My dad was hidden away in the mountains outside Tokyo when the bombs fell and the war ended. He didn’t see the horrors of burned skin and ash shadows. He’d hear about them later when he returned home.
He’d been living in the mountains for two years, since he was ten. At that time the Japanese government decided that it needed to preserve the next generation if Tokyo was obliterated. So kids were sent on their own, with nuns to look after them, into green, serene havens of nature.
He told me many years later that he remembered being handed a sheet of paper with hand-drawn pictures on it: sketches of the edible and poisonous plants in the area. What he should forage for and what he shouldn’t. His mother, my beautiful grandmother—whom I remember as an elderly, elegant woman who smiled and made us tea—visited her sons once in those two years. My daughter is about the same age as my dad was when he grew up much earlier than any parent would wish. My daughter still asks us to remove spiders from her room.
Each day, the kids had to practise escape drills. This included walking in a line, each child with their left hand on the left shoulder of the friend in front of them. There were B-52 bombers flying overhead, on their way to Tokyo. The war was far but near.
One day dad and his best friend were in a line together for their daily drill. Dad’s friend was behind, his left hand resting on dad’s shoulder. They walked along together, learning to survive together. There wasn’t much sound but dad tells me there was a bomb and shrapnel. And then he remembers the hand resting on his shoulder slipping away. I find it hard to imagine what a young boy must think when he turns around and sees his best friend, his comfort, lying lifeless on the ground. You wonder what experiences shape a child.
When he was on the cusp of adolescence, the war, in its physical form, ended. A revelation in the mountains, dad told me. Because he remembers a radio. And on that radio, the voice of a man who, until then, was perceived as nearly god-like, unreal. The voice of emperor Hirohito telling his people that the war was over. No-one had heard him speak before.
Fast-forward to dad as a man in his prime. At 40 he is offered a job at the Australian Broadcasting Commission, to work at Radio Australia. With leather satchel in hand, he leaves behind his home country and makes a blue-skied land of opportunity his home. The memory of that war was still raw here, too. And dad found himself talking to veterans, many of whom had been brutally treated by the Japanese. Dad deliberately went to RSL clubs so he could talk over what it all meant with those who’d fought for the other side. Over a scotch and a beer. RSL diplomacy.
When he was 55 he moved into a retirement village in suburban Melbourne. He was still self-sufficient and healthy but that’s what he wanted. I reckon he loved being the young man on the block, too. With most of his fellow residents at least 20 years older than him, he took on the role of cooking the weekly village barbecue. With tongs in hand turning sausages, still speaking broken English and still smoking.
He’s now very frail. Everything takes a lot longer now: putting on shoes, getting into the car, walking to the local mall for a meal. He loves it when I visit, although he’d never say so. Having a cappuccino together is the highlight and I’m pretty sure he only goes to a café when I’m there.
Last time I saw him, he pulled out an old photo album. He’s not a very sentimental person, but he does think about life and he wants to figure it out. He showed me a photo of his best friend at university. There is an old black and white photo of them in fitted, military-style uniforms. They look handsome and cool. A few days before graduation, dad’s friend was found hanging in his college room. No-one knew why he decided to take his own life.
You wonder what experiences shape a man.