The Yokota Officers Club

Paperback $16.00

Ballantine Books | Oct 29, 2002 | 396 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9780345452771

  • Paperback$16.00

    Ballantine Books | Oct 29, 2002 | 396 Pages | 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 | ISBN 9780345452771

  • Ebook$11.99

    Ballantine Books | Nov 24, 2010 | ISBN 9780307775757

Awards

New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age NOMINEE

Praise

“SARAH BIRD WRITES FICTION WITH SUCH ENERGY AND SNAP, HER NOVELS SEEM TO BE IN MOTION. . . . There’s a wheelbarrow of talent in the writer who can keep a reader laughing right up to the moment of startled apprehension when the depth of sorrow in the family’s history becomes clear.”
The Dallas Morning News

“SWEET, POWERFUL, AND TERRIFYING, Sarah Bird’s talent . . . [is] nothing less than wondrous. This book is a beautiful and breathtaking treasure.”
–RICK BASS

“A LOVELY READ . . . [This novel] is a coming-of-age story, but one so ably fashioned, so tender at its core, that it can touch off both youthful longings and mature regrets in any reader with the slightest susceptibility to either.”
New York Daily News




Author Q&A

A Conversation with

Sarah Bird
author of the novel

The Yokota Officers Club

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.

Q. 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.


From the Hardcover edition.

 

A Conversation with Sarah Bird

Sarah Bird, in Austin, has a long phone chat with her mother, Colista
Bird, and two sisters, Kay and Martha, who are all in Albuquerque
curled around a speaker phone.

Sarah: You guys just had brunch on the patio? WAAAHHH!! I wish I
could have been there. What did you have?

Martha: Breakfast burritos–

Kay: –and mimosas–

Martha: –and strawberries–

Mom: –and mimosas!

Laughter.

Sarah: So, you’re telling me you’re all baked.

Kay: Lightly toasted.

Laughter.

Sarah: Okay, well get it together; we’re supposed to be talking about
this book inspired by our family.

Kay: Book? You wrote a book? You write? When did this start?

Mom: I thought you were demonstrating electric scissors at Sears. (A
job Sarah had during Christmas break her junior year
.)

Kay: Yeah, you should be about ready to retire now.

Martha: Okay, we should talk about the book.

Kay: That’s Martha. She’s The Nice One.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.


Sarah: What’s that sound?

Martha: That’s Kay. She’s making the brown-nose sign at me.

Sarah: All right, questions. Or, actually, I hope this can be more of a
conversation. Of course, we’ve talked a ton about the book. You all
were reading and approving rough drafts while I was writing it, but
I’d love to ask some questions and get "official" answers. So, first
question: Mom, how on earth could you have let me go off for two
weeks to Tokyo with a pinkie-ringed comedian?

Laughter.


Mom: That’s a good question. I musta been out of my mind.

Sarah: No, really.

Mom: Well, you remember, after you won this contest and
announced you were going, we all went over to his house. He
promised he was going to take his maid along as a chaperone.

Sarah: His "maid"? She was his girlfriend, concubine, something.

Mom: Well, he told us she was his maid, and he swore on his mother’s
grave that there wouldn’t be any funny business of any kind. Then
he said, "Why are you asking me all these questions? You’re acting
like I’m some kind of white slaver." And I said, "Well, I want to
make sure you aren’t a white slaver." (Laughs.) Sarah, it wasn’t a
matter of me "letting" you go. It was a question of you coming
home and telling us you were going.

Sarah: So much for the dictatorial military family.

Kay: Since I was seven at the time, I don’t remember much of this
very clearly. Did Mom take you to a sew girl to have a costume
made?

Mom: Oh no, the sew girls came to the house.

Sarah: That’s right. I had my characters go to her in the book so that
we could have a little tour through lovely downtown Koza.

Mom: Yes. We had these very short costumes made, and then you
proceeded to whack off about another foot.

Martha: So they went from very short to very, very short.

Silence.

Sarah: I’m not not saying anything; I’m writing furiously.

Kay: Every word’s a gem.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.

Kay: Now Martha’s calling me a brown-nose.

Sarah: Everyone always asks if I really had a sister like Kit. Does anyone
ever assume that one of you was Kit? And, if so, I’m very sorry.

Martha: Well, I guess because chronologically it would have been
me, people sometimes act like they have the inside story on my
life. That I’m really Kit. Oh, what a joke that is!

Sarah: Yeah, we all know that Kay was really Kit. (Laughs.)

Kay: I was Kit? You were Kit!

Sarah: Right. Remember my program I instituted in high school? I
made myself speak to one person every day who was not a member
of my family? "May I borrow your pencil?" "Do you know what
time it is?"

Martha: More important, who was Bosco?

Kay: And the answer is . . .

Martha & Kay: . . . YOU were Bosco!

Sarah: Maybe the obsessive, anxiety-ridden, noodgy parts of Bosco
are me, but the sweetness–I really modeled that on my little sisters.
You guys were such sweet little girls.

Reek-reek. Reek-reek.


Sarah: Who did that?! Who gave me the brown-nose noise? Okay,
come on, questions.

Kay: Yeah, I have a question: Did the comedian guy really hit on you?

Sarah: Yes.

Martha, Kay, & Mom: Eeeee-YUGG!

Sarah: I know. And he really did tell me that he shot blanks.

Kay: And that’s what made the difference. Not just that he’s a big, fat,
greasy, fifth-rate comedian. But he’s a big, fat, greasy fifth-rate
comedian who–

Kay & Martha: –shoots blanks!!

Sarah: Yeah, how did I resist?

Kay: Hey, Sarah, guess who’s coming to Isleta Pueblo Casino?

Sarah: Uh . . . Captain and Tenille?

Kay: Close, Tom Jones!

Sarah: Tom Jones? Oh, now, that’s sad. Are you gonna go?

Kay: The only way I’d go is if you come with me.

Sarah: When’s he gonna be at the Pweb?

Kay: May.

Sarah: Gotta miss Tom. I’m not coming until June.

Martha: You know, Tom’s schedule seems pretty open these days.
We’ll get him to stay over for you.

Kay: Yeah, he can move in with Mom. Bring in her breakfast tray.
(Sings) What’s new, pussycat? Woo-oo-woo-oo-woo-woo.

Martha: Tom, please, close your robe.

Sarah: Yeah, Mom’ll be zinging her undies at him.

Kay: Right, suds these out, Tom.

Sarah: How many mimosas did you all have?

Mom: Counting the ones we’re drinking right now?

Laughter.

Sarah: The book, this book I wrote . . .

Kay: Mom, since I wasn’t even born when we were in Japan, it was
interesting for me to read that you had this whole life where Dad
would come home and you couldn’t say, "Hi, dear, how was your
day?" He couldn’t talk about his work and, I assume, you knew it
was dangerous. What was that like?

Mom: Kinda scary.

Kay: When he’d leave on a mission, would you even know when he
was coming back?

Mom: Newp.

Sarah: How much did you know?

Mom: I knew they’d turned in a couple of May Days. Been a few missions
when no one thought they were gonna make it home. That
other crews in the squadron hadn’t made it home.

Sarah: Did Dad talk about that?

Mom: No, not directly. He couldn’t. But he’d be shook up, drink a
little more than usual, and really get into the family thing in a big
way. But the scariest part of it was when there were casualties. I’m
telling you, the way they made those families disappear . . .

Sarah: The families of the men who–

Mom: –didn’t come home. Boy, they were gone overnight.

Sarah: I remember that. How the little girl who’d been sitting next to
you the day before, coloring in the route Vasco da Gama took
to the New World, was just gone with no explanation. One of the
hardest things to convey in the book was how it never occurred to
you to even ask what happened.

Kay: Back to the Go-Go Years, how did it feel going back after that
experience?

Sarah: You mean back to UNM?

Kay: Yes, were you missing the little people?

Sarah: (Laughs) Right. That whole experience was so removed from
my real life. The only way I could do it was knowing for absolute
certain that no one I knew would ever see me. I never mentioned
it much once it was over. Especially not after I became a fiction
writer. "I was a go-go dancer in Tokyo." Sounds so completely
made up. What about you guys? What was it like for you coming
back from Okinawa?

Mom: Like being let out of suspended animation after almost three
years.

Kay: All I wanted to do was eat American food: Sweet Tarts, Burger
Chef–

Martha: Remember that neighbor of ours who brought us back a loaf
of Wonder bread? It was supposed to be such a giant treat. Reeked
of jet fuel. And the chocolate? All the chocolate from "the World"
was all melted and looked like it had sat on a runway in Guam for a
few days, melting in the sun.

Kay: Didn’t stop us though, did it?

Sarah: What has been the reaction of your friends and people you
know to the book?

Kay: You’re forgetting, Sarah, we don’t know people. We’re still insulated,
living in our own little world. Seriously, it’s been favorable
but a little cautious. People aren’t sure what’s true.

Sarah: Okay, forget other people. What was it like for you to read the
book?

Kay: It was really moving. Much more so than I thought it would
be, especially the pieces of Mom that you captured and brought
back.

Martha: I liked how it re-created the feel of the family. I know it
wasn’t a history of our family, but it all seemed so familiar. I sure
knew where the original threads came from, and that made me
like it all the more.

Kay: It was also reassuring to me.

Sarah: How?

Kay: Just that my sense of not belonging had a reason, and that lots
and lots of other people felt the same way.

Mom: Of course, I always tried to figure out what was reality and
what was just a figment of your imagination. It brought back a lot
of memories. Like it was happening all over again.

Sarah: Anything in particular?

Mom: I tried to remember if I disliked the wives that much or if they
disliked me that much. I do remember feeling like I was sort of an
outcast.

Kay: So that part was true?

Mom: Well, I certainly was an outcast when I took that job as school
nurse at Kadena Elementary on Okinawa. I definitely was made to
feel that I’d deserted the ranks. The president of the Wives Club
would call and ask if I could "pour" between the hours of two and
four, when some general’s wife was going to be in town.

Kay: "Pour"?

Martha: At a tea.

Kay: Oh, so mostly you’d just try and remember which cup your shot
of bourbon was in.

Mom: You needed one at those affairs. I’d tell them I worked
between the hours of two and four, and there would be a very long
silence. Working? An officer’s wife? Horrors!

Kay: What did you think about Moe?

Mom: Well, she’s got to be one of the worst housekeepers in history.

Kay: Funny you should pick up on that. I don’t recall housekeeping
being a big thing for you. Did you like Moe?

Mom: Oh yeah.

Martha: Sarah, are you ever asked, given that so much of the book is
true, why you didn’t just write a memoir?

Sarah: Yeah, and I tell them to mind their own freaking business.
Actually, I never really wanted to write a memoir for a couple of
reasons. The first is that, as anyone who’s ever had a sister or
brother will tell you, at some point after you’re grown, you start
exchanging memories and you wonder, "Did we grow up in the
same family? Did we eat the same bowls of cereal and watch the
same cartoons?" So I didn’t want to write The Official History of
Our Family for that reason. But also I wanted to go beyond the
puny details of my own puny life and try to tell a bigger story.

Martha: Which you did with Fumiko. I know I’ve told you this before,
but that was my favorite part. I couldn’t put the book down.

Sarah: Any reason why?

Kay: Yeah, it was just good writing.

Martha: Sarah, I have a comment: I think you made it real clear in the
book that moving so much, always being uprooted, always being
the "new kid," made the family incredibly tight.

Mom: It was good that during all these troop movements, we took our
own troop with us!

Kay: Mom, you’ve always emphasized us sticking together, being
friends. Was that because of who you were or because we moved
so much.

Mom: Probably a bit of both. It’s always been important to me that
you guys were friends. A lot of times you had to be friends cuz
there wasn’t gonna be anybody else!

Martha: And also no one else outside our family "got" us. I clearly
remember learning that I couldn’t tell the same joke outside the
family that was funny inside the family. People would just think
you’re weird.

Kay: That hasn’t changed much.

Martha: Have you learned anything about our family from writing the
book?

Kay: Has your view of the family changed?

Sarah: Well put. Very good question.

Kay: I used to be a reporter.

Sarah: And it shows. For me the great gift of this book was learning
about Dad, about his reconnaissance work. So much of it I’d
always taken for granted. Like the Distinguished Flying Cross–I
remember when he got that. But since all those missions were
classified, it was never specified what he got it for, so I just
assumed it was something all the dads got. For perfect attendance
or something. It wasn’t until I did the research for this book that I
found out a DFC is just one step below a Medal of Honor, and that
it is incredibly rare to receive one in peacetime and even more
unusual for the flyer to be alive to receive it.

Mom: I hope you know how very proud he was of you.

Kay: Incredibly proud.

Sarah: One of the important moments of my life was that night after
I’d sent you all the manuscript and he got on the line. I was so nervous.
He said, "Well, I’ve read the book." Then there was this big
dramatic pause, and my heart stops. He goes on and says, "And I
think it’s a magnificent achievement. I’m very proud of you." That
still undoes me. It was like something out of a made for TV movie.
One of those utterly perfect moments that you don’t think happens
in real life. I’m so grateful it did. I loved what he appreciated
about the book. He kept asking how I’d come to understand so
well how political a military career is, and how I’d gotten the information
about the kind of reconnaissance work he did, since he
would never talk specifically about the missions he’d been on.
Much of that material had been declassified by the time I was
doing the research, and I was reading books, reading about missions
that I’m certain if he wasn’t actually on, he knew the men
who were. I’d tell him stories from the books and say, "Dad, look,
it’s declassified. You can talk about your missions. Tell me how you
got the DFC. These other guys are writing books." I’ll never forget
his answer: "That’s their choice. I took the oath." "I took the oath,"
that level of loyalty, that complete lack of cynicism–it awes me.

Mom: Well, when you were doing the research, he told you stories
that I’d never heard.

Sarah: That was wonderful, that we had something we could talk
about.

Mom: I think it brought you two a lot closer together, because I think
you both were looking for a way to be closer.

Martha: It got to the core of his career.

Kay: The core of his identity, his rules of honor and behavior were so
in step with the military. You’re loyal, you don’t ask questions.
Sarah: But I also think that his sense of humor, that subversive sense
of humor that he passed on to us, was how he was able to accept
that life.

Mom: I guess you need to write an epilogue.

Sarah: What would that be?

Mom: You could tell what happened to all the Roots: Bernie is teaching
English, Bob is a nuclear physicist, the twins are doing time.

Sarah: Great idea. I’ll write that up. Okay, anything anyone wants to
add? Subtract? I’m gonna write this up for posterity.

Kay: Oh, Sarah, didn’t I mention? This is all off the record.

Sarah: Talk to my lawyer.

Kay: Talk to my lawyer!

Sarah: Bye, babies, I love you. Thank you.

Reek-reek, Reek-reek.


Dedicated to Lt. Col. John Aaron Bird
June 12, 1920–October 1, 2001
The Yokota Officers Club

Author Essay

View photographs and images from the era of the Yokota Officers Club.

Also by Sarah Bird

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