Chinen BaseThe quiet, overgrown, skeletal remains of Chinen (pronounced Shi-nen') Base sticks in my memory as one of the eeriest places I had encountered during my week-end outings in 1989. I had been back on The Rock since 1986 but had not yet expanded my treks to areas so remote at Chinen until later in my four-year second stint on Okinawa. I did however finally get there. I can't remember what drew me to the southeast coast of Okinawa that weekend. I'm thinking it may have been something I had read about O Shima and I just wanted to see it. Or maybe it was one of the castle ruins of Chinen that peaked my curiosity. Of course, the prospect of a different interpretation of yaki-soba played a key role in my determination to go that week-end to the Chinen Peninsula.
You see, like spaghetti sauce, everyone's yaki-soba was different. Oh, I suppose I could have bought a version of the veggie-noodle bento at a store and taken it along on my outing but it would have been like opening a jar of Ragu when I want some real spaghetti. Having said that, some week-ends, when I'd venture out and wasn't too confident that I'd find a local restaurant or road-side vendor, I would stop at the Pink Department Store or maybe San-A and buy a bento-no hako (lunch-box) with a prepared meal - just in case. But, usually I'd be lucky enough to find (or get directions to) an obscure little eatery that served up soba soup or yaki-soba. To those who know me, food is a very important facet of my life. To truly experience a community, or a culture, I have to have some of their food!
I had made it to the coast and happened upon a marina. I didn't know there was a marina but could see it as I gazed down from atop a high promontory at one of the castle ruins. I can't remember if I was at the Minton Castle or maybe it was Tamagusuku - anyway, I looked down and watched a boat coming in from the southeast and just watched as it drew nearer and nearer to the Island. Then it entered through a break-water and into the marina. It just looked like a pleasant little place so I drove down to check it out. When I got there I saw what I presumed to be a tour boat tied alongside the pier. Happy folks in a clearly Let's Party! mode were just boarding the vessel. They weren't dressed in the black pants and white shirts that typify many Okinawan adult males; there were suits and ties and the women were wearing brightly colored dresses and a few in shorts and tank-tops. Maybe they were Taiwanese tourists, or perhaps visitors from the Mainland.
So, I sat in my Toyota Town Ace van, watched and videotaped some of the goings-on. Sadly, most of the videotape that I did that day was among the several tapes I had made that were somehow "lost" from my household goods when I shipped back to the States at the end of 1990. I did say most of that day's video was lost. I still have the video though of the old abandoned Chinen Base housing area. (See my Tour Okinawa Video #4). That, my friends, was a creepy place. It was isolated, overgrown and I barely saw a soul while I was in there nosing around.
I drove into the place around mid-day. As I recall, there was no gate to go through; just a beat-up old road that passed through the opening in a very tall chain-linked fence. Maybe the fence had a gate but I don't remember seeing a guard shack like almost every military outpost in the world has. Anyway, the road was rife with large cracks thorugh which grew very tall and abundant weeds. Having no idea where to go I just went straight ahead and made a few turns here and there and everywhere I looked there were crumbling single story concrete structures that once must certainly have been a thriving community of military (and, as I would later learn, civilian) families.
Most of the houses had their windows broken out. Some still had a stark lightbulb near the front door. One had a rusted old swing set in the side yard with the slide at one end of the set flipped up and twisted so that the footing could never again touch the ground. The thought occurred to me that maybe a good strong typhoon gale had done the toy such disservice. The most impressionable thing that I noticed about all the abandoned houses was that each and every one of them, up near the front door light fixture, sported a name. Small rectangular slabs of wood, once painted brilliant white, were then weather-worn and peeling, showing off the silvery wood beneath the paint. And, upon each weathered slab was a name, in black painted block letters, declaring the rank and family name of the presumed last occupants.
I got out of my Town Ace and approached the house, yard in tremendously neglected condition; sidewalk chipped and heaving; window frames bare or projecting filthy shards of what was left of glass; grass-hoppers or crickets or something making chirping sounds all around me as a warm breeze blew unrestrained through the house. It made a funny, eerie sound as the wind circled around inside then flew out of another paneless window.
As I approached the front door that was ajar I stopped, pondering the lives of the previous residents. I wondered what it had been like so many years earlier for the wife who had done her best to make a home in this tiny concrete box and kids who had played on that rusty old swingset, and the man who came home after work to his quarters - what it had been like for the family of CPT MARTIN. Were they friends with the family next door? Did they barbecue? Were they full of curiosity and excitement? Did they hate it there?
I pushed the door open and went it. Loose dead wires fell through a moldy opening in the ceiling. Switch plates were gone, switches were gone; plywood counter-tops were swollen from years of exposure to the intense humity, curled and fractured; a concrete kitchen sink, crumbled and disintegrating, had no fixtures; cupboards dry, warped and with remnants of white paint hanging on for dear life (by now, more than twenty years later, perhaps long gone); a small basin in the bathroom and a hole in the floor where a toilet once was - I wondered if a little guy, more than a generation ago had sat upon that toilet trying to figure out how to not wet his pants and instead "use the potty." Grimy cracked tiles on the floor, grout long since eroded away. And the bathtub... reminded me of
the house in Awase that I had back in the 1970s. The bathtub was concrete. A cold, rough, rectangular concrete coffin! There were no closets in the tiny bedrooms. Within only a minute or two I realized how very tiny the whole box was. How long had the family been in these quarters? How had they survived? How long, I wondered, had they lived out of suitcases and foot-lockers until the morning a 6-by showed up bearing gifts of rudimentary furnishings from a warehouse somewhere up-island - maybe Machinato.
I remember feeling really bummed as I walked from one tiny Spartan room to the next. A feeling of total sadness mixed with awe overcame me. I remember crying a little as I tried to imagine what life had been like and then immediately felt silly for having such overwhelmingly nostalgic emotions. All those feelings - wonderment, sadness, closeness of experience. Then I realized it - the closeness of experience. I flashed back to 1961, when I was but 9 years old and arriving at our own "new quarters" in France. We were in a housing area many miles from one base where my brother and I went to school and another base where Dad worked. It was a concrete box too! It was just as basic and Spartan then as the place where I stood at that moment. With two exceptions, I recalled - our place had been larger and our concrete box in Dreux Housing had a puke-green flooring of some kind that was easily scratched and chipped. A kind of floor covering that my Mom worked meticulously every week to maintain knowing that some day the dreaded Inspectors would be coming by. I remember that little round goldish-yellow can of Johnson's floor wax. Rub it on, let it dry then buff it off. All by hand. No power buffers for us, nope. No phone. No TV. Radio was our only entertainment until Mom and Dad bought a huge Telefunken combination radio and stereo phonograph. Oh, how they loved that monstrosity! It was probably five feet wide, maybe 20 inches deep and stood a good 30 inches off the floor. Big speakers at either end and the turntable and radio controls in the middle. Oh, how they loved that thing! I'm only guessing, but would bet that there were no phones in Chinen housing excpet maybe for "essential personnel."
Years later, I learned that Chinen Base was actually quite the cloak-and dagger affair. A lot of combined Army and CIA activities took place on that base. They printed counterfeit North Vietnamese money there! The plan was to glut SEA with enough phony money to crash their economy. They also modified enemy ammunition. Captured NVA, Chinese and other commie ammo would be taken to Chinen and modified such that once it got back into the hands of the enemy it would cause their rifles and mortars to explode thus killing them without us firing the shot. Who knows what other secret programs were conducted right there in that abandoned, overgrown ghost town?