[Fiction] Never Let Me Go, Osaka Babe Ruth — Mark Halpern 

“A letter was sent by the Toronto Area Association of Elementary School Principals to the Toronto Area Association of Television Broadcasters.” So said in 1969 by Harry, my brother, older by two years. I believed him because he said he’d read it in the Toronto Daily Star. 

The substance of the letter, according to Harry, was a request that TV stations refrain from broadcasting The Adventures of Zorro on Sundays. The principals worried about over-excited schoolboys on Mondays.

“They mentioned you in the article. ‘Costas Pappas, aged nine, a fourth-grade student at Gormand Park Elementary School, Downsview, was among those disciplined for desktop sword fighting with yardsticks. No one was injured. But apparently the bigger problem was large Zs surrounded by circles in indelible ink, oil paint etc. on school property all over the Toronto area, many of which were not discovered until later in the week.’”

Despite my constant vigour, I was inevitably among the last two kids drafted when teams were being chosen up, regardless of the sport. Not only was I not good at sports, I was not even interested in pro sports. The only exception was that, like everyone, I collected hockey cards. Still, I was a popular kid, more or less. That’s because my mother let Harry and me grow long hair and wear bellbottom Levis, turtle necks and peace medallions. And also because I had one Beatles album and the Hey Jude/Revolution 45. 

“Stop poking my gut. I believe you. I swear,” I swore, but I crossed my fingers.

Every day during recess, the boys played touch football with a mini-football. Before moving from upstate New York all anyone played was baseball, at which I was even worse than touch football. A few decades later I discovered that Japanese people were crazy for baseball. Especially fans of the Hanshin Tigers, based in Osaka. They vent their passion during Yuletide by absconding with a plastic statue of Colonel Sanders and hurling it into the Dotonbori River. KFC is considered Christmas food.

Still, I had already learned not to believe everything I saw in print. One morning I’d come across an article entitled “Sigmund Freud Made Simple” in a glossy magazine lying in the wicker basket in the first-floor bathroom.

“We have good parents, right?”

“Sure. They work hard to look after us. Mom does mom stuff. Dad plays catch with us and does lots of dad stuff.

“I love my family. I don’t care about any white-beard Wiener Schnitzel called Sickman Freud.”

“Sick Man Fraud Made Simple.”

“Exactly.”

Harry clicked off his transistor radio during “Eight Miles High” by the Byrds. But we kept the melody moving: “Sick Man Fraud/Healthy People Honest/Yeah,Yeah,Yeah,Yeah…” on into an unstoppable, psychedelic, air-bouzouki duo triumph. 

My friend Mike was also cool: He had a Sears-catalogue toy electric guitar and amp that actually worked. He could twang three chords—more with a capo. A few years later we were playing in the schoolyard on a weekend. “Beam it over.” Flubbing the catch I crouched down to retrieve the mini-football from below a long concrete protrusion jutting from the orange brick school wall. Glancing upward I saw a jagged Z circled in jet black. I figured that Marco had executed this with a fine inkbrush. He had been more excited about Zorro than anyone. He and Luigi had gone to the vice-principal’s office and come back crying. I too had been hauled over to Mr. Sharp, who smacked me with The Strap. Only twice, though. And lightly, because I was normally well behaved. I carried my reddish right hand as a badge of honour. I did not cry. Then I was the coolest kid in class for a week.

Educational experiments were as fashionable in 1960s Canada as Wiener Schnitzel had been in the American mental health industrial complex before Transcendental Meditation and Zen Buddhism. Now that I am a parent myself, I care about such stuff. But in junior high I kept my acne-laced head down, and didn’t much try to be cool. 

“They mix age groups in big open-plan spaces for geography and math and whatnot. Shall I ask that they keep you two together?” 

I was relieved when Harry agreed to classes together. We had both sprouted up, but he already had muscly arms and black cheek stubble like Dad. I didn’t need Harry to protect me from the older kids, but his presence meant that the school would be an extension of my own world.

The school’s exterior resembled a factory. Years later, I thought of it many times: whenever I toured a Japanese shipyard, watching giant blocks and heavy equipment atop enormous flatbed trucks before being lifted by megaton cranes for assembly into a gargantuan matt-grey hull waiting to be christened and launched. This was always followed with a long and heavy blast of its horn into the high seas, as the ship embarked  on its life mission, flying its national flag less proudly than it bore its own name and home port on its stern.    

“You two will get to choose some of your classes. Are you thinking about what you’d like to be when you grow up? You can be whatever you want. You don’t need to go into the family business unless you really want to.”

“I don’t want to be ordered around by people who don’t know me, like at school.”

“I’d rather work hard for my own family.”

“Me too. Especially since you can go overseas.” 

“And they like trying out new things.”

“That’s kind of the way I felt,” said our father (true name: Dad), who stood tall between Harry and me, with a thick hand on top of each of our heads.

“My goodness,” said Mom. “Soon they’ll have girlfriends.” Dimitri stared at the floor, but I couldn’t even do that. I mimicked Mom’s prideful smirk, which would be good for school.

“Or you could become doctors or lawyers or naval architects like Uncle Dimitri. He even got a PhD.”

“That’s way too many years of homework.”

The Pappas family is spread all over. But like many Greeks we feel strong connections with each other. Some call this Mediterranean culture, but the Mediterranean is a big sea, from the Levant all the way up to Spain. I don’t know how Zorro feels about his extended family.

After grade ten, I spent the summer in Montreal with Uncle Tony (true name, “Andonis”), and my cousins, who taught me to sail.

“Sailing can be done as a sport.”

“I don’t think the competition would add to the exhilaration.”

Uncle Tony winked at Aunt Olive, as if to say he is one of us.

I spent second year university in London, living with Uncle Dimitri, who ran the office there for Pappas Navigation International. I learned everything, especially charter-hire contracts. “Have you ever had sushi?”

“You mean raw fish and rice?”

“Will ouzo go with that?”

“Let’s see,” said Uncle Dimitri, carrying his paper bag into the restaurant and exchanging thumb-ups with the waiter. “This does not imply we do not also wish a bottle of your finest rice wine, my good man.”

Uncle Tony had referred to Uncle Dimitri as “the Visionary.” He went on and on about redesigning hulls for fuel efficiency. “We shall be eternal, worldwide leaders in creating and showcasing best practices for environmentally-sustainable shipping”. He shouted in feigned anger when I called him “Oracle” instead of “Uncle.”

After graduation I worked for a shipbroking company in Tokyo. I travelled around Japan and learned that the chicken used by KFC is better there. Merry Christmas!

“Merry Christmas to you,” said a miscellaneous visiting relative. “I contend,”—he said, contending too forcefully for my now semi-Japanified sensibilities— that we Greeks never managed enough colonization—in any sense—of Asia. And although we set Europe ablaze with our superbly unconstrained rationality, we’ve evolved into a people who can’t even agree among ourselves without angry shouting. Truly, we need to learn from others, as we continue to give them the benefit of learning from us!”

I visited a shipyard in northern China for a new building delivery to Pappas Dry Bulk. I planned to stay onboard for the first leg of the journey, and thought of asking the crew to lash me to the mast with my necktie to protect me from siren songs. On the way back, I spent a long weekend in 1980s Hong Kong—which appeared from high in the clear sky, to my Tokyo-accustomed eyes, as a slapdash of tilting 85-story walk-ups. There I met Daphne, a Toronto-born and -raised Greek, working in ship finance at a law firm. We mostly ate cheap Greek food, even though we had money and the cheap Chinese food was far better, but Daphne was craziest for sushi.

“How did you end up in Hong Kong?”

“You know us shipping families.”

Our grandparents knew each other, though. I won’t divulge our families’ true names or the islands whence they came. Too much reality is a distraction.

I decided to keep the slow-thinking part of my brain switched on, but Daphne’s voice and neck were as sexy as her cheek was soft.

“I adore Tokyo. How’d you end up there?”

“You know us shipping families. And sometimes when you keep moving you get a broader vista on what you really want out of life.”

“And what do you want out of life?”

“Believe it or not, one thing is to find a wife that will make my parents proud.”

“Wow. Is that a pick-up line?” 

“I don’t know.”

“Wow.”

While waiting for my flight on Monday evening, Daphne said, “What do you think of ‘Olivia’ for a girl and ‘Ilias’ for a boy?”

Having faithful clients, Daphne had no trouble getting hired by a maritime law firm in Tokyo. We worked like cheerful dogs eager for their masters’ constant affirmation and found a sunny apartment in Setagaya Ward near a grassless, benchless park studded with signs interdicting the riding of bicycles throughout its network of smooth asphalt paths. That’s where we lived when the birth of the twins shackled us into servitude. At the big supermarket down the tree-lined main road, every weekend a South American couple sold Spanish-style roast chicken and potatoes to die for—spicy and so tender. Ever since, Daphne and I have been repeatedly taught the word oyabaka by nearly all Japanese people we meet. Oya means parent; baka means crazy. I know of no other language with such a word, though I would think its need universal. Most surprising, we became soccer parents, though we were no more crazy about watching the twirling ball captured in a dynamic magnetic field generated by Olivia’s legs than we were about every other thing to do with our little heroes.

Daphne returned nightly with Japanese homework: often including J-Pop song lyrics to memorize. She played the songs again and again. One rousing refrain: “Hold me tight, Osaka Babe Ruth.”

“Daddy, you’re wrong. It’s not Osaka Babe Ruth! It’s Osaka Bay Blues!”

“Hold me tight, Osaka Babe Ruth,” I kept wailing out.

“Stop it, Daddy. Why are you so silly?”

“Ilias, my silliness is one of the many things you will understand when you grow older.” That was the very first time I lied to either of my children.

“Hold me tight, Osaka Babe Ruth. Hold me tight!”

Every story needs an ending. Not so for every civilization, every culture, every people, every family. Nor every legend.

We’d heard about Matsuzaka and Kobe beef, but who knew about Kurobuta pork and the jidori chicken from Japan’s proud regions? Let alone some vegetables that put ours to shame, like the beautiful, gentle petite eggplants? Nor had I learned from Toronto’s Greek restaurants how a mindset means even more than raw materials. 

“What’s Canadian food like?” My pat, sincere response—“Same as American food”—felt unpatriotic.

My interlocutors’ saddened glances kept prodding me. I thought about when I’d arrive home to find Greek-Canadian children peering into a TV screen showing a pair of adults on side-by-side counter stools eating commonplace foods, trading loud opinions in Japanese about colours, tastes, textures and, above all seasonality. The penny dropped. 

The kids nestled between Daphne and me on the comfy sofa.

“I miss souvlaki. I’m tired of bland family restaurants and am getting tired of Japanese food.”

“I miss tzatziki spanakopita. I miss the tastes, smells and sounds of Greek restaurants. Let’s open one ourselves. Maybe a chain. Maybe we’ll get rich. For sure, we’ll be doing the people of Japan a great favour. ” I explained—with constrained vigour, a touch of logic, and an utter absence of anger —my contention that Greek cuisine must ultimately prove the greatest part of the legacy of Constantinople for any people who live to eat, rather than merely eating to live.

“I’m in.”

“Me too!”

“Me three!” 

“After all, o-kyaku-sama-ha kamisama desu ne. (The customers are gods).”

“So they should appreciate ambrosia when they taste it.”

“Wow.”

An hour later I was ravenous, and began my homework.

Over the following weeks I spread around the idea of a culinary conquest, promising a business plan with hard facts and figures. Sympathy sailed in from all ports. Even tentative investment offers. Though not a soupçon of interest from extended family anywhere in sharing active management. But that mattered not a jot.

“What a sight for sore eyes.” I threw my arms around my brother and he threw his around me. Harry, Penelope and their two kids would stay for the summer. They soon loved Japan and declared themselves “all in”. 

“Hold me tight, Osaka Babe Ruth”. Olivia alerted Harry about my silliness. He poked an index finger deep into my gut. 

“Tighter, tighter, tighter! You’ve really got a hold on me,” Wanting to sing forever, I medleyed into the Beatles’ cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. One must not unduly nurture children on J-Pop that has overtaken its best-before date. Not if one wants the legend of Zorro to last.

In the years to come it was the four cousins who established Pappas Delectable Legends Japan Inc. And it was they who chose their fathers’ true names for its two flagship restaurants: “Konstantinos” in Tokyo and “Heracles” in Osaka.

*

Mark Halpern has lived since 1993 in Tokyo, where he runs his own law firm and writes stories about foreigners in Japan. He was born in America, grew up mostly in Canada, and has also spent much time in the UK and France. As for Japan, Mark has, like some of his stories’ characters, found a way to be both an outsider and an insider.