The Incident at Nara

W. F. Bellais II

(This is a continuation of the stories called “A Boy’s Adventure”)

This time, instead of traveling by first class train coach, the boy departed Camp Gifu for the city of Nara by air. The officers carried their luggage on the aircraft while the boy gave his sea bag to an enlisted crew member to be stowed. The boy needlessly worried he would never see it again. He worried about many things but mostly his new assignment requiring him to work independently.

Initially, a serious and skillful master sergeant helping him become the regimental news writer editing the regimental bulletin, writing stories for the press about the regiment, and contributing news to the division’s newspaper briefly acted as his supervisor. The boy had landed a plum job. However, the job alone did not make this new assignment more than he hoped for. His new regiment had bases in and around the ancient and beautiful city of Nara, Japan.

Further, the surrounding countryside captured for him all he imagined as Japanese. Nara’s Shinto temples and shrines glitter in the sunlight, the sacred carp pond, and gardens reflect the ancient Japanese culture. Because in the Japanese mythological story the god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the first imperial capital, deer roam freely in the city’s parks. Annually the hilltops overlooking the city are set ablaze to mark that divine miracle added to the excitement and pleasure of being in Nara.

The boy wanted to experience native Japan. He wanted to understand the Japanese people and their culture. He would find that he could learn more about Japan in Nara than he could in Tokyo or in Gifu.

The master sergeant who supervised the boy early in the assignment suggested the weapons and mortor companies based on the edge of the city needed to be covered for a news story. Because these are independent units, they are often forgotten in the division’s weekly news or the regiment’s newsletter. The boy agreed and began to look for a way to travel out to the base. Bus service provided by the Army command in the area did not have a route to the remote location. He found a regular messenger vehicle departed for the compound housing the companies twice daily.

The morning after talking with the master sergeant about writing a story on the two specialized units he arranged to travel to the compound with the daily messenger. The messenger drove a three-quarter-ton vehicle called a weapon’s carrier. The vehicle had a covered truck bed and could also be used to transport Marines back and forth or carry cargo. That morning the messenger vehicle had only one passenger, the boy. He rode in front with the driver and looked forward to seeing the countryside up close.

At the start of the trip the moist morning air created a clinging fog. With a prediction for  warm sunlight, the day, however, seemed promising. Mild morning temperatures enjoyed on departure for the outpost base gave validity to the weather forecast. The boy hoped for the sun’s rays to dissipate the fog before they arrived at the outpost. The driver, a private who had been busted from PFC more than once, claimed the visibility problems presented by the morning fog did not bother him much. The boy wondered why; he could not see far beyond the hood of the truck. On the public roads the fog slowed traffic at first. Auto and truck drivers dodged pedestrians, carts being pulled by local workers, and bicycles as well as motor scooters as they maneuvered through the fog. The windshield wipers on the truck did not work. The driver said, “These things never work when you need them.” He turned to the alternative method of operating the wipers. The driver moved slowly through the traffic while reaching up to a manual push-pull system to wipe the moisture off the windows. Then he instructed the boy, “You reach out with this cloth and wipe your side of the windshield when the wet gets too thick.” The boy wanted to operate the wipers but the driver declined the offer. Soon, however, the morning sun burst through the fog and the moist air slowly cleared away and visibility improved.

The boy noticed that the traffic had changed; no longer the bustle of people rushing to their work places but now a more serene flow of humanity, much less dense, moving quietly to the rice paddies surrounding Nara. The boy also noted that the already narrow streets and roads had become narrower. In fact, now the roads were more like levees dividing the paddies on either side and that the road seemed to narrow and become narrower as they progressed; the boy hoped that they would not encounter any oncoming traffic.

Mostly the traffic, what little there was, went in their direction and it consisted primarily of men and women dressed in traditional Japanese farming cloths. Many carried yokes over their right shoulders balancing two large wooden buckets on each end. The driver said, “Honey buckets. You know what honey buckets are?” The boy said, “I think so.” The driver warned, “Keep your nose inside the cab, you don’t want to smell that crap.” The boy did as instructed and knew that the buckets contained human and animal excrement used to federalize the rice paddies. The idea of buckets of excrement did not, however, daunt the view of acre after acre of muddy rice paddies reflecting the distant hills of Nara in the morning sunlight. The people working with conical straw hats on their heads and bent over tending the rice growing in the water of the paddies seemed to be a picture postcard. The boy wished he owned a camera and as soon as he had saved enough money he planned to buy a Canon at the Post Exchange. For now the picture before him had to remain only in his memory.

A residue of the morning fog clung close to the road in the distance and over far away paddies. But that fog posed no immediate problem. Around them the scene sparkled with morning sunlight and the boy felt entranced. Nevertheless, the fog hid a problem they soon encountered. Out of the fog and coming in their direction came an elderly man riding a bicycle on which a mountain of boxes had been tied. At first the boy did not recognize the apparition coming at them. The ghostly appearance of this slow moving figure confused the boy. The driver quietly spoke an expletive the boy said, “Slow down; what is that?” The driver did not answer and did not slow down. Finally the bicyclist came parallel to the hood of the vehicle, the driver waved, touched the brake pedal gently. In less than a second the two Marines in the cab heard a thump and then something like ugh and the crash of wooden boxes as they hit the ground.

The driver stopped the vehicle, both the boy and driver leapt from the truck’s cab and raced to the back. There on the ground they found an old man lying on the side of the road, the bicycle in a ditch, and wooden boxes strewn all over the road. The boy could only guess, but he thought maybe there were twenty, even thirty, boxes in the road, in the ditch, and two hanging on the back of the truck. The boy raced to the man asking, “Are you all right?” The man only groaned and held his right knee. The driver retrieved the bicycle, which seemed not to be damaged. The boy assisted the man to his feet and trying to determine what injuries, if any, the old man had sustained. Seeing nothing but a scratch on the old man’s elbow and the man’s insistence that his knee hurt, the boy led him to the side of the road where he could sit.

“I’ve got the bike,” the driver reported. He leaned the bicycle against the truck and then began to collect a few boxes. All of them were empty.

The boy said, “It looks like he was on his way to town to buy something or deliver these boxes.”

The driver did not reply but just shook his head indicating this was a bad situation.

“What do we do?” The boy now very concerned that this would lead to an inquiry with both the regimental provost marshal and the local police and he would not get his work done today. The driver said, “Let’s just pay him off.” Paying off someone in an accident did not feel right, but the driver said, “I’m the guy who is in trouble here. Let’s pay him off and get out of here before anyone comes along and sees us.”

Not certain this was the right thing to do the boy said, “Are you sure that’s all we have to do?” The driver nodded in agreement and then asked, “How much money do you have?” The boy said, “I have a few dollars in scrip and about a thousand yen.”

The driver asked, “Do you have any cigarettes?” The boy said, “I have a pack and a half.” He stood in the road looking at the old man, the bicycle and the stack of boxes and then said, “I suppose your right.”

The driver went to the old man and said, “A thousand yen, old man, and a pack of Pall Mall, Okay?” Then he turned to the boy and said, “Give him your pack of cigarettes.” The boy shocked that now he had the responsibility of paying off the old man said, “What? My pack? Don’t you have a pack of cigarettes?” The driver said, “Don’t smoke.” Then he added, “Also, give him the yen you have.”

The boy shocked again hesitated. The driver said, “Come on, give him your cigarettes and yen so we can get out of here.”

The boy responded, “But…I don’t smoke Pall Mall, I smoke Lucky’s.”

The driver said, “He knows Pall Mall are cigarettes, he doesn’t care if they’re Lucky’s or Camels, just give him you pack of cigarettes, whatever they are, and your yen.” The boy reached into the breast pocket of his utilities for his pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes and found a thousand yen in his utility trouser pocket. “Here,” he said, “I hope you’ll be okay.”

He handed the money and cigarettes over to the old man who immediately stood, went to his bike and pointed to the boxes scattered over the road. “I suppose now I have to get all his boxes and stack them up for him.” The driver said, “Yes, but I’ll help.” The two gathered the wooden boxes and under the direction of the old man tied them securely to the bicycle.

The old man mounted his bicycle, smiled at the boy and then put his left foot on the pedal and rode off.

When the boy returned to his office at headquarters later that day he told the master sergeant what had happened. The master sergeant said, “Oh, sure, he got you too.”

The boy, puzzled by the remark, asked, “What do you mean?”

The master sergeant told the boy that the old man goes down that road every morning when the messenger vehicle makes its run. If he sees a passenger in the cab, he peddles on by, hits the side of the truck with his hand and then makes a noise like he is injured. After that he throws his empty wooden boxes all over the road and his bicycle to the side and then sits down pretending to be hurt. He makes lots of money that way and keeps himself stocked in cigarettes. “Of course if the passenger has been down that road before, the driver doesn’t wave at him; I should have told you about that old man.”

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