This thank you is thirty years late, but better late than never (I hope). I've been thanking this man indirectly for those entire thirty years--every time I asked a group of tourists if they'd like me to take the picture so all of them could be in it, every time I gave directions to a foreigner who was lost, even those times I gave out bus fare to those without the right change--and now I get to say thank you here.
Thirty years ago, the Navy sent me to Japan. I was stationed at the medical clinic on NAF Atsugi, a joint U. S. Navy/Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force air base on the main island of Honshu. When I first checked in at the clinic, I was immediately asked if I could drive, almost even before they asked my name. I answered that I could and was happily asked, "can you drive a stickshift?" I answered again that I could, and was joyously told that I was then an ambulance driver.
You see, there were only twenty-odd (and some very odd) enlisted personnel at this clinic, five of whom were women shorter than 5'2". Those short girls weren't allowed to drive the ambulances and some of the taller enlisted personnel didn't know how to drive stickshifts, so every new person who was tall enough to drive AND could drive a stick was eagerly welcomed to the ranks of ambulance drivers.
***Again (and again, and again, and again), my mother was right. Every time I would whine, "Mom, do I have to drive the Bug, can't I please practice in the Honda," she would answer, "no, if you can drive the Bug, you can drive anything. Drive the Bug." My apologies to Volkswagen and its engineers, but that Bug had the worst clutch ever. My German immigrant grandfather hated that Bug--he considered it a blight on the honor of German engineering. But I learned to drive in it and as a result, really COULD drive anything, from those little Toyota ambulances to the big field ambulances you see on M*A*S*H.
I duly went through the on-base classes on how to drive in a country where I couldn't read the language, and the other ambulance drivers taught me the route to the hospital at Yokosuka and to the nearby radio bases of Totsuka and Kamiseya, and the longer route to Yokota AFB, which we hardly ever had to drive. We drove to Yokosuka almost weekly and Totsuka and Kamiseya were close, but Yokota was a two-hour drive and one that was hard to learn as we didn't drive it very often. Our directions, you see, were things like, "turn right at the futon shop with the pillows out front, then go down three kilometers past the cows until you see a Daisy store on the left. . . ."
One night, it happened. I was heading to Yokota to pick up someone and I got lost. Somehow I wasn't on the freeway anymore and didn't know how to get back to it. I drove in circles (at least, I think they were circles, but for all I know I was driving in parallelograms) until I came upon a small business that still had its lights on. I got out and went in to find one of those ubiquitous Mom-and-Pop stores that were all over Japan. There was a smiling man behind the counter who understood, with the help of my Japanese-English dictionary, that I was traveling from Atsugi to Yokota but somehow had gotten lost. Try as he might, though, he couldn't get me to understand his gestured and spoken directions back to the freeway. His directions were in Japanese--I had found the one adult in Japan who knew less of my language than I knew of his.
He finally gestured for me to wait (as if i was going to go anywhere!) and headed through the curtain behind the counter. A minute or two later, his wife came through the curtain. She smiled kindly at me but didn't say anything. A few minutes later, her husband returned, this time accompanied by their pajama-ed children. He got across to me that he was going to get in his car and LEAD me back to the freeway, then headed in the back again to go get his car. I waved good-bye to the wife and was stared at wide-eyed by the children as I went out the shop door.
The man drove around the front of his little shop, waited while I got my borrowed car going, then led me down the road, driving carefully and watching in his mirror to make sure I was behind him. (I was right on his tail--I wasn't going ANYWHERE he didn't.) After some turns this way and that, he stuck his arm out the window and gestured mightily towards a road. Clearly, that was where I was to go. I waved back to him and got on that road, which sure enough was an on-ramp to the freeway that would take me to Yokota.
For thirty years, I've wanted to tell that man and his wife thank you, thank you for being open late and thank you for being so kind and thank you for getting their children up so she could watch the store while he led this lost American back to the freeway.
Thank you, Red Room, for giving me the chance.