Eleven years later, on the consecrated ground of Hiroshima, the Chinese-Australian sisters, tightened jaws defiant, watered eyes accusatory, waited.
“How did that museum make me feel?” I asked. “Uh, that war is bad?” I knew that wasn’t a “feeling,” but it was the best I could come up with.
Like the Finnish woman, they turned without a word. The tour guide and I watched, their shoulders heaving, as they returned to the meeting point. “Let’s get a beer later,” he said. Maybe he was trying to make me feel better. Then again, he said this every day of the tour.
Soon after, the group piled into a small van and headed towards the docks. Our next stop was the holy island of Miyajima, where it is taboo to give birth or die, and the deer walk unmolested amongst residents and tourists everywhere, including inside the ferry terminal. The sisters sat up front in the van and wept. The tour guide tried his best to appease them by relating gruesome details of the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March. The Japanese had started it all, hadn’t they? Australia and Great Britain were allies of the United States, right?
I steamed in the back row, rehearsing the stories of my father’s uncle, eighteen and green, who, when the atomic bombs were dropped, sat on a troop ship off Japan waiting for the invasion he had been trained for. Would he have been one of the million-plus anticipated casualties? And what of my father’s Aunt Stella, with three sons in the Pacific? One came back in a body bag, the other two not at all, including the decorated hero who was blown to bits trying to remove an unexploded bomb from the deck of an aircraft carrier.
At the end of the tour, our group had a last drink at our hotel in Tokyo. The hotel manager joined us. Throughout the evening, his focus remained on me entirely. He had questions about baseball and American food and Yellowstone Park. He had no use for the Brits and Aussies. Occasionally, he’d excuse himself and shuffle over to his office behind the front desk. That’s that, I thought, but he kept coming back, a little drunker each time. At one point, he grabbed my arm from across the table and started weeping. Through his tears, he told me how there was an American base near his childhood home. He had befriended many of the soldiers. One gave him a baseball mitt.
“I lose the mitt!” he said, breaking into a teary coughing fit. “I want to show you but it is gone.”
“These are such wonderful mens,” he said. “Such wonderful mens. These American mens, they are my friends. I was little boy, no friends. These wonderful American mens, they are my friends. We play baseball. They teach me this English. I love Americans!”
At this, the sisters snorted and left.
Eventually, the manager grew quiet. He closed his eyes and started breathing heavily. When I tried to pull my arm from his grasp, his eyes popped open.
“You understand me?” he resumed. “You American, you understand. These mens, my friends, they go off to fight. Vietnam, that is where they go. So young, these mens. They go and fight? And what? They die, these American friends. They don’t come back. They die, these mens. Like smoke, they die.”
He gave my arm one last squeeze and held my gaze until I turned away.
“My friends, they die. Like smoke.”