When I was a child
of about six or seven, my father
, who was in the Air Force
at the time, was transferred to Misawa Air Base
, in Japan
. The nature of families being what it is, my mother
, two siblings
and I accompanied him.
Japan is a wonderful country full of wonderful people and wonderful places and wonderful things, especially when you're a young boy and the world is still a carefree and exciting place. I tended to be fascinated by new experiences, and it took me no time at all to begin enjoying my new home.
For approximately the first six months of our three year stay in the country, we lived in off-base civilian housing, meaning that we lived outside the air base just like any normal Japanese family. This is because there is only a limited amount of officer housing on base, and there was a queue of newly-arrived families waiting to replace departing families.
Since the elementary school was on base, the Air Force contracted with a local Japanese tour bus company to serve as school buses for off-base children in the mornings and afternoons. The bus I rode picked me up just down the street from our house, in the parking lot of a small shopping center. I quickly became friends with several other of the children riding the bus from that stop, one of whom was an older girl whose name I can't remember anymore, but who we'll call Sarah.
One day, after I had lived there several months, Sarah invited me over to her house after school to play video games. I ran home from the bus stop and asked my mom if it was okay (it was), then ran back and walked with Sarah to her house, which was quite a few blocks away in an area I had never been before.
Sarah lived alone with her father who, like my father, was in the Air Force, and thus was still at work. As promised, there were plenty of video games, but as evening approached, Sarah seemed to get nervous. I got the feeling that she wasn't supposed to have friends over unsupervised (or male friends, at any rate), and that she didn't want me to be there when her father got home. I'd had my fill of video games, so I asked her if she'd walk me back to the bus stop. She explained that she couldn't walk me there, because she had to cook dinner for her father, but she took me out to the street and pointed me in the direction that she thought would take me back to my house.
At the time, I remember being utterly confused. It seemed that the direction in which she was pointing was the exact opposite of the direction from which we had come earlier, and I didn't recognize the area at all. But, being a very trusting sort of boy, I set off in the direction she had indicated, certain that I would soon arrive at the bus stop I knew so well. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
After I had walked what seemed to me like a hundred miles, I realized that I was not getting any closer to the bus stop. I was in a much busier part of the city, with lights and shops and people all around, and I had long since left behind the houses and narrow streets with which I was familiar. It occurred to me that I was lost, and I remembered the instructions I had been given by some faceless authority figure in the past, which in essence were that if I should ever become lost, I should immediately stop and stay where I was and ask an adult for help.
I decided to give it a shot. I was standing outside a small store of some kind and there were plenty of people around. I walked up to two women who were sitting on a bench, and I told them I was lost. They smiled at me and jabbered at each other, then ruffled my hair (someone told me that blonde hair means good luck in Japan, which was why I got my hair ruffled all the time). It became apparent that the language barrier was going to become an issue, since the extent of my knowledge of Japanese was "konichiwa" and "arigato".
Since staying in one place and asking for help got me nowhere, I thought it best to resume walking. I was sure that if I walked long enough, I'd arrive at someplace I recognized. As I walked I began to cry, because a part of me knew that I might not ever find home again, and that I might have to live the rest of my life wandering the streets of this country where I understood nothing and nobody understood me.
I walked for hours, stopping and asking for help constantly, only to have my hair ruffled and my tears ignored. They probably assumed I was merely a cranky child, and that my silly American parents were just around the corner and would catch up to me any minute. I walked for so long that my feet and legs began to ache horribly. Finally I stopped and began to think.
It had become clear that the only way I was going to get help was if I could find someone who spoke English. Since none of the Japanese people I had approached had seemed to understand me, I deduced that I would have to find an American. The only Americans I knew of were the ones on the air base, and I didn't know where that was. Ah, but wait. I knew that the road leading up to the air base was called green pole road by the Americans, because it was lined on both sides with shops and had covered sidewalks with green poles every few feet.
While walking, I had passed green pole road at least twice. This told me that I must have been walking in a circle. I hadn't been paying attention to where I was going, and I didn't know how to trace my steps, but I figured that if I were to keep walking randomly just as I had been, I was bound to make another circle and come to green pole road again. This seemed as good a plan as any, so I began walking again.
Sure enough, my path brought me in a circle and I soon found myself at green pole road, which I embarked upon with no small amount of hope welling in my chest. Nevertheless, I was still crying, because I was still very much lost. It happened that, as I walked amidst the crowds of people on green pole road, a young Japanese woman saw me and stopped. I expected to get my hair ruffled again, and this brought more tears to my eyes, but this woman wasn't smiling or grabbing at my hair. She looked concerned.
She knelt down next to me and, in broken English, asked me where my mother and father were. I told her I didn't know, and that I was lost and was trying to find them. She asked me if I knew my phone number. I did, but in my current state of mind I couldn't remember it. Luckily, I did remember that it was printed on the bus pass that I was wearing around my neck, and I gave this to her. She walked me to a pay phone and called my parents, and I heard her trying to describe where we were. This was difficult, because the Japanese don't name their streets, nor do their street grids make any logical sense.
In any case, she waited there with me until my mom found us, and I was so excited that I forgot even to thank her, but I'm sure my mother did.
As it happened, when my father had come home from work and I still wasn't there, they had called the base police, who began searching for me, and Dad went out to look for me as well. At some point, it must have made the base news, because the next morning as I rode the bus to school several kids asked me if I was the boy that had gotten lost.
I quickly forgot about the incident, and it never really seemed to affect me. I had gotten home safe, and that's all that mattered. Although, from then on, my parents always asked for my friends' phone numbers and made sure I knew my way home.