By Brion Boyles
When I first returned to Sasebo, Japan on reenlistment leave in the early 1980’s and proposed to my girl Hitomi, she and Okasan (her mother and mamasan of the “BLUE MOON BAR AND GRILL”) spared no expense in catering to my desire to learn all things Japanese. This effort, naturally, centered on food—the shortest way to a man’s heart and all that. Mamasan was constantly throwing another bowl of this or that my way, and my cavernous appetite never disappointed her. Hitomi took a little more mischievous approach…she was always looking for something to throw me off….some strange food that a Gaijin (“foreigner”) would shrink from.
One day she took me to a Yakitori grill in the entertainment section of town. A very traditional sort of place…a fancy, “faux ancient” affair; dark timbered, shoji doors, with kimono’d waitresses, live koto and shakuhachi music, pictures of the Emperor…obviously targeting the Samurai-loving sect. As this was to be as much an educational as gastronomic experience, I let Hitomi do all the ordering so I wouldn’t spend the evening in my traditional chicken/onion rut. She explained to the grill master that ol’ Gaijin here was meaning to expand his horizons, and quickly listed a cornucopia (or the Japanese equivalent thereof) of ancient and traditional yakitori treats.
I fancy myself a man of worldly tastes, with a sailor’s penchant for adventure; a combination that has rarely let me down. This time was no exception—a veritable feast of grilled tasties that would have brought a groan from the lips of Emperor Meiji himself. After an hour or so, Hitomi said there was one more for me to try. She got the grill master’s attention and said, “O-Suzume onegaishimasu!” (“Please make Suzume!”). The grill master’s eyebrows raised a little higher in quizzical disbelief…”HONTO?!?!” (“REALLY?!?”), to which she nodded firmly in the affirmative. A few minutes passed by, during which I mused at what the exquisite thing might be that she had saved for last…until the master placed before us another small plate with what looked like two small sparrows that had suffered the misfortune of having wooden spears shoved up their asses before being smashed flat with a croquet mallet, dipped in tar and scorched with a blowtorch. Little talons splayed wide, little yellow beaks smushed asunder in a gruesome Death-grin, little blackened clumps of feathers poking out like iron filings on a rusty magnet…
I made a pleasantly surprised face, trying to keep my cool…noticing the grillmaster eyeballing me from the corners of his eyes while he continued at his grill, Hitomi’s broad grin….I picked up one of the sticks of avian char-broiled corpse and brought it to my mouth. Just as I had made up my mind to bite off the head and moved to do so, Hitomi let out her girlish, Japanese laugh and said, “No….it’s OK. You no hafta eat. I buy for dog at home.”
With a skillfully concealed sigh of relief, I returned the Suzume to the plate and she had it bagged for the trip back to the BLUE MOON and “Kojiro”, her Yorkie pup.
Our engagement lasted over two years, during which time I was mostly absent on a supply ship (USS WHITE PLAINS), scurrying across the Indian Ocean to refortify this aircraft carrier battle group or that…and a well-off Lieutenant from a destroyer wooed my Hitomi away with an engagement ring the size of an ashtray. A member of a wealthy Texas oil-family, he found his Japanese “Suzy Wong” and carted her off to Dallas, but I heard thru the grapevine that she was miserable… her Japanese roots buried deep in cowboy hats, Frederick Remington prints and bad leather furniture, and longed to come home to Sasebo.
To this day I wish I’d taken a bite.