Dodging Death

After football practice a week before our family was scheduled to return to the states in October 1956, our eight-person carryall broke down a few miles from Yokohama. The engine flooded and the smell of gasoline made me nauseated. I had to get outside and breathe fresh air. Our Japanese driver called the Navy base for a replacement and said, “New van arrive forty-five minute.”

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Having been YoHi football team’s quarterback for two years,  every teammate formed a habit of following my directions. While standing outside the vehicle after looking around, I leaned in and said, “Come outside now."

They scrambled out, books in their athletic bags, and looked in the direction I pointed, “See those tracks running around that hill? If we follow them, they’ll lead to a train station. We can catch one to Yokosuka and walk to the Naval Station almost an hour sooner than if we wait for another van.”

“Sounds good,” said Tex, a tough first-team tackle.

Everyone nodded in agreement.

I told the driver, “We go to find nearest train; Diajobu des ne? OK”

“Abunaio! Be careful. Kiotsketi kudasai. Take it easy, please,” the driver said looking at me with  mouth open and wrinkled brow.

Seven athletes between the ages of fifteen and seventeen followed my lead. We scrambled over rough brush, and found a pathway up the slope. After ten minutes we reached the two sets of tracks. As we rounded the hill, a narrow tunnel appeared that resembled a black hole.

Tex said, “This looks dangerous. These trains race through the tunnel with little room for us.”

“Don’t worry. If a train comes on one track we can jump to the other,” I said.

Our fullback, Ron, said, “Yeah that’s right.”

Two others nodded in agreement and the rest followed.

Running toward the tunnel, the setting red sun sent a glow behind us. The inside of the tunnel was barely visible.

After racing  into the tunnel, everyone followed at my heels. We had a foot of clearance on each wall in the dark cavity, and two feet between the tracks. Dank darkness quickly enshrouded us. It seemed we had fallen into a black soup as I slowed to avoid stumbling on the wooden planks now in utter blackness.

When we had advanced a third of the way, I sensed danger.  A swift-moving train whizzed around the corner at us. A water droplet fell from the moldy ceiling into my eyes. After  brushing it away, the flying mass of steel zoomed toward us. A looming light grew rapidly larger and a roaring rattling rumble followed.  “Jump right!”I shouted. The blast of the train drowned out my voice. The train’s light revealed seven moving forms.

The steel thunderbolt's warning bell changed from a high-pitched sound to a descending tone DING DING DINg DINg DIng Ding ding ding din din as it passed us with a  deafening clattering clamor at over ninety miles per hour.

Another booming train streaked at us on the opposing track! A horn howled and screamed as it approached. Its warning bell grew louder ding ding, Ding Ding DIng DIng DINg DINg DING DING! Both trains doubled the blaring racket. My heart pounded; my breath heaved; I almost panicked. Fear of death grabbed me around the throat, and stabbed my heart. A heavy weight choked me. A voice within told me I never should have urged my friends to enter the tunnel. Racing on the right track careful not to trip, the hurtling train from behind had nearly reached us. Finally, the first train passed with a WHOOSH.

“Jump left!”I screamed.

Could they hear me?! The new train increased its explosive reverberation. It’s rotating light fluttered over our leaping forms. The unexpected steel blur jolted past at blazing speed and threw a forceful blast of hot muggy air at us.  Expecting the worst,  I gazed back as all jumped in time to avoid disaster. The cars bumped and clattered as the steel wheels clickity-clacked and the wind rushed by our sweating faces.

Breathing an enormous sigh of relief, I grasped our good fortune. We had dodged death. Tomorrow's  headlines flashed in my brain: “Eight YoHi Football Players Killed by Trains in Tunnel.” How could anyone tell the parents of these strong young men how this tragedy had happened? How could they explain that these once happy football players on their way home from practice in a normal daily routine somehow decided to take such a foolhardy chance of entering a train tunnel in Japan? Having led them into a very real death threat, my mind created a scene of bloody carnage, and the screams of my friends. The terror of my body smashed and shredded against the powerful hot steel, and the following silence played like a newsreel in my imagination.

We raced toward the sliver of light signaling the other entrance of the tunnel. In a mad dash for the growing light towards safety and life, panting, sweating, I emerged and faced my friends.

Tex and a few others stumbled out after me, exhaustion all over their faces. Sweat ran down their foreheads into their eyes and cheeks. They gasped for breath and stumbled toward me.

Tex rushed up to me with fire in his eyes, “Jesus! What the fuck! Lavery, you almost got us killed!”

Ron said, “Holy Shit! How did we make it?”

“I’m so sorry!” I uttered with fear written all over my face. “I never should have led you guys into that tunnel!” We walked towards the station a few blocks or so away, and huddled together glad to still have a life. “Hey guys. Please don’t tell anyone about this. Our parents won’t understand.”

Tex and the others gradually agreed. We all shook on it.

On the train back, I closed my eyes, “Dear God. Thank you for protecting me and my friends from death.” The tunnel  train dodging jumps affected me deeply as it made me consider death and made me appreciate life’s gifts we seem to take for granted. With my one life left after my extreme luck, it made me consider how I might dedicate my future to serve humanity. Maybe I could become a minister in college and help others lead productive lives. Coming close to death not once, but twice in seconds,  made me feel I must live more wisely. My thoughtless actions nearly killed eight young men. Having acted as if I could risk my life and the lives of others, the experience awakened a new feeling of responsibility.

That moment of awareness heightened my senses. Out the window streaks of red and purple glinted off clouds from the sunset's ending. The automatic train doors banged and the clatter of passengers settled into their creaking seats. The high-pitch of the announcer’s voice on the station microphone pierced through the rattling of the train picking up speed as we departed. The woman in front of me had a distinct aromatic perfume wafting jasmine, which made me think of my home in Miami, Florida where it thrives. My hands felt the red satin seat cover’s smooth texture. I clasped my hands together, sensed the warmth of each finger intertwined, and listened to my heartbeat in a heightened consciousness. Time seemed to slow to a standstill when I listened to my breathing. I was so glad we are all alive!

I remembered the words of my earth angel, my grandmother Ruthie. Having noticed me rushing around as a teenager confused and full of anxiety, she said, “Slow down, Danny. Smell the roses, search for harmony in nature. Life is precious.” Finally, I understood her words.

My final departing memory of this extraordinary adventure took me back close to Yohi. I looked back over the bustling city of Yokohama from our airplane headed for Hawaii. Beyond the rooftops and above the rolling hills in the distance, I caught a final glimpse of magnificent Fujiyama.

She majestically pierced the sky rising above all contenders for a goodbye view. I recalled the cold and grueling trek ascending her rugged craggy winding cliffs and the splendid colorful and luminescent sunrise. The red-orange disc gradually dropped in the west sending golden beams rippling on the water in a spontaneous ever-changing pattern depending on the wind, currents, and a ship’s wake. I whispered sayonara to Japan that had helped   me develop my mind and body, awakened me to nature, race, divergent beliefs about divinity, and my inner struggle to mature.

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Ruthie’s Lesson

Grampa found a large property he bought in North Miami he called “the ranch.” Mom took me there when I was eight and pleaded to take my new BB gun to use on a visit. I took target practice on mangrove and palm trees, rocks, and fences as I wandered around a few acres of undeveloped land with many trees, shrubs, and swampy areas, and imagined my adventure took me through a jungle. Something blue covering the ground under some white mangrove trees moved near a saltwater swamp. As I approached, parts of the blue carpet were Blue Land crabs that congregated there in the thousands.  They frightened me with their large claw that looked dangerous, scurried around more quickly than I imagined, and resembled large spiders.                                Bigger than tarantulas, they had an outer covering that appeared a kind of armor. They scattered together in groups when I ran at them and resembled tanks moving in unison to one side or the other. Mom had taken me to see war movies about our Army fighting with rifles in World War II that made me march around the dinner table singing military songs with my toy gun on my shoulder pretending to be a soldier while Mom and Ruthie cheered me on.  In the wild foliage with my BB gun as if in battle, I ran after the moving targets, the enemy crabs. They retreated and lifted their claws in hopeless defense. They scuttled under trees in a moist boggy area that reeked with an odd smell like that of dank garbage.  Determined to win the battle, I pursued my fleeing enemy.  Shooting ahead of the direction they scooted, I killed at least twenty scampering creatures. Stalking them around trees and shrubs in the heat of the day, my face became sweaty and the putrid odor emanating from the wet marsh nauseated me. As I backtracked in an easterly direction, a lively chirping sound greeted me. The source came from a partially hidden silhouette of a small bird sitting on a branch in the shade.  Silently slithering past a thick stand of hardwood trees about twenty feet away, fearing it would fly away soon, I took care not to frighten it and held my breath. With my rifle butt against my right shoulder and the barrel pointing at my singing target, I took careful aim and my index finger squeezed the trigger slowly when part of the bird appeared in my sights. POW! Silently my prey fell to the ground from a direct hit ending the warbling. I ran up to see the result of my spectacular shot. His colors slowly displayed themselves when I lifted his limp body in my hand and held him in sunlight to illuminate my victim.                                                 He had a deep blue head, a blotch of bright yellow on his back that turned green on the wings followed by a patch of black. His chest was red. An orange circle wound around his black eyes and his beak was a white-gray. None of these brilliant colors was visible from the distance where I first spotted the singing beauty. My shot had killed the most colorful and melodious bird I had ever observed. Tears rolled from my eyes and I began sobbing uncontrollably for I had killed one of nature’s most splendid creations. How could I have ended such a bird’s life? A guilty feeling came over me for this merciless deed. Heartbroken, crying and holding a limp trophy in my hands, I stumbled in oblivion toward home. “What’s wrong dear?" said Ruthie as tears rolled down my cheeks. She hugged me to try to console me. “I just killed this helpless bird with my BB gun.” “Why that’s a painted bunting. I can see you are sad for ending its life. We must never kill anything nature created unless it is truly harming someone. That bird contributed his beauty and singing to our backyard. All living creatures have a place in nature we should respect.” “I feel bad I killed it.” “I know you do. Come, let’s bury the beauty.” We dug a hole in the moist ground close by, placed his body in, and covered it with dirt. Ruthie put a tiny wooden cross on the spot from twigs to remember him. “At first I used my BB gun just to take target practice, but then shot some blue crabs in the back pretending they were my enemy.” The expression on Ruthie’s face changed into a frown . She pulled out a book from her library, thumbed to an article and said,“You killed quite an interesting specimen.The Blue Land Crab delivers its babies in salt water as larva who become baby crabs in forty-two days. Eating mostly vegetation and leaves of red and white mangroves, and the buttonwood tree, these crabs scavenge for anything edible travelling great distances searching for food and salt water.  They determine direction using vibrations, landmarks, prevailing winds, and light during the day, and  the brightest part of the horizon at night. They make burrows deep enough to reach salt water about six feet where they live separately except for the young and mate on the full moon. Females carry their eggs on their skin for two weeks before depositing them in salt water. This species can’t live more than two days in the sun. Aren’t they amazing?” “I’m sorry I killed them.” “You should feel bad about acting cruel to helpless living beings. Now look out the front window and tell me what you see between the rose bushes.” “A giant spider in a huge web. It looks scary.” “Use this paper, sit at the table, and sketch the Golden Garden Spider’s web.”                                                             After drawing for a few minutes,  I realized my fear of spiders might have made me kill another marvelous creature if Ruthie hadn’t  caught my attention.  The huge gossamer web wound in different directions, shimmered when the sunlight reflected off it, bounced around in the wind, and caused me to admire the fascinating insect. When a fly hit one of the strands, the spider shot from her resting spot,and wrapped the prey into a ball for a meal later. She even oscillated the web with her large legs that made it  move and reflect the sun on strands that were invisible before.  It made meticulous movements  to create a dense zig-zag of silk to hide behind, or jump from if in fear of an attack by a bird. Spending three hours depicting the colorful spider and its intricate web made me truly admire an insect I first passionately feared.  Ruthie saw the care I took drawing the complex strands and patterns the large spider had woven. “You have captured that Golden Garden Spider’s magnificent web. Let’s frame your drawing so we can appreciate what you drew. Now you won’t ever kill something man could not create.”  

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Barkley

Wet brown Lab shakes and shimmers in the sun

Leaping from pool water streaks from brown blur

Teeth clutching red ball he lands on stone deck.

Rippling muscles over sleek fur jostle spraying water

Strutting chest out wagging raised happy tail

Brown eyes sparkle leaving paw tracks when he runs.

“Release! Drop!” We implore for another toss.

When set to retrieve he opens his jaw

Panting, and whining, urging us to throw.

We grasp and whirl curled rope of cherry sphere.

He dashes, leaps, and hurtles legs spread,

Crashes the surface his teeth on its mark:

An obsessive wild dance with reckless abandon.

His moist broad head fur glistens like a Grizzly’s.

He pursues the target into a rosemary hedge.

Returns wafting a spicy aroma and

His intense glare demands, “Throw it again.”

He hears a siren and coyote-howls to the sky.

Tame, adorable, tenacious, and instinctive.

     

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Barkley)

   

Barkley

                                                                                                              Barkley with Dan

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Coach Bux

Coach Bux
Yokohama High School varsity football players wondered what kind of a coach we would have for our 1955 season. At the end of all classes, during the first day of school, an announcement over the loudspeaker informed all prospective football players to go to the gym to meet our new coach. More than one hundred high school athletes from all four grades gathered for the introduction. A husky muscular man with a square jaw and tanned face entered the gym. He had on a red baseball cap, stood not more than 5’ 7,” and weighed about two hundred pounds. He walked briskly to the stage microphone in his red sneakers. Many burns, scars, and graft marks covered his thick hands and large powerful arms. In a loud Texas drawl, he said at a deliberate and easy pace, “I feel…. like we have some young men here, who want to play FOOTBALL!” The word “football” reverberated off the gymnasium walls with tremendous volume. His instant charisma evoked a roar from the crowd of young men before our new leader. We showed him how much we wanted to start practice. He looked calm, confident, and knowledgeable. I could hardly wait to have him coach our team. “My name is Jerome Buxkemper. I will coach you men how to play winning football starting today!” We responded with another loud roar of approval. “Men, I want to tell you something about myself. You see my arms and legs have many ugly scars from a horrible accident I suffered before coming here. I lost my wife in a car accident with a gasoline truck in Texas. By the grace of God, I survived after many skin grafts. Close friends suggested I start a new life away from this terrible memory and try to fulfill the dreams of other athletes by coaching. When I learned you needed a coach, I came to help make you the best football players, and young men, ever to wear the uniform of the Yokohama High School Red Devils.” A long emotional standing ovation followed. “Our manager has practice uniforms, helmets, shoes, and socks organized by size. Form a line to enter the locker room, select your equipment, and place your school clothes in your assigned locker. Meet me on the football practice field in thirty minutes.” I put my uniform, shoulder and hip pads on, and my helmet with white mask designed to protect my mouth full of braces, and ran to the practice field. On an extremely hot and humid day, Coach “Bux” directed the greatest football practice I had ever experienced. He gave us spirited calisthenics, stretching and laps around the inside of a wire-fenced field, while we yelled out unified cadence. Baffled Japanese passing by on the sidewalks gathered outside watching with interest. Bux’s assistant coach, Mr. Swanson, helped during the practice. He was a tall and muscular blond Algebra teacher. Bux sent him a hundred yards away for our next drill. Coach told us to choose someone our own size. “When I blow my whistle pick up your partner and carry him over your right shoulder to where Mr. Swanson stands. Run as fast as you can. Set your partner down on that line. Your partner will put you on his right shoulder and run back on the next whistle.” As he blew a high-pitched screech from his whistle, fifty players grabbed their partners and carried them as fast as they could across the field to Mr. Swanson. Each one set his partner down. The partner repeated the procedure until everyone had completed one strenuous run not only with a partner, but also weighed down with thirty pounds of equipment! Some players had great difficulty running with any speed carrying such weight. Bux advised, “If you want to win football games, you must train your body with exercises that will get you into shape for football—the toughest sport in high school. Does anybody on this team want to win football games?” We all responded with a rousing unified, “Yes, sir.” “Alright men. Now pick up your partner on the whistle again.” Another screech sounded and fifty more players lumbered across the field like a herd of armored warriors carrying a wounded comrade to safety and carefully laying him down. Suddenly the roles reversed and the partner returned to the start with the same burden. This drill totally exhausted me and everybody else except our captain Tom Hemingway. Tom stood 5’ 11”, and weighed two hundred pounds of muscle, sinew, and bone. He worked out on weights and had a powerful body. His neck and calf muscles looked as wide and strong as tree trunks. Tom lifted Jerry Cohen as if he were a blanket, even though Jerry weighed one hundred and eighty pounds and stood 6’ 1,” and raced to coach Swanson before anyone else arrived. He gently set Jerry down. Jerry struggled mightily to lift Tom and keep him on his shoulders. Eventually he finished the drill straining, sweating, and grunting. Tom helped at the end by rolling off and landing on his feet. Bux showed us his tackling drill that began by starting two lines of runners and tacklers of facing each other ten yards apart. Coach threw the football to the first runner. The ball carrier cradling it under one arm, charged at the tackler. The tackler wrapped his arms around the legs of the rushing runner and squeezed them together while driving his shoulder into the runner’s waist with head up. Bux showed us how the drill worked by calling Tom who demonstrated on Jerry. Bux threw the ball to Jerry. Tom lowered his shoulder, churned his powerful legs, and hit Jerry with a tremendous THWAAAK! He lifted Jerry and crunched him into the ground. “OK men. That’s the way to do it. Mr. Swanson will take half of you with him and the others stay here to complete the drill five times with your same partners.” Bux called us over to the football field marked with lye every five yards from goal to goal. He pointed down at the field, “Look at the distance of four yards on this football field.” He demonstrated this short space by walking from one five-yard marker with the football in his hand to a spot one yard from the next marker. “That is a short distance men. If our team makes four yards every time we carry the ball, no team can stop us. We must push their lineman back far enough that our ball carrier can make that small distance on each play. If we do this, we can’t lose a game. We teach our linemen to drive our opponents back from the start of the play, and keep driving them  to make it easier for our ball carriers that run that small distance on every play. Does everybody understand?” We yelled a loud unified, “Yes, sir.” Bux broke us up into line and backfield positions. He practiced us until he selected the first and second team defense and offense.In the next week he commented, “Men I see we have some tough linemen and fast backs on this team. We will get better every day with these drills.” Each day our team did these drills for about two hours for the first two weeks. At the end of that time about half the players stopped coming to practice having realized this game demanded more than they could give. Jerome Buxkemper knew how to get the most out of his players. More importantly, he connected with his players, as a father should to his son, making the relationship one that thrived on powerful emotions. However, we had no idea then, how much his qualities and coaching would affect us positively for our future.
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