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"Grandpa! Your leg! What happened?"


Poverty


My family was very poor when I was in elementary school. We often failed to pay the monthly fee for my school lunch. "You haven't paid yet." the teacher would urge me. My mother sometimes went to the public market to sell vegetables. More often, however, she sold them in streets of Sumiyoshi-machi by herself. That way they sold at higher prices. My parents usually started working before dawn, and kept working until dark. All the family worked hard, but we remained poor. We were quite happy, though. I never saw my parents fight or quarrel. I often witnessed my father and my oldest brother arguing. They seemed to quarrel over the kinds and amounts of crops and vegetables to grow.

Most children in Karimata area kept an empty can and put a string on it; something that can be useful for digging shells. No, not for shell gathering on the beach. We went to a maneuvering field to gather bullets and shells. We walked for about 5 minutes to a US military field where soldiers of the occupation army practiced live-shell shooting. When we heard the firing, we came out with our cans and walked up to a hilly bank to watch them shooting. Observing the clouds of dust over the target area, we tried to figure out if the group was a platoon or a company, because the amounts of bullets were different. There was one distinguished soldier we called Redcap. He always wore something red on his head. When he shot, the target area was clear, without clouds of dust. He never missed. "He can riddle anyone." we discussed. "How many Japanese soldiers do you think he has killed?" I sometimes wished I had been able to speak to him in English. However, we felt something uncomfortable about him.

As soon as the shooting was over, children ran to the spots of dusty clouds. As I could not run, I had to walk to where few others would go, to less dusty zones. The leader of the children was the one who ran the fastest and who was the strongest in fights. Regarding the tests at school, I must have gotten slightly better scores than he, though I was also in the below-average zone.

Anyway, most bullets were still warm after shooting. Some were too hot for us to grab them. Some of their heads were flattened, others retained their shape. The bullets made crackling noises at the bottoms of our cans. Later, as the cans got filled, the noise diminished.

We brought the full cans of bullets to a metal dealer. Those who ran fast to the dusty smoky area brought twice or three times as heavy bullets as I did to the shop and earned 150 yen or so, while I usually got between 50 and 100 yen. Metals sold high in those days. The bosses were sometimes bullies, but some were sometimes kind enough to buy about 20 potato candies at about 10 yen from the money he earned and deliver them equally to us, the followers. I often bought tobacco, a package of shredded tobacco called Kikyo, for my father. He was delighted when I said "Here's your tobacco." However, his pipe was sometimes a weapon against me and my little brother. We often had a bump on our head after being scolded and hit.

We children did what we could to help our parents; treading barley in winter, weeding the potato field in summer and many other things. However, we remained poor, at least until I finished junior-high school.

There was a graveyard in front of our house. It is still there. It seems to be a rule to build tombs on a hill. I have not seen any tomb at the bottom of a valley.

Our house was located on a hill; the graveyard was on another peak nearby. It must have been about 300 meters away; however, it looked much closer. They used to bury bodies. I do not know when they started to cremate them. I remember seeing a long line of people. Some of them carried a coffin, a big round tub, to bury. Others had flags. If the funeral took place at night, some candles in lanterns swung in the wind, which scared me most. On such a night - I do not know if he meant to scare me or not - my father would tell me to go buy tobacco, saying "Hide, my tobacco is running out."

I felt as if I was in hell, almost weeping and trying to run to Sueyoshi-cho. On the way to the shop, I was relieved to find city lights. On the way home everything, including trees, scared me, because they looked like ghosts. I felt that ghosts were more likely to appear on rainy nights. I often wondered why my parents chose to live in such a mountainous area.

My mother used to have stomach cramps, almost every year in the rice-planting season, because she worked too hard, fighting poverty. She would sweat, and her face would become pale and distorted with pain. When I was sent for a doctor, I prayed in my heart "Don't die, mom!" Though I was not really able to run, I did my best to run up and down the hill to Dr. Hanai's. I was not afraid of ghosts in such a case.

Most of the neighborhood children had a Nichigetsu ball, or a cup and ball tied by a thread. My parents would not buy one for me, despite my persistent pleas. One day, I found a 100-yen note in a drawer of the cupboard. I carelessly took it and bought a Nichigetsu ball. I used the change to go to Inasa to see my uncle. On the street car back home, I did not recognize my eldest brother. At night, my family realized that the 100 yen note was missing. They discussed what might have happened. My brother said, "I saw Hide on the tram. He might have done something." Later, when I came home, my father looked like a devil. He hit me hard on my hips with a firewood stick. Next morning, I could not go to school because of the pain.

One of my aunts, an elder sister of my father, and her husband, moved to my neighborhood from Hirado-koya-machi. I do not clearly remember when. And I do not know why they had to move to such an inconvenient place in the mountains. Anyway, the children were delighted to have relatives nearby. The uncle did not talk much. They lived on agriculture as we did. The aunt kept things very carefully and hated to throw them away. She sometimes went too far and served us old deteriorated sweets.

They had one daughter whose name was Yasuko. I called her Nechan (elder sister). She was as clever as she appeared; her forehead was wide. She was very kind to us. Later she worked as a school teacher and became a principal. Uncle died quite young, in his 60s. Aunt lived long and died in 1995, after fighting for quite a long time against her disease. I miss them, as they were very few of my close relatives.