The Chapel Choir at Gifu

W.F. Bellais II

(This is a contiuation of the “Boy’s Adventure” stories.) 

When ordered to Camp Gifu, his gunnery sergeant at Camp Fuji had arranged first class rail travel. The many amenities of traveling first class included eating in the dining car. When the train pulled into the station at Gifu City a short bow-legged man picked up his sea bag and ran off with it. The boy caught up with the man at the station’s taxi stand. Breathless the boy said, “What in the world…” But the little man grinned and bowed. Now the boy understood. Showing gratitude to the porter, the boy offered a tip. Shaking his head the porter said, “No, no, you first class passenger.” Then the porter hailed a cab.

On arrival at Camp Gifu the boy faced a difficult decision. He knew about the headquarters, a sprawling temporary building resting on concrete brick stilts and covered with black tar-paper; the infamous building called the “Black Kremlin” stood before him. He dropped his sea bag. Exhausted already from the heat he stood staring at the ugly edifice confused by a line of unmarked windows and doors. Perspiring heavily from the June heat, he decided to bring his discomfort to an end and solve his confusion by chosing the first door in the line. He walked up three wooden steps, opened the door, dropped his sea bag and stood aghast.

With his mouth open ready to say, “Excuse me, sir,” he saw before him a large mahogany desk, a red flag with two large white stars, and an elderly man in Marine Corps green uniform from which stars sparkled and row after row of service and award ribbons dazzled. He had walked into the commanding general’s office.

“What do you want, Marine?” a booming voice called out from behind the desk.

“I am reporting for duty, sir.”

“Good. Go around the corner to the first door on the west, you can report there.”

“Yes, sir.” He backed out, pulled his sea bag behind him, closed the door, and then asked himself what side was west. With relief he at last found the correct door.

Unlike the wooden well lighted and ventilated quarters at Fuji, at Camp Gifu the men were  barracked in dark airless Quonset huts. That did not matter, he had a good working assignment and he would spend much of each day there.

After settling in, he asked what happens in Gifu that would interest him. There were not many sites in this part of Japan. Nagoya was a half hour train ride and there was a bombed out Mitsubishi aircraft factory nearby. Of course, there were the usual bars, night clubs, and brothels just outside the camp gate. He thought instead he would try Nagoya. He traveled to Nagoya twice and found it to be an industrial city with not much to interest him except the dark and bland American Club. Now the boy believed he would have been happier at Camp Fuji; at least he could get away now and then to visit Tokyo.

He said, “This place is duller than whit-leather; whatever that is.”

So, with the exception of his trips to Nagoya, he did not leave camp often during the first two weeks at Gifu. In the third week at Gifu he sat on his foot locker arduously shinning his shoes. Not being good at details like shoe shinning, he often went to the Post Exchange where, for a quarter, elderly Japanese men shined shoes to a high gloss. This night, however, the men were informed that there would be a class “A” inspection in the morning. The boy had to work on his shoes.

As he shined them conversation turned to what to do off-base. One Marine said, “I know of a place where all the girls are inspected and clean.” Another said, “You better not bet on that. Who says they’re clean; you can’t read Japanese.” The boy said, “I like girls and want to be with them, but I am not going to allow lustful desires leave me with a deadly disease.” Another said, “Relax, the Navy corpsmen inspect those places.” “No they don’t,” a rejoinder came from a dark space in the Quonset hut. The boy said, “It doesn’t matter to me who inspects or even if they’re inspected, I’m not going home to tell my mother that I got some disease because I could not keep my zipper zipped.”  The marine bunking next to the boy said, “You need to go to the camp chapel. They have a youth group where you can meet girls and be virginal.” From another dark area of the hut came a voice shouting, “Oh, yeah, you don’t think the daughters of the Army brass on this base don’t have something too?” “Not on your life,” said another. “Besides, there are chaperones there.” The boy said, “Don’t worry about it; I probably won’t bother with that anyway. I don’t go to church at home, why do I want to go to a chapel youth group.” “To meet girls, stupid!”

Despite being chided about his shoes needing more spit and polish, the inspection went well and the weekend began.

Spending Saturday at the Post Exchange canteen and base theater, he decided, after all, to try the Chapel on Sunday morning. There people greeted him warmly. A petite middle-aged Japanese woman of about four-and-half feet tall and wearing a beautiful blue kimono introduced herself, “I am the youth group sponsor and you are welcome this evening as the group has their choir practice.” The boy thanked her and surprised himself by saying he liked that.

That evening the boy found young people between the ages of fifteen and seventeen having a good time singing from The Army Hymnal. Despite being the oldest teenager there at nineteen, the boy felt like he fit in. The group sang loudly and vigorously; the boy had a great time singing, meeting people, and enjoying homemade cookies and drinking Coca Cola.

As the group broke up, the chaplain reminded everyone that next Sunday evening would be a picnic. One of the girls turned to the boy and said, “You’ve got to come too.”

The boy could hardly wait. No matter how much one wants time to go by quickly, the time between one Sunday and the next is seven days. Nevertheless, the boy eagerly anticipated the outing and feeling like a teenager again. On checking the calendar the boy realized the picnic fell on the Fourth of July.

Sunday did come as promised. He went to chapel, saw the demure Japanese woman, and some of the teens he had met before. They spoke of the picnic and what fun it would be.

Early that evening the boy joined the group in time to board an army bus with the other teens along with the petite Japanese woman the chaplain. After a short ride to the picnic grounds the group cheered as they saw the park thick with trees and a beautiful quiet lake. A small Japanese home constructed of logs, paneled in rice paper, and with a tile roof could be seen on the opposite bank and from it projected a small dock. The view offered a scene suitable for a postcard. On the picnic grounds side of the lake a dock also led out to deeper water.

The chaperone and the chaplain gathered everyone together to give instructions on the games planned, the picnic menu and when it would be ready, and instructions concerning fireworks. Then the teens broke up into groups. He had been standing awkwardly alone when a girl came to the boy and invited him to join her group. Now fully relieved of embarrassment and feeling included, the boy began to relish the idea of belonging to the teen choir at the Army Chapel at Camp Gifu.

After a game of softball and then a volley ball match, everyone had an appetite for picnic food. After eating and as the sun began to drop, one of the boys brought out his own fireworks. He set off a Roman candle. The teens laughed and said the effect had been exactly what they needed to celebrate the Fourth. The Chaplain chided the teen and said we will provide fireworks. The teen who owned the Roman candle quietly snickered and said to nearby friends, “I have a lot better stuff than that.”

Soon afterwards everyone heard explosions. The chaplain did not pay much attention until an M-8 grenade simulator landed at his feet. Standing nearby, the boy raced over to kick the simulator into the crotch of a large tree root. After it went off, and no one injured, the boy went after the teen and took the bag of fireworks away from him. The boy said, “Don’t you know those things can kill!” “They’re just fireworks,” the teen responded. “No they’re not, they’re explosives!”

Now he thought, “I have done it… I’m just another adult chaperone.” The chaplain thanked him, the chaperone thanked him, and then one of the girls thanked him. She said, “Stick with me tonight and we will have fun.” The boy, not certain what she meant, thought what a good idea and followed her to the lake side. They sat on the dock to watch the sun set and the lantern lights of the homes on the opposite shore come on reflecting off the water as the twilight glowed over the trees. The girls said, “Isn’t this romantic?” He said, “I like it a lot.” The girl put her arm under his and snuggled up to him; a feeling and contentment not had in a long time. Then he worried, “She’s probably fifteen or sixteen and general’s daughter. I am a nineteen year old Marine; be careful before you end up in the brig.” So, he allowed the girl to snuggle, but he made no moves.

The chaplain shot off some lame fireworks, everyone made the appropriate appreciative noises and then the lake and picnic grounds went dark, except for the reflected light of lanterns across the water. The girl wound around the boy’s right arm said, “I know what we can do. We can go swimming.” “Swimming,” he said, “I don’t have a swimming suit.” As she stood she said, “Neither do I.” She laughed, took off her blouse, then her shorts, and kicked off her sandals; standing in her panties and brassiere her pale skin glowed in the darkness. She said, “See, we can just jump in.” The girl jumped, went under water, and then emerged laughing. Swirling her blonde hair around so her face was not covered she shouted, “Come in, the water’s warm and beautiful.”

Suddenly another girl took off her blouse, shorts, and sandals and then jumped. She was followed by two boys, and then the entire group wearing only underwear entered the water. Finally, the boy stripped to his under shorts. The adult chaperones disappeared into the darkness. Soon after the teens were in the water the girl who began the swim announced she was taking off her bra. She undid it and threw it on the dock. Then all the girls did the same. She said to the boy, “Why can’t we swim like men do?” The boy had no reply, but liked the idea. She said, “It’s a lot more comfortable this way.”

The evening ended when the chaplain announced the bus had returned. The girls ordered the boys to get out and dress first. Reluctantly they emerged from the water and donned their clothing. And then they ordered boys to the bus. All the way back to the chapel they sang.

The boy had not been this happy in a long time. That evening before sleep came the boy thought, “What a great day!” The next morning at his duty station he spoke without details of the chapel youth choir.

That afternoon the section chief told him, “You’ve got orders. You’re leaving for Nara tomorrow.” “What?” “Yes, and this is a permanent reassignment.” The boy thought, well so much for the chapel choir.

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