Commentaries, Reminiscences and Sea Stories
Jonah McLeod

All of Jonah's reminiscences were originally published on his blog (now defunct). He has given his permission to use them. Those relevant to our interests--the USNS Michelson--are reproduced here. After each title is the original date posted in Jack Keenan and the Admin have selected the articles and arranged them in the chronological order of the events described.

Jonah McLeod's original blog postings are archived at this location.

Honcho Street Yokosuka Summer 1965
Posted on 1/8/2005

Before my adventures on the USNS Michelson began, I had found my way around Yokosuka. I had found the stretch of bars catering to sailors just outside the main gate of the base on Honcho Street. I had begun to learn a bit of Japanese so that I could at least try to make myself understood. But, what I did most was walk. From the time I was old enough to be on my own, I would walk about a new place. Walking its streets became my way of making a new place my own. Japan was the first place I had ever been where I felt completely safe walking at any time of day or night. The only dangers came from the sailors who got drunk and started fighting.

The bars were much the same in that there was a Papa-san and/or Mama-san who ran the place and tended bar. And there was a hostess who would provide hospitality for each customer entering the bar throughout the evening. It was required that the customer reciprocated the hospitality by purchasing “drinks”—colored water or tea with no alcohol for his hostess as well as his own drinks which were a Japanese brand of whiskey and beer. I began with beer, Asahi and Kirin were well-known brands and I typically drank one or the other. The hostesses were outcasts of Japanese society, many mixed breeds of various nationalities—mostly black and white gaijin American servicemen—and others were Korean, Chinese or other Asian ethnic that were outsiders in the homogeneous Japanese culture.

I got to know a few hostesses, some fleeting evening acquaintances, others I knew as long as they worked at the bar I frequented—a regular occurrence if I wasn’t standing duty. Being of mixed racial parents, I had an affinity for them, but their plight was far worse than I could imagine. Raised in the insulated world of the military, I was accepted as equal among my peers on the Army bases where we lived throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. They had been outcasts from the time they were conceived. They had grown into women and were on the brink of raising another generation like themselves for the next generation of servicemen being stationed in Japan.

When I arrived in Japan, I was a petty officer third class, with a designation of ETN3. The ETN designated electronic technician and the chevron on the left sleeve of my Navy white and dress blue jumper bore a small symbol showing an atom with nucleus and two orbiting electrons. This was below a white eagle with outstretched wings and above a single red chevron stripe. Dressed in blue jumper, thirteen-button bell-bottom blue pants, with spit shined shoes and a clean bleached-white sailor hat; a sailor presented a striking site striding down any street anywhere in the world.

The Navy pay back then was $40 to $50 a month, but all meals, medical, and dental were free. Most of the money single sailors like me made was spent on transportation on and off base to nightclubs and bars off base. We had an enlisted men's club on base but there were no hostesses to provide female companionship—only the wives of servicemen stationed on base or home ported at Yokosuka—more about them later. Occasionally, the club on base would have traveling entertainment—American or European performers who would give a show for one or two nights and move on—made possible by the USO. An American dollar in 1965 was worth 360 yen. A cab ride on and off base was typically no more than a 100 yen, and a drink of Japanese beer and whiskey went for 100 to 200 yen. Honcho Street as well as the same streets in other Japanese ports including Tokyo was a source of exchange for Japan. American sailors were contributing the better part of their monthly income to sustain the street’s proprietors and hostesses.

During my evening’s conversations with the hostesses of Honcho Street typically I would ask where they were from, how they came to this bar on Honcho Street, generally draw them into telling me about their lives. Most of the stories were sad, each wanting a better living but finding the bars were the only place where they could find work that paid enough to live on. I spent a good portion of the money I made listening to bar girl stories. I’m sure much of what I heard had become fictionalized to keep men like me from knowing the truth. Though from the young ones just getting started in the business, I’m sure the tales were true. The stories turned to fiction after a hostess became involved with a sailor and believed he was her savior only to find he had deserted her after all his promises to the contrary. Every bar girl I ever spoke with knew the story of Madame Butterfly. It became part of the clubby banter for a girl to accuse her male companion of being a “butterfly boyfriend.” And every hostess knew that no matter what a man told her in the heat of passion, it would freeze into lies as soon as the passion ebbed.

The Navy paid us in Script—red bills that looked like monopoly money—instead of greenbacks. If we were going off base, we were required to convert the scrip to Yen and at no time make the exchange off base. You know that a sailor, drunk and yearning but out of Yen would have no qualms about having Mama-san take script instead of Yen for another drink. Only the exchange rate was a bit higher but the sailor was beyond caring. Bars also had customer loyalty programs. Each would allow you to bring your bottle of American whiskey purchased on base at exorbitantly low cost to the bar. Mama-san would put your name on the bottle, charge you a small corkage fee and serve you your whiskey. For the liquor aficionados with a bottle of Jack Daniels or Chevis Regal, this was the drinking they longed for.

One night I decided to bring in a bottle of Chevis and a bottle of Moet Champagne—I cannot remember what the occasion for celebration was, but I explained to the bar girls at my hangout that Champagne was really not alcohol and it was a much better drink than what Mama-San was serving them. I had Mama-san put the bottle on ice for about an hour and then asked for her to serve herself and each of the girls a glass. Mama-san declined but three of the girls accepted the invitation. The girls finished the bottle and Mama-san scolded me for getting her girls tipsy. I gave her the bottle of Chevis I had brought to compensate. She could water the Scotch and sell it at a premium to sailors wanting something other than the Japanese whiskey. At least she did not exile me from the bar.

Setting Sail For Adventure
Posted on 1/7/2005

I was twenty years old when I first arrived in Japan in July 1965. I arrived fresh from visiting my family in El Paso, Texas. I had taken a Continental flight from El Paso to San Francisco and from there I reported to Travis Air Force Base outside Sacramento (Ck) for my flight to Tachikawa Air Base in Japan. We were flown on a chartered Braniff International Airline's plane. Back then Braniff had hired American designer Alexander Girard to redesign the airline’s look which included painting the planes distinctive colors—lime, orange, reds. Braniff had also hired Italian designer Emilio Pucci to design flight attendants’ uniforms—pink and plum dresses, pants, and coats with multicolored scarves. For a love-struck sailor, I was smitten to say the least.

We left Travis climbing into a mid-afternoon Pacific sky, looking down on the fog bank laying just off California's coast and the silver ocean surface for miles toward the horizon. We had begun racing the Sun to Tachikawa and we would lose arriving after sundown and boarding a bus for the trip from Tachikawa to Yokosuka. My early memory of the Navy was the bus trip from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field out to the U.S. Naval Training Facility for boot camp. I was tired and longing for a place to sleep. The night bus trip to Yokosuka brought back the same memory. Only this ride took a lot longer. And when we arrived, there was no one to yell at us, but the process of getting assigned a bunk, collecting bedding and getting into bed still took far longer than I would have wished. By now, I had come to realized that this was an integral part of Navy life and something I no longer railed against or fretted over.

It took a couple of weeks in my temporary barracks in Yokosuka before my ship, the USNS Michelson returned to port. When it did, I was so glad to finally begin my life aboard ship. I had been in the Navy since June 1963—just over two years and I had never been aboard ship. The Michelson was a converted Victory Ship, that were used toward the end of the Second World War and during the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts as the main supply ship ferrying supplies into to the war zone. It was 455 feet long, had a 62-foot beam, and had a draught of 23 feet. It could run at 16 knots—made fast to outrun submarines. The Michelson was named for Albert Abraham Michelson, the 1907 Nobel Laureate in Physics, who first measured the speed of light. The ship was laid down May 5, 1944, at Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. in Portland. During my tour we would return to Portland while the ship was in dry dock for repairs.

On the 15th of December 1958, the ship was converted at Charleston, S.C., Naval Shipyard, and placed into service under the operational control of MSTS Atlantic as USNS Michelson (AGS-23). It was one of several ships the Navy built for oceanographic survey. The ships recorded magnetic, and gravity data, plus bathymetry (mapping of the oceans bottom). Civilian seamen, merchant mariners, under Military Sealift Command operated the ships. They commanded the ship—we had a Master, ran the engines, cleaned the ship, cooked for the crew, everything involved in running the ship’s operation while underway and in port. I was part of a small contingent onboard who were essentially passengers doing survey work. The Navy personnel operated the equipment, factory engineers repaired the electronic equipment on board and Naval Oceanographic Office personnel performed the scientific mission of the ship: sonar mapping of the Pacific sea floor, recording the earth’s magnetic field in the Pacific region, as well as other scientific experiments.

The Michelson was relatively new to the Pacific. It had conducted oceanographic survey work for the Hydrographic Office in the Atlantic until 1964. It arrived in Japan earlier in 1965. En route to Japan from San Francisco in mid-January 1965, The Michelson received distress signals from SS Grand, a Nationalist Chinese merchant ship that was breaking up in heavy seas off the Japanese coast. The ship proceeded to the scene and swimmers from her crew rescued six survivors in the 12-foot seas. During my seventeen months aboard, I would have my share of adventures: enough shipboard emergencies and interpersonal intrigues to help me learn who I really was and what I wanted from life.

When I first set foot aboard ship, “permission to come aboard, sir,” at the top of the gang plank after a salute to the colors at the stern of the ship and you boarded and found your way to the purser’s office where you were presented your orders and reported for duty. Anyone who has ever been in the Navy will tell you that the Michelson was the exception and not the rule of shipboard life. I was assigned to a four-man stateroom with a closet and bunks with drawers and enough common space to have such luxuries as a complete stereo system. I was encouraged to wear civilian clothes while in port and not to discuss anything about the ship or its mission outside the ship.

As I made my way from the main deck to the first level below, I was confronted by a boyish looking man dressed in denim jeans and rolled-up long sleeve denim shirt, with a tool belt around his waist and a mischievous grin on his face. He had stepped aside at the bottom of the stairway to allow me to descend with my duffle bag over my shoulder. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I looked at him, smiled and introduced myself and said I was looking for the purser’s office. He returned the greeting, gave me directions, and welcomed me aboard. Just before I walk off, he said, “you have beautiful eyes.” I blushed, thanked him, and left feeling a bit uncomfortable. Thus began my life aboard the USNS Michelson.

First Day Aboard USNS Michelson
Posted on 1/10/2005

When I finally reported for duty on board the USNS Michelson, I was relieved to be finally settled where I would remain until my tour of duty was over. My living quarters were spacious by comparison with those of sailors aboard a destroyer or any other ship in the Navy, where space is a premium; my stateroom was the accommodations an officer might expect aboard a Navy ship. I shared the room with two others, third-class petty officer A and Seaman (the grade below third-class petty officer) T. We each had a double-door deck-to-overhead metal wardrobe sufficiently spacious to accommodate a week’s worth of clothes on hangers and shoes.

The room had four bunks, two to your immediate left as you entered the room—I took the top one of these two, as I liked sleeping high off the ground. The other two bunks were on the bulkhead opposite the door. Beneath each bunk were three drawers. The lower bunks the drawers pulled out to reveal an open space beneath the drawer—a safe that everyone on board ship used. On the wall to the left of the entrance was a wardrobe, a sink and the door to the head—Navy term for toilet—and shower. The other wardrobes were on the wall at the right of the entrance.

The Michelson was in port for five to seven days at a time to take on supplies, rotate civilian personnel—the oceanographers on board typically came for six month stretches, but individual scientists came and went as the job demanded. During the time in port on any given day, everyone except those on duty abandoned the ship. After getting settled, I wandered about the ship getting to know the place: the mess hall, the laundry room, the rooms amidships and below deck where all the equipment was contained. As you entered the main equipment room, on your right was a large structure resembling an upside down cup mounted to the overhead—this was the Sperry MK3 MOD4 SINS (inertial navigation system). It was about six feet in diameter at the overhead and six feet from overhead to its lowest point off the deck. Inside were miles of wire and electronics that I had learned the function for from January to May 1965 at the Sperry factory school in New Hyde Park on Long Island, NY. On the bulkhead to the left of the entrance was a Bunker Ramo Computer—the most state-of-the-art system on board ship. It tracked a satellite providing very accurate data on the ship’s location at any given time. Anything the ship’s sonar mapped on the ocean bottom could be precisely fixed in latitude and longitude.

Next to the Bunker Ramo computer was another computer, the NAVDAC MKII (for navigation data assimilation computer). This system I learned during training at Dam Neck, Virginia from September to December 1964. Next to the NAVDAC, there was a large drafting table and chair where we stood watch during out time at watch. Above the table was an intercom system that allowed us to communicate with the Oceanographers who had their own work area as well as the bridge and other areas of the ship. Behind the table was a refrigerator size unit with a display panel that controlled the SINS system. During our watch, we would periodically record readings from the display on a large piece of drafting paper as well as from the Bunker Ramo. Next to the SINS controller was a large coffee urn that was the most important part of the room. It supplied a constant flow of Java that kept us alert during the eight-hour shifts we each took around the clock. The room had one great benefit that each of us appreciated immediately. It was climate controlled to keep the equipment a constant room temperature—a blessing on hot days in the South Pacific with the outside temperature at a blazing 100 degrees and the humidity a muggy 90 percent plus.

Another climate-controlled room one level below the computer room contained another computer, the Bendix G15D, an aging workhorse used to control the LORAN equipment on board—the LORAN receivers were on the bridge. The computer was the only computer onboard that still used vacuum tubes. The machine was about my height and wide enough that I could just barely get my outstretched hands on either side of its sides. The system had a small center control panel with a few lights and switches. Latches on either side of the control panel at the top allowed me to swing open either side of the machine to access the array of electronics inside: rows of tubes mounted two each on removable printed circuit cards. The G15D was so old that it did not have factory personnel on board ship to ensure it was continuously operational. That task would fall to me and it was one that I came to both love and hate.

My shipmates were far more interesting than the equipment but I would meet most of them once the ship was ready to set sail a few days later. Meantime, I left the ship and spent a few days on base taking in movies during the day and hanging out in my favorite haunt on Honcho Street. When the day arrived for the ship to set sail, I was formally introduced to the small Navy detachment on board. During the night before our last day in port, my two room mates A and T came aboard and began stuffing bottles of whiskey below the drawers in both the lower bunks. I learned during this operation that the whiskey had two purposes: the first was to provide personal libation during the next thirty days at sea; the second to sell near the end of the cruise to all those who had consumed their supply. I was told that a bottle of whiskey could fetch ten times its price depending on the shipboard supply or lack thereof. I had bought two bottles of Chevis that would last me the cruise. I couldn’t get into the whole thing of selling liquor to alcoholics for profit. And then we were on our way.

Traveling Companions
Posted on 1/11/2005

When we set sail, August 2nd, 1965, I was in a state of euphoria. I was going to sea; I was going to have an adventure. My shipmates besides Art and Tim, were a chief petty officer, the ranking enlisted man onboard—we called him chief. He was a bear of a man with thinning blond hair, a broad face and a mustache that covered a hair lip. He was married with a young daughter. He wrote to them both daily, a real family guy torn between the Navy and home. Another chief petty officer, the ship’s medical officer we called Doc was a tall handsome man, with a goatee that made him resemble Pan, the god of woods and fields, of flocks and shepherds. Like Pan, he had a way with the ladies, besides his wife. I remember him having long legs that would have served well for dancing or running, though I couldn’t imaging Doc doing either. Doc was a good timing sailor that would never settle down to the dismay and heartbreak of his wife.

Three others, each with a petty officer first class rank, Gus, Red and Bud, who reported to Chief, were in charge of telling the rest of us what to do. They were watch leaders, one each on call in case there were problems. Gus was a navy veteran with a sad face that easily broke into a lazy smile when amused. Divorced and in his thirty’s, he stood just under six feet tall with a slight slouch. He had thinning brown hair, a slight beer belly, lips that curved downward and sleepy eyes. Red, just over five feet six inches—my height—was a thin-as-a-rail, short thirty-year old with a southern accent, a freckled face, and carrot red hair and green eyes. He had the mischievous face of a leprechaun and always had a funny one-liner to dispense. His wife and kids, too, were on a Navy base somewhere in the states. Bud was a career Navy bachelor, a plump Edwardian character—spreading midsection, chubby red face, graying brown hair, and the freckled complexion of a man who has lived hard. A couple of inches taller than me, he was big framed and short-legged.

Another married shipmate with family in the states was a tall petty officer second class, called Hank. He had the build of a football player that had gone soft. He had the disposition of a easy going bear, hard to rouse to anger and far more inclined to negotiate rather than confront a crisis. He had a high forehead, a cherub-like face with high cheekbones. The ship also had a photographer on board, a petty officer second class, called Jake. He was a thin and wiry thirty something, with a buzz cut, hard eyes, and a long thin face, with slightly hooked nose. He, too, had a family stateside. He was the opposite of Hank, more easily roused to anger and a distinct sense of what was right and wrong. A third petty officer second class, Sam, had a build similar to Hank, slight beer belly, too. He was in his late twenties, with had a wife in the states but no kids: Black hair, brown eyes, and a large face with a prominent Roman nose.

Among my peers— besides my roommate Art, there was Ernie, Manny, Ken, Cue—our pool shark, Grey Eagle, and Roger. Bespectacled Ernie had the handsome, boyish look of a high-school quarterback. Just under six feet tall, blond hair with a slightly receding hairline that looks attractive on a young face, blue eyes and a mouth that seemed to smile even when it was a rest. Manny was a dark-haired, light-skinned Puerto Rican, who had grown up in Queens and had no accent. He was about my height but with more athletic build, broad shoulders and an upper body of someone who can do a hundred pushups without breaking a sweat. These two shared a room. Ken and Cue, I had known before joining the Michelson crew. We had attended school in Virginia and Long Island.

Ken was from Minnesota. He was a inch or so shorter than me, but big framed with large hands. When you looked at him, you first noticed his overbite that gave his speech a slight almost imperceptible lisp. He had a broad face, blue eyes and a full head of blond hair. He loved to crack jokes and had a lack of social grace. He shared a room with Cue who was from Nebraska, a dark-haired fellow that stood five feet ten, with a medium build, the first signs of a beer belly—he loved drinking beer as much as playing pool. He had a slightly receding hairline, a good-looking face with brown eyes and dark brown hair. Cue was impetuous—he married during the last week we were in school on Long Island. The marriage, such as it was, was doomed from the start.

Dark haired, handsome faced with dark obsidian eyes and black hair, Grey Eagle stood over six-foot tall, with a lean athletic build. He was extremely introverted and had the quiet demeanor of a man with a big chip on his shoulder. There was a tension that surrounded him continuously, though when he spoke his voice was soft and you had to strain to make out what he said sometimes. Roger was what today would be called a nerd. He was a few inches shorter than Grey Eagle, with a mustache, short cropped hair that required no grooming, a look of concentration seemed to always pervade his broad face. Roger related far better to the machines on board ship than he did with his shipmates, though he could be drawn into conversations during meals. Roger’s machine was the ship’s NAVDAC computer, a much older machine than we had learned during our training course in Virginia. It was understood that no one was to touch the NAVDAC other than Roger, who took it as a measure of pride that it was never down for any length of time. Grey Eagle and Roger were roommates.

These would be my companions on my journey of adventure.

Out To Sea
Posted on 1/13/2005

We set sail from Yokosuka on Monday August 2nd, 1965. It was a warm muggy day. The uniform of the day aboard ship underway was denim shirt and pants and navy hat. Most of the denim pants had a slight bell-bottom to them, but many sailors spent the extra money to tailor the inseam so that it narrowed from the crotch to the knee—tightening around your thighs. From the knee to the pant bottom, the taper widened producing the bell. As the tugs nudge the Michelson out of the harbor and pointed us in the direction of the open Pacific, the ship’s master took control and steered us out onto open ocean. To be precise—someone besides the master most likely the first mate was at the wheel.

On deck in the focsle (“forecastle” area of the deck near the bow) I leaned over the side and watched the bow of the ship slice through the waters. There was a breeze blowing as we picked up speed and I walked aft to the stern of the ship and watched as Tokyo bay receded into the distance. It was just after midday and the crew was sluggish from the muggy warm heat—about 85 degrees Fahrenheit with 90 percent humidity. I had been in Japan for a couple of weeks but my body was still adjusting to the humidity. I had left El Paso a couple of weeks earlier where the humidity was less than 10 percent and the temperature was in the mid 90s. I had broken a sweat during the walk from bow to stern. We were pulling three eight-hour watches and mine would start at 1600 hours (4:00 PM).

There is a smell to the ocean, a mixture of salt and the organic smell of ocean life—not the smell of fish, though its odor is combined in the mixture, The smell embodies an amalgam of scents from ocean plant and animal life blended to produce one distinctive odor. When all signs of land had vanished and there was nothing but blue sky above and the wide expanse of ocean surrounding the ship, I went below deck to my room. On warm days like today, the interior of the ship could equal or exceed the temperature outside. Our only relief was a vent that blew a steady stream of air. I had one above and toward the foot of my bunk.

Ship routine got firmly established the first morning after leaving port. Everyone not on watch would find their way up to the enlisted men’s mess hall. The mess hall was on the port side of the ship (left side as you face to ship’s bow). It had seven tables each fixed to the floor with benches on either side—what you’re likely to find at a fast food restaurant. On board ship there is virtue in furniture that doesn’t move with the constant motion of the ship. A row of four tables greeted you as you entered the mess hall, extending lengthwise into the room from the bulkhead where they were bolted, benches bolted firmly to the deck on either side. Turning left you would be facing the galley with the remaining three tables at your left. Two portholes in the mess hall and one in the galley lit the interior during the day and naked four high-wattage overhead incandescent light bulbs—two over each set of tables—lit up the room at night.

Officers and civilians had a separate mess facility with their own stewards. Our steward was a character called Butch, a name that fitted his rugged look and his anti-intellectual speech and demeanor. He was much smarter and more sensitive than any one of us enlisted men could have imagined. Butch was a merchant marine and in combination with our cook, a towering black man who was a great cook, were the equivalent of “mom” to us had this been a normal household. We never got to know “Cookie” as he was affectionately called. He was shy and hesitant to engage in conversations that stretched beyond simple greetings and brief comments: “Cookie, how about them Yankees?” to which he would reply, “Them boys know baseball.” From there you’d have to serve up another question to keep the volley going.

Butch on the other hand was one of us. He had the build of a boxer, eyes that seemed to look beyond you even when fixing you in his gaze, no hint of a beer belly, broad shoulders, black hair struggling to escape his shirt at the neck and sleeves, big hands—far too masculine for the dainty task of serving dishes, which he did remarkably well. After getting everyone fed, he would sit with us and join our conversations. Morning conversations right after the ship got underway invariably centered around everyone’s adventures on shore. Butch described his new girlfriend. He had rented a house in Yokosuka and set her up there. She continued to work at the bar where they first met, but did not need to earn extra sleeping with men to help earn money for extras. Butch was already providing most of that in the house he was paying for.

He was beginning to worry that she was becoming more and more dependent upon him and in the process becoming more possessive of him as well. She knew he was not cheating on her during his time at sea. Every bar girl in Yokosuka knew the comings and goings of most of the ships that docked at Yokosuka. They knew that the “Mickey Maru” their name for the Michelson went to sea for 28 to 30 days and returned without going into port anywhere else. They probably had a good idea of what we were doing out there as well. He knew she was expecting him to marry her and take her back to the states. He was fully aware that he would not be able to deliver on that expectation and he was becoming increasingly concerned about the time some months hence when he would have to break the news to her. Before my tour was up, I would hear this story many times over.

Having Any Woman He Wanted
Posted on 1/14/2005

Evening meal was the major gathering time for us enlisted men. Butch would have cleared all the dishes away and everyone would be sitting around the mess hall drinking coffee and smoking. We all smoked. Marlboro was my brand, though the older guys teased those of us who smoked filtered cigarettes. I didn’t mind; I was the Marlboro man. Some evenings saw large gatherings of eight or more all talking about a memorable drinking party the group had before boarding ship, trading tales of mama-san and the best bar girl they had met, talking about the women in their lives back home. The best gatherings were those with Doc holding forth. Others in attendance would include Ernie, Manny, Cue, and Ken. Occasionally Gus, Bud, Hank, and Jake would join. After dinner on Monday evening our first night out, all those mentioned were assembled comparing tales about the drinking party they all attended at some time during Sunday evening. I had missed the festivities.

During the day on Sunday, the group had agreed to meet at the ship’s hangout bar, where Mama-san and the hostesses knew most of the crew. With few exceptions everyone who showed up at the bar was intent on getting drunk beyond remembering and the hostesses were only too happy to help them achieve their oblivion. Once each individual had reached their desired drunken state or spent their limit on booze, they had returned to the ship—everyone that is except Doc and Manny who had closed the place. The group now assembled was eager to hear what happened after they had left. The evening had begun with tension between Doc and Mama-San, who was older than the hostess at her bar, but an attractive, desirable woman in her own right. She was particularly covetous of her hostesses and did not approve of them having dates with the bar’s clients after closing. Doc and Mama-san were kindred spirits and often engaged one another in conversation or exchange of jokes and jibes.

Doc was drinking but was less concerned with getting drunk than finding a companion to spend this last evening in port with. When he entered the bar, he had noticed a new hostess and had asked Mama-san her name. Mama-san had told Doc her name Keiko and said that Keiko was Mama-san’s girl but could be Doc’s hostess for the evening expecting Doc to honor her request to keep his hands off. For Doc, the warning had exactly the opposite result. Learning that someone else had put a claim on Keiko only made her more desirable and he was determined to win her over before the evening was out.

Doc was in his late thirties, still handsome with his sandy-auburn hair that seemed slightly more red in the Pan-like goatee of his. He was a man of unlimited sexual appetite to hear him talk. On one occasion, he had been out with the pregnant wife of another sailor he knew. She had accompanied him to the enlisted men’s club on the Norfolk Navy Base offering to introduce him to a young woman who might spend the evening with. Unfortunately, there were no women in the club that evening and when Doc took his companion home, she invited him to her bed for the night. Doc often boasted that he wanted to be killed in bed by an enraged husband and he had numerous tales detailing last minute escapes from near death. On this particular evening, the husband was well out at sea and not due back before his child would be born. Doc was married but his wife was not with him at the time.

Being in Japan, sailors seldom find themselves in the company of American women except in the enlisted men’s club with the wives of other sailors. Doc had regaled us with his escapade in the club at Yokosuka a few months later. He had met a sailor and his wife and engaged them both in conversation. Doc had the same charismatic charm on men as he had on women. Men liked to be around him, listening to his stories, hanging on his every word. By the end of the evening, Doc was about to say his goodbyes and return to the ship, when the husband invited Doc to spend the evening at their quarters on base. Doc agreed and accompanied them to their house where he spent the night on their couch. When the husband left for his watch the following morning, the wife invited Doc into the still warm bed vacated by her husband. How much of this was male boasting is hard to tell, but seeing Doc’s affect on a woman it’s easy to imagine the tales are true.

This evenings tale was in the same vein as most of Doc’s others. He had begun buying drinks with the young hostess that Mama-san had warned Doc not to touch. As the evening wore on and midnight approached—closing time for all the bars throughout Japan back then, Doc had begun getting very familiar with the young hostess and she had found herself returning his affection. She would resist only when she caught the stern gaze of Mama-san directing her to behave. At one point during the evening, the young woman had forgotten herself and allowed Doc to engage in some rather heavy petting—this all the while the rest of the party were laughing and joking among themselves with their hostesses. Mama-san became so enraged at Doc’s advances that she approached the two of them and upbraided them both. While Doc smiled nonplussed, drew on his cigarette and sipped his drink, the young hostess was torn between her physical attraction to Doc and the strong reprimand from Mama-san. Doc knew he had won, when the young woman refused Mama-san's order to leave him and find another companion.

As midnight made its appearance and all the bars on Honcho Street began playing “Auld Lang Syne”, Doc, the smitten hostess, and Manny exited the bar. As Manny began making his way back to the base, Doc called after and invited him to join the two of them. As Manny slept off his drunk on the floor near their bed, Doc and the young hostess engaged in carnal lust. That was the story according to Doc. Manny was too drunk to remember what happened. He only remembered waking Monday morning and cabbing back to the base with Doc.

For a 19-year-old-going-on-twenty kid like me, Doc was the Alpha male incarnate. However, I could not reconcile the happy-go-lucky tales of female conquests with the reality I had experienced in all my relationships with women. Watching Doc was like watching a movie where the hero gets to sleep with whom he wants with no consequences, no emotional toll to be extracted for his indulgences, a free ride for the hero, But that was at the beginning of my adventure when all I was seeing was the outward appearance of all those aboard. Over time, new pieces of information would be added to Doc’s narrative that would begin to fill in the pieces omitted from his commentary. Eventually, a far more poignant picture would emerge. Like Doc’s life, my months at sea which began with an idyllic, benign ocean welcoming me would turn stormy and frightening at times making the beauty all that more beautiful.

Getting Away From Roommates
Posted on 1/15/2005

The first cruise was a milk run and very typical of most of the cruises that followed. I fit into the group easily because I had known many of those on board during the time we attended school in Dam Neck Virginia in the fall of 1964. However, my two room mates were both new. Art, though I took to calling him by his full name, Arthur, was from Dallas. He was close to six feet tall and had a high forehead. His blond hairline receded along the temples forming a W with a center crop extending to a point in the middle of his forehead. He had a lower lip that pouted slightly, a prominent nose, gray-green eyes, and a cultured Texas accent.

He had dropped out of Southern Methodist University to join the Navy. Given the build up to the Viet Nam War that had begun after President Johnson took office in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, it was a wise choice on his part. He was a choral singer, involved in his neighborhood church, and active in the church’s many activities—especially working with younger members of the congregation. You would have thought he was a pillar of the community. But, he abruptly informed his parents, his neighbors, and his friends, that he had decided to drop out of school and join the Navy and here he was sharing a room with me and young Tim, who Arthur had taken it upon himself to look after, while ashore. It seems that young Tim had seriously contemplated going AWOL by staying ashore as the Mickey Maru set sail this last time. It was Arthur’s counseling that convinced the lad to buck up and return to his duties aboard ship.

Tim was a reluctant enlistee in the Navy. He was a year younger than me, with boyish good looks, though possessing a face with no features that caught my eye sufficiently to leave an impression. I recall that he had light brown hair, a skinny build that had the body language of someone adrift and lacking direction but not caring. It seemed that he had become involved with the daughter of a well-to-do Houston politician and the two had decided to run off to New Orleans in the daughter’s car along with another couple and do something wild and crazy during the time they were in the Big Easy. The something wild and crazy they did was get married. Something that did not please the young woman’s father, who promptly got the marriage annulled and Tim was given an alternative of shipping out in the Navy or doing some time in a Texas jail for kidnapping. The chastened no longer married daughter would be willing to bear false witness at her father’s command. Tim found himself enlisted and on his way to boot camp in less time than it took for his whirlwind marriage and annulment.

There we were three people arriving at this place at this time each arriving for entirely different reasons. Arthur was leaving something behind. Tim was being pushed away and the Navy simply took him off someone else’s hand. I was there in search of adventure. No, that’s not completely true. I was there looking for myself. I lacked the financial resources or the academic prowess of someone like Arthur to have gone onto college from high school. I lacked Tim’s devil-may-care attitude that allowed him to follow whatever path that open itself to him, first New Orleans and marriage, then the Navy and the Mickey Maru.

When we docked after our first cruise, I had three days shore leave before I was to stand duty. I would have one day thereafter of shore leave before the ship headed out to sea once more. During the time I had been waiting for the ship to return, I had used some of my savings to purchase two tailored suits from one of the tailors off base. The small tailor shop with its tiny cramped space, its lone tailor and its bolts of wool fabric was going to turn me into a civilian. The tailor had been around the Navy base long enough to have acquired a good grasp of English and he knew the styles most likely to appeal to U.S. servicemen and civilians. I had selected a dark blue wool and he had taken my measurements. About a week later, I had returned to be fitted with the suit in its early stages of construction—its inner shell exposed like a person with layers of muscle and bone in plain view. I had donned this suit and with a contrasting pair of trousers and traveling clothes in a small suitcase, boarded the train from Yokosuka to Tokyo to spend my three days exploring this international city. It would be a welcome escape from the isolation of shipboard life at sea.

Japan’s train system in 1965 was the most efficient in the world. It was a measure of pride bordering on fanaticism that train conductors ran on time to within seconds. The trip from Yokosuka was a bit nerve racking as I had to constantly watch as each station came into view. I was planning to disembark at Shimbashi Station, where one of the civilian contractors on board ship, who spoke Japanese fluently and had a Japanese wife and two kids living in Yokohama, told me to disembark and to check into the Dai-Ichi Hotel. He said it was the Holiday Inn of Japan. I found both the train station and the hotel, which would become my residence in Japan when not aboard the Mickey Maru. The Dai Ichi is still within a short walk of Shimbashi station—I returned to Tokyo in the early 90s and spent a couple of days there on business, though I stayed in the new Annex as the Dai Ichi that was my old home was being completely refurbished.

The Dai Ichi in 1965 was nearly brand new, the result of a building explosion that was beginning to transform Tokyo from a low-rise city, to one of towering skyscrapers. The 11-story Dai Ichi was just the beginning. A single European-accommodation room with bath was 2000 yen, or $US5.56. A Western breakfast (eggs and bacon with toast) ran 450 yen or just over $US1.00. A Western lunch ran 700 yens, just under $US2.00. The hotel had several restaurants, the Fuji (its main dining room), the Grill Carnaval—with a Western menu, the Olympia—it served international dishes, the Ichi-Zushi (Sushi-shop), and a Chinese restaurant. It was after noon when I arrived and got checked in. I unpacked, hung up my suit jacket—it was warm and muggy in Tokyo and the coat though a light wool weave, was still too warm for the weather. With shirt leaves and slacks, I set out to explore the Ginza and the other areas around Shimbashi station.

A Walk About in Tokyo
Posted on 1/11/2005

As I walked out of the Dai Ichi Hotel that Tuesday August 31, 1965, I entered a wonderful world so entirely different than anything I had seen before. The smell of Tokyo was different than the smell of Yokosuka, though the two were familiar and both were unique from all the cities I had known in the states: San Francisco, New York, Norfolk, and Seattle. It is a distinctive smell, a mixture of diesel and gasoline fumes, burning sandalwood, and an amalgam of Japanese flora, cleaning solvents, and cooking fragrances emanating from the many small restaurants tucked into the side streets along Chuo-Dori the main thoroughfare leading from Shimbashi Station into the Ginza. There is a hint of the same scent in a Japanese car. In 1965, Chuo-Dori was lined with low rise buildings most no more than two or three stories high. There were a few new high rises in the Ginza, notable the cylindrical Mitsubishi Building rising nine stories, capped with a huge Mitsubishi logo at the top which rose a third of the height of the building further skyward. Around the bottom of the cap were the words Mitsubishi Electric Mfgr. Co.

The city had an energy that you could sense. It wasn’t the manic-neurotic force of New York, but the energy of a city where everyone seemed to be working toward a common purpose. You could sense it in the way people walked. Individuals within a crowd seemed to act as though part of a single larger entity. If there were any disruption it was due to an outsider like me not familiar with what was expected. Another sign was the greeting protocol where each person understood their position relative to those around them and acted accordingly, a younger man being deferential to an older, a shop or restaurant owner showing deference to customers, men seemingly peers with one deferring to the other. Small school children in groups—dressed in uniform of white top and short blue pants topped off by a blue cap—all following their teacher and assistants with a well-understood notion of what was permitted and what wasn’t. Older children dressed in a uniform of dark blue of black jacket and long pants of the same color. I was reminded of cadets at military academies.

During my first walk down Chuo-Dori, I discovered two great places that I would visit each time I stayed at the Dai Ichi. One was the Takarazuka Theatre and the other was the Nichigeki Music Hall, which was in the same building on a different floor. I can’t remember where the theater was and today the Takarazuka has been rebuilt and in no way resembles the multistory building I remembered back then, The Takarazuka on the ground floor was an all-female dance review that reminded me Radio City Music Hall—a movie followed the review. The shows were colorful music and dance productions—some with a large cast of dancers, others with two or more principal dancers demonstrating their artistry. The Nichigeki was a burlesque show, skits as well as partially nude dance numbers resembling the reviews in many Las Vegas hotels. One skit I remember clearly shows a young prostitute dragging herself home after a hard day. As she prepares for bed, she looks into her purse to count her earnings and, shrieking in outrage, realizes that she has been short changed. The skit was understandable with no knowledge of Japanese. However, all of the top banana sequences between longer skits were spoken and the jokes went over my head though the body language was quit funny.

As the day drew to a close and the city’s office workers began to file into the streets, I joined the crowd allowing myself to be swept along hoping to follow some group to where they were going. I ended up in a bar that was far different from those I knew in Yokosuka. This one had no hostesses waiting to greet you and become your companion for as long as you were inside. Instead it had a long bar that ran from near the entrance all the way to the rear of the building, which was sufficiently long that a good twenty-five or so patrons were seated side by side along its length on both sides—the bar ran down the center with drinks above the bar tender and beer in the coolers below. There were three such bars parallel to one another and nearly every seat was taken as I entered, found a vacant seat and order a Suntory Whiskey. As soon as I sat down, I found my box of Benson & Hedges cigarettes and lit up just as the bartender placed the whiskey in front of me and collected the Yen I had laid on the bar. I spent a good hour and a half in the bar watching the teaming crowd within. There were some solitary drinkers like me, but most were part of small groups two to three people talking shop, There were women in the bar but they were vastly outnumbered by the men. Back then women were just beginning to enter the work force and most were in secretarial pools in large offices. Dave Brubeck had produced an album entitled Jazz Impressions of Japan. In the album is a cut called “Toki's Theme,” his homage to one of these women.

I left the bar, its name I never knew as it was in Japanese not English, though many bars and restaurants signs had English or European names along with Kanji, and wondered back toward the Dai Ichi. I discovered along the way a high rise building featuring a bar at the top and I ventured up to have an Asahi beer and watch the sunset over Tokyo. By the time the sun went down, so was the beer and I returned to the hotel, freshened up grab a light dinner had headed back toward the Ginza to catch a movie. During my walk about earlier in the day, I had passed a number of movie theaters advertising American and European movies along with Japanese films. All the movies were in the original language with Japanese subtitles.

I spent the remainder of shore leave catching all the sights around Tokyo, Hibiya Park, the Imperial Palace, Tokyo Tower, but mostly I walked up and down the streets of the Ginza and the Marunouchi district—Tokyo’s business district. At night I caught a few more movies. I was “playing the role” as my shipmates called it, which meant pretending to be a businessman, not the sailor I was. But, that was okay, I came to enjoy the role I was playing. It helped shape the adult I would eventually become.

Getting to Know You
Posted on 1/26/2005

By the time I left on my second cruise on the Mickey Maru out of Yokosuka harbor, I had become familiar with the ship, its routine and with my shipmates. Like my first trip, this one began on a clear, hot day. Like everyone else on board, I had brought a bottle of Chivas Regal aboard to enjoy or to sell later in the voyage. My shipmates were far more ambitious, some bringing a full case on board to squirrel away beneath the drawers of the lower bunks. Those who had lower bunks held the prize storage space and they set the terms for allowing others to use their storage. Since I had only a bottle, I promised to share the bottle with Tim who had the bunk below me. Tim had a couple of bottles but made the space beneath his bunk available to others who had too much to fit into their own staterooms. Arthur likewise provided storage for others. Our stateroom was relatively sober by comparison with the rest of the staterooms, though to be fair, most of the liquor stashed away was for sale later in the journey to the merchant seaman that ran the ship.

From the ship’s master all the way to the lowly deckhand that continually kept the ship clean, the merchant seamen crew aboard the Mickey Maru were a strange breed. The crew consisted of Licensed Deck Department—they all had licenses for their jobs: Master and First, Second, and Third mates, the equivalent to officers in the Navy or management in a large corporation. They navigated the ship getting the civilian scientists to a destination and once there, the scientists navigated the vessel. In charge of the ship’s propulsion was the Licensed Engine Department: chief engineer and his First, Second and Third assistant engineers. One of them was watching over the engine and propulsion system around the clock. To provide the ship’s upkeep was the Unlicensed Deck Department (the enlisted men of the merchant Navy): Boatswain (Bosun), Ships Chairman (Shop Steward), Able Seaman, and Ordinary Seaman—the working class of shipboard society. They scrubbed, painted, and repaired the ship’s physical structure. To provide the engine’s upkeep was the Unlicensed Engine Department: Pumpman and Electrician (who were Qualified Members of the Engine Department—QMED), Pumpman (Tankers), Equipment (Liners), and finally, the lowly Wipers. They took care of all the utilities—electrical, water, and sanitation—aboard ship. To provide three square meals a day, there was the Steward Department: Chief Steward, Chief Cook and Baker, and Steward Assistant. Finally, a complete Military Sea Transport Service Ship had a radio operator.

Though we shared the same ship, we didn’t often mix with the MSTS personnel except the Steward Department that took care of our mess. And when the electrical system failed or plumbing got clogged we dealt with the engine department crew. Those I got to know, our steward, the electrician that fancied my eyes, among others were men who had a difficult time settling in one place. Most had trouble establishing and maintaining any kind of relationship. Many were alcoholic, including our Master and his mates. At least one was agoraphobic—he stood watch while in port for everyone else who wanted off the ship, never once leaving the ship during the time I was on board. Most were out of place on land. On board ship, their life was regimented by the sea and the demands of the vessel, so much so, that their daily routine was as regulated as the rising and setting of the sun. At the end of the cruise every stashed bottle of alcohol had been pulled from its hiding place and sold to the highest bidder. On a cruise that ran longer than planned the bidding got to a $100 for the last bottle of alcohol.

The ship’s electrician was one of the more intriguing characters aboard ship. He was quite good looking, with a boyish face, well groomed brown hair, brown eyes, an oval face with a smile that reminded me of a Cheshire cat—always with a knowing smile that suggested he knew something that he was keeping secret. And he wanted you to ask him to reveal it. At 19 years old, I was pretty naïve about the world, particularly about human relations. He sensed that naivety and tried to exploit it any chance he got. I liked him because, unlike most of the other merchant seaman, he was not an alcoholic, seemed to have a life off the ship—he had a place in Tokyo where he lived while the ship was in port, and had a engaging manner that made you like him. The merchant seamen had their own quarters and their own mess hall. They were separate but equal to us enlisted men but we each shared in common our working class station relative to the officers, civilian factory engineers, and government scientists we enlisted men and the merchant seaman reported to. The electrician and I talked mostly on deck when he would come up and surprise me as I gazed out at the expanse of ocean all around us—something I particularly enjoyed doing, especially when the ship was making for a destination and the dolphins and flying fish would be jumping out ahead of the bow; the ship would be moving at 10 knots but the dolphins seemed to keep pace effortlessly.

I didn’t mind his interruptions, as he would usually draw me into a discussion that would turn into a friendly debate—something I enjoyed, topics, such as the meaning of Plato’s forms or some such. However, the conversations all seemed to end with a discussion of my being homophobic. I made it plain on nearly every occasion that I was a raging heterosexual, but the Electrician seemed intent on convincing me that I was fearful of homosexuals—insinuating someone such as himself though never saying so plainly. The Navy had explicit rules about men fraternizing with one another, though “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the unspoken rule. And gay sailors remained firmly within the closet or else faced being drummed out of the service. The Mickey Maru was particularly strict regarding sexual orientation.

Each person aboard ship had at least a secret clearance. And you were admonished to keep completely silent about anything to do with the ship or its operation when ashore even on a military base. Homosexuality was viewed by the military as a weakness that could be exploited by enemies to extract secrets from a crewman. Curiously, it was completely acceptable to fraternize with hostesses at any bar in Japan or elsewhere in the world so long as you did not discuss your ship or its operation. An enterprising Mata Hari could bleed a drunk sailor dry of everything he knew in an evening. And most of the hostesses around the base in Yokosuka were well informed about the Mickey Maru’s movements and probably about what it did at sea as well. The civilian scientists were a source of this intelligence no doubt.

The Electrician was also curious about my visits to Tokyo, questioning where I had stayed, what I had done, where I had gone. And then with smiling cheek he would berate my activity condemning it as the actions of a tourist, not someone curious about the country, its culture, and its people. He was right. I enjoyed being in exotic Tokyo with its mix of Japanese and Western styles. While the majority of businessmen in the streets of the city wore Western suits, many of the merchants in the small restaurants and shops wore Kimonos, as did many women I saw in the city, especially those with children and most retirees. I was completely ignorant of their food and unlike many of my shipmates, Arthur and Tim, especially, I lacked an adventurous palate eager to taste the food of the island nation. My diet in Tokyo was strictly western from ham and egg breakfasts to Japanese versions of meat and potato dishes for lunch and dinner. The movies I went to see were American or European all played in their original language with Japanese subtitles.

The Electrician from our first extended conversations kept challenging me to experience the real Japan, not the compartmentalized Western enclosure that Japan constructed to keep outsiders from their exclusive culture. I read that outsiders mistakenly believe Japan integrates the ways of other cultures into their own. The reality is more like the performers I watched at the enlisted men’s club on base before I joined the ship. On stage were four Japanese performers all attired from head to toe in country and western dress. The musicians began playing an immediately recognizable Hank Williams song, “Your Cheating Heart” and the singer began singing the song exactly like Hank Williams. If you closed your eyes you could be Nashville listening to the same music. However, the musicians had cloned the music right down to the sound of the singer. It was almost a recording. That was how Japan adopted outside culture. It created a separate compartment where the foreign culture was quarantined and kept apart. The music was for that compartment. When the musicians went home the music was left behind safe in its enclosure.

I moved about this world as an outsider and I enjoyed that role, a voyeur that no one took notice of. Japanese typically looked at Westerners and immediately saw Gaijin. My darker skin and mixed Filipino-American features made me somewhat invisible. No one took notice of me except when I interacted—asked a question or made a reply—only then was I Gaijin. I took it as a compliment the number of times, Japanese would speak to me in Japanese before realizing I was Gaijin. The Electrician wanted me to engage this culture to become more familiar with it. The idea appealed to me, but I kept putting off his invitation to join him and his Japanese friends. I liked being on my own. The Electrician would become a continuing source of intrigue and danger for me. It wasn’t that I would fall under his spell, but rather being familiar with a security risk could bring me under closer scrutiny, another reason I kept declining his invitations.

Setting Sail on My Second Cruise
Posted on 1/28/2005

Life aboard ship during my second cruise the first week of September 1965 had become a very predictable routine. We spent several days traveling to a destination in the Pacific where the scientists on board had determined. Once on site, the ship would make a sonar sweep across a square area several nautical miles on a side, much like a crop duster sweeping across acres of farmland laying a stripe of insecticide, only we were drawing a precise map of the ocean bottom. Once constructed these maps could be used by submarines to navigate the ocean without ever having to surface. In an era of highly precise global positioning systems that can be had for a few hundred dollars, our effort appears naïve and so passé.

The vast majority of our cruise was spent going up and down one square area of ocean after another, the most tedious part of the trip. The most enjoyable part was the outbound and return leg of the cruise. During these times, the ship was moving at a good ten to fifteen knots, ten outbound and fifteen on the return as the Master was anxious to return to port. Each day had a routine. The duty of the sailors on board ship was to stand watch in three eight-hour shifts: 800 hours to 1600 hours, 1600 hours to 2400 hours, and then 100 hours to 800 hours. Those doing the day shift or the graveyard shift typically ended up in the mess hall after dinner, smoking and swapping stories, something we did a great deal of to pass the time.

The first day or two out of port the stories recounted drinking in Yokosuka bars or recounting a trip made to Yokohama or Tokyo and the bars frequented there. Later the stories got around to personal confessions that revealed startling intimacies into each sailor’s private life. The chief confessed to throwing the covers over his wife’s head and farting in bed. Tall petty officer second class Hank confessed his infidelity with a fellow sailor’s wife and how easily she had an orgasm and then reveled in helping him achieve his. Sam another petty officer second class in his late twenties with a build similar to Hank and sporting a slight beer belly, too, recounted his attempt to engage in anal sex with his wife and the grief he received as a result. These testimonies seemed to be attempts to relive the pleasure or expurgate the pain each memory produced.

Butch the steward for the enlisted men’s mess was one of us and he would join in our conversations after the meal was finished and he had cleared the dishes. He was a solid, muscular guy with no hint of a spreading paunch. He had the attitude and physical appearance of a boxer, a middleweight, with arms and hands better suited to trading blows than neatly serving our meals, a task he did with considerable skill and grace, almost as if he had once been a waiter at some fancy restaurant. His speech had the quality of a fighter’s, a cadence that suggested each word was measured before being delivered. This made him appear slightly slow, but no one would ever mock him for it. Though he seemed mild mannered and harmless, you got the sense that Butch had done his share of standing up for himself. I took an immediate liking to Butch. I suspect the act of bringing food to me every day elevated him in my eyes—a nurturer, a provider. I must confess though that he and I would have little in common once off the ship.

On this trip out Butch was happily explaining how he had set up housekeeping with one of the hostesses in the Mickey Maru’s bar. I had remembered seeing him sitting with the hostess he was describing, a young thing with a sad, vulnerable look on her pretty oval face, tinged with European features. I had suspected she had been hurt and Butch had come along in time to catch her as she was falling. He was over the moon describing how great it was to be living with a woman in a place of their own. He had moved some of his personal belongings off the ship into the new place, mostly clothes, books, records, and small collectables he had picked up during his travels. On the last day of shore leave she had taken him to Kamakura to see the Great Buddha that had survived typhoons and Earthquakes since 1252. Perhaps she was seeking a blessing for their new union. He confessed to how he missed lying all night with her curled up beside him. I got the sense that Butch had a real affection for his young companion. I wondered what it would be like when he had to leave her.

After I had my fill of stories, I would often go out on deck and enjoy the night. On board ship at night in the middle of the Pacific Ocean you can look up in the sky, especially on moonless nights and see so many stars it would make my head spin. The majesty of that endless expanse of sky and the realization from the ship’s movement of being completely alone hundreds of miles from land gave me a sense of being completely insignificant. For the rest of the world, the Mickey Maru and its crew had ceased to exist when it sailed out of Tokyo Bay. In fact, most of the time we were at sea, no one knew where exactly we were. Our mission gave the Navy some idea of the where in the pacific we were, but we were outside of the consciousness of most everyone who knew us casually or intimately. Perhaps, that was why all my shipmates with wives and girlfriends somewhere in the states or in Japan were continually reliving the memories of their time ashore. They wanted some connection to that land we had left behind. For a single guy like me, the ship was where I belonged—the land was where the ship took me. The ship was where I was from and for the next fourteen months, it was where I would be going as well. I was having that adventure I had read about during my high school years.

An Evening in Tokyo’s Gay Subculture
Posted on 2/21/2005

During the time the USNS Michelson was in port a couple of months before sailing to Portland for its repairs in dry dock in December 1965, I had agreed to go to Tokyo with the electrician, who had complemented me on my beautiful eyes the day I came aboard. I’ll call him “S” for lack of a better name, which I cannot recall. “S” had a partner he lived with in Tokyo and the two of them had plans to show me around a part of the city most guys like me were oblivious of. When the ship pulled into Yokosuka for our monthly re-supply in port, “S” and I boarded the train for Tokyo. I had an overnight case with me as I planned to stay a couple of nights. What manner of overnight case and exactly what I packed besides my toilet items escapes me. I want to say a change of underwear, a couple of dress shirts, some socks, and one or two ties. I was then and still am a fussy dresser and I might have had a second pair of slacks as well.

We got off the train at a stop before Shimbashi Station. I want to say at Shinagawa Station, but my recollection is imperfect at best. We walked for a good five minutes through a maze of streets and alleys. Along the way I tried to fix landmarks in my mind so I could retrace the path back to the station without having to be guided by “S”. Eventually we arrived at a small apartment-like complex. In Japan, Tokyo especially, the scale of buildings are smaller than anywhere I have ever been in the U.S. Doorways are narrower and lower than Westerners are used to. And before entering any home or living quarters, shoes are exchanged for slippers left near the entrance hall or genkan.

I entered the small building padding down a narrow corridor my stockinged feet encased in borrowed slippers. The walls within the building—typical of Japanese structures of the time were thin and made of what appeared to be paper. We entered the living room through the “fusuma” a heavy paper door. It fascinated me that in Japan this was what served to prevent someone entering your living space—no deadbolt, no lock, merely a closed door. One of the books I read while in Japan, the title of which was something like The Psychoanalysis of the Japanese Mind, observed that insane asylums in Japan contained patents simply by locking the fusuma to their room, suggesting that the taboo against breaking something as fragile as these doors is conditioned at a very early age into every Japanese.

Inside the room, the parlor or zashiki, was a small square table, tsukue, standing hardly two-feet off the tatami floor. The zashiki was the epitome of minimalist functionality, the tsukue—its only piece of furniture—would serve as dining table at meal times as well as gathering place for socializing and tea at other times. “S”’s housemate greeted me as a guest, o-kyaku. “S” took the time to explain the Japanese words to me as we went along. He was learning the language and wanted to practice the words when the opportunity presented itself. A neophyte gaijin like me was the perfect opportunity. I don’t recall “S” friends name, but I’ve concluded that “T” will serve my purposes. “T” invited us to sit for a while and take some tea. We sat crossed legged on cushions, zabutons, around the tsukue and chatted, “S” telling “T” about his naïve shipmate who has no idea of the real Japan and is content to live within the Westernized world the Japanese have created to keep outsiders at a distance.

We lingered for almost an hour conversing and drinking tea. As the conversation exhausted itself, “S” suggested we go out for dinner and then visit a couple of nightspots where the two of them would introduce me to some of their friends. The first place we entered was a bar not far from “T”’s place. It was dark outside now and the street lighting was minimal in the neighborhood of dense low-rise residential dwellings mixed in with commercial storefronts along every artery—narrow ones catering to foot traffic and wider ones accommodating small vehicles—some only wide enough to handle a single lane of traffic, others larger thoroughfares wide enough for two lanes. I was completely lost and knew I would have to find a wide street and hail a cab to get back to the train station, but I would have to retrieve my luggage from “T”’s place first.

The first place we visited was definitely not something I had ever seen in Tokyo, but I suspect it was no more a reflection of the “real Japan” as the Dai Ichi Hotel. The place was teeming with Japanese men, all of them laughing and talking together far more than in any bar I had ever frequented in Japan. It resembled a party where everyone knew one another rather than a public bar where small groups carried on among themselves. As “S” and “T” entered several of the tables shouted out greetings and as we made our way to the bar, patrons seated along the long bar turned and nodded greetings as well, some exchanging words with “T” others shouting broken English to “S”. I had just entered the bar where everyone knows your name and “S” and “T” were busy explaining to their friends that I was their straight guest in tow. I had never been hugged and kissed on the cheek by more men in my life. I took it in the good-natured spirit that it was all intended. I was the evening’s entertainment: everyone aware watching the reaction of a straight male in a room full of gay men.

We found a table and ordered drinks, male server, though I did notice one or two females waiting tables as the evening drew on. One or two men from the bar or from other tables would come over and join us for a time, those conversant in English would speak directly to me, others who weren’t would ask in Japanese and “T” would relay the question to me and translate the answer. The first question was about my ethnicity, mixed American and Filipino, some would giggle at the response, others would want to know the ethnicity of my father, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant—Southern Baptist actually though he has since converted to Catholicism, the result of my mother’s piety and close involvement with the priests of their church. Had I ever had a gay encounter? And to my answer, no, there was a general disbelief—every boy growing up has had to have had some form of gay experience followed by a list of all the activities that fell into the category.

Had I been questioned with less alcohol to drink and without the company of “S” and “T” I would have simply walked away. The questions were personal and would have been inappropriate at any other time and place. Here and now, they were acceptable. I answered each query after combing my memory to ensure a “no” was the correct response. In light of all the questions, I was amazed at how completely naïve I was about the world—that is assuming everyone asking the questions had experienced what they were inquiring about. I began to see this small colony where these men could gather and be themselves. Outside the community they had to assume a guise of normalcy that would allow them to get along day to day. And by the look of most of them, they fared well in the straight heterosexual world of Tokyo. Most appeared affluent enough to prosper in both worlds, though I’m sure they felt as estranged in the straight world as I felt in theirs.

In the 1960s, homosexuality was as visible in Tokyo as it was in San Francisco. After all, one of Japan’s greatest novelist of that era, Yukio Mishima, pseudonym for Hiraoka Kimitake, was gay. His first major work Confessions of a Mask, which appeared in 1949, dealt with discovering his homosexuality. The work’s narrator concluded, that he would have to wear a mask of 'normality' before other people to protect himself from social scorn. His last work, The Moon Like a Drawn Bow, was performed in 1969 at the National Theatre. The play ended with a scene of a seppuku—the Japanese formal term for ritual suicide, something Mishima would carry out poorly on himself in 1970. Mishima’s seppuku had less to do with his sexual preference than with his masochistic fantasies and to his failed attempt to seize control of a military headquarters in Tokyo. He sought to redeem his lost face in the manner of the Bushido, the samurai knightly code of honor he had sought to reestablish in Japan.

It was getting close to 10:00 PM by the time we left the bar. Outside after we began walking we happened to pass another lively place, which had the word “Rathskeller” in its name. Coming toward us from the opposite direction was a tall blond haired young man about my age but a few inches taller than my five foot, six inch height. He was dressed in the school uniform of a Japanese high-school student, black, possibly dark blue—hard to tell in the limited light—trousers and jacket buttoned to the neck with stiff collar. On either arm were two young blond haired girls dressed smartly in autumn colored skirt and white blouse covered with a light-colored sweater. “S” and the young man exchanged glances and the two exchanged greetings, the two young women walking on toward the entrance of the Rathskeller. The young man, I’ll call “X” invited us to join him and his friends for drinks and we followed the threesome down into the cellar. It was a noisy place with long communal style wooden tables I would recognize years later in the beer halls of Munich.

The sight of two attractive women suddenly pulled me out of the testosterone-rich world I had been in for the past several hours. However, they were oblivious of the rest of us, talking between themselves, politely answering the couple of questions I asked them once we had been seated then turning into themselves as I was drawn into conversation with my three male companions. The dialog was a repeat of the ones I engaged in earlier in the evening, though it was more of a tennis match as I asked as many questions of “X” as he asked of me. He was a student in a Japanese high school; his father in U.S. Government service, which department I forget now. He spoke Japanese with hardly an accent and spoke English without a discernible dialect.

My ninth-grade high school English teacher in El Paso, a lovely, white-haired fifty-ish matron, who I adored and instilled in me a great love of literature, was also intent on getting all of her class to speak proper American English. Her ideal of someone speaking proper American English was Edward Everett Horton, the voice actor narrating “Fractured Fairytales” from the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon show. I never asked but always wanted to know if that’s where she had known him. Her reply would more likely be the many films he had appeared in during the 1940s notable the role of Mr. Witherspoon in the Frank Capra's 1944 version of Arsenic and Old Lace, with Gary Grant in the lead. The way “X” enunciated English would have passed my ninth-grade English teacher’s test. She would have loved the way he spoke and I mentioned as much to him as we spoke, recounting the story, though it must have sounded so much like something someone with too much to drink would say.

As it got close to midnight, we exhausted the conversation and I was getting tired and a tipsy. The two parties left together and we said our good byes at the spot near the Rathskeller’s entrance were we cross paths earlier in the evening. I was telling “S” and “T” how much I had enjoyed the evening and asked if they could help me find a cab after I picked up my suitcase from their place so I could get a ride to the Dai Ichi—I had no heart to lug my suitcase onto a train and then lug it the distance from Shimbashi Station to the Dai Ichi. They protested insisting that I should spend the night with them but I politely but firmly declined. They understood but suggested that I stay at a Japanese hotel nearby their place. It was much cheaper than the Dai Ichi and I would get a chance to experience a night as a real Japanese would experience it. I was so tired that I accepted the suggestion just to be on my way to my bed.

As we were about to leave, “X” returned explaining that he had put the girls into a cab and decided to join us if that was okay. “S” and “T” were overjoyed. For them the evening was still young. The three began discussing places to go and after they had decided I reminded them that I was going to bid them all good night once I collected by luggage. At this point, “X” expressed surprise that I was giving up so early. Then “X” asked if I would like some company for the evening and I said no that I wasn’t gay, a fact that “S” and “T” confirmed. The four of us returned to “T”’s place. Along the way, “X” asked if I had found his two female companions attractive. I admitted that I had but realized that I was appealing to neither of them. He said I should not take it as rejection since the two were together.

That explained a great deal about the evening. I should have realized that “S” and “T” had settled in a gay enclave and that here the straight person was the outsider. I asked “X” if his parents were aware of him being gay. He said he suspected they knew but he played his role as the dutiful straight son and they allowed him to live his life without trying to change him. I told him he was a very handsome young man and must have broken many young women’s heart, when he had not reciprocated their interest. At this he blushed and I bade them all a good evening of revelry. I exchanged my shoes for the hotel slippers and followed Mama-San to my room, made myself a pot of green tea, and once I had finished it settled into my bedding, which had been turned down and awaiting my arrival: a thin feather mattress, sparkling clean sheets, and a down comforter. I crawled between the sheets, rested my head on the small firm pillow and was asleep almost instantly.

A Spy in Our Midst
Posted on 2/22/2005

During the cruise in October 1965, two months before my trip to Tokyo with the ship’s electrician in late November, there were some strange goings on that had my roommate “A” a bit paranoid. “A” was convinced that there was someone on board collecting information about the ship’s crew and he had his own idea of who it was, though, there was no way to prove his assertion. “A” had an insatiable love of gossip. I remember conversations in our stateroom that lasted well into the night with him relaying gossip about others on board as well as gossip about his friends back home.

“A” was a disillusioned young man, whose naivety had been turned into cynicism. In one conversation, he recounted a most beautiful wedding. Picture bride and groom, two members of the church choir, both possessing gifted voices being married in one of the largest, most ornate churches in Dallas, packed with family, friends, and well-wishers. The two came together at the altar before the minister and suddenly the organist begins to play “Because you come to me,” and the two begin to sing interleaving the verses.

In another conversation, he recounts his days as a male escort in a service where he worked to help pay for college tuition. Presumably the order women he was hired out to escort were only interested in having company at social functions. Imagine his consternation at finding them desiring far more than that and were willing to pay far more for the extra. His cynicism had been transformed into a general mistrust of everyone. I suspect he might have even considered me for the spy at one time, but probably dismissed me as being too naïve.

The one “A” suspected was a young officer on the ship who seemed too much of a chameleon. “A” cited examples of the officer changing colors to blend in with the surrounding group: drinking and playing card with the merchant seaman, doing the same with the factory reps and the scientists on board. He would also gossip with the enlisted men, often engaging them individually in informal conversations the way you would hang out and talk with friends at home. He did have that ability to charm and disarm you when he engaged with you. I had an occasion to speak with him on deck during pistol practice, shooting off the stern of the ship at targets hung above the railing. It never occurred to me that the officer was doing anything more than having a chat, though he did ask a great many questions, nothing direct, but rather unfinished thoughts he left the listener to complete.

I liked him because he took an interest in what I thought. He asked about my plans to re-enlist. I told him that I wasn’t and when he pressed me as to what I would do afterwards, I told him I wanted to go back to college and get my degree. He tried to make me feel guilty that the Navy had spent two years sending me to electronics and computer schools and I would only serve a year and a half more before being discharged to inactive reserve. Most all other new recruits would have had to sign up for a six-year tour to get half that schooling. I explained that I had been ordered to all the schools I attended and extending my enlistment was never a precondition. He smiled at that and said I was a very lucky sailor. In hindsight, I was incredibly lucky.

During the conversation, he tried to get me into a discussion of the other guys on board the ship, where we went together—the bars, the women we associated with, the kind of talk sailors typically had with one another. I listed off the places I had gone with various groups. I was not part of any regular crowd that hung out together consistently, but would mingle with different ones going ashore for a night out. Everyone on board ship was teased for some peculiar trait. For me, I was known as the guy who “played the role”—dressed up in suit and tie and hung out in Tokyo more than bar crawling in Yokosuka and Yokohama with the rest of the crew. He asked where I liked to go in Tokyo and I listed the places I liked to hang out, talking about movies houses where I had seen memorable movies, book stores that sold books in English and other European languages. He knew some of the places I mentioned and we swapped experiences.

My pick for the “spy” was a big guy named “Y” who was in charge of ordering stores for the Navy detachment—someone who interacted with everyone except the merchant seaman crew. Whenever I needed parts for the Bendix G15D computer I maintained, I would requisition them from “Y” who had a work space cluttered with so many catalogs, I had no idea how he found anything, but he explained that there was an order to the clutter, pointing out a cluster of catalogs that stretched the width of an 8-foot-wide desk. The pages were bound into a metal shelf that tilted the tops of the pages 45 degrees off the desk. Starting from the left and going to the right, the bound pages listed every part for all the Navy equipment on board each associated with a standard military part number designation. He knew where I should look and I moved to that section of the bound volumes and sure enough I found tubes for the G15D, motor parts, cabinet components, circuit cards—a complete listing of all the replaceable parts of the G15D and beside each part was the military part number. “Y” had the keys to the biggest candy store in the world and all he needed was a signature from the commanding officer on board and he could get anything we wanted—talk about power.

I had dismissed “A” suspicions about a spy in our midst, but I became more cautious of what I said both aboard ship and ashore. I had completely forgotten about the whole spy-in-our-midst scare “A” had engendered in me—and himself, I’m sure—until the end of December just before we were about to begin our trip to Portland for repairs in dry dock. I had returned to the ship after a couple of days in Tokyo. The following morning, I was told by “C” the ranking chief petty officer on board that I was to make myself available for an interview at 1000 hours in the officer’s mess. There was a tension aboard ship that I could sense. Even “C” was being very careful in choosing his words and nobody was saying anything at all about what was happening in the officer’s mess.

My first reaction was panic. I had been to Tokyo and I had been in an area of the city that might have been considered off limits. The Navy knew all about homosexuality—they discharged you immediately with a medical discharge if you are determined to be gay. I was certainly not, but I had been in the gayest part of Tokyo. It scared me that someone might have told the Navy about my evening. I had not described my evening to anyone on board the ship, not even “A” or my other roommate. The only person who knew where I had been that evening was the ship’s electrician, “S”, his significant other “T”, and the high school student “X” in our bar hopping that evening. Was “X” a spy sent out to entrap unsuspecting sailors? Had “S” been interrogated and ratted me out under questioning? The two-hours between 800 and 1000 hours was the longest I could recall spending in the Navy. The countless times during my tour of duty I was ordered to hurry up and wait had only made be come to expect the treatment, not produce any way to cope with it.

When 1000 hours rolled around I entered the officer’s mess and stood at attention, my Navy white cap held in my left hand. I felt awkward not knowing whether to salute or not, but the two men in the room—attired in business suits—were in conversation when I entered. After finishing their remarks to one another, they turned to face me and asked me to stand at ease and take a seat. I said thank you sirs and did so. They began with simple questions: what was my name, my rank, what were my duties aboard the ship—by the way, are you enjoying your tour so far. The last question struck me odd and I took pains to answer it with some details. I explained that I enjoyed the ship, its crew, and the work of the ship—I found the ship’s mission interesting and rewarding.

Thereafter, the questioning got very, very specific. They asked what I had requested be ordered in the way of replacement parts for the equipment I maintained in the months I had been on board ship. I explained that I had ordered tubes and air filters for the computer I maintained. They showed me the forms I had completed to do so and I acknowledged them and my signature on each along with the signature of two others up the chain of command. They then asked me about “Y”. How well did I know him? Hardly, I replied since I had never been bar crawling with him, nor had I had much occasion to speak with him on board ship—he tended to stay to himself. The two had a way of asking the same question a different way later in the inquiry and this happened several times. I would provide the same answer worded differently because I could never remember how I had said something earlier. In reality “Y” was a man it would be hard to befriend. If I had to describe him he was big around the middle, but tall, close to six foot so he towered over me; the build of a John Candy, the mean demeanor and rugged facial features of Tommy Lee Jones and his voice was gruff and gravelly.

When the ship left port en route to Portland, “Y” was not aboard. In fact, he had not been aboard when I returned to the ship from Tokyo either. Once the crew was out to sea, the story began to unfold. The guys who interviewed us all were from Office of Naval Intelligence. “Y” had been taken into custody for something pretty serious, but no one knew exactly what. The reasons that everyone came up with ran the gamut from being a spy to grand theft. I guess, I had been wrong about “Y”. If he had been a spy he was not spying on us. “A” on the other hand seems to have been right about their being someone in our midst checking us all out.

1965 Yokosuka to Portland, A Journey
Posted on 2/7/2005

Departing Yokosuka Harbor on the 21st of December 1966, the Mickey Maru cast off on a journey across the Pacific. Its destination was dry dock in Portland, Oregon. The journey took two weeks exactly to complete with the ship sailing at close to its maximum speed of 16 nautical miles per hour. The voyage was new to most of us aboard ship in that we had never set sail for another port since most of us had been aboard. Our usual voyage was to find several locations (ocean stations) in the South Pacific, perform some mapping, occasionally stopping to take samples and then move on. We were all excited because we had a state side destination in sight and we were cruising there nonstop.

This voyage was the most memorable of all for me, mostly because I have clear memories of certain parts of the cruise unlike the others which are a collection of random memories with no definite time associated—for example this cruise we crossed the equator and underwent the Crossing the Equator Ceremony. Aboard a real Navy ship we newbies, called Slimy Pollywogs, would have endured some loathsome initiation rites at the hands of the Trusty Shellbacks—those who had already crossed. It would have been at the Trusty Shellbacks’ discretion and for their enjoyment just what the indignity we Slimy Pollywogs would have to suffer. I can’t remember what actually transpired but the presence of civilians and the lack of a large number of Trusty Shellbacks kept the ceremony more subdued. We all received our certificate of passage, which I believe went into our personnel file.

One of incidents that left a lasting impression on me was the rough sea a week into the journey. I had never seen the ocean so angry and violent. The breezy, sun-baked placid surface of the South Pacific had turned turbulent. I remember coming up from my stateroom below deck after my graveyard shift to catch a glimpse of what I had felt below deck throughout my watch, the constant rolling and pitching of the ship as it carved its path over a surface that I later saw resembled a constantly changing landscape of shallow and deep liquid arroyos and sharp upwardly jutting or gently watery rising mounds. The sky was completely overcast and pelting the ship with a fierce wind driven rain, not a hint of sun to be seen anywhere in the sky.

Standing in the enlisted men’s mess hall in front of a table with a porthole, I seated myself on the bench seat of the table—both securely bolted to the deck—and slide along the bench to the porthole and stared out.

I was the only one in the mess hall. All of my fellow shipmates had either decided against breakfast or were waiting to come up for chow, including our steward. I supposed they were secure in their room unless at a duty station. I had the place to myself and the view out the porthole was completely overwhelming. As the ship would roll to starboard, all I could see out the porthole was a wall of water. I kept wondering what the chances were that the ship would roll at such an angle that the main deck would dip beneath the surface and the ship would begin to take water and be unable to right itself. After a time watching in awe the ocean toss the 13000-ton ship about like a bathtub toy, I made my way up to the bridge to glimpse the sea the ship was plowing through. And the incredible sight I saw out the porthole was even more astonishing viewed through the higher and wider perspective from the bridge. The ship’s bow would drop into a depression left by a passing wave and white water would careen over its top rushing for the drainage holes on both port and starboard sides of the main deck.

I made small talk with the bridge crew while watching the sea in the safe confines of the warm dry bridge. Each of us recounted waves that had impressed us. Afterwards, I made my way below deck to my stateroom, got undressed and climbed into my top bunk. Everything in the cabin had been tied down or stowed as we began our trek into troubled waters the night before. I crawled into bed, dead tired from the long night and eager to allow the rough sea to rock me to sleep, which is exactly what it did. I slept most of the day waking after 1600 hours rested and hungry but knowing the most I’d find in the mess hall would be cold sandwiches. The cook would have been hard pressed to prepare a hot meal in a storm like this.

Another memory was my first Christmas spent aboard ship, a few days before the advent of the storm. Christmas Eve was a Friday and Christmas was Saturday. On the days leading up to our departure from Japan, I had spent the weekend, December 18th and 19th in Tokyo at the Dai Ichi. Upon my arrival on Friday, I spent the evening wandering the Ginza, dropping into the Japanese bars and beer halls that did not have hostesses but rather made their money selling liquor. As I walked about, I noticed that the Ginza had decorated itself up with Japanese interpretations of Christmas decorations. The ceremony, which would officially begin on Monday the 20th, was called bonenkai (forget the year past). It’s a week of bacchanal when the salarymen of Tokyo get to drink themselves into stupors throughout the week in an attempt to purge the past year. Time magazine reported that Tokyo had 3000 clubs in the six sakaba the sections of the city where drinking is licensed. You would see sandwich boarded men in crude imitations of Santa Clara parading the streets advertising night clubs for your bonenkai event. This was a custom that excluded outsiders as well as women.

It was enough to make me homesick for the Christmas that I knew as a child, but for the past two years had spent on Navy bases away from home. This would be my third. I did not let it get me down. Rather, I took pleasure in knowing that some version of Christmas was being celebrated so many miles from home. I did not drink to forget the homesickness. In fact, by the standards of my shipmates I was a teetotaler. I seldom got so drunk that I had to stagger back to the Dai Ichi or to the ship. I ended my stay in Tokyo literally circulating at the top of the Otani Hotel, nursing a scotch and soda and eating the free munchies the hotel provided with my drink. I so enjoyed watching a constantly changing view of Tokyo rotating at my feet many stories below.

On board ship, celebrating Christmas was an alcoholic endeavor. A few of the staterooms had been converted into casinos with poker the game of choice played on the floor with a stiff whiskey and water sitting beside each player. I was not much of a gambler. I sat in on one game and every time I got a winning hand—three of a kind, full house, or a flush, I started to shake uncontrollably. The first time it happened I had just gotten into the game and the pot had grown to about $10, a good size pot considering the ante was a quarter. It was a game of 7-card stud and there were eight players sprawled in a rough circle inside a stateroom of one of the first class petty officers. I forget whose room. Everyone had something in his hand, two of a kind, maybe even three of a kind. I had a full house kings high and a couple of number cards, I had the hand with my third king and my second number card in the two cards left on the table. I had struggled to keep my body from shaking and I avoided talking no matter how my fellow players tried to draw me into banter. When the final round of betting completed and my one remaining opponent had called, I displayed my hand and was rewarded with my only big win of the evening. I spent the rest of the evening well into early morning giving most of it back plus some. Each time I had a good hand, everyone would roll their eyes and throw in their cards if they had nothing.

I threw in my cards on the last hand, $10 in the red and grabbed some breakfast—it was 800 hours—and went to bed. My watch started at 1600 hours. As a way to spend Christmas it wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t Christmas and what was pretty scary in retrospect was that nearly every sailor aboard that ship was drunk that night and was probably still drunk—especially the Merchant Seaman crew including the master and most of his mates. Miraculously, we all lived through it.

Dishing Out Grief
Posted on 2/9/2005

The journey from Yokosuka Harbor to dry dock in Portland, Oregon held one other unforgettable experience. It involved Gus, the Petty Officer First Class that I admired. Gus was a fellow I looked up to because he didn’t take himself seriously. He was in the Navy because he didn’t fit into the world outside and knew it. He was well suited to sailing about a wide-open ocean. It was a metaphor for his life, which lacked an anchor holding him to any place or person. There was a bar in Yokosuka that was a bit more upscale than those most of the younger sailors from the base frequented. The hostesses were older, late twenties, early thirties. The civilians from the ship made it their bar, as did the older petty officers like Gus. My first visit came as a result of a recommendation from one of the factory representatives I knew from the ship and earlier from the factory school where I had been trained—ironic that both of us were assigned to the Michelson to maintain the same equipment. The factory reps were engineers and thus the experts. The sailor like me were there to operate the equipment not maintain it. The Navy, however, had sent us to school with the goal of us maintaining the gear: a case of “catch 22” that worked in the sailors favor.

When I got to the bar, the name of which escapes me now, the place struck me as not your average Yokosuka watering hole. For one thing, the place had a long bar that extended from the entrance to the rear of the building. Tables were to the right two deep running the length from entrance to rear of the room. There were a great many regulars in the place sitting at the bar and all seemed to know the hostesses, bartender, and Mama-San. One of them was Gus, who was seated with an attractive woman. He invited me to join him and his companion and I took the seat on the other side of her. I took to her immediately, a woman with a presence about her. She knew who she was and made no apologies for it. And yes, there were traces of European features in her lovely round face, somewhat rounded brown eyes, thin lips, and slightly more pointed nose than is typical on a Japanese face.

I could see that she and Gus were more than drinking buddies, though I doubted she had any misgivings about his ever settling down with her and raising a family—I saw the possibility however. I learned little or nothing of who she was but I learned a great deal about Gus, his failed marriage, his desire to not marry again, the plight of his two children, now being raised by another man, how cold it gets in Michigan in the winter—I suspect the weather was not the only thing that was terribly cold in Michigan. Having been raised as the dependent of an Army sergeant, I knew the stress that military life inflicted on a family. For a Navy household, the strain was intensified by the months; often years sailors are separated from their family aboard ship.

Gus and his companion were cut from the same cloth, emotional realists who knew themselves and their place in the world. She knew that the life of a hostess in Yokosuka was her lot and she was making the best of it, never expecting Prince Charming to walk into the bar and deliver her from this life. Gus, saw himself in her, a lonely soul, fiercely independent, looking for help from no one, while trying to inflict as little grief on others as was possible in a world that demanded each of us dish out some amount of grief in their lifetime. She accepted Gus’s keeping her while he was in port but made it plain that she did no expect to see him again when he left. On each return, whatever they shared lasted for the time they were together. In some ways their relationship was intense and meaningful since it meant something for the time they were together. Its existence depending on the two of them making an effort to keep it alive each time they saw one another again.

Gus was the Petty Officer First Class on duty as the watch supervisor one night two thirds of the way across the Pacific from Yokosuka to Portland. We were sailing through choppy seas that were relative benign for a ship with full control, but became menacing to one without. The emergency came on suddenly when the siren and intercom blurted general quarters. As we all turned to, information began to emerge in bits and pieces. Finally, everyone learned there was a steering failure that left the ship without the ability to direct itself in the water. The storm that had plagued us earlier in the trip had mercifully left us in its wake before we lost steering, but the sea was nevertheless nasty and as we drifted sideways into the waves we began to experience rolls that made it difficult to walk anywhere on the ship. Aft the chief engineer and his assistants were working feverishly to restore control to the ship.

Gus had yelled down over the intercom an order that I failed to carry out immediately having been distracted by another task that was occupying me as I answered his intercom communication. I eventually got round to carrying out his order only to find him confronting me in the computer room yelling at me that he could have me before a court martial for neglecting to carry out his order as commanded. I explained what had delayed me and it seemed to calm him down. This was not typical of mild-mannered Gus, who seldom raised his voice. I suspect a combination of the stress of the emergency and his realization at how close we came to having a real problem prompted his rage: nerves and fear finding release.

The all clear had just come down and the ship’s intercom had broadcast that everyone should return to their duty stations and resume normal ship’s operation. Gus apologized for the outburst but still insisted that I follow orders in the future, I said I would knowing I had been wrong to delay. It was one of those instances when Gus had to dish out that share of grief he had been compelled to distribute in his lifetime. Unhappily it had been my time to receive it.

Posted on 2/11/2005

Up until January 1966, the farthest I had traveled by ship had been from Brooklyn Naval Shipyard to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was nine years old then. On Tuesday morning January 4th 1966 that all changed. I was on deck near the bow of the USNS Michelson looking east at the horizon and watching the shoreline of Oregon come into view, the near completion of a 6000 mile journey from Yokosuka to Portland Shipyard.

Travel by sea affords the sojourner the luxury of contemplating his travel and that was certainly the case of me. I had been in and out of Japan aboard the Michelson for half a year. In that time, I had come to see Japan as “home,” the place you returned to get your bearings, to feel the solid earth under your feet. The language around me, on television, heard on the street, and displayed everywhere was not my own but I had accustomed my ear and eye to it. It was comforting and familiar and it had become the compass I used to get through the days I spent ashore. My native language was heard in enclaves throughout the country: on the Navy base of course, and in hotel lobbies where Westerners congregated, and finally in movie theaters where the films were all displayed in their native language with Japanese subtitles.

I was about to set foot on land where English was the native language and signs and media broadcasts were no longer foreign. We had already begun picking up sporadic radio broadcast out at sea and as we approached the coastline the sound of American life was reaching us loud and clear. Curiously, I had missed the commercials—those annoying spots that encouraged you to “drink Coke” or to “see the USA in your Chevrolet.” Those nuisances had provided me a sense of well being, like an annoying friend who was always trying to get you to do something and no matter how you tried to get rid of him he kept coming back. And then when you left him behind you suddenly realized how much you missed him. I’ve always had friends like that and still do.

As we approached the mouth of the Columbia River, I realized how gratifying it was approaching a treasured destination by sea. The ship’s passage took time and we were able to savor the moment of return and to bid a lingering goodbye to the Pacific as we made our way into the treacherous waters of Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark first set eyes on the Pacific Ocean in November 1805. Earlier in 1788 Lieutenant John Meares of the British Royal Navy gave its name. He had sought but was unable to find the river that Spanish explorer, Bruno Heceta claimed in 1775 to be nearby the rocky headland Heceta had named San Roque—hence Meares’s unfortunate name. The Coast Guard still maintains a large search and rescue staff on the headlands due to the large number of shipwrecks that have occurred near the river entrance.

Passing through the mouth of the Columbia our journey was nowhere close to over. We had another 100 miles of river before the Michelson could have its rest and its crew could set foot again on American soil. Those not on duty were in the mess hall drinking coffee and watching the ship make it’s way into the wide mouth of the river. In the distance off the starboard side was Astoria, Oregon, laying its watchful eye on an errant steely citizen finding its way home after many years calling on foreign ports. Off the port side was Washington state, Beyond Astoria, the Michelson followed the river making a long right turn passing Cathlamet, Washington; Westport, Oregon; and numerous other towns on either side of the Columbia: Flaundersville, Waterford, Eagle Cliff, Oakpoint, Looda, among many others. From the deck of the Michelson, these were small communities just starting their day and we were just another ship making its way up and down the Columbia. Funny, how time and place of great importance to those on board ship was just another everyday event to those on shore.

After the initial excitement of entering the river wore off, everyone resumed their daily routine and the places along the river we were passing became just more scenery overlooked as routine forced the observers to focus on their daily duties. I’m struck by how little I remember about the journey along the river. Flashing back I can picture Doc, Red, and others of the Navy crew standing on deck smoking and looking at the shoreline swiftly passing in front of us. The 100-mile journey from the mouth of the Columbia to the Portland Shipyard took most of the morning and by the time we docked everyone on board had already mentally adjusted to being stateside. Everyone was making plans for the time the Michelson would be in dry dock. Most like me were taking leave to visit their family: an intense period of homecoming followed by a strained heartbreaking period of saying goodbye—tough for single guys like me but hell for guys with wives and kids who would leave a long lingering sense of guilt over leaving loved ones behind to fend for themselves.

Passing Through
Posted on 2/16/2005

On Tuesday January 21, 1966 when the USNS Michelson docked at Portland Shipyard, the entire ship began to move out. The Navy detachment on board had been assigned rooms in a downtown Portland Hotel and encouraged to take leave if you had some to take. For the next two weeks, the ship was moved to dry dock and it underwent repairs and upgrading. During the two-week period, companies with computer equipment on board sent factory engineers out to do the same for all the high-tech gear.

I was ambivalent during this time. Here I was in Portland, 150 miles south of Tacoma, where I enlisted in the Navy. But, there was nothing for me in Tacoma but memories. My family had moved back to El Paso, where my father had retired from the Army and had begun a new career working at American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO). My father has lived a charmed life, always finding something to keep him going. I take after him in that we both live in the moment—neither of us planned a great deal as young men. I’m different from my dad in that I continually look forward to the future, never comfortable with the present, and never willing to lament the past.

The present for me in January 1966 was Electronic Technician Petty Officer Third Class. The future was November 1966 when the Navy would have to discharge me from active duty and I could resume my life before the Navy. Being in Portland made me aware of the time I still had to do. Curiously, I also missed Japan, where the yen-dollar exchange rate allowed me to live better than I could in Portland. And the drinking age in Portland was 21, limiting me from frequenting the bars of the city, whereas in Japan, I was completely enfranchised; no limitation on where I could go. It wasn’t that I had a need to frequent bars, it was that I was prevented from doing so.

In Japan, I also had the sense that the world was happening—I felt the same in New York and San Francisco. Great events were taking place and I wanted to be in the midst of these great events, ideally contributing to and benefiting from them. In Japan, it was the advent of consumer electronics—stereos, tape recorders, TVs, consumer video cameras, every conceivable gadget an audiophile or audiophile wannabe could desire was on sale in Japan and they were affordable because of the exchange rate. Japan was a consumers’ paradise and it had the energy of a place that was on the move, growing out of its skin. I wasn’t part of that grand movement. Yet I knew I was part of the next one that would sweep over the world—the computer revolution. For the moment, the only thing I knew was I would have a job when I got out of the service.

There were moments that brought back fond memories of some good times in Tacoma. The hotel where we stayed prepared a great breakfast that brought back the experience of the early morning lumberjack platters I consumed when working for the junk dealer during the summer of 1963. The smell of the Portland reminded me of Tacoma, the scent of the sea mixed with the smell of diesel fuel, paint, and an assortment of other chemical odors my nose was never able to parse; all borne aloft by the ever present early morning fog. I loved walking its streets, watching people go about their everyday lives. As a kid walking the street anywhere, you’re an outsider, no stake in the world around you, no profession, no possessions, no ties that bind you to the place. If you’re the clever student, you’ll make your way to college somewhere away from where you are now. If you’re an average guy like I was, you’d join the service and spend four years learning about life.

The Military embodied that rootlessness of youth. The service moved you about every three years or so. Raised in a military family, I knew what it was to be without roots. My father planted roots of his own, in Mississippi where he kept the family homestead refusing every offer to sell the 40 acres just outside of Brooklyn. He had also bought our house in El Paso, which we rented out when the military had stationed him in Puerto Rico, Oklahoma, and finally at Ft. Lewis, just outside of Tacoma. But El Paso and Brooklyn where places we visited or lived for short period of time in between moves. I have never become attached to any place we ever lived. They were all like mistresses you slept with knowing that after some amount of time had passed, you would move on to find another place to sleep.

Portland also brought back the realization that like Tacoma, it was a place I had wanted to be away from as soon as I arrived. Perhaps it was the gloominess of the winters filled with weeks of continuous rain that gave me a sense of melancholy. When I lifted off en route to boot camp in 1964, I had experienced a weight being lifted from me. When we completed our dry dock and we began our half-day journey west along the Columbia River, I was once again jubilant. Portland had been a limbo, a taste of America after the Navy, but with the realization that ten months lay before I could savor that taste unencumbered by my military commitment.

Back in Japan, I could resume my life of labor at sea followed by my life of leisure ashore. It was a most pleasant way to spend the rest of 1966.

A Visit to Nagasaki
Posted on 2/26/2005

In April 1966, the USNS Michelson deviated once again from its usual routine of just over three weeks at sea followed by a week in Yokosuka to re-supply. This month instead the ship anchored in Sasebo which is near the southeastern most tip of the island of Japan. Nearby is the city of Nagasaki one of two Japanese cities suffering an atomic bomb attack during World War II. Both cities are a short boat ride from Pusan on the Western coast of South Korea. Japan resembles a crescent moon with the island of Hokkaido at its most northern tip and the islands of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu curving southeast with Tokyo on Honshu nearly due south of Hokkaido at the inflection of the curve.

It was the only visit the ship ever made to the southern port and everyone on board ship treated the visit as their one chance to visit this beautiful southern part of Japan. I had determined that on my days off I would visit Nagasaki to view one of only two cities in the world to have suffered an atomic bomb attack. My sojourn to Nagasaki from Sasebo was by train. It began at the Sasebo train station, a place bustling with passengers, that early morning I chose to begin my journey. I had a small overnight case containing a change of clothes as I planned to spend the night in a small hotel and return late the following afternoon.

Sasebo and Nagasaki are both on the western coast of Kyushu, Japan’s largest southern island. Kyushu is separated from the main island of Honshu by a narrow stretch of water separating the smaller city of Shimonosek on Honshu from the larger city of Kitakyushu on Kyushu. Sasebo is north and slightly west of Nagasaki—under 100 miles—about an hour and twenty minutes by train. The rail line between the two cities passes through some of the loveliest vistas I’ve ever seen. The train trip followed the western coast of Kyushu and we were treated to sights of lush green islands and a blue ocean.

On arriving at Nagasaki, I found a small hotel that sat on a slight hill and offered a scenic view of the city. When I was about to leave for a walking tour, the mama-san who spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese, took me by the arm and pointed in the direction of Hypocenter Park, the place where the bomb rained destruction on this beautiful city. Yet as I look in the direction she was pointing, there was little to suggest that the city had been visited by any kind of destruction, least of all something as massive as the atomic bomb that fell August 9, 1945 at 11:02AM. A score of years can cover over an incredible devastation in the earth. What surprised me was that the kindly mama-san, who went out of her way to show me the spot, seemed unfazed at showing a citizen of the country that visited the disaster to that very spot. For her, the event was as ancient as a devastating earthquake a century ago.

When I arrived at the park, I visited the memorial monolith marking the exact point of the atomic bomb explosion. I next visited the Peace Statue and realized that the mama-san had used the same pose after pointing to the park, The statue is of a seated man, his right hand raised and pointing skyward, his left hand horizontal to the ground in front of him. The former warns of the threat of nuclear disaster; the later a gesture for peace. Why did it seem that the former had more gravity than the latter. Perhaps because I was part of the force that could easily rain down far larger bombs than the one that crashed down on Nagasaki.

I spent the rest of the day walking about the city of Nagasaki, which was slower paced than frenetic Tokyo. I kept looking for signs of the destruction but found none. I’m sure the seasoned observer would easily have spotted signs I was overlooking. When evening came, I watched the sunset and marveled at how the day I had just experienced and was putting behind me was yet to being for the rest of the world. It made me realized that I was not only separated by distance from the rest of the world, I was also separate by time.

Trying to Remember my Fading Past
Posted on 1/31/2005

This is a milestone year for me in that it will mark my sixtieth year on the planet earth. The actual event won’t happen until the last month of the year so for he time being, I’m savoring the last of the fiftieth’s years. In looking back trying to remember where all that time went, I’m becoming painfully aware of how much of that time I spent unmindful of the world around me. I was trying to conjure up my late teens and early twenties, the years where I sowed my wild oats. I remembered a great deal about those years, but the details are all missing. For example, I arrived in Japan just after the Olympics in 1964. Tokyo back then was a city less than twenty years removed from the Second World War.

I’ve returned to Tokyo within the last ten years and the city has so changed since my youth that I was at a complete loss. There were some recognizable place: Hibiya Park, the Imperial Palace, and a few other landmarks that weren’t torn down and rebuilt in the intervening thirty year. But Shimbashi Station, where I had so often begun and ended my journey to Tokyo was so expanded that I easily got lost. I had not kept a journal during my time in Japan and thus, the dates of when events happened are nebulous. Everything seems to become a blur. I do remember arriving and spending time in Yokosuka Naval Base and getting to know the city immediately around the base. I remember the time I left the ship for the last time. It was with a sense of loss—leaving something that had become familiar and comforting to me—and elation—getting back to the civilian world where I could resume the life I had interrupted to join the service. But, what I was returning to was most uncertain and I hadn’t formed a clear plan of what I was going to do.

I remember reading some books while aboard ship. I discovered Joseph Conrad and read Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of fools, John O’Hara’s From The Terrace, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and Tortilla Flats. I also struggled through Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Too much of my time was spent reading spy novels: John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, the Ian Fleming books I had not already devoured before coming aboard ship: Diamonds are forever and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Man With The Golden Gun and Thrilling Cities, Ian Fleming’s recollections of major world cities back then. I also read other spy thrillers by other writer’s Len Deighton, The Ipcress File, and many others who’s names I cannot remember. Most were mind candy to pass the time aboard ship,

The ship also would receive reels of movies that we were supposed to watch one a night while at sea. When the reels were bought aboard, if the ship’s yeoman, the ship’s projectionist, was standing duty, he would run as many as he could get through during his duty shift. One movie I remember during one of these marathon series was That Man From Rio, starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Francoise Dorleac. It was memorable because I saw the movie many times while in port and at sea as did everyone else on board ship. It was the one movie that everyone wanted to watch over and over again.

When I began visiting Tokyo, I walked nearly everywhere taking cabs or the train only when I needed to go from say the Shimbashi district to the Shinjuku. You went to Shinjuku or Akasaka after midnight when the bars in the Ginza all shut down. It was an nightly ritual, with every bar along the Ginza playing “Auld Lang Syne” and drunk, suited Japanese Salarymen, their ties loosened and shirt collar buttons undone, streaming out into the night heading for the train station and home. For guys like me who did not have to go to work the following day, if we had money we would end up in the Akasaka District. I remember the Otani Hotel, newly built for the previous year’s Summer Olympics having a rotating bar on the very top floor. For the price of a beer, I think about 360 yen, you could sit at a table for an hour and receive a 360 degree view of Tokyo.

The Shinjuku district had been the red light district right after the Second World War. By 1965, it was then becoming the Greenwich Village of Tokyo, with coffee house playing jazz into the early hours of morning, movie theaters featuring film classics. I remember Olson Welles, Citizen Kane prominently featured at one. Shinjuku was where you also went for a bath and a massage, which was supposed to revive you after a night of drinking. It didn’t return you to sobriety but it did provide a sense of well being and if you were willing to pay an additional charge sexual gratification.

Now, this many years later, I’m trying to document that time, to put into words those memories that have slipped into the past and are becoming less distinct with each passing year. The great weakness of humankind is its need to relearn continually the experience of each previous generation. The great sadness is that much of each generation’s experience is lost in the handoff. My generation was faced with an obligation to serve the country for at least six years, at least two on active duty and the remainder on active reserve. I chose to serve a regular enlistment of nearly four years and remained subject to recall for the remainder of my six-year commitment. In many ways that obligation contributed to creating the person I am today. Capturing what I can remember of that experience on paper will at least enable me to share it with whoever finds it of interest.

Back to Top
TAGS Ship Website Home Page