Silly Grins

Friday, October 21, 2011

Sake, Sashimi, and Clean Sheets

Oh Tokyo,
They got some saki, and sashimi, and some clean sheets,
Oh, kimono, oh, kimono,
Tokyo's the town that I love the best,
East may be East, and West may be West,
Forget about between, it'll drive you insane,
And teach you things you never knew before. 

                                                - Loudon Wainwright III

Keyes Beech... a wartime correspondent during the Korean War and onward. 

He wrote a chapter, in Tokyo and Points East, as if it were his epitaph. That chapter is titled, "Here Lies Keyes Beech."

I drifted. The war, a bankrupt marriage, a stupid affair in Tokyo had combined to wreck my sense of values. I was no longer sure of what was right and what was wrong. I wanted absolutes to cling to, but reason rejected absolutes. Black and white blended into a confusing gray. Days were something to be endured; nights would bring forgetfulness of a sort. For the first time I knew that awful feeling that all men must experience at least once in a lifetime--to stand in a room full of people and feel utterly and absolutely alone.

I was dangerously close to feeling sorry for myself.

I can't remember exactly when I unearthed this treasure, but I do remember visiting a beloved used book store and feeling like I'd scored big time. $2.50 for a first addition, printed in 1954.  And no space had been wasted. Every page seemed to go deep with a sense of humor that spared no one. He was simply honest. He'd been through hell.

Japan and China gave me immunity to human suffering. At Iwo Jima, when my best friend was killed, I wept. But I wept no more as my other friends were killed, one by one, day by day.

I had discovered a voice that was telling a story. And for some reason, I had to listen.

Later on, in the chapter The Painful Year, he recalls a conversation he had with the French diplomat Francis Huré next to a rather swank swimming pool at the old French Embassy, late 1940-something:

"You wait and see," Francis went on. "Your danger is that in combating Communism you will sacrifice the very things you are fighting to preserve--your precious freedoms."

Francis stopped talking while we watched Colette come up from the pool. She was worth watching; she was Japanese with a French background. She had arrived at the pool with no swim suit, so she had disappeared for a few minutes and emerged in a costume of her own design. It consisted of the red scarf she had worn over her hair and two borrowed men's handkerchiefs she had knotted together to cover her breasts. Out of the scarf she'd fashioned a fundoshi, a scanty loincloth worn by Japanese fishermen.

On an American woman the makeshift suit would have seemed indecent in the hot light of the afternoon. On Collette it was just right. She was small and slim and perfectly rounded. Her legs, unlike those of many Japanese women, were not bowed but straight; her calves were not muscular but firm. As she walked up the steps her bare wet feet left dainty imprints on the stone and her straight black hair hung to her shoulders. Water glistened on the ivory body and a row of silver drops moved in quick succession from the line of her navel to their inevitable doom.

"You were saying?" I prompted.
Francis sat back in his chair and laughed.
"The hell with it," he siad. "It's much too hot to talk about a cold war--and Colette is much too nice. Aren't you Colette?" Colette agreed that she was.

There was, in Tokyo in those days, a curious little international group that fitted into no conventional pattern. 

In some ways, those misfits of the past are not so different from what is here today. Their stories are served up on a platter, raw, arranged by hands that know enough about a part of hell none of us has any business going to. I am honored, a little bit scared, and find myself wondering. What were the last two lines of that song?


  1. Everyone today twits what their eating because that's about as interesting as it gets and back in a day when real stories could be told most chose not to. To protect their sanity or that of others.

  2. Sounds like a great read and story. Any chance of lending it out when you've finished?

  3. Chris: One of my soon-to-be-written policies includes a brief 'no tweeting' explanation. As for those stories...I can see why many choose not to say anything until it's time...and recently, that time seems to be of the borrowed kind.

    Momotaro: Funny you should mention that. I'd lent to book out (kind of what happens with the good ones) and just got it back after a few years. Feel like I need to hang on for a while before I'll be comfortable lending it out again. In the meantime, there are still a few more Beech posts that are in the works.