Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC (Ret.), Departed


“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”  ~ General Douglas MacArthur’s speech before the joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951

uncle-colonel-bob

Uncle & Colonel Bob

My Uncle, Robert M. Stowers, Col, USMC (Ret.), Marine Corps Serial Number (MCSN): 0-47681, just such an old soldier; hopefully this testament will attempt to slow some of the fade.

My Uncle Bob would have been 91 years old this week.  But old age in 2005 finally did what two wars and 33 years of military service couldn’t…..  One of the most prominent figures and role models in my life, it’s high time I pay tribute to this man, my Uncle, the fighter pilot, a prototypical Marine, an officer and gentlemen, and give him the respect – and affection – that he so richly deserves.

One of my earliest memories of childhood, sometime in the very early 1970s, involved airplanes, and I believe to this day was an experience that set me on the path which I followed for the next 35 or so years.  My Uncle Bob, then a full-bird Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, flew into Coast Guard Station Miami (Opa Locka airport), in what I believe was a T-28 Trojan, the manly radially-powered basic flight trainer of the time for the Navy-Marine Corps team.

Marine Corps T-28 Trojan

The first thing I can tell you about that day was the way my Uncle was met, treated, and respected by those around him.  It was evident, to even a small child, that this was a man of some import, someone who’s confident presence seemed to seep from his very pores.  My brother Boyd adds that we found ourselves in a restricted area of the base, walking around the flight line ramp looking at the aircraft parked there.  Security rushed up at one point to chase us away (or worse), but when they found out we were waiting for Colonel Stowers, we ended up being treated like VIPs!  In the end, there was ground crew waiting, a car and driver, and salutes all around.

T-28 Trojan Cockpit

T-28 Trojan Cockpit

The second thing, and really the last thing I recall of that day, was of being placed into the seat of the cockpit, where I was much too small to even think of seeing over the instrument panel.  Seeing the orderly array of “steam gauges,” along with the plethora of switches and levers was enough to awe-inspire a young boy, already inspired by the then vibrant space program in our country.  But then I’m pretty sure my Uncle reached over and turned on the aircraft’s power (battery).  Immediately the aircraft was possessed with life, with lights flashing on, while some instruments started their slow precession to operation with hums, hisses and whirls.  I distinctly remember Colonel Stowers hitting the annunciator “press-to-test,” a button that causes all the warning lights in the cockpit to come on for pre-flight checks….

t-28-trojan

T-28 Trojan, one of the last of our Radial Engine Aircraft

This event, probably something my Uncle thought would entertain a young boy for a few moments, has had a lasting impact on my entire life.  It would be a little facetious to claim that as such a small child I decided right then, right there to fly combat aircraft in the military.  But I am going to claim away!

I was even more surrounded by aviation.  My oldest sister Jan married a Vietnam War vet who came home in 1970 after two years of intense combat in-country, as good as I can remember it.  Harvey was a door gunner in the Navy’s newly established gunship attack helicopters (HAL-3, Helicopter Attack Light) flying Hueys (actually the UH-1 Iroquois) tasked with supporting from forward operating bases various Special Forces.  Another more direct linkage to flying was through my brother, 8 or 9 years older than I am depending on what time of year you consider.  Boyd was dead-set intent on becoming a pilot, and was flying when I was in grade school, which means I was flying in grade school!  Needless to say I go pretty good flying IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) since I couldn’t even see over the dash at the time.

But it all traces back to my Uncle.  So, who was this man, and how did he continue to shape my life as I grew, matured, and attempted to follow in many of his footsteps?

My Uncle in the late 40s or early 50s. I too have a Harley Springer today!

My Uncle in the late 40s or early 50s. I too have a Harley Springer today!

Uncle Bob as a Baby

Uncle Bob as a Baby

Robert M. Stowers was born on October 16, 1925, in California, and enlisted as soon as he (legally) could in the Volunteer Naval Reserve V-5 Naval Aviation Cadet (NAVCAD) program in 1943 right smack dab in the middle of World War II.  This program was a way to quickly generate many more aviators for the fleet, far more than the Academy and ROTC could provide at the time, in a crash attempt to meet the demands of world war.  Bachelor’s degrees were waived, but cadets were required to complete one within six years to keep their commission.  Basic service and flight training generally lasted 18 months, where candidates had to agree to not marry and serve for at least three years on active duty.  In comparison, today’s obligations for military pilots can range up to 12 years (from wings), but then again, we can marry anytime we want…although we are still highly discourage during flight training and don’t expect any leave for a honeymoon!

SNJ Trainer in the 1940s

SNJ Trainer in the 1940s

Following some college, he went to US Navy Flight Preparation School at Cal Poly starting in June 1944, then to St. Mary’s College Pre-Flight program (California), and finally to Navy Primary Flight Training at Naval Air Station (NAS) Glenview, located in the suburbs of then Chicago.  I can only imagine the aircraft he had the pleasure to fly; most likely the N2S “Yellow Peril” (a militarized Boeing Stearman), and quite possibly the SNJ (navalized T-6 Texan).  He completed flight training at NAS Corpus Christi (Texas), then the largest naval aviation training facility in the world most likely flying the T-28 Trojan, and reported directly to the US Marine Corps Officer Candidate Class.  After completion, he was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, on March 20, 1946.

Navy N2S Yellow Peril at NAS Corpus Christi, 1943

Navy N2S Yellow Peril at NAS Corpus Christi, 1943

There’s a pretty interesting and somewhat unlikely intersection here concerning my Uncle’s flight training.  From 2008-2011, I worked for the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, the economic engine supporting the Navy’s National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.  I happened to be talking to one of the people that work on archiving material in the museum’s warehouse, and mentioned that my Uncle had gone through flight training back in the 1940s.  He asked for Bob’s full name, and approximately what year he would have gone through, and noted that the museum had literally tons of historical paper documents stored away.  He would see if he could find my Uncle’s records.  A few days later, I returned to my office at the Foundation, and sitting there atop my desk, were a set of old, discolored yet official-looking folders.  Upon examination, indeed my Uncles flight training records had been retrieved, now in my hands.  These records are not with me as I write this from Okinawa, Japan, so regrettably I can’t quote.  But, I will tell a secret:  my Uncle actually didn’t do so well as a flight student!  He made up for it in combat, though, as one shall see.

NAS Miami (Opa Locka) in 1947

NAS Miami (Opa Locka) in 1947

VMF-222 Patch

VMF-222 Patch

After F-4U Corsair operational training at NAS Miami, now Opa Locka airport, and Carrier Qualification training at NAS Pensacola, Florida, on either the USS Ranger (CV-4) or the USS Saipan (CVL-48), or perhaps both, he was assigned to 2nd MAW (Marine Air Wing) at MCAS (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry Point (North Carolina).  The Corsair was still a preeminent front-line fighter of the time, powerful and heavily-armed, and carrier-capable, as rudimentary jet-engined aircraft were only just starting to be produced in 1945-1946.  He served a truncated tour with “The Flying Deuces” of Marine Fighting Squadron 222 (VMF-222) flying Corsairs, but as part of the massive reduction in force in the post-World War II years, he was assigned to the reserves starting in August 1947, where he continued to fly Corsairs at NAS Los Alamitos, California.

Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria

Uncle Bob and Aunt Gloria

Aunt Gloria in 1943

Aunt Gloria in 1943

Somewhere in there, at least the story goes to my recollection, my Uncle Bob met his wife-to-be, my Aunt Gloria, my Mother’s sister, during flight operations.  She worked in the office where the pilots logged in at arrival on NAS Pensacola.  She saw the young and handsome First Lieutenant Stowers and whispered to her girlfriend co-worker that she was going to marry that guy.  It was a long distance relationship though for three years since he was stationed in California.  It turns out that Gloria’s premonition came true, but not without a little prodding.  On one of his trips across the country, an exasperated Gloria put out a friendly ultimatum:  don’t come back unless you’re going to marry me!  He flew back to California, called back and asked, “Can you get a wedding ready in a few weeks?”  “You better believe it!” was her excited response.  And she did.  They married in 1955 at NAS Pensacola in the base chapel that is still there today.

Wedding Day, 1955

Wedding Day, 1955

However, a nasty little policing action, better characterized as the Korean War, intervened.  Bob was recalled to active duty in August 1950 as a result of that conflict, and after refresher training and duty at MCAS El Toro (California), he was posted in June 1951 to Korea.

Corsairs at El Toro, 1949

Corsairs at El Toro, 1949

VMFA-312 "Checkerboards"

VMFA-312 “Checkerboards”

vmf-212_korea_logoThere he flew with the “Checkerboards” of VMF-312, still flying the venerable piston-powered Corsair, where his unit became the first such engined squadron to shoot down an opposing jet aircraft, a North Korean MIG-15, no doubt supplied and even piloted by the Russians.  Bob also served afloat with the “Devil Cats” of VMF-212 aboard the aircraft carrier USS Rendova (CVE-114), experiences of which he would write to me about during my first flying assignment afloat in 1991.

My Uncle Landing on the USS Rendova during the Korean War

My Uncle Landing on the USS Rendova during the Korean War

vmf-212-corsairs-afloatvmf-212-afloatRendova, having been deactivated after WWII, was recommissioned in early 1951 in support of the Korean War effort.  Rendova was an escort carrier of the Commencement Bay-class, displacing 10,900 tons and over 550 feet long, and with a complement of 1,066 Officers and Enlisted, about 1/9th the displacement of today’s supercarriers,  with half the length and about 1/5th the personnel.  In another odd Far East Fling intersection, the ship and her air wing conducted their final training at Okinawa, where I currently reside.  As fantastic as it might seem, she launched her first Close Air Support (CAS) sortie on September 26th, just 4 days after embarking and qualifying the marines of VMF-212!  During the next months she cruised off the west coast of Korea, where the ship and air wing together recorded 1,743 sorties in support of the war.  This time period includes a couple of battles with which many may be familiar:  Heartbreak Ridge and Port Chop Hill.  Rendova completed her last Korea War support operation 6 December 1951.

USS Rendova loaded with Corsairs

USS Rendova loaded with Corsairs

The Blacksheep of VMA-214

Pappy Boyington

Pappy Boyington

Uncle Bob ended his service in Korea with the famous “Black Sheep” of VMF-214, which had traded in their Corsairs for F9F Panther jets, probably the first jet aircraft my Uncle flew.  The “Black Sheep” became famous in the Pacific during WWII, led by rouge and unconventional Marine Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, for inflicting serious damage against what many would say were superior Japanese forces.  In fact, a short-run TV series about their exploits was produced from 1976-1978 called Baa Baa Black Sheep, which I watched without fail.  At an airshow I attended with my Uncle in the 1980s I had the pleasure of meeting “Pappy” Boyington, a man my Uncle knew personally, just before Pappy died from cancer.  In one of the larger displays in his home, my Uncle Bob proudly displayed his over-sized VMF-214 patch, along with a silk scarf adorned with its image.

1st LT Stowers was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his actions during the Korean War.  His citation reads:

dfcThe President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross to First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, for heroism while participating in aerial flight as Pilot of a Fighter Aircraft against the enemy on 3 September 1951. First Lieutenant Stowers as a member in a three-plane flight flew through adverse weather until contact was made with an airborne controller, who directed the flight to two bivouac areas. In spite of extremely low visibility, dangerous terrain and in the face of intense automatic weapons fire, First Lieutenant Stowers made a series of coordinated attacks with napalm, rockets and strafing until all his ammunition was expended and four hundred enemy casualties inflicted. First Lieutenant Stowers’ aggressive leadership and fearless devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Corsairs of 312 afloat on USS Rendova

Corsairs of 312 afloat on USS Rendova

He received a second award for the same medal, and although the full citation cannot be found, the synopsis reads:

First Lieutenant Robert M. Stowers (MCSN: 0-47681), United States Marine Corps, was awarded a Gold Star in lieu of a Second Award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary achievement while participating in aerial flight while serving with a Marine Fighter Squadron, in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea.

Bob and Robbie, c1958

Bob and Robbie, c1958

LSO directing a Landing

LSO Directing a Landing

LSO Paddles

LSO Paddles

fj-2fury-vmf-451-in-1954Following his combat tours in Korea, he served at NAS Pensacola as an LSO (Landing Signal Officer) Carrier Qualification instructor (I remember the worn set of vintage “paddles” he displayed in his home!).  He returned to El Toro assigned to the “Death Rattlers” of VMA-323, fling the F9F Panther and then the F9F Cougar, a swept wing version of the Panther.  Bob was later reassigned to 1st ANGLICO (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company) in Hawaii.

West Coast FJ4Bs of VMF-323

West Coast FJ4Bs of VMF-323

vmf-451vmfa-333-c1975His subsequent duty with the “Warlords” of VMF-451 at Atsugi, Japan, involved flying the FJ-4 Fury and both the day F8U-2 version and night/all-weather F8U-2N versions of the Crusader.  In the early 1960s, he was assigned again to the newly re-designated MCAS Opa Locka, this time with the “Fighting Shamrocks” of VMF-333, still flying the Crusader but transitioning airframes there to the F-4 Phantom II.

Flying the Fury in the 1950s

Flying the Fury as a Warlord in the 1950s

F-4 Phantom of VMFA-333, Cherry Point

F-4 Phantom of VMFA-333, Cherry Point

F9F Panthers

F9F Panthers

F8 Crusaders

F8 Crusaders

I remember talking to him about this time flying in the military.  He recalled that it seemed like they were getting a new airframe every year, and within each year, significant upgrades or even highly modified versions to the ones they already had.  This was before the Navy decided to standardize aircraft operations, and 2-seat trainer versions were seldom available or even built.  He said they literally would get a brief, read what he called a “pamphlet” on the new aircraft, and then simply “kick the tires and light the fires!”  I can only imagine how steep their learning curves were in the 1950s and 60s, a culture of flying so different that what I was experiencing in the highly regimented, more modern Navy Aviation.  In his home in Hollywood after retirement were displayed a large series of aircraft models, reflecting the wide array of aircraft he had the pleasure of flying.  I can recall only the following, although I am for sure omitting some if not many:  the F-4U Corsair, F9F Panther and Cougar, FJ-4 Fury, F-8 Crusader, A-4 Skyhawk, and the venerable F-4 Phantom.

Somewhere along the line he got his Masters in History

Somewhere along the line he got his Masters in History, yet another similarity as I minored in Military History….

as-an-f-8-pilotHe also claimed that his serious hear loss was due to operating with canopies open during takeoff and landings, especially from the aircraft carriers, prior to ejection seats, giving the pilots some chance of escape during cold cats or crashes on landing…WOW.  Becoming a part-owner in a local charter business, Bob and my brother would often fly to the Bahamas.  At the time Uncle Bob was very hard of hearing, and since headsets (with individual volume controls) were still somewhat rare, he would turn the volume on the radio almost all the way up.  But when he wasn’t looking, Boyd would turn the radios back down, and so the flights went, playing tug-of-war with the volume.

F-4B Phantoms of VMFA-513 in 1964

F-4B Phantoms of VMFA-513 in 1964

Following duty in the Pentagon with the National Military Command Center, he commanded the “Flying Nightmares” of VMFA-513 at Cherry Point in 1967-1968 flying F-4Bs.

ta-4f-skyhawk-c1971

TA-4F Skyhawk

vma-513-insigniaThen there was Vietnam.  During that unfortunate conflict, Bob, now a Lieutenant Colonel, deployed in 1968 and flew combat missions in Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms and TA-4F/OA-4M Skyhawks with MAG-11 based at Da Nang Air Base, Vietnam.  In August 1967, the Marine Corps introduced the two-seat TA-4F Skyhawk to combat operations in Vietnam.  Converted into the OA-4M designation (Observation/Attack), the Marine Corps leveraged the aircraft’s good low-level fuel specs, FM radio (for contact with ground units) and excellent rear seat visibility, a combination that resulted in a superb vehicle for Visual Reconnaissance and Tactical Air Coordination, commonly called “Fast-FAC” (Fast Forward Air Control) operations.  Armed with two pods of 5-inch “Zuni” rockets, one each for target marking using smoke and high-explosive, and full 20mm ammunition for the aircrafts twin cannons, the aircraft was an immediate success.  And in 1969, when Bob was overseas and in command of MAG-11’s Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron 11 (H&MS-11), all of the Skyhawks in theater were placed under his charge.  Although I remember my Uncle telling me about his one ride in an A-6 Intruder (my primary platform flown in the Navy) during his time in Vietnam, the Skyhawk was the only airframe we shared as aviators, me having flown the aircraft in Advanced Jet Training at NAS Pensacola in 1989-1990.

LtCol Stower's A-4 in Vietnam

LtCol Stower’s A-4 in Vietnam

As Commanding Officer in Vietnam

As Commanding Officer in Vietnam

TA-4F Skyhawk of HMS-11 in 1969

TA-4F Skyhawk of HMS-11 in 1969

mag-11_insigniaAs Commanding Officer of H&MS-11 from 15 October 1968, LtCol Stowers flew combat missions from Da Nang.  He most likely flew almost daily Skyhawk missions, in addition to other F-4B sorties, many involving then secret strikes in Laos.  At the time, the Skyhawk mission became known by the unit callsign “Playboy,” homage to the F-4U Corsair FastFACs of earlier times in the Korean War, and each pilot was assigned a discrete number.  Bob was “Playboy Pilot #69.”  Normal missions were two-cycle, with airborne refueling in the middle, for an average sortie length of about three hours.  Some Playboys flew three missions per day in the summer of 1969, easily logging over 100 combat flight hours per month.

Serving in Vietnam

Serving in Vietnam

It was during his 15 month deployment to Vietnam that my Aunt Gloria took advantage of an opportunity to be close to family.  Remember, Gloria was my Mother’s sister.  They ended up living a block over in our neighborhood of Ives Estates.  Of course I was only two or three years old, so I have no recollection of this time.

vietnam-1969vietnam-hoochI remember sitting in his home’s living room, an overly long room, terrific for entertaining.  At one end was his wet bar, adorned with most of the military paraphernalia he chose to display.  One evening while I was visiting he got out some old photo albums, and he proceeded to tell me about “some of the crashes” he was involved in.  Some?  One is enough in this modern, zero-defect Navy, and I had NONE.  There were pictures of a bomb-laden A-4 (from what I remember) which had run off the runway and suffered a collapsed main-mount from a high-speed abort on takeoff, always a risky exercise in jet aircraft, let alone one slung with high explosive ordnance.

Fast FAC Mission in Vietnam

Fast FAC Mission in Vietnam

The Playboy’s operating environment was characterized by non-radar, visually acquired and manually tracked antiaircraft weapons fire, so moving low at 200-500 feet above ground level at nearly 400 knots while smoothly maneuvering in three dimensions almost completely negated any potential firing solution.  Skyhawks were in and out of a gunner’s envelope almost before he could react, so they were seldom fired on with any accuracy, and almost never hit.

vietnam

usaf-patch-usafe-cmd-10-accs-squadron-eucom-abn-command-silk-purse-b-pitumblr_inline_mo0hi5pmkt1qz4rgpBob returned to the states in approximately 1970, serving at MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, where I’m sure he flew that Trojan down to Florida and gave me one of my earliest, more prominent memories.  From there he took duty at Headquarters, Marine Corps with the Inspector General’s office.  His final tour was with the European Command’s Airborne Command Post at RAF Mildenhall, England.  In this last tour, Colonel Stowers acted as part of an austere airborne battle staff standing ready 24/7 to assume interim nuclear weapons control authority if European Command’s terrestrial Command Center was destroyed or rendered inoperative in Operation Silk Purse.

Promotion to Full-Bird Colonel 1970

Promotion to Full-Bird Colonel 1970

We visited my Uncle in England during his final tour, when my parents started to travel the world, dragging me along as a very young and impressionable boy.  I remember his huge house being coal heated and located on an old, run-down WWII English airfield, which still had many of its bomb shelters and fighting positions still in place.  We did visit him in his official offices, but those memories are only vaguely recalled, but I remember celebrating the 4th of July there that summer.  The highlight of the trip:  a bat getting caught in the upstairs bedrooms of the home.  A BAT!  Pretty big deal for a boy from bat-less South Florida.

Retirement Medals

Retirement Medals

Robert M. Stowers retired from Active Duty as a full Colonel on July 1st, 1976, 33 years after first enlisting in the military.  In addition to campaign and commendation awards garnered during his long service to country, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Bronze Star, and Five Air Medals, all with Combat “V” for valor under fire in combat.  His post retirement was spent in Hollywood, Florida, and involved flying until the late 1990s in general aviation and air charters, along with almost daily golf outings on the course adjacent to his home.

The Stowers in the mid-70s

The Stowers in the mid-70s

I saw a good deal of my Uncle growing up in South Florida after he retired.  It was about a 30 minute drive to his home from mine, which was the location for many if not most of the larger family gatherings of the late 1970s and 1980s.  I was fairly close to my slightly older cousin Suzanne, and I slept over the Stowers’ house on many weekend.  Having nearly an Olympic size pool (with a waterslide) of course made his home a natural hangout; the sheer size of the place allowed room for even the reception of my brother’s wedding when I was 16 (I think).  Oh, and at that event, hiding behind my Uncle’s full wet bar described above, my best friend Joel and I drank ourselves into a stupor using the ample booze available.  To this day I cannot drink, nor even suffer the smell of a screwdriver!

The Stowers in the mid-80s

The Stowers in the mid-80s

One of the funniest stories involving my Uncle happened during my college years, where I was enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) on scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in upstate New York.  I was in my freshman year, where Midshipmen are treated, well, like the neophytes they are called.  Sometime in September or October that fall, I received an urgent message to report to the “MOI” – the Marine Officer Instructor, some unmemorable Captain.  Changing into uniform and literally running from my dorm to the Armory offices, I knock, uncover and report.  There the MOI and his enlisted henchman “Top” were waiting.  Keep in mind it’s something like 1830 on a week day not normally involved in unit business.

Giving Robbie Away

Giving Robbie Away in 1979

And there ensues a line of questioning, more transmit from the MOI and receive on my part.  He wasted no time in firing for effect:  “Midshipman King, you understand that your vision will preclude you from being a pilot?”  “Yes Sir,” I respond somewhat confusingly.  Of course I know that.  I knew my dreams of being a military pilot, and most likely an astronaut, were ended before they even really ever began when I had to get glasses in grade school.  But I was on “Plan B,” an effort to get as close as I could get:  become a Naval Flight Officer (NFO), and hopefully attempt a transition waiver to pilot and/or astronaut from within as standards were loosened over time.  By the way, today you can have corrective surgery and be pretty much whatever you want….

Bob and Gloria and Bride Robbie

Bob and Gloria and Bride Robbie in 1979

“Midshipman King, you understand that you may have an opportunity to transition to pilot once commissioned, but that there are no guarantees!”, said more as a emphatically factual statement than question.  This time a slight pause…and then a less enthusiastic response from me, “Yes…Sir.”  What was going on here, I thought to myself?  There were probably a couple more statements pretending to be questions, and finally, the tone trailed off, “Midshipman King, do you have any questions?”  I stood there at attention, staring at some Marine Corps “oorah” framed-photo on the wall, seeing those two relatively blankly serious faces staring back at me through my peripheral vision.  “No Sir.”

“Dismissed.”  As quickly as it started, it ended.  I about-faced, marched out of the office, covered, and walked slowly back to my dorm room, thinking that I surely was in trouble for something.  And I can tell you that in the following weeks I held my breath around the MOI and his Master Sergeant, both of whom seemed to very often seek or single me out, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  But it never did….

Uncle Bob in the 90s

Uncle Bob in the 90s

Until I was home that year for Thanksgiving.  Of course being the proud up-and-coming Naval Officer that I was, I was wearing my uniform.  And, in true King fashion, Thanksgiving for the family was held at my Uncle’s palatial residence in Hollywood, Florida.  Seeing my Uncle again and shaking his hand, we chatted about things we always chatted about – planes, flying and the military.  And he happened to mention that the current Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Paul Kelley, was a friend of his.  I think they met in Vietnam and served together later at HQMC.  He went on to state that he asked the General to look after me.  HOLY SHIT!  I was screaming on the inside!  It all suddenly made perfect sense:  the mid-week, after-hours call to duty, the questioning, the impromptu run-ins with the USMC staff at the unit.  Yikes.  I can only imagine how every single staff member at that NROTC unit must have thought, knowing that I had a personal connection to the Marine Corps Commandant after a personal call from him or his office!  Too funny.

By the way, my eyes remained much too bad for any chance of a transition to pilot during my service (20/100 was the cutoff; that’s me times 2 or a little bit more), and the same limit applied to the military’s astronaut program.  I have since had PRK and have 20/20 vision in each eye, but my reading vision is now completely shot.

Uncle Bob at the Turn of the Century

Uncle Bob at the Turn of the Century

My brother Boyd also recalls the type of cool-cookie, seasoned aviator my Uncle had become.  On one charter flight from Miami to Haiti in a twin-engine Cessna 310, Uncle Bob failed to brief Boyd that when at cruising altitude, he was going to switch to the aircraft’s auxiliary fuel tanks which he would let run dry.  He was sitting reading the paper and doing the crossword puzzle (which he would always be doing) while Boyd was hand flying when the right engine started to cough and spurt.  Boyd, being in a small plane over the middle of the ocean, immediately puckered-up and prepared for the worst.  Uncle Bob, however, didn’t even put his paper down or even look away from the crossword puzzle that was subsuming his attention.  He just casually reached down and switched to the main fuel tank, putting life-blood back into the failing engine, restoring it to full functionality.

My cousin Suzanne's Wedding, 1988

My cousin Suzanne’s Wedding, 1988

I think the last time I saw Colonel Stowers in Uniform was at my cousin Suzanne’s wedding in 1988, the year I graduated college, was commissioned in the Navy, got married (and had a baby), and started flight school.  At the time my Aunt Gloria, Bob’s wife, was declining quickly from throat cancer.  I remember attending the wedding and seeing my Uncle, still so very handsome with his close-cropped military hair and penetrating ice-blue eyes.  He was, and always will be, a hero almost larger-than-life.

I didn’t see much of my Uncle after leaving home for flight school in November 1988.  The military has a way of doing that to you.  My Aunt died that year, and at some point my Uncle married a woman we know simply as “Sally.”  And that marriage ended up chilling a large portion of my relationship with Bob (and to a large extent for his kids, or so I’m told).  Sally didn’t seem to care for children, and I had two.  She seemed snooty and unwarm.  Sally and Bob moved into a stuffy, sterile, and much smaller home.  But some shared family holidays and vacations continued.

Pilot with the Warlords

Pilot and Marine Corps Captain with the Warlords

Uncle Bob died on October 23, 2005 at 80 years of age, while I was assigned to Tactical Air Control Squadron 12.  At the time, I was afloat as part of Commander, Amphibious Squadron 11 on the USS Essex (LHD-2), en route to the Northern Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  I don’t even recall my family, being overly reticent about such news, even informing me at the time about his passing.  Not that I could’ve done anything about it.  It was as if he just disappeared into the night for me, one day there, the next day simply not.  He is survived by his son Larry, daughters Roberta “Robbie” Schappert and Suzanne Hogan, and many grandchildren.  His gravestone, found in Fred Hunter’s Hollywood Memorial Gardens North (Section 2, Lot 20), reads:

Robert M. Stowers, COL US MARINE CORPS

WWII KOREA VIETNAM

Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal W/V

gravestone

Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.  Never more apt than for Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC (Ret.).  He will live on forever in the hearts and minds of those he led, touched, and loved.  I am honored to have known such a great man, and hope that one day I’ll find that I have made him equally as proud to have me as his nephew.

Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC

Colonel R.M. Stowers, USMC Retired, Departed

Last “Ticket to Ride!!!!”


“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”  ~ Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher

I got the news a few days ago of the passing of a friend and fellow skydiving brother, Daniel Eric Morgan.  When I first heard, it was via a biker friend of mine through a FaceBook message, and I’ll be honest:  I didn’t even recognize his name, or the connection due to the convoluted path of the message.

But that wholly understates the importance Eric had on my life – and so many others’.  You see, I became known in skydiving circles for shouting “TICKET TO RIDE!!!” in the jump plane as it took off on its climb to altitude so we its passengers could fling ourselves from two miles up in the sky.  People in proximity would often brace for this moment; I often would grab and vehemently shake the person closest to me, or perhaps someone I wished to target on that particular jump.  BUT, truth be told and in full disclosure, Eric was the originator of this phrase – and it will always belong to him.

That notion – of illuminating the charged emotions of a skydive in voice, gesture and motion, captures the very notion of life and living.  Skydivers now this feeling all too well.  That we experience life to the fullest by accepting that death may be just around the corner, or in our case, a mere 50 seconds away….  And it reflects the gregarious nature that Eric would extrude from his very pores at those times when he could be found at the dropzone.

I didn’t know Eric well.  Actually, I didn’t know him really at all.  I probably knew his last name at one time, but over the years, it slipped away.  He was a Navy “bubblehead” veteran of the submarine force, and worked in some IT or technical capacity based on his navy experience and training.  He was a family man, although I can’t even say how many kids he has or whether he was/is currently married or not.  He wasn’t what I would consider a “regular” at Emerald Coast Skydiving Center (ECSC, our home dropzone, now sadly defunct), but when he was around, his charismatic presence was unmistakable.  In a sense, he was a caricature of himself, a zany personality full of smiles and laughter.  Because of this, I came to refer to him as “Crazy Eric.”

I have almost 10,000 photos on my Flickr photostream tagged “skydiving.”  But I can only find a single photo of Crazy Eric.  That makes me sad, but his loss causes an emptiness that I can only really fill by capturing and sharing our intersection, our story.  In this one photo, however, one can gleam all that needs to be known about Eric:  his welcoming smile, kind eyes, and a rig on his back ready to jump.  And clearly, just beneath his calm exterior, that clever grin, ready to exclaim in only the way in which he could, “TICKET TO RIDE!”

Crazy Eric has a TICKET TO RIDE!

Eric’s life indeed can be warmly found in the happy memories of the skydiving family he left behind.

Blue Skies, Black Death My Friend.

Ride on.

V-J Day, Victory over Japan


“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink.” ~An exchange between TSgt Donald Larson and His Girl Dolores

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Young Don and Dolores during WWII

Jody, in reorganizing what we affectionately refer to as our “crap room,” just yesterday found a packet of letters from her Grandfather to his future bride Dolores during his service as part of the Army Air Forces in WWII. Jody and her Mother, Bonnie, thought these letters missing. Searches on both ends occurred without success. In these particular letters we were able to hear of the end of the war through Jody’s Grandfather’s eyewitness words. And oddly enough, these words turned up this particular week.

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

The Ending of the War, almost an Afterthought!

A strange coincidence? Yes. This week marks the passing of an indelible date to people on both sides of the Pacific: the anniversary of the surrender of Imperial Japan. On August 15th, 1945, Japanese Emperor Hirohito formally announced his government’s surrender, and in the process, effectively ended World War II.

Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

B-17 Flying Fortress crew of 10.  Donald Larson is standing all the way to the right. He was already an old man being already in his 30s.

Fighting through Flak

Fighting through Flak

At the time, Jody’s Grandfather, TSgt Donald Edgar Larson, was stationed in Wisconsin, having previously survived 35 bombing missions as a B-17 Flying Fortress mechanic and aerial gunner. From the summer of 1944 through early winter of 1945, Don fought the war in Europe as part of the Eight Air Force in the skies over Germany and France. In a somewhat less glamorous yet infinitely safer role, at the time of the Japanese surrender, he found himself driving trucks at the Army Air Force’s Truax Field, just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. His love, Dolores, was in Iowa.

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Manning a Fortress Waist Gun

Truax Field was activated as an Army Air Forces airfield in June 1942, and served as the headquarters for the Army Air Forces Eastern Technical Training Center, tasked with training B-17 mechanics and radio operators, and in later times, radar operators for the “new” B-29 Superfortress. Today, it is an Air National Guard Base, co-located with Dane County Regional Airport, home of the Wisconsin ANG 115th Fighter Wing, equipped with the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In another odd connection and “what are the odds” turn of events (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections for more), this past spring I ended up befriending and training in scuba a number of reservists from this very base and unit while they were deployed to Kadena Air Base here on Okinawa, Japan.

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

Donald as an Army Air Force E4

At noon on August 6th, 1945, Gyokuon-hōsō (玉音放送 “Jewel Voice Broadcast”) was heard in a radio broadcast in which Japanese Emperor Hirohito read out the “Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War” (大東亜戦争終結ノ詔書 Daitōa-sensō-shūketsu-no-shōsho). It was translated into English and simulcast throughout the Pacific and in America. In what was probably the first time that an Emperor of Japan had spoken to the common people, he announced that the Japanese Government had accepted the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of the Japanese military. The bloody Battle of Okinawa, the twin devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Soviet invasion of Japanese-held territories all conspired to bring the War in the Pacific to a quick and somewhat unexpected end.

No Zip Codes!

No Zip Codes!

TSgt Larson got the news on August 14th, as most of America did due to the time-traveling dimension of the international dateline and the many time zones separating the West from the Far East. In a letter dated August 15th, 1945, he writes:

“Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.”

The date was known to the allies of the time as “Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day),” and remains so for the United Kingdom. However, official commemorations in the United States honoring the ending of World War II occur on September 2nd, when the formal signing of the surrender document on the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay actually transpired.

TSgt Larson WWII, army air forces honorable discharge

Honorable Discharge

In Japan, August 15 usually is known as the “Memorial Day for the End of the War” (終戦記念日 Shūsen-kinenbi). The official name for the day, however, is the “Day for Mourning of War Dead and Praying for Peace” (戦没者を追悼し平和を祈念する日 Senbotsusha o tsuitōshi heiwa o kinensuru hi), nomenclature fairly recently adopted by the Japanese government in 1982.

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

Postage was only 3 cents, but look at military pay of the time!

The end of the war, a momentous occasion by any standard, is oddly almost an afterthought in Don’s letters to his girlfriend. Perhaps he knew that his combat days were over in that war, having survived the Luftwaffe and the 8th Army Air Force.  Equally as interesting, the envelopes used to send his letters were addressed merely to just “Miss Dolores Arens, Le Mars, Iowa,” while the postage was free (but 3 cents for the general public). The postmarks are all from Madison, WI, and dated 1945. Such a simpler time on most fronts. Except for that horrible, global war….

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy's Dreams

4-Engine Bombers of Every Boy’s Dreams

What I find quite humorous and enlightening, though, is a letter concerning the “new stationery” which Don was trying out in a letter sent July 26th, 1945, somewhat timidly, on his sweetheart: “Here is some of that new stationery I was telling you about. I still don’t know if I should send it or not but here goes,” Don hints. His later comments below (in bold), which also are found in the letter which is quoted in part above, confirm that boys will be boys, through time and even at the crossroads of history when a world war happens to be ending:

August 15, 1945

My Dearest Dolores,

Hello my Darling how are you any way (sic)? I had begin (sic) to wonder if you was still living or not as it had been so long since I had heard from you from the 1st until the 15th that’s a long time between letters.

I planned on waiting until I got an answer but same as usual I didn’t. I should wait as long as you did before I write but some thing (sic) won’t let me.

Darling I just got your letter yesterday saying that you got the watch O.K. it went to Chanute and they was how about sending it on to me.

Oh! Yes how’s the sun burn you mentioned in that letter? Hope its O.K.

Yes, Darling I am still driving trucks not such a bad job at that but I can think of other things I’d rather be doing.

Well Darling last night came the most wonderful news I have heard for a long time. Did you think so? I was working last night so didn’t have a chance to celebrate didn’t even have a drink. I suppose you celebrated last night or today, right? Boy, Darling its to (sic) good to be true to think this was is finaly (sic) over at last. That’s going to be one happy day when I get of this thing which I think will be soon. You should have heard some of the guys around here they almost went wild you can imagine what a noise there was.

Darling, you know I would come and see you if I could but you can imagine how things are here in the army. Its to (sic) late in the game to screw up the works now.

So you liked that stationery did you? That was some four engine bomber wasn’t it? I couldn’t say if it was a B-29 or what it was, Ha! It was a new model of some kind.

I got Romies (sic) address too I’ll write to him not saying that it will do any good, but if he isn’t getting your letters it seems as tho (sic), you would get them back.

Well My Darling think I have wrote (sic) enough for this time and guess I’ll wait until I get an answer before I write again. Should I?

Good night My Darling see you in my Dreams.

All My Love, Don

TSgt Larson WWII, young Don and Dolores

Thankfully, Don and Dolores’ relationship survived both that world war and some rather risqué stationery (for the time). The emergence of this correspondence during this week of historical significance provides a beautifully clocked look back through time, and into the roots of our families. And one that offers an overlay of everyday humanity that sometimes we forget always permeates even the most auspicious of occasions.

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

As an E7 at Separation in September 1945

Far Eastern Engagement


“あばたもえくぼ, Even pockmarks seem as dimples.”  ~ Japanese Proverb about the timeless nature of Love

Naomi's Wedding 2014, today's event at the SOBE hotel

Naomi's Wedding 2014, grand entrance for the newlywedsNaomi's Wedding 2014, my daughter the bride and I“I noticed no one has toasted to the newly married couple yet, so please, raise your glasses.  Although the standard toast in Japanese is Kanpai, meaning “cheers,” instead I chose to toast with banzai!  [see my related banzai blog]  Contrary to popular belief, banzai! is not associated in Japan with death and destruction.  Literally it means “10,000 years,” but is most often used to imply something like to live forever.  So, to Adam and Naomi, may your love for each other live on forever.  BANZAI!”

Naomi's Wedding 2014, me and my peaceful daughter on her big day!

Naomi's Wedding 2014, the bride with her father and brother (my kids and I!!)Naomi's Wedding 2014, the couple cutting their cakeSo went the toast at my daughter’s wedding two weeks ago in South Beach, Miami.  My daughter, having lived for four formative years in Okinawa as a child, tween and teen, retains a very strong affinity for the Far East and my current island home.  As a youngster, her name “Naomi,” a common Japanese name, and her inherited Asian-Pacific-Islander traits made her look the part.  She had wanted to marry at South Florida’s famed Japanese Morikama Garden in South Florida, but the venue turned out to be much too expensive and difficult to schedule, let alone work with.  She remained, however, intent on keeping an Asian flare to her nuptials.

Kokeshi Japanese Wedding Dolls

Kokeshi Japanese Wedding Dolls

japanese-events-eventy-imprezy-w-stylu-japonskim-wypozyczalnia-dekoracja-scenografia-aranzacja-rekwizyty-lalka-sayonara-doll-03japanese-events-eventy-imprezy-w-stylu-japonskim-wypozyczalnia-dekoracja-scenografia-aranzacja-rekwizyty-lalka-sayonara-doll-02In Okinawa, due to the constant turnover of the military personnel here, the Japanese have translated their traditional kokeshi dolls into “Sayonara Dolls,” where the body of the doll is wrapped in a large and long scroll for people to scribble their farewells on as someone readies to transfer away from the island.  Well, there is wedding version of the “scroll doll,” a Japanese bride dressed in white and silver wrapped with the same type of scroll, which is just about the perfect guest book for a Far-Eastern inspired wedding.  We hand-carried one home (although I failed to get a photo), and even though the scroll is over 70 centimeters long (well over two feet!), the entire parchment was filled with love and well-wishes by the end of the evening!

Naomi's Wedding 2014, geisha kanzashi hair ornament for the bride

Naomi's Wedding 2014, the bride's asian hair piece and accentskanzashi-februaryWe also purchased a geisha head/hair-piece known as a kanzashi for Naomi to wear with her dress.  Although we remained unsure of the exact color palette of the wedding and wedding party (my daughter is not very specific!), and we were purchasing our items in Okinawa with only the cell-phone picture approval of the bride (thankfully Naomi is in no way a “bridezilla”), what we did manage to hand carry home worked perfectly.  Sure, it’s not nearly as ornate and, shall we say, impressive as the actual ones worn by the geisha or maiko of Kyoto, but neither did she share (fortunately) their rather dramatic makeup!  Worked into the intended’s hair style, the piece was a delightful accentuation, helping to highlight both the colors of the groom (red accents) and her Father (pink accents), who was giving her away.

Nothing says Japan like a Hello Kitty wedding cake!

Nothing says Japan like a Hello Kitty wedding cake!

Naomi's Wedding 2014, Naomi decorating her Asian fansNaomi's Wedding 2014, me and my beautiful wife all cleaned up!Naomi herself decorated Japanese fans for all the women in the bridal party, and if we had only known this was part of her plan, we could have purchased some truly wonderful fans during our recent trip to Kyoto.  In any case, the fans were a lovely added touch, and actually were pragmatically utilized in the South Florida afternoon summer heat and humidity during my daughter’s outdoor ceremony.  Thankfully, the rain had already moved on, something Naomi was very worried about since witnessing my and Jody’s beach wedding getting completely rained-out back in 2011.  “Its good luck if it rains on your wedding Naomi,” I said to her in her room as we watch the storm clouds over South Beach.  She, looking at me in not an unmeasured amount of sarcasm mixed with concern, did not buy my argument.  But then again, neither did I; “But then that’s what they tell the losers who get their wedding rained-out to make them feel better,” I continued with a knowing smile and a wink.

Naomi's Wedding 2014, Asian fans being decorated

Naomi's Wedding 2014, 1000 origami cranes 千羽鶴 Senbazuru gifted to my daughterNaomi's Wedding 2014, Japanese wedding card (I hope!)Finally, Jody had the wonderful idea of ordering a collection of 1,000 paper origami cranes for presentation to the newlyweds.  After some research online, we discovered that it is traditional for the father of the bride to gift her and her groom on their wedding one thousand folded origami cranes held together by strings, known as 千羽鶴 senbazuru.  In Japan, the crane is the bird of love, life, and good fortune, a truly magical creature in their culture.  It is also believed that whoever possesses 1,000 origami cranes will have a wish fulfilled.  Marriages, like the cranes, require patience, perseverance, and dedication.  The cranes are all held by strong and sturdy square knots.  On top of the senbazuru was a traditional Japanese wedding card – actually a money gift envelope – tied with a very specific knot.  This particular knot is so tied not to ever be undone, and celebrates an occasion that should only happen once in a lifetime, both ideals a fitting tribute to what marriage should and can be.  Presenting the cranes to Naomi and telling of such Japanese traditions and legends really tied the whole Asian-theme full circle.  Thank you Jody, for such a wonderful idea, and for working so hard to make sure this important element of my daughter’s celebration was so meaningful and memorable.

senbazuru_by_trustourworldnow-d3bota0

Naomi's Wedding 2014, welcome from the newly married coupleNaomi's Wedding 2014, greeting Adam at the alterHowever I have to say the highlight of the evening for me personally was picking my daughter-bride up at her room, hugging her hard in the midst of the clamor and confusion of a whole slew of panicked brides’ maids and female family members, calming her nerves just before the processional, walking her proudly and unhurriedly down the aisle, and giving her away to her now husband, Adam.

Calming a nervous bride just before the processional.

Calming a nervous bride just before the processional.

The bride (and her father) appear!

The bride (and her father) appear!

Arm in Arm Father and Daughter

Arm in Arm Father and Daughter

 

Naomi's Wedding 2014, first dance with my now married daughterNaomi's Wedding 2014, beautiful Jody and I dressed for the festivitiesNaomi was taken from me during her formative teen years, and for many since, we both have found it hard to find our ways and connect back to each other.  I am so thankful that my daughter wanted me there and so involved in her wedding after so much time has passed…and has been lost.  Even though I was suffering (unknowingly at the time) severe blood clots and was in great discomfort and pain, I would not have missed that afternoon and evening for the world.

Naomi's Wedding 2014, my daughter the bride and I

Congratulations my sweet, smart and beautiful daughter.  May your life continued to be filled with joy, love, and fulfillment!

Naomi's Wedding 2014, grand celebration after the wedding!

 

Christmas is…for Lovers…in Japan


“Christmas isn’t a season. It’s a feeling.”  ~Edna Ferber

“A good conscience is a continual Christmas.”  ~Benjamin Franklin

“Christmas is a time when you get homesick – even when you’re home.”  ~Carol Nelson

desktop2007111411949722mq4

Christmas is one of the holidays that has most changed in Okinawa since my first here in 1999.  Back then, while not uncommon to see some Christmas items in the major department stores in December, it was uncommon to see wide-spread Christmas decorations and certainly surprising if a western Christmas carol was heard, especially in English.  Almost 15 years ago, what actually struck us most in terms of western traditions that had been imported to Japan was how utterly westernized weddings in Japan had become!

Andy Williams - an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

Andy Williams – an Okinawan Fav for the Holidays

However, this Christmas in 2013 has been a real shock…in a pleasant yet strange 9-volt battery-on-the-tongue kindda way.  We are astounded at just how much more of our Christian holiday that the Okinawans and Japanese have smuggled from the West.  From the standard Christmas carol cannon in English played in almost every commercial venue (Rudolph is much more enjoyable in Japanese for some reason), to the sheer amount of stores, organizations and segment of the populace choosing to actively participate in seasons greetings, one could argue that our holiday spirit thrives innocently and cheerfully  here in Okinawa, Japan.

christmas-anime-69

However, what exactly does that spirit mean??

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ....

A central theme seems to be cute Santa helpers ….

Seriously, it's almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

Seriously, it’s almost like if you merged Halloween and Christmas!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

No, not dirty dancing; making hearts with their arms and head!!

For starters, Christmas here is not religious in nature, much like their “Christian-themed” weddings, the ones complete with crosses and long-trained white flowing gowns.  In a cliché, Christmas here is…for lovers.  It is a couples’ holiday (but becoming more family oriented), much more akin to our Valentine’s Day than of any other type of spiritual ceremony or ritual.

“Single Hell, Single Hell….”  It would make a nice seasonal ring-tone.

But think about it this way; replace the notions of a Christmas turkey and caroling through illuminated neighborhoods…with buckets of “Christmas Chicken” and well-dressed lovers on a date partaking in a local holiday “illumination” and you’ve got it about right.

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving....

Taken well BEFORE Thanksgiving….

If it's good enough for JAL....

If it’s good enough for JAL….

You see, in the 1970s, KFC – yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken – started to aggressively market itself as the chicken of choice as the culinary Christmas craving, which has become a much more broad representation of our (western) holiday.  It worked; when we visited KFC about two months ago, there were already large in-store displays about ordering holiday meals, and the statue of Colonel Sanders out front (which all the KFCs have here) was already in a Santa costume.  It’s odd to think about the God of Chicken (the Colonel has successfully approximated deity status in Japan) as a surrogate for Santa, but in a weirdly Japanese way, that’s exactly what he is here!

That's a pretty detailed...and full chicken schedule!

That’s a pretty detailed…and full chicken schedule!

BentOn-Christmas-cake-2013Another culinary holiday tradition here centers on a “Christmas Cake,” which is generally a store-bought (see a commercialized theme going here?), white cake topped with strawberries and often other garnishes which spank of the season, resulting in the prototypical red, white and green colors which visually represent Christmas so well.  At least where it snows and there are evergreen pines, which for the geographically challenged, does NOT include Okinawa.  Here in Okinawa you will find a small, local bakery in almost every neighborhood, and these shops literally pump out these cakes during this time of year.  I’ve heard rumors that the Okinawans compare people without a love on Christmas as about as sad as a leftover, unsold Christmas Cake:  while still attractive on the outside, stale tasting on the inside!  Lovers, such revolting people….  Let them eat cake!!

So we did.  With ice cream.

So we did. With ice cream.

Creepy Christmas Character

Creepy Christmas Character

Finally, one of the biggest things to do on Okinawa during this season is to visit an “illumination,” one sure way to tell that winter is at hand on a sub-tropical Pacific island!  These events are held all over the island, from private venues, to the major resort hotels, to some of the more popular themed and touristy attractions.  Illuminations provide a true glimpse of just how the Japanese interrupt our traditional and long-standing Christmas culture, complete with accurate if not humorous portrayals of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer, along with all the other Christmas elements and characters you could ever imagine…and then a few more.

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Ready for the (Illuminated) Tunnel of Love!

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Winter WonderlandWe attended the Okinawa Zoo Children’s Land “Christmas Fantasy,” an annual, one-of-a-kind holiday spectacle held the week before and after Christmas.  Here the landscape, in the middle of dense urban sprawl, is truly transformed into a wintry (or at least chilled & rainy) wonderland, where snow blowers produce snowfall on the walkways, pictures can be taken with real snowmen, and the kids can even go sledding or spoil for a snowball fight.  Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Churros in Japan!!They also host a “unique” laser show which is both weirdly corny and wildly fun as only the Japanese can produce.  While it rained steadily in a blowing gale the night we visited, the park remained crowded with couples well-dressed and clearly on more formal dates; it’s amazing the places that Japanese women will and do wear heels.  Carnival and state fair-like games, food and candies were plentiful, and I was soooooo excited to have our picture taken with a true Japanese Santa…who was tucked away, hidden in a dark alcove that built our suspense…who turned out to be…white…American…and from the Lancaster Dutch Country in Pennsylvania!

Frosty's been eating a little too much sushi....

Frosty’s been eating a little too much sushi….  Look it’s even snowing (wink)!!

Not Japanese.

Not Japanese.

Okinawa Holidays 2013, Zoo Illumination, Japanese cuties pose with SantaYep, as we entered the tent for our turn, I peered with all my might to see what the Okinawans would put forth as Mr. Claus.  Would he be worthy?  How would he sound with a Japanese accent?  Could they find a guy larger than life, or at least over 6 foot and 200 pounds to properly pull off the rule?  As all these queries were racing around my head right alongside the sugarplums (and who knows what those are anyhow?), I hear, in a distinctly mid-western yet American accent, “Merry Christmas.”  What a tick!!  What the frack?  I respond, “Hey, that sounds mighty American!”  The response, which tinkered on stealing Santa away from me AGAIN, was, “Yup, straight from the Dutch Country in Lancaster County….”  What are the odds….

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

Our Non-Japanese Okinawan Santa

We had planned to attend the Itoman Wine Farm “Peace Illumination Festival” in Itoman City today, but the weather kept us away as of publishing (winter storm…less the snow and ice, oh, and loss of power and whatnot).  This annual event hosts the largest illumination at 1.3 million lights, representing the population of Okinawa, which carry the people’s collective hopes for peace to the world.  Itoman City and the entire southern part of Okinawa Island were subjected to fierce battles at the end of World War II and were the scene of horrific carnage, and the area is dotted with peace monuments such as the Himeyuri Monument and Peace Memorial Park.  Thus, this festival recognizes the awfulness of a savage past while displaying a radiant hope for the future.

A Christian Angel in Okinawa...riding a banana?  Wow!

A Christian Angel in Okinawa…riding a banana? Wow!

Person-to-whom-Ochugen-and-Oseibo-are-sentWhile gifts are not exchanged per se on Christmas or in relation to our own gift-giving tradition as a spiritual birthday celebration, the Japanese do have an end-of-year gift giving tradition called oseibo.  But don’t confuse this with the mid-summer gift-giving custom called ochugen!  In Japan, it’s custom to give gifts – or have major department stores or the Post Office deliver them – in December (usually by the 20th) to co-workers, bosses, relatives, teachers, and close friends.  Generally, these gifts consist of traditional hams, fancy cooking oils, gift certificates, higher-end beer, gourmet coffee, Asian seasonings, Okinawan seaweed, and perhaps even seafood and unique fruit arrangements.  It seems everyone has their version of fruitcake!

Really, Beer??

Really, Beer??

The presents generally cost anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 yen (roughly $30-$100).  An interesting note about oseibo is that the most expensive gifts are usually reserved for bosses!  Talk about awkward by American standards:  “I’m sorry Naomi, your end-of-year gift wasn’t up to my standards, we we’re going to have to let you go….”  On each oseibo gift is placed a thin paper called noshi on which the word “Oseibo” is written.  The Japanese are, if anything, elegant and graceful in most ritualistic traditions they exercise.

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Ritualistic grace & beauty

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Christmas Even in American Village, Mihama

Although we are indeed “home” now here in Okinawa, well rooted and seeking our own niche, I can’t help but also feel homesick this time of year.  Although our Far-Eastern inspired Christmas “half-tree,” the subject of an upcoming blog of its own, was certainly wonderful to plan, shop for, and decorate with Jody, it was not shared with very many.  We did start a new traditional Christmas Even dinner by eating Sushi at Mihama’s American Village with a few close friends, something akin to the Parker family going out for Chinese Duck visa vie A Christmas Story…less the tragedy involving the dogs eating our non-existent turkey.  And while we do have Christmas lights up on our 5th story balcony, and as entertaining and wonderful the Okinawan illuminations are, I still find myself drawn to “home” and the culturally, spiritually rooted traditions that have become so ingrained over almost five decades.  Jody and I will always find ways to celebrate on our own as Lovers so often do.  Just know that our friends and family are sorely missed this time of year, a time when friends and families should strive to be together.  If not in body, certainly in mind and spirit.

christmas-heart-holiday-lights-love-thumb-400x265-2426

So, in the spirit of the season wherever you happen to be, ring up some coworkers, cohort with your cronies, share an intimate moment with a loved-one, or just cuddle with a favorite furry friend.  Whatever you do, just do all you can to make sure you never become one of those dreaded leftover, unsold stale Christmas cakes!!

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake....

Single and 27 = Stale Leftover Cake…from the Lucky Star 11 Anime Series.  Seriously.

A Kite Breeding a Hawk (鳶が鷹を産む)


“A kite breeding a hawk (鳶が鷹を産む),” meaning a splendid child born from common parents.  Of course no parent thinks of their children as common, but you get the point (hopefully).

My son, his wife (the Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

My son, his wife (the Uncommon Kites), and Baby Z, the Hawk

“God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well.” ~Voltaire

“It takes a long time to become young.” ~Pablo Picasso

“Let them eat cake.” ~Marie Antoinette

Marie knew that cake held great value...for toddlers.

Marie knew that cake held great value…for toddlers.

I am a Grandfather.  Yes, I must put that in writing and mumble it to even myself.  It helps convince me that I am already that old!  My Granddaughter Elizabeth (“Baby Z” or “Eli”) just had her first birthday late last month, and after seeing the pictures of that mixed-cultural by still very American birthday celebration, I got to thinking about how the Japanese mark the occasion and recognize the milestone.

Me and my Granddaughter

Me and my Granddaughter

And, of course, like most other major life events, the Japanese have more formal and more rooted traditions and celebrations.

Thank you card for our gifts

A less formal thank you card

Totoro is my Granddaughter's fav!

Totoro is my Granddaughter’s fav!

In Okinawa, the first birthday of a child is marked by a celebration called tanka-yu-eh, meaning, loosely, “1 year old celebration.”  On this day the child’s family prepares a festive meal to share between relatives who have usually come from all around the island in order to celebrate together.  And, of course like most other aspects of cultural celebrations in Japan, this particular celebration becomes a much more regal and grand celebration when a couple’s first child is male.

erabitori

One of the central elements of the wider celebration is long-practiced ritual called tanka-uranai – the one year fortune-telling, designed to foretell generalized aspects of the child’s future.  This can also be referred to as erabitori (選び取り), or loosely “pick & keep an item”).  Certain items are placed on a tatami mat in front of the son-to-be toddler:  a Japanese abacus, festive red rice, a book, ink and ink stone, money, and in case of a girl a pair of scissors is added.  The baby is turned loose to make his or her way to the item of their choice; all the while, the eager and anxious family members hold their breath in attempts to contain their desire to influence the fortune!

tanka-1

Money. Smart kid. But will he keep it??

totoro_birthday_card_design_by_mikkimoo27-d5vck0zSo, the first item the child reaches for and touches – NOT the one he or she ends up with – prophesies potential for the youngster.  If the abacus (generally a calculator in more modern times), the youth will become a fellow mathlete (I have been accused of being worse!), which presages a strong business sense.  Red rice (or chop sticks) forecasts plentiful food throughout a long life or culinary skill, while a book or dictionary portends a studious nature leading to a solid education for the child.  Money or a wallet, perhaps the most obvious elements, predicts a life of riches, while the ink and ink stone divines a livelihood in writing.  Some families have also recently started adding a musical instrument as a way to forecast for talent (music, signing, acting), a ruler to predict successful homeownership, and a game ball or sports shoes to prefigure an athletic career.

More Fortune Telling

DSC_4701-1-550x365Finally, for girls turning one, scissors are meant to imply a future as a good housewife and mother, or, what I like to refer to as a “Domestic Engineer.”  Funny thing about sexism in Japan:  the kanji (姦) for kashimashii (noisy/boisterous) is made up of the symbol for “woman,” but not just one woman.  Not two women. No.  There are three women (three “woman” symbols).  What happens when you have three women together?  Of course, they get really noisy.  C’mon ladies; everyone knows that to be an absolute truth (wink)!

noisy-kanji

Happy Birthday in Japanese!

Happy Birthday in Japanese!

In wider Japan outside of Okinawa, there is also another tradition that is only once in a lifetime on hatsu tanjo (初誕生), or “first birthday.”  Although many if not most of our western birthday customs have been thoroughly adopted here in Japan, most Japanese parents continue to celebrate this special day with one or a pair of red-white birthday rice cakes, tanjo mochi (誕生餅).  Here in the Kyushu province of Japan, this particular cake is known as mochi fumi (餅踏み, mochi stepping), and the custom entails the birthday child stepping on the mochi wearing baby-sized waraji (草鞋, straw sandals).

11305150875_7b582d37b2_h

Mochi Fumi and baby-sized Waraji for “Cake Stepping”

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

Unhappy Mochi Carrier

However, in the rest of Japan, this mochi is commonly known as shoi or seoi or issho mochi (一升餅).  In most areas of Japan, the children carry the mochi on their back or shoulder, either in a bag or bundled up with a furoshiki (風呂敷, wrapping cloth).  Issho is a unit of old Japanese liquid measurement equivalent to ~1800cc, so the mochi are crafted to weigh around 1.8kg (almost 4 pounds exactly), a pretty heavy load for a baby!  And, in a strange twist, some parents attempt to deliberately interfere or prevent their child from walking or crawling smoothly with light pushes, an early attempt at educating children about the bumpy ride of life, full of its ups and downs.  While this may seem an odd way to “happily” celebrate a first birthday, by carrying out this ritual, good-natured parents can extend their wishes that their child be blessed, throughout their life, with enman (円満), an affirmative word representing perfection, harmony, peace, smoothness, completeness, satisfaction and integrity.

The plastic bag is a...nice touch.

The plastic bag is a…nice touch.

For my Granddaughter, I too wish her to be blessed with plentiful and long-lasting enman.  But, I can’t help but wonder what she would have “picked and kept” if the tanka-uranai items were placed in front of her.  What would YOU want your precious one-year-old to choose??

untitled

Anything but scissors, right?!

9062710319_7221dac60f_b

Happy First Birthday, Baby-now-Toddler Z!!