Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The white-haired man sat alone at a table in the crowded airport cafeteria, eating a doughnut and taking an occasional drink from a small carton of milk. He was waiting for his wife to arrive from Boston where she had been visiting her sister.
An elderly Japanese man, carrying a cup of tea, stopped at the table. “May I join you?” he asked politely.
The white-haired man nodded and the Japanese man seated himself. “My name is Mr. Yoshida,” he said with a smile.
“John Hawkins,” the other man replied.
Mr. Yoshida ducked his head and took a sip of the hot tea. He was wearing a dark hat and business suit and carrying a black umbrella. “Perhaps you are traveling?” he asked with a smile.
“No. I’m here to pick up my wife.”
“Ah.” The Japanese took another sip of tea. “This is my fifth trip to your country.” He paused and smiled again. “Do you ever travel?”
Mr. Yoshida nodded. “But in the past?”
Hawkins shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. He finished his doughnut and carefully wiped his fingers with the paper napkin. “But I’ve been to Shanghai.”
“Ah.” Mr. Yoshida looked pleased. “I have been there also. Where did you stay?”
“I’m not sure. Somewhere in the English settlement.”
The other man nodded. “South of the Soochow Creek. I am familiar with it. For how long were you there?”
“Almost four years.”
Mr. Yoshida’s brows lifted. “Four years,” he said. “A long time.”
“And you were performing duties as a businessman?”
Hawkins smiled. “l was performing duties as a prisoner of war.”
“Ah.” Mr. Yoshida stared at the other man and then took a sip of tea. “The war.” He turned his head and looked across the busy room. “It was a bad time,” he said softly.
Hawkins took a drink of milk. “It was a very bad time.”
“My wife’s brother was at Guadalcanal.”
Hawkins said, “I was at Wake.”
“Wake Island. In 1941. We surrendered on December twenty-third. Two days before Christmas.”
“Ah. And then you went to Shanghai.”
“Not right away,” Hawkins said. “First they shot a few of us. Then we went to Shanghai.”
Mr. Yoshida shook his head but before he could say anything there was a flight announcement on the public address system. He took out his ticket and studied it, then replaced it in his pocket. “My wife’s brother was in the Ichiki detachment,” he said. “He was at Rabaul. Then he was sent to Guadalcanal.”
There was an interval of silence before Hawkins spoke. “Our ship was Dutch,” he said. “It wasn’t designed to handle a large number of prisoners. Some of us refused to eat because of the overcrowding.” He finished his milk and carefully placed the empty carton in the middle of his plate. “The next morning,” he went on, “we were all brought out on deck. An officer spoke to us in Japanese and then pointed to a corporal who was standing next to me. Two soldiers dragged him out to the middle of the deck and made him kneel.”
He paused and Mr. Yoshida said, “After the war I learned that the Ichiki detachment was to have occupied Midway Island but then General Hyakutake sent them to Guadalcanal.”
“The two soldiers put a blindfold on him,” Hawkins went on, “and tied his wrists behind his back and then I saw a soldier coming up behind them. He had taken off his shirt and put on an apron and was carrying a sword.”
“The detachment was put into six destroyers,” Mr. Yoshida said. “They went ashore on Guadalcanal and in two days Colonel Ichiki and all his soldiers were dead.” He looked down at his tea. “And their bodies mutilated.” After a moment he said, “I told my wife nothing.”
Another announcement was being made but Mr. Yoshida paid no attention to it. He shook his head and slowly pushed his cup to one side. A child was crying at a nearby table; someone on the far side of the cafeteria dropped a tray and Hawkins said, “Where do you live in Japan?”
“Hokkaido,” Mr. Yoshida said. “Very far north.” He smiled faintly. “The boondocks.”
“Is your wife still living?”
The Japanese man shook his head and slowly got to his feet. “I must go now,” he said and bowed to the other man. “I am glad to know you.”
“Thank you,” Hawkins replied.
“Good wishes to your wife,” the elderly man said and bowed again.
Hawkins watched him go and then placed his tightly crumpled napkin on his plate, next to the empty milk carton. Two flight attendants were waiting for his table and he got up and walked out of the cafeteria.