Motorcycle and Mountains
Something big is going down," Joe yelled into my room as he came inside, slamming the door behind him. His excited green eyes reflected a naïve desire to see war for the first time.
"Big Red is on the move,” Joe said. “Ships are headed for the gulf; planes are flying non-stop. We’ve got action, man!"
He tugged at the top button on his fatigue shirt and turned around to head into the barracks bathroom. It was eight o’clock in the morning, and Joe had just returned from night shift on the Hill.
The Hill was the secret location on the base where the huge antenna, the “elephant cage,” was located. I had never been up to the Hill. And, officially, I had "no need to know” the purpose of the Hill.
But everyone stationed at Misawa Air Base knew that the Hill was the main reason we were there.
It was 1978. We were frigidly deep in the Cold War, located just miles from the Russian coast.
We were spying on Russia.
Linguists and codebreakers were the unofficial heroes on the Hill. They listened day and night, took notes, replayed key sounds, and did their best to find out what Red was up to. They took their work seriously; one false report could trigger a domino effect, but these dominoes were made of uranium and could lead to the nuclear annihilation of our planet.
Elsewhere on the base, there was a small army of technicians and support personnel employed to make it all work. Most of the base, me included, were not allowed past the guard shack on the road up to the Hill.
Joe was one of the guys allowed past the guard shack. But, to Joe’s dismay, he wasn't one of the heroes. He wasn't even support. He was, in his words, "just a babysitter with the most boring job in the world."
Joe was an Air Force MP (Military Police). On night duty. He was not inside the station. He was not even at the front door. He was on top of the building, on the roof. He didn’t see anyone during his entire eight-hour shift. Ever.
Joe and I had arrived at Misawa Air Base at about the same time in 1978. We both arrived fresh out of tech school. These were our first jobs in the Air Force. We were excited to be in Japan, wide-eyed, with lots to learn and explore.
I had no idea I was about to learn life's most important lessons from an unlikely encounter.
While Joe was a cop, I was a precision measurement equipment laboratory (PMEL) technician. I sat at a technician’s bench, in a temperature and humidity-controlled lab, calibrating, troubleshooting and repairing electronic test equipment. Way down the hill, I was near the flight line, in the center of the other base’s activity. I felt a little out of touch with the stated purpose of the base, but it didn't bother me like it did Joe.
I liked my job; it was perfect for a math and logic guy who enjoyed the challenge of “solving the puzzle" rather than mechanized tasks. I graduated at the top of my class in tech school, and months later, one of my first assignments in Japan was to troubleshoot a broken oscilloscope that was needed for a commander visit. Four senior technicians had tried and failed, and just as they were going to throw in the towel, I asked for a chance.
I fixed it. The commander himself thanked me. “I have my eyes on you. Keep up the good work, Airman.”
While I was content with my job, Joe had become increasingly frustrated with his. He expressed his mantra to everyone who would listen. "There's just a thin layer of shingles between me and the action, man!"
Joe was so close to the inside, but he had no way in. It bothered him like an itch he couldn’t scratch. Some mornings, he returned to the barracks convinced he couldn't take the boredom any longer. He was so frustrated he was considering doing something drastic to get kicked out of the Air Force so he could return home.
Under Joe's rooftop patrol, like Fort Knox, the “gold” inside the building was supposed to stay in the building. Everyone was under strict orders of secrecy.
But Joe had a way with people. From Chicago, he had a glimmer in his eye and a smile that said, "I know you, and I already know what's going on, so just fill in the blanks for me."
Within a few months, his personality turned an unbearably boring job into something tolerable; he found some guys who would give him the scoop from inside the Hill.
Like a hungry woodpecker, he pestered them for every little morsel. "So, when he said that, what did the other guy say?"
"I don't know."
Joe smiled and cocked his head. "I don't know, or I won't say?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, 'I don't know'? You must know. There must have been a response."
"No, Joe, the response was probably on another frequency with a different code. We don't know yet. We might never know. This job isn't what you think. It takes patience and persistence."
This morning, when Joe returned to the barracks, he was flush with excitement. He tore at his shirt to get it off and talked the whole time walking to the shower. "I am telling you, something is about to go down. Big time. Russia is moving and it's no exercise. My guys told me they have never seen this kind of movement before. If it is an exercise, it is a whole new wave. I can't wait to get to work on Monday! I am not sure I even want to go this weekend. I need to talk to my sources tonight.”
He could see me looking disappointed as I lifted my hands in front of me in a silent, What? I can't believe my ears!
Joe said, “Hey man, what if something happens? I can't be at a silly Japanese festival when the world turns upside down! This could be Dub Dub Three!”
Just then, we heard the F-16’s scrambling off our flight line. Joe pointed up as they flew by us overhead. He yelled over the thunderous jet engines, “You see what I mean! We got action, man!”
I had to admit it got me pumped up. I liked being in the military. While I had no desire to see the next world war or intercontinental nuclear holocaust, I was proud to serve my country.
But, in my mind I was thinking, First things first! I am not giving up that easily on the weekend! Joe’s decision affected my weekend, because without Joe, I might never meet anyone at the festival. I was an introvert. Joe was the talker.
"You can't bail on me, Joe,” I said. “We set this up already. The Chrysanthemum Festival is supposed to be amazing, and we might finally get to meet some Japanese women."
We talked it out while he was in the shower. After he got dressed, he came to a final decision. While the world was not likely coming to an end this weekend, he couldn't take the chance. He had to stay and find out what the Russians were up to. He had to.
I didn’t like his decision, but I made a final decision, too. I had to live my own adventure. I might not find the courage to talk to anyone, but I decided to go to the festival without him.
In one way, this new plan made it easier on me. Starting that morning, I was “on leave” (vacation) for 10 days. Joe was only free for the weekend. So, we had planned to go to the festival in Joe's car, return on Sunday, and then I would take off for another 7 days on my motorcycle.
In this new plan, I would pack up the motorcycle once and not come back for 10 days. I had a deep desire to unveil the secret, private culture of Northern Honshu, Japan. If it turned out I got fried in a thermo-nuclear explosion this weekend, at least I would be a discovery closer to understanding a mystery.
I left Joe in the barracks and headed out to meet my destiny. It would take me about two and a half hours to drive to Hirosaki, where the annual Chrysanthemum Festival was held. It was a sparkling bright sunny day, with azure blue skies and a crisp 55 degrees centigrade.
A few months earlier, when I first arrived in Misawa, at 20 years old, I bought my first vehicle: a 12-year-old Kawasaki 250 dirt/street bike.
It was cheap and beat-up, but it ran. Sort of.
It was flawless in the dry weather, but when it rained, the engine cut in and out. This was something I discovered on a trip to the beach. I had thought I was running out of gas because the bike suddenly cut out. While I was still coasting, miraculously, the engine fired back up. It ran well for a few more kilometers and then cut out again. It cycled twice more like that while it was raining. Then the sun came out and it ran fine the rest of the trip home.
This condition sounds harmless, but when the bike cut out the first time, it took me by surprise and I jerked the handlebar, pulling dangerously close to a friend I was riding with. We avoided colliding because he saw me cutting him off and swerved into the oncoming lane. I was grateful we were on a straight, nearly deserted road. Nobody was hurt.
After that, each time it cut out, I reacted less dramatically, but the change from engine-on to engine-off took balance and strength as the momentum changed. If you have ever push-started a standard shift vehicle, you can understand the momentum change. In a car, it can be a little disconcerting, but on a motorcycle, it is much more startling.
No rain today, though, I thought. It's a great day for an adventure. In the bright sun, I cruised through the winding mountain roads, thinking I had found Nirvana.
My hands gripped the handlebars of the bike as I swept into the mountain curves. My arms felt good. One of my instructors at the PMEL School at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver was a gym rat. He taught me how to lift weights using proper form and rhythm. Days on, days off, legs, arms, back. Fifteen months later, I had replaced my uniforms twice. I was now a strong and lean 44R in my dress blue uniform, and I was ready to meet my future. Was there a Japanese woman at the end of this mountain road who would turn to take a glance?
Young, fit, free, and living adventure and mystery. I was on top of the world.
My Japanese language skills were limited to just a little above "Thank you," "Please" and "How much?" But despite my language limitations, I was confident it would all work out, if I just took the drive.
I had no hotel reservations for four reasons: I didn't want to be tied down, I didn't understand the Japanese pay phone system, I had no way of researching what hotels to call, and I couldn't speak the language even if I did call.
No worries, it will all work out.
In 1978, northern Japan was a rural, culturally conservative region. A wanderer was not common. A six-foot hazel-eyed American wanderer was an enigma. Adventure awaited.
My second purchase in Japan was a Canon A-1 camera and a sturdy metal case. With some clothes and the camera case strapped to my bike, I had never felt more freedom.
My photographic aim was not just memories. I wanted to capture something deeper. I had been told that as a gaijin (foreigner) I would be welcome in Japan, but I would never be a part of their community. Never. So, I had decided that if I couldn't understand them, or be a part of them, I was going to expose that through the lens of a camera. I wanted to bring to life the cultural richness, privacy and pride of traditional Japan, one photograph at a time.
I rode through the large pines that reminded me of my childhood trips to Maine. I was anticipating the festival weekend, but then my mind wandered to the other adventure I was on: the search for God.
As a young boy, I read a lot, mostly mystery and adventure fiction. I thrived in the hunt for “the answer to the mystery.” I imagined being one of the Hardy Boys or the Bobbsey Twins or at an Agatha Christie crime scene investigation.
There was an answer to the mystery. Always.
Through the example of these fictional characters, I discovered that taking chances to find the answer was an intriguing way to live. I determined at an early age that, despite being an introvert, I would take the adventurous road.
I did well in school, particularly in math. As a high school senior, I took a course in philosophy and discovered the ultimate adventure: finding God. Better than the childhood mystery books, this was real life. This was the “grown up” adventure.
Nearly everyone had looked. Some said they had found Him, some said He was a hoax, and describing Him was universally known as impossible. Such differing opinions had set the scene for a mysterious adventure!
Now, living in Japan, I felt I had a unique opportunity to find God. I sensed it. I could smell the hunt as I carved my bike through the narrow mountain road. I had already checked some books out of the base library: books on Zen Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism. I was particularly interested in Taoism. Tao means “the way.” Intriguing, in my view. But wherever I was to find God, I was hungry for the chase.
In my search for God, I didn't speak this language either, and I had no reservations because I couldn't figure out God's pay phone. But I was equally certain it would all work out, if I just took the drive.