Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Story of Yasuto Kono and Naoto Kono

I had enlisted in the US Air Force in 1961. My first assignment as a weather observer after basic and technical training was to a US Army airfield in Heidelberg, Germany. One of the more senior people in the unit was a Master Sergeant named Dale Hall, who was a forecaster.

In the spring or summer of 1963, Dale Hall called the weather station from his home in Schriesheim, a village outside of Heidelberg, and told the observer on duty to go to our barracks and to tell anybody there to come to his house, he had a case of beer and a “Japanese fiddle player” at his house. Since two or three of us happened to be sitting around the barracks, we went to Dale's house. This was the beginning of my association with a Japanese violinist.

A next door neighbor, Herr Münch, had approached Dale Hall one day and stated that he had a visitor who spoke better English than German and asked if Dale would help him to talk to the visitor. This visitor was a Japanese man who had come with a letter of recommendation from a school friend of Herr Münch. The school friend had been living in Tokyo for many years and operated a German restaurant there. The letter asked Herr Münch to help the Japanese gentleman to get situated in Germany and to help him do what he came to do - to play German music.

The name of the Japanese man was Yasuto Kono, and he was an accomplished violinist. Kono, as he came to be known, had studied classical violin, but to earn a living while studying the violin he played in bands in US Army and US Air Force clubs in Japan. They mostly played Country and Western music. Then, Kono landed a job in the German restaurant of Herr Münch's friend, called “Bei Rudi,” and started to play German traditional music. He liked the music so much that he decided to make a career out of playing German-style music. The owner of the restaurant encouraged Kono to go to Germany to study the music firsthand and gave him two letters of introduction, one to another school friend in Hamburg and one to Herr Münch in Schriesheim, who owned a large printing establishment. The school friend in Hamburg didn't know what to do with Kono and put him to work in his import-export business, packing boxes for shipment. This is not what Kono came to Germany for, so he decided to try his luck with the second letter of introduction and landed in Schriesheim. Since Herr Münch did not know what to do with Kono either, he called Dale Hall to the rescue.

Characteristically, Dale sprang into action, invited Kono to his house, and provided an audience for him by luring two or three of us airmen with the promise of “a case of beer and a Japanese fiddle player” to his house. Except, Kono wouldn't play, or maybe he played one piece: We were not the kind of audience he had hoped for. We had a good time anyway. However, thus began my association with Kono and it deepened my relationship with Dale and Doris Hall. Initially because I spoke German and we were trying to help Kono. We spent many hours together trying to get Kono established in Germany so that he could do what he came for - to play German music.

Kono's main problem was that he came to Germany on a tourist visa which allowed him to stay one year, but which did not allow him to work in Germany. Coming from a non-European country it was nearly impossible to get a work permit, we were told. Only two types of occupations from Japan were eligible for residence and work permits: People studying nursing and automotive engineers who were working with German engine developers in developing the so called “Wankel” motor (which was later use by Mazda).

Dale, being an eternal optimist, never would be daunted by a “turn-down.” He managed to glean a glimmer of hope from almost any negative answer. Whenever someone at one of the offices we contacted made some remark which sparked this glimmer of hope for a positive solution, we would break out a bottle of Sekt (the German equivalent of Champagne) and celebrate. After every celebration came another setback, but then invariably came another glimmer of hope, and so on.

Kono traveled to the city of Kassel to play in an orchestra - a sort of audition. We hoped that if he were offered a job by the orchestra that that would facilitate getting a work permit, but no such luck. Kono didn't get hired (or didn't want to get hired because he didn't like the music they were playing).

Because of some remark some official made, we thought that if Kono had a “residence” in Germany he might be able to get a work permit. Although Kono did not have a “residence permit,” we proceeded to establish a “residence” for him. Since he could not live forever in the Münch's guest room anyway, it was natural to look for some other living arrangements for him. At first he stayed in a sort of hotel, called a “Pension,” but the conditions there were not very pleasant. I would pick Kono up whenever I was off duty and drive him to the Halls and he and I would spend most of our time at their house, being fed and “entertained.” So, it came naturally that we decided to move Kono's “residence” closer to the Halls in Schriesheim, since he spent most of his time there. I'm sure Dale inquired about a room for Kono in Schriesheim and found none, but I know for a fact that we then went to the neighboring town of Dossenheim, where we found a nice room with a balcony on two sides, in a private home. Dosssenheim is on the way to Schriesheim, so it was easier for me to pick Kono up along the way. In addition to having only a tourist visa, Kono was only allowed to take a certain amount of money with him out of Japan. Therefore, his means were limited. Whatever the rent for the room was, it was too much for Kono, so I volunteered to pay for the room and to live there with him, since the room was big enough for two. I was tired of the barracks life anyway.
 
Our rooming together didn't last long, because, in our optimism, now that the “residence” was established, he would get the work permit (after all, he would have to make a living), Kono sent for his wife and small son to come join him in Germany. His wife, Misato, and Naoto, his son of three or four years of age, arrived one day in late 1963. I moved back into the barracks, I had never officially moved out anyway.

Somewhere along the line when the work permit was not forthcoming, Dale came up with the idea, since Kono had played in US military clubs in Japan, why couldn't he do that here in Germany. The American clubs didn't care about work permits. The only drawback was, he couldn't do it alone, he needed accompaniment, a violin alone was not very marketable. Doris suggested that I accompany him on the drums, since I was forever drumming with my fingers on the table, the chair, etc. I had also mentioned the fact that I had taken drum lessons and that I had played in the band during High School. I think it must have been during one of those “interim success celebrations” that I agreed, and Dale and I went to a local music store and I bought a set of drums. Since I didn't have enough money to pay for them, I took out a loan at the bank, which Dale co-signed. At the same time, because of our sudden interest in music and to facilitate practicing, Dale and Doris bought a small upright piano. Drums and violin don't make a very pleasing combination by themselves, so we looked for at least one more member of the combo called “The Consorts,” a name created by Dale Hall who was going to be our manager. We tried out several candidates, one played the guitar and his name was Harry, one other time we played with a bass player (actually for pay at the officers club), I seem to remember that there also was an accordion player, but am not sure. I do remember an evening in some village away from Schriesheim where a group of local amateurs gathered to make music. We joined them in the hope of finding a suitable member for our combo. They were not what we were looking for and when one of them asked Kono if he could follow along and play second violin, Dale almost died laughing - Kono was an accomplished soloist. We made a demo tape with the guitarist named Harry and sent it to Chet Atkins in Nashville. We thought maybe Chet Atkins would find a “Japanese fiddle player” playing Country and Western music interesting. We got a polite response – thank you, but no thank you.

We never made enough money to pay for my drum set. As far as I can recall, we only played three times for money, once with the bass player and twice more only Kono and I played. My favorite song was the “Hawaiian War Chant,” when Kono would strum his violin like a ukulele and I could really beat the drums. Unfortunately, during one session at the NCO Club one of my drumsticks flew out of my hand during the height of the war chant and into the audience. I pretended that flinging a drumstick is normal, grabbed a substitute stick, which I luckily had at hand, and continued on. All in all, I found my playing with Kono embarrassing. Kono was an accomplished musician, I was a rank amateur. The combination of drum and violin left something to be desired. Kono kept a straight face through it all.

Some time during his stay in Germany, Kono expressed the desire to learn to play the zither. So, one day Dale (and I believe I chipped in, but could be mistaken, given my financial situation at the time) bought him a zither. We managed to get hold of some sheet music for zither and Kono taught himself, literally over night, to play the zither. When he went back to Japan he became the only zither player in Japan and quite famous, until his son Naoto later on took up the same instrument and now there are two famous zither players in Japan (unless someone else has taken it up too).

When I had to fly to the States from Germany in 1964 because my mother was hospitalized, Misato and Kono made 2000 “Happy Birds,” as they called them, birds made out of folded paper, which I now know as Origami. The birds were to bring health, luck, and happiness to my mother. Unfortunately, since there were so many, I could only take a fraction of the birds to my mother - they helped, she recovered. I took the Konos to Munich and around Heidelberg and we had great times at the Halls', but finally we all came to realize that Kono was not going to get a work permit, his one year visa was expiring and his wife Misato was very homesick for Japan. Therefore, in the summer of 1964 the Konos went home to Japan.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Truth be Told!

The truth be told: I don't like Donald Trump and I can't understand how anybody could!
A recent incident involving Mr. Trump reminded me of an anecdote related to me by a retired Army officer who had been a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He told me the following: During one particular mission his helicopter was shot up considerably, yet he was able to complete the mission and return to his base. After landing, as he was walking away from his helicopter, he noticed that one leg on his flight suit was all wet. Heavy perspiration of the upper body was quite common in the heat and humidity of Vietnam and the stress of getting shot at, but a wet pant leg was unusual. When he reached down, he found out that it was blood that made the leg of the flight suit wet. In fact, blood was running down his leg and had already filled up one of his boots. Apparently the adrenaline rush during the encounter with the enemy had blocked out any pain. He went to the dispensary and was immediately put into a hospital bed. After he was patched up and released from the hospital, someone came to present him with the Purple Heart medal he deserved for his wound. However, he turned down the medal saying that there were soldiers out there who lost limbs and received grievous wounds that would make them invalids and cause them to be handicapped for the rest of their lives and he didn't think that he deserved a Purple Heart for a “nip in the buttocks.”
The incident that reminded me of this anecdote was Donald Trump's accepting a Purple Heart medal from a handicapped veteran, who undoubtedly earned it, and flaunting it as if he deserved it and exclaiming that this was an easier way to get one. I find this an affront to all Purple Heart recipients - all this in the wake of revelations of how Donald Trump allegedly avoided military service.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Situational Obesity
Friends, I'm gaining weight - but it's not my fault! When we arrived here on the Cape I weighed a “svelte” 210 pounds, fully clothed, now I weigh 215 pounds, scantily clad.

I know, it is always someone else's fault, so the saying goes, but in this case it really is not my fault. I call it “Situational Obesity!” The situation is this: Soon after we arrived, the European Soccer Championship started, which was broadcast here by ESPN. Of course I felt obligated to watch at least the games in which Germany played and the games in which Germany's potential future opponents played. I did not drink beer and eat snacks, but I did spend several afternoons glued to the couch. Then came a series of terrorist attacks in the US and in Europe and two horrendous police killings in the US and an alleged coup attempt in Turkey that again had me riveted to the TV set. Needless to say, no snacks even considered. Then came the Republican National Convention. That resulted in long evenings watching a show whose outcome was already known. Of course it required the watching of the commentators' discussions not only at the nightly gathering of the convention, but also on the following day. Lots of beer and snacks to maintain sanity. While looking forward to a few days of “normal” TV-fare, I was tricked into watching more commentators' comments, because I was looking for some indication to make me believe that America is still the country too which I swore my lifelong allegiance. More beer and snacks. Now the Democratic National Convention has started, its outcome also known. The three days since the convention started have resulted in long evenings with a moderate amount of drinks and snacks - sanity does not seem to be in jeopardy - so far. But who knows what is yet to come. I'm hoping to return to a normal “TV-watching-life” on Friday, which means no daytime TV-watching and selective watching in the evening, but am not betting the farm on it. I'm hoping to see the pounds tumble - or is there something else I should be doing?

Friday, July 22, 2016

The English Corner

Our  local newspaper in Heidelberg, Germany, the “Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung,” features a column called “English Corner” in its Saturday supplement. It contains articles written in English, presumably to let German readers practice their English reading skills. I read the column each week for several weeks and learned that the articles were written by a Canadian, a British, and an Australian author in succession. All three write British English. So, I wrote to the editor of the supplement and asked if it wouldn't be of interest to his readers to read an article written in American English since there is a difference in the spelling of certain words, certain words can be differently interpreted, and different idioms and expressions are used. The reply was that he was quite satisfied with his three authors, but that he would be willing to consider a guest article and that I should send him a sample of my writing. I wrote several articles in a simple conversational tone that I thought might be somewhat educational and interesting to the readers. The articles appear below. So far, two of my articles have been published: The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and USA Presidential Elections, which I wrote during the US primary elections this spring. I recently submitted the article about great white sharks around Cape Cod, but have not heard yet if it will reach print.
Be Shark Smart!

Thus read signs on some of the Cape Cod beaches. Cape Cod is a peninsula that protrudes from the coast of Massachusetts in the northeastern part of the United States. When looking at the “Cape,” as it is referred to locally, from above, it looks like an arm, bent at the elbow and making a fist. The land seems to be signaling defiance toward the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Because of Cape Cod's geographical position, it has many magnificent beaches that are very popular during the tourist season. People from all over the country and around the world come to sunbathe, swim, and surf here. It is at this time of year, however, that a bit of excitement is introduced into the beach activity in the form of the danger posed by great white sharks, that mainly roam the waters off the beaches above the “elbow” formed by the peninsula. The reason for the sharks' preference for this location is that these beaches face the open Atlantic and are favorite feeding grounds for seals, which in turn are the preferred food of great white sharks. Many times while walking along my favorite beach I have seen the heads of seals pop up in the water only a few yards away from the shore, disappearing and then reappearing some distance away. I have also observed groups of seals high and dry on an offshore sandbank, seemingly sunning themselves. I am told that this is a sure sign that sharks are in the area and the seals are in reality waiting for the danger to pass. At times I have also admired the courage shown by the few surfers who venture out into the not-very-ferocious surf to catch a wave, because when in the water with their neoprene suits on, they look remarkably like a seal swimming on the surface and are often mistaken by a shark for his favorite meal.

Although the periodic presence of sharks off the beaches of Cape Cod has been recorded for years, no shark attack on humans has been reported recently largely due to the heightened awareness, which is a result of tracking the great white sharks with modern techniques. Signs are now posted on affected beaches making people aware of the potential presence of sharks. Airplanes and boats regularly patrol the waters off the coast of Cape Cod, not to hunt the predators, but to record their presence and when possible to place a transmitter on them to enable researchers to track their travels and thereby study their seasonal behavior. Receivers placed strategically off the coast pick up the signals of passing sharks, allowing their locations to be displayed on a map. There even is an app available that displays this map and that allows the users to report any shark sightings, should they be so “lucky.” According to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a non-profit organization that studies the shark population off Cape Cod, the number of great white sharks cataloged as spending time in Cape waters, as of 21 June 2016, is 169. The honor of being the largest documented shark is shared by a shark named Large Marge, Luci, and James (yes, they are given names), each 16 feet long.

For those of us who enjoy walking along the beaches without getting more than our feet wet, the potential presence of sharks in the water near where we are walking is of little consequence. However, whenever I walk on my favorite beach at dawn or near sunset, the shark's favorite times to feed, I hear the soundtrack of the movie “Jaws” playing in my head: “Tumtum, tumtum, tumtum, tumtum...”
USA Presidential Elections

With the United States presidential election in full swing, some of my German friends have asked me to explain the American election process to them, a process which can be quite confusing - not only from a German perspective. Even though having been a voter in United States elections since reaching voting age, I was hard pressed to come up with a short answer to my friends' questions - I had to do some research.

First of all, the process by which political parties in the United States choose their candidates for president is not dictated by the constitution of the United States, but rather has evolved over the years as political parties in the United States evolved. That requires some explaining and involves the description of state primary elections and state caucuses.

State primary elections and caucuses are events where prospective candidates for president are judged, so to speak, by members of their party. That means that in each state of the Union each political party holds its own primary election or caucus. Sometimes these events take place in a particular state at the same time (at different places), sometimes they take place on different dates in a particular state, or some are held in several states on the same date. Primary elections are held at official polling places and involve a secret ballot. Caucuses on the other hand, are events where members of a political party divide themselves into groups according to the candidate they support. Each group gives speeches supporting a candidate and tries to persuade others to join their group. At the end of the caucus the number of voters in each candidate's group are counted. Most states hold primary elections, only a handful hold caucuses, and each state has its own rules governing primary elections and caucuses, as the case may be.

Here is where it gets even more complicated. As mentioned above, since the United States Constitution does not dictate the process to be followed for the selection of a candidate for president, the rules governing the selection process are made by the political parties. To go into the details of the rules each of the political parties in the US follows goes beyond the scope of this brief overview. Let it suffice to say, that based on the outcome of the primary elections and the caucuses, each political party establishes the number of delegates it sends to their national convention which the political parties hold in the summer before the general election. The potential candidates for president who are still in the race present themselves to the delegates of their party who then choose the person who will be their presidential candidate in the general election.

Secondly, Americans do not elect their president directly - but indirectly. Each state has designated intermediaries called “electors.” The number of electors a state can have is equal to the number of representatives and senators the state has in the United States Congress. The number of representatives a state has depends on the state's population, in addition, each state has two senators. Currently there are a total of 538 electors. They are collectively referred to as the Electoral College. The more votes a particular presidential candidate receives in a state, the more electors he gets from that state.

Now there is one more hitch: the difference between the “popular vote” and the “electoral vote.” At the general election, the public's ballots result in the popular vote. However, at this time the intermediaries, the Electoral College, enter the picture again. They never meet as a body, but cast their votes in their respective state capitals for the presidential candidate who received the most popular votes in their state. At least 270 votes from the 538 members of the Electoral College are required for a candidate to win the election. It is possible, that the Electoral College will come up with a different winner of the presidential race than the popular vote indicated. The reason for this is that states with the highest populations, and therefore the most electoral votes, can overturn a close victory based on the nationwide popular vote. This has happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and again in 2000 when George W. Bush received fewer total popular votes than Albert Gore Jr., but received a majority of electoral votes.

There are many more details that would have to be explained to fully describe this complicated process. One question I always get after trying to explain the American election system is: “Why so complicated?” The only answer I can think of is that this process has evolved over 200-plus years and has become an American tradition.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Pickleball

There is a “new” game sweeping the nation, it is called Pickleball. New is in quotation marks, because Pickleball is not that new. It was invented in the US state of Washington in 1965 and has been gaining followers since then. It is most popular with the older generations, but all ages can play the game, it is even being taught in some high schools.

There are several versions of how the name Pickleball came to be. The one I heard first was that the inventor of the game had a dog named Pickles and named the game after him. Another version has to do with rowboats. In crew rowing, a boat in which the oarsmen are chosen from the leftovers of other boats is called a pickle boat. This is the real version. In fact the dog named Pickles didn't even exist until two years after the invention of the game. However, I like the dog version better. In my mind's eye I can see Pickles chasing after the ball, much to the annoyance of the players.

When I first saw the game played it appeared to me to be like playing table tennis while standing on the table! It is played on a court smaller than a tennis court with a net lower than a tennis net. Wooden paddles similar to the ones used in table tennis and a hollow plastic ball, roughly the size of a tennis ball that has holes in it, commonly called a “wiffle” ball, are used. Two to four people play until one team reaches 11 points with at least a two point lead, as in table tennis. The rest of the rules would take several more pages and are omitted here in deference to the reader's comfort and sanity.

In many areas in the US with a large retired population, such as Florida and Arizona, the game of Pickleball has almost attained cult status. On Cape Cod where I first learned of Pickleball, it is played outdoors in the summer and indoors in the winter, by former tennis players (and others) who still have the desire for a spirited game without having to run more than a few steps to return the ball. In fact, I participated in a tournament which a 92 year old former tennis player - he and his partner won.

Beside the beneficial exercise, the game fosters friendships, not only while playing the game, but also during the after-game get-together in one of the local watering holes. I can't wait to get to the Cape to join the “Pickleballers” again!