Safety Instructions from a Hotel Guidebook, Phuket, 2007

Do not panic.
Rise above yourself.
Proceed to higher ground.
Move at a brisk but moderate pace.
Faster than that.
We suggest you reconsider the importance of that particular piece of baggage.
Take only what you can carry.
We regret that dinner reservations may not be honored tonight.
It is advisable, from this point on, only to look forward.
Avoid succumbing to illusions of chaos.
There is nothing to see behind you.
Do not consider yourself an evacuee, unless you intend to become one.
Property can be replaced.
Bags can be reclaimed.
Hotel bills can still be charged to a major credit card.

 

Girls’ Generation – Known Nazi Fanatics – Invade America
 

In the mid-1990s, a massive seismic shift took place under the cultural landscape of South Korea, almost immediately causing a phenomenon known as the “Korean Wave”, or Hallyu (한류).

The Wave – believed by some (Korean) experts to be the most powerful force on earth – has swept outwards from the peninsula, engulfing whole nations, and sparing nobody… Nobody but you, America.

That is, until now.

Behold, I make all things new.
-The Book of Revelation

We are not only permitted but required to believe that cosmic time as we know it, through all the immensity of its geological ages and historical epochs, is only a shadow of true time, and this world only a shadow of the fuller, richer, more substantial, more glorious creation that God intends; and to believe also that all of nature is a shattered mirror of divine beauty, still full of light, but riven by darkness.
-David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

I recently woke to a blue sky over a place I didn’t want to leave and I should have guessed that from there the rest of the day would take on the kind of proportions it didn’t fully deserve.

San Francisco isn’t supposed to be part of America, but I saw it as heartland visiting again after eight years living away and abroad.If there was anywhere I fit in, on any continent, it had to be this place with the blue sky white at the edges and fierce MUNI drivers and food choices galore and ideas forever coming to fruition and close, brisk ocean.Possibly, I just missed a place where I didn’t have to act like a grownup like I hadn’t for so many years of house parties and second-hand clothes. I’d convinced myself moving back might make my world less complicated. So I went looking for signs urging me to return and, if those didn’t turn up, I needed irrefutable reasons why my young family and I should live out the rest of our days here, within a country that was plummeting further, rising from the ashes or just realizing the dream.Until I confirmed which one applied, I was only on vacation.

This has been a bad month for earthquakes. The Pacific is working things out with its tectonic plates in a spectacularly violent fashion, affecting those near and dear to us in dramatic and terrifying ways. Our hearts, usually occupied by the few square miles around our own lives, become pained by the vision of devastation of those we love far away, and we struggle to make sense of the distances between us, our inability to run at a moment’s notice to the aid of the victims.

I have a love-hate relationship with images. I’ve written about them before, in a more personal context. But every massive quake or tsunami or hurricane in the era of the 24-hour news cycle becomes one more opportunity for me to dip into helpless depression, a feeling of impotence. The horror that we all experienced watching September 11 unfold internationally, I still remember with crystal clarity. I also remember the depressive episode afterward, culminating months later with me jumping in a car alone for a road trip, trying desperately to shake the grip of helplessness that had strangled me since September.

Our own Zara is in the middle of the most devastating event of her life, her world having been literally shaken to its foundation. I can only watch with grim respect as she answers her own need for understanding by writing it down and sending it to the rest of us via the wonder of internet connectivity. And in the face of this most recent earthquake, Japan’s northeastern shore being washed away by an unimaginably horrifying wave, I find myself torn in twain.

My son goes to a Japanese immersion school in Portland. Every day, he goes to school and interacts with his Japanese teachers, and a host of interns who, for one year, elect to uproot themselves from Japan to learn how to be teachers in the United States. The interns are woven into the fiber of our school: we have to do fund-raising, an impossible amount of it, every year to bring our interns here, and every year the community rises up to pull us through the financial gap. They live in our houses, they celebrate holidays with us, come to parties with us, share meals and laughs. They become family.

We’re saying good-bye to this year’s Japanese interns tonight at a party thrown for them. They will perform for us, we will give them awards, there will be Taiko drumming.

But I’m not sure it will be so celebratory.

As the first video of Japan was coming in last night, my husband and I watched the tsunami roll in over a tiny town. It was gripping and slow, the first wave having already flooded the area, the surges behind creeping up to continue the brutal work of the leader. The journalist in the helicopter above must have been dazed: every time he turned the camera to the sea, there was wave after wave, lined up like battalions, ready to smash into the already wracked earth below. On live television we watched as entire neighborhoods were washed up into the interior, cars, planes, houses. At that distance one can imagine that these are but toys, but we know with grim certainty that those cars and houses belong to people who are also being washed away.

I fight internally with myself. My need to be informed about these horrifying events, which touch people I know personally, rubs against my knowledge that if I look too deeply at the crisis, I can be thrown into another bout of useless debilitating depression. I’m not being useful if I just fall into the trap of watching the videos roll in with the same regularity as the tsunami surge to shore. I’m only creating that special fragility in my own psyche where the darkness can enter and take hold.

So my heart goes on being pained and open and broken on behalf of the victims, but I willfully turned off the video this morning when I could feel the chinks in my armor start to give way. The video is too visceral, too overt. And I wonder if we, those of us so far away, are actually experiencing shock–misplaced because the horror is not ours.

I understand the need for the images to get out. It makes our world small, and we reach with tiny hands across the breadth of the ocean. We rally our resources to aid strangers, we donate money and send rescue teams, we wish we could do more, but do whatever we can to bridge the space between. But I feel the media fatigue already. I’m turning off the video storm surge, and going to the party for our Japanese interns tonight instead, to ask them what they need, what we can do, maybe just listening to them talk.

I can do nothing else.



Tsunami!

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

I wrote this some time ago and had no thought of posting it, but because the tsunami that hit the Samoas has been in the news and in my thoughts today, I offer this as a first-person tsunami account.

On Monday, May 23, 1960, in Hilo, Hawai’i, I was nearly killed through my own foolishness, and then, not an hour later, I began rescuing people who were already dead. I was 16.

I heard about a great earthquake in Chile on the way back from doing archaeology at a refuge cave in the Ka’u Desert. When I got to town I went to Civil Defense headquarters, where I was an amateur radio operator. There was nothing much between us and Chile, but we thought that the South Pacific would give us clues about what Chile might be sending our way, since the shock, spreading in a great arc, would pass through there first. We got crackling reassuring reports: Tahiti, nothing; Christmas Island (now Kiribati), six inches. We knew that if anything was coming, it would arrive around one in the morning.

A friend and I left the radios and went down to the shore to watch for the tsunami. Nobody told us not to. The first wave was small, nothing more than a rapid high tide, not even as frightening as a tidal bore. It wasn’t recognizable as a wave at all, but it triggered the automatic warning sirens, which began low moaning and then wailing. A few minutes later the second one arrived. It washed a foot or two higher.

By then it was after one AM, and when instead of moving water we realized we were looking at the deep lumpy black of the bay’s floor, we were transfixed. The ocean was being sucked out. We stood and watched. We scrambled a little higher on the embankment so we could see better out into the bay. We waited.

Even now I don’t know why we waited. Maybe we wanted to be cool and have something to brag about later, when we’d trade stories with the other kids about how close we’d come to the wave. All I remember from that time – it couldn’t have been more than 30 seconds – is the feeling that I had to stay there and see what was going to happen.

The next thing I saw was a wall of water that seemed to jump up from nowhere, coming at us. I knew that tsunami could do sixty miles per hour near shore, but I had never thought about what that meant, about how much time I’d have to react.

We started running up the embankment, heading inland. But I realized we’d be taken from the rear if we did, so I shouted “Bridge, bridge” and we turned and ran along the embankment and out over the Wailuku River, onto a metal landing-mat bridge that had replaced the concrete one destroyed in the 1946 tsunami. We ran towards the high ground on the other end of the bridge and we didn’t make it there. The wave hit when we were half way across, surging under and through the bridge, coming up around our knees. I grabbed the metal railing and screamed, because I believed I was about to die.

Our town was built in a crescent. Because we were at one of the tips, I could see the wave hump up and slam into downtown. The noise was tremendous. The power plant blew up and the lights went out.

The bridge bucked and heaved but it held. Even now I can hear the metal creaking and groaning, and I can feel salt water splashing my face. After maybe twenty seconds, the rushing sea dropped below the bridge deck, and we let go and ran to the other side. Some men who had been watching cursed us for crazy kids. “You real stupid, play with da wave like dat,” one yelled angrily, and the others hugged us, slapped us on the back, kept asking us if we were all right. An old Japanese man pointed his finger at us and then out towards the bay, and said, “Lucky you folks no die, you know? No can forget dis. Lucky you no die.”

We crossed another bridge upstream and went to our cars. I drove home and said to my parents, who were on the porch looking, wondering what had happened, “It’s bad, it’s bad. I think it’s all gone. I’m gonna try to rescue people.” I didn’t tell them about the bridge until much later.

I went into my father’s shop, got an axe and a crow bar, and drove back downtown where other kids had already gathered at Civil Defense. Somebody passed out red hard hats. We put them on, drove to where the worst destruction was, and began.

In the early-hours bravado we called ourselves the Rescue Squad. By dawn we knew there was no hope, there could be no one left for us to rescue. Everybody we found was dead. We kept at it for four days anyway, but never found anybody alive.

It’s only after earthquakes and building collapses that survivors last for days. A tsunami either mangles and crushes you in your house or pins you down just long enough to drown you. It’s in and out in a couple of minutes at most, but that’s enough time to kill you if you can’t get free. If you’re swept cleanly away, if you’re sucked back out to sea on flotsam or jetsam, you might survive to be found later, maybe clinging to a door, or hanging over a dresser drawer. The shock waves will have rushed on, the sea will have calmed itself, and you’re likely to be rescued from gentle swells.

We found our friend Ken Nakamoto’s mother in the first couple of hours, in a collapsed house. We wouldn’t have seen her at all except that her leg was sticking out from what had been her porch. When we heaved the porch up and got her out she was pale, even peaceful, in her nightgown. There was a little blood on her leg but she was otherwise unmarked. She had almost gotten out into the street, where maybe she could have caught something and survived.

Where’s Kenzo? we asked each other, even though we’d already poked under the house enough to be sure nobody else was there. We said this looking around as if any minute he’d come out from his room and help us with his mom. His room was smashed and his mother dead and we had her body, and we didn’t know where he was, but we started saying those things to each other anyway as if we had dropped by and were waiting for him to come home from school.

She had been drowned, not crushed; so strange to realize it: drowned, but here, inland. The sea was back where it belonged, two hundred yards away. Mrs. Nakamoto’s was the first newly-dead body I’d ever seen. It was the first one I’d ever touched, and she was cold the way everybody said bodies were, and she was smooth, too. The cool smoothness of her arms and legs has stayed with me. The sudden movement of her foot in my grasp as her body sagged when we lifted her has never left me, nor has the feeling of fear that it would slip from my hand and I would drop her, and she would be hurt.

Somebody, the police or maybe Civil Defense, had organized the little open-air buses and their drivers, pressing them into service as ambulances and hearses. The buses were called sampans and even then I caught the irony. Sampan was the name for fishing boats that left the Wailoa River every night, motored past the end of the breakwater, where the tiger sharks were, and on to open sea. Sampans stayed out all night, returning at dawn with their catch.

We lifted Mrs. Nakamoto’s body into a sampan. We laid her out on the floor on her back, because it seemed wrong to put her in face-down. But that meant we had to look at her. The driver, an old Filipino man, headed for the morgue at the hospital. All of us had been born at that hospital, which was a couple of miles out of town. I can’t remember who started it, but suddenly we were making fun of the driver, who was shaking with fear of Mrs. Nakamoto’s dead body. He didn’t deserve this from us, but we didn’t deserve to be sitting on leatherette bus seats around the body of our friend’s mother in her nightgown. We were in an open bus before dawn with a dead body we’d found, and we didn’t know how to behave.

We looked at each other, grinned, and teased him. “Shake-shake,” we called to him, “Hey, Shake-shake, baim’bai we go back downtown for get moah dead folks.” He laughed a high-pitched old man Filipino laugh, and kept on driving, shaking. I was trembling myself; we all were. We agreed it was from the cold.

When we were about halfway to the hospital, we fell silent. I felt around under the seat and found a rolled-up mat, and tried to cover Mrs. Nakamoto with it. Opened the long way it wouldn’t sit properly on her, so I turned it and covered her chest and face with it. I think we all felt better after that.

At the morgue one of the orderlies looked at us, shook his head, and said, “You folks only kids. No good you do dis.” That gave us some strength, and with it pride, which is probably what he meant it to do. We were a Rescue Squad, and had to get back to it. We’d taken our catch up the hill, and unloaded it. Experienced, blooded, we got in Shake-Shake’s sampan and went out for more.

Our high school graduation had to be postponed because there were students who were dead, there were students whose parents were dead, and the Hilo Civic Auditorium where the graduation was to be had been seriously damaged, though not destroyed. We had our graduation two weeks late in the high school gym. I sat on the gym floor in my crepe gown and tasseled hat and my fragrant maile lei. Some of the other Rescue Squad kids were there, and Kenzo was too. We avoided him when school resumed, and he avoided us too. We understood that this was the best thing.

The Guidance Counselor wrote a letter to the paper praising us, and criticizing Civil Defense for having made boys do the work of men. But we had no complaint. We wanted to sit together at graduation, but it had to be alphabetic. I felt a sense of completion afterwards, a feeling that today I’d call closure, but I didn’t know the word then. It was important to have that graduation. I think the town saw it as a sign of recovery, of hope, maybe even an affirmation: our seniors graduate no matter what.

In Hilo there’s an official tsunami memorial, but the unofficial one means more to me. It’s the town’s pedestal clock, green metal pillar and a big white face, which was ripped from its base and washed half a mile up the Wailoa River. It stopped at 1:03, hands almost together, and it’s been left that way, cracked glass and all. They put it back on its stand, near the sampan landing, about half a mile from where we found Mrs. Nakamoto.

Every time I go home I drive down to that clock, and I stay with it for a few minutes. I know the passers-by think I’m just another Mainland tourist, because that’s what I look like now. They see a middle aged bald white guy looking at their clock – just standing, looking, not saying anything, not even taking a picture. It doesn’t bother me that they can’t know what I’m thinking about, that they can’t know what I’m remembering.

I never walk out on the bridge where I screamed and was nearly swept away.



.308 Winchester

By Don Mitchell

Memoir

The summer after my father lost his business in the great tsunami of 1960 we were cash-poor. I was just 17 and managed to get a job with the Hawai’i State Department of Fish & Game, which oversaw much of Mauna Kea, a large mountain with a lot of wildlife on it, out of a ramshackle camp at Pohakuloa.

My cabin mate was Eugene Chinen, a full-time employee about twenty. Eugene taught me bow hunting. Eugene also taught me to make Japanese-style rice, and to eat it with kimchee and eggs. I taught him some things he didn’t know about 4 cylinder Jeep engines, both flathead and overhead valve. We both had decent rifles and were good with them. Mine was a .308 Winchester carbine.

The Wildlife Biologist, our boss, told us that we could use our rifles in the archery-only areas if we needed meat. He knew about the tsunami problems, and he knew it was easy to knock over a sheep in the archery areas on the way to or from doing some job. There was no need to pretend it was sport. It’s an exaggeration to say I fed our family with what I shot, but I did keep us supplied with meat. And to a 17 year old, that felt good.

If we were going to shoot sheep or pigs with our rifles, the boss said, we needed to shoot them in the head, leave the heads on the mountain, and then shoot an arrow into the carcass before hanging it in the public meat safe. He didn’t want us – or him – to get into trouble with the Fish & Game higher-ups. In the picture I’m posing with my bow and arrows and a pig I did drop with an arrow, but the headless ewe hanging behind me fell to the .308. I drove a broadhead into it after it was dead.

The Wildlife Biologist taught me what a “jack ram” was. There was a Mouflon sheep breeding program at Pohakuloa, and it helped to know when the ewes were fertile. That was the jack ram’s job. He was vasectomized and thus sterile, but his ewe-sniffing and mounting skills were intact. One of my jobs was to turn the jack ram in among the ewes to see which one he’d mount, and then get that one in the pen with the Mouflon stud.

One time a girl I knew came over from Honolulu to visit me at Pohakuloa, and was so excited by my jack ram demo she suggested we drive the Fish & Game flathead Willys Jeep up behind a large cinder cone, in order to fool around and do a little jacking, not to say ramming. It would be thirty years before the urologist turned me into a jack ram, so we had to be careful.

One day the Biologist assigned Eugene and me to do a bird census. I decided to pack the .308 Winchester in case we ran into something worth shooting. That’s Eugene posing with it in the second picture. I also decided to wear a nylon Air Force jumpsuit that my father had gotten somewhere. I thought it was cool, although in those days Hilo kids didn’t say cool. We said “rugged.” Hey, rugged car, man. So I wanted to wear the rugged nylon Air Force jumpsuit, and I did.

It wasn’t long before I was sorry I had. It was too big for me. It was hot, and the only way to stay cool was to unzip it down the chest. But that made the top part gape, and the jumpsuit kept sliding off my shoulders, taking the .308 with it. I had to sling it cross-body to keep it on.

So there I was, ranging across Mauna Kea’s flanks, doing my bird census from Hale Pohaku down to Pohakuloa in my falling-off rugged nylon jumpsuit, Eugene half a mile up from me. We were the only two people on the mountain. I was thinking hard about the best way to cross the Waikahalulu Gulch without deviating too much from my assigned census track. The Waikahalulu Gulch is the deepest and most rugged gulch on the mountain. It’s the only place on the whole mountain where a person might actually fall and die. So I was worried, since I had barely escaped being killed by the tsunami a month before. I didn’t want to depend on luck twice.

While thinking about falling and dying, I surprised a flock of feral sheep, who stood for a moment and then took off. Getting the Winchester unslung dragged the jumpsuit down and I couldn’t lift my arms. The sling ended up around my waist, so all I could do was point the rifle and squeeze off shots from the hip. Yes, like a cowboy movie, but I knew exactly where Eugene was so I didn’t have to worry about hitting him or anybody else. I didn’t hit Eugene but I didn’t hit any sheep either, and the jumpsuit zipper tore out handfuls of my chest hair and the whole thing was a painful waste of time, except for the bird census, which we completed properly. I did make it across the Waikahalulu Gulch without falling and dying.

A couple of years later, Christmas of my junior year, home from college for the second time, I decided to go after pig in the Panaewa Forest. Panaewa was a favorite place to pick the fragrant maile vine, used for leis. The minimum-security prison at Kulani is up in Panewa, and I was wondering whether my friend Roger, who had murdered a woman over on Oahu, had been moved to Kulani. I thought he probably had been, since it had been a crime of passion and he wasn’t considered dangerous.

I used to think about Roger when I was young and did not understand the nature of passion, how it can grip you and sweep you away towards things you would not do by nature. I used to ask myself why, since Roger was capable of murder, he had not gotten angry at me when I accidentally discharged my 16-gauge double-barrel shotgun very near his heel, when we were bird hunting. I gunned a load of birdshot into the ground and he was startled and I apologized, and he didn’t get angry at all that I could see.

So later when he strangled that woman and I was thinking about it, I’d say to myself, How could he be a murderer? He didn’t even get angry when I almost shot his foot off.

Back in those days, the average 15 year old didn’t have a lot of insight into murderous passion. Now I realize there could have been no connection between what Roger did or didn’t do while we were bird hunting, and what was in his mind the day he strangled the woman on Oahu with a venetian blind cord.

In the Panaewa Forest with the carbine I ran into the same problem I had up on Mauna Kea a few years earlier – surprising my prey – but this time I was better-dressed and I didn’t have the rifle slung. I was scrambling along a big fallen tree when I spooked a pig that had been rooting under it. This time I shouldered my rifle and I nailed the pig. It was a good-sized boar. I gutted it and packed it out and went home.

Back at the house I laid my pig out on the driveway, but I didn’t skin and butcher it right away. I didn’t want to finish work on it until Susan, a woman from Schenectady, New York, arrived on the plane later in the day. We had a thing going, even though she was a couple of years older than I was, and we lived on opposite sides of the continent.

I had this compulsion to skin and butcher my pig while she watched. Atavistic? Maybe. A sociobiologist would have a field day with that – young male driven to display meat-providing prowess to nubile female – but she had already taken me into her bed, so I had nothing to prove. Neither of us was ready for marriage. And just as I knew she did not want to be impregnated by anybody, mighty hunter or no, I also knew that making her pregnant would be seriously un-rugged.

I did the skinning and butchering as I’d planned, while she watched. I was surprised at her encouraging comments and approving noises, until I remembered that her father was a mortician and she occasionally helped him out. Then, since both my parents were not home and were not expected home, I led her inside and washed my hands carefully and then I made love to her in my bedroom, with the venetian blinds closed and the cord tucked up out of our way.