Excerpt of The Yokota Officers Club by Sarah Bird
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Dear Dependents of the United States Air Force:
Welcome to your new duty assignment, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Okinawa is the principal island of the 160 islands that make up the Ryukyu archipelago. Only 67 miles long and from 2 to 17 miles wide, Okinawa is often referred to as the "Keystone of the Pacific" because of its strategic Far East location roughly 900 miles from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, and Hong Kong.
Originally an independent nation, Okinawa has endured long periods of both Chinese and Japanese domination. After World War II, the island remained under U.S. military control. The United States will continue its custodianship as long as conditions of threat and tension exist in the Far East.
Bear in mind as you begin your tour that the serviceman's family is just as much a representative of the United States Government as the serviceman himself.
Your President and Commander in Chief,
Lyndon Baines Johnson
On the map on the back of the pamphlet, Japan resembles a horned caterpillar rearing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My destination, the Ryukyu Islands, trails behind like a scatter of droppings. We've been in the air for seventeen hours. Sheets of rain snake across the plastic pane of the window next to me. A light on the wing blinks red in the night. Lulled by the drone of the jet engines taking me to join my family stationed on Kadena Air Base, I slide back into the anesthetized stupor that travel always induces.
Phenobarbital, that was my mother, Moe's, drug of choice for traveling with six children packed into a station wagon when we PCS'd--Permanent Change of Station--six times in eight years. We, her children, took the drug, not Moe. A nurse, she administered the meticulously titrated doses in tiny chips that floated like specks of goldfish food in our cups of apple juice.
"How else was I supposed to keep you from murdering each other?" Moe had answered when I inquired about the peculiar lassitude that always seemed to overtake us upon departing Maxwell Air Force Base, or Travis, or Harlingen, or Brooks, or Kirtland, or Mountain Home Air Force Base. Especially Mountain Home. All I remember about leaving that base was pulling out of Boise, Idaho, with my breath freezing in the predawn mountain chill and regaining consciousness outside of Tonopah, Nevada, with a bib of drool and my nasal linings dried to corn flakes.
"You drugged us? Your children? You drugged us?"
"I thought about running a hose in from the exhaust pipe. That really would have quieted you down."
"You drugged us?"
"Think about it, Bernie. Six kids, two of them in diapers when we transferred out of Japan, crammed into a station wagon with the luggage strapped on top and a maniac behind the wheel who wouldn't stop unless you put a gun to his head. Me passing around the bologna sandwiches and the potty chair, sprinkling the cars behind us when the potty can got full. And the whole time I'm wrestling with a map the size of the Magna Carta and trying to navigate for a guy used to getting directions off a radar screen who keeps barking at me to do something about my children. No, I didn't have a lot of patience left to deal with Kit screaming about you 'breathing' on her or you screaming about Kit 'looking' at you or the twins hammering monkey bumps and noogies and X no-backs into each other and Bosco wailing about whatever hamster or turtle or corn snake she had to leave behind at the last base and Bob reenacting entire episodes Clutch Cargo and someone, usually you, barfing."
"Yeah, but what if you've turned us all into junkies?"
"Well, if I have, all I can say is that I did the best I knew how and you lived to tell the tale. That's all I can say."
It was during an unmedicated moment on the long hot drive out of Idaho that we all, all us sibs, realized we hated our ultra-Hibernian Catholic names. No one else at our new schools would be named after saints famous for being enucleated or having their tongues plucked out with pliers. We wanted regular names. So, as Moe passed around the potty seat, we rechristened ourselves with the most normal, most American names we could each think of. The twins, Frances Xavier and Bryan Patrick, chose Buzz and Abner. Joseph Anthony, just three at the time, selected Bob, since it was not only a great name and easy to spell but also his favorite aquatic activity. No one wanted me to change Bernie. Mary Colleen, our youngest sister, declared that henceforth she would be known as Nancy, her book-loving soul released in ecstasy at the thought of sharing Nancy Drew's name.
Excerpted from The Yokota Officers Club by Sarah Bird. Copyright 2001 by Sarah Bird. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.