Note: On September 7, 1955, I flew from Phoenix, Arizona to Tokyo Japan. I went there to marry a young airman I had met in the summer of 1954, just before his departure for the Far East. We were both very young. Ben was nineteen at the time of our marriage; I was seventeen.The following post is the third installment of that story.
School started soon after Ben shipped out for the Far East. Phoenix Union, my third high school in less than six months, was huge, a multi-building campus that looked more like a college than a high school. Looking over the course offerings I chose Senior English, Civics, Chemistry, French and Choir—college prep courses. Had I not completely given up the idea of college? I don’t remember my thinking about that. I just know that the classes I signed up for were those I wanted to take. I was not interested in vocational classes that would prepare me for office work, something practical. I did, however, take a two-hour lunch so I could work at a grocery store near campus that sold sandwiches, donuts and sodas to students who crammed into the building at lunch time. Earning some money was imperative. My parents provided food and shelter, but that was it. Books, clothes, bus fare, everything else that required money was up to me.
I felt very outside of things at school that year. I was engaged. I felt set apart, different. In some ways that difference felt special. There was a sort of prestige in being the first to have a fiancé. I felt more “grown up” than the other students, and showing off the engagement ring Ben sent me for Christmas was definitely exciting. However, it wasn’t at all fun to have to discourage the boys that I could tell were interested in me. Going to parties and events as a single, being unable to flirt and engage in the excitement of the chase was a real bummer. I missed flirting and felt guilty for being attracted to other guys. Deep down I regretted the commitment I had made. I wanted to be free; I wanted to date. But I was not the kind of girl who would write a “Dear John” letter breaking up with a boy who was overseas. I had given my word. I had committed myself. I would have to live with that decision.
I was looking at a total of two whole years of being single but engaged, two years of going places with girlfriends only—not just for my senior year, but for another whole year after that. Ben had ended up in Japan, not Okinawa, and Japan was a two-year duty, not the eighteen months we had originally been looking at when his orders said “Okinawa.” Ben got that news on board the ship in the Pacific. He told me that when he read his revised orders he was so mad he kicked a stanchion on the ship deck so hard he broke his toe.
Two years felt almost unendurable. Ben hated the Air Force, and he hated Japan. In one of his letters the summer after my graduation from Phoenix Union, he wrote, “I wouldn’t ask a dog to come over here.” It hit me, “He wants me to come over there.” I thought, “Why not?” Going to Japan, getting married there would end this interminable waiting. We could get on with our lives. Start truly living again. I wrote and told him I’d be willing to come if that’s what he was hinting at. As soon as he got my letter he began to set things in motion—making arrangements with the Air Force, buying the tickets for the flights from Phoenix to Tokyo, telling me everything the Air Force required of me before I left the States. It was a huge stack of paper work, all of it complicated by my being only seventeen years old which meant that my parents had to have a say in all this.
My mother was no problem. She was all for it, found the whole thing romantic. But my father had doubts. It wasn’t a matter of my being too young. My mom was only fourteen when she eloped with my twenty-one year old father. My parents both believed in the rightness of that decision. The problem was that my father had never met Ben. Dad had been in California on a fund-raising trip during the two weeks that Ben and I dated. He had no way of knowing what Ben was like. He’d met Ben’s parents and had gotten quite well acquainted with them during the year of our engagement, but Ben himself was an unknown quantity. Those misgivings were definitely called for, but unfortunately my dad could only express them in terms of Ben “not being German,” which utterly exasperated me. What in the world did “being German” have to do with anything at all! I completely dismissed his misgivings, and Dad gave in and signed the papers. He did make one condition, though. The wedding must take place the day I arrived in Japan. The chaplain and his wife at Yakota Air Force base where Ben was stationed had invited me to stay with them when I arrived so that I could have a day or two to rest and prepare for the ceremony. But my dad would have none of it, would not budge. So that was it—arrival in Japan and wedding ceremony on the same date.
The wedding date was set for Friday, September 9, 1955. In the middle of the week before the time set for the ceremony, I would board a plane in Phoenix headed for Los Angeles where I was to pick up my visa for a flight to Tokyo, Japan. I had to go from the airport to downtown L.A. to get the visa, then spend the night in a hotel before heading back to the airport the next morning in order to catch the Pan Am plane that would take me to Tokyo. I had never been on a plane before, and all of this was very exciting—but that first part of the trip was daunting. I was only seventeen, and Los Angeles was a very big city. Finding out how to get downtown, then finding a hotel room and spending the night alone, having to get back to the airport alone—all the logistics involved were definitely scary. I wanted the help of someone confident, good at finding out things and getting to new destinations. I wanted my dad, and he gladly said yes. He would go with me, be with me until I got on the Tokyo flight. That felt very good.
I don’t remember anything about the flight to LA or how we got from the airport to downtown, but I do remember that the hotel where we stayed faced Union Square and that my room, which adjoined my dad’s, looked on to the square. It was a plain room with its own bath, clean and perfectly adequate, but rather disappointing. Hotel rooms in the movies were big and glamorous. This was nothing like that. It was ok, but so ordinary. This is what hotels were really like?
Another thing I remember is getting my hair done in the salon of a big department store downtown. We got into LA in the morning. There was plenty of time for a hair appointment after checking into the hotel and picking up my visa. I don’t think I made arrangements in advance. I’m quite sure I just assumed that I’d be able to find a nice salon and that I could get in immediately—which proved true. That hair appointment was my big treat to myself, carefully budgeted into my very limited funds. I wanted my hair to look really nice. I wanted to look like the photos in magazines. I wanted my too-curly hair to look sleek and glamorous—and I was not disappointed. My hair really looked nice, asymmetrical, swept back on one side, curving onto my cheek and forehead on the other. The money had been worth it. This what I wanted to look like on the plane and when I got to Japan.
Air travel was very different back in 1955 from what it is today. It was a fairly new mode of travel and a really big deal, not the everyday, crowded and hassled thing-to-be-endured that it is now. Airports were not crowded. Planes carried fewer passengers. People got dressed up to board a flight. Stewardesses were slim and pretty in their tailored uniforms. Service was instant. Travel by plane was truly glamorous. I felt very sophisticated as I walked down the tarmac in my high heels and travel suit and climbed the portable stairs before stepping through the open doors of the Pan Am plane. I felt no fear, no apprehension. I was stepping into an adventure safe in the hands of people who would courteously shepherd me through the various stages of my journey. All I had to do was be attentive, follow directions and enjoy myself. And I did.
It was a long flight. This was before jet airliners. The four-engines on the plane could not make it all the way to Tokyo without refueling, which meant a two-hour stopover in Honolulu as well as another two-hour stop on Wake Island. Each of those legs lasted eight to twelve hours, and I completely lost track of time. We were heading west with the sun, constantly crossing time zones, eventually crossing the Date Line before crossing more time zones. What I experienced was a long period of daylight that began in the morning in LA and ended with the sun setting as we descended at Honolulu. When we took off again, it was dark and stayed dark all the way to Wake Island. We passed through a storm. I could see lightening through the portholes. I fell asleep, and when I woke, a stewardess noticed immediately and asked if I’d like some cocoa. We descended in darkness at Wake Island and went into the bare-bones waiting room while the plane was being serviced. We got back on the plane just as it began to get light. We took off from the runway as the sun broke the horizon, rising through wispy layers of pastel clouds. Ethereal, unearthly. It looked like a film effect of someone going to heaven. Then it was daylight all the rest of the way, bright blue sky with islands of white cumulus clouds towering high above our 38,000-foot flying altitude, below us, a deep blue, white-capped ocean.
That time in the plane, all three legs—the long day, the long night, the long morning—seemed somehow outside of time. We were encapsulated in a world separate from ordinary life. The life that took place on the surface of the earth below ceased to exist, lost all reality. Life in that plane made no demands on me, required no decisions. I was free to just ‘be’. I was totally in the present, looking out the windows, listening to the cockpit speaker when the pilot came on to tell us our altitude and other flight information, reading magazines, talking with other young women who were also headed to Japan, eating delicious meals with things like mushrooms, which I loved but rarely had. I don’t think I thought at all about what lay ahead. I told the other girls about Ben and our approaching wedding, but it had no reality. The only thing that was real was the plane, the girls I was talking to, the stewardesses, the voice of the pilots on the intercom, the rest of the passengers. Then we were approaching Tokyo. A flurry of excitement among the young women as we took turns in the lavatory fixing our hair and make-up, getting ready to look good when we got off the plane.
We were scheduled to arrive at the airport around noon, but there were delays of some kind. I remember circling Tokyo in a steep bank, the earth below me visible through my window, circling again and again—fighting nausea even though I had never been motion-sick in my whole life till then. By the time we set down on the runway and taxied to the terminal we were three or four hours past our scheduled arrival time, but I wasn’t worried. I knew Ben would be there. I knew he would wait. Then, as I was looking out my window at the airfield and its buildings, I saw the observation deck. We got closer and closer. Then I spotted him, Ben standing at the rail at the point closest to the runway. Suddenly it was real. Ben was real. He was there, no longer someone who existed in words in letters, a memory, a figure in my imagination. He was standing before me, flesh and blood. I recognized him because of memories supported by photos, but he was not a photo. All my sense of knowing him vanished. Suddenly the words formed in my brain, “I don’t know him.”
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