Noilly Prattle: November 2012

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Looking Back: 8 – Eldorado

      In 1513, Ponce de Leon, a Spanish Conquistador probably looking for gold and slaves, named it La Florida—the flowery land. And it really seemed like the fabled land of Cibola, the mythical golden land that attracted the Conquistadors in the 16th Century, after the sailor-phobic Norfolk, Virginia area. 

Biscayne Blvd., Miami
      We rolled into Miami on US Rte. 1 in brilliant blue sky and sunshine; Biscayne Boulevard lined with coconut palms on both sides as far as the eye could see, behind the palms glass-covered buildings glittering in the sun seemingly made of gold—the mythical golden land of Eldorado just like in the travel posters. We rolled down Biscayne in a kind of delirium of ecstasy unable to absorb the beauty of the scene quickly enough to satisfy our appetite for...what?...rain after a long drought.
Fountainbeau Hotel, Miami Beach
      Miami and Miami Beach in those days were already, of course, well-known tourist resort towns, but they were still not overly spoiled by too much emphasis on tourism (or, at least, didn't seem that way to us), and the alligators weren't romping in your swimming pool yet, either. At any rate we didn't have the kind of money or time to truly sample the delights of Miami; we were due to report to our new assignments in Key West and were compelled to continue south on US Rte. 1 all the way to the tip of Florida and across the Overseas Highway to Key West, the southern end of US Rte. 1.

Key West, Florida
      Gatch and I said good-bye when we arrived in Key West and went on to our new assignments, I to the USS Salinan.

      Did you ever meet someone you took an instant dislike to without ever having exchanged two words? That turned out to be the case with my division officer—a snotty ROTC wonder Ensign (lowest ranking officer) who gave himself credit for a lot more than he actually had on the ball. And, I suppose, the feeling was mutual—as far as the dislike not the on-the-ball part was concerned. I had, by now, more time and experience in the Navy and at sea than he did, but he was an officer and I was just a dumb swabbie as far as he was concerned (even though I was QM3 [3rd Class Petty Officer] by then). Our denouement came later although our mutual antagonism occurred instantaneously.

drive in restaurant
      Life aboard the “Sally” was relatively leisurely paced so we had a lot of liberty time to enjoy the exotic locale of the Florida Keys, especially having a car on base. A couple of shipmate buddies and I used to jump in my old '55 Ford and drive along US 1, go to one beach or another often stopping at roadside restaurants for lunch or dinner before coming back to Key West and the Sally. Back in 1961, a more innocent time, some of these restaurants had catchy signs to attract the attention of passing cars like, for example, the interesting sculpture on the right. They may still have them to this day for all I know. 

To be continued...

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Day trip to the Sea of Japan (日本海の旅行)

autumn foliage along the Takahashi River  - (高橋川)
      Road buddy (a.k.a. my wife), who works freelance as a translator, got a call from an agency she does work for last week wanting to know if I'd be interested in doing a one off gig. I said it depends, what do they want me to do? The idea was that I would go to (松江) Matsue (a city about 2 ½ hours from here on the Japan Sea coast by train) and meet with a couple of consultants who wanted to get a foreigner's take on what would make tourism more appealing for foreigners in Matsue [pronounced mat-sue-ay as in way].

      The notion of a day trip sounded appealing but I wanted to know what they were looking at in terms of compensation, i.e., money. It turned out that they were offering train fare but only what I considered to be inadequate pay for the time and effort I would have to put into it (it was an all day commitment including time on the train and the gig itself), so I turned it down.

Yakumo - train from Okayama to Matsue
      A few days later we got another call and they said that they would pay the amount that I had quoted. I agreed, and the following day, the start of a three-day weekend, I went to the station to catch the 10:05 a.m. train [called Yakumo] to Matsue. There is a famous shrine called Izumo-taisha associated with a story from Japanese mythology not far west from Matsue that was having a big festival. A lot of people were taking the same train to go to (出雲市) Izumo it turned out. Fortunately I got to the station early, but the queue was already pretty long for the Matsue/Izumo train. I was able to get a seat but the train was crowded with a standing room only crowd filling up the aisle.         

      I arrived at Matsue (means Pine Cove) Station around 12:40 p.m. and met the consultants. It turned out that neither of them spoke English and I was forced to use my far from fluent Japanese. Another foreigner had also been hired for the gig and she soon arrived, a young woman from Australia. Without going into a lot of detail, they wanted us to walk around a couple of shopping areas and get our impression of how appealing these shops would be to foreign tourists. 

Matsue Castle - 松江城
Lafcadio Hearn
     There is a very nice feudal castle made of wood in Matsue. It's one of the few authentic wood construction castles left in Japan; many others, including ours in Okayama, are merely replicas made of concrete. The city was also the first home of a Western writer named Lafcadio Hearn who came to Japan in the 19th Century and translated Japanese legends and ghost stories into English. Although these would be the sites of primary interest to foreign tourists, we weren't asked to visit them, but to restrict our attention to the shopping arcades, which we duly and diligently did.

young people doing a traditional dance -
 outside Matsue Station
tourist bus
      The weather was iffy, an on and off light rainy day, but we walked around for a couple hours [I took a few random photos along the way] and then had a debriefing session with the consultants. Basically we told them that the most important things they should do was to have more English speakers in shops and signs/menus in English as well as Japanese (we had seen no English menus, for example, and only one shopkeeper I met spoke any English). We also advised them to catch up to the Internet age by getting their information on online sites such as tripadvisor,, lonely planet, etc., where people could get advance information to help in making a travel decision.

period boat on old castle moat
perfect for a rainy day

beautiful garden in expensive Japanese restaurant

one of the 7 good luck gods in Shinto

holy of holies in a Shinto shrine -
the small building in back with the horned roof

a rather quaint izakaya -

 mobile Starbucks giving away free latte samples

weary travelers on the night train

another weary traveler
on the night train

how things look to a bleary-eyed traveler on the night train
        We finished earlier than expected and I had almost an hour to kill before catching my train back home. I decided to check the schedule board for the platform number and noticed that I had time to catch an earlier train. A very kind ticket man helped me to change my seat reservation to the earlier train. I finally arrived back in Okayama around 7:45 p.m., road buddy picked me up and we came back home and I had a much appreciated soak in the bathtub and then we both had a Rusty Nail [scotch and Drambuie].

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Izakaya - 居酒屋 – song of the dispossessed

      I was having a beer and a bite at my favorite izakaya after my evening classes recently when Matt walked in the door. I hadn't seen him all summer and I asked where he'd been hiding himself. Said he'd gone back to the States for a few weeks for a going-home-again nostalgia tour of the old hometown and seeing family and old friends. He asked: “Mind if I join you?” “No, of course not, sit down and have a beer or two. Have you eaten? The yakitori is really good tonight,” I said. We called the waitress over and Matt ordered.
      “How was your trip to the hometown?” I asked.
      “A lot of things've changed, but there's always a certain familiarity about the place. For one thing it's so easy to communicate. You understand everybody and everything and they understand you,” Matt said. “Well, we speak the same language anyway, but might not be coming from the same philosophical or political perspective. You know what I mean?”
      “Oh, yeah! None of that 'Sorry, can you say that again more slowly, please. I'm still learning Japanese.' Yeah, after almost 30 years like I'm still learning Japanese, right? Anything interesting happen while you were there?” I asked.
      “Well, yeah, I had a bit of culture shock in a way.”
       "How do you mean?”
       “My father died some 25 years ago and he's buried in a cemetery that's at the end of the street we used to live on when I was a 10-year-old kid. I decided to go and pay my respects and then walked down the street to see the old neighborhood. This bar/cafe that Dad used to hang out in called the Rendezvous Cafe was still there. They used to serve really great fish and chips and my Mom used to order some and send me across the street to pick it up for Friday night dinner. You know, good Catholics, meatless Friday and all that stuff. The place was looking a little the worse for wear. The whole neighborhood looked more dilapidated than I remember it being in those days.”
       “Isn't that the way it is with the old hometown, though? Who was it said 'you can't go home again?' I was shocked when I drove through my old neighborhood some years ago. The town had fallen on tough times with the loss of its major industries and looked really like those rust belt cities you hear about with the main street full of empty stores—like a ghost town almost. The few people I saw on the streets looked sort of aimless and as shabby as the buildings—sort of like ghosts themselves,” I added. 
      “I know what you mean,” he said and continued. “I went into the cafe for auld lang syne's sake, I suppose, and sat at the bar and ordered a beer. There weren't many people at that time of day, but there was this mid-twenties looking guy with a beer at the other end of the bar. He was a pretty good-looking guy in a conventional Hollywood blue collar movie kind of way. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, a couple of tats, pierced earring, baseball cap with the brim turned backwards—typical Gen X uniform, I thought. He looked a little down at the mouth, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, hoisting his beer glass and eying me surreptitiously as though he recognized me.”
      “Did you recognize him?” I asked.
      “Never saw him before in my life. But, he came to a decision and stood up and came over to me and asked: 'Sorry to bother you, but ain't you Matt Lambert?' 'Yes, I am, but how do you know that?' I asked him. 'I haven't lived around here in decades, since probably before you were born.'”
      “You still had no idea who he was?”
      “Not a clue.”
      “Well, what then?”
      “He told me that his name was Jason. He had seen a picture of me taken a couple years earlier at his Aunt Nicole's place on one of my previous visits to the area. Nicole is one of my cousin's kids and she was one of my favorites when she was just a little girl.”
      “Quite a coincidence.”
      “Uh-huh, it's a small world. I laughed and said: 'Oh, I've heard about you from Nicole. You're Sharon's oldest boy, aren't you. I remember your Mom when she was a little girl. I'm not doing anything special right now. Why don't we have another beer and chew the rag a little? There's an empty booth over there, more private. On me.' 'Yeah, cool!' he said.”
      Matt continued: “We picked up a couple more beers and moved over to a booth and I asked if he had gone to the same high school I had attended. He said he had but had gotten into some trouble dealing drugs and had dropped out in the 9th Grade.”
      “Hm, doesn't sound like the start of an auspicious story,” I commented.
      “You got that right. The kid' story made my hair stand on end. I didn't let on, but I had heard some of his story from his aunt—bad environment, bad companions, three kids with different women, done time more than once, etc. Still, I felt compelled to listen to his latest travails. There was something moving at the core of this, I can only say tragic young man's story. There was a kind of semi-literate poetry in it. It reminded me of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, describing life on the margins of society. Also Tracy Chapman's grainy black and white takes on the yearning to break out of poverty, want and ignorance. I was frankly mesmerized by his desperate need to express his frustrations with the trap he finds himself in. I'll try to reconstruct the conversation in his own words and odd manner of expression.”
      “By all means, please, go on. It sounds intriguing,” I said.

at the Rendezvous Cafe
Matt: I can't help but notice you look like you're carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders.
Jason: i am in a messed up situation. everyone always wanted me to be the best i could and do good for myself and the kids. and it getting difficult to do good.
Matt: What do you mean?
Jason: i had a house job vehicle and wat not in nebraska. well i travelled back from nebraska to make a difference. kaylee and my son begged me to come home and help me fix everything.
Matt: Oh, you were living in Nebraska?

Jason: yeah i had a warrent for me here and i ran. so i come back and turned my self in for that warrent i had and wat not. got out in march on parole. got a job what not had a job for 4 month and put it under the table for the extra money so me and kaylee could get up on our feet.

Matt: Sounds like you did the right thing.
Jason: and well about two weeks ago she finally got up and stop being lazy and got a job at wendys here. that was awesome till she got jealous about how i make 12 n hour and she made minumum wage. i figured hey regardless it should not matter that is our money for us to survive and get this house i been trying to get for us and the lil one.
Matt: Sure. Double income ... all in the family.
Jason: well for the past three weeks she been lying, cheating, and took 2600 dollars from me. i left that to the side in my head and still tryed cuz i love her and always have plus those two lil kids are my life and know i am daddy.
Matt: Oh, you have two kids?
Jason: yeah one is mine and hers and one is hers with another dude. i enrolled both kids into skool and what not. so last week she called my job on some crazy stuff. so then no more job. took all my ways to live.
Matt: You got fired?
Jason: yeah now we been having dcf [Department of Children and Families] in our life plus she smash a window a month ago and i got arrested for it. and payed for it and would not prove to the courts i did so they want like 350 bucks. cuz she wont prove it.
Matt: So you still owe $350?
Jason: uh-huh. then last weekend she took off to the bar and got drunk. i culd not get her a ride back so i walked there and got her and drove.
Matt: Why were you walking?
Jason: i aint got a license so she had the car. well as we driving she spazzed said "jump on the highway". well i did and got pulled over. i was honest with officer. he let me and her go with a sitation. well we both got hauled in to court. so another charge for helping her. i said to my self what ever.
Matt: Getting deeper in the hole...
Jason: yeah and well it keeps building cuz in the middle last week i been watching her come home everynight all messed up on drugs. and i am watching the kids over 60 hour a week. no time for me to get a job. over the weekend she string me along and sunday night went psyco on me and tells me to get the fuck out her home and dont think seeing ur kids ever again. she gots some of my stuf and wat not stole all my money couple thousand. then we had to go to court yesterday and she never came so now she has a warrent and by next month i will have over a thousand dollars in fines with no job.
Matt: Shit!
Jason: there is more. this been going on for awhile. and it sux cuz i love her and i am a totally dif person. now i am stuck between a rock and a hard shell. i feel that i was purposly fucked with. i had a house job vehicle and wat not in nebraska dropped everything for them now it was all ripped from me and i am now deep in the whole finantally and there in no need.
Matt: Damn, when it rains it pours. What now?
Jason: i am keeping my cool. but i dont know how long i can. i am sick of the family and the system looking at me as the bad guy when truthfully i want a honest living and comfortable. i got a big heart and get toyed with.... i just do what i am asked by the family and for myself and get trashed on. i need guide and help. i got 5 flonys on my record and it seems like it dont stop even when i try. i been clean for 3 yrs. and love to work. i wish it would stop. i want to be able to smile and i am affraid now that the system is goin to take my kids. i dont got no one to talk too. thank u for listening.
There but for fortune....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Looking Back: 7 – a parting shot from Nofuck Virginia.

USS Salinan ATF-161
     In June, 1961, after a year and three months assigned to the USS Hoist another shipmate and I were transferred to Florida at the same time. My next ship was to be a fleet tugboat, even smaller than the Hoist, called the USS Salinan ATF-161, a glorified tugboat for towing operations on the open sea as opposed to within protected harbors and tighter spaces. The Salinan was homeported in Key West. The other guy, whose nickname was “Gatch”, and I both had cars and we decided to drive to Florida together in a sort of two-car caravan. We were both itching to get the hell out of Norfolk and excited about going to what in our minds was the fabled golden resort of Miami Beach, of swank hotels, great beaches and swaying palms—in short, paradise. We were only nineteen. 

       With our transfer documents in hand we left the base and headed out of Norfolk speeding and weaving in and out of the evening rush hour traffic in our haste to put distance between ourselves and the no-love-lost-between-us Nofuck Virginia. But Nofuck wasn't so eager to see our backs just yet it seems—it wanted to give us one final shake down. Accordingly, an alert state trooper caught us in the act and stopped us. Of course, we tried to bullshit our way out of it saying that we were sailors of the United States Navy fer Christ sake being transferred to Florida on emergency orders or some such line of nonsense. The trooper wasn't buying it and we expected to get a traffic ticket with X number of days to pay the fine. Oh no, not that simple! We were ordered to accompany him to the nearest precinct and any attempt to try and escape would be met with dire consequences.

       So, we were hauled in, booked for reckless driving and driving to endanger, etc., etc., and escorted to the drunk tank with its typical nightly haul of other derelicts. Gatch and I had to share a roughly 1.5 by 2.5 meter cell with one steel cot (no mattress) and open commode (no seat or seat cover) overnight before going before the judge in the morning. They had quite a neat little shake down operation going there thought I. It seemed to be an awful lot of trouble, time and expense for a mere traffic violation that would have resulted in a speeding ticket most any other place. But there we were, locked up for the night in a 2 x 4 cell with only one cot. Somehow we managed to sleep by putting our heads on opposite ends and feet beside our heads. Just delightful! 

      You can imagine what bedraggled condition we were in by the time we were marched to the courtroom and stood before the judge. We both got slapped with a hefty fine. I think it was around $50 in 1961 terms. That was highway robbery. Neither of us had enough cash on hand to pay our fines. The icing on the cake was that I, like ET, had to phone home, admit that I was in jail and needed $50 wired to me in care of the courthouse before I could get out and continue on my way to Florida. Of course, the cash was forthcoming in a matter of a couple hours and we continued more circumspectly on to the deep South without further incidents.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

the KKK

Black Crow Castle and Asahi River
          No, not the Ku Klux Klan but the Three Great Gardens of Japan (日本三名園 Nihon Sanmeien) including Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, Kairaku-en in Mito and our own Koraku-en in Okayama—or, as I call them, the three Ks. I consider us very fortunate to have this remarkable garden in our own town and can visit it in any season at all.

          Usually, road buddy and I go to the pool on Wednesday afternoons, but the pool was closed for cleaning this week so we decided to kill two birds with one stone by substituting walking for swimming and strolling among the autumn splendor of Koraku-en and the adjacent Black Crow Castle of Okayama. Koraku-en was once a private garden built during the Edo period in 1700 by Ikeda Tsunamasa, lord of Okayama. It is built on an island in the Asahi River across from the castle.

tea house in secluded glen
          The landscape garden is especially beautiful in the Spring with its cherry blossoms and in the fall with its red and yellow falling leaves of various species of trees. It is crisscrossed with walking paths and man-made streams, includes man made hills and ponds, stone sculpture, trimmed and shaped trees and shrubs and is dotted with secluded tea houses and other traditional structures including a Noh theater.

          Here are a few photos I took during our walk in the park and surrounding area.

boats on the Asahi River

red maples beneath the castle ramparts

Black Crow Castle across the river
from Korakuen garden
sculpted pine and maple trees

zigzag bridge of wooden planks
ripe persimmon tree
autumn splendor

Saturday, November 10, 2012

big drinks for little people

If your friends are telling you you drink too much, show 'em what big drinkers really do....


Zubrowka Martini

Blue Daiquiri

Monday, November 5, 2012

Looking Back: 6 – Bermuda

on a scooter
the sand really is pink
       Bermuda in 1960 was a charming if sleepy colonial island attached to the British Commonwealth, noteworthy mostly, to us at least, for its clear water, pink sandy beaches and scooters. The big event for me was a chance to learn SCUBA diving with the ship's gear and expert divers. The first experience turned out to be terrifying. I didn't really understand that the air didn't flow freely, as does the normal air you breathe every day, into the mask. The instructors told us that you have to consciously suck in and exhale the air from the tank and to be careful not to hyperventilate. Oh, yeah, sure I thought, no problem. 

this a propane gas tank, of course
       Full of piss and vinegar and gung ho to jump in I donned my wet suit and hoisted the tank (felt like the picture on the right) onto my back, put on the fins and the mask. Ready, I thought to jump in, the instructor says just a minute, you forgot your lead weight belt. So, put on the belt and jump in to about 15 feet of water off a pier—and sink directly to the bottom like a ... well, like a lead weight. Shock. Can not resurface. The lead weights make it seem like I'm glued to the bottom. Hey, the air isn't flowing. Start to panic. Remember that you have to suck in...suck in...not enough air....suck in harder...still not enough air...begin to hyperventilate....start to freak out. Suddenly, an instructor appears, unhitches the belt and I bob to the surface gasping for air. Instructor laughs and says I told you not to hyperventilate. I'm furious: “Yeah, sure. You didn't tell me I wouldn't be able to get off the damned bottom though!” “Best way to learn. It's a lesson you won't soon forget, will you?” Mumbling to myself: “Bleeping a**hole.”

inside a decompression tank
       Being so intimately involved with the romantic idea of submarines while working on the SONAR submarine detection system, I got it into my head that I wanted to be a submariner. I must have been temporarily out of my mind. I suppose I wanted to upgrade my B-navy-sailor-in-the-service-fleet status to a “right stuff” warship sailor. I actually put in a written request to train for submarine duty. Since the Hoist had a decompression chamber (photo on left) on board that worked both ways—it could compress as well as decompress—the captain agreed to consider the transfer request if I would take a compression test. I agreed and entered the tank. As the depth simulation increased it got warmer and warmer and the weight of the pressure began to press on me and especially my eardrums. I was instructed to continually adjust the pressure in my ears my holding my nose and swallowing to pop the eardrum back into normal position. The pain in the ear canal and accompanying headache would become excruciating if I forgot the adjust and abated when I held my nose and swallowed. I succeeded in getting down to the required depth [several hundred feet below the surface] to pass the test and the tank was decompressed and I began to “surface” to normal sea level pressure. As it turned out, my request was denied because the Navy considered that I didn't have enough time left to serve to make the training required worth their while. So, I stayed in the dungaree navy as a service fleet sailor.

To be continued...