In the 1980s, I moved to Japan and became an assistant teacher of English. I knew no Japanese. I was told it would be fine, that the children probably knew English better than I did, and they were right.
It was a fantastic job. It allowed me to travel around the globe for the first time in my life and learn a whole new culture. It was a good deal. I spoke in English, had conversations with the children, helping them with the language, Americanisms and with the accent. Before I knew it, Japanese was my second language. I became a tutor to wealthier students, whose parents wanted their children to help with their Japanese-American business links.
With my free time and extra income, I took a course in scuba diving. After getting 100 hours under my belt, I opened up my own Scuba school, and chartered trips to the smaller islands.
I had the weekend to myself, so set out on the boat looking for new places to add to my growing list of destinations. I would travel north. The weather report was good, clear skies all day. I plotted a course and headed out.
Around 9am, small grey clouds had gathered overhead. There had been a 5% chance of rain, and here it was, typical. I didn’t turn back, as the sun still shone from the blue skies ahead.
10:30am, and the rains had increased. Looking back, the clouds were an inky black, and to the north, it was grey. The boat rose and fell gently as the waves beneath had crept up on me. I was in the middle of a brewing storm. I didn’t panic, as I’d seen it before.
I turned on the radio and waited for the next weather report. When it came, it described the formation of a hurricane around 100 miles south of my position. I radioed back to base to let them know I was going to moor up on the nearest island and wait for it to pass. I was told to turn around, that the islands could be flattened if the eye of the storm passed directly over. I gazed behind me, at the black curtain that shrouded the sun and ominously predicted what was to come. I continued on.
The rain was lashing down heavily now, and the boat elevated and fell over ten feet. I could feel my stomach quease as the boat rode the waves. Vision was less than a boat length in front. I constantly checked the compass and map, sure I was heading in the correct direction.
Minutes turned to hours, as the boat rocked and plummeted. Land was nowhere to be seen. I picked up the radio receiver and called in a mayday. The response was broken static and slices of words. I repeated it over and over, as the boat veered at uncomfortable angles as the ocean tried to consume it. I pushed the throttle open, the engine’s whine drowned out by the storm that ravaged the boat. Within seconds, the small vessel overturned.
I was flung from the boat, hitting my head on the chrome safety bars that surrounded the edge, and slipped into the cold water. My last memories were hazy. I remember thinking, this is how it ends.
I woke sometime later, staring up at the sky. Rain pummelled my face. I choked.
“I’ve got you man,” a voice said, his American accent made me feel homesick.
He took my arms and pulled. I felt the wet sand underneath me. It wheezed as the man raced up the beach. He sat me up under a makeshift shelter of tarp and rope.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, moving around and holding my head in his hands.
“Can you see me?” he asked.
I nodded, before coughing violently. He slapped my back.
“Get it all out,” he continued.
I heaved as brackish water flew out of my lungs, filling my mouth with a horrible salty taste. The man’s eyes were warm. An unkempt ginger beard hung from his chin. His skin was tanned and lined so heavily you could place playing cards in them. His lips were chapped.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Peter,” I coughed, “Peter Williams.”
“Pete?” he said astonished.
He shuffled back. Woozy, I placed my hands on the sand for balance. He returned, catching me.
“Son?” he offered.
“Dad?” I said confused.
He hugged me.
“What was the street you grew up on?” he said excitedly, his head over my shoulder.
“1950 Lafayette,” I replied, still unsure.
“How’s your mother, Jean, is she still alive?” he said.
“Yeah, she’s fine, I think.”
I coughed again, feeling more water rise from my stomach.
“Get it all out, son.”
“How?” I said between coughs.
“It’s a long story… We won, didn’t we? I knew it. I knew it! I can’t believe this has happened. It’s a miracle.”
My vision began to fade. A lightning strike filled the sky.
He knelt down in front of me. His makeshift clothes of ragged cloth and twine barely covered his modesty.
“I’ll get you somewhere safe,” he said.
I passed out.
I woke in a cave. A small fire clicked and snapped in front of me. The odour of burning wood filled the air and irritated my tender lungs.
“You’re awake,” he said, placing some unknown meat onto a stick and over the fire.
I didn’t speak. I watched my supposed father turn the skewer, small droplets of fat fizzed as it hit the fire. I licked my lips, the smell making me drool.
“Hungry? I’m sure you are,” he said with a smile, “So, those Russkies. We showed them good, right?”
“Huh?” I said, not putting two and two together.
“Your dad’s a hero,” he continued, “I can’t wait to get back and get my medal.”
My heart sunk, he’d clearly gone mad.
“Sure,” I said absentmindedly, staring at the food, anxious for it to be cooked.
A tear rolled down his cheek, he put his free hand to his mouth.
“Do you think they’ll give me a Medal of Honor? Here,” he said, handing over the skewer.
With too much excitement, I bit in, immediately removing it.
“Hot,” I said, with my mouth wide open.
“Your mother is going to be so proud of me. I can’t wait to see her. How many years has it been?”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him, if he really was my father, that she had remarried three years after he disappeared.
“How is she? She doing well?” he asked anxiously.
“Yes, mom is fine.”
“Good, good. And you?” he said, his speech quick, one sentence flowing into the next, “Of course you’re okay, you’re here. What are you doing here? Last time I saw you…” he trailed off.
“I’m an English teacher in Niigata, Japan.”
“Wow, I’d thought you’d have joined the military like me.”
I didn’t want to tell him how his dishonorable discharge turned me off the service.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” I said, still feeling weak.
I bit into the meat, it was so tender and tasteful.
“You like?” he grinned.
“Heh, I didn’t think rat would taste so good. It is though, right?”
I stopped chewing for a moment, looking into the eyes of the man who said he was my father. His eyes begged for my approval. I continued to eat.
“Really good,” I replied, trying to believe it was a juicy steak.
“So how many did they send over to Russia in the end?”
“What do you mean?” I said, finishing my food.
“Bombers, how many?”
My dad was stationed in one of the bombers that were to be sent in the event the cold war turned hot.
“None,” I said.
He stood up.
“What do you mean?”
“The cold war ended soon after you disappeared.”
“Mom was told you left your post, and were never found. You were given a dishonorable discharge a year later.”
“Bullshit!” he said, and he started to pace. The firelight cast shadows on his body, reflecting the ire that grew within him.
“That’s bullshit!” he repeated.
“So what happened, then dad,” I said, as the years of disappointment in him rushed out of me.
“I never left my post. I’m not a deserter! I was given the go ahead to take off!”
In my weakened state I still had a hard time believing this.
His pacing stopped. His gaze wandered as he recollected.
“I flew for hours. It was dark. I was told I could have been shot down at anytime, that I was to bite on the cyanide tablet I had hidden in my teeth. I couldn’t be captured at all costs. I wasn’t even in an Air Force plane. It was a British one, you know, just in case.”
He slumped to the floor. For the first time, I saw how thin he was. His muscles barely there, years of malnutrition distorting his body. If he was my father, he was a shadow of the man who loomed down at me as a child.
“I’d pissed myself so many times, the cockpit smelled of urine and shit. I didn’t have enough fuel to fly back. It was a oneway trip.”
Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“When I was over the target. What was the place again? You’d think I’d remember,” he chuckled without humor, “I repeated the God damn name so many times to myself as I flew. But no, it’s gone. God damnit!”
He stood up and gazed at the ground.
“When I was overhead, I didn’t even hesitate. I pulled the lever. A rush of cold air filled the inside of the plane. I was glad. That putrid smell was gone. My hands were freezing, I was almost unable to release the bomb. When I did, thirty megatons of nuclear explosive was released.
“They told me to fly wherever I liked after I did that. So I flew east. I wanted to see the sun rise for one last time.
“The plane ran out of fuel and I glided. I ejected out at sea. I thought I was done. As I couldn’t hold my eyes open anymore, the sun shone down. It was beautiful, as if God himself was talking to me, and assuring me everything was going to be ok. That I did a good thing. I remember smiling and then waking up here.
“Those Russkies though. It was worth it.”
“Dad,” I said without thinking, “no bombs were dropped over Russia.”
“Bullshit!” he said as he scrambled around the cave.
He picked something up and shoved it in my face.
“My camera,” he said.
I looked at the old-fashioned Olympus camera.
“I took photos from the plane, as the bomb dropped.”
I held it in my arms.
“I’m tired,” I said.
His demeanor changed, suddenly no longer angry, but caring.
“You can take my bed,” he said, helping me up and over to the makeshift bed in the corner.
He laid me down, my back resting on the spongey material.
“Thank you,” I said, and I truly meant it.
We woke in the early morning. My head throbbed, I felt at the lump that had grown on my forehead.
“We should go down to the beach and see if there are any passing ships.”
“How often does that happen?” I asked.
“Why are you still here?”
“Can’t trust them,” he said, “come on.”
He helped me up and we walked.
We stood on the beach. My dad picked up a fishing pole.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“A few weeks back, it washed up. It’s surprising how often that happens.”
Within minutes he pulled in a fish. He set a fire and we ate.
The sun was above us when a ship appeared on the horizon. Dad pulled down a piece of cloth from over the small lean-to he’d made and wetted it in the sea. Like the native Americans he held it over the fire, producing billowing smoke that rose into the air.
“How do you know how to do this?” I asked.
“For the first few years, I did this, but no one came. Then I sort of got used to living here.”
The ship turned and headed in our direction.
An hour later, the large vessel anchored. A small boat was lowered and raced towards us, its underpowered engine could be heard buzzing from the distance.
Two Japanese men got out. I greeted them and told them what had happened in their native tongue. I assured my dad it was going to be okay. He was nervous as we approached the ship.
We were heaved up on deck. A man in military garb came over. In a Russian accent, he asked why we were here.
“I have no idea what this Japanese prick is doing here,” Dad said of me with venom, “He calls himself American but he can only speak Japanese.”
What are you doing? I thought.
“Is that true?” the Russian said.
“I don’t speak English,” I said in Japanese.
My dad was hauled away. I resisted the urge to stop them.
“Tell your mother I love her.”
I nodded, holding back the tears.
I told the two Japanese men where I’d come from, and they said they’d get me home safely.
As we sailed the open sea, the sun was out, no clouds gathered overhead.
I pulled one of them to the side and asked in Japanese, “What do they want with that man?”
“They’ve been looking for him for years.”
He shrugged his shoulders and showed me the wad of cash he’d been given for finding him.
I grasped the old-fashioned Olympus camera that dangled from my neck. I was going to make sure my mother knew dad was no deserter.