This is an excerpt from Dear M: Letters from Japan 1968-1969.It’s a book of mine chronicling the adventures of me, my children and my first husband, John Burnham, when we lived in Japan during the Vietnam War. He’s a doctor who got drafted into the Army during the fifth year of his surgical residency at L.A. County Hospital. We lived in a Japanese house in Irumagawa, a village west of Tokyo and near an Ari Force base. The kids were 1, 2 and 4 when we got there; I was 27. I wrote almost daily to my friend Mary in California, telling these stories. She saved them. Every word is true.
This excerpt is about a trip to the zoo with the students and staff of Meguchi Yochien, a Japanese Methodist nursery school the kids attended. They could sing “Jesus Loves Me” in Japanese.
June 9, 1968
We have a three-day pass coming up soon. John wants to go
to the beach, but of course it will rain. The beach is about 6
hours away from here. It’s called the Tibet of Japan (Chiba
peninsula) because it’s so isolated. There is nothing Western
there and no one speaks English. We know of no hotels or
restaurants or even if the meat is safe to eat. John says we
will take the camper and sleep in it, also ten gallons of water
for washing out our armpits. If we take a hibachi, he says, we
should be able to survive. Doesn’t that sound like a dream
vacation? I, needless to say, have dreamed of coming to
Japan to spend four rainy days in a camper in Tibet washing
out my armpits on ration.
The school’s trip to the zoo was very nice. John finked out
AS USUAL. It turned out to be a regular zoo but with a kiddy
amusement park and playground and some lakes with boats,
which the kids loved. I wound up carrying Andy a lot which is
hard on the legs and back. There were a few other American
parents, all Regular Air Force. Very weird looking people when
you get them out of their element. Pin heads, eyes too far
apart or too close together, acute nose problems, strange
teeth, concave chests. One Capt. Tisdale had whisker-short
hair, asked if Andy were a girl and made vomiting noises whenever
a hippie walked by, that is if he were not adjusting the
three cameras slung around his neck to keep them from banging
together as he “walked.”
The animals were very old. The camel was fat, molting and
foaming at the mouth and couldn’t get to its feet. The elephant
had a lot of nose freckles (age spots) and had a trick
of rolling his trunk up in a coil and bouncing the whole thing off
his knee. This brought stares of joy from the Japanese who
seem to giggle or laugh only when it is inappropriate. The
schoolmaster, who looks a lot like King Kamehameha with his
hair in a French roll, came up to me at one point and said, “Half
hour three times,” I said, “Arigato Gosaimashita,” and he
smiled and walked away. Had I been propositioned? Had I said
“thank you,” “good-bye,” or “how much for one of those”? The
teachers looked like they had been run over by a truck, especially
Tony’s. The Japanese kids kept touching Andy’s hair and
giggling, inappropriately. Tony bit or kicked everyone in the
entire area. They gave us a little bag of goodies for each kid
and Jill opened a package looking like flat dried apricot, but
which smelled terrible and was, in fact, dried squid. She made
an appropriate noise at 50,000 decibels.
This is a song I wrote and recorded in 1983 for Issue #23 of High Performance, a vinyl LP called “Artists Doing Songs.” Guitar is by the late Jimmy Townes.
The lyrics refer to the downsides of living in an artist loft. I lived for 8 years in a furniture warehouse at 240 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. The plumbing, and everything else, was rudimentary, but we had a lot of fun in that place and that’s where High Performance was born. All concrete, no heat.
I actually loved living like this.
I’m hungry but there’s nothing open. The kerosene’s all gone.
I woke up this morning and the lights were all still on.
You came in about 4 a.m. with some guys from a leather bar
And now my stereo is broken and I can’t find my car.
You promised me I’d be happy if I moved up here with you.
Now I got the downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
The pipes are full of Fixall. The water heater’s broke.
Your grant came in last weekend and you spent it all on coke.
My parents were here on Sunday and my daddy like to died.
My mama sat down on that smelly old couch and she cried & cried & cried.
I promised them they’d be happy if I moved up here with you.
Now they got the downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
We’re living off a hot plate. We got roaches we got rats.
It’s so damn cold we watch TV in our mittens and our hats.
The ceiling’s leaking something and I don’t know what it is
But it’s dripping on your brother in that sleeping bag of his.
The elevator’s down again and there won’t be no repairs.
Now you want me to carry drywall up seven flights of stairs.
You know my daddy told me, You need a car if you’re downtown.
I put a Ford in the parking lot: They stripped it to the ground.
I came down here to this local joint just to try to stay alive.
Some guy comes up, puts his hand up my skirt and says, How about 25?
You know I lost everything I ever had. Nothing left to lose
But them downtown wintertime Sunday morning blues.
I first attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans in 1984, with Steven Durland and assorted members of the High Performance Travel Club. The club was open to anybody who wanted to go on a trip with us. We drove from L.A. to NOLA, bringing along San Francisco performance artist Michael Peppe and writer Marian Kester.
[Tangent: Michael Peppe is highly talented at manipulating torrents of words in performance. He won Steve Durland’s Five-Minute Performance Olympics, a true cut-throat competition. Here’s a sample of Peppe’s work from High Performance: The Record. Once you’ve heard that, you’ll realize that Peppe was and probably still is very peppy and a bit of a challenge on a long car trip. On the way home we left him in the middle of the desert because he was the only one who wanted to go to the Grand Canyon and he wouldn’t shut up about it.]
We met other members of the Travel Club in NOLA and we all stayed in the loft of an obliging performance artist, making forays into the parade and bar scene. It was very cold, so in between parades we would dash into a bar and drink gin and eat oysters.
During one parade we hooked up with some members of the Church of the SubGenius from Dallas and Little Rock. They were on acid and into some High Weirdness. We were all sitting in a bar on the parade route, viewing a parade through the window, but we could only see the middle third of each float. Arms went by throwing beads. Parts of enormous animals made of papier mache. Naked bulbous tummies, filling the window with an inexplicable voodoo dread. The Subgenii were bugeyed with astonishment. What?!! they wanted to know. Here’s a recent picture of the Rev. Ivan Stang, Church cult leader, still at least as weird as he was then.
One of our Travel Club companions stands out as unforgettable, and I will call him Dr. Fred. He was a sex fiend and easily the strangest looking one in the U.S. at that time. He complained constantly that he hadn’t brought his wife, with whom he had sex four times a day. One afternoon in the loft we were being subjected to one of Peppe’s tirades about the accommodations and the entire Mardi Gras scene when Dr. Fred arrived beaming. He announced he had just witnessed an event in front of a bar on Bourbon Street and it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen: a man [insert sexual euphemism] with a dog. After that, he informed Steve that he was in love with me and warned him that he would steal me away at the earliest opportunity. Steve and I excused ourselves and went out for lots more drinks.
The rest is pretty much of a blur, except for the part where I ate four servings of crawfish right before we left for L.A. and we had to stop at every restroom we passed.
This is the most delicious chicken you will ever eat. It’s what my grandmother, Mary Logue, made in her kitchen in Bartlesville, Okla., while I and my cousins ran wild in the yard. We now call it Frye Fried Chicken because, well, my side of the family just appropriated it. Yes, we cook it with BACON GREASE.
You can skip the part where you have to go out to the back yard and get a chicken from the pen, wring its neck, gut it, steam it over a kettle and pull out its feathers. But it would be nice if you bought a whole, cleaned chicken from your local farmer.
1 whole chicken (with skin & gizzard)
lemon cut in half
a skillet full of bacon grease (drippings)
2 cups of white flour in a stout paper bag
salt and pepper
Cut up the chicken into individual pieces. Rub them each with lemon. Salt and pepper them (lots). Put the skillet with the bacon grease on the stove over high heat. Put the chicken pieces in the bag with the flour and shake. Test the grease by flicking a little flour into it; if it sizzles and rises, it’s hot enough. Remove the pieces individually and give a little shake to take of the excess flour; put them in the skillet. Turn heat down to medium high. Cook chicken till golden brown, turning once. You can salt and pepper them again while they are in the pan if you want. When done, remove to drain on paper towels. Serve hot. Nice with some jalapenos on the side. This recipe serves 4 people who are afraid to eat fried chicken. If you are serving to the Frye family, it serves 1.
Tips: If you don’t have enough bacon grease, you can augment it with some Crisco. But really, don’t skip the bacon grease. You can leave out the salt, but … if you have to leave out the salt, maybe you’re too old to eat this chicken. White meat cooks faster than dark, so you can put it in the skillet a bit later. Don’t try to do this with skinless, boneless chicken, dummy.
While you are cooking, listen to this: