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The Yokota Officers Club
The Yokota Officers Club


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About the Author On Tour Author's Desktop Excerpt Q&A
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AAK: What is your novel about?

A. The Yokota Officers Club is about how hard military life is on families.  My protagonist, Bernie Root, sees this for herself after her first year of college. She visits her Air Force family stationed on Okinawa and notices how much they’ve disintegrated in the year they’ve been away. She starts to search for reasons why.  While on the island, Bernie wins a dance contest.  The prize is a trip to Tokyo where Bernie’s family was stationed for the only happy years of her childhood.  The catch is that Bernie is the intermission act for a third-rate comedian, Bobby Moses, who believes she is going to be Joey Heatherton to his Bob Hope.  While in Japan, Bernie learns the terrible cost paid when secrets that nations hide end up buried within families.

AAK: You’re a military brat yourself. What was that like? 

A. This novel is my big, gushy Valentine to military families, but especially to dependents, the children and wives in those families.  My particular experience of growing up brat was defined by being the shyest in a family of eight fairly introverted human beings.  Like the family in my novel, we were stationed on Yokota and Kadena and too many others to mention, and, my father did fly Cold War reconnaissance missions, but after we were transferred out of Japan, he ended up doing fairly non-military things like getting a doctorate and running Department of Defense Schools.  My mother was always the antithesis of the white gloves and girdle sort of officer wife.  All of this made us something of our own little tribe of nomadic recluses, outsiders within this greater tribe of outsiders permanently passing through America.

AAK: You mentioned the secrets that nations hide.  Did any actually end up getting buried in your family?

A. Not specifically, but this book did grow out of an exceptionally vivid memory I have from my family’s years in Japan.  I was six at the time and we were living off-base “on the economy.”  It was a hot day, the hydrangeas were drooping in the sun and our small yard was saturated with the sweet smell of honeysuckle that hung from the high barbed wire fence around our house.  My brothers and sisters and I were playing in the swimming pool my mother had rigged up from a large packing crate and some plastic sheeting. Though I didn’t know it at the time, she was pregnant with my third brother. 

This was 1956 which was, essentially, the tail end of the American occupation, and my father had been gone for several weeks on “TDY,” temporary duty assignment about which no questions were ever asked.  He simply left on these assignments then, one day, with no warning, he would return. Sometimes with ginger jars from China.  Sometimes with ivory carvings from Alaska.  Details were never supplied.  But on this day something unusual happened.  Not only did an official staff car appear in our neighborhood, where giant American vehicles were rarely sighted, but this car carried my father’s commanding officer in full uniform.  When the car stopped and the major got out, I felt all the sleepy summer air molecules around my head reverse polarity.  I looked at my mother and though nothing showed on her face, I knew in that instant that the appearance of a uniformed officer at our house in the middle of the day meant tragedy beyond what I could imagine.  Because no explanations were ever given for why my mother ended up sobbing in this officer’s arms, I went on to create my own stories about what might have happened.

It took many years before I understood that “reconnaissance” meant spying and it wasn’t until I was researching this novel I learned that of the ten crews that originally made up my father’s reconnaissance squadron, his was the only one that survived.  Or that the Distinguished Flying Cross he had been awarded wasn’t for perfect attendance.  Or that the major had come to our house that long ago day simply to tell my mother that my father’s crew had had engine trouble and would be coming home later.

AAK: How has your family reacted to the novel?

A. In my dedication, I thank my family for their great gift of understanding and accepting my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.  And they really have been colossally generous because there are many similarities between my family and the one I created.  We are both families of eight, we lived on Japan, on Okinawa, we didn’t transplant easily.  Then I take all that shared experience and mash it through, what the pulp writer Earle Stanley Gardner called, “The Plot Genie.” So that some family members are removed, others are added, the mother ends up with a prescription pill problem and the father is silent and removed neither of which was true of my abstemious mother and garrulous father.  But the larger truth is that, in fact, many, many wives were “over-served” by doctors at base dispensaries eager to keep wives slim and tractable, and most fathers of that time were silent and removed.  My great blessing then is that no one in my family has fixated on these points where fact and fiction intersect and have accepted the book as the tribute I intended it to be.

AAK: Since your main character is a girl growing up as the daughter of an Air Force Officer, do you see this at all as a sort of female version of Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini?  

A. Only in my wildest, most self-deluded fantasies. The Great Santini is the dependent’s Rosetta Stone.  It was the first and remains the most definitive portrait of the military family.  I was in such awe of Conroy’s achievement in decoding the vast hieroglyphic of our world that I didn’t consider writing about my own brat experience for decades.  Then I began getting little prickles that suggested something might remain to be said about all the women whose lives rotate around  military men.  And I mean all the women:  wives, mothers, daughters, teachers, nurses, maids, sew girls, bar girls, pan pan girls, yes, even, go-go girls.

AAK: You manage to bring a lot of great, vivid detail to the description of life overseas and on bases in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Did you rely on anyone else’s recollections beyond your own for the specifics? 

A. My brothers and sisters helped me tremendously, especially with the parts about Okinawa, since they were there year-round for three years and I only visited during the summers.  Their memories of the Kadena Karnival were especially vivid and borderline traumatic: the habu-mongoose fight, the Okinawana “exotic”dancer sticking a snake’s head in her mouth, the novelty act guy catching ping pong balls in his mouth then pretending to excrete them.  These are research topics that Encyclopedia Britannica just can’t help you with.

AAK: Would you have any desire to go back to those places in Japan from your childhood? 

A. Well, I did go back.  Like my heroine, I won a dance contest and toured the military clubs in Tokyo area with a third-rate comedian.  This was in 1968.  In the eight years since we’d left Japan, the country had been transformed.  When we left, it was a child’s fantasy land of shopkeepers who gave you handfuls of fish oil gum just for being a child, of paper houses that glowed like golden lanterns in the night, of days where giant cloth carp were flown just to honor boys and girls, and hovering above the whole dreamscape, always pink in my memory, was Mount Fuji.  Of course, it is always jarring when childhood memory encounters reality, but to have those fairy tale memories collide with what I found when I returned, visions of people sucking up oxygen on street corners because the air was so polluted (it was impossible any longer to see Fuji from where we’d once lived), was a shock.

What I would dearly love would be to go back to the Japan of my childhood.  And, I suppose, I made as good an attempt at that as I’m likely to by writing The Yokota Officers Club.