Issue #23, December 1997

Chasing a few of my yesterdays

It was a Grand Slam day -- three tries and three bull's-eyes. Three personal visits, all unannounced, with fellows I hadn't seen in fifty years and more! One, in fact, goes back a full sixty years in my life, the earliest of any re-connection I have made -- or that I possibly could.

The very fact I found him at all was a gift of the gods. I had set out, that day, seeking only the other two, but a touch of magic entered in and gave me the third: Isao, who lived around the block from me when my family occupied a second-level flat on McAllister Street, in San Francisco's old Jewish dist-rict, for several years before the war.

It was doubly remarkable, in that his last name had been lost to me all these years, and the first name was only recalled as Esau, the way it was pronounced. The family was Japanese, of course, and he vanished from my world with the upheaval of Pearl Harbor Day, just as totally as did the old Jewish section centered on Fillmore Street, some 20-30 years later, in a heavy-handed redevelopment plan that crunched it down like a Warsaw Ghetto, ripping out the roots of who I am today. It could be said, in fact, that Isao and I, both, lost our origins, in senseless ravages against ethnic identity.

The McAllister Street flats, on the very edge of that ripout, are still there -- as is Isao's old family home -- constituting the only physical vestige of the only real childhood I ever had. My earlier years had been spent in transit, as it were, from one part of the state to another -- my Dad, a life insurance salesman chasing the fox of fortune wherever it led. I have flash memories of Oakland, San Jose, Los Angeles and several San Francisco residences before we finally settled into a bit of stability, there on McAllister Street, and I got to experience a few years of genuine childhood -- the "kids community" sort, that every child is entitled to before he is forever pulled from its embrace by the worldliness of teen-age angst and supposed maturity.

This recent travel that saw me back in the Bay Area for a week was not made for the purpose of dredging up my childhood past, though it began to constellate in that direction right from the start. I went to try and ease my brother's terrifying passage from the ever-open horizons of a simply lived life, the sort that avoids any deep issues, into that swift narrowing channel of a medical prognosis that ruthlessly denies the blessing of an unexpected and sudden departure with no time to think about it, and forces one to contemplate his approaching death. The poor guy, who never gave much thought to such things, had weeks of time to do nothing else but, and I went down to offer such support as I could.

I had my own ghosts to deal with, for it was in those very McAllister Street days that I had sort of abandoned my little brother. Three years is a big difference at that age, and I gravitated toward friendships of my own, leaving him to a range of younger companions, of which there were not many around. Furthermore, at ten I was old enough to roam the streets a bit, and he was not, so I had a decided edge in the friendships game. I was a bit heartless about it, and it has always seemed as though I deserted him before he was quite ready to stand on his own.

The cheapest transport

...from San Francisco's airport is a SamTrans bus that bridges the gap to the nearest BART station. It goes through mile on mile of new construction before it even leaves the grounds, of an airport that has never stopped growing. And it gives me time enough to reflect on the many sorts of connection I've had with this airport, going back to my cab driving days in the early 1960s, when there was only the one central terminal building . . . but then way, way back to those pre-war years, and a very special recollection of an airport that was as sweetly simple as all of life was, in those days.

I think the building still stands -- the airport terminal of the 1930s -- for I saw it, not so many years ago, in use as an "Executive Terminal" for pilots of small craft. It is no bigger, inside, than a basketball court, a single open hall encircled by a balcony of upper offices. It was a modified Spanish style, in those days, just off the two lanes of Highway 101, a road with scarcely more traffic in 1939 than the average country lane of today. And I remember it very well, for I walked that road on one late afternoon. I was twelve, and running away from home.

It wasn't the first such escapade in my early life, but it was by far the most ambitious. They had refused to promote me from grade 7A to 7B, because I didn't pass the math exam, and I was not going to sit still for it. I devised a plan to run away to Redwood City, about 25 miles down the peninsula, to support myself down there with a job selling newspapers and never return to school. I had loaded my pockets with bananas and graham crackers, and set out on foot before noon, that early summer's day. The airport, halfway to my destination, would provide a night's indoor shelter, by my plan, and I'd think about the rest tomorrow.

It all worked fine until about midnight, when no one was left in the terminal hall but me and a lonely ticket agent. The last of the night's flights had come in more than an hour ago, and nothing more was scheduled until about five a.m. Needless to say, I was a bit conspicuous as I stretched out on a cushioned couch to sleep as I could, and then an airport official was asking me questions from the upstairs balcony. In complete nonchalance and honesty, I gave him my correct name and address -- but not entirely in innocence, for as soon as he returned to his office I sauntered outside to contemplate my next move.

It was cool, but not cold, and I crossed the highway -- now completely empty of traffic -- to huddle in some shrubbery for what remained of the night. I'm sure it was the first time I ever bedded down under the stars (which could still be seen, in those days), and it was both scary and thrilling. I remember the occasional bright lights and rumble of a passing truck and the not-so-distant train whistles from the tracks alongside El Camino Real. And then some loud talking from across the way, that I easily recognized as my Dad's voice and that of an uncle who had joined him in the search. But they never thought to check the bushes. I was determined to fulfill my plan.

By daybreak, however, I was cold to the bone, and I experienced a marvelous conversion: home and its comforts on McAllister Street had put Redwood City and its uncertainties in the pale. So I turned back, ready to brave the storms I had generated, and face the grim future of a disgraced student.

It was all a fascinating foretaste

...of the life to come. James Hillman has an "acorn theory," about the child being fully possessed of his adult potential, merely awaiting the right set of events to trigger his destiny into manifestation, and I guess I lived my own proof of it, during that young occasion.

At any rate, I was thinking 1939, and thereabouts, from the moment I left today's massive terminal. Mile after mile, I gazed aghast at an airport that just refuses to stop growing -- because it can't, of course, because we, ourselves, can't rid ourselves of this pitfall notion that we must "grow or die." It is like a cancer in our very spirit, forcing growth all around us -- for what else is cancer, after all, than the notion of endless, ceaseless growth, played out in our very organism?

As we shape our world, so it shapes us . . . and my little brother lay dying of it, a living expression of the passionate belief that we all buy into. (And that's exactly the story: we buy into it!). I wonder if we will ever, as a culture, grasp the distinction between growing and thriving, the one a quantity-based idea, the other an ideal based on quality, that does not lend itself to repetitive buying.

I very much doubt it. Even though I know, firsthand, the rewards of a more simple approach to life, I know also the mystique that tends to keep it just out of reach. I had a fresh taste of it by the use of my brother's car for the week I was in California. I'd been primed by the possibility that I might once more have the option of a "free automobile" in my world. Five years ago, my brother handed me that option when he generously offered his previous car to me, instead of using it as a trade-in. I thought long and hard on it, at the time, and finally rejected it. But I'm five years older, now, and have begun to feel the restrictions imposed by an aging body . . . the scales are tipping differently than before. I had the caution, however, to ask the I Ching, before doing anything so rash, and that old reliable Sage came through for me once again, with the hexagram called "Preponderance of the Small" and two exquisitely challenging lines (#1 and #6).

Essentially, it reminded me that there's no need to abandon my principles just because the future seems a little more problematical. It's easy enough to say: "Why shouldn't I have a car?" But the automobile is where I drew my line, when I began this journey, 28 years ago. Each one of us has to draw a line somewhere, if we would choose thriving, in our lives, instead of growing, and that was mine. It demands my continuing respect if my life is to continue to have the meaning I chose for it.

But having the use of a car

...for the better part of a week was a gift that did not violate my commitment to non-ownership, and I made good use of it.

On a Monday blessed with the sort of daybreak weather that only November can offer -- the lingering cheer of an Indian summer-bright sky together with a healthy blend of autumn's uncertainty -- I set out on a 150-mile drive to visit, unannounced, some old friends whom I could reach in no other way. I suppose I should have called ahead for the sake of mere decency, if not the security of knowing that the long ride would not be in vain. But chalk it up to my perversity -- I like the heightened face-to-face surprise of being unexpected. It also leaves things up to the gods: Spirit willing, the connection will be made, otherwise I can suppose I'm better off without it.

This is in deference to having learned, too many times, that autumn leaves (of life) are best left unraked. I remember, for example, having done a persistent and professional job of locating an old girlfriend in southern California, almost twenty years ago, only to discover that the girl I had romanticized into a worldly sophisticate, in the spun fantasies of what might have been, had become a 'little old lady' of Jehovah's Witness persuasion. Nor was it much better when I went to my 50th high school reunion, with expectations wider than my searching eyes, for whomever they might light upon. It turned out, though, that I was as out of place there, as a butterfly at a caterpillar convention.

In my sober moments, I know my life has taken radical turns that none of my youthful friends could ever relate to -- yet, I somehow always expect the years to peel away and reveal the link or bond that once was there, if only for the mutual reminiscence that the brief moment affords. Sometimes it barely happens . . . and sometimes not even barely. Very seldom is it much more.

But I was not going blindly, this time, even if unannounced. I had been in correspondence, with these two I now sought, for long enough to fairly expect a warm welcome, if I was lucky at my timing. The third, I had no awareness that I'd be tracking when the day began.

I had no difficulty

...finding Takuzo's modest San Jose home in a suburban section liberally splattered with autumn hues, but I was dismayed to get no response at the doorbell. The double garage door was open wide, however, so I gave it a half-hour while I went for a bite. And there was Tak when I returned, raking leaves and looking querulously at this bearded figure approaching him.

Tak was a Jr. High School pal who had been easy to find because Japanese names are so unique. There is a nationwide telephone and address directory on the Web, lots of fun to go searching in, though of limited value in turning up trails of folks a half-century gone in one's life. The worst problem is common names. I used to think of my own as reasonably distinctive, but I found out there are many dozens of guys named Irv Thomas around the country. (If I had less to do with my time, I would organize the Irv Thomas Society -- and we'd all be president of it!) But Tak had no clones when I plugged his name into the search box -- there he was, singular and without a doubt the one I was looking for.

For more than two years, we'd been exchanging letters intermittently, hashing and rehashing the names and personalities we could remember. A real windfall for me, for no other connection I've made has gone back to that pre-war time in my life. And Tak, for that matter, was the very first of my long ago friends who seemed willing to maintain a correspondence.

Perhaps we could still relate because he'd become somewhat cynical over the years. In person, now, it was tinged with humor -- as the best cynicism is -- giving him a degree of vitality that his letters had not always conveyed. I had even sometimes chided his downcast reflections on the gathering miseries of growing old, and I'd halfway expected to encounter a somewhat enfeebled old fellow -- but no way! I'm sure he could easily take me in a 50-yard dash (which admittedly is not saying much).

This one visit was worth a thousand letters -- to tweak an old oriental saying -- and I left in good spirits after a couple hours of conversation, anticipating what yet lay ahead on the day's journey. It was north to Fairfield, now, on the road to Sacramento -- and a shift in the weather, before I was halfway along to it. But with an automobile under one's butt, who worries about the vagaries of Nature?

This time, I sought a friend

...of college days -- San Francisco State, in the late 1940s -- whom I'd only been in touch with, now, for about six months, once again facilitated by the online directory. Marvin's last name was sufficiently distinctive to effect the connection. He, himself, was and is sufficiently distinctive that I was a bit surprised to find him in a rather normal suburban setting, though Fairfield is hardly the place for any other sort. But Marvin had put me under a certain spell, with his letters, that had me primed for something I cannot specify -- perhaps a rabbit warren, or the intricate weave of a prairie dog's tunnel.

I cannot fully explain this, except to say that he has a fertile imagination and a real gift for spinning fabrications of whimsical complexity. He always had this gift, but I hadn't expected to find it intact, a full fifty years since last encountered (and all but forgotten). Our letters had been a dialogue between alien worlds: my rather offbeat one, and his decidedly unreal one, and it was hard to know quite what to expect when we'd meet, at last, on his doorstep. I'd not even have been much surprised to find him the very same Marvin of my recall: tall, pipe in hand, with twinkly warm eyes and a very engaging grin.

He did come surprisingly close to the image. A little bent from the years, and a full-flowing crest of cream-tinted white hair, where there once had been hickory brown, but the same warm twinkle, just a bit misty, and that same easy grin that would have identified Marvin to me anywhere in the wide world. Not as spry as Tak, perhaps, but that's because Marvin is about seven years down the line from us, a fact I had forgotten to remember.

I'd lucked into perfect clockwork, this time, for Marvin said that five minutes later would have missed him. But he gave up whatever was scheduled, brought forth tea and cookies, and we had a wonderful couple hours of reminiscence and reflection. He, too, has his cynical side, but it is more like a well-aged wine -- not only humored, but actually funny and wryly philosophical. I just hope that I can age into my late seventies with as much grace.

I'd have liked to spend the rest of the day with Marvin, but it darkens early in November, and . . . you haven't forgotten the tale I've left hanging, about Isao, have you? It was the finale of my day, and I have to backtrack a bit, to let you know just how it fell into place.

The guy I would really have liked find on that Web directory was a chunky little fellow, during those McAllister Street days, that we knew as Babe. His actual name was Meyer, but he was the youngest in a family of six or seven -- quite a bit younger than the rest -- and they called him Babe. Perhaps the name lent him a charisma, for he was the undisputed leader of our courtyard pack of pre-teens, and the first good friend I ever had.

His Dad should probably have had a plaque immortalizing him, maybe on the face of that old McAllister Street building, as they do on notable homes in London, for he probably drove the last of the oldtime horse-wagons that plied the streets before the automobile came on the scene and took over. It was a junk wagon, and they clopped along with a holler of "rags, bottles, sacks" -- the very end of a noble tradition of tradespeople that once did business on the streets, before we became so "civilized" . . . the finale of an era.

Because of him, Babe had access to a basement full of strange and wonderful treasures that imparted a quality of magic to our idle afternoons -- like skates and wooden boxes from which we made "racing wagons," and old tire tubes such as aren't even used anymore, that could be sliced into super-sized "rubber bands" for the most fiendish of artillery pieces. Or the high-pressure lubrication gun that Babe's creative imagination turned into the most devastating "water pistol" that the world had ever seen!

He was the kind of pal that a growing kid, not too sure of himself, needed. We put together a backyard "detective agency," one day, and solved the mystery of the broken stairway window that almost got blamed on me. And Babe eventually gave me the courage -- just by his presence and verbal support -- to whip a bully that had been tormenting me for months. I needed just such a friend in my life, and he was there.

But I lost track of Babe when his family moved to Los Angeles during the war years. Today, I am sorely regretful that I made no effort to look him up when I might have, just a few years later when I spent a bit of time in L.A., myself. But I was too wrapped up, by that time, in a future Jehovah's Witness and it just never occurred to me. I thought, recently, that I had found him in Arizona, when I first began playing around with that Web directory -- but alas, it was a Meyer who had grown up in New York. The right vintage, rather strangely, but the wrong Babe.

I gave it one more shot

...a long shot, during this recent trip: in San Francisco's new public library, I looked into the old city directories to get all the given names in Babe's family that were there, in the hope that some effective trail might come of it. But nothing did. While I was there in the heart of town, however, thinking about those McAllister Street days, I walked the few blocks to where the city's official records are kept, and went after the last name of the Japanese family that once owned the property around the corner . . . Esau's family.

It wasn't at all difficult. I got the block and lot number from map books, and the clerk checked it on the microfiche and wrote out the name for me: Migono. I intended to simply take it home with me, and look once more into the Directory.

But that would have failed. I happened to mention it, in the course of talking with Tak, and he immediately said it was not a Japanese name. He suggested it should be Mizono, not Migono, and then recalled an Isao Mizono from one of the wartime relocation camps. It all fit together! He looked the name up in one of their reunion lists, and came up with an address in the hillside community of Pinole, just south of the Carquinez Straits and right on my return route from Fairfield.

So it was in seeking Babe

...and getting a bit of data on a tangential trail -- that was in fact in error, but which Tak was able to turn into an immediate hot lead -- that put me now on the trail of Isao, in perfect timing and location.

But he was not yet so easy to find. Two service stations had no such street on their maps, so I sought the fire station. It used to be that you could rely on a black-shirted fireman to haul out a large-scale map and show you precisely where to go, but I found no fireman here, just an AARP volunteer who pulled out a folding map with print so small that neither of us could read it. I finally found the name, a tiny one-block cul-de-sac only spotted because it sat astride the border between two map coordinates.

On foot, it would have been out of the question -- an upscale and fairly isolated section, up a steep hill. But with the car . . . I climbed to it just as darkness set in. Isao -- it had to be him -- answered the bell at the gate. He couldn't quite place me, at first, but he very well remembered Babe, and that was all we needed. He recalled riding with Babe in the old horse-drawn junk wagon, a privilege I don't think I ever had, myself.

He was astounded, of course, that I should ever have found him, and couldn't recall having ever met Tak, which made it all the more remarkable.

Isao, though just about our age, had much more a sense of vitality about him . . . if Tak could have taken me at 50 yards, Isao could have done it with a 20-yard handicap -- not such a surprise, really, as I recalled a scrappy little fellow, back then. I remember being afraid to tangle with him, one time, though I was a full foot taller than he, then.

But I remembered Isao for a lot more than that . . . like the street games of kick-the-can and one-foot-off-the-gutter, that we used to play on the street in front of his house -- the preferred place for such games, as it had less traffic and was more level than McAllister Street. And the time that Isao sneaked me upstairs into his Dad's bedroom to initiate me into the forbidden art of cigarette smoking . . . long ago abandoned by both of us.

Most indelible of all is my memory of December 7, 1941. My family had moved by then, but it seemed a necessary thing to do, to check in with Isao on that terrible afternoon, and I pedaled the six blocks on my bicycle -- not knowing that I'd find Babe and a few others already there. We just sat there, on the front stairs of Isao's family home, in a desolate and embarrassed silence for the most part, for there was not much of anything to say. It was a watershed moment in our young lives, as for so many others.

It was good check in with him again, after all these years, and to see how well he'd overcome that stroke of fate, and created a thriving, full life. It was good to check in with all three of these guys, and find some small degree of affirmation for the strength of friendship . . . which is one of the aspects of love . . . which is what life, after all, is all about.

It was good to have an automobile at my disposal to do so . . . and good to once more realize that it doesn't mean I ought to own one of the blasted things. And it was good to dip briefly back into that world of so many years ago . . . appropriate to this final visit with a brother who had been there with me, after all, through all of it.

This is dedicated to you, Leon. (He died eight days after I returned to Seattle.) I hope you're now in a happier place, "out there," that you never even knew existed.

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