“Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” ~F. Scott Fitzgerald
“I may be a living legend, but that sure don’t help when I’ve got to change a flat tire.” ~ Roy Orbison
“Hero, hero,” the energetic cries bellowed one after another, becoming louder and more passionate with each verbalization! The herd of Japanese kids were beaming smiles at me as I stood up, overly appreciative for apparently saving their very lives. Or so it would seem from their reaction to the drama that unfolded over the last ten minutes. Yes, this was the day I had waited so long for. This was the day that never came over 20 years and multiple wars serving in the military. This was the day, finally, when I became a treasured National Hero…of Japan.
“Everyday people do Everyday things but I can’t be one of them
I know you hear me now We are a different kind We can do anything
We could be heroes Me and you”
Hero defined (dictionary.com): a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for brave deeds and noble qualities; a person who, in the opinion of others, has heroic qualities or has performed a heroic act and is regarded as a model or ideal, as in “He was a local hero when he saved the drowning child.”
Or, in my case, when I changed a flat tire.
No, no, no, not YOU too! Please, you’re embarrassing me. Really, it was nothing; just doin’ what any red-blooded American manly male would do. Really, nothing. There was no danger. Well, there was a LITTLE danger (wink), but hey, I put a brave face on and trudged through it. There was this family’s touristy agenda at stake, the very fate of their vacation hung in the teetering balance of the car on its jack….
I had arrived at an Okinawan divesite and popular tourist destination called Maeda Point. It is one of those iconic south Pacific island spots which provides a cliff-high scenic overlook of inviting blue ocean waters unable to hide the mysterious subtropical reef just below. In the last decade the Okinawans have gone to great lengths to make this site much more accessible, and thus throngs of mainland Japanese come here to take guided snorkeling and scuba diving jaunts into the sea.
I call these tourists, or at least the females of the bunch, “Misa Misas” after the bubbling-over cute but amazingly shallow female character Misa Amane in the popular anime series Death Note (see the embedded video below and Japan Hub’s ranking of anime for Americans). These female Japanese mainlanders seem to lose much of their emotional control on Okinawa in a way that may be slightly reminiscent of “What goes on in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” At least when they are swimming at Maeda Point, it seems. They shriek, they cover their mouths when they giggle (and they giggle all the time), and all seem to be wearing pig tails, better known as “twin tails” in Japan, as they crowd the waters that scuba divers covet.
I had parked next to a small Okinawa rental car which had been backed into its parking spot. In it was a younger, attractive woman at the wheel, but as I parked my truck, I noticed that her rear passenger tire was flat. Like completely done. Kaput. I struggled with what to do.
Not wanting her to think some barely dressed American was hitting on her (I was set to go diving; the Japanese are very proper about covering up), I at first thought that maybe she would figure it out on her own. But then I spied the baby car seat in the back, and knew right away that I had to get involved.
Moving over to the passenger window, I got her attention. She remotely lowered the passenger side electrically controlled window, and I attempted to speak with my friendliest non-threatening, uncreepy smile I could muster, “Sumimasen!” (excuse or pardon me). “Flat tire,” I continued as I pointed to the problem.
I’m not sure if she understood, but she understood enough to get out of the car and come over to my side. She gasped when she saw the problem, and took my hands in hers in a gesture of thanks, all the while mumbling exasperations in Japanese. She immediately shouted to a few people nearby in the parking lot, and returned to the driver’s seat with her cell phone already at her ear.
I walked away thinking that my involvement was over. I started to prep my scuba gear for the upcoming dives; all my student divers were late due to a bad traffic accident on the roads leading to this relatively out-of-the-way site. Which got me thinking even more about this woman and her baby attempting to drive away to some uncertain fate that I had a chance of affecting for the better.
I kept one ear on the group, now much larger since an oodles of kids had shown up, and glanced at their goings on. It appeared that Mrs. Flat was visiting Maeda with Mrs. Mom driving another nearby car, and both had what appeared to be a small tribe of kids in tow between them. Seriously, something like 8 kids (and those were just the ambulatory ones), and not a man or boy in sight. Even the Japanese snorkeling concession they were utilizing for their aquatic adventures could only muster the slightest of a man-child, who obviously either didn’t know the first thing about car tires, or didn’t want to get involved.
“Okay,” the inner voice starts in my head, “you’ve got to do something to help.” I hesitate again. There is a precarious relationship between the US military presence in Japan – especially on Okinawa – and the locals. But the powers that be – the US and Japanese governments – will have you believe it is much more caustic than it is in reality. In fact, I have never once had an issue in Okinawa in the seven years I’ve spent here, although I have been “uninvited” from bars up in Honshu…. I debated whether they would eagerly accept my help, or maybe read a darker side into my forwardness. I elected to play ambassador, but more so, to just be a good neighbor.
I walked over and inquired about a “spare tire” as it seemed they were searching the victim car for one. And from that point on, anything I said in English the kids would energetically repeat. “Spare, spare…spare tire, tire, spare….SPARE!” And not just two or three times. Again and again and again! I doubt they knew much meaning behind the words, but they were happy to be speaking English – even if just phonetically – in a very real context.
But there was no spare! There was a jack and a lug wrench, and even a place for a spare, but no tire. Many of the smaller Japanese cars don’t carry one, but instead carry a can of “fix-a-flat” tire inflation gas/fluid. None of that either. I even checked under the back seat and under the rear of the car to make sure. “No spare,” I muttered astonishingly….
“NO SPARE NO SPARE NO SPARE,” came the misplaced excited replies, like it was a good thing. I smile at the kids and even patted one of the smaller ones on the head, thinking of just how wonderful the innocence of youth is as a treasure that just can’t be valued by the young properly in the those youthful moments.
I ask about her friend’s car. “Spare,” I questioned as I pointed in that car’s direction. Mrs. Mom understands and has her hatchback open in no time. “Aaaaahhhhhhhhh, SPARE-O,” comes her excited reply. That’s all I need to start to get out the tools of the tire-changing trade and arrange them at the ready.
Kids are so wonderful, no matter where you find yourself in the world. Non-judgmental, accepting, sponges for knowledge, and awestruck with the wonders of everyday life, they are so easy to engage and communicate with. They huddle around the tire as I ready everything for the change.
“Parking brake?” I question Mrs. Flat. She doesn’t understand. I approach the passenger side door, wary of making anyone uncomfortable with the baby asleep in the back seat. I mime to open the door to which she offers her eager yet nonverbal consent. I pull the parking brake up and on, stating (for the record and the enjoyment of the kids present), “Parking Brake!”
“PAW-KING BREAK, paking brake, parking brek,” the replies sound again.
I move back and start with the tool phase of the process, more properly referred to as the “Oooohs and Aaaahs” of the change. Each time I manipulated a tool against automobile structure, at least a baker’s dozen “oohs” and a healthy pint of “aahs” sounded. I began to feel almost superhuman at this point with such audience participation.
Trying to keep my language to a unrepeatable minimum, I start to show how things work and fit together. I demonstrate how the jack-screw raises the scissors of the jack lift.
I showed how to place the lifting portion of the jack against the notch in the car’s frame.
I took the flathead portion of the lug wrench and wrangled off the cheap plastic hub cap, giving it to one of the nearby children to examine firsthand.
But now came the strongman show of this circus. There were only 4 nuts holding the tire on, but of course each was most likely tightened into place with a pneumatic torque socket. It takes a little force to break that grip, and I used my body weight to help loosen the nuts in turn. Pushing on the first I barely grunt under my breath, just as the nut starts to give way with a metallic crunch.
But now there’s an audible change: “Gentleman!” The word spreads like a Santa Anna wind-blown wild fire in a California drought. Gentleman: A chivalrous, courteous, or honorable man; a man of good social position, especially one of wealth and leisure. I may lack social status and the wealth of the top 5% of Americans, but my leisurely actions of the day were no doubt courteous and chivalrous. Nonetheless, I smile, somewhat embarrassingly, turning a bit red as the accolades only continue.
Repeat that sequence three more times and the flat is off in a jiffy. I quickly rotate the tread examining it for damage, and find a nice shiny screw completely imbedded in the tire, having entered on the inner side of one of the tread channels.
“EEEEEEEEEEEH,” came the exasperated replies from the only two drivers of the gang.
I place the spare on the bolts and hand-tighten the nuts into place. I mimic how you must tighten bolts in an X-pattern to ensure the right fit and ride, and then I’m back into superhuman character, tightening the bolts into place using my body weight and muscle power against the lug wrench’s resistance.
The tire is back on. I lower the car and the suspension accepts the replacement without question or complaint. I pull the jack and tools and stand up to look Mrs. Flat in the eye. “Small tire,” I say as I mime motions for small. “Drive slow,” I say as I mimic the hand signal, at least in motorcycles and diving, for slow. And just to be cautious, I end with “Be safe” while smiling, embarrassed at the unearned and unnecessary accolades I was receiving.
I was also a Mathlete Calculus Hero in High School, and had I been Val Kilmer and/or an Astronaut, I would have used math to save lives….
And with that my characterization of “gentleman” takes a light-year leap and becomes “hero.” I am proclaimed by all present, particularly the tween and teen-aged girls, as their “hero.” Over and over as I politely reject such a label, you know, for changing a tire!
Okay, seriously, “hero” is a word that EVERYONE uses way too often, all too easily. I’m sorry America, you are not a hero for putting a uniform on. You are no hero if something bad just happens to you while wearing said uniform. Underpaid teachers and non-profit volunteers are wonderful people who literally weave the fabric of our society, but they are not heroes. The idea and label of “hero” should be reserved for the very few that deserve it, and it should be held back for those esteemed occasions where it could/can be applied with great effect. Tire-changing is not one of them.
Each of the Japanese gang of Misa Misas came up and thanked me, some in Japanese, and others in English. They all took my hands. “Hero” was a word said often, and each time I politely rejected the very notion, smiling but shaking my hand “no” rather emphatically. Pictures were taken with various cell phones, me towering over the group, with my arms around them and hands shooting double peace signs so ubiquitous in Japan. I so uncomfortable with becoming a Japanese National Hero that I didn’t ask for the photos to be sent to me, but by now surely there’s been a monument erected in my honor in the group’s hometown. Perhaps a proudly chiseled (and buff) statue. Or a play-park full of tires.
And to complete the celebratory spirit of the afternoon, as the group were leaving the parking area, the thanks continued. The kids – I mean all of them – had their heads stuffed out every open window of both cars, waving and yelling their thanks and my newfound title of “hero.” The cars move away, but stall waiting to pay for parking at the exit gate. Oh boy, even more time for the Japanese to thank me is this most uncomfortable way. “Thank You Hero…Gentleman…HERO!” It continues, but now being yelled across the entire parking lot at Maeda Point. I wave nonchalantly, trying to downplay my overblown role in their lives. And then, as the cars exit the area and drive away down the road leading away, the yells of “Hero” and “Gentleman” turns to screams of “Goodbye” and “Thank You!”