Creative non-fiction / October 2017 (Issue 37)


by Bill Vernon

I wasn't Lazarus waking up and finding Jesus among those outside the tomb. Waiting for me and my friends were MPs in immaculate costume, directing us to a newly erected tent where the brass, the officers and non-coms, stood in two crowds off to one side. Those were our leaders, witnessing "their men's" resurrection while posing in a classic style of command, poised and calm with hands on hips, suggesting they had all the answers. We assumed, based on long experience, that if they indeed had any answers, they probably wouldn't tell us.

Mount Fuji looked swabbed and buffed to perfection like a barrack's room floor ready for inspection. Before the storm there'd been so much dust, it had turned our spit-shined black boots brown. It had powdered the legs of our olive-drab dungarees. You didn't dare lay anything down on the ground or it would have been covered with ashes, which I figured were incinerated rock, plants, bones, the guts beneath the earth's skin. But the typhoon's rain had packed down all that looseness, and the wind had swept away anything not exceedingly heavy or deeply embedded. Even the tracks of our trucks, jeeps, tanks, artillery, Ontos, etc., were gone, the ruts smoothed out. All signs of our earlier presence had disappeared. To my weary eyes, the earth supporting us resembled the rounded side of a dark eggshell.

When we'd sailed into mooring at Numazu Beach about ten days earlier, a similar vision occurred. I'd looked back to the southwest from which we'd come and witnessed our wake's disappearance into an ocean at dusk. The Pacific was fulfilling the promise of its English name, becoming a huge smooth ball curving off as far as I could see, looking solid enough to walk on. Earlier, from farther out when approaching the island of Honshu, we'd seen the stark upturned cone of the mountain far inland. It had been partially red from the sun going down south of it, the rest of it dark in shadow. No snowy top as in the touristy pictures. From the shore to the volcano, the land climbed solemnly in layers as if the core of the Japanese people were Fujisan itself.

That was my first glimpse of the sacred mountain, our destination, where our camp would be. Sights such as these greatly impressed a land-loving small-town boy from Ohio, but at that time in my life, my impressions were almost entirely emotional and unarticulated. I was just a kid then, there at the base of the mountain.

After the typhoon, I found myself walking across the volcanic residue carefully, tentatively, as if the surface might crack and collapse under my leaden footfalls. The air smelled so fresh, so crisp, my nostrils dilated as if an impulse were inflating my lungs beyond normal to wake me up. My companions and I were zombies by this time, our chilled bodies recovering in the heat of our march back to our campsite. Our uniforms, dried by now on our bodies, were wrinkled and soiled from 24-plus hours of hunkering down on the leeward side of a ridge that the genius in charge, or his surrogate, had found for us. Surprisingly, he'd geographically placed us in position correctly. The wind had shrieked over the ridge above us, and not pelted us with debris. Nor blown us away.

I'd heard we were here for cold weather training, but the month was September and not yet even autumn. I also knew what real cold weather training was because last winter we'd been through it. At Pickle Meadows, California, south of Reno and Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevadas. There we'd trained in deep snow and two blizzards. During one blizzard, we'd climbed Lost Cannon Peak, under orders to take a defensive position up there, preparing for some sort of pretend assault the next day. Playing a war game. It had been so cold in the wind 11,000 feet up, we'd tried to achieve warmth with two men together inside two sleeping bags. Two hours of freezing chased us down onto the leeward side for survival, over deep drifts into which we each dug with our snowshoes a tunnel to sleep in. In our own tunnel in our own sleeping bag, badly fatigued, we'd been snug. Our body heat coated the inside of each cocoon with ice, and the insulating snow preserved the warmth. The next day had dawned beautiful and clear. Like this day after the powerful oriental storm.

Typhoon Nancy was her name. According to Wikipedia it was one of the strongest typhoons in history, causing "extensive damage, ... at least 173 deaths and thousands of injuries." When it hit Japan near the end of its run, it was still averaging winds of "100 mph." Nine days of warnings preceded its encounter with us, the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, so we should have been ready.

That morning after Nancy's visit, Headquarters Company surprised us, having already set up a mess tent. We fell out of formation, lumbered down the food line, and breakfasted on hot coffee, bread, potatoes, powdered eggs, sausage, bacon, boxes of cereal with powdered milk and sugar, the usual fare for normal mornings, like back at Camp Schwab, Okinawa, our home base. Being served food like that, as if the night we'd just endured were not strange, made the situation even more eerie and dream-like. We'd assumed the C-rats in our packs would provide our food, but no. We squatted, laid a metal tray on our laps, and ate while the mountain in bright sun glittered, watching us.

We were eating in the exact centre of our encampment, scuttlebutt informed us, but we couldn't recognise the spot. The implications of that slowly sunk in. Where were the tents we'd been living in and the gear we'd left behind? Our seabags full of personal belongings? Most of the bags were eventually found, scattered around, a good part of their contents unusable. I imagined the round containers rolling like tumbleweeds across the smooth contours of Fuji's foot until farther downhill depressions, fences, brush or trees stopped them where they must have piled up. With promises that our ruined military clothing would be replaced free of charge, we settled down to the first business for Marines, cleaning and reconditioning our weapons. Then the second business: sleeping.

We'd visited the nearby town once, Gotemba, and that visit had confirmed my sense of being more than a stranger in Japan. The depth of our separation from the native people had become impossible to ignore as we went about American martial business in their country. A live-fire exercise came soon after our arrival. We hiked to a place not far from the ridge we were to crouch behind during the typhoon, took prone positions in a line facing up the steepening slope, loaded and prepared to fire. Behind our line, orders barked out to the mortars and to us, to open fire upon somebody's command. Fingers touched triggers in anticipation, thumbs located and prepared to switch off safeties. I could see no targets ahead of us, just the bare sides of Fuji, which was apparently going to absorb our attack.

Then movement. What was that?

At least a dozen human beings dashed into our field of fire. We raised our rifles toward the sky. A few bicycles charged among and past the mixture of women and men on foot. If I remember correctly, there were even a few small cars. Bright red, yellow and white clothing marked their presence. Bright banners on poles or in their hands fluttered as they crossed in front of us. We could hear them yelling, but unintelligibly in the distance. There were a few square signs with white background and black printing too distant to read, probably in Japanese anyway.

"Cease firing," someone yelled although no one had shot anything.

"Unlock! Unload!" yelled officers behind us. "Stand down!"

The nearer non-coms repeated the calls. "Relax," our gunnery sergeant said. "There's people out there."

I thought of the movies I'd seen and the books I'd read about waves of Japanese soldiers assaulting Marine Corps positions on Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and other islands during the 2nd World War. This kind of assault was more to my liking. I heard no complaints from the troops. Just things like, "What do they want? What are they saying?" I remembered that this was supposedly a sacred mountain. Common sense said that firing weapons at it, detonating shells against it was inappropriate. All of us seemed happy to stop the exercise.

We were even more happy to learn back at our camp that we had liberty the rest of the day. An afternoon and a night on the town replaced the planned exercises on Fuji. Obviously, the protestors had been no more happy with the exercise than we'd been. Firing our weapons had lost its novelty and romance long ago.

You might say we ground-pounders attacked the town and Japanese sensibilities rather than the mountain, as was predictable. We had no training in how to interact with the inhabitants, no instruction about their culture, and we gave little thought to propriety. With three other Marine buddies, I hiked a dirt road from Camp Fuji for two miles through apple orchards before a Marine truck picked us up and drove us there. Sweaty and dusty from the heat and the walk, he dropped us off at a public bathhouse to clean up. We paid a woman receptionist, received a towel, a small bar of soap and a bucket, then entered a large area behind her station.

It was a locker room of sorts, with pegs on the wall for clothes, low, small stools that'd be awkward to sit on, spigots on three walls, a tiled, partially wet floor. Beyond that was the large swimming pool-like bath, which was divided into a male side and a female side with a cloth barrier hung about chest high. There were two men in our pool, over a dozen women and children on the other side. The woman receptionist said something loudly in her language and gestured around the room. She was the only person besides ourselves who was clothed.

We hesitated of course, embarrassed. They were all watching us although they looked away when we glanced at them. One of us laughed nervously. Another said, "I don't know about this." The other said, "I'm dirty and we already paid."

A man emerged from the water, sat on one of the low stools, filled a bucket with water and poured its contents over himself. That example meant nothing to us.

We were so self-conscious, we faced the wall away from the pool, stripped in seconds, draped our clothes on the pegs, and with a few yells that echoed throughout the building, jumped into the water. Its heat shocked us and took time to get used to. We were expecting cool, at least tepid temperatures. As we slowly adjusted to the heat, two of the guys applied soap to their arms and face. We didn't look at the other bathers for several minutes, joking among ourselves, but when we did look at them, they were all out of the pool, dripping, staring at us. When we looked at them, they turned almost in unison away from us, rinsed with buckets of water, towelled off quickly, put on their clothes and within a few minutes left.

Meanwhile the receptionist had come from behind her counter and was yelling and waving at us. She raised the cloth barrier, and her continuing harangue brought us meekly out of the water, hands over our groins. She said something like, "You pay more," repeating it several times, holding a hand out toward us, pointing at the water, which was murky where we'd been. From the soap, I thought. The dirt on us couldn't have done that. When she started draining the pool, we satisfied her demand for more money.

We escaped that situation as quickly as possible, walking away in amazement, jabbering at length about our ignorant behaviour. We tried not to call attention to ourselves, not to interfere with the townspeople who brushed past us, exploring the downtown. We noticed businesses and stared at signs we couldn't understand. Eventually, hunger drove us into a restaurant that contained ten little square tables, eight occupied, with a turned-on television on a counter at the far end of the room. American Restaurant, its sign said in English, an irresistible invitation. We almost felt at home with menus in English and pictures of the entrees. Politely seated with a few bows exchanged, we pointed to pictures to order our dishes. We kept our voices low, and the other diners seemed to ignore us.

Talking softly among ourselves, we neared the meal's end when a man said something in a loud, gruff voice to a waitress. Apparently at his request, she went to the television and increased the volume. All heads in the room turned to the TV set. The evening news was on, as we could tell because the show resembled American TV programming. Suddenly there was Mount Fuji. There was our live-fire exercise featuring the people, the bikes and two larger vehicles in our field of fire. The camera turned briefly toward us, the aggressors, but we were hard to spot, downhill, distant, flat against the ground. The picture returned to the protestors and a close-up of one of their signs: US GO HOME. An announcer provided a loud voice-over, then interviewed a young woman. Whatever she said, it was passionate: a denunciation of our actions or presence? A passionate plea to her fellow citizens?

I glanced around. The people seated in the restaurant were staring at us. The room was deathly quiet.

"Can you believe it?" I muttered to my companions, then eyed the television again. Its picture had returned to two announcers seated at a desk in a studio.

No one said anything to us. They didn't have to. It was another awkward situation beyond our control, hard to respond to because apologising for our actions seemed wrong although I felt an impulse to do it.

We had no more interest in seeing the town. Back on the street, looking for the place where trucks would be waiting to return the Marines on liberty to Camp, I said more to myself than the others, "We're defending this country. It's our ally."

But of course the United States had beaten the country in a war, and we were still occupying it. I knew how I'd feel in their situation.

At the time of Typhoon Nancy, we were experienced enough to understand a few things about military life. Many of us enlisted Marines had been together for over two years in infantry units, running many exercises together, taking part in war games, making amphibious landings, testing weapons for possible use in a possible war in Vietnam, learning tactics to employ in a jungle, following the orders of the same or similar kinds of leaders that we currently had. I mean we were cautious and sceptical, if not cynical, about orders we had to follow. Sometimes they involved our doing dangerous and/or illogical things.

Orders often reflected the ambition of those higher-up on the chain of command, people we'd sworn to obey. Their job was to manage us and do it well enough to gain merit and reputation. Our job was to do what they said. Simply put, we sometimes questioned the wisdom of their decisions. I believed by this time in my enlistment that allowing someone else to order me to do things that might cause me harm was probably the stupidest decision I'd ever made. A simple idea: choosing to put myself in danger when unnecessary was not to be done rashly. Corollary: allowing someone else to endanger me in that way was even worse.

Enlisted people learn that lesson quickly. Therefore, that we would not seek indoor shelter from the typhoon impressed us at once with its lunacy. Probably in company formation we learnt the news. Our colonel had rejected the Japanese Defence Force's offer to house us in a gymnasium during the storm. He had explained to the effect that Marines were tough and would show the world just how tough by staying outside. This idea was not as inspiring to us as a decision we'd been subjected to just over a year earlier: to march in full gear 150 miles in five days, from training in the Mojave Desert to our barracks near the seashore at Camp Pendleton, California. We in fact did 50 miles in one of those days, we learnt what we could do and we admired the colonel who'd ordered that march. He led us on foot the whole way although he'd lost one lung in Korean War combat.

This order to wait through the storm outdoors put us at risk with no up-side that I could imagine. Bearing packs with unusable shelter-halves rolled and strapped on top, wrapped in our poncho, our rifles slung on a shoulder, we marched away from our tied-down tents and seabags into gusting wind. The roiling dark clouds threw sheets of water at us, so we were soaked in half a mile. Water rolled off the mountain and drenched our feet.

We fled into positions at the bottom of a ridge, another barren piece of land wrenched into place by the earth's convulsion long ago. There, we lay huddled beneath our ponchos, wondering how bad the night could become. What if the wind shifted direction? What if typhoons spawned tornadoes the way hurricanes did back in the US? We wore our helmets to protect our heads. Our field jackets didn't help much against flying objects, and they didn't provide much warmth because they were soaked.

The wind picked up speed and became shrill. Darkness fell so thick we couldn't see the others next to us. Nor hear them. The shrieking wind turned into a roar that spilled over the top of the ridge and pummelled our ears. The rain fell so fast and forcefully, it felt as if we were lying in a stream. Our skin softened under the constant rinsing and became sensitive. Eventually, our wet clothing chaffed the skin whenever we moved. We lay flat against the hillside, and as the night wore on, our brief sporadic movements seeking comfort brought us up against each other. Once we realised how close we were, we pressed together, each of us wrapped in our own rubberised shell, rifles cradled like a lover underneath the ponchos, while the water ran wherever gravity took it.

And we chilled although we'd edged around so our bodies pressed against each other in as comfortable and safe a position as possible. This was a night of simple endurance. To teach us that or discipline: was that the intent of this exercise? There was no shelter to run to, nothing we could do to improve conditions. Shivering, we lay there bunched together in clusters while the storm raged and slowly passed over us.

Locked into ourselves, into our own thoughts, into memories of better times, into self-examination, we lay in submission while the background roaring of the typhoon was so constant, though it modulated with larger and larger increments of volume and pitch, that my tiring mind imagined the noise came from the mouth of Fujiyama, snoring far up the slopes above us.


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