All Things Great and Small” or “How Great Thou Art” – it was sometimes hard to tell.

A kid in front of us turned to stare at my father and I glared back. This was the first time he’d sat with us for as long as I could remember.

After church, potluck. After potluck, an afternoon at Captain Hill’s house. Captain Hill was the Chief Medical Officer on USS Midway, and he lived with his family in a tall house where they used to fold parachutes.

At sunset, Marines would take down the flag from the pole across the street. They would fold it into a triangle, hand it back and forth, and then march away. After sunset, we could play games and watch movies. We’d watch American movies without subtitles, eating fruit salad and popcorn. There was a movie about a man in the Olympics who wouldn’t run on Sabbath. But he didn’t go to church like us.

Sometimes, we would stay over instead of going home. Nathan and I snuck out at dawn on Sunday morning to watch the Marines play a trumpet and raise the flag. Nathan saluted, but I knew you were supposed to cover your heart with your hand, so I pulled down his arm. He punched me in the side and saluted again.

If we were especially good, Captain Hill would take us on board Midway. He didn’t get to drive the ship like the other captain, but everyone treated Captain Hill as if he were in charge. Everyone snapped to attention and stood aside as we passed through narrow corridors, climbed ladders, and walked around on the flight deck. We stepped along the grooves for the catapult, looked under the blast panels at all the pistons and gears, peered over the edge at the nets between us and the water, tripped through bulkheads, admired the basket they used to get from one ship to another during a storm. If we were lucky, there would be a plane or two on the hangar deck, an F-4 Phantom or even an F-14 Tomcat. We weren’t allowed to touch them.

We saw sickbay, where Captain Hill said, “This is where I work.” Everybody knew him by name. In the officer’s mess, a cook served us vanilla ice cream. The officer’s mess had round tables and individual chairs. The big mess hall we’d passed through earlier had long tables with metal benches and smelled like old meat and antiseptic spray.

After ice cream, we marched down more long corridors and climbed more ladders until we were on the flight deck again.

“Do you want to go up there?” Captain Hill asked. “That’s the bridge, where we drive the ship when we’re out at sea.”

Nathan jumped up and down until he nearly fell over. “Yes, sir!” he shouted.

“All right, let’s go,” Captain Hill said.

More ladders again, twisting passageways, and then, “Officer on deck!” Lights blinked on every surface. Four sailors stood at attention.

“As you were,” said Captain Hill, and the sailors went back to what they had been doing, leaning over panels and adjusting knobs. Yokosuka Naval Base stretched around us, more great ships to port and starboard, and the harbor beyond the end of the flight deck, which looked much smaller from up here.

Captain Hill saw me staring down at the flight deck. “Now, imagine landing an airplane on that, in the dark, when the ship is rocking back and forth in a storm.” The only airplanes I’d been on where nearly as big as the black surface below us.

We saw the helm, where a sailor would steer the ship with a big brass wheel shaped just like the ones I’d seen in books about pirates. We saw the radar station, where a sailor would make sure the ship didn’t bump into anything.

“And here’s where the captain sits.” A green chair stood in the center of the bridge. “Do you want to sit in the captain’s chair?”

Nathan promptly scrambled up and began barking orders to the sailors, who ignored him.

“Okay, let’s give Andy a turn,” Captain Hill said as he lifted Nathan down.

I climbed into the chair, swiveled around, and imagined myself at sea in a raging wind as jets screamed off the catapults into the night. I brought order to chaos.

I’d never felt more American than at that moment.

Continued in Part II.