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Strangers In A Strange Land
by Virginia Ladd

     The walls were high and of anchor chain construction, topped with jagged barbed wire.  At the gates were intimidating guards, armed with rifles.  Standing at attention, they looked like giants to two small girls who wished to escape into the village outside the compound where we lived with our family 
Mother worked for the Far East Command, helping to direct the Korean War, and Daddy was a security officer for the Navy with the Army of Occupation.  We resided in a relatively comfortable home within the segregated community; two Japanese orphan girls lived with us and acted as nannies. 

     Across the street a high tsunami wall, topped with barbed wire stood above the wild Pacific Ocean.  During storms massive waves and sea foam frequently delivered high tides which crashed into the gray wall, flooding the street.  Storm drains were in place to return this flood water to its origin. 

     Just outside our American village lay the partially bombed- out city of Yokohama, Japan.  While a massive reconstruction effort was underway, many small, older shops remained, interspersed with larger, modern buildings.  We found it fascinating to watch the slight but tough Japanese men as  they climbed ten stories or more on bamboo scaffolding, which was bound by rice straw ropes. 

     It was just a few days until Christmas.  Being children, my sister, who was about six years old, and I, just a year older, were fascinated with the little shops in this active city.  The many toy stores, the sights and smells of pet shops with exotic animals and birds and shops marketing ivory products were a source of great temptation. 

     On this particular day, my sister DeeDee and I decided to visit the exciting city.  We formulated a plan of escape from our compound whereby we would crawl out through the storm drains.  Our parents were typically away from home during the day and the "girls" were often occupied with household duties, including the care of our baby sister. 

     Finally, the perfect opportunity presented itself.  After dressing in warm clothing, we slipped out of the house.  It is still a source of wonder that we were physically able to slide the storm drain grate aside and even more, that we had the courage to enter the dark, slimy pipe.  We inched our way down the pipe to the opening in the wall, which led to a drop of about seven feet to the sand below.  We were free! 

     A fierce storm had pounded the boast for several days just prior to our journey. we surveyed the landscape, we observed a littering of strange objects along the coast.  These boxes and bags were generally wrapped in rice straw mats and tied with straw rope.  We noticed in the distance a military truck.  Moving in our direction, this vehicle would stop occasionally, gathering the beached parcels.  Curious, we pricked up a piece of driftwood and began poking at one of the larger parcels.  To our horror, the outline of a human body became obvious.  We then noted flies circling other parcels.  In the nearby surf we spotted the corpse of a large horse with waves breaking over its head. 

     The military vehicle soon reached our location.  Some of the soldiers wore gloves and white masks over their mouths and noses.  Complying with a suggestion that we leave the beach, we scurried towards some cliffs that obscured the village. We had been told about a cave located in this general vicinity.  It had formerly served as either a gun battery or a bomb shelter and reportedly, this tunnel provided direct access to our city destination.  The alternative route required an extensive walk along the beach. 

     We began our ascent, taking great care in the placement of our feet.  Initially, the rocks were slick with moss, but after about ten feet, the climb became somewhat less arduous. Suddenly, DeeDee cried out, "I can't do this ... I'm going to fall.  From her precarious perch, she gazed below at the crashing waves, now licking at the jagged black rocks below. I was just ahead and somewhat stronger, so I reached down and grabbed her sleeve.  Her jacket held and with concerted effort we found ourselves resting on the moss covered ledge near the entrance to the legendary cavern. 

     Frightened and hungry, we had long forgotten about the toys and other treasures that were the motive behind this already far too eventful expedition.  With greatly diminished enthusiasm, but no viable alternative, we hesitantly approached the cave.  We noticed a dim light deep within. Faced with the reality of the situation, we recalled the horrible tales of the discovery of old bones and deep pits within the cave.  Water dripped from the ceiling.  We progressed slowly, stepping in random puddles of unknown and smelly liquid.  Occasionally bats darted about.  After what seemed an eternity, we reached the far side. 

     As we emerged we saw the once so revered city below.  Plans aborted, we scrambled down the trail, headed for the guard shack and the security of our compound.  Thinking of nothing but home, we were soon to be surprised by loud shouts coming from our rear.  Several older boys with sticks in hand began pursuit.  After a terrifying race, we were rescued by an old Mama-San who happened to be nearby.  It would be years before we would understand the mixed sentiment of the Japanese people towards the occupying American forces. 

     Without breaking pace, we dashed past the surprised gate keepers and headed straight for home.  We rushed through the back door into the safety of our kitchen ... so relieved that our journey was over.  Our fear and exhaustion were instantly tempered by the sight that lay in front of us.  Parcels wrapped in butcher paper were heaped on the kitchen table.  One of the packages was open, revealing fresh beef, its juices flowing out upon the surrounding surface.  Fresh beef was a rare sight.  While some of my parent's friends regularly consumed steak and other such luxury foods, including expensive spirits, Mother chose to serve the local fare of fish and rice, with duck on special occasions.  Even as children, we were aware of the poor quality of life experienced by the locals.  The food was of poor quality, and families were commonly crowded into single-room homes, with little, or no, heat during cold winter months.  A diet of rice, possibly with one small salt fish, was the typical fare for a construction worker's lunch. 

     As we marveled at the bounty of precious meat, Mother began to explain that this was not be enjoyed by our family.  A local orphanage was not to have Christmas dinner this year due to the fact that the supply ship was delayed, probably by the recent storm.  The nuns were feeding them rice gruel and there would be no toys.  We were asked if we would like to help the cause.  We needed about one hundred toys.  The meat had been donated by a kind Japanese doctor.  With the help of several other good people, the food, toys, and clothing would be collected and delivered the following day. 

     Early the next morning, our small caravan set off into the country.  Heading up a steep mountain road, our jeeps and trailer slipped and skidded over the rustic roadway.  The narrow trail passed through thick patches of bamboo and overgrown pine forests.  My sister and I held the box of toy tightly. 

     After what seemed an eternity, we finally arrived at an old stucco building, about three stories tall.  As we pulled to a stop at the massive front door, several elderly nuns gathered around, speaking French.  Mother spoke the language and conversed for a few moments before we were invited inside. 

     We went from room to room, handing out toys, games, and stuffed animals.  One room contained numerous white cribs, occupied by babies of various ages.  Some of the orphans offered friendly smiles, but most were fearful and timid.  In another room young children gathered around to receive slinky or bright colored balls.

     I particular recall a room full of energetic boys with somewhat darker skin.  Some of them had curly hair.  They affectionately offered hugs.  As a gift to us, a nun began playing an ancient piano while the boys enthusiastically sang "Jingle Bells," as well as several French carols.  The oldest nun would later explain that these beautiful children were Amerasian, and thus not accepted in Japan nor any other country.  What was to become of them?  As we drove back down the mountain, I knew that Christmas for me was forever changed.  The memory of this incredible experience is always with me, but particularly during the holidays. 

     In this story I share my childhood memory of a most eventful couple of days.  What I took from the overall experience is that happiness and joy are right within each of us.  At some point we have all thought that what we need or want is "just outside the gate."  And then ... we realize how wrong we are.
Postscript

     I was grown before understanding those odd containers on the beach.  Due to limited land, much of Japan's waste is dumped offshore.  Also, many people in this region are buried at sea for the same reason. 

© 2005 Virginia Ladd All Rights Reserved
 


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