Monday, June 27, 2016

PHOENIX: The time, the place, and the loved one (1st of 2)

"Never the time and the place
 And the loved one all together!" 
                        Robert Browning 

     Dad had a dream. Inspired by Joshua Slocum's autobiography, Sailing Alone Around the World, when he was 17, he had always wanted to build a boat and do it himself.  In Vicksburg and Madison and Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the nearest bodies of water were lakes or rivers, he dreamed of sailing a deep-sea yacht around the world.
     While in Hiroshima he realized that the time, the place and the loved one, which the poet Browning said never seemed to come together, might be converging for him.  He found he could have a boat built to his specifications, for about one-third of what it would cost in the States, by a local shipbuilder struggling to make a living after World War II.
     Even though he had never sailed anything over 18 feet and never on the ocean, Dad designed the sea-going vessel himself, patterning it after the Colin Archer design of rugged Norwegian fishing boats.  When in doubt, he built it sturdier than necessary.
     He designed it to be so well-weighted that even if it were rolled completely over, it would right itself.  The ballast was pig iron (or what Ted and I, as we painted them all orange to keep them from rusting, called "iron pigs.")  It would be a double-ended (pointed at both ends) ketch, 30 feet long.  At this, Mum put her foot down--but not in the way you'd expect.
     "If you're going to build a boat," she said, "build it big enough for all of us!"  So he extended a few lines on the blueprint and made it a 50-footer.  Years later I realized how much courage it took my mother to demand this.  Her father had drowned when she was 15, after his canoe capsized in the icy waters of Lake Mendota, Wisconsin.
     Dad found a boat builder, Mr. Yotsuda, who was living, in the aftermath of the second world war "from fishing smack to oyster boat," as Dad put it.  But he was willing to bring Dad's blueprint to life.  Mr. Yotsuda's shipyard struck me, even as a seven-year old, as a most unpromising place.  There was lumber scattered everywhere.  If Dad had told me this used to be a shipyard, that the atomic bomb had been dropped directly on it, I would have believed him.
     Weekend by weekend, we drove our Woody about 90 minutes from Hiroshima to the stretch of land along the dusty road that was becoming the birthplace of the Phoenix.  I explored the nearby rocks and caves, gazed at the famous, faded red archway of Miyajima shrine across the Inland Sea (this photo of a facsimile of the shrine was taken at Epcot Center), and studied curiously the red-aproned stone idol which blindly overlooked the Yotsuda property. 
     Meanwhile Dad hunkered with three Japanese men around an open fire, drinking tea and learning patience.  He knew what
he wanted but he didn't know how to say it in Japanese.  His translator knew English but didn't know nautical terms.  A third man had been in the Japanese Navy. He didn't know English but he knew boats and he could guess at the proper terms from the second man's descriptions.  Finally there was Mr. Yotsuda himself.  He nodded a lot and plied the others with tea.

    First the keel, then the skeleton-like hull took shape in the midst of the chaos.

     It was appropriate that we named her Phoenix of Hiroshima.  That was Professor Yamada's idea.  Dad wanted to call her Daruma, like the roly-poly plastic Japanese doll, because if the sea pushed her over seven times, she would come up eight.  It turned out "daruma" also refers to women of easy virtue.
     Prof. Yamada didn't object to the name outright.  He just kept politely referring to the fact that the phoenix was a mythological bird which rises from the ashes of its own destruction and that in oriental mythology the phoenix appears only in time of universal peace.  So Dad suggested the name "Phoenix" for the boat and Prof. Yamada bowed and sucked in his breath respectfully and said, in effect, "Good choice."
     As the Phoenix rose symbolically from the ashes of the city destroyed by the first atomic bomb it also rose, over the period of a year and a half, from the small unprepossessing shipyard of Mr. Yotsuda.
     In those days the label "Made in Japan" was derogatory. Shops were full of cheap paper parasols, flimsy toys and tacky souvenirs.  But behind the post-war trash were centuries of craftsmanship.  Even then tourists could buy superbly crafted wooden boxes with hidden compartments or vases inlaid with mother-of-pearl.
     It wasn't that the Japanese couldn't make elegant things. They just had to turn out junk to keep from starving as they bridged back to solvency.
     If you wanted something made, the Japanese could make it.  With a sample or a blueprint or a description, they could make it.  Eventually the whole world would have to revise their opinion of the label, "Made in Japan."
     When we left Japan in 1954, our family would be entrusting our lives to Japanese craftsmanship.

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Jes - i'm so enjoying your stories & your writing. Seems like it should be shared more broadly. I don't really know how to do that (my readership came up very slowly). I know there are lots of "blog parties" & stuff, but it takes quite a effort & time.

Lynnette Kraft (you'll find her blog in my profile) has a fairly big readership. She also has a "getting to know you" part where she encourages her readers to visit other blogs. That might be a good place to start. I think you'd enjoy reading her blog. She's a home schooler. There are lots out there, actually. It seems if you could connect with a "home school" network, this would be a good thing for them to share with their children.

I know we made jokes about how many blogs i follow, but you have to remember, i have "no life" in terms of energy. Much of my time is spent on the computer.