Portrait of a Sailor in Morning Light


Enjoying piping hot noodles and charcoal-broiled smelt with Cass on an iced-over lake near Mt. Fuji, c. 1983

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.
                                               ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

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It is a condition of the human heart that we sometimes are given to invest deeply in friends and lovers who show potential for being who we want them to be, but who in reality aren’t there. And so we allow ourselves to imagine them as we wish them, teased along by hints and flashes of those things we desire. I think all of us who knew him thought of him this way. We each had an image of who we wanted him to be, and sometimes we allowed ourselves to believe that that is who he was. I wanted him to be an Edward Hopper diner on a quiet corner at 2:00 AM lit by a single streetlamp, fingertips stained with New York Times newsprint, a bowl of hot chili topped with pungent freshly diced onions, a cup of black coffee, a sailor’s dress whites, a table at some hole-in-the-wall in a Philippine barrio, early morning, a warm bottle of Coke, the sun already turning the day balmy and full of promise…

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A Sailor’s Lullaby

As far as I could determine, Cass’s sole preparatory measure for shifting from life as a sailor stationed in Japan to becoming a private citizen living in country was to stock Aleck’s futon closet with hard liquor at U.S. Navy Exchange prices. But with Aleck’s help, he found a job teaching English to Japanese businessmen and housewives, a gig he met each day with a combination of indifference, resignation and disdain. The work was not difficult, it paid decently, and he ended up staying with the language school that first hired him for about five years. In that time, he mastered enough Japanese to call out “Excuse me!” and to order whiskey and water on ice. All other communication needs were addressed through a combination of speaking English slowly and loudly or through hand gestures. So, for example, he’d walk into a noodle shop, look around, and call out “Sumimasen!” Once he had the attention of a cook or waitress, he’d point at a bowl a customer was dining from and then to himself – to his own nose, specifically – and sit down. Witnessing him use hand gestures to ask for deodorant in a pharmacy was… memorable. His dread fear of having to deal with Japanese barbers became legendary.

Japanese society can be rather insular, and although the residents of that country are kind and polite, it generally takes a while to get comfortable living among them. Cass stayed with it though, and by the time he left he had worked his way down the coast from Yokohama to Tsu and modestly up his language company’s pay scale. He found a spacious older house on Mikawa Bay and was driving up to Nagoya to put in approximately 20 hours of teaching each week.

In addition to teaching English, he was doing a bit of grill cooking at a small restaurant run by an American, and he claims he was pulling down another 300,000 yen a month–a handsome chunk of money–as a carpenter’s helper installing aluminum siding on houses. His stories about the money he was making were undoubtedly embellished, but it is a fact that he was beginning to enjoy a comfortable life. He’d even allowed himself get serious about a woman. It surprised all of us when he abruptly left, though as it turned out a couple of years later, he was not yet done with Japan. Other stories for other times, perhaps.

For now, he went back to his hometown in upstate New York, confident he’d left a bridge or two unburned there and certain he could get a good job. The year was 1991, so Cass was about 38. Unfortunately it turned out that the most agreeable employment he could procure was as a temporary with Kelly Secretarial Services. Cass became a “Kelly Girl.” Through their agency, he landed a job in a Metro Life Insurance mailroom where he was tasked with heaving heavy bags of correspondence around between stints at a computer typing in clients’ addresses. For this, he earned the not-very-princely sum of five dollars an hour which, if you do the math, you’ll see works out to an annual salary of… next to nothing. To supplement his income, he signed up with the local navy reserve unit, and thus one weekend each month allowed himself to be subjected to whatever his commanding officer considered to be a worthwhile use of time.

He was building a frail house of cards and it came crashing down when, while on military maneuvers in the woods with his navy reserve unit (?!), he tore up his ankle. So much for his career throwing around mail bags. The navy paid for reconstructive surgery and gave him a few thousand dollars in compensation. After that, he returned to Japan, married the woman mentioned above, and used his navy settlement money to help her open a bar and grill.

None of it lasted…

…I had known Cass in better times. Jet black hair, broad shoulders, slightly raised cheekbones and strong, steady hands, he was older than me and always in control. He knew more than I did, important things about literature, about drinking, about life. The first time my wife Maki met him, which was long before I met her, he impressed her as being among that dying breed we used to call “a gentleman.”

I can’t remember which lake it was, but midwinter while we were serving aboard the USS Blue Ridge, Cass and I traveled to one of the five lakes that form a loose semi-circle around Mount Fuji. We didn’t do much. We just went up to be off the ship and to look around. It snowed almost the entire time we were there, big, feathery pieces of frozen down and the lake itself was locked beneath a solid white blanket. Fishermen were cutting holes in the ice and jigging for smelt. Lucky ones were occasionally pulling out a trout.

We stayed in a minshuku, a small, family-run inn Cass had booked. From the inn we walked the mile or two along a mountain road into the local village, the name of which, like the lake, I have long since forgotten. Along the way we slid open the wood and glass door of a tiny restaurant, ducked our heads and went inside for a bowl of hot noodles and a broiled fish. The proprietress seemed surprised at a couple of foreigners, but she smiled and with a kerosene heater stoking the room it was a good place to warm up. After the meal we settled the bill, went back out into the snow and the calm, and continued walking and talking, our misty breaths hanging in the winter air. Eventually we managed to find a bar.

It had been good, just to be out walking in the snow with more coming down, smoking cigarettes and talking about the navy, the future, writers we liked, and life in Japan.

Cass chose the bar.

I’m probably misremembering it, have probably made it more than it actually was. But I recall that it was up on the second floor of a building facing the village’s lightly traveled main street. We took seats at the end of the bar, and from a picture window spanning most of a wall to our right we could see the lights of the streets, other businesses and further out houses, the frozen lake illuminated in those lights. It was a good place to drink.

Two young women were working there. I didn’t know much Japanese, but it was clear that they were talking about Cass, and I didn’t need any language to know they were discussing what a sharp figure he cut. I was a little jealous. And I was proud of him. I was proud to be his friend and honored that we were up in that bar together, enjoying the Scotch and the cigarettes and the warmth and the good conversation while snow piled up outside.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had maybe a handful of thoroughly perfect days, and that was one of them. It was late by the time the bar closed. By now the snow had stopped and our heads cleared in the crisp winter air as we began walking up the street toward the inn.

Close to the village the lake was still lighted by street lamps. Ice skaters decked in colorful parkas, scarves and hats had shoveled the snow off of a cove, their soft voices, gentle laughter and the click and glide of their metal skates on ice clean and quiet against the night. A cab pulled up next to us, snow crunching under its tires. The rear door swung open and we decided to make it easy on ourselves. The driver turned toward us and spoke. Cass stated the name of the minshuku, the driver replied with a sharp hai, nodded and began driving.

Back in our room we had another drink and then crawled into our futons. For awhile we talked about the evening, the bar, the young women working there, the possibility of coming back in spring to fish the lake. Eventually the conversation drifted into musings about what our lives would look like when our enlistments were up, pleasant thoughts. Pleasant dreams.

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You know how it is. The scent of kerosene, the little song a tent zipper makes, even, perhaps, a specific slant of light… There is a certain music a frozen boardwalk makes as you walk along it that, I understand now, will always transport me back to Chignik Lake, and I cannot take in the aroma of a sweet potato baking without finding myself in the home where Maki grew up, an image of her mother bustling about in the kitchen. Our minds contain synapses wired to memories that the slightest touchstone can trigger…

And so it was yesterday as I was rereading the story above. Our iPod was plugged into a brick-sized Bose speaker next to my desk. I was mostly ignoring the music until a rendition of a well-known song in which the dulcet tones of Chris Botti’s trumpet accompanied Mark Knopfler’s vocals. I broke from my reading to listen, not sure why this particular song was holding me until Knopfler came to a gentle line that flooded over me and took me back to a place and a day and a small moment in that day…

…Maki was early in her pregnancy with Maia and the English language company I’d been gainfully employed with chose that juncture in my life to close its doors, dismiss all employed there, and leave me frustrated, angry and a bit desperate. It was August, hot as blazes by mid-morning and humid enough to make every stitch of clothing down to my socks uncomfortable… Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty as I pounded the streets of Tokyo in a damp t-shirt and cloying tie and jacket.

Doors close. Doors open. That’s the only way to look at such matters, so I had set my sights high, determined to turn my situation into an opportunity to make more money for less work with a better company.

Two interviews the previous day had gone only so-so. Maybe I’d get an offer in a day or two. Maybe I wouldn’t. But it was a new day and in the morning’s final hour I was walking out the door from an interview with the best of the three companies where I’d been offered a position on the spot. Half the hours, a shorter work year, more pay and they were even willing to spring for an apartment on the shores of one of Japan’s top bass-fishing venues.

In that instant, the interviews and outcomes from the previous day became irrelevant. I shook hands, first with the owner, then with the head teacher, then all around.

Head up. One foot in front of the other. Keep at it. Sometimes things work out.

It was broiling hot and I could imagine – and could imagine I could feel – the grime accumulating around the inside of the collar of my white cotton shirt as I followed the crowded sidewalk back to the subway station. But as the weight from the recent days lifted, I began feeling high. I needed a drink, just to get straight.

I ducked into a modestly sized establishment and stood for a moment in the air-conditioned comfort of the place while my eyes took in a clean room of unoccupied wooden chairs and tables. It was pleasant.

A woman appeared. My Japanese was barely sufficient to make out that she wouldn’t be serving food until later.

I fumbled around for the vocabulary to convey that that was OK, that I just wanted a beer.

She motioned with her hand that the seat was my choice.

Sometimes I think that I never loved Maki, but when I think of that day, I’m reminded that I did, very much, though not in the way I allowed myself to love Jane and, later, to love and be loved by Barbra.

I didn’t know very much about any of that back then. But I loved Maki and I was glad to have good news to bring to her. I knew she’d be proud of me, and relieved, and happy for me for the part about the fishing.

As the first beer began to even me out, I pulled a pen from my briefcase and began writing on a paper napkin. I don’t remember what I wrote… probably a few lines of poetry. When I finished the first beer, I motioned for another and in short order a second big, icy mug of Kirin lager was set before me. Those were the two best beers of my life.

It felt good to be drinking late in the morning, everyone else at work, dealing with the heat and schedules and people. Drinking like that is a kind of freedom I suspect few people are permitted – or permit themselves – to enjoy. I was lucky. I knew I was lucky.

Music began playing quietly through speakers situated around the restaurant. I put my pen down and let it wash over me – all of it, the pleasant alcohol buzz, the music, the coolness, the new job, marriage, a baby on the way. It might sound strange, but I barely knew Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Suddenly I was aware of it playing in the background. When he sang the lines…

I see friends shaking hands, saying, How do you do?
They’re really saying, I love you.

…I thought of Cass. My father had told me about the importance of a good handshake. He had even shown me how to do it with a firm grip and solid eye contact in a formal manner.

But it was Cass who taught me how to shake hands in friendship. Same firm grip my father had instructed me in, same importance placed on eye contact. But all of it allowed to linger an immeasurable moment longer, and all the shoulders-held-high breath-sucked-in formality dispelled with.

In Cass’s teaching, you simply let go. You offered a hand, or took a hand offered, you shook, and you permitted yourself to express sentiments such as “Good to see you.” “Good to be talking with you.” Good to be drinking with you.” and “Friend.”

He had moved beyond the transactional formula men are taught as boys and replaced it with art… something to be experienced, felt, moved by. There were times when I thought of Cass as a genius, or at at the very least of possessing within him genius. I was not alone in this thinking. I doubt any friend of Cass’s experienced one of his handshakes and ever again thought of the thing as he had BC… Before Cass.

He taught me how to shake hands, and how to drink whiskey, and he had been the first person with whom it was satisfying to discuss literature, and dreams. I found myself thinking that among all the people I knew or had ever known, he would appreciate the moment I was in – drinking early in a cool bar on a beastly hot day, free, for a little while, alone… happily, gloriously alone, the future unknown, unknowable, promising, bright.

My friend… Cass.

What we need is not the ability to live longer. What we need is the ability to live multiple lives simultaneously.              – Cass C. Swider, c. 1953 – 2020

JD
Newhalen, Alaska