A friend of mine, a Navy wife stationed in Japan where my family lived for the past five years, described the last month as a roller coaster ride. This seems like an accurate analogy except most people have never been on one that doesn't provide a restraint system.
This is the United States military. You jump on and after 20 years of flying upside-down through dark caves, feet dangling in space…you are allowed to get off, i.e. retire. Most military folk and their families love the thrill of adventure and quickly become accustomed to the sharp drops and stomach lurches that accompany a deployment or stressful move across oceans.
When the ride gets scary, though, we Navy people tend to follow the Marine Corp's motto. No, not Semper Fidelis, or Always Faithful. Rather, Semper Gumby. Always Flexible. I met a couple in Japan who told me their story of moving from California to North Carolina. While stopped at a hotel in Mississippi overnight, they received a call that, oops, they were needed in Japan instead. Operation Semper Gumby thus commenced.
Flexibility is crucial for surviving military life. This trait has recently been heavily called upon to get people through the trio of disasters that have literally rocked Japan to its core. Military personnel stationed there have been very lucky. The earthquake only rattled nerves and broke a few dishes. Although heart-broken for the Japanese people, our family was overjoyed to hear that our close circle of Japanese and American friends remained safe.
Then, the ride took a turn into a completely different, not-so-amusing park. Concern started to mount about the extremely likely possibility of a nuclear melt-down. Although roughly 200 miles south of the Daichi reactors, the base could still be affected if the wind shifted. In less than a day, the schools shut down and Navy families were instructed to pack their lives into one bag each, leave all their household items and wait to be transported out of the country. With the active duty member deployed in the relief effort or just remaining behind to do work, this meant that most evacuees would be traveling alone with their children, unsure of where exactly they were going or when they would see their spouse again.
Rumors spread like wildfire, practically a fourth disaster. The base might close forever. People’s households, left behind, might get contaminated. Would they ever see their things again? Would they ever be able to return to Japan? Trying to get their affairs in order in under 24 hours, most people wept at the thought of having to leave without saying goodbye…to their friends, to the country they had come to love, to the life they had built. For many of their children, Japan was the only home they had ever known or remembered.
In the end, the evacuation was voluntary. Most families with children decided to return to family in the states until the nuclear risk had abated. Although military families always enjoy a trip back in the summer to see friends and family (and more importantly, to shop at Target and eat at Chik-Fil-A) this time the mood had changed. Life took on a quasi “refugee” status. Neither here nor there and hauling bags from relative to relative, many lived the vagabond life--with no knowledge of when they would be able to return to Japan, to normalcy.
As I write this at the end of April, the government has allowed family members to travel back to Japan. Many are jubilant. Some are confused. Without any substantive knowledge about how long their exile would last, many parents enrolled their kids in school in the states. Now they face the decision about whether to twist the children’s lives in a knot…again. At this point, no matter what happens, everyone just wants to get off this insane ride.
For those who have returned in the last few days, they have celebrated the best part of military life: the reunion. They are “home”, not just with their spouses but within a country unlike any other. Many Americans prefer to stay in Japan because their Japanese neighbors have been so kind to them. Random Japanese citizens have helped jumpstart our car at IKEA in Tokyo after valiantly searching for jumper cables for thirty minutes. As we have stood bewildered in a station, they have stopped to ask us if we needed help. They oftentimes discontinued their own travels to direct us to the correct train. In broken English, they have complimented my husband on his “nice women” while waiting patiently to take pictures with our girls.
These experiences are almost universal for those military personnel willing to venture beyond the base gates. We have been warmly welcomed into Japanese homes and fed deliciously bizarre foods. (Pickled octopus, anyone?) One friend of mine even gave my husband and me a two-day private tour of Kyoto. She wouldn’t allow us to help pay for the rental car or meals because she was “returning the favor” of Americans having been so kind to her family when her family had lived in the United States many years ago. Twenty years later, that kindness circumnavigated the world and manifested as one of the best weekends of my life. Americans are good folk, too.
In the end, it didn’t surprise me that our Japanese friends politely rejected our invitation to come visit us during this turbulent time. Predictably, they are managing just fine. Due to gas shortages, they don’t mind walking because it’s “healthier”. Lacking their beloved rice, they are “enjoying” pasta and potatoes. Even as their country endures a prolonged mourning, they write to tell me about how they are enjoying the cherry blossoms. In the end, each one thanked our family warmly for our offer but explained that they are content to follow their government and their “destiny”…and that is to make do with what they have, where they are, at this moment.
This attitude gives me hope for them, as their broken country heals…but also for the many American service people who continue to veer haphazardly through space and time, oftentimes with only thin strands of flexibility and commitment holding them fast to their seats. All in all, both situations remind me of a Japanese saying:
“Fall down seven times, rise up eight.”
Semper Gumby, indeed.