Fifty years ago this month, I arrived in a snow-covered city I would come to think of as my first American hometown, Winchester, Virginia. I had just spent most of my elementary school years in Kyoto, Japan, which I still think of as my Japanese hometown. My parents were missionaries. I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, where my father was in seminary, and I later attended first grade there during our first furlough while he finished his coursework toward a Th.D. But our two-and-a-half years in Winchester gave me my first prolonged exposure to life in small-town America.For 7th and 8th grades, I walked to my mother’s alma mater, Handley High School, where I soaped the windows of my homeroom one Halloween, and had a classmate whose parents threw a grand Bat Mitzvah party, for which I learned to jitterbug when other kids were just beginning to dance the Twist. We two oldest brothers were baptized in my mother’s home church, First Baptist, where my parents had gotten married and my father now served as associate pastor during our extended furlough. He would draft us to help shovel snow off its sidewalks along Piccadilly and Washington Streets. My brother and I both had paper routes, delivering the Winchester Star on the way home from school each afternoon. I joined the Boy Scouts, advancing to Life Scout and marching with my troop in the annual Apple Blossom Festival parade. My mother’s two brothers lived a few miles down the Valley Pike, while her sister lived up the Pike outside Martinsburg, West Virginia. My parents resigned after their regular furlough year (partly from burnout), and we moved into a smaller house near Quarles Elementary School, where I had earlier finished the last half of 6th grade. Without a missionary salary, my father supplemented his earnings at First Baptist by substitute teaching at the county high school (James Wood) and serving as interim pastor at a tiny Baptist church in Gore, Virginia (birthplace of Willa Cather and Patsy Cline, I later discovered).
Meanwhile, my mother had her hands full with five kids. Our family car was a Rambler station wagon with an extra rear-facing seat in back. One summer we drove it to Sebago Lake in Maine, where our pastor let us use his summer cabin, where in the evenings my mother would read to her own five children from The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (one of whom—in each family—was named Joel). My mother, who had dropped out of Berea College after her junior year to get married and become a missionary, always felt inferior to the more educated missionary wives, especially the registered nurses at the Japan Baptist Hospital in Kyoto, where my father had served as chaplain. Perhaps she compensated to some extent by being somewhat of a Japanese-style kyōiku mama (at least where I, her eldest, was concerned).
But I remember those years as the least bookish, most outdoorsy era of my life. We went sledding on the slope above our big old house on Amherst St., and built igloos and snow forts behind our smaller house on Henry Ave. One summer, Uncle Bill took us waterskiing on the Shenandoah River. Dad took us oldest boys along for a campout in Monongahela National Forest with a group from his little country church in Gore. With Boy Scouts, I took a 50-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail through the Shenandoah Mountains, and I remember one Camporee that got hit by such a heavy rainstorm that many parents came to rescue their boys and a few boys abandoned their pup tents to spend the night in the scoutmasters’ vehicles.
Sometime during 8th grade, I started to show signs of near-sightedness. I don’t think it was while trying for my rifle-shooting merit badge in the old Winchester Armory. I think I first noticed it when I had trouble reading the blackboard from the back of the classroom during algebra class or my tryout semester of Latin. But Uncle Bill likely noticed it sooner when I accompanied him on trips to Baltimore to bring back a tanker of gas for his filling station. He used to ask whichever nephew accompanied him to be on the lookout for certain road signs, landmarks, or maybe patrol cars, and I don’t think I was as good at spotting them as he was—or as my brother was. I went for an eye exam and got a prescription for contact lenses (newfangled and expensive at the time), which were soon replaced by regular eyeglasses after I lost one down the drain.
Sometime during that same school year, my parents opted to return to the mission field, this time to Hiroshima, which became the Japanese hometown of my three youngest siblings. We two eldest sons went off to boarding school in Kobe, and I began my evolution into the most bookish nerd one can ever hope to become.