[Fiction with some autobiographical experience woven in]
I either never knew or can't recall his full real name. Among his friends and colleagues he went by Acer because of his flying reputation with the 51st Fighter Wing headquartered in the 1960's at Naha Air Base in Okinawa. Over the few days of our acquaintance I was to learn that flying was not the only area that he "aced" in.
I was an intercept director on R & R (Rest and Recreation) from Kume, an island radar center for air traffic control and early warning of any enemy aircraft testing our defenses or on attack. In the wake of the Korean conflict, we were on the "front line" in airspace during the height of the Cold War with both Communist China and the former Soviet Union.
At our first meeting in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer Quarters), when we introduced ourselves, Acer asked whether I had a nickname.
"My only nickname is one I got in the service. Some of the guys I work with jokingly call me MA (em A). You see, the initial letters of my first and last names are the same as those in Mission Accomplished."
"MA, huh? That's cool."
"How did you end up in this two-person suite?"
"I could've had larger quarters elsewhere but asked to live here 'cause it's near the club. I usually have this place all to myself but don't mind sharing it. Relieves the daily grind, ya know, to meet new guys like you."
"Works out great for me, too," I said, indirectly acknowledging his friendly openness. "But how do you rate having your own TV?" BOQ's in that era typically had only one TV in the main lounge.
"I bought it myself for almost nothing from a departing pilot in base housing. It keeps me from going nuts when I'm here alone or can't sleep."
The floor plan of his suite included a common room with table, bamboo-framed sofa and similar armed chairs opposite the entry door. For the remaining rear bedroom half of this large area extended a floor-to-ceiling divider ending with an enclosed bathroom that occupants could enter from either side.
Finding that I had few specific plans, Acer volunteered himself to be my guide when he was not on duty or stand-by. "I'll give you the five-cent tour, MA," he jested. Since he had his own life and I had to reserve some time for myself, only a couple evenings remained for shared activities.
On the final such evening, as best I can recall and more fully re-create from my imagination, we first went to the club for drinks and dinner. During happy hour, Acer practically held court, his sense of humor and storytelling making him popular with men and women alike. He held his drink in one hand while gesturing broadly with the other or placing it on a friend's shoulder as he talked and laughed.
We enjoyed dinner with a small group at two tables pushed together and then met up in the crowded bar with two of his fellow pilots whose names I don't recall. One suggested we all drop in on Ruth. Acer explained to me she was the base's head librarian they had gotten to know socially.
After a phone call confirming Ruth was at home, we piled into one buddy's car, a well-worn '56 Plymouth sporting distinctive rear fins and whitewall tires.
Ruth's on-base quarters, smartly furnished and modestly decorated with knick-knacks, framed prints and shelving overflowing with books, was small but cozy. She greeted all of us vivaciously with a friendly embrace. Acer humorously introduced me to her as MA, the Mission Accomplished aircraft controller.
She came back with a mischievous wink, "A get-it-done guy, huh? That's my type, MA."
I thought to myself, "You certainly don't fit the librarian stereotype from my school days!" but instead tactfully said, "Great to meet you, Ruth."
It was interesting to observe the personal interaction at the apartment. From their conversation, it was obvious Acer and his buddies knew Ruth very well and had shared numerous activities. "Remember the '60 New Year's party the Wing CO hosted at the club?" reminisced Acer, with Ruth exclaiming, "Who could forget!"
Ruth was a career civil-service employee getting on a bit in age, fifty or so, from my perspective at twenty-four, but kept herself in attractive physical shape, dress and grooming. She had a vibrant, flirtatious personality and was a witty, lively conversationalist with a noticeable mannerism of flinging her bobbing dark hair and shoulders back in laughter at the slightest provocation. It was clear she absolutedly delighted in being the focus of attention among four young officers in their 20's.
When it was getting late and time for us to leave, one of Acer's buddies elected to stay at the apartment. "Sorry guys, but Ruth's got a new book she says would definitely interest me," he explained, to which Acer joked, "What's that, Ruth, the Book of Life?"
She did her signature laugh with a touch of embarrassment, followed by exclaiming "Acer!" in a cautionary almost maternal tone of disapproval or admonishment.
"Just kidding!" Acer shot back playfully. It was not exactly clear to me what the relationships were between Ruth and each of them, and I never asked Acer about them.
Once outside Ruth's apartment, Acer turned to his buddy and announced, "Being his last evening on R & R, it's now or never for MA, and time, don't ya think, we give him a taste of nightlife in downtown Naha.?"
"Yeah, I'm game for that, Acer. Let's go for it!" his friend exclaimed with enthusiasm while leading the way to his car and, once there added, looking at me, "Ready for a life-changing experience? You'll never be the same again, wouldn't ya say, Acer?"
"You got that right."
They were clearly building up to something as if sharing an "insider" joke. Whatever was going on, it sounded like I probably was not the first new guy they had "done the town" with. I began to wonder what they had in mind but didn't say anything, since my role was pretty much of a tag-along rather than an equal participant helping to call the shots.
After a short somewhat high-speed drive dodging in and out of heavy traffic and ending up in a hard-to-find parking space, we began a walking tour among the multi-colored flashing neon signs in the city's main nightlife district. Most noticeably among the bars, girlie shows/dancers and restaurants, it was "pick-up" central almost everywhere we looked.
"Hey guys, wanna good time?" was but one of several shout-outs to us from obvious pimps and show barkers.
"God damn!" I thought. "What am I getting into? Am I ready for this?" It was not that long ago that I was just an untutored backwoods country boy working in the fields.
I was somewhat relieved when it gradually became apparent that, all along, our real destination was a massage and bath house, at which Acer was soon to find considerable amusement watching me try to make sense of exactly what services this place offered with its private rooms, each staffed with a female attendant.
After we paid at a cashier's cage right inside the main entrance, the congenial receptionist just beyond in a windowless but well-lighted central area greeted Acer and his buddy as if familiar with them, or, I wondered did she show such personal attention and warmth to almost everyone?
"New young officer tonight," Acer said to her.
She nodded deeply to me and, gesturing toward a waiting attendant, said, "Best one for you, sir," saving me from an awkward selection process if ignored by the remaining available pool. I had an unsettling flashback to school days when I was more likely than not to be one of the last chosen by team captains for gym sports.
Thus began my initiation in the main reception room. We all removed our shoes and placed them with other pairs along the wall. On several benches sat other "attendants" awaiting customers to take back to their individual rooms. Two either recognized or simply offered themselves to Acer and his friend right away and moved toward them.
Before leaving with his attendant, Acer leaned closer to my ear, whispering that I could tip for extra services. "Just what's available?" I somewhat desperately and suspiciously asked while fessing up, "I've never been to this kind of place before."
But by then Acer had already started to walk away, only smiling with a wink and leaving me to my own anxieties and speculations. There was no escaping now whatever lay in store for me.
The overwhelming question on my mind was which type of bath house was I in. I had heard but did not know for sure that the classic or traditional Japanese bath houses were typically more respectable places that followed long-standing cultural codes limiting session activities to strictly baths and massages. At the other extreme were sleazy establishments, often near military installations, that were little more than "fronts" for prostitution. And this place was obviously near several such bases.
As I looked around, though, it seemed fairly "decent" and respectable and yet it didn't quite fit the ideal imaginary picture in my mind of what a traditional bath house should look like. With my obviously deficient knowledge of both the entire bath house "scene" in particular and Japanese culture in general, everything was becoming a complete "muddle" that I couldn't figure out.
"Oh well," my train of thought went on, "this is Okinawa, not actually Japan proper; so maybe standards and practices are a little different or looser here, even for the traditional type."
It certainly didn't seem to have the tawdry "flophouse" or back-street look that I associated with prostitution, but this was also only an imagined image because I had actually never been in such a place. On the other hand, the admission did seem a little steep; so maybe this was just a classier "way to go" that Acer on his pilot's extra pay could well afford on a regular basis.
These almost endless inner musings and mixed images did nothing to resolve my key concern. I knew I couldn't just blurt out in front of everyone--staff and other guests, "Hey, what kind of place is this?"
Knowing the only alternative left for me was to go ahead now that I was here, I counseled myself, "Just go with the program and play it close to the vest; you've had a few drinks; so don't make a fool of youself or, even worse, get in trouble and arrested."
My attendant looked barely older than a teenager, if even that, her straight black hair framing a smooth, olive-pale face with no obvious make-up. She wore a loose-fitting light fabric dress which outlined and highlighted her slender body as it moved inside.
Deferential and welcoming in clipped speech and signaling in gestures, she escorted me to her room. Once inside, she spoke and motioned with a faint smile, "Clothes off."
I was apprehensive and nervous while hesitantly and awkwardly undressing in front of this attractive young woman, in preparation for the bath and massage, with my trusty undershorts being the last to go. In my ignorance of bath-house protocol, I had initially half expected her to leave the room when I began undressing.
Of course, she stayed the whole time to perform her bathing and massage duties. Not that I realized fully then what was happening, but now, looking back, already the die had been cast, for there was not even the proverbial snowball's chance in Hell that I would have the coping skills and, frankly, the cajones for getting through this singularly sensuous experience unscathed.
The session began with a step-down into a hot tub, partly recessed below floor level, for a thorough bathing with scented soaps and soft brushes. The whole experience stimulated my skin and loosened by tense muscles and ligaments, making me feel invigorated and unusually relaxed.
At its completion, she motioned me to step up from the tub and handed me a large towel to dry off with and wrap around my waist as she further directed me to lie down on a nearby massage table. With her soft, at first slightly cool hands on my warm skin, she caressed and gently rubbed, then tapped, slapped, squeezed, rolled and pushed against almost every surface area and body part.
Her alternatelyy light and firm touch was more than a little stimulating. In those days, it did not take much to get me going, and this sensuous hot bath and massage infinitely exceeded my low "response" threshold. It probably did not help matters in the self-control department, either, that my usual inhibitions had been lowered considerably by several mixed drinks at the club earlier in the evening.
After a rapid build-up from my holding back in a losing attempt at self-control, an electrifying exhilaration like no other I had ever experienced began pulsing through my body and mind. I was fully in the sway of impulse mixed with some desire.
As I sat up on the table's edge amidst this emotionally and physically "heightened" state, my whole being had been fully primed. Her polite almost submissive demeanor and inquiring bemused expression (or was I reading in too much?) apparently signaled the time for deciding on other services.
But what if Acer had been merely toying with me, playing upon my obvious inexperience for his amusement and my embarrassment. I didn't know much about him; he could well have had something "going on" with his regular attendant that for me to ask or expect of mine would be out of line. Moreover, as much as I might try to delude myself, I was still me, not Acer. Even if available, anything beyond the bath and massage for me could be a big mistake that I would regret.
All these concerns were more than sufficient cause for wariness. Though no Hamlet cautioning himself about acting too impulsively ("That would be scanned"), I still had what is generally called a brain, and hoped that I had not taken complete leave of it.
In my complete confusion and some embarrassment mixed with smoldering desire, I was a virtual cauldron of conflicting legal, moral and emotional forces, all tugging in different directions. Adrift in totally uncharted waters and half-inebriated in more ways than one, I knew one certainty even then: I definitely wasn't up to handling this ambiguous situation any longer, particularly in my "agitated" state, and needed to get out of it immediately, as in the word NOW, before disaster struck.
In retrospect, stripped of all niceties, at work here were my basic, primal animal survival instincts of fight (engage) or flight. There was no way I could stay in that room and engage in "single-handed combat:" against these inexorably overwhelming forces in conflict within my being; nor would there have been the slightest hope for resolving anything in that briefest of moments through reasoned analysis.
Without giving the attendant time to speak or act and not even looking at her further, I grabbed my towel to cover my nakedness, made a beeline for my clothes, thanked her with a modest tip I had pre-placed in a pocket and, after quickly dressing, appreciative more than ever before of having tight jockey shorts inside my loose-fitting pants, was the first of our group to return to the reception area.
Sighing mentally in relief and taking several deep breaths, almost gasps, I strove, at first futilely, to restore some order from total chaos while inwardly reviewing and trying to make sense of what had just happened. I shifted my seated body on the reception-room bench, throwing my head back against the wall while extending my legs and flexing my arms and hands in an attempt to release built-up tension.
"Holy crap!" I either exclaimed inwardly or softly whispered to myself.
Figuratively if not literally, I broke out into a cold sweat during a nightmarish alternative scenario in which I had just been arrested by MP's and taken hand-cuffed to the base "brig" for sexual improprieties or worse. I gradually calmed down while waiting some twenty to thirty minutes for Acer and his friend to return.
When he finally emerged, his buddy even later, Acer, looking relaxed, was in a good-natured, mellow mood, and, slapping my shoulder, suggestively asked, "Hey, MA, how'd ya like your first time?"
"What a turn-on!" I said in as upbeat tone and posture as possible, inwardly wondering what had gone on during the extended time in his private room. I bravely kept up a fake front while holding myself back from complaining that all this unspecified extra-services "stuff" made me so damn nervous and confused that I had almost "lost it" (literally). When you're trying to be a young gun out with fighter jocks in a bath house, you have to save face by keeping some thoughts to yourself.
"I thought you'd like it, MA," Acer said with a mischievous look. "They'll never keep you down on the farm again after this!" I had told him earlier of my rural background.
Like it! That was an oversimplication and understatement of the century, if ever there was one, for describing what I had just experienced. But there was no way I would be honest about this to him then or anyone else until much later in life.
Acer and his friend exchanged a few pleasantries for several minutes with the motherly receptionist. "A great time, as usual," he called back with a wave as we walked out.
The relative silence marking our ride back to base provided space for more reflection and self-critique on my whole bath house fiasco. Like air escaping from an overly inflated balloon, my emotional and physical high sank rapidly to a depressing let-down. No doubt the "uplifting" effects of my mixed drinks were also wearing off, contributing further to my deteriorating mental state.
My ego deflated, I mentally vented accusatory blame and hostility on both myself and Acer. What a pathetic clown performance! You're certainly no Lt. Cable in SOUTH PACIFIC, a movie I had enjoyed seeing the previous year and still remembered vividly.
"Am I a complete loser or what?" was the persistent question running through my troubled mind like an endless loop tape playing.
It was well after midnight before we got back to the BOQ. We sat for a while in the common room talking and commenting off and on while briefly watching a local channel's re-run of a western with Japanese dubbed in. It was always good for a few escapist laughs to hear and see American actors speaking fluent Japanese in the Old West.
But coloring everything for me was an existential emptiness and weariness arising in part from the evening's experiences. I was sick unto self-loathing and death and yearned to be someone different.
In this state of mind, Acer's life seemed enviable enough to make me want to exchange it for my own in an instant, were such a magical transposition possible. But what was actually "up" with him? Did all his socializing and teasing, back-slapping comraderie and regular "bath-house" visits reveal a happy, well-adjusted person or mask an underlying loneliness and lack of fulfillment at least equal to my own? Looking back, I realize now he was a kind of other self, the once outgoing part of me that had atrophied unexpressed.
Didn't his eagerness to initiate me into the whole bath house scene serve his interests and amusement as much or more than it did mine? He certainly seemed to find an almost voyeuristic pleasure in confusing me and then enjoying my reaction. I felt like a puppet with outside forces and other people pulling my strings.
It was all endless and futile analysis in an age when "pop" psychology had proclaimed "analysis is dead." In retrospect now, with a broader perspective and more understanding, wouldn't life be better if people would simply "loosen up" and cut themselves and others more slack? We're all just trying to muddle through, and, "in the long run," a famous quote goes, "we're all dead."
Shortly after we had each gone to our own side of the divider, Acer got a phone call and talked a long time. From his conversation on the other side of the common room, I could hear mostly inaudible fragments ending with a final confirmation in louder tones, "Tomorrow evening at the club, okay?"
I woke up later in the night and could hear him alternately snoring and mumbling loudly in his apparent restless sleep. The wailing siren of an emergency vehicle was rising and falling in the distance. I had no idea what its urgent mission was or where it was going, and it was virtually certain that I would never know.
Before leaving the next morning, Acer called out from the common room, "Hey, MA, you awake?"
"Just barely," I sleepily replied.
"Got squadron duties all day. Have a good trip back. Great knowing you."
"Same here." The door clicked shut, followed by his ever fainter retreating footsteps on concrete. I got up midday to prepare for my return to duty on Kume.
Sometime later in our operation center, I briefly talked with Acer on the radio one last time during a practice mission. We had exchanged our respective call signs during my R & R.
"Hey, Acer, how's it goin'?"
"Reading you 5 x 5, MA. Ready for your next time?"
Painfully recalling what had happened, I was not amused and replied with the standard radio acknowledgement, "Roger." I was not about to give him any opening for further inquiries or comments on this touchy subject, and was even momentarily tempted to continue with "Over and out" but couldn't because we each had been assigned by coincidence to complete a practice mission together.
One thing was absolutely certain for preserving what little was left of the desired image I wanted to project to him and others: In no case, in voice inflection or tone, spoken word, facial expression, gesture or body stance, was I about to ever give him or anyone else the slightest clue of my actual experience that fateful evening in the bath house. My certain feeling then was that this incident would have to go with only me to my grave.
Then it was time to get back to intercept protocol.
"Red Rover 23. Port 180. Once steady, target at two o'clock and closing. Over."
"Roger, Tree Frog 15, turning port 180. Setting mode for target acquisition and lock-on."
Our practice intercept set-up ended with a direct hit on the designated target, earning both of us the coveted MA or Mission Accomplished entry in our respective training logs.
"Are we a great team or what?" I ironically asked myself at the time. I have mixed feelings on the answer to this day in my old age but definitely leaned to the "or what" description then. Could it be, though, buried in the subconscious mind, too deep for either awareness or verbalization, there was something mutually complementary despite our obvious surface differences?
Like so many fighter pilots in the '60's, Acer may well have had his final rendezvous in the skies over Viet Nam, and I've had my own demons to struggle with all these years. The only constant besides the relentless passage of time is that I am still confused about "protocol" in Japanese bath houses and especially whether the place Acer had taken me was actually just that or more.
I never saw or heard from him again, not that I expected to, and I never thought much about it then or over the decades. But my increasing age makes me realize now more than ever before that, like life itself, each separate experience is only a brief but special moment in time--the happy hour and laughter at the club, Ruth bravely hanging on to her fading youth, my moral and emotional chaos during a crisis of indecision, Acer's amusement over my awkward first time in a bath house--all are gone forever except the fleeting memories of them slipping away ever faster each passing year into eternity.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
Causes Brenden Allen Supports