Chapter 10 of Max Blue’s first novel, For Those In Peril On the Sea, tells the story of Booker T. McCan’s experience with Japanese Colonel Nishi after the young black American is captured on the Island of Iwo Jima, in February, 1945. Max was venting some outrages he had experienced growing up in America. Again, this is background for the soon to be published novel COUNT.
COLONEL NISHI AND THE BbROWNS
Mac was led stumbling in the darkness blindfolded, his arms arrested tightly at his sides, through a narrow winding passageway, up two flights of wooden steps, and finally into a small room carved out of the earth and lighted only by a bare electric bulb hanging from a slim cord. When his blindfold was removed Mac saw a sparely furnished room; a table, a chair, a low stool. He heard the melancholy sounds of Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. A large, detailed map of the island was secured to one wall. On the table were a field telephone, a bottle of brandy, and two glasses. Sitting behind the table, facing away from Mac, was a Japanese officer. Other than movies, it was the first Japanese Mac had ever seen. It was the Baron: Colonel Nishi.
The colonel sat quietly, smoking a cigarette, listening to the music. At length he stood and turned to face the wide-eyed young American. He smiled in satisfaction at the look of astonishment on Mac’s face. Mac, with his Hollywood-inspired knowledge of what all Japanese looked like, was totally unprepared for Colonel Nishi. First, the colonel did not look at all like a monkey, in fact, Mac was struck by how much he looked like Count, his old mentor in Peoria. Secondly, although Mac had grown to an imposing six feet two inches, the Baron was an inch taller. Third, the colonel did not wear thick glasses, and finally, to Mac’s utter confusion, the Baron was wearing a St. Louis Browns baseball cap.
Colonel Nishi stood directly in front of Mac, grasped the chain of his dog tags for a close look, and said, in a basso profundo voice that also caught Mac by surprise, “So you are Booker T. McCan? Welcome to Iwo Jima.”
Mac was stunned. Here, standing before him was a man who must be his enemy, who surely intended to kill him, and yet was speaking to him in unaccented English. To top it off, the man appeared to be friendly. It made no sense. It must be a dream.
“Why did you kill my brother?” Mac blurted.
Colonel Nishi blinked, shook his head slightly, stepped back, shook his head again, then turned and poured himself a glass of brandy. He took a large draught, swallowed it slowly, then lighted a cigarette with a small pocket lighter, all the while never taking his eyes off Mac who stood defiantly before him.
“Why did I kill your brother . . .” The question was repeated as a statement. The colonel stared at Mac in surprise . . .what was this all about? The colonel circled behind Mac regarding him with some interest . . . was it possible that he had at long last come across a thoughtful American? One capable of an abstract question? Very well, he would give him an answer.
“It goes back a long way, Mr. McCan,” said the Baron. “Before you were born. It goes back forty years.” The colonel circled behind Mac once again, his mind rewinding to recall long suppressed memories. He stopped, and spoke to the back of Mac’s head. “My family came to America because we were told it was the land of opportunity. My father and mother settled in California; they sent my sister and me to school. We learned. It was a happy time. I became a teacher. A teacher of mathematics.”
Colonel Nishi walked in circles around Mac as he spoke. He no longer looked at Mac, but seemed to be gazing into the distance beyond the confining walls of the dismal cell that contained them. Mood Indigo continued to play. Mac thought of Flapper Jackson, also a teacher of mathematics.
Colonel Nishi continued. “Your name is Booker T. . . . I wonder if you know anything about the man you are named for?”
Mac was startled. He had never thought much about his name.
“In nineteen fifteen, the year Booker T. Washington died, I came to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to teach mathematics. Booker T. Washington founded that school. He knew that education was important, and he built a fine institution at Tuskegee. I was proud to be part of it.”
Mac listened in gathering amazement; why was this man telling him this story?
The colonel continued. “I was educated in California, but when I came to Alabama I received a different kind of education. I saw a different side of America. I saw meanness. I saw ignorance. I saw hate. I saw hypocrisy. I saw uneducated white people trying to prove their own worthiness by degrading intelligent and sensitive black professors. I experienced the same degrading practices because, even though I wasn’t black, I was different. I was yellow, and I had slanty eyes.”
The colonel stopped pacing, and stood facing Mac, looking into his eyes. Mac, his upper body still roped, returned the gaze, never blinking. “Do you know what I’m talking about . . . NIGGER?” The last word was a shout. Mac blinked. He was confused. This man was the enemy he had sworn to kill. He thought about Bucks Fulton. He thought about his billet as a mess attendant. He thought about his brother Davey as a mess attendant. Colonel Nishi, looking deep into Mac’s eyes, found a flicker of understanding.
“Listen carefully, young man,” he said, and resumed pacing. He spoke as he paced. “I thought it would be different in the north, so I moved to St. Louis, and began teaching at SoldanHigh School. In the summer I played baseball.” The colonel stopped in front of Mac to see his reaction to this news. Mac was puzzled.
“Yes, baseball,” said the colonel. “Does that surprise you? Did you know that baseball is the national game of Japan? You see our countries are not as different as you might think.”
This piece of news hit Mac hard. It did not seem right. His anger at the Japanese flared again . . . another treacherous act; baseball was America’s game.
“I was a very good baseball player,” the colonel mused, again seeing beyond the walls, talking aloud to himself. “I was a pitcher.” He smiled as he recalled desperate lunges at his deliveries.
But now his smile disappeared, and he turned back to Mac. “Our team was called ‘the All Nations’. Listen carefully McCan, this is important. On that team were three white men: a Catholic, a Protestant, and a Jew. There were also five negroes, two Cubans, a Hawaiian, an American Indian, and me, a Japanese. If baseball is a metaphor for life, and it is, this team proved to all who could see, that people of different races can get along with each other and work together for the benefit of all.”
Mac knew little of metaphor; he had once played basketball in Metamora, a hamlet near Peoria, but he too had teamed with players of mixed and wildly diverse backgrounds, origins, and beliefs. He was unmoved by the colonel’s words. What was there to prove? He remained defiant.
“That team was good enough to compete with the best teams in the country, and we proved it on the field many times. We beat teams with Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth on them.” The colonel said it with pride in his voice, and paused to savor the thought. Like all former ball players, when he jogged his memory he could recall singular pitches and plays years after the event. He remembered the sound, and his disgust, when Ruth’s bat crashed against what he thought was one of his better pitches.
“Two of the white men on ‘the All Nations’, went on to play in the Major Leagues, but the rest of us were not allowed, and believe me it wasn’t because we weren’t good enough.”
The colonel stopped for a moment, as a different thought crossed his mind. He turned again to Mac and said, “Some people blamed your namesake, Booker T. Washington. He once made an important speech in which he said that negroes and whites should be separated. The powerful white community loved that, and it became the law.” He paused. “ . . . In nineteen twenty the Negro National Baseball League was formed, and I got a job playing for the St. Louis Giants. Those were exciting times.” Colonel Nishi’s eyes shone. “Think of it, Booker T. I was paid to play baseball! Not a pittance either, five dollars a game, and sometimes a bonus for a good performance. Oh, yes. Exciting times. What did we care if the white leagues wouldn’t let us in? We had our own league, and we felt good about it. The league had a motto: ‘We are the ship, all else the sea.’” The colonel smiled sadly. “Brave words. Defiant words, and yet sorrowful. A ship is always at the mercy of the sea.”
As he talked, the colonel paced back and forth, smoking one cigarette after another. He walked to the corner of the room and changed the record that had been turning for some time with no music coming out. He carefully lifted the needle and placed the arm in its cradle. He looked through a stack of black 78 rpm records until he found the one he wanted. He placed it on the rotating turntable and set the needle. The haunting sounds of Billie Holiday singing Melancholy Baby filled the room. Momentarily the colonel stood quietly, thinking about the ship, the sea, and the melancholy. Then he resumed pacing.
“The nineteen twenties were good years for me. In the winter I taught mathematics at SoldanHigh School, and in the summer I played baseball for the St. Louis Stars who replaced the Giants in nineteen twenty two. That was the year the St. Louis Browns almost won the white American League pennant. George Sisler hit four twenty, but they still lost to the Yankees . . . by just one game. That loss took on great meaning for me as the years passed. I began to see the Yankees as white America and the Browns as brown America. Another metaphor, Booker T.”
Another metaphor. Mac’s mind was racing. He was listening carefully, as instructed. White America. Brown America. Metaphor. He thought of the glorious sunset on the broad Pacific that night on the troop transport out of San Francisco. He thought of Holy Communion. Metaphor. White America. Brown america. Yankees-browns.
The colonel continued. “Beginning with that heart-wrenching loss in nineteen twenty two, I saw the competition deteriorate, and the Bbrowns took some fearsome beatings over the years.” The Colonel turned suddenly to look at Mac and asked, “What year were you born?”
“Nineteen twenty eight,” answered Booker T.
The colonel thought for a moment, looked at Mac sadly, and placed his open palm gently on Mac’s cheek. “So young,” he said.
Mac flushed in embarrassment. His anger was slipping into curiosity. Did this man really care about him? Or was it just another deception?
“Nineteen twenty eight,” said the colonel. “Yes. The Browns finished third with their new first baseman, Lu Blue. The Yankees ruled. They swept the Cardinals in the World Series. Gehrig homered once in game two, twice in game three, and once in game four. Ruth homered three times in game four. It was brutal. In nineteen thirty nine the Bbrowns hit bottom: one hundred eleven losses. I too hit bottom: too old to play baseball, battered by the Depression. The Browns were me. I was the browns.”
Colonel Nishi stopped pacing long enough to change the record. This time it was Lena Horne singing Stormy Weather. He walked back to the desk, took a handful of steel-tipped darts out of a drawer, and began slinging them in an underhand motion at a corkboard attached to a far wall. The circular board was painted into pie-shaped sections lettered with baseball symbols: 3B, FO, KO, SAC, etc. In the center was a small circle with the symbol HR.
“I always went to SportsmansPark when the Yankees came to town. Hoping. Hoping this would be the day things would change. It was cruel. The Yankees were so powerful, the Browns were so helpless. Few could stand to watch the ridicule. One day I counted fifty four people in the grandstand and ten in the bleachers; the park could hold thirty six thousand. It was nineteen thirty nine; hope had yielded to despair. Do you understand despair, Booker T.?”
Mac had seen despair in the eyes of men sitting on the back steps of his Peoria home, eating the food his mother had prepared. But a new thought boiled to the surface of his understanding. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, despair had given way to exhilaration. The U.S. was alive and full of purpose. Should we thank the Japanese? Mac did not feel despair at this moment, but he sensed that the colonel did.
“The Browns had an unexcelled ability to break their fans’ hearts. How can I forget the day they led the Yankees by two runs with nobody on base and two men out in the top of the ninth? Then, with the suddenness of doom the Yankees loaded the bases on an error and two walks, and brought Gehrig to the plate. In nineteen thirty nine Gehrig was a dying man, but with a bat in his hand he was still dangerous, and God knows, a man who had punished the Browns unmercifully over the years.” The colonel paused as he remembered.
“There was an irony here. Gehrig was a fine man, unthreatened by, and unafraid to speak out for the browns. He saw no reason why they should be prevented from playing in the Major Leagues, and he said so. He, like all the others, played against browns in exhibition games. He saw the absurdity when brown Cubans like Roberto Estalella were not considered negroes because they could speak Spanish and so were allowed to play. Your country, Booker T., is riddled with paradox: massive and senseless ill treatment of minorities; beacons of outrage like Gehrig.” Once again the colonel paused to reflect.
“Your country is riddled with paradox . . . AND SO IS MINE!” He threw a handful of darts at the board in an outburst of fury and frustration.
The colonel stalked back and forth, wanting his boiling rage to subside. Only slowly did it do so. He would speak again. He wanted to make his point. Like all the best teachers, he became so lost in his logical thought train that he forgot his audience. Mac was but an onlooker. An onlooker taking furious mental notes. With the last outburst, a new parameter had been introduced into the equation. Mac was beginning to see. Captured by the colonel’s intensity, no longer being lectured, he waited for the next point in the lesson. He imagined Gehrig, the good-hearted Yankee, husbanding his energy with slow and menacing bat strokes, glaring with murderous, but not evil, intent at the reluctant pitcher. He imagined the besieged Brownie hurler, the brown, grinding the ball into his hip, walking off the mound to pick up the rosin bag, avoiding the confrontation, seeing the dancing base runners, wishing he did not have to deliver the ball … hoping for a miracle.
“I was afraid to look,” the colonel continued. “What I heard made me wince. The crack of ball meeting solid wood. When I looked up I saw the runners circling the bases at the top of their speed. But I also saw, to my amazement, the first baseman camping under a ball hit so high it was almost out of sight. Gehrig had hit it up the elevator shaft, home run distance, but straight up. So high that all three runners, almost as if they knew something, had crossed the plate when the ball finally came down as it had to do . . . even the Yankees were powerless before the laws of Physics. But there is no law that an infield pop up will be caught, and as the ball descended I knew with sickening certainty that it was another cruel joke, and of course, the ball was dropped.”
Colonel Nishi slammed a dart with overhand fury into the board.
“I stayed in America one more painful year before returning to Japan. What decided me finally to leave the land of opportunity after thirty years, was a symbolic act that demonstrated to me with great clarity that it was not only the browns in America who were downtrodden, mistreated, and exploited, but in fact, all the people were victims, all the people were browns, with the notable exceptions of the wealthy few. Victims of an ethic that exalts only gluttonous and insatiable commerce.”
Colonel Nishi slammed a dart into the very center of the board, marked HR, placed Franz Liszt’s Le Prelude on the turntable, and turned up the volume.
“It was the exiling of a popular hero because he had the temerity to demand payment equal to his worth. Joe Medwick traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Ernie Koy and a hundred thousand dollars. Like the Japanese army trading General Kuribayashi to the U.S. Marines for Booker T. McCan and a bag of gold.”
A symphony of violins and trumpets swelled to majestic crescendo as the sounds of Liszt’s great tone poem flowed over the room.
“Medwick was a St. Louis Cardinal. The fans called him “Ducky Joe” and “Muscles”. They loved him, and for good reason. The year before he was traded he had seventy extra base hits, twice as many singles, drove in a hundred seventeen runs, and that was an off year for him. The Cardinals refused to pay him the eighteen thousand dollars he thought he was worth. The St. Louis fans were shocked by the trade, nobody in management asked them what they thought. Nobody in management cared. But the fans cared. Young boys cried, and tried to understand. Old men swore, and tried to understand. Ducky Joe was just reaching his prime. He was twenty eight years old. For me it was the final blow; I returned to Japan looking for something better.”
Colonel Nishi hung his head sadly, gently laid his darts on the table, and once more changed the phonograph record. Mac heard the mournful sounds of Billie Holiday singing St. Louis Blues.
“And so at last, my adolescent antagonist, we come to the point . . . why did I kill your brother? I killed him because I, like all of us, am a victim. Foolish and helpless before the crushing power of people and events. In the name of duty required to act on the whims of anonymous brokers. I expected something different when I returned to my native land, but it was a childish and naive expectation. And so I killed your brother and many others, and saw my brothers killed in return. And for what? None of us knew why we were killing except that it was our patriotic duty. What price glory? Indeed.”
Colonel Nishi stopped to face Mac. “Go home, Booker T. McCan,” he said. “This is not your war. Stop killing. Take what you have learned back to those you love. Try to make them understand.”
The last thing Mac remembered was the soaring clarinet of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.