Grampa Crim found a much nicer place for us to live in Miami at 333 N.E. 33rd St. two blocks from Biscayne Bay. The two-story green and white cottage had a large front yard and a vacant lot next to it separated by a tall hedge. To the west across a short field of grass was busy Biscayne Boulevard. A large pine tree rose up in the middle of the dark green hedge where Grampa hung a swing. A black mulberry tree stood twenty feet from our house with light green leaves, rough on their upper surfaces and fine short hair-like growth underneath. The gnarly old friend had sturdy twigs with white buds before the fruit appeared. Mom baked delicious mulberry pie that left black-purple stains on our tongues and hands. No one left any on their plate. When I was four I could climb the tree with my sister and brother, Val and Chip, and we picked enough for a few pies. A white pebbled driveway ran next to the tree out to 37th street.
Mom brought our black Cocker Spaniel, Sheba, to our home from Ruthie’s apartment to join us since we had a yard for her to enjoy and we all loved Sheba. When Mom opened the door, Sheba ran to greet us. Her black coat shimmered and her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm as she licked my hand when I hugged her. After Mom took Sheba to mate with a stud registered with the American Kennel Club, Sheba soon carried a belly full of puppies. All of us constructed a whelping pen using four by four wooden planks with newspapers on the floor in the living room.
Late at night Mom shouted, “Hurry, Sheba’s going to deliver a puppy.”We ran downstairs and saw Sheba panting. I wondered how a new puppy would look and how many would come out. When Sheba slowly pushed the first puppy out, she ate the sack enclosing it and lapped the wiggling puppy with a tongue massage.
“Why did Sheba do that?”
“While inside her, each puppy lived more like a fish in the sack’s liquid. Sheba had to bite into the sack to free the puppy and then cleaned it with her tongue. That started the blood flowing so it could breathe.”The male puppy measured four inches, had black hairless skin, and came out with eyes closed. I held him in my hand. He had tiny toenails and his tail stuck up in a cute curl. He squirmed with his paws on Sheba’s teats to suck his mother’s milk. When another puppy arrived Sheba cared for it with the same intensity. We marveled how Sheba performed as a nursing mother for her first litter.We took turns placing the puppies near her bulging teats as they suckled milk. Finally, six puppies nursed on her swollen nipples. Each moved slowly, wiggled its tiny tail and legs to snuggle next to Sheba’s warmth and their next meal. These delicate creatures required gentle handling.
The birth of the puppies fascinated me, “How did Sheba learn to be a mother?”
“All dogs have an inbred instinct that God gave them.”
“Animals are born with knowledge how to act when giving birth. Sheba knew to break open and eat the amniotic sac that surrounded the puppies and clean each puppy with her tongue. Instinct is nature’s way to protect the litter.”
Instinct seemed a mysterious force. It made me respect Sheba and the animal world. Sheba’s care for her puppies and the way Mom cared for her and her brood made me appreciate Mom more than ever. Sheba’s ordeal lasted late into the night. The birth of six puppies stimulated me so much I couldn’t sleep as I listened to the puppies making peeps and sucking sounds.
The next day Mom said, “Would you like to pick one of the puppies for your pet?”
“Yes. I want one now.”
“Wait until you get to know them and find your favorite.”
“I’ll play with them and decide later." We played with the puppies and then I noticed something weird. Sheba ate their poop and then licked them on the behind. “Why does Sheba eat that stuff?”
“That’s how she keeps the puppies and the pen clean; it also helps her build up her milk.” Mom continued to teach me things about life that made me ask her more questions. She seemed to know everything, and took the time to explain life’s mysteries. Mom and I played with the puppies everyday for hours. Each day they seemed to grow a little bigger and cuter. Eventually, I noticed a male puppy that had more energy the others did. He ran faster than the others and had a cute growl. I wanted him. I took him to Mom in the kitchen where she fixed lunch.
“Here’s the one I want."
“He’s adorable. I’m glad you chose him.”
“What should I call him?”
“Maybe you should call him something black like the color of his coat.”
“Pepper is black. I’ll call him Pepper.” Pepper played with me for hours outside where he loved to run on the grass. Mom brought all of them outside for a romp after watching Pepper and me having fun. They chased each other in bursts of energy, tumbled over, and even piled on top of each other. They tried to catch their tails going around in a complete circle that made us all laugh.
After a month Mom said, “We have to sell the puppies soon. People who want to buy puppies need to see them at six weeks old, and buy them to take home later.” She put an ad in the newspaper so people could talk to her about the puppies and set a time to see them.
When the eighth week came, I felt excited we had the opportunity to find a good home for them. We put a colored ribbon around each one to mark the right one for the buyer. No one left without offering to buy one for the twenty-five dollar price Mom set. “You should be happy we found them a good home.”Mom asked questions about where they planned to keep the puppy, and offered advice on how to raise it. She made sure the puppy would go to a family who would love, and treat the puppy properly.
About three months later, I let Pepper out to go to do his business after I fed him. I returned the bowl to the kitchen. Suddenly, I heard a loud screeching sound from the wheels of a car when it slammed its brakes, followed by a “THUD.” Then I heard a loud “YIPE,” and a short moan. I ran outside and saw Pepper limp to the hedge and fall down. I ran to him, lifted him, and his body went limp. Mom ran outside to find me weeping uncontrollably with Pepper in my arms. She ran up to me and we both cried our hearts out. Mom and I could only do so much for a puppy. Pepper had left us forever.
Mom said in sobs, “Pepper is in heaven. God will have a home for him there because he brought us so much joy, loved us, and made us happy.”I ran upstairs to my bed and cried into my pillow. Mom sat next to me and rubbed my back, “When we lose a loved one we should cry the hurt out of us until it’s gone. We’ll go buy a tree to plant in Pepper’s memory at Ruthie and Grampa’s ranch tomorrow.”
I looked up temporarily distracted, “What kind of a tree?”
“We’ll find a pepper tree to plant that will remind you of him every time you visit Ruthie and Grampa.”
I continued to cry and felt sad. Finally, I got up and walked to Mom, “Let’s buy a pepper tree.” Mom and I went to a nursery and purchased a Brazilian pepper tree, known as the Florida Holly. The tree with smooth gray bark had bright green leaves and blood-red, fleshy drupes with a brown pulp. As we carried the tree, the leaves and fruit emitted the smell of turpentine.
Mom and I drove to the ranch in North Miami. Ruthie met us, ran up to me, and gave me a hug, “I’m so sorry Pepper is gone. Because you heart is broken you’ll want to find a spot to remember Pepper.”Ruthie took us to the back yard, “Look at the space between those two lovely flowering trees. There’s plenty of room for a pepper tree to grow.”
“It’s perfect,” I said
Grampa started digging a hole for the tree. When he finished, he placed Pepper’s limp body in the hole followed by the new tree. As I saw Pepper in the ground, tears started falling from my eye knowing I’d never see him again.
Ruthie’s voice interrupted me, “We’ll water Pepper’s tree and nature will make it grow taller than the house. Your red and green tree will remind you of Pepper.”
Grampa poured some fresh dirt around the area to fill in the hole covering Pepper’s body. “Here’s the hose, Danny. Put water into the hole.”
Grampa helped me direct a gentle flow from the hose. The small tree made me imagine one day how it would grow above the house and sway in the wind. We had found a special place to honor my fallen friend.
Sheba’s tail was wagging as she watched me coming toward her. I bent down and gave her a kiss and threw a ball for her. She ran after it, grabbed it in her mouth, wheeled around, and ran back to me. She dropped it at my feet and looked up at me with her red tongue hanging out to the side of her mouth. Her black coat shimmered in the sunshine. Bending down and gently patting her head I said, “Good girl, Sheba.” She looked so happy and joyful; her bright eyes said, “I’m ready to play with you for as long as you want.”
Some professional baseball players from the Washington Senators came to Rock Creek Park Recreation Center and put on a demonstration that forever hooked me on the nation’s favorite pastime. As a fifth grader, I belonged to the Center’s youth program that included tennis courts, softball fields, swimming pool, and gym. Sam Mele, a power-hitting outfielder, discussed hitting in his Washington Senators’ uniform.
Tall, dark-haired, and muscular, Sam quickly became one of my all-time baseball heroes. I had come to the park with about thirty kids to watch the Senators. Sam called each boy to home plate and held on to the bat behind us. He showed each would-be baseball player how to connect with a fast pitch. Sid Hudson, a tall thin pitcher in uniform, stood at the mound ready to pitch.
Time seemed to slow down as I soaked-up every piece of advice Sam gave. He knew how to hit the ball on the sweet spot of the bat at the time the ball crossed the plate. I felt an intense thrill fill me with energy when Sam pointed to me for my turn to hit. Sam came up behind me to hold my bat above where I put my small hands. “Hi son, what’s your name?”
“Danny, hold the bat so the trademark faces the sky above you. Keep your hands together on the bat near the end and I will help you hit the ball the pitcher throws.”
“Watch the ball as Sid lets it go all the way until we hit it.”
Sid prepared to pitch the ball from the rubber at forty-five feet away from the plate at Little League distance. Before this, I had only hit softballs during recess playing work up with fourth graders. Sid let go a fast pitch that zoomed towards me. Sam calmly swung the bat we held together to meet the first pitch exactly on the sweet spot--WHACK! The force we generated drove the ball deep into the outfield. I felt the exciting sensation of hitting the ball myself. The ball sailed off the bat towards a row of tall pine trees blowing in the breeze in left field. A cheer from the crowd praised Sam and me for the mighty blow.
Each time Sid pitched the ball, Sam slightly adjusted our swing to hit at the right time before it crossed the plate. WHACK! The ball immediately flew into the outfield at a different location depending on where he, and I, struck the ball. Sam could drive the ball to any field by the way he adjusted the bat to meet the pitch. “Always hit the baseball where it’s pitched.”
We drove balls pitched outside to right field and balls pitched inside to left field. The closer the ball came to the middle of the plate, Sam modified our swing to smack the white sphere up the middle.“Nice hit Danny,” Sam said when we connected with one together that flew off the bat with a CRACK.
The way Sam calmly talked to me while we hit the ball together, gave me confidence that I could do this even though the pitcher delivered the ball faster than any pitch I had ever seen before. Had Sam not directed my swing, I never would have hit the pitch. Baseball training transported me into a fantastic world of action. It was much more intense than watching others play the game.
Afterwards at a nearby store I bought Fleer’s baseball card bubble gum with ten pictures of baseball players in each pack. Each card displayed the player’s biography and statistics on the back of a picture showing him in action. After buying hundreds of these cards, I put together my favorite team: the Washington Senators in a box with a rubber band around it to take to school to show my friends with Sam Mele’s card on top.
Dad took us to a few of the Senator’s games at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C.(click to expand)On entering the massive steel arena, we fought through the crowd. The aroma of popcorn, peanuts, beer, and cigar smoke was everywhere. The reeking fumes wafted up from the smokers in swirls when a gust of wind moved them. Dad always lit up a cigar for every game and was a fan. A green wall like the “green monster” in left field at Boston’s Fenway Park stood tall down the right field line. Only three hundred and twenty feet from home plate, and thirty feet high, this wall provided many an exciting moments in games when players smacked balls in that direction. I could not tell whether the fielder might catch it, or whether the ball might strike the fence. When a ball hit the wall, it made a unique “THUMP,” like a hammer against wood.
Occasionally, the right fielder would make a spectacular play by catching a ball that bounced off the fence and threw the hitter out at second trying for a double, or preventing a triple by a strong throw to third.
A bullpen in right centerfield held relief pitchers who warmed up on mounds with catchers, while other pitchers sat in chairs. The uncovered area had a fence about six feet high attached to the much taller right and center field walls, and a slight jog of ten feet to straight-away centerfield. Any balls hit into the bullpen were homeruns. The fence in center field was the farthest from home plate at four hundred and twenty one feet. Amazingly, the left field wall was the deepest in Major League history at four hundred and eight feet. A home run there required a tremendous hit as it had to travel over a ten-foot high wall of steel. Every season left fielders ran into that dangerous wall. In one phenomenal game against the New York Yankees, I saw Joe DiMaggio hit three home runs over the left field wall into the pavilion. Mickey Mantle hit a 565 foot home run over the left center field wall many say is the farthest hit ever measured. (click on pictures to enlarge)
Every day at Chevy Chase Elementary School at noon, the boys finished their lunch or took it with them to the playground softball field. The first four to race to their lockers, grab their glove and bat and tag home plate could hit first. The rest took turns at each position in “work up” after a player made an out. When a batter made an out, he went to right field and started working his way back through each position moving first to centerfield, then left, until he moved from third to first base, pitcher, and then to catcher. If a player didn’t make an out, he could bat all lunch hour. When a player caught a fly ball, he changed places with the batter, which encouraged the fielders to run after everything for the chance to hit sooner than working their way up. Workup proved by far the most popular game we played because it allowed all the kids to participate. During the hour, each child learned to play every position and hit the softball. We enjoyed workup so much we talked about the great catches and line drives we had made in the past whenever we had an opportunity, wondering who would do something spectacular next. Our interest in baseball in a city with one of the worst teams in baseball history never faltered.
The Morgan Park Military Academy developed character, demanded military discipline, and molded young men for war. After we moved to Chicago in the fall of 1954 with our home two houses away from MPMA, Dad asked Chip and me, “How would you like to attend the Academy?” He and his brother, Uncle Paul, had graduated from the institution and Dad knew the Commandant, Captain Gray. “The Academy requires discipline, has an honor code, excellent scholastics, and sports. Their tuition is steep, but their reputation will add to your resume when you apply for Annapolis.”
Both of us wanted to visit, see the uniforms, and meet someone who knew its features so we could compare it to Morgan Park High School where our cousins attended. We walked across the extensive athletic fields to the four-story stone ivy-covered building where Dad introduced us to Captain Gray.
He was immaculate in his starched Army uniform with numerous medals and ribbons that decorated and added to his military stature. Advanced mathematics was the subject he drilled students on for years with intensity. His eyes spoke of battles and steel discipline that had regimented his life and complimented granite features: hard, firm, and durable. That frightened me. It made him seem unapproachable. Strutting back and forth in his office with hands clenched behind his back, his chest full, he peered down upon us with wrinkled brow, pompous, and self-important. We exited at the earliest glad to breathe fresh air outside.
A cadet in a grey uniform said in response to a question about the icon, “Be careful when near Captain Gray. He slaps students with a ruler on the back of their hands who doze in class and launches into tirades against any cadet not reading during study hall. Despite his temper, everyone respects him.”
Chip and I both felt an attraction to the academy routine, impressive uniformed cadets, academics, marching band, and sports. We both decided we wanted to follow Dad’s example and advice. Dad scheduled a tailor to measure us for uniforms in an inventory room where we tried on the gray jacket connected by gold buttons and a black belt with burnished brass buckle, gray slacks that had a black stripe down the side, and a cap whose black visor glistened with MPMA gold insignia. When he was finished with us, the graying wrinkled tailor muttered a Germanic, “You can pick up da uniforms in tree days.”
Dad took us to a department store for white shirts, black ties, and black shoes. He led us down to the basement of our three story house one-half block from the Academy for a lesson on how to put an Annapolis “spit-shine” on new shoes. His shoes were dazzling every time he wore them. With a shoeshine kit, old smooth rags, polish, water, and brushes, he placed the index finger on a rag, twisted it tightly, dipped it into a jar of water, and applied it to the shoes by a tedious process. In an hour after making a series of circles with a rag tee-shirt, our shoes looked like glossy mirrors.
MPMA assigned us to different companies in the brigade of cadets. An entering freshman begins as a “plebe:” the lowest status at the Academy. Plebes had to memorize songs, cheers, MPMA history, military trivia, and address upperclassmen as “sir.”
My first day reporting to my company commander, who was well-groomed, and rigid as a statue, he stared at me as I marched toward him, stopped, saluted, and clicked my heels. “Cadet Dan Lavery reporting, sir.”
“Plebe, you’ll report to this company every formation in the last row in alphabetical order with the other plebes. Form up now.”
“Yes, sir.” After an about face I marched to the rear of the platoon, noticed the nametags to determine where to stand, and passed young cadets whose eyes remained staring straight ahead. Plebes like us met with their companies two times a day as commuting cadets for the morning and noon formations. Boarding cadets had an additional formation evening meal. The platoon leader inspected the cadets every morning formation after breakfast and at roll call.
The first week in Military Studies they showed a movie, The Lost Patrol. Twelve British cavalrymen had lost their bearings in an Arabian desert suffering from thirst and scorching heat. An Arab had killed the only commissioned officer leaving a sergeant in charge of eleven men. They wandered until at an oasis they filled their canteens and rested in the shade. The sergeant wanted them to leave after only one day, but they argued, “Why should we leave paradise?” While they slept, Arabs killed their sentry, took their horses, and snipers killed eight more leaving the sergeant, another soldier, and Boris Karlof, who played a religious lunatic.
A friendly airplane discovered them and landed. The pilot was nailed by a sniper as he exited the plane. With glazed eyes, Karlof made a suicidal charge holding a large wooden cross. After the other soldier died, only the sergeant survived who dispatched the remaining Arabs with a machine gun from the airplane. Our Army instructor emphasized how soldiers must prepare diligently for any emergency and not make the foolish mistakes the film displayed: the patrol had no compass, the officer didn’t communicate the plan, and the men acted irresponsibly. In all the war films I had seen our troops had vanquished the enemy. This film made me realize war could easily put me in a helpless situation on the battlefield. Dad advised if we chose the Navy, even in war, we would always have a warm bed, meal, and movie on a ship.
A handsome Army Captain in his pressed officer’s green jacket and khaki uniform taught us English Composition and began with Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage.During a battle 19-year-old Private Henry Fleming survived what he considered a lost cause by escaping into a forest and deserted his battalion. He joined a group of injured men. A “Tattered Soldier” asked, “Where did the enemy wound you?”
Embarrassed that he had no wounds; Henry left the scene. After deciding to run, he joined a part of the army still fighting and felt responsible for saving himself. When he learned his battalion won the battle and had not fought a suicide mission as he had thought, his guilt sprouted like a cactus stabbing him. When he returned to his battalion, a soldier hit him on the head and injured him with the butt of a gun.
The other soldiers believed an enemy bullet had grazed him when Henry returned to camp that restored his confidence. The next morning he went into battle. While looking for water, he learned from the commanding officer his regiment had a snail’s reputation. The officer spoke casually about sacrificing the “mule drivers.” With no regiment to spare, the general ordered his men forward. Henry became an aggressive fighter and flag bearer, finally proving he did have courage.
Our instructor cautioned against finding an easy answer to the theme, “Some military critics contend the book glorified cowardice when desertion merited execution, not praise. Write about cowardice from what this story meant to you.”
Henry impulsively ran for safety in a helpless fight to an inexperienced soldier, but had matured during the later battle when he brawled with the enemy. Fate saved him from execution for cowardice when he risked his life with his new unit.
Crane also wrote an anti-war poem that showed the military supported their heroes and glorified them in rituals. The reaction from a mother when she wept over her son’s corpse showed another view with the ironic title, ‘War is Kind.’” Our Captain said, “Under stress, anyone who acted with cowardice reduced each soldier’s likelihood of survival. The military usually executed anyone who acted that way on the spot.”
The Academy’s Frosh-Soph football team had two tough Army coaches. They made us run around the practice field five times followed by five football field wind sprints. When they saw some players lagging in the hot sun near the end of drills, they shouted, “Come on you lillydippers. Keep moving and don’t slow down.”
After a half hour of tackling drills, they asked us to pick a position. Coach Fedora had three quarterbacks together that I joined. A returning sophomore quickly established himself as our leader. They assigned me halfback on defense and quarterback of the second team. After I tackled a runner, my two front incisors, which stuck straight out beyond my front teeth, cut into my upper lip filling my mouth with blood. The red slimy substance dripped onto my jersey when I wiped my mouth or spit it out for the entire practice.
“An orthodontist will straighten your teeth with braces after the season. Move your face to the side when you tackle a runner,” Dad said.
Our quarterback broke his collarbone on a hard tackle in our first game. Coach Fedora sent me in to replace him on a team dominated by sophomores. Only a guard named John Marcoux and I made the first team as freshmen. Most players towered over me at 5’ 7” and one hundred and thirty pounds; I feared another would replace me.
Coach Fedora explained, “We’ve lost our quarterback and have selected a small freshman who has learned the plays, showed speed, and has an accurate throwing arm. We’ll watch his progress and welcome anyone to challenge him for the position.”
As the new quarterback at a military school that cherished rank, I had to lead older athletes to run plays when the players were new to me. That was a daunting task, since as a plebe all the sophomores were my senior. At the next practice a good-natured Greek lineman known as “Beast,” who stood 6’ 2,” and weighed two hundred and forty pounds, had dark curly hair and a rough beard, tackled me after a play. He lifted me with his burly arms, carried me twenty yards, and dropped me in a heap humiliating me before my teammates. I quickly arose. He celebrated with arms crossed and legs spread laughing. Smiling, I laughed back.
An opportunity came for me to change things next game. After we had fallen behind 14-0, I made up a play. Putting our fastest runner on the far left flank, I told him, “Sprint all out down the sideline. I'll throw you a touchdown pass deep.” My left end raced as fast as he could until he reached a full step behind the defender. I fired a long spiral just over his outstretched hands. He raised his arms, snagged the ball over his right shoulder, and scooted into the end zone. Cheers erupted from our coaches and players releasing pent up anxiety from falling behind a powerful opponent. Both coaches congratulated me when I ran to the sidelines while the team yelled and clapped.
Word soon spread about that game. The next day at breakfast formation, two upper classmen from my company walked up to me. One said, “Lavery, are you the Frosh-Soph quarterback?”
Another said, “Are you the bugler for morning and noon formations?”
Both held out their hands, which meant they “recognized” me. We would address each other on a first name basis after we shook hands. “Throw some more touchdowns Dan,” said one.
Upper classmen rarely shook a plebe’s hands. They showed class making me feel admired by that gesture and that I belonged at MPMA. The military environment encouraged camaraderie. Sports seemed a good way to achieve acceptance.
I loved playing trumpet to music our MPMA band director chose. We played classical and popular music in addition to marching songs by John Phillip Sousa for the varsity football games and performances before the brigade, faculty, and parents. I played third trumpet behind two talented musicians. Our director also played trumpet and joined occasionally in Bach or Hayden quartets. We practiced marching while playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “The Washington Post,” “Semper Fidelis,” and Hands Across the Sea” on the football field. That challenged me while I looked at the music rather than the uneven ground, because my protruding incisors would bleed if I stumbled while playing.
At the St. John’s Military Academy Varsity football game in Chicago, I nearly froze. We marched in five below zero weather with a strong wind-chill factor in a driving snow storm. Despite my woolen uniform, overcoat, and hat, the cold penetrated to my bones. My teeth chattered throughout the three hour ordeal making it difficult to play my trumpet. By putting my mouthpiece in my pocket, I kept it warm until our next song. St John’s skilled quarterback threw perfect spiral passes, ran like a scared jack rabbit, and kicked long spiral punts so accurately, MPMA never had a chance in severe weather. They beat us by five touchdowns in an impressive offensive and defensive display and proved how athletes can overcome any obstacle with determination.
As the football season ended, the Academy held a Homecoming Dad’s day game for both the Varsity and Frosh-Soph teams. The coaches asked each player to invite their father. Since mine captained the USS Whetstone (LSD-27) cruising the Pacific Ocean near Korea, I invited Uncle Paul. He sold insurance in Chicago, had watched me pitch in Little League, graduated from MPMA, and was delighted by the invitation. (Click to make picture zoom)
The coaches had us line up on the sideline in front of the administration, faculty, and parents who stood up and applauded to inspire us against a rival military academy. Near the end of a tie game that day, I threw a jump pass fifty yards in the air for a touchdown in the final minutes that won the game 12-6. Surrounded by approving parents, players, and the coaches, Uncle Paul asked, “Was that you that threw the TD pass?”
“We got lucky when my tallest end caught it.”
Uncle Paul smiled and shook my hand, “Your Dad missed a great game because you and your end won it.” He knew how to make me feel important and appreciated.
At the award ceremonies the coaches asked the players to select captains for next season. They selected John Marcoux and me, making me feel attending MPMA had brought the best out of me. I had found acceptance at a military institution, earned A’s in Spanish I, English, Military, and Music, and B’s in Algebra and History. Sports, the coaches, and now MPMA seemed to replace my need to live near Mom who had always guided, loved, and sustained me. The military mold seemed to fit me well.
In the early summer of 1956, Chip and I joined the Yokosuka Naval Base teenage club to climb the highest mountain in Japan, Mount Fuji. On any clear day we could see Fujiyama ascending into the sky with snow-capped cone from my home in Kamakura and my high school at Yokohama. We wore baseball caps, warm clothing, and basketball shoes with sweat socks and brought a flashlight and canteen. The hike would last all night, in freezing weather until we reached the summit at 12,388 feet.
Our youth director warned us of altitude sickness, which caused headaches, nausea, and dizziness for some climbers. We used a six feet long, hexagonal Fuji stick for assistance during the climb. For a price in yen at each station, you could have a station-stamp branded onto your stick as a sign of your achievement. Each of the ten along the way had resting huts that allowed climbers to pay to sleep, rest, or eat meals. Five or more of these huts existed at the fifth station. A few served complimentary hot green tea from large kettles. Some people took a bus to the fifth, but Chip and I wanted to climb from the bottom to have our Fuji stick prove we had completed the hike from the base. We slept briefly in blankets near a hibachi heated with burning coals at one of the last stations, but awoke before three in the morning on a mission to reach the top first. With sunrise only an hour and a half away, we gathered our gear and moved on as rapidly as we could.
Japanese climbers said gambatte to each other meaning, “Hang in there,” to encourage their group during the climb. The trail steepened after the eighth station, making the hike far more difficult as altitude increased. Before sunrise we reached the red Shinto Torii marking the apex of Fujisan.
We gathered with other climbers to look into the huge crater with a depth of six hundred feet and circumference of 2.2 miles. Rugged rocks and debris covered the bottom of the depression created by years of erosion from wind, rain, snow, and time, and dotted the dips and crags around the slope. Coldness pierced our faces and froze us, as the Japanese countryside spread to the Pacific Ocean. The wind howled and blew torrents at us.
"Goraiko," sunrise, slowly began. The sky brightened about a half hour before the sun emerged from a gray cloudbank surrounding Fuji. Gradually an intense, yellowish-orange radiance spread around the rising sun. The sky displayed a yellowish-orange hue slightly above.
Further up the orange melted into a pinkish-orange. A brilliant scarlet pushed upwards to a scarlet purple beyond. Immediately overhead a deep dark blue tone gave way to a lighter shade. The puffy clouds resembled ducks, dragons, and sheep with their under bellies spray-painted raspberry, and their bodies scarlet-grey. Their wispy legs trailed down disappearing into the dense blue.
The sun majestically emerged sending a streak of light throughout the panorama like splashing clear water on a painting. No wonder my grandmother Ruthie found sunrises the most magnificent of nature’s gifts. Often I have taken my wife and children to view the splendor of dawn’s early light because of her influence.
Chip and I walked the perimeter to find the best spot for our descent. Beginning at the seventh station running on the flexible lava, known as scree, reminded me of playing on a trampoline.
A few other football players joined us as we scrambled, tumbled, and ran down the mountain in record time. We shouted for joy as we bounced up and down on the give and take of the surface, astounded by its elasticity. I tucked my head into my chest, rolled for twenty feet, and tumbled repeatedly until my body rested on the strange surface. Each piece of lava could hurt if you fell awkwardly on it and made me imagine I was on the moon.
We had traversed the volcanic sand slope in two hours! The climb up Fuji had taken us ten hours, which explains why exhaustion struck us so often during the punishing ascent. My eyes gazed back up the immense volcano. I hadn’t conquered that steep magnificent volcano, but had just become acquainted with Fujisan.
Fujiyama’s noble essence
soaring in sky
reflected on rippling lake
Drizzle dimmed sunrise
the twilight shroud
gathering darkness beyond
Drifting from all bearings
traveling its slope
foliage to untamed snowcap