Hi Friends: I will be presenting a story from my memoir, All the Difference, at the Story Salon Wednesday Night September 23 at 7:30 PM 5302 Laural Canyon Drive, Valley Village, along with other outstanding story tellers that I am sure you will enjoy. There is a $5 cover at the door and refreshments are served.See you then!! Dan Lavery
(This is the Story Salon in Valley Village where I presented this true story last night, September 16 along with seven other story tellers to a lively crowd)
I am 16 and the quarterback on a high school football team in Japan
After football practice a week before our family was scheduled to return to America in October 1956, our eight-person carryall broke down a few miles from Yokohama. The engine flooded and the smell of gasoline nauseated me. I had to get outside. Our Japanese driver called the Navy base for a replacement and said, “New van arrive forty-five minute.”
Having been YoHi football team’s quarterback for two years, every teammate formed a habit of following my directions. While standing outside the vehicle and looking around, I leaned in and said, “Come outside now.” They scrambled out. I pointed, “See those tracks running around that hill? If we follow them, they’ll lead to a train station. We can catch one and walk to the Naval Station an hour or sooner than if we wait for a van.”
“Sounds good,” said Tex, a tough first-team tackle.
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“We go to find nearest train, Diajobu des ne?”(OK?) I said to the driver.
“Abunaio!” (Be careful!) “Kiotsketi kudasai.” (Take it easy, please,) the driver said mouth open and wrinkled brow.
Seven athletes aged fifteen to seventeen followed me. We scrambled over rough brush and found a pathway up a slope. In ten minutes we reached two sets of tracks. As we rounded the hill, a narrow tunnel appeared that resembled a black hole.
Night view of railway tunnel
“This looks dangerous,” Tex said. “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.
“Yeah that’s right,” our fullback, Ron, said.
Two others nodded in agreement and the rest followed.
Running toward the tunnel, the setting red sun sent a glow behind me. 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 like we had fallen into a black soup as we 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 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. Both trains doubled the blaring racket. My heart pounded; my breath heaved; I almost panicked. The heavy weight of shock choked me. I never should have urged my friends to enter the tunnel. Racing on the right track careful not to trip, we were nearly clobbered by the hurtling train from behind. Finally, the first train passed us with a WHOOSH.
“Jump left!” I screamed.
Could they hear me? The new train’s explosive reverberation was deafening. Its 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 was ecstatic from our good fortune. We had cheated death. We raced toward the silver light signaling the other entrance of the tunnel. In a mad dash for the growing sunbeams towards 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 with fire in his eyes, “Jesus! What the fuck! Lavery, you almost got us killed!”
“Holy Shit! How did we make it?” Ron said.
“Ah Ah I’m so sorry,” passed emotionally out my mouth with fear written over my face. “I never should have led you guys into that tunnel.” We walked towards the station a few blocks away and huddled. “Hey guys. Please don’t tell anyone about this. Our parents won’t understand,” I said.
Tex and the others gradually agreed. We all shook on it.
On the train back, the tunnel train dodging affected me deeply. It made me appreciate life’s gifts I seemed to have taken for granted. 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. The shock of near death awakened a feeling of responsibility. That moment of awareness heightened my senses. I clasped my hands, felt the warmth of each finger intertwined, and breathed deeply. Time seemed to slow to a standstill so glad we were all alive.
The advice of my grandmother Ruthie, came back. Having noticed me rushing around as a teenager full of anxiety, “Slow down, Danny,” she said, “Find the harmony in nature. Life is precious.”
Every school day at 7:00 AM, Chip and I walked a mile to a small electric train that took us to the city’s main station. We caught a larger train to a city called Sushi passing a huge statue of Buddha’s mother, Maya, in Ofuna, the site of one of the most hideous concentration camps. Enormous crowds of Japanese workers, professionals, and students shoved the person in front until each car was stuffed. From there we walked to a square and boarded a grey Navy bus to Yokohama High School (YoHi) in time to arrive for our first class at 8:15 AM. The one-hour commute covered thirty miles.
On my first trip, I looked around and, for the first time, realized what a member of a racial minority felt like when surrounded by people with backgrounds alien to mine, whose skin and hair color, eyes, foreheads, differed significantly from my features. I studied the faces of the people called “Japs,” in war movies, often depicted as inferior vicious buck-toothed warriors, a “yellow menace,” the allied forces had fought in World War II. Fanatic fascists who would never surrender, President Truman felt compelled to drop two atomic bombs, decimating them like so many insects.
Upon careful inspection, however, each face had a wide variety of unique characteristics. They had long or short noses, relaxed or tightened mouths, and different hair styles. Many wore hats and long, or short dresses, or silk kimonos of all colors, and black school uniforms with white shirts. Others sported three-piece suits with brief cases and wore glasses of every kind imaginable. The males had their hair slicked straight back, wavy, crew cut, or bald. Their skin pigment varied from dark to light, and every shade in between, some were clean-shaven; others had beards or a mustache.
They did not move like the automatons, or simplistic people portrayed in newsreels I had watched. The Japanese stereotypes portrayed in the movies had propagandized and prejudiced me. These people appeared from what was presented to me, as inferior. The Japanese were actually far more complex and distinctive.
When I attempted to communicate in my broken Japanese, they were responsive in either good or broken English, courteous, and welcoming. They seemed delighted when an American boy showed enough interest in their culture to ask a question in elementary Japanese and were as intelligent, industrious, and, often, as athletic as any American. This awareness helped me understand one of life’s greatest lessons: we are all part of one race-the human race. No race, because of any attribute, over which they have no control, stands inferior, or superior, to any other.
Nearby the bronze statue of the Great Buddha majestically rose above stone steps encircled by natural vegetation. A Japanese garden rested behind the immense meditating figure that induced a sense of tranquility from his facial expression, folded hands on his knees, his seated posture, and the ambience of the surroundings. The adjacent Hatchiman Shrine held the Shinto god of war and archery, in an old reddish-orange wood building with a sloping roof.
Located at the top of stone steps on the other side of a park, a long approach formed a tunnel ending at a large vermillion stone entrance with a black lintel known as Torii. For those who follow Shinto, this structure divides the spiritual area within from the profane region beyond. Shaped like two T’s, their trunks straddled the cherry trees, whose white blossoms spread like dancers on branches. Petal blizzards covered the ground like pink dotted snowflakes mixed with shiny green leaves while gangs of squirrels romped, darted, and danced.
Thousands of bystanders watched a traditional spectacle featuring mounted equestrian archers in black shaggy wigs, adorned in hunting costumes of feudal samurai warriors from the Kamakura period (1192-1333). The horsemen shot arrows from quivers slung across their backs as they raced at three targets set up along a straight riding ground eight hundred feet long. The turnip-head arrows made a whistling sound as they flew through the air. The large crowd loudly applauded each time an archer scored a direct hit. They shot, quickly reloaded, pulled out, and launched arrows in a swift coordinated motion. A few hit all three targets that caused a thunderous roar.
I shared first trumpet with a senior for the YoHi orchestra and became first trumpet my sophomore year performing solos that made me contribute my individual ability, as well as meld with the orchestra like a teammate. My instrument was a Martin that had gold plating and fancy carvings and Dad played at MPMA while in high school. Chip and I were in the Jazz band that met weekly during lunch playing Glenn Miller’s “Little Brown Jug, “In the Mood,” “Moonlight Serenade,” and other popular tunes.
Our six feet six inch director, Paul Mayerson arranged for us to collaborate with a Japanese high school’s orchestra on music from both our cultures. We practiced for two weeks in anticipation of the performance. Paul required the males to dress in dark suits, white shirts, and ties. The females wore formal dresses. We all put on our best shoes and made sure they shined. He led us into an auditorium for the performance that buzzed with two languages mixing in a mumbled chatter. We entered in single file down one aisle while our Japanese counterparts marched in an adjacent one in their black school uniforms with white collars. We took every other seat to make room for the Japanese musicians.
I welcomed the Japanese trumpet players on both sides, “Konichi Wa” and they responded, “Good Afternoon.” To my left sat another first trumpeter with a music stand we shared. It seemed to me none of us could converse beyond the simple words we spoke with our language barrier. How could they expect us to read the music, as I hadn’t learned to decipher Japanese calligraphy consisting of Kanji, and Kana? However, our sheet music contained no written language, but only international symbols for notes, emphasis, rhythm, beat, and volume, so a musician from any background could play. Paul had prepared us for another moment of cultural enlightenment.
Gigantic Paul and the diminutive Japanese director, barely five feet in stature, stood before us with raised white batons. My juvenile sense of humor kicked in as I thought they resembled a Great Dane and a Chihuahua at a formal dog show trying to corral a herd of puppies. Total silence ended the idle talk and my smile as our leaders led us for our first piece.
They moved their bodies about with arms changing positions in rhythmic patterns like synchronized dancers. From our first notes to the last, we spoke an international musical language with our instruments that erased our cultural differences while we entertained the audience and ourselves. We played Japanese and American popular and traditional songs to appeal to our multicultural listeners. When we finished, we stood, bowed to the audience, and shook hands with our new friends.
Upon leaving I noticed murals depicting the traditional Japanese tea ceremony in the large hall outside the auditorium. One had Buddha seated in a field of flowers with a serene expression on his face. Others had bamboo shoots randomly rising to the blue sky, and a tranquil sunset behind Mt. Fuji. A female host explained, “The Japanese tea ceremony originated in Zen Buddhism. Its guiding philosophy rests on Wa, which means Harmony. Kei - Respect, Sei - Purity, and Jaku - Serenity.” How germane that the images of the display echoed our music? My desire to experience this land’s images and ideals were enhanced by a new harmony within me. My previous prejudice melted into appreciation.
My first memory of my brother, Chip, and my sister, Val, occurred when they arrived in Miami by train from Chicago when I was four. They stayed with Dad’s parents during the war when Mom needed a break and had only me to deal with while she recuperated from a serious bout of depression. Mom and I went to meet them to bring them to our home in her blue 1945 Ford coupe. As they walked up to Mom’s car I sat in the back seat playing with a toy car. Val wore a pink ribbon in her neatly kept brown hair and blue dress. At nine years old, she towered over both Chip and me. She took the front seat next to Mom. At nearly six, Chip was taller than me, had a husky build and wore a brown short-sleeved shirt with blue trousers. He jumped into the back seat, grabbed my toy car, and ran its wheels back and forth over the carpet. No one had ever taken a toy from me before.
“Give my car back.”He ignored me and kept playing. “Chip took my toy car.”
“Give him back his toy and get along while I’m driving,” Mom said.
“Here’s your car, baby,” he said.
Moving far away from him I continued to play with my car aware of a new threat. His size, strength, and attitude intimidated me, and intruded into my peaceful world. Soon we arrived at our home with a large front yard leading to a two story green and white house we called the cottage. Our black Cocker Spaniel, Sheba, licked both of them on the face as they smiled and bent down to greet her. Val hugged her while Chip stroked her back. Both Val and Chip loved animals, so I felt better about them.
Mom bought us a library full of books that we read, or she would read to us. Chip and I decided to rent some of the books to our friends in the neighborhood for a nickel a piece but later learned that one family of friends called us hustlers for doing this.
Val attended an elementary school in a different part of Miami a long distance away from our house. After Mom put Chip on a bus for his school, she took Val to her school and I rode with them. Val’s elementary class chose her to act the part of Peter Pan in their play after a competition. She and Mom picked out the material for her costume and then Mom made it on her sewing machine. Val tried on her green Peter Pan costume and then waltzed around the house preparing for her role. We loved her performance dancing and pretending to fly in Neverland with the fairies and pirates a few weeks later.
After school let out for the summer, Val went back to Chicago to stay with Dad and his parents. Mom had her hands full with all of us, and Val had spent more time with Dad’s parents than any of us so it relieved Mom of the extra pressure and did something Val wanted.
Mom bought me a cardboard castle for my birthday for use to play with my many toy soldiers. She and Chip put the pieces together like a puzzle setting it up. The large grey castle had spires, a stairway up to a second floor, and looked like it was made of many big rocks painted on the cardboard. On the second floor, I set my toy soldiers with guns ready at many turrets and spent hours playing adventures, battles, and plots.
Chip started a fight when I objected to his incessant teasing after my birthday and somehow convinced Mom it was my fault since she saw me swing at him. She had not seen his hard blow to my arm and restricted me to the house while they went out for awhile. In a fit of frustration and anger, I ripped a part of the spire to the castle. Realizing how foolish that was, I continued to play with my soldiers in it until they returned. When Mom she saw the rip in the castle she said, “Danny what have you done to your castle we spent so much time building for you?
“Mom, I made a big mistake and I’m sorry,” I said failing to explain how the fight began with Chip’s punch.
She became so outraged for my temper tantrum, she picked up the castle and threw it in the trashcan, “I hope you learn your lesson not to destroy something others worked so long on for you.”
“Mom please let me play with my castle. I’m very sorry,” I cried out as she took away my favorite plaything. Because I had played with it despite the damage, I pleaded with her to let me retrieve it. Her final decision made me miserable. Mom had limits my tantrum had violated. I vowed never to do such a foolish thing again.
Often I played near a swing Mom had made tied to a tree through a six-foot high hedge that ran south to the street about one hundred feet away. The hedge separated our front yard from busy Biscayne Boulevard another twenty-five feet to the west. As I moved back and forth on the swing, I felt an awful burning sting on my left ear. I felt another on my face and another on my neck. Three wasps stung me at the same time! I screamed as I ran toward home. “Ouch! Oww Ouch! Mom, Mom, wasps stung me!”
Mom came to my rescue, “Here, I have just the thing for those nasty wasps.” She knew how to treat the stings with a mixture from the medicine cabinet and placed it on each one, “Now lie down and rest, dear.”I had never experienced anything more painful. I must have disrupted the wasps’ home. “Stay away from the swing until I use a strong spray on the hedge.”
One night right after Mom read a story to Chip and me and tucked us into bed a few weeks later, an excruciating pain struck my left foot as bad as a wasp sting. “OUCH! OOOHWW!” I screamed loudly and started crying.
“What’s wrong?” said Mom as she turned on the light and pulled back the covers. A large dark brown scorpion with a curled tail and two claws scurried away. Mom took me to the bathroom medicine cabinet and treated my pain with the medicine she used on the wasp stings. It calmed me down, but the experience frightened, upset, and hurt me. We searched everywhere for that scorpion pulling all the covers off and using a flashlight under the bed. Eventually Mom said, “It must have run away. Go to bed Danny, and we all need to get some sleep. You’ll feel much better in the morning.”
“OK Mom, I’ll try.” Finally after awhile I drifted off. About a half an hour later, another bite worse than the first one pierced me on the inside of my right arm. “OOOWCH OWOW! It got me again!” Mom and I went through the same drill as before. We began a diligent search for the culprit and found the scorpion tucked in the bed between the sheets and mattress. Mom took a broom to it and after a strong swipe, ended it with a stomp of her shoe.
In a few weeks, I contracted scarlet fever that knocked me out for a couple of weeks in bed. Dr. Lowe came for a house visit and gave Mom the instructions on how to handle this situation. “Danny’s fever has risen to 104. I’m forced to place the house under quarantine. Danny must stay inside until we lift the quarantine.” With the medications, ice packs, lots of iced lemonade, water, and good soups, I slowly got better and the fever broke.
Mom said, “What can I get for you to eat at the store now that Dr. Lowe says you can have something you really want?”
After considering the matter and remembering Thanksgiving dinner as one of the best meals Mom ever fixed, I said, “A turkey sandwich with cranberries and mayonnaise.” In an hour, Mom came back from the store with a scrumptious turkey sandwich, French fries, and a glass of seven up. That meal tasted wonderful, as I had not eaten a full meal for two weeks.
Mom smiled after I finished my fabulous meal, “Danny, you can go outside and play tomorrow. You look like you’ve fully recovered. Go to sleep and tomorrow you’ll be playing with Chip again. The quarantine is over.”
In the summer of 1948 Dad moved us to a Navy base twenty miles from San Diego. Val, Chip, and I lived with him, Gammie, Poppy, and Dad’s sister, Aunt Jane in a three-bedroom olive-drab Quonset hut of wood siding, 20 feet by 48 with tongue-and-groove wood floor. The infrequent rain echoed on the curved tin roof. Dad had ignored the Florida order requiring him to send us to Mom for the summer. She came to visit us in Vallejo and found no one at home. She learned where the Navy moved Dad and arrived at the hut in her rented car after Dad had left for work in his khaki Navy Uniform.
Mom knocked on the door. Chip swung it open with me behind. Mom’s blue eyes, a wide smile, and her mellow voice welcomed us and filled me with joy, “Would you like to come to Miami?”
“Yes,” I exclaimed.
“Me too,” Chip added. We ran to her waiting arms, hugged, and kissed her, and got into her rental car.
Aunt Jane heard the commotion and came outside flustered by the turn of events. “Your father will be angry when he comes home this afternoon,” she yelled.
So glad to see Mom and go to Miami, we ignored Aunt Jane’s plea. “Get down out of sight,” Mom said, fearing Dad would have police searching for us. Such a change of custody would be kidnapping except Mom’s right of visitation allowed self-help before courts honored sister-state’s divorce decrees avoiding the expense of another court order.
She drove us to San Diego and returned the car to a rental agency.
She hailed a taxi to the train station where we scrambled onto a train headed for Miami.
Chip and I played cards with Mom in the lounge car, eating sandwiches, drinking root beer or coke, and watching the open spaces, hills, and valleys across California and Arizona until we were tired and went to sleep in the sleeper car. We climbed into bunk beds, Mom kissed us goodnight and we closed the curtains. Soon we drifted asleep to the rocking and rolling of the train.
Three days later we transferred to the Orange Blossom Special for Miami. Grampa and Ruthie met us at the station, hugged and kissed us, and drove us to our home on N.E. 34th street. My prayers had finally been answered: I would live with Mom, Chip, and Sheba at “the cottage.” Ruthie and Grampa were close by. It did not take Chip much time to interrupt this heavenly atmosphere by verbally teasing and physically bulling me. Name calling was his favorite. I was a “puner” or a “weakling.” If I ignored him, he would pound his fist into one of my shoulders to annoy me, but unknowingly he was making me tougher.
One day when we both were visiting Ruthie and Grampa, I complained about Chip’s verbal harassment. Ruthie suggested a way of dealing with hurtful words: “When Chip teases you, think of the words ‘duck’s back.’ Nature provides oil on duck feathers to prevent water from making it cold. They preen their feathers to spread the oil on. Water rolls off their backs when they waddle onto land or when they come to the surface. When Chip calls you a hurtful name, remember the duck’s back and let the words roll off like water rolls off a duck.”
Ruthie’s wisdom helped me realize Chip’s words could no longer hurt me. I was in control of my emotions with a simple strategy, which improved my relationship with Chip because when he could not provoke me. He either ignored me, or found a way to include me in a game or other activity.