Down ahead of us at the junction
There is a man standing, gesturing ambiguously
What meaning he is attempting to communicate
Can neither be told nor known exactly
Though we are aboard this train, passengers by association
We have forgotten its' destination
(My Canadian friend emails
About her recent visit to Auschwitz)
We have forgotten a lot of things before us
About that man standing, gesturing ambiguously
And we have forgotten who
Is at the control of the engine of this train
A glance out of the train window and behind
Reveals a dusty, ashen gray
A conflagration of black and white and blood red and the blues
A contamination of hate clouds the windows, obscures us from seeing
The man's arms are moving
But how to interpret the signal
Puffs of smoke as if from a starters pistol
But we defer untrained for these Olympics
No dais to distinguish the
1-2-3 (all aboard!)
We lurch and I grasp the safety handle
And pull toward me what is most important (my girls)
And misty-eyed from fear and grief
We hope beyond hope that this train won't move on (the horns sound)
Toward that junction
And on to the next gray, loveless destination
"Oh it's a long, long time/from May to December"
The evening of September 10th, 2001, I lay on my back in the dark. I was on
a secluded beach, barely 1/2 a mile long, on Tioman Island, Malaysia. The
island is a two-hour speedboat ride due east off the southeastern tip of
peninsular Malaysia. Take a few moments if you will, to locate the country
on a map somewhere and see if you see the island. It's shaped like a bowling
I can wait. Please, do me this favor and find the island.
OK? Let's continue then.
Tioman is so far away from any city center that sure enough, as I had
suspected, I was able to gaze up into the heavens, as I had many times and
many years before when I served my country in the United States Peace Corps
in Kenya. A lot of good memories flowed within and through me as I looked
again at our glorious home called the Milky Way, and I could see where we on
Earth are positioned within this galaxy, and I could remember again what
tiny place I occupied in this universe of ours. I stared deep into that inky
blue sky, savoring what might be my last chance to find such a remote place
for a long time. The tide was out, and the waves provided the background
music, while the salt air moved in and out of my body. I thought a lot about
how good my life was, that I had a loving wife and beautiful daughter and
that I could share good and bad times with them through my journey on earth.
My view of the night sky was relatively unobstructed, as the waning moon
would not come out until I was deeply sequestered in sleep in my air
conditioned "chalet" that lie just 10 meters behind me as I gazed up.
What was really exciting about that night was the anticipation of seeing a
shooting star again. Our home, Earth, is showered daily with bits of ancient
rock that find their way to our outer atmosphere, then, in a beautiful brief
moment, they penetrate the atmosphere and tumble burning until they are
vaporized. If you are good at using your peripheral vision, you can catch a
star for the fraction of a second that it takes to burn up. If you are very
lucky, you might even get a single second burn-up, or, for the very
luckiest, a two-second show. A unique thing about this is that you are
probably the only person on earth who gets this show at this particular
moment, as if it's a special gift, just for you...

That evening, though, I wasn't alone. I had just finished the second of a
two-day vacation there, with my good friends Julie and Ali Hassan (not their
real names), and their good friends, another married couple Pesha and Abudu
(not their real names, either), a nice young pair in their own right. At 39,
I am a good 6 years older than Ali, who is the oldest of the four. They are
all UK educated Malays with respectable jobs (Ali works for the Ministry of
Education and I met him here in Hakodate Japan. Julie is a teacher. Pesha
works for the formula 1 circuit in Malaysia and Abudu is a uni professor
turned advertising man). They are, by Malaysian standards, upper middle
class, though their income compared to US or Japanese standards, is quite
small. I invited them to this special show on the beach, because, as Abudu
had said...what are we gonna do without TV?!?! He said this in a half joking
matter, but all of them are children of the media age, more than I. Ali
loves his Playstation 2, and I brought him a popular game unavailable in
Malaysia, but easy to get here in Japan.

The night sky induced a state of semi-dreaminess in the five of us as we lay
there. A long silence was split by Pesha, who asked where the moon was. I
said that it would be coming out later in the night. In a surprised voice,
she said to me "how do you know that?" and my answer, after thinking back to
my Kenya experience, was "I just know."
I didn't really realize how much Kenya was in me. One thing I learned there
was the pulsation of the moon. I pretty much know whether the moon is waxing
or waning. I pretty much know it's cycle of rising later as it wanes and
earlier as it waxes. I love seeing the crescent of the new moon, too. It
reminds me a lot of the small ornament on top of the Witu village Mosque.
Seeing the crescent is one of the most magical parts of moon watching,
almost as if being present at the birth of a new child. Living in that
darkness in Kenya made me appreciate the short life that we all have, and
makes me live each day as if it might be the last. Work hard, play hard,
love hard...the human condition.
After being on our backs in that inky, milky darkness in a half dream state
for about 30 minutes of the greatest of all TV shows, the four of them
decided to turn in for the night. Our trip back to Kuala Lumpur the next day
would consist of a two-hour boat ride back to the mainland, followed by a
six-plus hour bus ride, so they wanted to get their beauty sleep.
I, however, took pleasure that I could be in solitude with the Milky Way for
a few minutes longer, free of all the stresses of everyday life, and the
eventuality of returning back to Japan to work. I took my time, hoping to
glance a passing satellite, and follow it on its lonely journey across the
face of the sky..but no luck. A few airplanes whispered across at 35,000
feet, and their blinking red and white lights heralded their passing,
transporting people and families from one experience to the next through the
secret night. I looked up again at the Milky Way splotched like a faint
cloud behind most of the other distant specs of light dotting the sky. I
looked at Pink-brown Venus, our next door neighbor, the brightest light in
that night sky. It was so peaceful and beautiful. There I was again:
standing tangent to the earth, waiting to leave the gravitational pull and
drift into and through that vast expanse of gas and dust from which we all
have come and must return. I'll never forget it. I'll never forget my time
in Kenya...or those brief 48 hours on Tioman, where I got to see a Kodomo
dragon slink away into the bush, a truly giant, and disappearing, species of
lizard unique to the region.

"But the days grow short, when you reach September"
The next day, September 11th was different. It consisted of a two-hour ride
on a larger boat. I shot some video of my four friends, and they made fun of
me and we all had a good laugh. We ate cookies and chips and drank our
bottled water. We waved at a few ships of the Singapore Navy resting at
Tioman before pursuing, in conjunction with the Malaysian Navy, the South
China Sea pirates, who roamed the area southeast of Tioman. We watched as we
passed by islets tinier than the 6 mile by 2 mile Tioman. I dreamed of
building a secluded house with a giant NO TRESSPASSING sign on one of the
tiny drops of rock outcropping and establishing the Republic of Larry,
population 3, and 3 cats. It was a nice fantasy. We arrived at the jetty
town and waited another two hours for the bus. I did some quick email to
people, bought some little gifts and said farewell to Tioman. During the
sleepless six hour bus ride back to KL, I played a game that Ali had beamed
me through his Palmtop, a game called "helicopter rescue".
"When the autumn weather/turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time/for the waiting game"
In the game, I was the daring helicopter pilot, rescuing good guys who were
jailed up and guarded by bad guys and their rockets, missles, tanks, planes
and all sorts of bad guy things. I could advance to the next round by
rescuing at least 9 of my 12 compatriots. I had six hours to play the game
on the bus. There were so many maneuvers to learn in those six hours. The
copter rising from the ground, fast forward, slow forward, hover, slow
backward, fast backward, shoot straight, drop a bomb while hovering, safe
takeoff, safe landing. I would lose a guy if they shot down my helicopter,
or if I landed in the improper position. There was a line in the game that I
could pass which was the safe zone. The enemy planes couldn't shoot me
were past that line. My little stick guys would rush out of the copter and
into the headquarters building if I landed safely in my safe zone. I could
only help four at a time, and had to return through hostile territory to
help the others to safety. I worked my way up to being able to rescue 12
guys in each of three rounds before my three helicopter lives were used up.
In six hours, I managed a score of over 1000 points.
At one point during the game, we stopped to rest for thirty minutes at a
roadside rest stop. Malaysia has better than Interstate quality roads these
days. They are 4 lane divided highways with large shoulders that band up and
down the western side of the peninsula. The rest area was full of Chinese
Restaurants and background music of Malaysian Pop Bands played REALLY LOUD.
The bands were trying their best to imitate American pop bands, I suppose,
and they pretty much sounded like them, only they sung in Bahasa Malaysia,
the Malay language or in Chinese. I bought a mask from Sarawak, which is on
the Island of Borneo across the South China Sea. There had been some ethic
killings on Sarawak recently. People getting decapitated and whatnot
nonsense. It's a cheap tourist mask, to be sure, but I like the colors and
patterns, and I'm collecting masks now that I bought one on my trip to Bali,
the Hindu enclave in the world=B9s largest Muslim nation, in 1999.
That was it for the bus ride. We got back to KL, said goodbye to Petra and
Abudu, who disappeared back into the city of 2 million, and took the subway
to a taxi and back to Julie and Ali's. I showered off all that salt water,
and dressed for my looming airplane ride: brown slacks and a long sleeve
button down greenish shirt. Airplanes get cool and dry on long routes, and I
was scheduled for a six and a half hour redeye commencing from 1:20AM on the
"The days dwindle down/to a precious few"
My bags packed and my body and mind refreshed, we went to an outdoor
restaurant in the late evening. It consisted of stalls selling Indian,
Iranian and Malay specialties. There were about 40 tables under a covered
area. The menu signs were all in English, my favorite one said "we guarantee
you fast service, no matter how long it takes!" Most of the signs, though, I
couldn't read as they were in Arabic. Most likely passages from the Koran, I
assumed. I had some tandoori chicken and butter chicken with a scrumptious
bit of roti bread, round, fat and very nice, to sop up all that buttery oil
and curry. To top it all off, I had a mango lassi served, incredibly, in one
of those two and a half liter beer steins you see if you drink in a beer
hall anywhere in Germany. There was no way I could finish it.
At the table next to us were two guys, one a Malay and the other, his
friend, looked of Chinese extraction. It was gratifying to see, really, that
Malaysia is a multi-linugal, multi-cultural society where freedom of
religion is a very important part of the country, despite the rise of Muslim
fundamentalism in some of the poorer northern parts of the peninsula. They
were chatting in English to each other on this sultry night. Julie , Ali and
I were all a bit tired from our trip to Tioman. Then, the Malay guy=B9s
cellphone rang, most folks here have Nokias...they are everywhere and they
are all manufactured here these days, along with most computers and hi tech
stuff. We tried to ignore him as he talked, but he kept saying something
about how first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building.
Anyway, we were finished eating that delicious food, so I paid and we
left...I had a cab to catch to the airport, which was still another hours'
drive away from where we were.
We drove over to Julie's aunt and uncle's house. They lived in a luxurious
apartment in a part of KL where all the embassies are. The richest and most
sumptuous part of town. Needless to say, Julie's uncle is a very successful
businessman. I was surprised, because I had met her aunt a week earlier,
though I didn't know it at first. The aunt had given me a ride to the
Petronas towers, the second tallest towers in the world (China now has the
tallest tower, in Shanghai, I think), which contains a gigantic, American
style, American class shopping mall, all of six floors and possibly over 150
shops, including a 12 theater cineplex where I saw Kubrick/Speilberg=B9s
=B3A.I.=B2 for 3 US bucks. =B3A.I. is set in a fictional futuristic New York=
The reason I didn't recognize the aunt at first was that her head was
uncovered. She wasn't wearing the head covering that most devout Moslem
Women wear in Malaysia, probably because she wasn't out in public and maybe
hadn't expected us. She had beautiful long black hair, with heavy accents of
gray, for she was, after all, somewhere in her early 60's. Seemed a pity to
keep that beautiful head of hair covered up, but that was her belief. I
wondered why Julie never wore one, but her generation is obviously more
liberal in it=B9s tolerance system. As we came in to the apartment, they led
us to sit down and switched on the TV. They put CNN on. That's when I saw
first one plane hit, then another hit in the other building. Within 5
minutes, it was time for me to get into the cab for the drive to the
airport. I stood outside with Julie, Ali, the aunt and uncle. My body was
shaking. It was about midnight in KL, exactly 12 hours later than the real,
non =B3A.I.=B2 N.Y.C. I shook Julie's uncle's hand, it was warm and firm. The
aunt let me shake her hand, too. I said goodbye to Ali and tried to shake
Julie's hand, but she gave me a hug instead. I almost forgot to wave goodbye
as the cab pulled away, because my body was still shaking. I tried to fix
their four faces in my mind as I left. They were smiling, and I was smiling,
or I imagine I was smiling, I can=B9t remember.
As I drove to KL International Airport, I couldn't think of anything. We
drove by the two towers, the Petronas towers. They were standing, the second
tallest buildings in the world, the tallest twin towers in the world,
encircled on several floors with beautiful lights, which nevertheless paled
in comparison to Tioman's magical milky way light show, but still, beautiful
for their manmade attempt to recreate nature=B9s profound glory. The darkened
highway was empty and we zoomed at 120kph, past Mosques silhouetted against
the night sky, past neon signs in Chinese, Malay and English, with the
occasional Tamil sign here and there, for there is also an Indian minority
here. Just inside the lobby of the airport, again, were huge televisions,
all tuned to CNN, and all surrounded by people watching first one plane hit,
then the other hit the other building. I went to the toilet, which was
situated next to a small prayer room for Muslims. My stomach was suddenly
not so good. My appetite was gone. Later at the departure gate, I stood in
line with the other Japanese returning to Nagoya. Next to our gate, we had
to pass by a bunch of white South Africans heading back to Cape Town.
Everyone boarding both flights was getting patted down in a newly meticulous
search. First the arms, then the back torso and back legs, then the front
torso and finally the front legs. I was asked to open all of my bags that I
was carrying on the plane. I had to open a box of three clay cups I had
bought for my family in the Petronas Towers mall a few days earlier. I had
to unzip every pocket in my camera case, and pull out my video camera and
show them that my telephoto lens was a telephoto lens. Then, as I entered
the plane, I had to show my passport again, with its gold embossed cover,
eagle with the thirteen olive leaves in one claw and thirteen arrows in the
other claw, inky blue on the cover, like the night sky of Tioman. "Passport"
above the eagle and "United States of America" in italics underneath the
eagle. Then we, me and a plane full of Japanese and the sprinkling of Malays
(the pilots, too, Malay as this was Malaysian Airlines) went shaking, or
singing, up into the milky way obscured sky, turned to the northeast, I
could see out of the left window seat near the rear of the plane those two
towers again, such tall towers they were, twin towers, among the tallest in
the world. Then, those two towers had passed away.
"And these few precious days/I'll spend with you.
These precious days I'll spend with you."
*Quoted lyrics from "September Song" Weill and M. Anderson
Larry Davies, Associate Professor, Future University - Hakodate