Continued from Part I.
But then, my fellow Americans had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. I sometimes forgot that, but then I’d remember the mannequins at the Peace Museum. By the time we were visiting Yokosuka on weekends, that mother and her son had been lurching toward me each night for years.
Just before we moved to Yokohama, my father’s parents visited us in Himeji. We climbed the Castle of the White Heron and ate handmade noodles at the counter of the noodle shop on the first floor of the building where my father had his church.
One trip I took alone with Grandpa Becraft. We were going to see pearl divers, robots that made cars for Toyota, and the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. I was seven, and he needed my Japanese skills to make sure he didn’t get lost. By age 10, I would be giving tours of Tokyo landmarks to visiting church dignitaries, for a small fee.
The oysters were gross, as were the black-and-white pictures of the ladies who used to dive for pearls without wearing any shirts. How long they could hold their breath did impress me. The robots were amazing, dipping and bobbing with shiny car parts clasped in their claws.
When we got to Hiroshima, we went to the Peace Park.
I gawked at the skeletal dome of the Industrial Promotion Hall. I wanted to become an archaeologist and I loved ruins. We listened to someone ring the bell. And then I noticed a two-story building across the plaza – the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
I also loved museums. The first one I remember visiting was full of strange animals and scenes of Ainu men with beards and women with markings around their mouths that made them look like they had enormous blue grins. I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg. She picked me up and carried me outside to look at a stone wall where someone had painted hundreds of handprints. But I wanted to go back inside with Father and look at those terrifying people behind the red ropes. I wanted to see the elephant with the brown hair again. I wanted to learn the names of each labeled artifact lying under glass and dim lights.
And so I pulled Grandpa past the Cenotaph and the thousand cranes, through school groups and old people following a lady with a yellow flag. Grandpa paid the admission fee and we entered. Immediately, I saw that this was like no other museum I’d been in. I took Grandpa’s hand as we stepped back forty years, to August 7, 1945.
The artifacts under the glass and dim lights in this museum were like nothing I’d ever seen before. Watches and clocks with their hands frozen at a quarter past eight. Melted bottles. Fused lumps of stone, metal, and glass. A hollow Buddha. A tricycle.
Pictures covered the walls. Grinning Americans stood under the nose of an airplane.
A tall cloud climbed from the earth to the sky. Women bare-chested like the pearl divers, patterns from their cotton robes burned into their skin. Men with sores all over their bodies. Children my age balding in patches as their hair fell out.
There were diagrams with red and orange and yellow sections on a map. There were movies of houses blowing down in a great wind. There were drawings of a woman carrying a burned-black baby and a person with blue flames coming from their fingers.
We looked at the stone steps where a woman waiting for the bank to open had burned into thin air, leaving behind only her shadow.
And then my grandfather and I were standing in front of those mannequins. Painted in the distance, a river I knew now was full of people whose thirst drove them down the banks to their death. Above the mother and her son, I knew clouds hung waiting to let fall black rain no better for drinking than the poisoned river. Their mouths hung open. Their hair stood up in bomb-blast afros. In my dreams, they would howl and moan. Skin dangled from their hands in strips.
I took Grandpa’s hand — a hand that learned to fire a rifle in 1944 as he trained in Hawaii for the invasion of mainland Japan, an invasion made unnecessary by the horror documented so meticulously all around us. Would he, and therefore I, be alive today if that bomb had never fallen?
Whether logic or rationalization, such thoughts did not enter my mind until many years later.
In that moment, aged 7, I’d never felt more ashamed to be an American.
On the bridge of USS Midway, I thought of what this great machine was capable of, said “Thank you,” and climbed down from the captain’s chair.
Nathan and I followed the man in the yellow CV-41 hat down the ladders and back into the glaring sun. We followed the exit signs, walked down the gangplank, and stepped onto the pier again.
Continued in Part III…