It was another of those not very eventful eternities when the ship we had boarded in Pearl Harbor, crossed the rest of the seemingly limitless Pacific Ocean. The monotony was oppressive. The passing time was veiled in a distant memory of seeing a smile and the receding face of the person I loved. As the days relentlessly passed there was a ritual which occupied a portion of nearly every evening. I wrote to Gregg, brief descriptions of life aboard the ship, and included more intimate information in our personal 'language'.
Daily words of tenderness and affection which, no doubt, would not have been acceptable had they been encountered by one of the military censors. It was pleasant to not only have a very special person to love, but we also that had our own private means of communication. Several of my shipmates had seen me writing in an unknown scrip and inquired about it. I blithely replied, "Oh, its Nodroggerg, a little known dialect of my people who are from the Tartar mountain region of Czechoslovakia." Well, that certainly prevented any further prying questions. Most of them didn't even know where Czechoslovakia was located, let alone the Tartar mountains. Gregg and I had previously christened our private correspondence language ‘Nodroggerg’, which was simply Greggordon spelled backwards.
The seemingly endless voyage was accompanied by endless chatter, most of which, for me, had little intrinsic worth. Fortunately I had brought along a number of books to read, something most of the regular Army personnel seemed to find distasteful. I could lose myself in the marvelous would of the imagination, savor delectable words and encounter new ideas and concepts.
As the giant troop carrier steamed into Yokohama Bay, I had the second extraordinary psychic experience of my life. I suddenly felt that I had returned 'home'. Everyone, at some time in his life, has been away from home for a period of time and on returning has felt a flood of intimate emotional identification. They have returned to that special place which contains all of the multitude of recognized and even unknown, but sensed, elements which are in essence, home. I breathed the warm, humid air, laden with the special olfactory molecules of this particular geographic area, I saw the fishing boats in the bay, the buildings in the distance and heard, wafting through the air, sounds that were hauntingly familiar. I knew that my identification was complete, and yet if asked to explain what was happening to me internally would have had no way to respond. It was an exhilarating and somewhat confusing experience in that I had never before been to Japan, but somehow sensed a connection with this country, its people and its traditions that reached to the very core of my being. Of the many soldiers on deck I was undoubtedly the only one silently trying to not weep. They were repressed tears that carried with them the joy of recognition.
Dwight, Alex and I were temporarily assigned to the Tokyo ASA headquarters while we awaited permanent assignment. We were informed that the process could take anywhere between a few days to a couple of weeks. In the meantime we were free to explore this exciting new world around us. It was sort of strange that after having lived in close proximity for over a year in Monterey, during our time together in Tokyo the three of us had finally became very close friends—good buddies. Dwight and I were also able to share and talk about our loneliness, the quiet inner despair at being separated from the person you longed to be with. We spent the time investigating Tokyo and beginning to learn about this extraordinary and enchanting land with its unintelligible way of writing and seemingly incomprehensible social customs. The stores in the center of Tokyo, the Ginza, were filled with strange and often unknown articles. There seemed to be literally thousands of book stores, always filled with customers and students in their ever present black uniforms. The large department stores were marvelous worlds within themselves. Each 'depato' or large department store of many floors seemed to be a self-contained world of merchandise of an absolute bewildering variety, much of it of the highest quality and craftsmanship.
The restaurants, large and small, offered exotic and delicious food, most of it based on items from the sea which surrounded this island nation. And there was music everywhere. Primarily Japanese music, which with its oriental tonalities assaulted many western ears. I found it all hauntingly familiar. Surprisingly there was also a lot of western classical music—in the larger stores and even in some of the busses. At night the brilliant neon signs were ablaze with magical, yet unfamiliar symbols; kanji, hiragana and katakana, the three methods of Japanese writing. It was difficult to believe that less than ten years ago this area had been bombed and nearly totally destroyed. It was the Phoenix arising from the ashes and evidently in even greater glory than it had been before.
Then I had to say good-by to these two friends from the language school for our happy little trio was to be separated. Alex was assigned to permanent duty in Tokyo, Dwight would be traveling south to the second largest island, Kyushu. I was the only Russian linguist going north.
My next three years were to be spent on the northern island of Hokkaido at the ASA communications facility. The plane from Tokyo landed at the military airbase near the town of Chitose. Originally a small village, Chitose had grown in boomtown fashion within the last few years due to the two nearby military bases. The Army had the headquarters of the First Cavalry Division located here and then in a more remote location was the Army Security Agency Field Station. There were few visible buildings within the ASA station, but hiding behind the trees was the compound and gigantic antenna fields that covered an unknown number of acres. The entire area was fenced with a double file of fences and resembled a modern concentration camp, though slightly more attractive with the enclosed hills, natural forests and hundreds of evergreen conifers.
The ASA compound was relatively small with perhaps two hundred or so personnel, those who worked in the operations facility and support cadre of office staff, motor pool, cooks and others who maintained the base. There were eight barracks for the operations personnel, with 15 to 20 men per barracks and billeted in two-men rooms. There were two barracks for each of the four 'shifts'. One shift worked during the day from 8:00 until 4:00, the evening shift from 4:00 until midnight, and the night shift entered at midnight and left at 8:00 in the morning. That left the fourth group, or shift, which was on break. The four groups constantly rotated and would work days for three work periods, have then change to working evenings and so on with a 24 hours rest period between each shift change. Biological clocks that were forever attempting to make some sense of night and day, working and eating, dreaming and sleeping. When we finished with our week of working at night we were given three days rest. Because of the intense pressures during our working hours that time off was more than recreational, it was imperative for our mental and physical well being.
At a considerable distance from where we lived was the actual Operations Building. 'Building' was sort of a misnomer since it was more like a cavern. The large facility was almost completely underground and once inside, its temporary inhabitants were sealed off from the outside world where there was night and day, lightness and darkness. The operations facility knew no such distinctions; inside it was always ablaze with light and there was constant activity. Not unlike a gigantic ant hill there were comings and goings at all hours and constant movement inside.
My job would be working in the Translation and Analysis Section. It consisted of reading and analyzing the constant inflow of documents in Russian, writing various reports that were then sent to National Security Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. It was located near the better known headquarters of the CIA, although both organizations shared many of the same physical facilities and much of the same information. And yet the ASA was so secretive that it existed for nearly fifteen years without the American public ever being aware of its existence. The data at this Field Station was primarily obtained from radio transmissions within the Soviet Union, picked up by the multitude of antennas outside the facility and consisted of voice transmissions, radio telegraph, encoded telegraph and the super-secret Soviet Naval transmissions, which had never been decoded. Nearly every paper we touched or produced was stamped in brilliant red letters 'TOP SECRET' and many of the documents had an additional code word designation. Perhaps the most difficult was learning to live in two distinct worlds, since we were prohibited from discussing anything that transpired in the Operations building once we were outside its protective walls. It is rare and almost unnatural to not occasionally talk about one's work outside of the workplace, but it was a rule that was rigidly adhered to within our super secret organization. We were constantly aware of the fact that we lived in two separate, and very distinct, worlds.
In the analysis section some of the best information came from the Soviet radio operators who would chat with each other before, during and after sending their 'official messages'. For example, Yuri, located in Tashkent, in the eastern Republic of Uzbekistan would talk to a station in Khabarovsk or Vladivostok, in eastern Russia, about how his good buddy Aleksei Petrovich, and everyone else in that company, had left the previous week for Nikolaevsk. He was really going to miss his buddy Aleksei Petrovich. He hoped Aleksei Petrovich didn't freeze his balls off. Then he would send the official message.
My job was to realize that there were a number of towns and cities called Nikolaevsk all over the Soviet Union, and Yuri's good buddy could have been going to any one of them. There was also one on the eastern coast, near the island of Sakhalin, north of Japan. That would account for the comment about Aleksei's frozen gonads. But that eastern town had no reason for receiving such a large military contingent. As a result of this breach of security there would be continual monitoring of all activity in and around this northern Nikolaevsk. Congratulatory birthday telegrams from Moscow, Kiev and other cities being sent to Nikolaevsk were monitored and compared with normal traffic. In this scenario, since the increase was more than significant, it helped to confirm Yuri's little indiscretion. As to why a large number of troops were now stationed there was another matter, and that was the task for the intelligence teams at the headquarters in Virginia. Of course this was just one small incident during a shift and at times the sheer number of messages to be translated and analyzed was staggering. Oftentimes a message just received would trigger a connection with something that had been obtained a month or so in the past and an attempt would be made to research the previous information and if possible put the two together. The work was exciting, rewarding, yet at times downright frustrating. Atmospheric conditions often garbled words so that they sounded like little more than animal sounds or the radio telegrams would look like messages from another planet. Perhaps the most frustrating would be a message in which everything seemed to pivot around one particular word or phrase, which of course was zizzz ...snap ...crackle ...hissssss and completely unintelligible.
My new roommate was Patrick O'Brien; tall, thin and lanky, from San Leandro in Northern California. A misfit. He hated the military, didn't really like Japan, and though a Russian linguist and very proficient at his job, didn't especially care for the Russian language. Often he would refuse to eat in the Mess hall, though the food was of excellent quality, and would cook his meals on a single electric hot plate in our room. Besides buying whatever elementary provisions were available in the nearby First Cavalry Post Exchange, he also received near monthly food packages from his parents. He was also a slob and never picked up anything that had been dropped when he was finished with it, though he probably thought of himself as merely not being dependent upon unnecessary social conventions. He was also brilliant. An accomplished poet and spent nearly every spare moment reading or writing. He hardly ever left the room. We often talked about literature, poetry and music, and Patrick rambled on endlessly about his three years at UC Berkeley, but during the nearly four months together, in the same small room, we never really became friends.
Patrick undoubtedly felt himself to be the original non-conformist, a hippie before they had been named. Not only did I have to live with this strange creature, but we also worked together. We were the only two Russian translators on our shift, and although there were supposed to be three on all shifts, our shift was functioning with only two. I quickly discovered that though Patrick might have been a slob, he was undoubtedly the most brilliant translator on base. Like Gregg, Patrick was able to make connections that no one else could perceive; he understood Russian slang expressions that I had never seen written or heard expressed, he remembered insignificant facts that helped to solve the incomprehensible. In short, I had once again lucked out, and felt proud that I was able to work with and constantly learn from Patrick. It was just too bad that there was evidently some quirk in both of our personalities that prevented4 a close friendship from developing.
In arriving at the Field Station I had an awareness of something that had first impressed me before leaving California. When the small group of linguists was suddenly put together with the regular army personnel there in California, awaiting transportation to the Far East, there were times when communication was difficult. In the first place, the regular Army personnel talked about different things. I, and most of those from the ASA, felt there was more to life than 'Cunts, Cars and Cash', the three big 'C's' of regular army personnel. The gulf between the two groups of individuals was immense, not unlike the size of the Great Rift Valley in Africa. I didn't feel that I was a snob. Bozhena had attempted to show me that snobbery was artificial and usually based on principles that had little actual value. And yet the difference was real and tangible.
I had seen that at times communication between two individuals or groups of individuals was next to impossible since we seemed to see and experience the same situation in a completely different way. At first I felt that it had to do with the person's level of education. It would be, for example, more than difficult to discuss some of the new speculative theories of physics with someone who had no concept of an individual atom, and furthermore "didn't give a shit". Then came the realization that the level of "intelligence, social maturation, interest in personal development", whatever it might be called, had little to do with formal academic studying. I met a number of individuals with credentials from excellent schools who had never progressed beyond the three big C's. Obviously it was the individual who was inquisitive enough to question and had a desire to know more. That same person who was also open to communication and hadn't personally fitted themselves into a narrow way of thinking, comfortable though it might be.
The members of the ASA field station also discovered that for our military neighbors, the members of the First Cavalry Division, the most immediate and effective way of dealing with any problem was by means of brute force, since actual communication of a difference was rarely considered. They were modern day Neanderthals dressed in a contemporary army uniform. No doubt the daily treatment from their superiors was also reflected in the way in which they interacted with other human beings. Though both groups, Cavalry and ASA, were Americans in a strange land, interaction between the two groups was nearly nonexistent.
I immediately made several close friends in the building where I was billeted. Frank Rizzo was very short and very Italian. He was from New York and I discovered that the New York Italians, if Frank could be accepted as representative, were very different from the Italians I had met in Boston. Boisterous and aggressive. Smart, but it was a street smartness that evidently helped to keep them from being trampled by all the other aggressive groups in New York. Frank, consistent with the stereotypic Italian image, loved opera and though his voice certainly wasn't as refined as Gregg's it helped to fill that gap in my psyche. We spend countless hours with records from the library, most of course were opera. Unfortunately Frank was in his last few weeks on the base before being sent back to the States for discharge. That was another part of life in the military; friendships blossomed suddenly and oftentimes just as rapidly disappeared as the guys were separated by the constant rotation of personnel.
Then there were the two Strouds. Kurt Stroud was tall, blond, blue eyed and looked a lot like Sven, my Swedish friend from the language school. Kurt was very Nordic appearing. However in this case he was very German. Soft spoken and deliberate in everything he said. The other Stroud, and obviously no relation, was Len. Medium height, light brown hair, also blue eyed but absolutely nothing like the tall Stroud. From North Carolina, very talkative and at first it seemed that he rarely put his mental apparatus into gear before opening his mouth. I soon discovered that Len was just playing a little Confederate game and knew exactly what he was saying at all times. Most of the guys in the barracks found that if they were friends with one of the Strouds, they really didn't care for the other. I found the two of them charming, each in their individual way, and became very close friends with both, though the three of us never spent much time together since they didn't seem care for each other.
Kurt had been a physics major before entering the military and was now working in the cryptology section. He spent endless hours working on Russian puzzles that must have at times seemed to have no solution. The cryptology section was divided into two parts; those who actually worked on deciphering messages and those who worked on encrypting material to be sent out. The former, where Kurt worked, was undoubtedly the most interesting, though must have also had its frustrations. Kurt was also one of the solitary travelers. He for the most part kept to himself and when in his room was involved in reading science fiction and books about the workings of the universe. He seldom smiled, but when he did the person on the receiving end realized that a genuine smile like that was worth waiting for.
Len, who at first seemed to be related to the proverbial village idiot. and my nearly forgotten cousin Pavel, seldom stopped smiling. The softness of his North Carolina speech was entrancing and like many southerners he spun yarns and tales without end. Stories that would have given Truman Capote or Eudora Welty material for literally hundreds of books. Len seemed to write a lot of letters and the keys on his portable typewriter could be heard softly clicking away hour after hour. It was from Mike, Len's roommate, that I discovered that Len was involved in writing a play, or as Mike surmised, maybe several plays. Mike and Len were both radio operators and in the operations section at work they hardly ever talked to anyone, since they spent the time enveloped in large earphones, colorful lighted dials, rows of knobs and switches and surrounded by banks of recording equipment. They had specific time schedules linked to frequencies that they received and then monitored the material while it was being recorded. The radio operators comprised a major portion of the operations personnel. I still didn't know exactly why, but I really felt an inexplicable closeness to Len. Little did I know at that time what an important part of my life Len would become.
Gregg's letters began arriving with weekly regularity. He was enjoying Korea and absorbing the culture. He abhorred the destruction which had been wracked on the country and couldn't understand how human beings were capable of such indecency. Killing in the name of any god, spiritual or political was, to him, the most immoral act a person could commit, and when in the process they went about destroying the entire culture of those killed, the destroyers had merely compounded their heinous crime. He and Sven spent a lot of time with local inhabitants they had met there in Seoul and found them to be charming and hospitable. He wrote a lot about the food and mentioned a pickled cabbage dish called Kim chee, redolent with garlic and small red peppers and described as being 'hotter than hell'. It didn't seem especially oriental and he added that the Koreans appeared to consume even more garlic than the Italians. And then that very special, last paragraph in our special script, which began:
I can't tell you how much I miss you, how much I need you right now. Just to see those beautiful innocent eyes, your half smile. When, oh when will this eternity end and we can once again be in each others arms. . . .
For me the most important part of my time in Japan was absorbing and becoming a part of this incredible country. Rather than always travel with my military companions I often journeyed alone and spent time with the Japanese people, where I felt very comfortable. I had been told that the Japanese were weary of strangers and especially the American military. Rule number one appeared to be: Never, but never go off the base in uniform. A little trick I had learned from Gregg. Instead of the Japanese being unfriendly, I found quite the reverse to be true and was always accepted as a special friend or an honored guest. Though I was shy by nature I learned that a bit of well-placed extroversion, yet another lesson gleaned from Maestro Bartoni, was necessary to combat the natural reticence of the Japanese. It was necessary to break down that psychological and cultural barrier so that communication could begin.
I quickly learned basic conversational Japanese and even began a study of reading and writing the two phonetic alphabets of Hiragana and Katakana and then began studying the more complicated Kanji characters. It was late summer and with the help of an excellent rail and bus system I began to explore the magnificence of Hokkaido with its incredible natural beauty of densely forested mountains and deep blue lakes, of hot springs and charming, remote inns. In Chitose I met a bright, industrious university student, Kinji, who was desirous of progressing beyond his basic English and we began studying together. I taught him English and he in turn helped me with my Japanese.
Since Kinji was majoring in the Japanese language, with the intention of eventually teaching, I could have found no better mentor. His knowledge of the etymology and historical development made for fascinating study. The fundamentals of conversation presented no specific problems since Japanese was a very logical language with a specific word order and fairly regular verb patterns. It merely entailed the learning of new vocabulary and putting the words together in proper order. However I soon discovered that it was much more complex than I had surmised. All speech was based upon extremely complex rules of social etiquette.
Then as we continued with the study of kanji, the complex characters originally adopted from Chinese, I began to discover the incredible richness of this unique language with nuances of meaning which were nearly impossible to render into English. Kinji also introduced me to the vast world of Japanese slang and colloquial expressions. In learning to write Japanese I was fascinated by the fact that it was also a specialized art form. Unlike mere penmanship found in those western languages based on an alphabet, this entailed becoming an artist by the way in which the characters were represented on paper. Language had been elevated to yet another realm of creative expression.
I also took several trips south to get to know Hakodate better, which was at the southern tip of the land mass. Hokkaido was so gigantic that it was difficult to think of it as an island. Then a trip to the eastern sea coast and visiting a quaint coastal town known as Noboribetsu. Kurt and I had gone together and the Japanese, who are normally very polite, could not help but stare at this tall blond giant with blue eyes. Noboribetsu was well known for its hot springs and the Inn where we stayed had a large bath area fed by steaming hot mineral waters. Bathing and soaking were a new experience. The proprietor explained very carefully, and several times, that all cleansing was to be done before entering the heated water. Then soaking and relaxing was the ritual performed in hot water. Hot? It could probably have been used for cooking lobsters, or so it seemed when first entering, but after a few minutes it became evident that it was one of the most completely relaxing experiences in the world. And of course the bathing and soaking was done in the nude; the Japanese didn't appear to be the least bit conscious of their nudity. Kurt and I decided, 'Well, when in Rome, or Japan....'
From the owner's specific instructions if was evident he must have had previous experience with some of the soldiers from the First Cavalry unit who had not wanted to accept the traditional method as observed by the Japanese. I knew about the ethnocentricity of Americans. They intrinsically felt that all customs in the world were inferior to their own, and since they were now the most powerful nation on the planet and the undisputed world leaders, naturally everyone should conform to their views and methods of doing things. They had probably felt that way before the second world war, but now had the leverage to try and force everyone else to conform.
One of the pleasant customs of the Ryokan, or traditional inns, were the cotton 'yukatas', or light summer kimonos, which were presented immediately to all guests. Usually they were white with a deep indigo blue design or the reverse with the blue background dominating. Depending on the height of the guest they were ankle to mid calf in length. Kurt's, due to his height, was about knee length and was the source of many smiles. He just smiled back. It was an extremely relaxing few days and we knew that we would return to the base relaxed and completely invigorated by our experience. Noboribetsu, and Hokkaido in general, may not have had as many of the centuries old traditional buildings such as were found on Honshu, the main island, but its natural beauty was unsurpassed.
Unfortunately, the world of the Japanese, with its rich traditions, remained an unknown mystery for the many of the U.S. soldiers. The cultural concepts of the Japanese were different and often so diametrically opposed to what the American soldiers were used to, that they could not grasp even the basic elements of this foreign world. Nor did they make much of an attempt to understand what surrounded them. And in their lack of understanding, all too often they dismissed it merely as being inferior. But then I had encountered this all too prevalent attitude before. I remembered back to when I had first arrived in the U.S. with my mother and sister and we had quickly learned to subjugate our own cultural habits, since they were foreign and hence, suspect. Prejudice in America took many forms and unfortunately seemed to an integral part of its culture.
All too soon the pleasant summer ended and the colors of autumn heralded the approach of winter. The first cool evenings soon turned nippy and then cold. Increasingly more time was spent inside, often in bed where it was warm and cozy.
At times, even when one is in the dream state, we somehow know we are within a dream, but if the dreamscape is pleasurable, we flow with it and accept the gratification and sensuality of those moments. Gregg and I were on a warm tropical beach, enveloped in each other, making love. Closeness, his lips, his arms; the warmth and pleasure as one's being is completely encompassed. Ecstasy enclosed my being as wave after wave of pleasure overtook my entire being. All of creation seemed to be involved. And then I began to awaken, I wondered where I was, where was Gregg, who had been with me no more than a few seconds ago? The warm futon blanket stirred and Len's head and voice appeared at the same time. "Wow, buddy that was something else. How long's it been anyway?" I rapidly and foggily tried to reconstruct how I came to be in bed with my barracks companion, Len.
It was a three day break and Len had invited me come into town and have dinner at a great little restaurant he had discovered, with the greatest curry rice in all of Hokkaido. During our feast I asked Len about his girlfriend, Mariko. Len had rented a small house and set up housekeeping with a young lady a couple of months ago. Len explained that Mariko had gone to visit her family that lived in Tomaru, near Sapporo. The chicken curry had indeed been spectacular and then Len took me to a place called the Star Bar. It had no sign and was reached by a circuitous route of going down several alleys, inquiring at a plain door and then being admitted. Evidently the owner of the bar had previously had trouble with members of the Cavalry and hence had established this place specifically for members of the ASA Station. Although relatively dark, with glimmering stars on all of the dark blue walls, I managed to see a number of familiar faces from the base. There were also a number of young ladies who sat with the clientele and kept them company while they were drinking. Bar hostesses, sort of modern day Geisha, but considerably more liberal with their sense of physical pleasure. There was both American and Japanese music, the atmosphere was exceedingly pleasant and Len and I finally had a chance to share a bit of about our lives with each other—and the smoky flavor of Scotch flowed freely. I reminded Len several times to not let me miss the last bus back to the camp, which left at 10:00. I had left my watch on the desk after showering and hence had to rely on Len for the time. When finally I mentioned the bus again, Len looked at his watch and announced that it had left about twenty minutes ago, and in the same breath added that I could stay with him at the house.
There was no memory of leaving the bar but I could recall vaguely entering the sliding shoji door of Len's small two room house. Len almost immediately went to the closet, got out the thick futon and spread it on the tatami mat floor. It was very chilly in the room and when he pulled out the futon quilt, which served as a top blanket. I wondered if it would be warm enough. Len explained that they were incredibly warm and began to undress, stripping down to his light blue boxer shorts. I did the same and quickly crawled under the futon. The last thing I remembered was Len talking about our having to share the pillow since Mariko didn't use a pillow and they only had one. I seemed to be falling asleep even before the light went out.
Gaining full awareness, and in the few moments it had taken me to reconstruct the evening, Len had asked once again how long it had been since I had sex. I replied about six months and then began to explain to him about my relationship with Gregg. I didn't want to reject him and cause any guilt trips or possible psychological hang-ups, but at the same time felt that I had made a commitment to someone special and it was a promise that I intended to honor. But before I could finish and completely clarify the situation Len explained, "Yea, when you started calling me Gregg, I knew more or less what the story was, and in case you haven't noticed you're probably the only guy in camp who gets a letter from an army 'buddy' once to twice a week without fail. I noticed that the envelopes were from a Specialist Gregg Bartoni with a Korea APO and sort of put two and two together. What happened wasn't really your fault, I just sort of took advantage of an available situation. I understand, really I do.
Now it was my turn to ask a few questions. What exactly was the situation with him and his girlfriend Mariko. I was a bit confused. Len lit a cigarette, took a drag and then handed it to me. I looked over at him and with the dim, diffused light coming through the shoji and illuminating his blond hair I realized, perhaps for the first time, that Len really was very handsome young man. Then Len began to spin yet another of his yarns. I had no idea what time it was, but yes, it was very warm and comfortable under the futon.