The Yokota Officers Club: A Novelby Sarah Bird
Bernadette "Bernie" Root, military brat, speaks. She has never really noticed what a peculiar bunch of nomads her eight-member Air Force family is (with the exception of her Post Princess sister, Kit), until the summer after her first year of college when she joins them at their new
Sarah Bird’s gutsy, sharp, and touching new novel opens at full speed.
Bernadette "Bernie" Root, military brat, speaks. She has never really noticed what a peculiar bunch of nomads her eight-member Air Force family is (with the exception of her Post Princess sister, Kit), until the summer after her first year of college when she joins them at their new assignment: Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Just as Okinawa turns out to be a sorry version of the Japanese paradise Bernie knew in her childhood at Yokota Air Base, her family, especially her once-beautiful mother, Moe, and her former spy-pilot father, Mace, seems to have been in decline since those glory days of the American Raj. Days when her mother was happy and their best friend, Fumiko, now lost to them, was the family’s maid. The worst part of Okinawa for Bernie, though, is realizing how perfectly she fits with her oddball family and how badly she needs to get out.
So when a dance contest first prize, a trip to Japan,offers a chance to escape, she takes it, playing second banana to a third-rate comedian on a tour of Japan’s military bases. At their grand finale at the Yokota Officers’ Club, Fumiko finally reappears, and Bernie discovers the terrible price that is paid when the secrets nations hide end up buried within families.
A brilliantly appealing novel whose energy, wit, and feeling have won for it (see back of the jacket) extraordinary advance praise.
From the Hardcover edition.
–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.”
“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
- Random House Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Dear Dependents of the United States Air Force:
Welcome to your new duty assignment, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
Okinawa is the principal island of the 160 islands that make up the Ryukyu archipelago. Only 67 miles long and from 2 to 17 miles wide, Okinawa is often referred to as the "Keystone of the Pacific" because of its strategic Far East location roughly 900 miles from Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, and Hong Kong.
Originally an independent nation, Okinawa has endured long periods of both Chinese and Japanese domination. After World War II, the island remained under U.S. military control. The United States will continue its custodianship as long as conditions of threat and tension exist in the Far East.
Bear in mind as you begin your tour that the serviceman's family is just as much a representative of the United States Government as the serviceman himself.
Your President and Commander in Chief,
Lyndon Baines Johnson
On the map on the back of the pamphlet, Japan resembles a horned caterpillar rearing up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. My destination, the Ryukyu Islands, trails behind like a scatter of droppings. We've been in the air for seventeen hours. Sheets of rain snake across the plastic pane of the window next to me. A light on the wing blinks red in the night. Lulled by the drone of the jet engines taking me to join my family stationed on Kadena Air Base, I slide back into the anesthetized stupor that travel always induces.
Phenobarbital, that was my mother, Moe's, drug of choice for traveling with six children packed into a station wagon when we PCS'd--Permanent Change of Station--six times in eight years. We, her children, took the drug, not Moe. A nurse, she administered the meticulously titrated doses in tiny chips that floated like specks of goldfish food in our cups of apple juice.
"How else was I supposed to keep you from murdering each other?" Moe had answered when I inquired about the peculiar lassitude that always seemed to overtake us upon departing Maxwell Air Force Base, or Travis, or Harlingen, or Brooks, or Kirtland, or Mountain Home Air Force Base. Especially Mountain Home. All I remember about leaving that base was pulling out of Boise, Idaho, with my breath freezing in the predawn mountain chill and regaining consciousness outside of Tonopah, Nevada, with a bib of drool and my nasal linings dried to corn flakes.
"You drugged us? Your children? You drugged us?"
"I thought about running a hose in from the exhaust pipe. That really would have quieted you down."
"You drugged us?"
"Think about it, Bernie. Six kids, two of them in diapers when we transferred out of Japan, crammed into a station wagon with the luggage strapped on top and a maniac behind the wheel who wouldn't stop unless you put a gun to his head. Me passing around the bologna sandwiches and the potty chair, sprinkling the cars behind us when the potty can got full. And the whole time I'm wrestling with a map the size of the Magna Carta and trying to navigate for a guy used to getting directions off a radar screen who keeps barking at me to do something about my children. No, I didn't have a lot of patience left to deal with Kit screaming about you 'breathing' on her or you screaming about Kit 'looking' at you or the twins hammering monkey bumps and noogies and X no-backs into each other and Bosco wailing about whatever hamster or turtle or corn snake she had to leave behind at the last base and Bob reenacting entire episodes Clutch Cargo and someone, usually you, barfing."
"Yeah, but what if you've turned us all into junkies?"
"Well, if I have, all I can say is that I did the best I knew how and you lived to tell the tale. That's all I can say."
It was during an unmedicated moment on the long hot drive out of Idaho that we all, all us sibs, realized we hated our ultra-Hibernian Catholic names. No one else at our new schools would be named after saints famous for being enucleated or having their tongues plucked out with pliers. We wanted regular names. So, as Moe passed around the potty seat, we rechristened ourselves with the most normal, most American names we could each think of. The twins, Frances Xavier and Bryan Patrick, chose Buzz and Abner. Joseph Anthony, just three at the time, selected Bob, since it was not only a great name and easy to spell but also his favorite aquatic activity. No one wanted me to change Bernie. Mary Colleen, our youngest sister, declared that henceforth she would be known as Nancy, her book-loving soul released in ecstasy at the thought of sharing Nancy Drew's name.
"Nancy?" We'd all hooted in unison. We'd already given her the perfect name, Bosco, when she was two and loved Bosco Chocolate Syrup, and we weren't swapping it for some girl detective in a roadster.
"Okay," Bosco had agreed. "But in my mind I'm still calling myself Nancy, and you can't stop me."
"The name represents the self," my father said from the driver's seat, flicking a white Tums out of a foil roll into his mouth. "A rejection of the name represents a rejection of the self. You all hate yourselves."
We exchanged fiendish looks and had to agree. "Yeah, we all hate ourselves."
"Eileen is the only one showing any sense."
But it wasn't sense my middler sister was showing; it was concentration. She glowed like a full-immersion Baptist bursting to the surface of the tank when she finally revealed, "My new name is Kitty."
"Kitty?" Moe echoed.
"Okay, Kit. Kit Root."
As Moe dealt out Sioux Bee honey and peanut butter sandwiches, I glanced at Buzz, Abner, Bob, and Bosco and wondered what we'd unloosed. It was clear that Eileen wasn't getting the joke. Worse, with her platinum-blond hair and Siamese-cat blue eyes, the name Kit fit her too well.
At our new schools, we all registered under our real names and only called one another Buzz, Abner, Bob, Bosco, and Bernie at home. But Eileen died that day and never again answered to anything, anywhere, except Kit.
Maybe it was the phenobarbital; still, even without chemical amendments, moving, the part after the packers left but before I became the new girl, a spot I tended to occupy until the packers came again, was always the coziest time in my life. Just me and the sibs and Moe, sealed up in our mobile incubator hurtling down the highway, stuck to the vinyl seat covers, glued to one another with sweat, everyone oozing together, breathing the breaths a sister or brother had exhaled a hundred miles ago. Just us. No outsiders. Outsiders--which is to say, anyone that Moe had not brought into this world--and my family did not mix. We'd only allowed an outsider into the family once.
Fumiko. Of course I'm thinking about Fumiko again. The first time I crossed the Pacific I was six years old, twelve years ago, and heading for the horned caterpillar itself, not the droppings. Fumiko became part of our family the day we landed in Japan and was one of us for four years. Bob hadn't even been born when we PCS'd out of Japan eight years ago, and Bosco was barely two, so they don't remember Fumiko at all. The twins, who'd hung on to her like orangutan babies for the first three years of their lives, have no memory of her either. Kit probably does, though it's hard to tell since Kit speaks to me as little as possible and Fumiko's name was never mentioned again after we left Japan anyway.
But I know Moe remembers Fumiko, and our father, and me--of course, me. Of course I remember Fumiko.
The Okinawa-bound plane hits an air pocket and belly-flops a few hundred feet. My seatmate, Tammi, grips my arm, digging her pearlized pink nails into my flesh. Tammi looks only slightly older than my sister Kit, who is seventeen. But Tammi is on her way to Okinawa so that her baby daughter, Brandi, can meet her father for the first time. The cabin lights flicker, and Tammi and I look to the front of the plane to see if the stewardi are freaking in any manifest way.
"The pilot just rotated out of Nam." Tammi has made this observation every time the plane wobbled for the past seventeen hours since we left Travis. The implication is that if a pilot is good enough to survive Vietnam, surely he can get a planeload of dependents, mostly wives and small children traveling Space Available, delivered safely to Okinawa.
Tammi looks the way my two sisters and three brothers, certainly my parents, expect me to look. A year ago, they'd left me behind at the University of New Mexico when my father was transferred to Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. They'd said good-bye to a sister, a daughter, who set her Breck-washed hair into a flip on pink foam rollers. Who wore Villager blouses with coordinating pleated kilts held closed with an oversize gold pin above the knee. Who had a pair of tortoiseshell cat's-eye glasses correcting her vision, a white-cotton circular-stitched brassiere shielding her breasts, Weejun loafers covering her clean feet, and Heaven Sent cologne perfuming her thoroughly deodorized and depilated self.
When I stepped off the plane they would behold a vagrant in Levi's with peace-sign patches stitched to her ass and hems frayed to a dirty fringe from being trod upon by a pair of water-buffalo-hide sandals held on by one ring around the big toe. Who parted her straight hair in the middle and left it to hang lank as old drapes on either side of a groovy new pair of John Lennon wire rims. Who'd substituted patchouli oil for Heaven Sent and had discarded deodorant, depilation, and undergarments altogether.
For the past year, I had breathed civilian oxygen for the first time in my life. It caused me to forget that I was the daughter of Major Mason Patrick Root, just as much a representative of the United States as the serviceman himself. It caused me to join an antiwar group on campus, Damsels in Dissent.
I started to remember who I was at Travis Air Force Base, where I had to hang around reading The Confessions of Nat Turner while my request for a Space A flight worked its way through MATS. Just the acronyms for Space Available and Military Air Transport System were enough to resuscitate me with the air I'd inhaled for the past eighteen years. I was returning to a world where officer fathers lost their jobs when sons didn't mow the lawn, when daughters dated GIs, or when mothers misbehaved too often at Happy Hour. Who knew what happened when offspring allied themselves with groups that advised draftees to swallow balls of tinfoil and put laundry detergent in their armpits to fool induction center doctors?
As we fly deeper and deeper into a world that is entirely military, I push that question out of my mind even further than I bury the memory of Fumiko. I've long since finished with Nat Turner and, desperate for the narcotizing effect of moving my eyes across print, I start on the pamphlet again. I don't get very far before lightning flashes outside the window. Almost simultaneously, thunder booms. Baby Brandi trembles, sucks her lip in, and wails. A crack of lightning explodes, and the clouds outside are illuminated in a battlefield flash of pale violet and gray.
Finally, the clouds part, and far below there is, at last, something visible in the darkness. Like a handkerchief tossed onto an endless field of mud, the island of Okinawa appears in the galaxy of black that is the night and the Pacific Ocean.
It seems impossible that they are all down there: my parents; Kit; the twins, Buzz and Abner; my little sister and brother, Bosco and Bob. It seems even more improbable that this plane is going to land on such a minute button of light.
Abruptly the plane slews to the side so violently that luggage bins pop open and diaper bags and duffels shoot into the air. All the babies and children cry. The stewardesses at the front are ashen-faced and stare at each other, wide-eyed, stricken. The smell of vomit, dirty diapers, and fear spikes through the cabin.
The older stewardess speaks into a microphone. "Remain in your seats with your seat belts fastened." She has on chalky lipstick that makes her teeth look yellow. She tries to get the younger stewardess up to help her stuff bags back into overhead bins, but the younger one shakes her head and tightens the belt holding her into her seat facing us. Seeing open fear on a stewardess's face ignites panic in the cabin. The older stewardess crimps her lips in disgust and wades into the aisle.
Lightning flashes continuously on all sides. A bolt crackles against the plane. Women scream as the thunder explodes. The older stewardess tries to speak through her microphone, but a roar of static is all that comes out.
Mascara-blackened tears streak Tammi's cheeks.
The woman behind me begins to pant as if she were giving birth. Another woman sitting on the aisle turns in her seat and tells us in a weirdly conversational tone, "Pray, everyone, okay? Just pray to Jesus."
But I am already praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary. She's much more likely to be interested in a plane filled with mothers and children.
The plane bucks violently and the brave stewardess is thrown to the floor. The panting woman behind me screams like a sleeper trying to wake from the nightmare of her own death. Full-scale panic breaks out, with all the dependent wives and all their children sobbing and ululating like Berbers.
Tammi turns to me and, in a voice as calm as if she were reporting how much apples were selling for at the base commissary, tells me, "We're going to die."
On the plane, all noise and all smells stop. Next to me, Tammi's face is red and squinched up from crying, but all I hear is the roar of an airplane's engine. I look around and see the older stewardess fight to get to her feet and the woman who wanted us all to pray to Jesus snatch at her so the stewardess falls down again, but I hear nothing.
Once again, I am the overwrought, unhealthily imaginative child prone to nervous attacks and stomach disorders with a neurotic attachment to my mother and a dangerous dependence upon sugar that I was on my first trip over these waters, and I understand that we are seconds away from going down in a storm over the East China Sea. That everyone will die except for the cowardly young stewardess, who will trample a set of twins and the pilot to escape before the plane sinks, sucking everyone else into the night-black sea.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
Sarah Bird is the author of four previous novels: Virgin of the Rodeo, The Boyfriend School, Alamo House, and The Mommy Club. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, George, and son, Gabriel.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Sara Bird has exposed the heart and soul of kids that have survived as dependants in the military. I picked up the book to read about my home from 1966 to 1970. I was one of the lucky extroverted ones ('Kit' in the book). I went to 13 schools in 12 years. I never realized,in my adult life, why I always felt like I was on the outside looking in, until I met Bernie in the book. Sara's book 'fills in the holes' and answers the questions, 'just where is Daddy going now?' Blending fact & fiction I found this a wonderful read. Laughting and crying in the same chapter is very cleansing. And the use of 'smells' envoked powerful memories. My love,affection and respect for my Japanese friends is only deepened. I am humbled by Fumiko's story. Thank you Sara for your literary tallent. I am on line to find another gem to read.
Sarah Bird¿s The Yakota Officer¿s Club is an exquisitely painful and hilarious journey into a dysfunctional and yet proudly resourceful military family¿s secrets. I am also an Air Force brat (though we called ourselves dependents, not brats at the time), who lived in Japan during the 1950¿s and have never seen a book about our peculiar life style so heartrendingly accurate. My dad, as a young lieutenant, installed my Mom, younger sister and I on Wherry housing outside of Johnson AFB at the end of 1955 through the summer of 1957. I was 10 to 12 years old at that time and like the young Bernie Root found Japan to be at first as foreign as living on the moon. Japan was still raw with WWII wounds, broken down, bursting with smells, sights and sounds that were dangerous and exotic to me. Bernie¿s first trips out with the family maid recalled my own strange memories of roaming through the little villages next to the base looking for forbidden adventures with little Japanese girls. We couldn¿t speak each other¿s languages, but found commonality playing in the rain, mud and exchanging dolls. As an older teenager, Bernie has the opportunity to return to Yakota Air Base to resolve a mystery concerning the family maid, Fumiko. My family also had a young teenage maid, Chioko, who must have gotten in trouble with her GI boyfriend(s) and was fired by my parents. When Bernie visits her parents Moe and Mace and her wild menagerie of brothers and sisters on Okinawa, her description of the military daughter¿s role was almost painful for me to read. Every detail rang so true about the insular and peculiar extended military ¿family¿ living in our guarded and barbed wired mini cities. No matter what country we were stationed in, the Base (Post, etc) was an untainted little America, an island unto itself. I was pulled back in time reading Bird¿s description of the sameness of every military base with the commissary, BX, grassy yards, cramped housing made of cinder blocks, Officer¿s Club with swimming pool, DOD schools and teachers, the pecking order according to your father¿s rank, and my worst nightmare - seeing the moving truck pull up to my or my best friend¿s house. Bernie¿s siblings became my many forgotten pals who shared precious hours at the BX, theater, swimming pool and teen club. I remember spending my hard earned weekly allowance of 25 cents on candy bars, ¿Betty and Veronica¿ comic books, and those titillating sounds of Elvis Presley on size 45rpm records at the Base Exchange. Alternate weeks, my allowance went for a 10-cent movie, 10-cent popcorn and 5-cent coke at the base theater where we stood and put our hands over our hearts to listen to the national anthem before the cartoon came on. Reading this story was like seeing my own past exposed to the world. It was a thrilling and yet embarrassing experience at the same time, like someone had stolen my personal diary and published it. I have had very little contact with other military brats in my adult civilian life, so reading this book was like reminiscing with an old friend. I am left wanting to read more adventures of Bernie Root and her nomadic family. Write on, Sarah Bird!
A good book, but the chapters are very long.
This book is a good, funny book. I would recommend it to others. In the book Bernie is a college student home for the summer with her family. Her father is in the air force, so her family is always moving. She goes back to her old home, Japan, because she won a dance contest with a trip to Japan as the prize. She renters her life as a young girl in Japan, and finds secrets of the past. This is a good book that is sure to keep you interesed. I would suggest it. I didn't give the book a five star rating, because the book got confusing sometimes and boring.
I happened upon this book while looking for Ken Mochizuki's Beacon Hill Boys. When I saw the word Okinawa, I picked up this book. I was born on Okinawa in 1955 and lived there until 1973. Although my dad worked as a Civil Service employee for the U.S. Army, I am very familiar with the themes in this book, the intrigues, the paranoid anti- communist propaganda and all of the other inane things one had to do in those days. In 1992, I returned to Okinawa and like Bernie, all I saw was the familiar places haunted by people I didn't recognize. The book helped me remember much of the good and bad of living in an American Raj. The only real criticism I have of the book ( and it's a minor one ) was that her geography was outright wrong at times. She claims that Highway 1 runs on the Pacific side of the island or when Bernie and Kit drive to the Suicide Cliffs way south of Naha and then back to the dance contest in less than 2 hours. Just details, I guess. However, I do recommend this book to fellow 'brats' that lived overseas.
I'm sixteen, and I just finished this amazing book. It definitely seemed a little 'adult' at times, but I would still reccommend it to anyone, young or old. To tell the truth, I happened upon this novel by complete chance: I was in the library looking for a book that my mom wanted me to check out for her, and the binding/cover design caught my eye. I didn't have anything to read a the moment, so I checked it out. I'd have to say that was either pure coincidence or fate, because this book was amazing! Though this is a subject that I would previously have had no interest in, I laughed frequently as I read, associating the vivid characters with others from my life. This novel brought me such a broad range of emotions; the last few chapters struck a part of my heart that I'm sure I won't forget for a while to come. I'm definitely considering reading another by Sarah Bird one of these days, and hopefully one I choose will compare to this gem...
I had never read Sarah Bird before, but now I am going to try and find every book of hers. I would recommend this book to anyone!
I enjoyed this book. Not what I usually read, but I'm glad I did. Excellent humor, strong characters and very poignant.
'The Yokota Officers Club' is Sarah Bird's best ever, surpassing even 'The Boyfriend School' and 'Virgin of the Rodeo.' I found myself laughing out loud in a crowded airport terminal, transported from the tedium of flight delays to the compelling and often hilarious world of US overseas military bases.
The story weaves back and forth between the present, set in 1968, and the past of the 1950s. The suspense mounts as the story progresses and the main character Bernie Root pieces together the events which sidelined her father's promising career and left her parents estranged from each other. The author uses the time-shift device to advantage to let the reader see events through the child's eyes and then filtered through the reflective eyes of a young adult who is coming to understand their significance.
You don't have to be a military brat to enjoy this book. Although I didn't grow up in a military family, I could easily relate to the story's family dynamics and insights into the tensions between career and family life. The book is full of the vivid smells, sights, songs, and vernacular of the early Vietnam era.
Pop music buffs will enjoy testing themselves on tune recall. You'll never hear 'Brown-Eyed Girl' again without superimposing the pirated lyrics which the Taiwanese transcriber rendered as 'Hey Roderigo! Dates when no raking!' instead of 'Hey where did we go, days when the rain came.'
Even the shoe size incident struck home. It made me remember the time when a giggling sales clerk ushered me over to the men's section of a Tokyo shoe store because she knew that nothing in the women's section would be big enough to fit my size 9s. At least I didn't have to squeeze my feet into go go boots four sizes too small and dance onstage like our heroine Bernie Root.
But beware - the story will draw you in. The final chapters were so engrossing that I nearly missed my flight. Absorbed in the book, I tuned out all the boarding announcements till the final call. Then I went scrambling to the jet bridge, careful not to lose my place as I handed my boarding pass to the gate agent. Better to miss a flight than to miss this book, the latest effort from this extraordinary author.
If you were ever a teen dependent stationed in Okinawa during the war, this book will blow your socks off. The vernacular of a special time in my life just came roaring back. It was so much fun to hear old phrases agin that required no translation at all. Any military dependent, (we weren't brats in the Marine Corps!), will really enjoy this book!