Friday, May 10, 2019

happy birthday, dad

Nothing could have surprised me more—and yes, it should have surprised me less—than to learn that a Japanese man who witnessed and survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima subsequently appeared on the American television program “This is Your Life.” His appearance came just ten years after the U.S. decimated the city of Hiroshima with its new-fangled atomic bomb.

Ladies and gentlemen, the a-bomb is about to drop, about to kill, maim, injure thousands of people, to end a war, but first, a word from our sponsor!

I paraphrase, but just a bit. The program begins pretty much just like that. It goes from announcing that night’s subject—an apparently stunned the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto—to a picture of a billowing mushroom cloud to a woman furiously scouring her painted nails to show you, the viewer, just how tough Hazel Bishop nail polish is—it cannot be scoured off!

The thing about living is that you never know what to expect. Earlier this week, an article in The New Yorker sent me to the library for “Hiroshima,” a book by John Hersey, and last night I finished reading it. Originally published in 1946, I checked out the 1985 edition as it includes an additional chapter called “The Aftermath.” The book overall provides the story of six survivors—or “explosion-affected persons” as they were called, at the time, in Japan—of the Hiroshima bombing, and it’s in the final chapter, not far from the last few pages, that we learn that one of our explosion-affected persons, this Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, in 1955 appeared unwittingly on “This is Your Life,” a program which endeavored always to surprise its subject. Upon closing the book, it occurred to me that since seemingly every episode of “What’s My Line?”, an old game show from the 1950s and ’60s that I watch nearly every day while eating lunch, is on YouTube, maybe “This is Your Life” would be on YouTube, too, and so it was, so it is.

It seems the Rev. Tanimoto knew he was to be interviewed by this man Ralph Edwards, the host of “This is Your Life,” but he did not know he and his life were to be presented on this American television show. He did not know that on such a stage would he be immediately and dramatically whisked back to exactly 8:15 a.m., August 6, 1945. It is compelling to watch his face during the first seconds of the program, and it is astounding then to pause for the sponsor and to watch as a woman furiously scours her polished nails and, wait a minute, why is she not bleeding? Why is there no blood?

They say when the bomb dropped, there was no sound.

On “This is Your Life” people from the subject’s life are introduced by our host as they walk on stage through an arched doorway, and, in the Rev. Tanimoto’s life, the first person to come through the arched doorway is a little old lady from Ohio. She looks straight out of Mayberry; she could very well have some hard cider in her “valoose.” Later, one of the pilots of the Enola Gay, the plane from which the a-bomb dropped, makes an appearance. He comes from behind a screen where he has been taunting—or teasing—us with his presence. He tells of his brief part in Tanimoto’s life and he is either a little tipsy, as, according to information in Hersey’s book, he was, or he is a little emotional, as one might expect, but then he and Tanimoto shake hands and he moves off-screen to sit next to the little old lady from Ohio, and we move on, and Tanimoto’s life moves on, and this seems to be the lesson, that life moves on, and on and on and on, bombs away, wars start, wars end, and oh, by the way, ladies, in case you’ve forgotten, Hazel Bishop makes a great nail polish.

I peruse The New Yorker because my dad had a subscription to it, seemingly forever, and when I was a kid it arrived in the mail regularly, as did a lot of things; my dad subscribed to a lot of things, he was a magazine editor so it was, in a way, part of his job, part of who he was. But, over the years, except for The New Yorker, subscriptions fell by the wayside. When he died, in 2005, I imagine there were a few we had to cancel but my mother continued The New Yorker, probably in his name, and she read it religiously. Now I have a subscription. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I have always read the magazine, but I do read it now, somewhat religiously, and have always, as long as I can remember, looked and laughed at the cartoons. In the recent article about John Hersey I learned that The New Yorker was the original publisher of “Hiroshima.” In 1946 the magazine published it in full, in one issue, it was the sole story.

In 1945, when the atomic bomb dropped, my dad was, as best I can tell, in New Guinea. He was a major in the Quartermaster Corp. He never much talked about it; it seemed, in a way, not to interest him. But he kept a pile of papers relating to his service tucked away in a file cabinet and I now have those papers so I know that for nearly four years during his mid-20s he actively served in the U.S. Army and spent two years overseas. He began, in 1942, as a 2nd Lieutenant advancing on through to Major in 1945. His Officer’s and Warrant Officer’s Qualification Card tells me that at the time he entered service he had finished one year of law school. In a section labeled “Participating Sports” he checked “Soft Ball,” “Base Ball,” “Skiing Snowshoeing,” “Mountain Climbing,” and “Other,” where he wrote in “Bowling, Badminton.” Among other things, during the course of his service he completed a course in malaria control. He arrived in New Guinea December 7, 1943. He left Manila November 24, 1945.

I’m not sure what any of this means, if it means anything at all, but it just so happens that today is my father’s birthday. He would be 100 years old. In 2005, when he died, after a brief illness, it was unimaginable that he should die, that he should no longer be a living person, a crucial part of our lives. Now it is difficult to imagine him alive, in this moment, and to imagine what these past 15 years with him rather than without him might have been like. But my sisters and I often play this game: What would Dad think? Referring usually to some current political situation or baseball team. But today I wonder not what would Dad think, today, but what did he think nearly 75 years ago upon first hearing of the atomic bomb, its drop on Hiroshima? What did he think when reading John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”? And what did he think when watching the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto on “This is Your Life,” if he watched it at all, which he likely did not, probably rather being out doing something like bowling or base ball or badminton or mountain climbing. And I’d like to ask my father about this skiing and snowshoeing business—where did he do that in the middle of Illinois? And I’d like to find out when he ever went mountain climbing.

Of course, if my dad were here, most likely we’d just be sitting, not talking, watching the Cubs and Brewers playing an afternoon game at Wrigley. There would be a few snorts of laughter, maybe of disgust, but not with these Cubs, more likely squeals of glee, and there might be peanuts and a beer and you know, whatever the outcome, life would go on. It would simply go on. What else might we expect?

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