Thursday, March 28th, 2013

I suffered the biggest culture shock of my life when the Air Force transferred me from the peace and quiet of RAF Digby in northern England to the ear-shattering jet noise and chaos of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The culture of the Air Force in the two places, and the culture of the host countries, were so completely different from one another I was nearly catatonic.

There were about a half-dozen Air Force goobers stationed at Digby, most of them airmen. I was a technical sergeant. But the station and the base were so quiet, dare I say even sleepy, that I didn’t have much to do in the way of supervising anybody, as tech sergeants are expected to do in other places. I supervised a staff sergeant, and he supervised the airmen. Two years of that left me fat, dumb and happy, if a six-foot-tall guy who weighs 155 can even metaphorically be described as “fat.” (Sadly, there’s no question about the “fat” part.)

I don’t know how many Air Force goobers there were at Misawa but I was immediately put in a position where I was responsible for about two dozen of them, and by “responsible” I mean that I was the person whom the mission superintendent yelled at when one of my minions screwed up. My duties, I soon learned, were to then go and find out who screwed up and yell at him or her or them. The mission supe, you see, was too high up the food chain to yell at the underlings directly. It was a game of monkey in the middle, and I got to be the monkey. Also, I got to write everybody’s performance reports. Every single goddamn one. The sergeants who were supposed to do it couldn’t write a bathroom-stall limerick to save their lives, or so they said, and backed it up by not doing it.

And that was just the change in Air Force culture. Going from England, where I could read and write and speak to the local people, to Japan, where I couldn’t do any of that, very nearly drove me crazy. I was literally walking around in a daze for I don’t know how long. I’d been stationed before in foreign lands where I couldn’t speak the language, but I’d always been able to read. Give me a dictionary and I could figure things out. Being stationed in Japan, though, was the first time I’d been plopped down in a country where I couldn’t read. It was like being an infant again.

Culture shock | 5:59 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, story time, travel, work | Tags: ,
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Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Ten years ago:

I got a new computer at my desk. This happened in a really weird way. I was using the old computer a couple days ago when I reached across the desk and spilled a Styrofoam cup of hot tea on the keyboard, which stopped it dead. This was not entirely a bad thing, so far as I could see, because the old computer sucked, but unfortunately for me and anybody else who was a mission supe, we had to have that computer to do our work. I had to ask for a new keyboard, which meant that I had to explain why it wasn’t working, and they wrote up a memo for record and all.

Two hours later, another guy brought out the new computer, a sleek, black Dell with all the bells and whistles. Everybody stopped at my desk to oooh and ahhh over it. The lieutenant was so jealous. “Master Sergeant,” he commanded, “I want you to go get another cup of tea and dump it on my keyboard.” His computer sucked, too.

I was stationed overseas at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan from 2001 until 2005, where I did a brief stint as a mission superintendent. It’s almost impossible for me to believe that was ten years ago.

We had Thanksgiving at a friend’s house. Each family brought a dish or two and made a pot luck out of it. When the meal was ready, we made a long line that kept circulating through the kitchen as people came back to load up for seconds and thirds.

After supper, we got together in the living room to sing karaoke. Summarizing generally, the Americans sucked, but the Japanese were great at it.  The Japanese sergeant they called Chi-chi had a beautiful voice, but he sang only one song, so we mostly had to listen to the Americans butcher pop tunes from the 80s and 90s. 

Sean probably had the most fun of anybody; karaoke is his calling, I think.  He said later that it was the most fun he’s ever had.  Go figure.


Thanksgiving | 3:22 pm CST
Category: daily drivel, My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, O'Folks friends, story time, work | Tags:
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Friday, October 19th, 2012

I wish I knew some guys I could run in slow motion with.

Permanent Revolution | 5:40 am CST
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Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

image of B in front of a New York City ramen shopRAMEN! WE FOUND A RAMEN SHOP! JUST LIKE THE ONE IN MISAWA!

Well, except that the guys in the kitchen didn’t all yell “Irasshaimase!” when we walked in the door. Oh, and they didn’t have ebi ramen on the menu. But still! Except for that, it could’ve almost been exactly the same place!

Stepping through the front door of Menkui Tei was deja vu weird. A big, red curtain with “RAMEN” printed in white kana characters hung over the door, and when we opened it and walked in we were overwhelmed by the smell of fresh veggies, pork fat and boiling noodles. *bliss!*

The shop was built long and narrow, more like a wide hallway than a store. The kitchen was built up along the right-hand wall, tables and chairs ran down the left-hand wall, and a counter with low stools was set up between them. We decided not to sit at the counter and went for a table near the back. It was made out of Formica back when every table was made out of Formica, and was worn down to the white where people had been leaning on it.

B ordered her favorite, miso ramen, and I tried the tonkatsu ramen. We also ordered a plate of fried gyoza for old time’s sake, but they were rather disappointingly delivered after the ramen. And the ramen was good, but I have to admit that I’ve been spoiled by the tonkatsu ramen at Umami back in Madison, made with fresh noodles from RP Pasta right down the street, fresh pork from a farmer right outside town, and always served with a soy-infused egg, which I realized too late I’d have to order as an extra at Menkui Tei.

It was very cool finding a ramen shop that did everything but physically take us back to Japan. If we’d ducked in from a snowstorm, and if they’d had ebi ramen on the menu, I don’t think I could find it anywhere in my heart to say it was anything but the most wonderful ramen shop ever. Dammit, Umami, you’ve spoiled me! You’ve spoiled me forever!

ramen in NYC | 6:43 am CST
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Monday, February 13th, 2012

It was a dark and stormy night, filled with snow and sleet driven by a lashing wind. Why would any sane person want to spend any amount of time walking the streets of Madison tonight?

Well, because there was all-you-can-eat sushi at Restaurant Muramoto tonight.

We thought about going to Restaurant Muramoto tomorrow night, in celebration of Valentine’s Day, but getting a reservation turned out to be a problem and, besides, they didn’t have all-you-can-eat sushi tomorrow. So we celebrated Valentine’s Day one day early. We’re pretty flexible that way.

What we aren’t, though, is all-you-can-eat people. We tried our darndest and, if I may say so, acquitted ourselves well, but we didn’t even come close to making them regret the folly of their ways. We ordered three rolls (eight pieces each) and twelve pieces of nigiri, with a pile of asian slaw on the side. We were both pretty hungry, and it was scrumptiously good food but, at the very end, neither one of us could manage to work up the gumption to tuck into that last piece of sushi.

I think the rolls were better than the nigiri, which is little rice cakes topped by slices of fish. I loved the salmon nigiri, and the albacore was very tasty, but everything else was too subtle for my tongue to pick up much taste.

The rolls were wonderful, especially the Tokyo Picnic and the Rainbow rolls. I wish I could remember what was in them; I’ll take notes next time. I’ll be burping for a month, so “next time” won’t be until late March at the earliest.

sushi | 9:07 pm CST
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Thursday, January 26th, 2012

How could I have lived so long without knowing what good sake tasked like? For years, every glass of sake I’d brought to my lips smelled like turpentine and tasted worse. I really, really didn’t like sake until I was stationed in Japan for four years and was lucky enough to meet people who not only knew where to buy the best sake, they were very generous about sharing it. When I came back to the States it was with a heavy heart, thinking I would never drink good sake again. But now I’ve visited two restaurants where they serve sake that’s not only not turpentine, it’s good enough to remind me of nights at the karaoke bar, making my Japanese friends wish they hadn’t given me the microphone.

Thursday after work we headed into town to dine at Restaurant Muramoto, our third stop on the lineup we had planned for Madison Magazine’s restaurant week. My Darling B and I love Japanese food and have been to several sushi bars (Takara, Red) and fusion restaurants (Haze) downtown, but for some reason we hadn’t stopped by Restaurant Muramoto before this. Our visit was long overdue.

They earned a gold star as soon as I walked in the front door just for the coat rack. Restaurants that don’t have coat racks really aren’t restaurants at all. No matter how good the food is, if you have to sit on your coat while you eat, you might as well be on a plastic twirly seat at McDonald’s. I’m not even kidding much. I’ve been to so many restaurants that take pains to make sure the food is presented just so, in a dining room where somebody’s long coat is dragging off the back of practically every chair. So thank you, Restaurant Muramoto, for realizing that the good people of Wisconsin don’t want to have to divide their attention between eating your scrumptious food and worrying about who’s walking on their good winter coats.

My Darling B ordered a saketini before dinner and I was going to order a short bottle of sake but couldn’t decide which one to go for. Luckily for me, our very helpful waitress pointed out that they offered a flight of three different sakes. The first was called kira honjozo from Fukushima. The waitress said it would be the driest of the three but it was also the smoothest and, to my palate, the very best. Really good sake slides across your tongue like smoke. Weirdly, I’ve never smoked, but that’s the only way I can describe it. The second was called taiku and seemed to taste a little spicy. The third, an unfiltered sake, was milky white and a little sweet. I sipped and savored them all through dinner.

For the first course, we both ordered king crab spring rolls. It came with a lemon basil bearnaise sauce, like mayonnaise only a trillion times better. The spring rolls aren’t one of their usual menu items so it was a really special treat, and a very generous one, too. I expected a tiny little appetizer, but each of us got two full-size spring rolls and, though we resolved to eat only one and save the other for later, they were so scrummy we ended up wolfing both of them down. With lots of bernaise. And soy sauce. I loves me some soy sauce.

For the second course, we both ordered the roll combo. B ordered first so I looked like the copycat, but really I was thinking of the roll combo all day, so it was my idea. I’m taking credit for that no matter what. I liked the vegetable tempura rolls the best. I’d vote the kampyo rolls second, but B would’ve chosen the cucumber rolls for second and the kampyo for third place. I liked the cucumber rolls just fine but thought the kampyo went with wasabi better.

We split on the dessert. B ordered apple empanadas with cinnamon toast and ice cream, drizzled in caramel. How did I pass that up? I still don’t know. The soba crepe sounded better somehow. I should’ve gone for the hat trick and ordered what she was having on all three courses, though. Those little toasty things were delish. The soba crepe was delish, too, but I found out too late I wasn’t in the mood for a tart dessert. Oh, well.

That wasn’t enough of a hiccup to spoil a wonderful night out. Restaurant Muramoto scored another gold star when the waitress brought the coffee to our table in individual coffee presses, and B was tickled with delight when the waitress offered to clear our plates by asking “Shall I take that, or are you still enjoying the last few bites?” instead of making us feel like factory laborers with the usual, “Are ya still workin’ on that?” She let us linger over our coffee a good long while before we headed for the door, wishing there was a karaoke bar in town that served hot sake.

Bonus video: Best karaoke scene in a movie ever: The Deer Hunter

sake | 10:34 pm CST
Category: booze, daily drivel, festivals, food & drink, Madison Restaurant Week, My Darling B, O'Folks, play, restaurants | Tags: , , , ,
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Saturday, December 17th, 2011

Ah, yes. Shoveling snow off the driveway. The wintery exercise that blows the flabby coronary muscles of dozens of aging, out-of-shape Wisconsin men every year. Will this year be my turn?

After I “retired” from the Air Force, I moved back to Wisconsin because I remembered liking four seasons, and after living in so many places that had two or less, I thought I wanted to go back to having the full four.

Oddly, Misawa was the last place I lived before I came back to Wisconsin. There are four seasons in Misawa, just like Wisconsin. Also, just like Wisconsin, I had to shovel snow in Misawa. Lots of it. I wonder why that didn’t set off alarm bells in my head?

Anyway, today was the first day in winter when I had to shovel the driveway. In my mind, that ought to be the first official snowfall of the year. If you don’t have to shovel it, it really shouldn’t count.

snowfall | 9:25 am CST
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Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Umami, the one and only place in this town to eat a delicious bowl of ramen, finally opened the patio they’ve been working on out front of their shop. My Darling B caught the news of this announcement somewhere and we made a date to meet after work yesterday. I hoofed the eight or ten blocks from the office building where I work, she drove over from the west side of town and we met at almost the same time, about five minutes before the doors opened.

The place seems to be doing fairly well; there was a line forming when I walked up and, by the time they opened the door, there were maybe a dozen people waiting to get in. By the time we finished dinner all of the tables on the patio were filled and I think most of the tables inside were, too. The place doesn’t seem to have been hit too hard by the construction along Willy Street, but then the profit margin for restaurants is so narrow that I still worry. It’s a great little restaurant and I do love the ramen they serve. I hope they can hang on through the rest of the summer.

B and I both had the miso ramen and finished every drop. The broth was especially good, with a rich, almost buttery flavor, very smooth. We ordered a garlic bomb and spicy bomb to go with the ramen, which they serve as a side order so you can stir in a little or a lot. And the dumplings were half-price, so we indulged ourselves with a plate. I ended up so full of rameny goodness that I caught myself nodding off while we were watching The Colbert Report later at home, and ended up going to bed early. Miso ramen makes me drowsy.

full | 7:59 am CST
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Sunday, April 10th, 2011

My Darling B spent just about all day in her garden yesterday, happily digging up a four-by-eight plot of ground, then inching her way along on all fours poking holes in the dirt and burying seeds for lettuce and peas and I don’t know what else. When she finally came indoors late in the afternoon to take a shower she was all smiles. Well, mostly smiles. Also aches and pains, but happy ones.

Although we should probably cut back on expenses like eating out every week, we celebrated this first glorious day of summer (or spring, or sprumming, whatever) with a trip into town to eat dinner at Umami, the new noodle shop on Willy Street that reminds us so much of our favorite noodle house in Misawa, Japan, the Familiar Roll Noodle House. The pan-fried dumplings are spot-on, and the ramen is so close as to make no difference. B read somewhere that the noodles come from R&P Pasta, a shop just a few blocks away on Wilson Street. They used to serve the best bowl of spaghetti in town until they closed the dining room, a sad day we are still in mourning over.

The last time we went to Umami I wrote a fond reminiscence of our days slurping up ramen in Japan and thanking the good people at Umami for taking me back to those days. Shortly after, someone from Umami shot a text message to me on my cell phone thanking me for the writeup and inviting me to ask for Mike or Randy the next time we dropped in, so last night as we were being shown to our table I dropped those names, asking if there was any chance I could talk to one of them. “I’m Mike,” he said, so I introduced myself and thanked him once again for such an enjoyable dining experience. After saying thanks he had to run off to seat others waiting for tables, but when he had a bit more time he came back to thank me for writing such a nice review in my blog. If he’d had more time I would have liked to ask him more about the restaurant, but there was a line of people out the door and he had to tend to them, so we cut it short at exchanging thank-yous.

We ordered almost exactly the same dishes we ordered last time: B had been daydreaming about the miso ramen all afternoon, the whole reason we ended up going to Umami in the first place. I ordered the pork ramen, still scrumptious, but I was eyeing B’s miso ramen with a jealous eye all through the meal. We couldn’t visit without ordering a big plate of dumplings, and ate every one of them – no leftovers last night! Just to shake things up, though, we added a plate of pickled veggies: beet, beans, carrots, cukes and mangoes, to add an extra touch of Japanese-ness to the meal.

Once again, we waddled home happily stuffed with good food. If ever we have to cut back on meals eaten out, I don’t know how we’re going to choose which places we go, but Umami will remain high on the list for quite a while.

Umami | 10:53 am CST
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Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

Every so often I like to reach for a volume of the printed-out version of this drivel that I keep on a bookshelf over my desk and flip back to see what I was doing on today’s date five, ten, fifteen years ago. Sometimes it’s worth a laugh, sometimes I gain a little perspective, sometimes it’s just drivel and I don’t get anything out of it at all.

Come along with me, why don’t you, on today’s journey into my past:

Five years ago I was babbling about the virtues of my Volkswagen bug, so that hasn’t changed:

“I would definitely call my battleship the Crushasaurus,” T informed me the other day. He wants a battleship of his very own, at least as much as he wants a car and probably more so, and he’s monumentally bummed nobody makes them any more. It’s sort of the same way I feel about the Volkswagen Beetle, except that his desires work on a much grander scale; money’s no object.

Those new ones are cute, but they’re not the same as the trusty old cans that Volkswagen used to be most well-known for. I was the owner of three different vans, myself, but I bought a bug to drive to work when we returned to the States from Germany, married just three years and so poor we only had one ‘o’ to spell it with. The front fenders were rusting off and the engine hatch was stove-in from when the car had been rear-ended, so the owner let me have it for four hundred bucks.

The gate guard at Buckley air base shook his head when he saw it and told me, “I thought I had the junkiest vee-double-you in the state, but yours beats mine, hands-down!”

It may have been a rolling junk heap, but that bug made it through the worst snow storms Colorado could throw at me. One morning after work, after the snow plows had done their darndest to block all the side roads, I gunned the engine and the beetle nosed up and over every single drift; it was so short from front to back that it never hung up on a snowbank, just tipped right over and kept on going, easily sailing over the deep snow on the unplowed back streets like a skiff over the surface of a calm lake. It was almost magical.

Tim still remembers it as “the blue bug.” He was all of two or three years old and used to ride in a second-hand child seat in the back, but he can easily describe all the goofy rubber monster heads a previous owner had installed over the knobs on the dashboard, and the fossil I found tucked behind an armrest, so he must have been at least as taken with it as I was. Kids love go-karts, and a bug is like the best go-cart ever made. Too bad our roads are just too fast and our cars too big for them any more.

Ten years ago I didn’t have a blog. Instead, I sent an e-mail to a list of about two-dozen people. On this day in 2001 I used it to inform everyone I knew that we would be leaving Digby, England to transfer to Misawa, Japan:

To all relatives and ships at sea:

I’ve been assigned to the 301st Intel Squadron at Misawa, Japan, to report no later than October. Just thought you’d want to know. This finally unties the knot that got all tangled up last October when I tried to start the assignment process by volunteering for a slot at a station in Yorkshire. That got yanked from me almost immediately and I’ve been traveling down one blind alley after another ever since. I was about to start this week a poke and a jab at another sleeping giant, asking for help, when my commander called me to tell me that my rip had just come in. It’s not chisled in stone, but it’s closer than I’ve been in a while. Now we get to start the fun of sorting through all our stuff to find out what we keep, what we sell, and what we just plain trash, working toward the day that it all goes into great big boxes so the movers can bash it into little pieces. Moving is so much fun.

And fifteen years ago I was so wound up about some car trouble that I went on and on forever about it. The car was a Dodge Colt. I remember that, when we took it for a test drive, B didn’t like it. I did and bought it anyway. This was before I knew she was usually right and I should always listen to her:

I’m in a mood, so let’s cut to the chase: car problems suck. They don’t get better, they get worse. You can throw piles & piles of money at your car, but if the car sucks, it only continues to suck, and if your car’s pretty good, it still sucks, but it doesn’t suck as much as a car that sucks a lot. Sucking sucky suck-suck cars. Christ, I hate car problems.

So I already ran down what sucked about the last problem: it wouldn’t run because of a busted wire and a bad sensor in the fuel injection system, but of course it waited until I was two friggin blocks from the shop to stop working altogether, so not only did the shop charge me a pound of flesh, but I had to tow it two friggin sucky blocks and friggin pay the sucking tow friggin truck. Then, to add insult to injury to another injury, or something like that, the mech who got the car running again found a leak in the transmission casing – the “nosecone,” he called it. My transmission has a “nosecone.” It was the mech’s opinion that, when the guys at the other garage installed the rebuilt engine, they shoved the transmission’s nosecone about an inch forward so that it rubbed against the chassis hard enough and long enough to drill a hole or crack it or do something that leaked transmission fluid all over the garage floor. Now my car needs a new nosecone.

In other news, I took my tech test this morning, so that’s over with. I can’t reveal the actual test questions to you, because it’s punishable by having your toes cut off, but a question that could’ve been on the test might’ve sounded like this: “How many total steps are there on the north side of the headquarters building on Randolph AFB, Texas?” The questions were about that trivial. I’m so glad my career hangs on questions like that.

Well, there you go. A reminiscence, a major life change, and a lot of bitching about car trouble. It’s a pretty mixed bag and I’m not sure it showed me anything except tempus fugit with a vengeance.

Time Flies Like An Arrow | 5:30 am CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career, O'Folks, story time, T-Dawg, The O-Mobile, work | Tags: ,
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Friday, March 18th, 2011

It’s not like Madison needs another restaurant, but we’re pretty happy that Umami opened on Willy Street anyway. We stopped there for dinner after work today and each slurped up a bowl of ramen the likes of which we’ve not enjoyed since we left Japan almost six years ago.

We’ve tried ramen at a few places since we returned to the States but until now we haven’t had any that comes even close to the real thing served hot from a tiny little shop in a Japanese village. The best we ever ate was the kind they served on a cold, snowy day, but really the very best was served right in our own little town of Misawa at a place the gaijin from the air base called Cheese Roll Noodle, because that’s what was etched in the big picture window in the front of the shop. Almost. In point of fact it read “Cheese Rool Noodle.” I still have a photo of that somewhere. [here it is!] I don’t know the Japanese name except in English: Family Familiar Noodle House.

At Umami we each ordered a different bowl: My Darling B tried the miso ramen and I had a bowl of pork ramen. I was very encouraged when the waiter brought it to our table in bowls big enough for us to bathe in, and it just kept getting better from there. Mine had an appropriately fatty slab of pork floating off to one side, a few slices of bamboo and seaweed clustered against the other side, and half an egg floating smack-dab in the middle. B’s was similarly adorned but with tofu instead of pork. The noodles were not quite right – delicious, but not the same kind of noodle served in Japan. But the broth was an orgasm of flavors, if that’s not getting too personal about how wonderful it tasted. I slurped up every bit of it, picking up the bowl and tipping it back in the manner considered proper in all the finer ramen shops.

So a great big thank-you to Umami for taking me back to my Misawa days, when a bowl of ramen was one of the best kinds of dinner you could buy while you were in town. Ita dake masu!

Oishii desu! | 9:17 pm CST
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Friday, January 18th, 2002

I’m on break. There’s always something on my to-do list, but I won’t have to go work a day watch, won’t have day weenies stirring up trouble in my ops area. I’d much rather shovel snow, or fix the balky toilet float, and when I get a minute when nobody’s looking, I’ll sneak upstairs and play with my toys. If it’s a really good day, I’ll get a bowl of hot miso shrimp ramen at Familiar Noodle House.

Nobody knows what the Familiar Noodle House is actually called. Most restaurants have a flag that hangs over the front door when they’re open, and theirs says “Familiar Noodle House” on it in Kanji and English, so that’s what we call it, but most people call it Cheese Roll Noodle, because that’s what’s on the window. Actually, what’s on the window is “Cheese Rool Noodle Hendemade”, which I like a lot. So far, the only other shop sign I like as much is “Cow Beer Staek.”

wildcard | 3:39 pm CST
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Tuesday, January 15th, 2002

Here in the great white north of Japan, you might think these folks would be prepared to deal with lots of snow. How very wrong you’d be, you weeniehead. The motorists of Misawa have never seen a snow plow, or any evidence of one. The Japanese are great at digging up roads and repairing them again, but it has apparently never, ever crossed their minds to plow the snow off their streets. They just drive over the snow until it becomes ice, and they drive slower and slower as potholes the size of Montana open up through the ice. The manhole covers are the worst. Whatever goes on beneath manhole covers is warm enough to melt the ice to slush. It gets pushed to the sides, where it freezes into a solid ring of ice around the edges of the manhole, so that you get a kidney-punching jolt every time you drive over one. There are lots of manholes in the streets of Misawa. No wonder everybody has 4-wheel drive cars.

snow plow NOT | 7:57 am CST
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Wednesday, January 9th, 2002

I went back to the ski slopes again! A couple guys as work, Romeo Bautista and Dave Christy, were headed for Makado, up north by Mutsu Bay, and asked me if I wanted to come along. I probably shouldn’t have; my legs were still sore and tight from skiing at Moya, but I couldn’t say no. For one thing, I needed a little stress relief.

I should’ve know by the end of the first run that I’d be in trouble; my turns were sloppy and my knees hurt, but I figured once I warmed up, I’d be okay. I was wrong. For one thing, I just wasn’t flexible enough; the muscles of my calves and thighs were like cold taffy. For another thing, the slopes were slick with ice; my skis kept going out from under me faster than I could say “ouch!” I tried the fastest slope and ended up going splat five or six times.

Finally, there was no way for me to stay warm. I was plenty warm at Moya in my bibs and jacket, with a t-shirt underneath. For Makado, I put on a thermal undershirt, but seriously misjudged how much colder the wind would make things – and there was lots of wind pushing lots of snow around. I was never uncomfortably cold, except on the long chairlift, but I never got warm all the way through until we went inside at lunch time, where I curled myself around a great big bowl of miso ramen to soak up the heat.

I felt much better after I had a belly full of hot ramen in me. When we got back out onto the slopes, I also had much less trouble making the turns without going splat, which makes the day out so much more enjoyable. We stayed until about three in the afternoon, when the wind got really crazy and the snow started coming down so hard that, on my last run of the day, I might as well have shut my eyes all the way back down the slope.

Makado | 7:44 am CST
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Saturday, January 5th, 2002

Some people can strap on a pair of skis and learn to shuss down a hill with only a few minor spills that everybody can sit around and joke about later. Tim’s one of those people. He got on a snowboard and was shooting down the steeper slopes by mid-afternoon. My Darling B, I suspect, is not one of those people, although I feel it’s largely my fault. I said I’d help her learn, but I’m not a ski instructor, not by a long shot.

B hadn’t been skiing since the last time she was here, back in 1985 or something like that. She went with John and some of his buddies; their method of instruction was to take her to the top of the mountain and leave her to make her way down. I guess some people can learn like that; what B learned was that she didn’t want to ski with John and his buddies any more.

I wanted more than anything for her to enjoy it this time. We went to Moya, a resort about two hours from Misawa. It was our first family ski trip, and our first with the Mogul Mashers, a club on base. The trip started with bagels, doughnuts and juice on the bus ride out, and after a day on the slopes we had a wine and cheese party in the lodge. On the way home, we stopped at a local hot bath to clean up and soak. Pretty nice.

B and I started out on the bunny slope, which is where I found out that, while I can sort of figure out what to do by watching other people, and conduct experiments on myself, I’m not very good at explaining any of what little I’ve learned. I could explain how to snowplow, but she pretty much had to figure out the rest for herself. By about eleven thirty she had built up enough self-confidence to try the shortest, easiest run. The results were spectacular. She tumbled like a dervish, skis and poles flying everywhere.

I spent the early afternoon with Tim and Sean on the hills, and checked back with B on the bunny hill between runs. She was doing so well that she went back up the lift for another try at the hills, and ended up walking part of the way back down after her skis popped off again.

Sean has a snow board, and he won’t hesitate to tell you every one of the million reasons he think it’s the very best way to travel downhill on snow. We were thinking that, because he had so much praise for snowboards, he would have plenty to teach Tim, but Tim picked it up on his own while Sean was trying to get his gloves on just right. When it comes to snowboarding, Sean’s long on theory, but short on practice.

I haven’t been skiing since I went to Keystone in Colorado many, many moons ago with some guys from work, and that was only the second time in my life. It’s a good thing I spent so much time on the bunny hill with B in the morning this time around; if I’d gone straight up the slopes, I’m pretty sure I would’ve killed myself. The next day my muscles were aching in places where I didn’t have muscles.

The onsen is a Japanese tradition, a bath house where we went to clean up and relax after skiing. There was a big communal hot tub in a steamy room, and all around the wall there were wash basins and stools where we could scrub ourselves to get good and clean. The water was so hot I couldn’t stay in too long; a friend of mine told me to put a cool washrag on my head so I could stay in longer, so there I sat with a folded washcloth plopped on my head. I think all it did was keep me in the water long enough to get hard-boiled, and provide comic relief for the rest of the bathers.

I know you’re going to ask, so I’d point out that the women’s baths are separated from the men’s by a wall high enough for privacy. No peeking at the women at all, unless you count the little girl one of the guys brought in with him. Now there’s something you wouldn’t see anywhere in America.

shuss | 7:37 pm CST
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Wednesday, January 2nd, 2002

Spent the morning shoring up shelving in a storage shed the Air Force built onto our quarters. The shed is five feet square and about ten feet high, with bare, poured concrete walls up the sides, no shelves, and no way to attach any. How useful is that? It wasn’t hard to fix up, but took a couple hours, after which we piled into the car in search of ramen. The place we usually haunt wasn’t open, so we tried another shop we see every time we go to Shimoda; B usually says, “We ought to try that place some time,” so we finally did. It was a roadside diner kind of place in a porta-kabin, where you belly up to a counter and order one of five or six items. I was so hungry I ordered the large bowl of ramen; the guy served it to me in a bath tub.

ramen | 7:28 pm CST
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Thursday, December 27th, 2001

Not that I think I’m Alan Greenspan or anything, but I may have a good idea why the Japanese economy is in such piss-poor shape: They’ve got, like, no clue when it comes to using credit cards.

It began to dawn on me the first time I went looking for an ATM. I couldn’t do it to save my life. I’m pretty sure there are more ATMs on this base than there are in all of Misawa city. I think I’ve seen one outside a bank, but in all the other places I’m used to seeing them – gas stations, convenience stores, shopping centers (shopping centers!) – just forget it.

So instead I’ve tried to pay for something with plastic. No, just forget that, too. Everybody wants cash. In the few stores that take a card, I had to go to the customer service counter in a back corner of the store, where they have a single card reader and one of those clunky things with the roller that makes an impression of the card on carbon paper. Unfortunately for me, I went through all that without making sure that what I was buying with plastic was something I wanted to keep forever. That’s very important, because getting a refund credited to a card is like asking the clerk to do algebra – he may have learned how to do it many moons ago, but hasn’t solved for x in years.

The one time I’ve asked for a refund, the ordeal lasted more than a half-hour. First, the clerk had to stare at the receipt for five or ten minutes, thoughtfully scratching his head. Then he ran my card through the machine, blooped a few buttons, made what looked like an exact copy of the receipt, and stared at them both. After about five minutes of that, he made a couple phone calls. A second clerk appeared. They both stared hard at the receipts for at least five minutes, saying nothing, before they decided to run my card through the machine again. This time, they made two or three more copies, and compared them all, with much discussion. Eventually they decided one of them looked right, and they gave that one to me with lots of apologies. Barb tried to return something at another store, and had the same experience.

Whenever that happens, I go to the BX and buy a packet of chewing gum or a spiral notebook, and pay for it with my Visa. Takes thirty seconds.

they don’t take plastic | 5:42 am CST
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Friday, December 21st, 2001

Took one last trip with B to the mall at Shimoda to see if we needed any last-minute Christmas gifts; turned out I did pick up one or two things, and so did Barb. We started with a noodle lunch at a fast-food place; wasn’t too bad, but didn’t hold a candle to a steaming bowl of miso ramen at the Familiar Noodle House.

Went to Miyaki’s for dinner with B. It’s another one of the restaurants right outside the main gate that she used to run to for take-out. Doesn’t look to me like the place has changed much in fifteen years, either. The food was pretty good, although just a bit too greasy for me. Finished it all, though. The portions were generous enough that we both felt like beach balls as we waddled down the street back to the car.

Learned another important lesson about going out into Japan: Don’t assume you can park your car in just any lot that doesn’t have a “No Parking” sign. Because there are plenty of stupid Americans motoring about, the Japanese post lots of “No Parking” signs in English, but the lot I used didn’t have any. Didn’t have to walk home, though. The entrance to the lot was blocked by a padlocked chain, but there was a back way out the lot to an alley, pretty lucky for us. Would’ve been a long, cold walk home.

[11/24/14: If I recall, our dinner was at “New” Miyaki’s, a couple blocks down the street if you turn south west out the main gate and go down White Pole Road. From what I can tell by looking at Misawa on Google Maps, that part of town has been completely rebuilt now.]

Miyaki’s | 5:47 am CST
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Friday, November 30th, 2001

Snow flurry tonight, hardly a dusting that didn’t stick. Roads were slick with snow that had melted and re-frozen.

weather report | 1:37 pm CST
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Thursday, November 29th, 2001

B and I went down to Familiar Noodle House at lunch time for big, steaming bowls of ramen. I get the idea that “Familiar Noodle House” lost a little in the translation, don’t you? But it’s right there on the flag over the counter, in English and katakana.

When we came back, we got stopped at the gate, where the guards searched our car. They pick cars at random and go through all the compartments. They never say what they’re looking for, and I never ask; they’re just doing their job, and I’m absolutely certain they catch a lot of crap for it. The airman who brought our license and registration back to us said we were the nicest people they’d had all day. Gosh.

Familiar Noodle | 12:50 pm CST
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Saturday, November 24th, 2001

I finally overloaded on Thanksgiving Day turkey. We made another batch of stuffing and reheated the leftovers, then pigged out again last night, and this morning when I woke up, I was still full. It was sort of like when you drink beer all day, then wake up in the middle of the night after a dream about drinking from a fire hose. You want to go get a big glass of cold water, but you know it’ll just make you queasy and you won’t be able to lie down again. So instead of real breakfast this morning, I had a pot of tea, and got through the day on a bowl of noodles. That’s because we all went to Viking in the evening, and I wanted my stomach ready for a big meal. Twelve bucks for all you can eat is a great price, but I wanted to rob them. I think I came pretty close, too, but was I ever disappointed in Sean. I expected the evening to end when management came to our table to beg him on bended knee to stop eating, but he bogged down long before the dishes and bowls piled up above his shoulders. I can usually depend on him to eat his weight in carbos alone, so I can’t explain what went wrong.

carbo-overloaded | 9:47 am CST
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Friday, November 23rd, 2001

Another beautiful day today; we’ve had a string of four or five days with clear, deep blue skies, lots of sunshine, and temps in the sixties. They keep telling me that we’ll be up to our noses in snow any minute now, and that the earthquakes knock you right off your feet, but what have we had so far? A flurry that hardly amounted to a dusting and two temblors that hardly slopped the water our of our glasses. Feh. There. That ought to jinx me good.

We went a couple miles south to Shimoda today to do a little shopping, some of it for us, some of it for Christmas gifts, thank goodness. Sean gets wound so tight about buying gifts that his head just about pops off and flies spinning high into the air; I think we loosened him up a bit with this trip. In one store I bought a set of soup bowls the size of bathtubs, porcelain soup spoons, and tiny little dishes that you pour soy sauce into for dipping. When I brought my meager purchases to the cashier’s counter, three check-out girls rushed to attend to me with many thank-yous and much bowing. I’ve never been to Tiffany’s my darned self, but I’ll bet the service there is shabby in comparison to this common department store. With three of them working furiously, it still took them at least five minutes to wrap them in more newspaper than you usually find in a Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Christmas shopping in Shimoda | 9:39 am CST
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Wednesday, November 21st, 2001

Another temblor hit us at suppertime tonight that made the water in our glasses slop back and forth a bit and rocked us gently in our chairs, just enough to make B get up and head for the doorway. Turned out it was a 5.0 centered about a hundred miles north of here and twenty miles below the floor of the ocean.

temblor | 5:22 am CST
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Sunday, November 18th, 2001

I may be wrong, but I think the Dawgies are starting to settle down to work.

I expected a bit more rowdiness over weekend day watches, when there wasn’t as much to do and everybody was in that weekend mood. Not much trouble at all, though, and in fact several of the ops are doing outstanding work.

After the watch, Mark Ursich told me a bunch of Dawgs were going to get together at Viking for a bite. Viking is an all-you-can-eat place, where you pick out what you want from prepared food and cook the meats back at your table on a gas grill. I tried salmon sushi (okay, so you don’t cook that), marinated lamb, some kind of beef strip, and the usual Japanese stuff I love like gyoza and miso.

I love eating at Japanese restaurants, but there was one hitch to eating at Viking. It had what I guess you’d call a traditional dining area, where you sat on the floor at short tables. I had to take off my shoes when I entered the dining area, and though the restaurant provided slippers to put on when I went to get more food, the biggest slippers they had are comically small on me. They went as far as the balls of my feet, and I had to shuffle across the floor with my toes clenched to keep them from falling off.

Dawgie chow | 4:34 am CST
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Tuesday, November 13th, 2001

I don’t think I’ve said a word to you yet about my new diet, and this is as good a time as any.

I went to the doctor a few weeks because I get a lot of congestion in my head. The little gears turned in his witch doctor’s mind and he diagnosed me with some kind of twitching nasty that’s apparently caused by a reaction to corn and corn products. Doesn’t that just figure? So now I have to read every damn word on every ingredient label because nearly every processed food on your supermarket shelf has some kind of corn product in it. Go pick up a can of anything in your kitchen cupboard right now, and if it isn’t loaded with high fructose corn syrup, I’ll stand on my head in the center of town and sing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Ditto for dextrose, which is corn sugar. I’m used to simply buying what tastes good. Now I have to pay attention to what I’m eating. It’s almost like being a health nut.

soup to nuts | 5:51 pm CST
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Monday, November 12th, 2001

Experienced my first earthquake tonight, though “earthquake” is a pretty strong word for the two or three gentle shakes we got. Must’ve been about a 0.8 on the Richter. I was sitting on the sofa, Tim was on one of the overstuffed chairs; we were watching television. About halfway through the program I got the dim impression that the sofa was moving, as though somebody was kicking it over and over, but B was on the other side of the room, and I don’t know why she’d kick the sofa, anyway. So I figured I must’ve been having some kind of insanity attack and I was about to die. Since I was going to kick off anyway, I said something remarkably intelligent, like maybe, “What the hell’s going on?” and that’s when Tim noticed that his chair was moving, too. It didn’t last very long, nothing else in the room moved that I could see, and B never felt it even a little bit.

first earthquake | 5:47 pm CST
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Sunday, November 11th, 2001

Sunday, our lazy day. When I wasn’t taking a bike ride or working on a project with Timmy, I spent my free time working out the tougher parts of the Sunday crossword.

Sumo season has begun. I can’t say why we’re interested in it as much as we are, other than because it’s so very Japanese. What’s funny, when you look at it that way, is that the yokazuna, the highest-ranked sumo wrestler, isn’t from Japan at all, but Hawaii. And man, is he big. I mean, they’re all big, but this guy’s a monster, probably weighs close to 400 pounds, and I’ll bet at least two-thirds of his weight is above his waist. Pushing him around has got to be like bringing a speeding locomotive to a dead stop with your bare hands. They’re not just fat, though. The guy I like to watch, Tochiazuma, is a big guy, but he’s built like a cast-iron fire plug, and he’s fast. Most sumo matches are over in seconds, and the energy these guys unleash in those few seconds is so tremendous that sweat runs off them in rivers after they finish. In interviews after his matches, Tochiazuma sweats worse than Nixon. So we’re watching the matches closely, picking our favorites, and having lots of fun adding our own commentary, because the Japanese sports guys are just as insipid as any of their American counterparts. They usually work in pairs, and it seems as if one guy’s job is to keep repeating “so desu ne” – “That’s right!”

so desu ne | 5:43 pm CST
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Saturday, November 10th, 2001

Picture a shallow pool filled with about 200 salmon, big ones, about ten-pounders. A siren sounds, and about a hundred people jump into the water and try to catch the salmon with their hands. That’s the Shimoda Salmon Festival, our latest cross-cultural experience.

Shimoda’s just a little way from here, so we figured if we bundled Tim up tight and brought along a change of clothes to keep him warm and dry, he’d be all right. The air was brisk all day, but when the sun came out it was toasty warm, and the Japanese had little fires going all over the site where you could stop and warm your hands or any other part of you that had gotten wet. There was also plenty of yummy festival food to warm you up from the inside.

Catching the fish was lots of fun. At least that’s the way we felt about it; I’m sure the salmon felt differently. They all crowded into the far side of the pool as we lined up along the edge, so they must’ve known something was up. When the crowd waded into the water, the salmon went absolutely batshit and took off in all directions, slamming into our feet hard enough that I thought somebody was kicking me. Sooner or later they stop for a breather, though, and that’s when you reach down and yank them out of the water. Grabbing them by the tail seemed to work best, although a couple people put the fish in a bear hug. You could spot the experienced fishermen in the crowd, hooking their fingers in salmon’s gill slits.

We left about ten in the morning and had such a good time we didn’t get home until about four that evening, when we were faced, of course, with CLEANING THE FISH. I’d paid about ten bucks to have some farmer’s wives clean them for me, but their idea of cleaning fish and mine are worlds apart. My method leaves behind neat, clean fillets prepared with tender loving care; theirs is a high-speed hacking, and the gore-smeared fillets look more like the victims of a sociopathic axe murderer than a meal. Barb and I spent about an hour cleaning and wrapping, after which we put a really big fillet under the broiler and sat down to salmon and rice at about supper time. Delicious stuff.

[Julie Arnzen wrote:] Oh you found the Salmon Festival. Isn’t it FUN! Have we ever told you about our trip? We went along with our lovely Japanese landlords who decided to treat us to lunch whilst we were there, you know those food stalls they have there, well they treated us to squid on a stick, the biggest tentacles you have ever seen too, and couldn’t possibly turn it down and be impolite, so we ate it, all except PJ who quite loud enough for our hosts to hear, said OH YUCK! PJ and I did the catching of the fish, or at least I attempted to, but fell in, tripping over a heap of bouncing fish, got completely soaked and a few days later was treated for pneumonia ha! but we did actually come home with a fish too, ours bit right through the plastic bag that it was placed in, they’re pretty tough fish! taste good though.

Shimoda Salmon | 6:41 am CST
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Thursday, November 1st, 2001

You should see My Darling B read Japanese! I started learning the characters before we left England and I’m still piss-poor at it, but I’m a slug and haven’t been studying. B, to my shame, taught herself one of the alphabets in a single evening! Went out and bought some cooking gunk the next day. It was even the right cooking gunk, not just gunk that looked like cooking gunk and turned out to be useful anyway.

That’s right, I said “one of the alphabets.” The Japanese have at least three, like life’s not complicated enough. When Japanese kids start to read at school, they learn the fifty-one characters of the hiragana alphabet; each character is a syllable, like “ba” or “sho.” Once they’ve got that down, they learn the fifty-one katakana characters – same syllables, different characters, but they use katakana to spell foreign words only, to keep them separate, I guess. I’m surprised the French haven’t thought of that dodge. Finally, they learn kanji, a set of about two-thousand Chinese characters; these are the classic pictograms that stand for an entire word or meaning, and they’re insanely complicated. To make reading as difficult as possible, the Japanese mix hiragana, katakana and kanji at whim, no rules, all bets are off. You’d think they’d all be psychotic from having to read like that.

I’m a big fan of the kanji myself. They’re like little puzzles to solve, sort of like when you read in your schoolbook that the letter A was a pictogram of an ox’s head, but no matter how you screwed up your eyes, you couldn’t help wondering what kind of peyote the authors were smoking that day. The trouble with kanji is that, just when I think I’m making some kind of progress towards becoming semi-literate, I find myself looking at a menu or a sign that’s written almost entirely in hiragana. A tiny little pain in my left temple, sort of like a knitting needle running through my head, distracts me at about that time, and I wonder why I kid myself that I can ever learn this.

Thank goodness B’s a little more determined than I am. She’s trying to get her brain wrapped around Japanese cooking, starting with figuring out how to make miso soup as yummy as we’ve had in the tiny little shops around here. When she’s in kitchen-experiment mode, she goes to the store and buys a bunch of stuff that looks sorta right, then comes home and plays for a while before running out to get a bunch more stuff. She was stuck on the first step, though, because – and I hate to sound like a broken record – we can’t read anything, absolutely nothing, and it doesn’t help that the food doesn’t look like food. It looks like snails and seaweed, and squeeze tubes and plastic tubs full of play-doh.

B’s also working on her degree now that she can go to school, and she can squeeze a Japanese class into her elective requirements. Bang! Two birds with one stone. So the other day, when I crawled out of bed in search of a hot cup of tea after sleeping off a mid, she very nearly dragged me down the stairs to read me the labels on the stuff she’d bought at the store. Even though my brains felt like moldy cotton gym socks, I could appreciate the magic of learning to read all over again. She reads road signs and shop names, every bit of hiragana she can find, just like a five-year-old reading Dick and Jane for the first time.

kanji boy | 9:31 pm CST
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Sunday, October 28th, 2001

It was one of those rare days when all of us are free at the same time – I wasn’t working, B wasn’t coaching, Sean wasn’t wrestling, Tim wasn’t caring for lame pets. When we find we’ve all got more than an hour together, we try to do something – play cards, go for a walk, yell and scream at one another, anything. On Sunday, we decided that, since we had most of the day, we’d try to find Lake Towada before the leaves had all fallen off the trees.

Lake Towada is one of those crater lakes left over after a volcano stops spewing fire and brimstone all over everybody and settles down for a few thousand years. The lake and Oirase Gorge, a river gorge leading from the lake down the side of the mountain, are both popular tourist destinations, although we didn’t realize how popular until we got about halfway up the side of the mountain where the two-lane road was choked with tour buses and just about every car in northern Honshu. Parking is never a problem in Japan; just like England, it’s perfectly all right to leave your car in the road and walk away for as long as you like. Oirase Gorge is reputed to be one of the most picturesque areas in Tohoku, this region of Japan, but frankly I thought it looked more like a parking lot than a natural preserve. Maybe I’ll enjoy it more if I come back out of season.

Lake Towada, it has to be said, was a beautiful place. Even in the subdued light of an overcast day, the colors of the leaves on the Japanese maples were striking, and the waters of the lake itself were wide and calm enough to inspire poetry, even when the cheesy swan-shaped paddle boats you can rent at the dockside crept into view. I somehow managed to find a place to park at even the crowded overlooks, which – you’ll have to take my word for this – was as close to miraculous as you can come when motoring around the lake. The views were always worth the agonizing twenty-minute climb in second gear it took to get there, and if we hadn’t been short on time I would’ve stopped more often and gazed at the view a little longer.

We did have enough time to stop for lunch, though, and, after agonizing over the menu posted at the doors of several restaurants, as Barb customarily does, we blundered into one on the lake shore, not because we knew they served what we wanted, but because we were getting really hungry. This is also customarily the way we solve the problem of which restaurant to eat at in a foreign country. For all the agonizing we do over the menus, we almost never learn to recognize what’s for dinner, we just learn which restaurants we like. The food, by the way, was almost as excellent as the view from the picture windows facing the lake, or the waitress’s English. She seemed as self-conscious and embarrassed to speak it as most of them do, but between her excellent English and our very broken Japanese she was a godsend, and we got delicious bowls of miso ramen that we happily slurped up, except for Tim, who can’t stand all the veggies.

Lake Towada | 9:27 am CST
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Saturday, October 13th, 2001

If you go to live in a foreign country, right after you get there you should learn to do a few key things: In the local language, ask for directions to the toilet, which you usually learn right after asking for beer; dial your own telephone number from off-base, which can be surprisingly difficult; and use the local buses and trains, or at least the taxis, because sometimes that’s the only way to get home.

To learn the last one, we signed up for a day trip sponsored by Outdoor Recreation. They’re supposed to be shuttling us about in the most discreet manner possible, by the way, but they must’ve figured that today was the terrorists’ day off, because they loaded us all onto an eighty-foot, Army-green military bus with “U.S. Air Force” stenciled on the side, and the driver ran into everything in the parking lot at the train station. Attention-getting? Maybe just a bit.

Trains are surprisingly easy to use in Japan. Each station has an automatic ticket machine, so you don’t have to talk to anybody. There’s a big map on the wall over the machines, and the price of a one-way ticket is written right under the name of the city you want. The only time this could be a problem is if the sign doesn’t translate the kanji characters into English.

We rode the train to Hachinohe and walked through the shopping district before returning. The train was fast and clean, and Hachinohe was agreeable enough, but this trip and others I’ve been taking away from Misawa is teaching me a valuable lesson: What it’s like to be utterly different from everybody else. Apparently I’m something of a curiosity to the Japanese, who stare as I pass, sometimes open-mouthed. I’m enough of a novelty that some want to take pictures of me, as if their friends might never believe what they saw without evidence. To make me even more like a monkey in a cage, I can barely speak. It’s an outrageous experience.

trip to Hach | 5:54 am CST
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Sunday, October 7th, 2001

Weather was beautiful for walking today, so we ran up the Pacific coast a ways and strolled the beach for a couple hours. It’s nice, but not as nice as it may at first sound. Although we’ve walked only a few miles of the coast, we haven’t yet found a ten-foot stretch of it that wasn’t littered with truckloads of garbage. This is great for beachcombers who like to pick up a spare waterlogged television set, but if you want to wander along the sands contemplating life, it can be a bit distracting, and just forget about taking off your shoes.

I dream of sandy beaches | 5:39 am CST
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Friday, September 28th, 2001

To keep from becoming barracks rats, we’re trying to sign up for every trip and tour that’s published. We went on our first trip today, a beach combing trip to Mutsu Bay to look for glass floats. Fishermen in this corner of the world still use them on their nets, and beach combers are crazy for them, so naturally you never see any. Well, I didn’t, and neither did Timmy, but My Darling B found one almost right away, a tiny one about the size of a golf ball. She was well chuffed; it was the one thing she’d wished for that day, and it came true.

The beaches are pretty trashy, covered with lots of flotsam, and Tim spent the whole morning throwing almost all of it back into the surf, especially the plastic floats. They’re about the size of a basketball and usually have a broken length of rope hanging from them, so he could wind up and fling it like a hammer throw. Made a terrific noise when he hit a concrete breakwater.

We walked probably three or four miles of beach along the eastern rim of the bay, and finally stopped at a roadside noodle stand for a big, steaming-hot bowl of miso ramen before scooting back to Misawa.

Miso ramen is a big bowl of ramen noodles in a broth made of bean paste, usually topped with sliced vegetables such as bean sprouts, onion, mushroom, cabbage, and radish. Sometimes you can order it with chunks of chicken, pork, or beef. And when I say a big bowl, I mean BIG; I have a hard time finishing it. It’s a bargain meal at about 500 yen.

field trip | 5:36 am CST
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Wednesday, September 26th, 2001

Time now for colorful background: Big crows infest the base. Really big. Big enough to ride. B says she used to worry that they’d carry Sean away. That’s not just a funny way to put it; I’ll bet small dogs go missing pretty often around here. Sometimes they come soaring out of a tree, wings locked, and at first glance you mistake them for aircraft. They even sound like aircraft when they fly by, their wings beating like helicopter rotors. I just hope one of them doesn’t dump on me; that’d be a hard mess to clean up.

an infestation of crows | 5:34 am CST
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Friday, September 21st, 2001

It’s a lot more alien than I was ready for; if you’d plopped me down in the middle of an ant colony, I wouldn’t have felt more out of place. Everything’s so tiny. The shops and houses look like ice-fishing shanties standing shoulder to shoulder and stacked atop one another. The cars are about the size of gumdrops. The chairs we sat on in the noodle shop were strangely western-looking but had deceptively short legs. The only things not shrunken are the telephones; they’re at least as big as breadboxes and colored green and red and gray.

Friday evening we taped a holiday message for Armed Forces News. You might have seen these before round about Christmas time; before they go to a commercial break, stations will play these little blips where you see a military guy with the family, they’ll say a quick “hi, folks!” and wave like goobers. We didn’t wave, but we still looked like goobers, so it’ll be pretty easy to spot us. B will be the one who looks like she’s been into the cooking sherry. You might be getting a call telling you when it’ll be on, but I’m not sure they have to do that.

Saturday we wanted to stretch our legs, get out of the room, and off the base, so we headed into town. Misawa is right out the front gate; just take a right and you’re in a main street shopping district. The culture shock is tremendous, most immediately because I can’t read anything. We took a long stroll down one side of the street, stopping for a bite to eat, then worked our way back along the other side of the street. Our first day out, the Jehovah’s Witnesses found us. I thought it was just a Japanese couple being friendly; well, I suppose it was. They chatted with us a bit before he whipped out the pamphlet and asked me to take out a subscription. I accepted his card but said I’d have to get back to him on the subscription.

more ant colony | 9:24 pm CST
Category: My Glorious Air Force Career | Tags: , ,
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Sunday, September 16th, 2001

It rained again all day Sunday, but B wanted to see if she could find the house she used to live in, so we set off in the rain to tramp through an old housing area just a block away from the hotel. She was in familiar territory here, and zeroed in on her quarters almost right away. It was a corner apartment on a four-unit building, derelict and covered in graffiti now. All the buildings in this corner of the housing area were vacant, and I found out later that they were all scheduled for demolition in the spring.

The base chaplains held a memorial service in the base theater in the evening. The place was packed; dozens were standing in the back of the room. The service was simple; after the posting of the colors, each of the chaplains said a few words in reflection of the week’s events, we sang the now-inevitable chorus of ‘God Bless America’ while we held lit candles, and everybody filed out after a moment of silence.

It was a cathartic moment; I got a little misty, even though I’m frankly growing more than a little tired of hearing ‘God Bless America’ every day on the public address system just before retreat. Our way of life in the civilian and, somewhat more pointedly, in our military world has been changed so fundamentally, and yet the event that has sparked the change was so outrageously crazy that I can see it’ll take quite some time for me, for probably anybody, to appreciate the weight of it. I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to get my mind to encompass it fully.

fundament | 9:20 pm CST
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Saturday, September 15th, 2001

Here’s a funny thing: To fly the military charter flight into Misawa from the States, you actually fly PAST Misawa to Tokyo, land there and wait several hours in the terminal – well, of course you do! – and when you take of again, you head south to Okinawa, where once again you wait several hours in a passenger terminal before you finally get back on the plane and head north to Misawa, where you land some six or seven hours after you flew over it in the first place.

Needless to say, security was tight. Armed Air Force Security Police boarded the plane when we landed at Yokota AB in Tokyo, and a rep from the pax terminal gave us a thorough briefing before we were allowed to leave the plane. Yokota was HOT! The humidity must’ve been near 100%, and the pax terminal wasn’t air conditioned. I peeled off the long-sleeved shirt, fleece and coat I’d been wearing on the plane and sat panting as sweat puddled around me, knowing that I would turn into a popsicle as soon as I got back on the plane and the sweat froze to my skin.

We landed at Iwakune, a Marine air station in southern Japan. Once again, armed guards boarded the plane and a pax terminal rep briefed us, and WOW! Were they wrapped up tight! He told us not to leave the plane without our IDs and boarding passes. If we did, we would not be allowed into the terminal and we would not be allowed to re-board the plane. I guess we’d just have to stand there on the tarmac for the rest of our lives. He advised us to take only what bags and baggage we absolutely needed, because it would all be opened and everything inside would be searched. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He cautioned us to go directly from the plane to the terminal and not to sneak off for a smoke or to look for a toilet, because the armed guards would jack us up. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He noted that the bathrooms were to the left inside the pax terminal, past the snack bar. Lots of ears pricked up at the mention of a snack bar, as we hadn’t been fed since we left Alaska. He then added that the snack bar was closed. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. He said that after we’d checked into the pax terminal we could ask to go outside to smoke, but otherwise we were to remain in the terminal building. He reminded us not to leave our IDs and boarding passes. When it was time to re-board the plane, we would be called up in order and we would not be allowed onto the airplane unless we could produce our IDs and boarding passes. As we filed off the plane, he reminded each of us to check that we had our IDs and boarding passes. “There’s always one that forgets, isn’t there?” I remarked on the way out. B smacked me in the back of the head. “You dope! Tempt fate like that and it’s going to be YOU!”

We touched down on Misawa in the rain; the weather was cool. As the plane taxied to the terminal, I saw a small gathering of people standing by the fence, swinging an American flag and waving at the plane, and I thought it must be nice to be the lucky guy who gets that kind of welcome back.

This time, the boarding party was not only armed guards and the pax terminal guy, but the base commander, a one-star general, Chip Utterback, and his Command Chief, the dad-like Chuck Clymer. Utterback said they’d heard just five hours ago that we were inbound – that would’ve been about the time we landed in Yokota – and a bunch of social club members got together to bake cookies and cakes for us, scooped up a carload of cold beverages, and put together an impromptu welcome for us. That was the crowd I saw waving at us in the rain. He welcomed us to the station, and we got off the plane. Waiting just inside the terminal was the commander of every group and squadron on base, as many colonels as I’ve ever seen in one place, and they shook hands with each of us as we filed in. I met my new commander, Col. Mitzell, who stopped to say hello to B and the boys.

It was pouring down rain most of that evening, but Barb was so excited to be back on Misawa Air Base that she just had to have a look around, so we broke out a couple umbrellas and wandered a short walk from the hotel. It was almost as hard for her to keep her bearings as it was for me; there’d been so much new construction on base that she recognized almost nothing. We poked our heads into the community center and the gym to see what they were like before we went back to the hotel. Bedtime was very early that night, and we even managed to sleep in until six or seven.

Arrival | 9:14 pm CST
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