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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Chat With A Japanese Fireman

Being a personable sort, I enjoy talking and learning from the locals here in Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken, Japan. Sure and its Thursday, May 7, 1992, but it seems like yesterday.

I was in a local bar in my adopted city - the 4C - having a bourbon and soda - when a middle-aged Japanese man asked if he could sit and talk with me.

He's not the usual sort of person I have sidle up and talk - usually it's something 20-ish and wearing a skirt and we both know what each other wants and off to my apartment we rumble, but what the Hell... I'm in a good mood and he looks like he has a story to tell. 
I always knew I was a so-so writer... but I knew I was decent enough at getting a story. That's my journalism background, I suppose.

I don't always go to the bar to be picked up by Japanese women whose names I never remember from one day to the next. Sometimes I go to the bar merely to get away from it all... to sit and mope in silence... to drink myself into delirium. It's okay, though... I've never had a hang-over so I never learn my lesson. I must have inherited my Uncle Harold's drinking genes. Harold could drink a bottle a night and still wake up bright and early and score a piece of music for an orchestra. If I could score music, I'm sure I could do the same as Harold. Instead, I just have to get up and go and teach English at one of seven junior high schools - or rather, have the students repeat after me.  

Of course, what no one realizes - not even myself - is that I enjoy the interruptions to my pity party. It's not a pity for anything in particular, except that I'm lonely.

Japan makes you that way when you are a gaijin (foreigner)... a stranger in a strange land. Or maybe I do it to myself. Still, if anyone wants to talk, I've never said no. I need a girlfriend, and I've been sans girlfriend for weeks now.

Weird. Having this guy around me will scare off any would-be triumphs for me, but a story trumps sex any day. I can't believe I wrote that.  

Hence, the volunteer fireman now sitting at my table who brings over his Scotch on the rocks. He just arrived at the 4C, saw me as he entered, gave me a nod, got his drink and then came over.

Even now... two years into living here, when people introduce themselves to me, it flies over my comprehension, so you, gentle reader, I hope will forgive me when I don't introduce the fireman to you.

He was a volunteer fireman here in Ohtawara... had been one for five years. He said in his day job that he was a mechanical engineer at a firm a town over, but really he enjoyed his work as a fireman more.

A ruggedly handsome man by anyone's standards, I imagined I could smell acrid smoke on him, but no... it was just his powerful soap he used to wash away the scene of the grime.

He had dark brown eyes - almost black, in fact - that danced with knowledge, and said in near perfect English that he hoped I wouldn't mind if we talked in English.

Better than me talking to him as a five-year-old in Japanese.

I know he wants to practice his English, but really, why not?! To myself I think I will trade him a foil to bounce his English conversation off of for a story. I am a story-teller after all - not a writer. You never know when - 20 or 30 years from now - when I might use it. I really did think like that. I still do in 2012. How do I know? Same reason I know the date I talked to him - I have a great memory for stories, and I write everything down the first chance I get.

Fireman Suzuki - let's just call him that for the heck of it - told me that the newer Japanese structures - which have less wood in them - drywall and aluminum sidings - tend to cause more damage when burning.

Unlike the old wood houses from days gone by, these newer constructs are more airtight and thus keep the fire contained within the house. Therefore, the fire burns within the newer house rather than burning a hole in the roof or walls... it also means that it keeps the smoke and flames within the home longer, meaning a fire isn't discovered as easily.

He said that in the newer buildings, the flames tend to circle inside the house burning everything and then explode outwards with the force of a bomb.

In older wooden structures, the flames could escape more easily - since they weren't as air-tight - and thus with the smoke and flames escaping, it meant an early fire detection and that the fire department could get there sooner. It meant, he said, that there was a better chance at saving the home and the belongings... and even the people.

But, in the newer buildings, the fire was not discovered until the building exploded in flames.

With that, my drinking companion suck back the last remnants of his Scotch and said he had to go, bowed, bade me a good night and damn it all to hell, I never saw him again.

Because I always carry a pen with me, I jotted everything down on a napkin and then transferred it into my journal. And, now... just over 20 years later... I read it again for the first time and re-type it here, as I am transported back in time. 

Somewhere, there's a hot time in the town tonight,
Andrew Joseph

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