Death on the other side of the world
Part 5: True account from Peggy’s memoir, “Potato In A Rice Bowl”
Submerged up to my chin in the fathomless waters of Tokyo Bay, I remained in disbelief, lost in my devastation for what seemed an eternity. To be sure, all sense of time had been lost along with the ship that had just abandoned us. By now another two hours had surely passed, although it could have been ten. The truth was that a count of minutes didn’t much matter to me in our vulnerable circumstances. Much more important was how long I would be able to continue holding onto the neck of the life jacket with my finger tips.
Time crawled by. Then all at once I heard a muffled shout. “Ship! Ship!” Gordon was yelling. Struggling with all my might—you cannot imagine how much of my waning strength it took—I again slowly, painfully hoisted myself upward. Sure enough, there it was. No mistaking it. Another ship was bearing straight down on us.
We waited, waited, waited. Slowly it drew near. As the ship came up beside us, I realized for the first time just how tiny we were in those ocean swells.. Next to us it looked like a floating Empire State Building. Its metal side loomed above and across our field of vision, blocking out everything beyond it. To be sure, I would never have guessed that one of the most beautiful sights I would ever see would be a wet, gunmetal gray, steel wall.
As best it could, the ship stopped and chugged in place. I could see men way up at the distant top railing peering down at us. From my vantage point, they looked like toy figures scurrying about. But, trust me, they were much more than toys. They were heaven sent theophanies: ordinary men who appeared to me as gods. Before we knew it, the men/gods lowered something over the towering side of the hull; something tied to a thick rope. In slow motion it descended. As it came closer to the water I could see it was a very long wooden ladder.
Glen, grabbing from one piece of wreckage to another, made his way over to me. I was to be the first one up. There was no time to feel anything. My mission was to somehow, in the heavy waves, get myself over to the ladder. Glen snatched hold of my vest and towed me through the waves. As we neared the ladder, we both realized, to our dread, that it had not sunk upright into the water. Rather, because it was made of wood, the ladder was now bobbing and whipping about on top of the rough seas.
Exhausted, I once again sunk deep into my saturated trap. It did not seem possible that I could hoist both my body and the immense weight of my unwieldy life jacket up onto the rungs of this floating stairway. Salvation lay before me and I didn’t know how in the world I could grasp hold of it
All at once I felt Glen drag me through the water and over to the ladder. Next he dove under me and with all his fortitude shoved me out of the water up to the bottom rung. With Herculean strength—the kind of adrenaline-fed energy that kicks in during an emergency when the rescuer learns afterwards of his astonishing surge of power—he had lifted me up to the ladder.
With the waves churning around me, still deep in the life jacket and unable to see, I felt the bottom rung with my fingertips and grabbed it, clinging with all my might. My deliverance would depend entirely on my ability to hold on. Hold on until this heavy ladder, with me hanging from it, reached the men way, way, way up at the top.
In excruciating, faltering motion, I blindly sensed myself being hoisted out of the churning seas. As the ladder left the water, I felt a sudden sharp jerk downward. My body weight, along with my wet clothes and the ponderous albatross I was encased in, were all pulling together against the grasp of my fingers. Somehow, somehow, I would have to hold on.
The movement upward was interminable. Inch by inch the men, the gods, raised me skyward. Unable to see, I was being pulled up the side of a sky scraper to the very top penthouse floor while at the same time fighting the raging wind and rain that tore at me from all directions.
Then all at once I sensed the angle of the ladder shift from vertical to horizontal, followed by the feel of many toughened hands grabbing hold of me. As my body tilted over the railing and onto the deck, I blacked out. No longer needing to do anything, anyway, anymore, and without being aware, I had given myself permission to blissfully slip into unconsciousness.
The next thing I remember was being carried across the deck, then descending a narrow iron staircase and finally being laid down in a small passageway outside of a room. Many hands were removing my life jacket. And then my tennis shoes?
Huh? My tennis shoes?
There I lay puzzling over what had just happened. What was the deal with my shoes? Then, with no sense of how much time had elapsed, I was carried into a cabin and laid upon a rice straw mat beside Glen and Gordon who had been pulled out of the water after me.
Even in that befuddled, depleted state, I was still able to catch the irony of what had just happened. No matter that our clothes were soaking wet and thoroughly ruining the tatami mats beneath us, or that our tennis shoes were immaculately antiseptic after an extended soaking in salt water, we had just been rescued by a Japanese ship. And in Japan shoes were always ALWAYS removed before entering a room!
(The conclusion next.)