Death on the far side of the world

Published 7:01 am Saturday, April 4, 2020

This tale is true. I should know for it happened to me. Here is my story as I told it in “Potato In A Rice Bowl,” my memoir of our early life in Japan.

Never in the farthest reaches of my mind did I ever imagine I would one day die on the other side of the world. That I would die in water on the other side of the world. And, yet, that is exactly what I was doing. Mind you, it wasn’t by choice for I dreaded water. Still there I was the 24-year-old mother of two wee boys, 6,718 miles from home, and sinking into the unfathomable depths of an ocean.

The turbulent waves curled around me like the gripping fingers of a sea serpent, sinuously grasping and repeatedly pulling me under. Over and over I frantically rose only to sink again as the winds and water and wreckage thrashed about me. How utterly insignificant was I in that illimitable expanse of ocean swells, no more obvious to another human being than is a single “i” dot on an enormous billboard crammed with writing.

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Drowning had not been part of my plan. And yet, what was I to do? Concentrate! Yes, that was it. So, while the serpent momentarily rested, allowing me to gulp for air, I thought of my two little boys waiting for their mommy and daddy’s return. What if we didn’t survive? Would the Japanese babysitter wait for my parents to come from the other side of the world? Or would she go home at suppertime as I had promised?

Surely, surely she would never abandon our children, would she? Our boys were so young — Jeff just two and Matt barely weaned. “Please,” I chanted to her soul in breathless hopeful gasps, “stay until Gramma and Grampa can get here. Stay! Stay!” But I knew all too well that Japan was as far away as a place could be from Austin, Minnesota, half the circumference of the earth.

It had all begun so simply, so predictably—not in the least bit scary … or wet! In the spring of 1962, Glen graduated with a major in Asia Studies from the University of Colorado. The tassel on his mortarboard had barely flipped when he was hired by the Intelligence Branch of the U.S. Army. Four months later we were in Tokyo.

We were hardly settled when Glen accepted an invitation to go sailing in Tokyo Bay on a 21’ catamaran which belonged to our new friend, Gordon. It was a boat that set Glen’s heart to palpitating; one which for all the covetous thumps in his chest was realistically a bejillion heartbeats away. “Oh, what a perfect chance,” marveled Glen, “to introduce Peggy to the glories of sailing!” Just as he loved the exhilaration of racing across the tempestuous seas, he was certain I would, too. But, if truth be told, I dreaded the thought with all the bejillion beats of my heart. To me it was the definition of insanity. I must have been out of my mind to have gone. But, who wants to be the skunk at the picnic, so tremulously I agreed.

The moment I laid eyes on that boat I knew I had gone stark raving mental. There it sat in a huge bay opening out to the ocean. Until then my only frame of water reference was the East Side Lake in Austin where you could almost throw a can of Spam from one side to the other. In Austin, we did think that was an ocean. You know them—the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the East Side Lake Oceans.

I soon realized that I would not be sitting down in the boat, but rather perched on top of the hull. How lucky could I be? It was like this. Gordon’s catamaran, an Australian design, was built with twin hulls held together by two crossbeams. Before I knew it, I, like a hopelessly deranged numb skull, was deposited on top of the wooden platform that straddled those hulls. There was nothing—not a handle, not a rope, not Glen’s hand—to hold onto. Why, oh, why had my prefrontal cortex left me when I needed it most?

In Latin there is a proverb which says, “Be on your guard against a silent dog and still water.” That morning the perfectly mirrored surface of Tokyo Bay gave me no clues of either. Even so, as quiet and serene as things were in those early morning hours, I still couldn’t believe I was going along with the craziness. My innards were mush, my mind a storm of panic.

Unlike us, Gordon was as free as a bird. After all, he was an un-tethered bachelor with no accountability to anyone. In contrast, Glen and I were inordinately tethered. Our ties and responsibilities to our two small boys were stupefying. But, I couldn’t dwell on that now for the winds had suddenly picked up fully ballooning the sails as we began to fly across the immensity of Tokyo Bay.

(To be continued.)