I don’t know where the mule came from nor how it got here, but seeing several of my crew huddled in the field next to it, I was suspicious. I had been invited to this demonstration just moments ago. “Sir, you are needed at the crest of the village road.”
As I approached the hill, I saw a line of onlookers standing in a row facing away from the road and into the sugar cane field. A young man I didn’t recognize was behind the mule with the reins over his shoulder, and gripping the wooden handles; it was a Grant Wood painting come to life.
“OK guys, someone tell me what’s going on here.” After a moment of awkward jockeying, they tapped a spokesman who stepped forward.
“Well, sir, aahh… we are trying to show everyone that there is a more efficient way to get their fields ready for planting.” He bit his bottom lip, waiting for some response from me. He continued, “Well, you know how these farmers do everything with a short handled hoe and sickle?” Again getting no response, he launched into a rapid fire sputter.
“They work these tiny plots only to put all the crops together for sale afterwards and if they just took the walls down we figured a plow could save a lot of time—and backs too.” Long pause for effect, then. “That’s one of our Marine friends from the main island behind the plow, sir he’s from Georgia and he really knows what he’s doing we’ve got things all ready to go, sir.”
So, this was a set up. They had been waiting to spring this little show on me as well as the village Mayor and a group of farmers.
“So, how did this Marine friend, his mule, and his plow get from Okinawa to Ikeshima?” I asked. Silence. The whole crew shook their heads, and hunched their shoulders in collective innocence.
“I don’t suppose it’s possible they were transported here in our LCM?”
A swallowed response from one, still shaking head, “I guess… well…it…it is possible, sir.”
“Well, these people came out to see… something. You better get this show on the road.”
The young Marine in civilian clothes, grabbed the plow handles, back in his element, and tossed me a casual salute. He yelled out some “mule command” and the pair of them took off. They moved at a steady pace, plowing a single furrow that ran the length of what was formerly three separate plots.
The size of sugar cane fields on Ikeshima was deceiving. What, at first, seemed to be a few large fields were, in fact, many small plots. Each farmed by a single family and separated by low hand-built stone and coral walls. The fences were hidden deep in the tall canes, but you could see them from the air. The bamboo-like clusters poked skyward, as if they sprouted from ice cube trays to form a quilt of green.
When harvested, the entire production of the island was pooled and sold at market in Okinawa for the benefit of the whole village. The fishermen do the same thing with their catch. The village was governed as a commune. The fruits of individual labor were willingly shared. Everything was for the common benefit.
The newly created rectangular plot was about fifty yards long and twenty yards wide. The villagers were suitably impressed by the Marine and his mule. They bowed, hands folded prayer fashion at their chests. They clapped politely and engaged each other in animated conversation. They seemed amazed and thankful. No more back breaking effort for Papa-san and Mama-san. Planting would be much easier and probably ten times as fast. My crew was back-slapping the Marine, and smiling at each other. I was proud of them, and told them all, “Great job, men. It looks as though you have made a major impact on the people of this village.”
The following day—the walls were back in place. The farmers worked their separate plots, bent low, putting the finishing touches on the plowed furrows with hand-held hoes. We had not made a single difference.
It was the culture!
In Vern Schneider’s novel, Tea House of the August Moon, he mocks the early occupation of Okinawa by the American Army. One of his characters, Colonel Wainright Purdy III, declares, “My job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy, and they’re going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them.” His first order of business was explaining democracy to them and that it was now in their hands. Everyone cheered.
He was delighted until his interpreter explained that during 800 years of foreign occupation the Okinawans had learned to cheer whoever was in charge, no matter what was said. A scenario, perhaps, not unlike our mule-plowing demonstration.
The 1958 book The Ugly American by William Burdick and Eugene Lederer was required reading for prospective Loran station commanding officers. It is a collection of short essays that were serious critiques of America’s ability to win the hearts and minds of a foreign population.
At the time, their target was our policies and actions in the Far East before the peak of our Vietnam involvement. The authors maintained that our arrogance and ineptitude along with not making any effort to understand the language, culture, or the true needs of the people we were trying to help, contributed to major failures.
Their book was about the Far East and our fight against communism in the late fifties, but when I think about our decade plus of Near East involvement, I wonder if it isn’t time to break out the Ugly American again.”
Every man on the station could cite numerous cross-cultural experiences. For me, the most dramatic came through invitations to swap holiday experiences. I joined a village family as they celebrated the O-Bon festival, and a group of villagers shared our Thanksgiving dinner on the base. You can read about that interesting experience in my next post..