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Shadows on the Sidewalk
by Morris Sullivan
I visited Hiroshima 20 years ago
at the end of a 10-day tour of Japan. My brother was in the military, stationed in Korea, and my entire family met him in Tokyo so he could spend leave time with his family without having to waste several days of it traveling and dealing with jet-lag. My son, who turned 21 yesterday, was tiny at the time. He started eating solid food in Japan, which perhaps explains his love of sushi.
We toured Japan in the spring. There was still snow in the mountains when we began, but the cherries began blooming while we were there and peaked about the time we reached Kyoto. I still have vivid images of the gardens at Heian Shrine, complete with psychedelic pink clouds of cherry blossoms.
Katrina offers us a chance to recognize that we have been systematically electing people who are so far removed from ordinary American experience, they are incapable of making sound public policy.
Cherries bloom for only a few days. When the trees in a city are blooming at their peak, offices close for the day so their employees can go to the park and enjoy the cherry blossoms while they picnic and drink beer.
We arrived in Hiroshima the day the blooms at Peace Memorial Park were at their most vibrant. We stayed at a hotel right next to the park, but we got there in the evening. It had rained all afternoon; it wasn't a hard rain, but hard enough to knock the petals off the cherry blossoms.
After we settled in, I decided to go for a jog in the park. It wasn't quite dark yet, but almost. The sky had turned that deep, clear blue that twilight sometimes turns a cloudy sky. It was tough to jog, because the park was full of people. Apparently, the people of Hiroshima had decided not to let a little rain interfere with their enjoyment of the cherry blossoms.
I tried to run for a while, then gave up and just walked along, enjoying the cool of evening and the infectious happiness of the Japanese revelers who were intoxicated by the beauty of cherry blossoms and large quantities of beer. The celebrants had been consuming beer so freely there were mounds of beer cans scattered through the park.
The rain had knocked the cherry blossoms off the trees. Everything I saw had a thin coating of damp pink petals.
Alongside a clump of trees and beneath a sodium vapor light stood a mountain of beer cans and bottles. Like everything else, it was covered in wet cherry blossoms. A few people squatted around it, drinking and gazing bleary-eyed at an aging gentleman who stood swaying over them with an electric guitar slung around his neck. The guitar was connected to a little Pignose battery-operated amplifier. He grinned like a lunatic and played "Sakura," the "cherry blossom song," over and over. He was covered in damp flower petals.
It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever experienced.
The next morning, I tried jogging through the park again. At dawn, the mountains of beer bottles had been removed but the ground was still damp and everything was still covered with damp cherry blossoms, except where the mounds of beer cans had stood, where the absence of cherry blossoms etched shadows onto the sidewalk.
Peace Memorial Park commemorates the center of the blast, where the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the light of morning, I could see the memorials to those killed by the bomb. I slowed to a walk as I went past the "A-Bomb Dome," a western-style brick building that had stood directly beneath the blast.
The Japanese have preserved the ruin as it was after the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The Hiroshima Prefectural Commercial Exhibition Hall was instantly consumed by heat from the atomic blast above. Everyone in it was killed. Because the bomb detonated directly overhead, some walls and the wire framework of the building's dome didn't collapse.
The park's luxuriant, manicured turf grows right up to the rubble at the base of the walls. It is a uniquely disturbing sight.
As a lesson in impermanence, the A-Bomb Dome paled alongside granite steps of a bank that once stood nearby. To this dayand for many years hencethe steps bear the images of people that sat on them that morning, waiting for the bank to open. The intense heat vaporized the people and turned the granite white, etching their shadows onto the steps.
I saw that, and couldn't imagine what kind of monster would use such a weapon against other beings.
On August 6, 2005, those shadows turned 60 years old. Many peace organizations held events to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Perhaps you attended one.
I'm involved with a small Buddhist group in my town. We got wind of a contemplative commemoration planned in St. Petersburg, which is on the other side of the state. It was sponsored by the Tampa-area Buddhist Peace Fellowship and Pax Christi. A few of us decided to go over and participate in the commemoration.
About 30 people or so showed up. We meditated and talked about peace. A Polynesian nun spontaneously began a chorus of "Ain't Gonna Study War No More." Those of us old enough to know the song joined in. We decorated lanterns, which we intended to float on the water. It was a moving experience.
As I said, that was in early August. Now, in post-Katrina America, that scene seems very long ago. But August 6, 2005 kept coming back to me. For the first time in my life, I have heard an American cityNew Orleanscompared to Hiroshima. At least in terms of lives lost, the comparison is an overstatement. At this writing, no one has yet counted all of the New Orleans' dead, but it will be far less than the hundreds of thousands that died in the bombing of Hiroshima.
Nevertheless, there are similarities. The tragedies at Hiroshima and New Orleans each resulted from a combination of enormous natural power and willful human ignorance. The disaster Katrina wrought was exacerbated by decades, if not centuries, of greed and complacencyby politicians overlooking the environmental consequences of their decisions in favor of the short-term economic gains.
As sad as it sounds, Katrina offers humankind a great opportunity. This is not opportunity of the variety suggested by the President's mother, who seems to think that if a person is poor, they will welcome having their home destroyed and family uprooted. Rather,
Perhaps the Gulf Coast catastrophe will encourage the nation to acknowledge that issues like conserving a natural riverscape and reducing oil consumption aren't just "tree hugger" issues. These things affect us all. Perhaps the effects of the disaster on our economy will help us realize that no municipality is an islandthat we may all suffer when one state, one county, one city makes bad decisions.
I suspect Katrina will fade into memory fairly quickly. America seems to have developed a frighteningly Orwellian knack for forgetting about things. For instance, a few weeks ago, all of America seemed to be calling for Karl Rove's head. Now Rove is reportedly running around the Gulf Coast arranging no-bid reconstruction contracts for the President's buddies.
Chances are, no one will bother to commemorate Katrina's 60th anniversary. But let's hope that before the storm is forgotten, we can learn some of the things she tried to teach us, before these lessons become nothing but shadows.
Maybe we'll even realize some of what Willie Dixon told us would happen if we decide we ain't gonna study war no more:
The money spent on bombs alone
Can build poor people a happy home
Something good we can do
You treat me like I treat you
Contributing Editor Morris Sullivan has written for IMPACT for most of a decade. A freelance writer and award-winning journalist, Sullivan lives in DeLand, Florida, where he helps lead Sangha West Volusia, a small-but-growing ecumenical Buddhist fellowship.
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Notes from the Cultural Wasteland Columns
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