In late 1992, I found myself sitting in a Camp Fuji ”Welcome Indoc” Learning that, what we call a “thumbs up”, is the Japanese equivalent of the middle finger. A fact, proven to me one day, by the occupants of a school bus.
I arrived in Okinawa on a sweltering 100+ degree day in August 1992. After the ride from Kadena Air Base to Camp Schwab in “cattle cars” (yep, just like it sounds), we assembled in the parking lot of the base theater. This was an entire battallion, around 600 men. We were greated by two permanent personnel who began to remind us that we were in a foreign country, and although in the Marines, we were still subject to customs rules.
They referred to the brief we had been given before leaving 29 Palms, concerning contraband items. They told us that they were, in fact, the customs officers for the base, and this was an official customs inspection. Bare in mind, we had “oh so carefully” (and tightly) packed all of our worldy possessions into one single sea bag. I mean, these things were literally about to burst at the seems. We were standing on scorchingly-hot black asphalt in the blazing tropical sun, and these guys had just told us that we were about to dump all of our clothes (and everything else) on the ground, in this parking lot. Nobody was smiling.
My dad had shared many stories of his service in the Army, and when I joined the Marine Corps he was justifiably worried. His lone bit of advise was the venerable “Never volunteer for anything.” However, he was in the Army, not the Marines. Being motivated makes a big difference in the Corps. It’s called being a “hard-charger.” That’s exactly what I was, and it came in handy quite often, especially on this day.
After letting the painful thought of dumping our gear settle in on us, one of the Sergeants says, “Would anyone like to volunteer to be the first to dump their gear?” a moment passed and nobody said a word,.. except for PFC Brown(me) I said, “I will.” The Sergeant replied, “Good,…you can go.” “Everybody else, dump your shit!”
In October we transferred to the Mainland to do some cold-weather training in and around the famous Mt. Fuji. The field-op that sticks out most in my memory, began on a cold and rainy Saturday morning. We marched all day and into the night. I couldn’t tell if I was wet from rain leaking through my so-called waterproof gortex, or if it was sweat from the blistering pace set by Lt. Colonel Biszaks’ black-coffee-fueled attempt to make 24 miles before stopping. (24 miles is a standard set by the marine corps for marches, we call them “humps”) Either way, it was around 3 am when we finally stopped. It was pitch-black dark, rain was coming down in buckets, and I was standing in about 4 inches of water. I heard the Colonel say, “Alright you guys, get some sleep.”…….Gee thanks
Let’s get back to those first few days at Fuji. Camp Fuji is, as the name implies, on the base of Mt. Fuji. When you get to a new base, they have a meeting and tell you about the base, the command, and the town(if there is one) My concerns were “how far are we from Tokyo?” “how do I get there?” and “where do I sleep when there?”
The Indoc answered most of those questions. They had some handouts that described getting to Tokyo, and what you could do when you get there. For some reason, Brandon wasn’t excited about going to Tokyo, but another guy was. His name was Gino Aiello(RiP) In the pamphlet, we were informed that the govt ran a hotel in Tokyo. It was called the Nu Sanno, and the room rates were based on your pay grade.(a blessing in Tokyo) There was a limited allotment of rooms for us, so if we wanted one, we had to sign up right then. Oddly, Aiello and I were the only guys in our platoon with the foresight to sign up. Not that it did us much good, because the officers usually snagged the rooms anyway.
The pamphlet also alerted us to the existence of an area of town called “Roppongi” where there were many “Discotheques” Aiello and I had a lengthy discussion about “What are ‘dis-ska-theks’” -take a moment and laugh, it’s ok……remember, less than a year before, I was in Arkansas, living at the end of a “dirt” road. Don’t worry, after a few days it sank in, and I had my Eureaka moment ‘Dis-scoh-teks’ Ah!!!
I may get around to stories of the “Gas Panic” and Pachinko, but first, I’d like to tell you a travel tip, in narrative, if you’ll indulge me. One Sunday evening about 5 pm, Aiello and I made our way to the train station. We bought our tickets, and boarded the train back to the base. We talked and looked out the windows at the green rolling hills and lush country. After about an hour and 1/2, we began to get supsicous that something wasn’t right. This trip generally took about an hour and 15 minutes, but..there were three different speed trains; 1 that made every stop, 1 making every 5th, and another “express” that stopped like every 10th or something. We hadn’t entirely figured out this system, so even though we thought we had been on the train too long, we just thought maybe we were on the slow one.
As more time passed, our worry increased. We frantically looked out the window for some familiar site. After more than 2 hours on the train, we decided it was time to get off and see what we could figure out. When you’re in and around Tokyo, everyone speaks English. The street, bus, and train signs are in English, but when we stepped out of that train we knew something had gone wrong. Nothing was written in English, and the guy at the ticket counter had no idea what we were asking him. We tried writing it down, but no joy. Finally, we showed him(and the group that had now gathered) our tickets, to which they all laughed wildly. The ticket man wrote down a figure in Yen (about 12$), and held out his hand. We paid him, and he led us to a train.
Once on our new train, we started talking and wondering what could have happened. We couldn’t understand it. We’d taken that train several times before with no problems. We settled in for the ride, but were intent on keeping a sharp lookout for our station.
This older Japanese lady comes and sits down next to Aiello(chick magnet), and they start having this weird convo where each one pretends to understand the other. He makes a few jokes, “she wants to hook me up with her daughter.” He starts telling her what had happened to us, and why we were on this train. He’s enjoying it, and basically just assuming that she’s pretending to understand. About 20 minutes passes, and the train stops at a station. The lady gets up, says goodbye, does a few bows, and leaves. We’re sitting there laughing about it, when just then, the lady runs back onto the train and begins to yell and motion with her arms. We’re so clueless, we think she’s come back to say goodbye again, so we wave and say “goodbye..goodbye” By this time, we’re really getting a kick out of all this. She grabs Aiello by the arm and leads him off the train. I follow, and she leads us both around to the front of the train car. There, we see two workers, disconnecting the car we were sitting in from the rest of the train. (this is what had happened to us the 1st time, the train had split)
Still holding Gino’s arm, she leads us to the proper train, and we squeeze in through the now closing doors. We wave goodbye for real this time, reminded that there are good people everywhere, thankful and mindful of just how memorable a train ride and a conversation with a stranger can be sometimes.
There you have it, my Travel Tip. The trains in Japan split, the front half goes in one direction, and the back half goes in another. Make sure you’re on the correct half.