Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Thanksgiving Rememberance

Have you ever had something happen to you that you swore you would never forget only to be struck by the memory of it many years later? Today I heard a story on NPR that brought back a memory I thought I would never forget but did. I'll use it as my little way of giving thanks.

When I was a young, know-it-all, high school punk of a Willie my brother was serving in the Air Force and stationed in Japan. My wonderful parents offered me the chance to go visit him one summer and I jumped at the chance. My father went to a lot of trouble to work with a travel agency to plan the entire trip down to the smallest detail. Funny how parents get uptight about letting a teenage boy travel from Southeastern Ohio to Japan huh? Geesh, go figure. Since I knew everything there was to know about everything at that time of my life I ignored most of his planning and figured I could safely travel half way around the world on my own. Just so you get a feel for how inexperienced and unprepared I was let me just say that I had never flown on an airplane before either!

My parents got me to the airport and my first flight went uneventful which just added to my confidence that this trip was going to be a breeze. I flew to Minneapolis where I would catch a non-stop flight to Tokyo. I don't remember how long that flight was scheduled for but it was long. Real long. Really, really long. I did get to fly on a 747 though and I was excited about that for about the first 20 minutes of the flight. That excitement wore off eventually and I realized that I was flying at 30,000 feet over nothing but water for thousands of miles. My bullet-proof teenage ego was strong enough to not let the reality of this situation set in however and I remained confident. At some point over the pacific we flew over a Typhoon. Ever seen one of those airplane crisis movies where the plane shakes so bad that the overhead bins open and things fall out? Yea, that's what happened. People screamed, bags fell out, and Willie? Oh he LOVED it! Thought it was the coolest thing ever. No fear teenager remember.

So I made it through the flight and landed in Narita airport in Tokyo. In order to get up North to where my brother lived I had to get across Tokyo to the other airport, Haneda airport, where I would catch a short flight North. I vaguely remembered that I was supposed to find a bus service at the airport that would take me across town and they would speak English and be expecting me. I wasn't exactly sure where this service was located but figured I'd be able to find it NO PROBLEM, how big could Tokyo airport be anyway???

Ok so I couldn't find the bus service. Well actually I found many, many bus services but none of them spoke English or knew of me. So now I panicked. I was thousands of miles from home in a massive city and I had no idea how to get where I needed to be. That's when I met my angel.

I had seen him in the airport in Minneapolis. He was hard to miss actually since he was clearly Japanese and was wearing a "White Trash" hat and a black leather jacket. I remember laughing at him wondering whether he knew what that term meant. He sat a few rows up from my on the flight but I had never spoken with him. He saw me in the airport and I guess noticed I was lost and more than a little scared. He came over to me and introduced himself speaking perfect English. I told him my story and that I needed to get to the other airport but didn't know which bus I should take. He went and spoke with each of the bus services and confirmed that none of them were expecting me. He also discovered that the bus would take 3 hours to get across town which would cause me to miss my flight North. And just to make sure that I was completely screwed, he said they only accepted Yen and I only had US Dollars.

This is when he grew one of his angel wings. He told me that he lived here in Tokyo and that the subway was much faster than the bus and that he could get me to the other airport. He wasn't sure we could get there in time for my next flight since we'd lost so much time but he was willing to try. Since I had no other options I agreed and we set out on our journey across Tokyo together. He bought all my subway fare and even introduced me to iced coffee which at the time I thought was awful! He told me all about Tokyo and described everything that we passed. He also explained that he was an English teacher at a school here in Tokyo and that's why he spoke such good English. I actually relaxed a bit and was enjoying the trip.

When we arrived at Hadena airport I realized I'd missed my flight North. There were no other flights that day and I'd have to wait until morning to leave. Now I was scared again. My first thought was that I would sleep in the airport but a security guard quickly informed us that the airport actually closed and I couldn't stay there overnight. Now I REALLY freaked! I was going to be on the street outside the airport overnight. My teenage ego was now a crying baby boy who wanted his mommy real bad.

This is when my friend grew his other angel wing. Unknown to me, he called around and found me a hotel room close to the airport. Knowing I had no money he even paid for the room in advance! I was so relieved. I thanked my friend and caught the shuttle bus to the hotel.

It was on this ride that it finally hit me what had just happened. How could I have been so lucky to have a complete stranger just casually notice that I needed help and spend the entire day and quite a lot of money helping me across Tokyo? Oh AND a Japanese English teacher?? Really? My goodness it gives me goosebumps even 20 years later!

I can never thank this person enough. I don't have his name or any contact information for him even if I wanted to thank him. So here I sit 20 years later with my own 2 boys in the comfort of my own home and I am struck by how much this person may have had a role in ensuring my life turned out this way. It could have easily gone so much worse back then.

So this is my little way of sending out a nameless THANK YOU! I'm grateful for what you did for me and I hope you'd be happy that I learned so much from the events of that day. I learned how wonderful an act of kindness can be and how it can have impacts that you can't even fathom at the time.

Thanks for listening


Southbay Girl said...

wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!

Calyx Meredith said...

Willie - I made almost that exact same journey! (Can I tell you how bizarre it was for me to read your story?) I was 19 and in civs even though I was traveling under orders. I was naive enough to think that "it was all taken care of" b/c the Navy made the travel arrangements. I did find the bus (even though they didn't speak English and weren't expecting me) - and it took a ridiculous amount of time to get across Tokyo - and I missed my plane (the last one of the day) north to Misawa. I had zero money - well maybe $10 - but not enough to pay for a hotel room. Did I mention that Emperor Hirohito died while I was on the plane to Tokyo? Everything was shutting down for 3 days of national mourning. I'm not exactly sure how it all ended up working out because it all happened in Japanese - but some airport person managed to get me the last room at the closest hotel and onto the first plane out the next day. I'm sure they billed it to Uncle Sam - but I was so disoriented and scared and so grateful to that random airport worker for saving me. All to say - I totally join you in shouting a big thanks to the universe for kind Japanese strangers helping stranded (scared) American teenagers!!

Terri said...

Willie, I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about this sort of thing lately, and I do believe that there are really angels out there. In the form of that gentleman, and in other forms, who helped that man be in the right place at the right time, and also willing to listen to his instincts and to reach out to you. Thanks for strengthening my belief with your story.