I suppose that this post should, technically, be classified under a category called “History” or something, but seeing as how I almost have as many different categories here on my blog as I do blog posts, I will sneak in a little bit of my own personal philosophy (which, of course, consists mainly of philosophies I have borrowed from other people) and post it under “philosophy.” Sounds good to me.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am, whenever possible, anti-war. I do not attempt to deny this fact. I believe war should be a last resort, only after all diplomatic avenues have failed, only after economic sanctions have failed, only when there is no other viable option.
Some people mistake this position to mean that I am “anti-soldier” or that I “don’t support the troops.” Again, anyone who knows me at all should know that this interpretation of my position regarding war is utterly false.
I am anti-war because I support the troops. I don’t want to see American service men and women put in harm’s way unless there is no other option.
But this blog post is not being written so that I might brag about how “progressive” or “compassionate” or whatever that I think I am by virtue of my stance regarding war. I am here today to tell a story about a man – a veteran – who had a very positive influence on my life.
His name was John Dollar. He served in the U.S. Navy a few decades before I was ever born.
When I was a kid, from the time I was still in diapers until I was around 13, while my mom and stepdad were at work, I would stay with “Uncle John” and his wife, Kathryn, or as pretty much everyone called her, “Aunt Kat.”
Aunt Kat and Uncle John (both have now passed on) never had any children of their own. But they loved children, and they were both excellent role models (and play companions) for children. I would venture that nobody who grew up in my small community of Lawson, Arkansas since Aunt Kat and Uncle John settled here will deny this. They took my mom and uncle on trips when they were younger. They also took me and my brother on trips a few times. I have more fond memories of my time with them than I can even count.
But again, that’s not specifically what I am here to write about today. Although I suppose I should mention that in addition to being an excellent role model, playmate, confidante, and any number of such things, Aunt Kat was also an excellent cook.
And I do mean excellent. None of us kids who stayed with her ever went hungry. Never. And long after she was no longer able to keep kids, she continued to cook beans and cornbread, turnip greens, or stew, or her famous spaghetti – there has never been any better spaghetti made by anyone, anywhere – and give most of it away to people in the community. Toward the end of her life, she would stand over a hot stove all day, just to be able to spread a little happiness around the community, even though it was very difficult for her to get in and out of her car by this point. “Kat, you didn’t have to do that!” was said often by my mom (and I am sure by several other people), after Aunt Kat pulled up in our driveway and honked her horn, signaling that we should come out and get the food she had brought us, because it was very hard for her to get out of her car and bring it to us.
And we always expressed that she didn’t have to do that, but we were always glad that she did.
But going back to my childhood, I can remember clearly sitting at the dining table in the kitchen with my brother or any number of kids who stayed with the Dollars over the years, eating delicious, home-cooked meals. And I remember something else food-related that pertains to Uncle John specifically: Uncle John would not eat rice.
Not only would Uncle John not eat rice, Uncle John did not like to be in the same room where rice was being eaten or even cooked. He despised the stuff. As in truly and deeply hated it.
Yes, rice, those little white grains that go with pretty much everything and don’t have a whole lot of flavor by themselves. Uncle John hated rice. I am not exaggerating; the man would not sit in the same room with it. He would get up and go outside.
I didn’t really understand why that was until many years later. I had heard abbreviated versions of the story I am about to relate, but never the full version. Aunt Kat told it to me several years after Uncle John had already passed away.
Before I write anything at all about this story, I want to stress that I am not trying to rile anyone up about anything. What takes place in this story took place during wartime. Specifically when the United States and Japan were not on friendly terms like they are today.
I have been to Japan. I spent about a week there in 2007. I hope to be able to go there again someday. It is an incredibly interesting place, and one week is not nearly enough time to even begin appreciating the place.
So if anyone comes away from this blog post with a negative attitude about Japan, please understand that this was not my intention. I am merely relating a story that was told to me, a story that took place when the United States and Japan were not on friendly terms.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not even sure what year this story occurred in, or precisely where it took place. I pressed Aunt Kat for details, but she didn’t remember exactly.
My guess is that this story took place some time around the end of World War II, most likely before the end but possibly a little after. I simply don’t know for sure.
I do know that Aunt Kat and Uncle John spent a decent amount of time living in the Philippines, while Uncle John was stationed there. But again, I don’t know exactly how long they were there, or what years they were there.
At any rate, here is the story Aunt Kat told me, with regard to why Uncle John could not stand to be in the same room as rice:
One day, while Uncle John was stationed “overseas” (I am assuming in the Philippines, but as I said, I don’t know for sure) he left the base, intending to see the sights, I suppose. Without realizing it, he wandered into enemy territory, the enemy at the time being Japan. He was captured by Japanese troops and taken to a prison work camp.
At the camp, Uncle John and many other captured soldiers were forced to work insanely long hours – as long as the sun was out, I think – and they were given very little to eat or drink.
All they were given each day, according to Aunt Kat, was a single cup of tea, and what I believe she called a “cord” of rice. She used some term like that I hadn’t heard before; at any rate they were only given a small bowl of rice to eat each day.
And it wasn’t simply the rice, in and of itself, that Uncle John refused to be around later in life. It was what the rice reminded him of.
And it wasn’t merely working out in the hot sun all day with very little food and drink. It was also being forced to do so at gunpoint. It was also watching other men starve to death, collapse from exhaustion, or be shot by guards.
Uncle John was at that camp for quite a while. When I knew him, he was a fairly stocky man – in decent physical shape, but stocky, sort of like I am now – probably around 180 to 200 pounds. I am guessing.
When he was finally released from the prison camp, he weighed around a hundred pounds, I was told.
I don’t know for sure how long he was there. But he was there long enough to see many more young men come in, many of whom he also saw die there.
Uncle John gave the new prisoners advice about things – how to avoid angering the guards, how to ration a single bowl of rice to make it last all day, things like that – but many of them wouldn’t listen. They would gobble all their rice up as soon as it was given to them, and would find themselves starving and without food later in the day, while Uncle John and others still had a bite or two left.
And, of course, many of them simply cracked under pressure, did something to anger a guard, and were shot.
And again, my writing this is to honor Uncle John, not to denigrate Japan or the Japanese people. If you don’t (or can’t) understand the distinction, I would ask that you stop reading before I continue. As acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa once said, in defense of his film “Rhapsody In August,” one that concerns the long-term psychological effects of the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki, “Governments wage wars, not people.” I fully agree with him. If circumstances had been different, if their respective governments had not set them at odds with each other, the men holding the guns in the prison camp and the men being worked to death might have been friends. But I am digressing. At any rate, I am not trying to make anyone dislike Japan or its people, so please don’t assume I am. I am merely relating a bit of history, as it was told to me. Just as Kurosawa was relating a bit of history in his film “Rhapsody In August,” which incidentally is a fantastic film that anyone reading this should watch. It has been called a “propaganda” film by certain American critics; I find that accusation to be beyond absurd.
But moving on, in the prison camp, there was a large, open work area. The prisoners planted crops, or dug ditches, or tended various livestock, or did any number of physically exhausting activities. And let me remind you they were only given a single cup of tea to drink all day.
And let me also remind you that tea contains caffeine, which is a diuretic. Which means it makes you pee. Which means it dehydrates you.
In the middle of the work area was a water fountain. All day, as the prisoners worked in the blazing sun, the fountain spurted water into the air. The water fell into a pool around the fountain, splashing tantalizingly, then was recirculated through the fountain, up into the air, and so on, all day long.
The prisoners were strictly forbidden to drink from this fountain, or even to go anywhere near it. Uncle John saw men who simply could not resist – could not bear the psychological pressure any longer – drop their shovel or rake or whichever tool they had in hand and run toward the fountain.
Uncle John saw these men get shot. Uncle John saw their bodies being dragged away.
Uncle John tried to warn newcomers about things like this. Some listened. Some didn’t.
I had heard abbreviated versions of what I have written several times in my life, mostly from Aunt Kat, while Uncle John was still living. But one day, several years ago, after Uncle John had died, but still several years before Aunt Kat did, she told me the whole story again, along with one other anecdote, one that almost got Uncle John killed.
One of Uncle John’s friends in the camp tended chickens as part of his work load. One day, after they both had been there for quite a while, they devised a plan, one that almost worked, to have roasted chicken for dinner one night, instead of a bite or two of rice.
The friend who tended chickens managed to steal one without being noticed. He stuffed it under his clothing, killed it, and hid it in the outhouse the prisoners used.
Somehow, Uncle John, his friend, and a few other of the men in his bunkhouse (or whatever it was called) were also able to obtain matches, or at any rate some method of starting a fire.
This is a detail I have forgotten. I am kicking myself for not writing all this down nine years ago, when Aunt Kat told me the story.
Anyways, one by one, with the guards’ permission, Uncle John and his friends went to the outhouse. One by one, just a little at a time, they took turns cooking the chicken on the outhouse floor, careful to put the fire out and hide the chicken each time.
Someone from the bunkhouse was always keeping watch, in case a guard got wise to what they were doing. They had an agreed-upon signal, and if a guard started toward the outhouse, someone would give the signal.
Over the course of a night, Uncle John and the other men in on the scheme took their turns roasting the chicken, bit by bit.
Uncle John told Aunt Kat that after the chicken began to almost get done, it was the best-smelling chicken he had ever smelled in his life, despite its close proximity to an open hole full of excrement and urine.
Unfortunately, Uncle John never got to taste that chicken, and neither did any of the other men. Just as the chicken was beginning to almost be edible, a guard noticed the smell, or maybe saw smoke. I think it was smoke.
At any rate, the guard noticed that something fishy was going on and started toward the outhouse. The man on watch saw him and gave the signal, and the man in the outhouse tossed the half-roasted chicken into the shit pit.
The guard found nothing out of the ordinary in the outhouse, and nobody was punished.
But nobody got to eat any chicken, either.
And Uncle John swore off rice the moment he was released from that prison camp. And as far as I know, he never touched another grain of rice as long as he lived.
He loved chicken, though.
Thank you for reading, and thank you for serving, if you happen to be a veteran.