Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
When I broached the subject with my father, when I worked up the nerve to speak to him about my Crazy Idea, I made sure it was in the early evening. That was always the best time with Dad. He was relaxed then, well fed, stretched out in his vinyl recliner in the TV nook. I can still tilt back my head and close my eyes and hear the sound of the audience laughing, the tinny theme songs of his favorite shows, Wagon Train and Rawhide.
His all-time favorite was Red Buttons. Every episode began with Red singing: Ho ho, hee hee . . . strange things are happening.
I set a straight-backed chair beside him and gave a wan smile and waited for the next commercial. I’d rehearsed my spiel, in my head, over and over, especially the opening. Sooo, Dad, you remember that Crazy Idea I had at Stanford . . . ?
It was one of my final classes, a seminar on entrepreneurship. I’d written a research paper about shoes, and the paper had evolved from a run-of-the-mill assignment to an all-out obsession. Being a runner, I knew something about running shoes. Being a business buff, I knew that Japanese cameras had made deep cuts into the camera market, which had once been dominated by Germans. Thus, I argued in my paper that Japanese running shoes might do the same thing. The idea interested me, then inspired me, then captivated me. It seemed so obvious, so simple, so potentially huge.
I’d spent weeks and weeks on that paper. I’d moved into the library, devoured everything I could find about importing and exporting, about starting a company. Finally, as required, I’d given a formal presentation of the paper to my classmates, who reacted with formal boredom. Not one asked a single question. They greeted my passion and intensity with labored sighs and vacant stares.
The professor thought my Crazy Idea had merit: He gave me an A. But that was that. At least, that was supposed to be that. I’d never really stopped thinking about that paper. Through the rest of my time at Stanford, through every morning run and right up to that moment in the TV nook, I’d pondered going to Japan, finding a shoe company, pitching them my Crazy Idea, in the hopes that they’d have a more enthusiastic reaction than my classmates, that they’d want to partner with a shy, pale, rail-thin kid from sleepy Oregon.
I’d also toyed with the notion of making an exotic detour on my way to and from Japan. How can I leave my mark on the world, I thought, unless I get out there first and see it? Before running a big race, you always want to walk the track. A backpacking trip around the globe might be just the thing, I reasoned. No one talked about bucket lists in those days, but I suppose that’s close to what I had in mind. Before I died, became too old or consumed with everyday minutiae, I wanted to visit the planet’s most beautiful and wondrous places.
And its most sacred. Of course I wanted to taste other foods, hear other languages, dive into other cultures, but what I really craved was connection with a capital C. I wanted to experience what the Chinese call Tao, the Greeks call Logos, the Hindus call Jñāna, the Buddhists call Dharma. What the Christians call Spirit. Before setting out on my own personal life voyage, I thought, let me first understand the greater voyage of humankind. Let me explore the grandest temples and churches and shrines, the holiest rivers and mountaintops. Let me feel the presence of . . . God?
Yes, I told myself, yes. For want of a better word, God.
But first, I’d need my father’s approval.
More, I’d need his cash.
I’d already mentioned making a big trip, the previous year, and my father seemed open to it. But surely he’d forgotten. And surely I was pushing it, adding to the original proposal this Crazy Idea, this outrageous side trip—to Japan? To launch a company? Talk about boondoggles.
Surely he’d see this as a bridge too far.
And a bridge too darned expensive. I had some savings from the Army, and from various part-time jobs over the last several summers. On top of which, I planned to sell my car, a cherry black 1960 MG with racing tires and a twin cam. ( The same car Elvis drove in Blue Hawaii.) All of which amounted to fifteen hundred dollars, leaving me a grand short, I now told my father. He nodded, uh-huh, mm-hmm, and flicked his eyes from the TV to me, and back again, while I laid it all out.
Remember how we talked, Dad? How I said I want to see the World?
The Himalayas? The pyramids?
The Dead Sea, Dad? The Dead Sea?
Well, haha, I’m also thinking of stopping off in Japan, Dad. Remember my Crazy Idea? Japanese running shoes? Right? It could be huge, Dad. Huge.
I was laying it on thick, putting on the hard sell, extra hard, because I always hated selling, and because this particular sell had zero chance. My father had just forked out hundreds of dollars to the University of Oregon, thousands more to Stanford. He was the publisher of the Oregon Journal, a solid job that paid for all the basic comforts, including our spacious white house on Claybourne Street, in Portland’s quietest suburb, Eastmoreland. But the man wasn’t made of money.
Also, this was 1962. The earth was bigger then. Though humans were beginning to orbit the planet in capsules, 90 percent of Americans still had never been on an airplane. The average man or woman had never ventured farther than one hundred miles from his or her own front door, so the mere mention of global travel by airplane would unnerve any father, and especially mine, whose predecessor at the paper had died in an air crash.
Setting aside money, setting aside safety concerns, the whole thing was just so impractical. I was aware that twenty-six of twenty-seven new companies failed, and my father was aware, too, and the idea of taking on such a colossal risk went against everything he stood for. In many ways my father was a conventional Episcopalian, a believer in Jesus Christ. But he also worshipped another secret deity—respectability. Colonial house, beautiful wife, obedient kids, my father enjoyed having these things, but what he really cherished was his friends and neighbors knowing he had them. He liked being admired. He liked doing a vigorous backstroke each day in the mainstream. Going around the world on a lark, therefore, would simply make no sense to him. It wasn’t done. Certainly not by the respectable sons of respectable men. It was something other people’s kids did. Something beatniks and hipsters did.
Possibly, the main reason for my father’s respectability fixation was a fear of his inner chaos. I felt this, viscerally, because every now and then that chaos would burst forth. Without warning, late at night, the phone in the front hall would jingle, and when I answered there would be that same gravelly voice on the line. “Come getcher old man.”
I’d pull on my raincoat—it always seemed, on those nights, that a misting rain was falling—and drive downtown to my father’s club. As clearly as I remember my own bedroom, I remember that club. A century old, with floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases and wing-backed chairs, it looked like the drawing room of an English country house. In other words, eminently respectable.
I’d always find my father at the same table, in the same chair. I’d always help him gently to his feet. “You okay, Dad?” “Course I’m okay.” I’d always guide him outside to the car, and the whole way home we’d pretend nothing was wrong. He’d sit perfectly erect, almost regal, and we’d talk sports, because talking sports was how I distracted myself, soothed myself, in times of stress.
My father liked sports, too. Sports were always respectable.
For these and a dozen other reasons I expected my father to greet my pitch in the TV nook with a furrowed brow and a quick put-down. “Haha, Crazy Idea. Fat chance, Buck.” (My given name was Philip, but my father always called me Buck. In fact he’d been calling me Buck since before I was born. My mother told me he’d been in the habit of patting her stomach and asking, “How’s little Buck today?”) As I stopped talking, however, as I stopped pitching, my father rocked forward in his vinyl recliner and shot me a funny look. He said that he always regretted not traveling more when he was young. He said a trip might be just the finishing touch to my education. He said a lot of things, all of them focused more on the trip than the Crazy Idea, but I wasn’t about to correct him. I wasn’t about to complain, because in sum he was giving his blessing. And his cash.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay, Buck. Okay.”
I thanked my father and fled the nook before he had a chance to change his mind. Only later did I realize with a spasm of guilt that my father’s lack of travel was an ulterior reason, perhaps the main reason, that I wanted to go. This trip, this Crazy Idea, would be one sure way of becoming someone other than him. Someone less respectable.
Or maybe not less respectable. Maybe just less obsessed with respectability.
The rest of the family wasn’t quite so supportive. When my grandmother got wind of my itinerary, one item in particular appalled her. “Japan!” she cried. “Why, Buck, it was only a few years ago the Japs were out to kill us! Don’t you remember? Pearl Harbor! The Japs tried to conquer the world! Some of them still don’t know they lost! They’re in hiding! They might take you prisoner, Buck. Gouge out your eyeballs. They’re known for that—your eyeballs.”
I loved my mother’s mother, whom we all called Mom Hatfield. And I understood her fear. Japan was about as far as you could get from Roseburg, Oregon, the farm town where she was born and where she’d lived all her life. I’d spent many summers down there with her and Pop Hatfield. Almost every night we’d sat out on the porch, listening to the croaking bullfrogs compete with the console radio, which in the early 1940s was always tuned to news of the war.
Which was always bad.
The Japanese, we were told repeatedly, hadn’t lost a war in twenty-six hundred years, and it sure didn’t seem they were going to lose this one, either. In battle after battle, we suffered defeat after defeat. Finally, in 1942, Mutual Broadcasting’s Gabriel Heatter opened his nightly radio report with a shrill cry. “Good evening, everyone—there’s good news tonight!” The Americans had won a decisive battle at last. Critics skewered Heatter for his shameless cheerleading, for abandoning all pretense of journalistic objectivity, but the public hatred of Japan was so intense, most people hailed Heatter as a folk hero. Thereafter he opened all broadcasts the same way. “Good news tonight!”
It’s one of my earliest memories. Mom and Pop Hatfield beside me on that porch, Pop peeling a Gravenstein apple with his pocketknife, handing me a slice, then eating a slice, then handing me a slice, and so on, until his apple-paring pace slowed dramatically. Heatter was coming on. Sssh! Hush up! I can still see us all chewing apples and gazing at the night sky, so Japan-obsessed that we half expected to see Japanese Zeros crisscrossing the Dog Star. No wonder my first time on an airplane, right around five years old, I asked: “Dad, are the Japs going to shoot us down?”
Though Mom Hatfield got the hair on my neck standing up, I told her not to worry, I’d be fine. I’d even bring her back a kimono.
My twin sisters, Jeanne and Joanne, four years younger than me, didn’t seem to care one way or another where I went or what I did.
And my mother, as I recall, said nothing. She rarely did. But there was something different about her silence this time. It equaled consent. Even pride.
I SPENT WEEKS reading, planning, preparing for my trip. I went for long runs, musing on every detail while racing the wild geese as they flew overhead. Their tight V formations—I’d read somewhere that the geese in the rear of the formation, cruising in the backdraft, only have to work 80 percent as hard as the leaders. Every runner understands this. Front runners always work the hardest, and risk the most.
Long before approaching my father, I’d decided it would be good to have a companion on my trip, and that companion should be my Stanford classmate Carter. Though he’d been a hoops star at William Jewell College, Carter wasn’t your typical jock. He wore thick glasses and read books. Good books. He was easy to talk to, and easy not to talk to—equally important qualities in a friend. Essential in a travel companion.
But Carter laughed in my face. When I laid out the list of places I wanted to see—Hawaii, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Rangoon, Calcutta, Bombay, Saigon, Kathmandu, Cairo, Istanbul, Athens, Jordan, Jerusalem, Nairobi, Rome, Paris, Vienna, West Berlin, East Berlin, Munich, London—he rocked back on his heels and guffawed. Mortified, I looked down and began to make apologies. Then Carter, still laughing, said: “What a swell idea, Buck!”
I looked up. He wasn’t laughing at me. He was laughing with joy, with glee. He was impressed. It took balls to put together an itinerary like that, he said. Balls. He wanted in.
Days later he got the okay from his parents, plus a loan from his father. Carter never did mess around. See an open shot, take it—that was Carter. I told myself there was much I could learn from a guy like that as we circled the earth.
We each packed one suitcase and one backpack. Only the bare necessities, we promised each other. A few pairs of jeans, a few T-shirts. Running shoes, desert boots, sunglasses, plus one pair of suntans—the 1960s word for khakis.
I also packed one good suit. A green Brooks Brothers two-button. Just in case my Crazy Idea came to fruition.
SEPTEMBER 7, 1962. Carter and I piled into his battered old Chevy and drove at warp speed down I-5, through the Willamette Valley, out the wooded bottom of Oregon, which felt like plunging through the roots of a tree. We sped into the piney tip of California, up and over tall green mountain passes, then down, down, until long after midnight we swept into fog-cloaked San Francisco. For several days we stayed with some friends, sleeping on their floor, and then we swung by Stanford and fetched a few of Carter’s things out of storage. Finally we stopped at a liquor store and bought two discounted tickets on Standard Airlines to Honolulu. One-way, eighty bucks.
It felt like only minutes later that Carter and I were stepping onto the sandy tarmac of Oahu Airport. We wheeled and looked at the sky and thought: That is not the sky back home.
A line of beautiful girls came toward us. Soft-eyed, olive-skinned, barefoot, they had double-jointed hips, with which they twitched and swished their grass skirts in our faces. Carter and I looked at each other and slowly grinned.
We took a cab to Waikiki Beach and checked into a motel directly across the street from the sea. In one motion we dropped our bags and pulled on our swim trunks. Race you to the water!
As my feet hit the sand I whooped and laughed and kicked off my sneakers, then sprinted directly into the waves. I didn’t stop until I was up to my neck in the foam. I dove to the bottom, all the way to the bottom, and then came up gasping, laughing, and rolled onto my back. At last I stumbled onto the shore and plopped onto the sand, smiling at the birds and the clouds. I must have looked like an escaped mental patient. Carter, sitting beside me now, wore the same daffy expression.
“We should stay here,” I said. “Why be in a hurry to leave?”
“What about The Plan?” Carter said. “Going around the world?”
Carter grinned. “Swell idea, Buck.”
So we got jobs. Selling encyclopedias door to door. Not glamorous, to be sure, but heck. We didn’t start work until 7:00 p.m., which gave us plenty of time for surfing. Suddenly nothing was more important than learning to surf. After only a few tries I was able to stay upright on a board, and after a few weeks I was good. Really good.
Gainfully employed, we ditched our motel room and signed a lease on an apartment, a furnished studio with two beds, one real, one fake—a sort of ironing board that folded out from the wall. Carter, being longer and heavier, got the real bed, and I got the ironing board. I didn’t care. After a day of surfing and selling encyclopedia...