Shortly before leaving Hong Kong, as I was standing on the hanger deck – the deck below the flight deck, where aircraft were secured during off ops and for repairs – and looking at the skyline of that extraordinary metropolis, I observed a garbage scow pull alongside. These are long flat boats used to collect garbage from the ships anchored out from shore. On board was a Chinese family; a man, woman, and several children. The man saw me watching them, and waved. I returned the wave and smiled. I saw his eyes flicker and he turned, took one of the children by the hand, and returned to look up at me. He smiled widely, revealing the dental history of a pauper, and spoke,
“This my son.”
I nodded and smiled.
“You like? You want?” he said.
I was flabbergasted. What was he suggesting?
“Ten Hong Kong dollar.” he declared as he held up one hand with all fingers extended. “Ten Honk Kong dollar.”
“No. I cannot do that.” I replied, and turned to walk hastily away.
I was haunted by that incident for a while as the Coral Sea departed Hong Kong harbor and navigated back toward the Vietnam. Why would that man have offered his son? I could only think, as this was a very poor man and father to many children, that he felt his son would be much better off with an American Serviceman than with him, and his family would have one less mouth to feed. It seemed so harsh a choice to make, and I thought about Pappy. What had happened between him and Mother? Could they not have resolved the tribulations? Pappy was struggling, a poor man also. Mother had gotten work as a technical illustrator, had separated from Pappy, and met Emmett, who was a technical writer. He was a charming, talented, handsome man – and was a working man. Pappy had little leverage. Buck Star always won at everything as a man, but he never swayed Fought as a father, because Star never had, or wanted children! I could sense Pappy’s love from both years and distance. Sometimes the greatest love is that of letting go. I intrinsically believed that I would eventually relocate Pappy. At that point I would not let go. I told myself that – as we entered the Gulf of Tonkin, and back to the war.
For the remainder of this cruise the Coral Sea would conduct operations in the gulf for several weeks, visit Subic Bay in the Philippines for a couple of weeks, and steam the gulf again for several weeks, at which time our tour was at end, and it was time to return to the States. Before our long journey home, however, we would make one more port of call, in Sasebo, Japan.
Sasebo is a lovely area in southern Japan, and popular with the Seventh Fleet. There are many wonderful restaurants, and nightclubs where one can even hear some good jazz. Sasebo boasts the largest shopping arcade in Japan. The Yonkacho Arcade and the Sun Plaza Arcade extends over seven shopping centers. Sailors can purchase audio equipment, cameras and many other souvenirs before returning stateside. We would be there nearly two weeks, and again, I wanted to do some exploring.
First, of course, I wanted to see the city then do some shopping. A sailor’s home is his ship. He eats in the galley. Except for some personal items and clothing, he spends little money at sea. This leaves some funds for rest and relaxation, and shopping when in port. Some seamen will spend most of their assets in what is sometimes referred to as “thieves’ alley,” on wine, women, and song. Others will stock up on items to take home. I have always chosen to travel light, so I was not interested in many souvenirs, although I do enjoy a fine beverage, some good music, and the company of a lovely lady. I was not, however, fond of thieves’ alley. That was cheap booze, disco tunes, and hookers. Not my “cup of tea.” I would allow Sasebo to take me on a spontaneous tour this day.
After a while of wandering the shops, I stopped at the window of a pachinko parlor to watch. A pachinko machine is rather like an upright pinball machine. They are lined up in these parlors not unlike the “one armed bandits” of Las Vegas or Reno, and are used for gambling. While pachinko gambling was illegal in Japan, these parlors were widespread. When, and if, one wins – and I understand that the odds are less promising than our casino slots – they are awarded prizes, which are then clandestinely exchanged for money at a location not far from the pachinko parlor. Pachinko parlors were off limits to American servicemen. As I stood watching, I observed a lady working in a small Seiko store just next door. She was selling watches.
I was enthralled, and stood there for a long time pretending to watch the pachinko players, while actually watching her. Sometimes, if we will allow our day to simply drift spontaneously, we can find ourselves unconsciously lured into uncharted and daring waters. I did not feel a sense of foreboding as if I were hearing the sirens of Ulysses, rather a licentious sensation that I had just stumbled upon a mermaid. I looked at my watch, slipped it off my wrist, put it into my pocket, and entered the Seiko store.
Seiko had a watch for everything, a plethora of every imaginable calendar, gauge, measurement, gadget and alarm. There were watches for deep diving, shallow diving, skydiving, surviving, thriving, and some for just biding time.
“You like pachinko?” She asked.
She had the element of surprise, and probably a watch for it as well. I didn’t expect her to speak English.
“Oh, no, I don’t. I don’t like to gamble” I responded.
“That is good.” she spoke in broken English with an accent, but quite understandable. “Gamblers loose money.”
I became somewhat anxious. Never had I been this close to a mermaid. I was close enough to reach out and touch her, and I wanted to.
“What is your name?” She asked, unpredictably.
My stomach was nervous, as is typical when I am uneasy. I looked away from the watches and into her dark, peaceful eyes.
“My name is Mark. What is yours?” I could hear my voice changing pitch, as if I had relapsed into a moment of puberty.
“I am Komiko.” She smiled, and my heart fluttered.
What was up? I was a man, a military man, but I was acting like a boy. I’d never felt quite like this before. Was this love at first sight? How could that be possible? I didn’t even believe in love at first sight, especially in a port of call seven thousand miles from home.
She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you Mark.”
I reached out to her in response. As I touched her I felt an electrical charge rush through my body, a sensation that only a sailor of exceptional fortune feels when touching a mermaid. And, I sensed a risk, as if I were about to become a gambling man.
“Very nice to meet you as well, Komiko.”
I eventually had to release her hand, and she smiled at my reluctance.
“Do you want to buy a watch, Mark?”
“Oh, well, yes, I do need a good watch. I will look around some.”
I lingered for an obvious amount of time, feigning to shop for a watch, but glancing frequently at Komiko. I wasn’t fooling her, and she would smile, or glance back, or touch her hair, or move, or breath. A customer came in, and relieved the tension for a moment, then left momentarily without a purchase. I selected a moderate, stylish timepiece.
“Komiko, can you hold this until tomorrow? Will you be here tomorrow? I will come back.” I spoke nervously.
“Yes, Mark, I will be here. Please come back, I will hold this for you.”
“I will see you tomorrow.” I declared. “You are very lovely, Komiko!”
“I will see you tomorrow, Mark.” She looked at me evocatively.
I was captivated, and somewhat embarrassed. I had acted like a naïve boy. She must have sensed my awkwardness. Yet, I couldn’t help but understand that she had expressed an initial interest in me. Perhaps she just wanted to sell me a watch. For the remainder of the day I wandered through the sights and attractions of Sasebo, never really seeing anything other than my watch. I had put it back on my wrist, and was continually checking the time.
Shortly before noon the next day I returned to the Seiko store.
“Hello Mark. I am glad you came back.” She greeted me confidently.
I was glad that I had returned as well. We talked for a while, asking undemanding questions of each other. I told her that I was from Texas, I was not married, I enjoyed being a sailor but was not too fond of being in the military, and again informed her that she was lovely. She told me that she was twenty seven years old – I was only twenty one – that she lived with her mother, her father had passed away, she had learned English at school in Tokyo, and that she knew of a restaurant in Sasebo that served Mexican food. I laughed, finding that rather incredible, and she laughed and offered to show me. We made a date for that evening; I would pick her up there. I purchased the watch and placed it on my wrist, checked the time, and assured her that I would not be late.
How humorous, the restaurant was ornately decorated much like a Mexican restaurant might be in Cleveland or Baltimore, not Texas, or Tex Mex. A guitarist played Spanish music. The waitresses wore sarapes and sombreros, which could only be described as cumbersome in which to perform their duties. The food was visually Mexican as tortillas, refried beans, jack cheese, salsa, and so forth filled the plate. But, everything was sweetened! Perhaps that was a cultural seasoning. Perhaps my whole being was experiencing sweet euphoria. I did not yearn for authentic food; rather, I desired the briny lips of a mermaid. We talked, had several syrupy margaritas, and gently touched hands. Although it was never mentioned, we were both aware of my brief time in Sasebo. She invited me to her home. I was surprised because this was most unusual for a Japanese lady to be this forthright. She was confident, and experienced. I was delighted.
Komiko lived in a nice apartment with rice paper walls. She introduced me to her mother, who smiled, nodded many times, and departed to another room behind the thin walls where for a brief time I could see her silhouette, and then she was gone. She could speak no English, and did not appear to be troubled by my presence. I was probably not the first sailor that had visited, but I didn’t think about that at the time. This lovely mermaid showed me around, we talked for a while, and then I slowly leaned toward her and was allowed my very first taste of her briny lips. This was a romantic moment that was unfolding quickly, yet I did not feel promiscuity, or immorality. I felt only destiny allowing two people to abandon social realities and restrictions for a cosmic gift of time disengaged. Komiko’s lips were soft and moist, like cherries, sweet and full, with a hint of saline and sweat.
“We should take a hot bath.” She whispered as she moved her mouth along my neck. Her breath was warm and intoxicating. She drew a bath in a tiled tub that was built into the floor, and easily large enough for the two of us. The Japanese attitude toward bathing is more generous than that of the average American bathtub—so small that no adult is comfortable in any position. Into the water she put something that bubbled with a pleasing and soothing fragrance. We disrobed and eased into the hot water.
I was engulfed with passion as I looked into Komiko’s calm, almond eyes. Her skin was flawless, soft, and fresh. She was a few pounds overweight, slightly round but not at all disproportionate, and her rich, dark hair was cut short along her shoulders. I wanted to tease her, to touch her, to taste her, to enter her. She touched me, and kissed my mouth and body. We did not constrain ourselves as we entwined and became one.
I would spend nearly all my free time with Komiko while in Sasebo. We took the train to Nagasaki for a day, she showed me corners of Sasebo, we dined, we talked, we bathed, we made love, and we slept. The brief time passed swiftly and it was time to ship out. I cannot tell you how difficult that moment was. Komiko went with me to the Coral Sea, and after one short, dismaying look at the huge vessel we said good-bye. I hungered for one last embrace as she walked away, and from a taxi window she glanced back, then disappeared.
Emmett Diamond once wrote, “Who can explain this magic when two perfect strangers meet; such as when you see two dark eyes from perhaps across a street. And, you know the soul behind them, though you cannot tell how you know, or how you were separated thousands of years ago. Then, a look of recognition comes into those other eyes. First there is a glance of puzzled wonder, and then a smile of glad surprise. You both approach and shyly touch, and the circle is complete. Who can explain this magic, when two perfect strangers meet?”
Our return journey across the Pacific Ocean took over three weeks. We were on stand-down and I had a lot of time to contemplate my past and future. I often thought of Komiko, and wrote letters with small drawings for her. It all seemed so obscure as I stood on the aft sponson and watched the red sun set on the distant horizon. I would mail only a couple of those letters. We would soon be in California and my discharge from service was near. Perhaps I would go to L.A. and snoop around for Pappy. I had so much that I could tell him. I was experienced, a veteran of a foreign war, a veteran of a fleeting romance, a seaman come home who had sailed the salty seas, and sniffed the salty breeze, and I’d even kissed the briny sweet lips of a mermaid. I was eager to share my enlightenments, less eager to share my disappointments.
The Coral Sea steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge. We had returned from our great magnanimous mission – warfare. Ground support for our troops, and offensive sorties. We had dropped tens of thousands of pounds of ordinance onto our enemies: soldiers, farmers, mothers, fathers, children, animals, plants, insects, and any organism that frightened or threatened us. During our ostentatious effort to halt the spread Communism this country would return with over fifty thousand body bags beneath the flag – Brian was one of them – and thousands of confused, emotionally damaged, and physically challenged veterans – and drugs. This is the war that the United States of America lost, and the soldiers and sailors who fought it have never truly been forgiven. “San Francisco’s Own” returned to the States, and there were no carnations, no banners, no fanfares, and no celebrity status. Families and loved ones of the living waited at the pier. I walked down the after brow quietly, alone, and glad to be home.
I was mustered out of service at Miramar Naval Air Base. Four remarkable years of my life were abruptly over. I had seen the Far East, and people and cultures that were of considerable contrast to our way of life in this great country, and the bottom line is that we are all of the family of man. A mother will love and nourish her children in any language, and the words are all the same. A father will exhibit pride in his sons with actions and words that transcend any ethnicity, culture, or civilization past or present. Pompous generals will lead unsuspecting, naive lads into battle with timeless commands, equivalent in any tongue. Charge! shouted the ancients, and Taps was played. And, sailors will yearn for mermaids until the last ship docks.
I was unsure what to do with my life. Looking back, I often wish that I had had the forethought to have enlisted in the Coast Guard, and have remained close to the sea. Or, perhaps, have returned to Sasebo. Hindsight is a phantom that perpetually haunts dreamers however, and, as I grow older, my list of what I should have done greatly surpasses that of what I hope to accomplish. I do understand that quantity is not quality, and that peace of mind is priceless, and simple, and viable. I was young then, and providence teased me with a re-introductory position (for returning Viet Nam vets) with the Federal Government in Boulder, Colorado. I was offered a temporary appointment as a personnel clerk. The mountains sounded fresh and inviting. I put thoughts of searching for Pappy on hold, and accepted the position.
I moved inland to the mountains, away from the saline fluid of origin. The Earth is our great Mother, and we should honor her. Pappy was in Florida. After his time in Hollywood, his second failed marriage, and his ongoing, swashbuckling, neurotic battle with Buck Star, perhaps he had reached for the succor of his mother. Mum Mum was living in St. Petersburg. He married again, and his wife had two daughters of which I am aware. I know little of these people, and it would serve no significant purpose to mentions names. I do know now that the two girls realized a genuine and moving love for Pappy. I suspect that their mother did so as well. Pappy had, in effect, become a father again, and I conjecture that, “…this fact …built …strength in Fought…” As he stood in the hot sunshine, beneath swaying palms along the coast, and pondered his imminent life, he would find need for strength.
“…the evil spirit, the designer of procrastination and decay of Fought…”, the apparition of his struggle to find harmony between what was expected of him, and of what he so deeply dreamed of doing, emerged once again. He would find a variety of jobs in creative venues. He worked in a sign shop, built large floats for parades, and would piece together a compilation of odd jobs that would scarcely get him by. Like Doctor Frankenstein, in “…the end I created a monster. And, like the movies, he never was really destroyed… But he would get by. Star cannot win – because Fought is a greater man – conceived in a woman’s womb out of lust and passion – not out of emotional, neurotic need…” His mother loved him. His wife loved him. His stepdaughters loved him. And although the gap was wide and undefined, Trevor and I loved him.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Boulder was – by one who had apparently not bummed a buck in the Haite – called the “hippie capital of the world.” It did qualify; I can testify to that. There were hippies everywhere. Hair was long and the freak flags flew wild and free! Fertile rock and roll rumbled throughout the foothills, singing the lyrics of movement, revolution, and anti-war. There were tie-dyes, buckskins, headbands, Volkswagens, festivals, psychedelic shops, and free love intermingling with the university, the federal facilities, and “The Establishment.”
Brother James had moved to Boulder with me and we rented a small house. He had been out of the Navy for over a year, and had grown his hair and beard. I started my new job and quit cutting my hair. I was energized by the activity, and longed to play music and write songs. The military structure was gone from my life and I wanted to break free, let my freak flag fly! But, the banner of freedom flew above more than the youthful and optimistic call for social responsibility. To Yin there is Yang, to hot there is cold, to strong there is weak, to happy there is sad, and to the bright side there is a dark side, and it had filtered into the movement. It had come out of the closet. It had returned from Viet Nam. On “the hill” in Boulder one could purchase any kind of drug that was popular, acid, ludes, smack, weed, or speed. What was going up was in jeopardy of crashing down.
My job was going well. I had befriended my fellow employees, and had settled comfortably into a routine. My hair grew. I got some gigs playing and singing in local spots. The U.S began to pull out of Viet Nam, and the upheaval dissipated. Protests became disorganized and lost their momentum. James and I started to experiment with substances. We found ourselves working for the weekend.
Brother James and I were adrift in the same boat. Suddenly we were completely on our own, no family, no Navy, and no guidance. We had no specific goals, and no forward motion. We would go to work, come home, watch some television, read, and sleep. The weekend was time for merrymaking.
There was a hippie tavern seventeen miles into the mountains that we began to frequent. I had purchased a VW Bus, in which we would maneuver the curves and inclines up Boulder Canyon Road, smoking pot, maybe take a lude, and would turn the radio up loud and laugh anxious, anesthetized chortles about the withdrawn hand of fate in our lives. The tavern resembled an old western saloon, made of logs and rustically unfinished within. Out front was a facade, with a boardwalk and balcony, and two hitchin’ posts. I actually did see a horse and saddle hitched there one afternoon. This place could well have been the El Dorado saloon in Lordsburg – Stagecoach – and so confirmed by the fact that I was sure that I saw the reflection of Luke Plummer in the window as I walked along the wooden porch, listening to the sound of my boots.
Rock music was live and jamming across the dance floor. With our hair past our shoulders, and with full beards, Brother James and I would step up to the old wooden bar, rest one foot on the rail, and order a whiskey and a beer from the bartender with the enormous mustache. Everyone in the place could have been in the El Dorado at one time. I would glance around, looking for the Ringo Kid, but he was not there. I did catch a glimpse or two of Buck Star twirling a young lady across the floorboards from time to time, I was certain, but the place was busy and my mind was crowded.
James and I would imbibe, dance, socialize, flirt, step outside to burn one, dance some more, take something to pick us up, flirt, and dance some more. These nights were invigorating, and hedonistic. Occasionally one of us would capture the affections of a mountain gal and the other would have to drive home alone, or she would dare to traverse the mountain road back to town with us. I met Lynnette.
Lynnette was tall, and thin, with waist long, dark blond hair. She was not beautiful, nor homely, simply generic. She was a hippie chick that would dance my ass off, and I would love it. But, Lynnette was dangerous. We would spend time together, but it was unhealthy, detrimental time. Lynnette used methamphetamines. She was dark and lonely, and when she smiled it was more the despondent recognition of her destiny in the gloomy ether just beyond help. I seemed codependently attracted to her, and wanted to hold her in my strong arms. But I was being drawn in to the great dark void that was gradually sucking my strength. I began to use speed. Although I never slipped so low that I subjected myself to any intravenous jeopardy, and to my knowledge neither did she, I did carry a vile of meth with me and would snort it periodically throughout the day. Lynnette and I would explore shadows together. We would lay along side each other after many poor performances in bed, looking up at the cobwebs dangling ineffectually from the corners of the room. We spoke to each other without words, sometimes with tears, sometimes with silence, but it was as strong a communication as will ever be heard from any pulpit.
Winter came quietly to the mountains. Boulder is a veritable wonderland after a fresh blanket of snow. The shops, restaurants, and residents progressively gear up for the holiday season. Cornucopias, Turkeys, and Pilgrims usher in the season with feasts, family and fellowship, then relinquish to the always-magical days of Christmastime. Wood smoke billows from chimneys and fills the olfactory while lights are strung everywhere, and twinkle through the snow creating a fairyland that penetrates the hearts of even the most disagreeable Grinchs, Curmudgeons, and Scrooges. You see, they are equally as thrilled about Christmastime, as it peaks their pessimistic responses, and releases them from mediocrity. And when the holiday church bells ring through the snowy Sunday mornings in a small mountain community, one cannot completely disregard the advent of a new testament.
I saw a tinge of light in Lynnette’s eyes during this time, as though she could almost remember something from a long time past. She perked up, rather organically, and wanted to shop – but not with me. She would rummage secretly through her back pages and try to discover passages into her future. I was excluded from her Christmas experience. But, I was growing weary from the dim days and black nights. I had lost nearly thirty-five pounds, and Brother James had expressed concern. Although I hadn’t missed or been tardy, they became apprehensive at work also. I was a good employee, however, and nothing was ever said. But, I was tired. Nothing had to be said. In the magnificence of the Boulder Christmas I was lonely, as Lynnette went her way, and I struggled to replace the methamphetamines with something happy.
I persuaded James to go to church a few times during these holidays. I think that he attended to appease me, and assure me that I was not alone. He never liked church, not even during the major celebrations. Brother James was not a religious man. Religion was an anathema to him that represented the recurring atrocities of mankind, justified and forgiven by a repetitious Hail Mary or two. It was cut and dry. He expected either more from God, or nothing from God. On the other hand, I try daily to find valid communion with the God Head, believing in the Existence while reprimanding myself for my errors and weaknesses, and cherishing the rare moments of Grace. For Brother James God was mythical. For me, God is living, and the incessant quest to define His presence is mythical.
Church helped. It at least added to the essence of the Christmas observance. I soon caught up with the festivities of the season, and did some shopping, a lot of window-shopping, a few snow Angles, caught a lot of snowflakes on my tongue, and built a snowman. Brother James and I purchased the largest tree that we could possibly fit into our house, and decorated it with every imaginable nick-knack that we could beg, borrow, or appropriate. And so Brother James and I were brothers, and Christmas passed.
By New Years Eve I was feeling better. I had strived to distance myself from the desire for meth, resorting to some mollies from time to time, which were as much high doses of caffeine as anything else. I had not been so abusive as to become any more than psychologically attracted, and that attraction was as much codependent on Lynnette as it was the use of the drug. James and I decided to go up the mountain to our hangout and celebrate the New Year. I was somewhat alarmed that I might encounter Lynnette there, but I was also ready release some tension. Brother James was ready as well, and with a toothy grin through his thick beard he said,
“Damn, Mark, let’s blow it out!”
Damn right. Let’s take it to the limit, I silently concurred.
The snow was falling and the temperature was dropping. It got dark early, as we shared a couple of dubes, and ate a soaper, and started flying. I started up the VW bus, we donned some warm apparel – it took a thousand miles for that old bus to generate any heat, about as far as Phoenix where it was 95 degrees – and Brother James and I headed up Boulder Canyon Road. We were going to roust out fate from hibernation and tempt lady luck to play a few cards as the old year conceded.
The snow was thick, and somewhat icy as it clung to the windshield. The defroster blew only a wimpy dash of cold air, and was of no help at all in deicing. But, it didn’t matter, we had the Rolling Stones cranked up, and the windows rolled down. As I drove the switchbacks and inclines of the snowy road, Brother James leaned out the window with a long ice scraper and cleared the windshield. “And it’s all right now, Jumping Jack Flash, in fact it’s a gas!” Our long hair was blowing around wildly, there was frost in our beards, and James and I were impervious!
We stomped the snow off our boots and entered the crowded tavern. The band was cooking loud and hot, and the dance floor was packed. After jostling our way through the crowd to the bar, we planted one leg on the foot rail and ordered up. I downed a Maker’s Mark, and chased it with a beer. James chose a Jack Black and a Bud. My nervous system snapped like a whip and sent shivers down my backbone, and I ordered up two more. I was ready to dance!
My enthusiastic jiggling attracted an anonymous hippie chick that took my hand without a word and pulled me onto the dance floor. When it’s time to dance in a crowded and rowdy saloon words are useless. It is understood. I was movin’ and groovin’, and working up a fine sweat, often totally loosing track of my nebulous partner, and then I saw her. With her eyes rolled back in complete abandonment, Lynnette was dancing some guy’s ass off. I maneuvered in close, touched her to get her attention, and said,
I don’t know if she could hear me, but she saw me. She looked shocked, as if I were the ghost of New Year’s past, or present, or future – hard to tell. Without hesitation she disappeared through the crowd, with her beau in tow, out the door into her cold, icy darkness. I wondered if Lynnette ever allowed a New Year into her life. But, I was cuttin’ the rug, and quite frankly, I didn’t give a damn. I relocated my partner, in full boogie mode, and still anonymous as her long, thick curls slapped across her face revealing her expression intermittently, and a fun and happy smile.
Midnight arrived. The band played a rendition of Auld Lang Syne that was reminiscent of Jimmy Hendrix’s translation of Stared Spangled Banner. Brother James had met a sweetie and they had been paying attention to each other throughout the night. With a long and immodest kiss they welcomed the New Year. I kissed my partners happy lips for luck, never seeing her eyes. Twelve piercing chords rang out from the guitar picker’s vintage Telecaster, and the driving tunes started up again. James and his lady friend left the tavern for nearly an hour. I suspect that they went in search of fireworks. I kept dancing. Brother James and I stayed until they swept us out, well after two a.m. We had blown it out. We were drunk, high, wet with sweat, overindulged, and in great spirits. We neither one could remember the long and winding, icy trek down the mountain, and to this day I am amazed that we survived it. But the bright sun reflecting off the New Year snow woke us the next day, and we cooked up a pot of black-eyed peas, cornbread, and baked cabbage for good luck, and to absorb some of the excess from the night before. Old acquaintance was forgotten.
To be continued…