Some Houses Live In Our Memory Forever — Part Iii

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I intended this to be a single column, but it seems to have grown to three on its own. I’m amazed. It’s all about a couple of simple places Lolly and I shared, but then they’re places that are so strongly engraved in our memories we just can’t forget them.

I suppose the truth is that we are remembering each other in those houses more than we are remembering the houses themselves. And the kids too, of course, not to mention some great friends and neighbors who helped give those places a special meaning for us.

What, after all, makes a house something to remember? People, of course. People — and the joy they bring with them.

We have known people who had virtually nothing, including nothing you would call a house, people who lived from hand to mouth, with nothing but a few possessions and the clothes on their backs, people who were such a joy to behold that it made us happy just to be near them.

Abdul, for example — one of the workmen in Karachi. Abdul and his blind and aging wife lived in a little place half the size of your living room. It was a privilege to enter their tiny home and feel the love that filled it. They were as happy as any two people on this planet. Because they had each other.

Yes, people are everything. Proof of that is so simple. Just look at what happens when we lose someone we love.

Shah Jahan, one of the wealthiest rulers who ever lived, could have anything he wanted by merely raising a finger. He lost his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and having lost the one irreplaceable thing in his life, he built a tomb for her that is still thought to be the most beautiful building in the world — the Taj Mahal.

I’ve seen the Taj, stood before it, eyed its beauty, been humbled and inspired by the power of its meaning. All of us, if we will only allow it to happen, have the power to do what that man did so many years ago: Love, absolutely and without reserve.

As I stood there looking at the Taj I knew the true lesson that magnificent building teaches. How lucky we are, those of us who still have our loved ones. We don’t have to build a monument to a broken heart. We have something money and power cannot buy.

Each other.

The little house that Lolly and I and the kids lived in on Okinawa was certainly no Taj Mahal. Even though it was set on the crest of a hill overlooking the Pacific, it would be nothing to brag about in a real estate brochure. But it meant the world to us because without it we’d have been separated for my 30 months on the island. For that reason alone, it will always occupy a warm place in our hearts. And it was such a great little place in its own way that it deserves more than the few words I gave it a few weeks back. I’ll tell you a little about it.

Okinawa is formed from three volcanoes, all inactive now, although tremors still shake the island. In fact, there was one time during our stay there when three of the four roads leading to our little house were wiped out by the combined shaking of the island and the powerful typhoons that roared across it.

In the distant past, uplifting had raised many coral reefs above sea level. The 50-foot-high, grassy hill upon which our house and 10 others stood originally was a coral reef. Our house, sited on the seaward end of it, enjoyed the best view, but also took the brunt of Pacific storms that slammed into the island. 

A main road ran by, down below our front yard. One day we watched the Olympic torch go by during the running of the torch for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. It was quite handy. We didn’t have to go anywhere to see the show. We just unfolded some deck chairs, sat out in the yard, and watched the runners trot by.

Off to the right of the house, and down below it, was a large sugar cane field. I knew the Okinawan owner of the cane field fairly well. He was the one who had sold me my little house for —believe it or not — $1,500. When the canes were ripe and sweet, he brought us a dozen of them for the kids to enjoy. Me too. They were as deliciously sweet as anything you’ve ever tasted.

Okinawa stands squarely in the center of what is known in the Pacific as “Typhoon Alley.” The only houses military personnel were permitted to occupy were those capable of withstanding the typhoons that roared down upon us. Our little two-bedroom place had solid concrete walls, a low-peaked, six-inch thick, concrete roof, and sliding windows protected by thick wooden shutters that we slid into heavy wooden mounts over the windows and nailed in place before each typhoon. Good thing too. In the 30 months we were there, we lived through 18 typhoons, one of which blew up just off the coast and roared ashore without warning.

That one fooled me. I had gone outside that day, looked up at the sky, felt the rising wind, and nailed up the shutters just in case because there was no way to phone the base to check on a possible storm. Why? No phones to be had out there in the country.

A week earlier I had made a small, but “interesting” mistake. Our little home had solid wooden doors and heavy wooden screen doors, but the “dumb” Okinawans had put the screen doors inside the wooden ones, which made no sense to me because if Lolly opened the screen door and then opened the wooden door the security of the screen door was gone. So I had switched the doors, making the screen door the outer one, and the wooden door the inner one.

Then came a big typhoon. Ever seen a solid wooden door bending inward at the top and bottom as hurricane-level winds try to blow it in? Scary sight. I had a hammer and nails, so I nailed the door shut all around its edge. That helped, but rain pounded on the door and was driven in around its edges by roaring wind. So Garrett — the genius — decided that the screen door would protect us if I sheathed it in plastic. Because it opened out, I reasoned, the force of the wind would be taken by the heavy door frame.

So out into the typhoon I sallied. Hanging onto the shutters as best I could, I opened the screen door and — what else? — waved goodbye to it as it sailed out over the cane field. So we put down some rags to sop up the water and I nailed four boards across the door as a little extra typhoon insurance. We sat out the storm and the next day I reversed the doors again, having luckily found the screen door a quarter-mile away across the cane field.

Never again did I ever call any local custom “dumb.”

Live and learn, Johnny.

And enjoy what you have while you have it.

Television has reruns. Life doesn’t.

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