TRAVELING WITH TRAVEL WRITERS
Lots of Reading
Reading and studying must be a continuous effort to do good writing. Writer must know their history and pass it on accurately to the reader. That doesn’t mean to be heavy handed. If we start reading an article telling in cold facts about the history of a place, the chances are we will not read beyond the first paragraph. To avoid this, I make a list of all the historical facts I find interesting, facts that I feel that others might find interesting too. Then I interweave this information into my text. Thus I can educate readers without them realizing they are getting a history lesson.
Sometimes, of course, I have to do my research after I return home. I may have heard a rumor or gathered an odd piece of information that warrants an investigation. When I follow up, I can be shocked at what I find. For instance, I was on a Greyhound bus traveling from Seattle to San Francisco. I had the seat behind the driver. Knowing I was a writer, he occasionally passed bits of information on to me. We were leaving Oregon nearing the California border when he said, “Japanese aircraft bombed this place during World War II.”
I didn’t want to argue with him but the Japanese had never bombed the U.S. mainland. They had launched a series of ill-directed high-altitude balloon bombs destined for the North American continent, and all but one fell harmlessly. A Japanese submarine had shelled Fort Stevens in Oregon, and another sub fired twenty-five rounds at a California coastal oil refinery, but the mainland had never been bombed by air.
There was something else, however, the bus diver said that aroused my curiosity. He mentioned that the local newspaper in Brookings ran a story about the incident. Was there some truth to the bombing? The seed was planted in my mind.
Two years passed, and this time I was motoring up the coast. When I reached Brookings I remembered the bus driver’s tale and went to the newspaper. “That’s right,” the editor said, “one of those war secrets; would probably still be hush-hush had not the Japanese pilot been through here last Memorial Day on a peace mission.” I could hardly believe it. The newspaper carried a photograph of an elderly Japanese gentleman. The caption read that Nobuo Fujita, seventy-eight, was appearing in Brookings “nearly forty-eight years after he flew the only successful bombing mission against the U.S. mainland.” I had to read it once more to make sure I was reading right.
I was really hooked now. I had to meet the pilot. I was flying back from San Francisco to Bangkok with a stopover in Tokyo. The newspaper editor gave me the Japanese pilot’s address. In Tokyo I boarded a train and made a two-hour train trip to his village. I spent two afternoons with this incredible man. He revealed to me his remarkable story. He did indeed bomb the U.S. coast from a small Zero-type reconnaissance seaplane launched from a submarine. The plane was kept in a sealed deck hangar and had to be assembled before it could be launched; it had to be taken apart again and stored before the submarine could submerge. The method was primitive but it worked. Once assembled, the plane was catapulted with compressed air from a ramp on the deck. The plane’s top speed was barely one-hundred-and-fifty mph, and its only armament was one machine gun. But it did carry two seventy-six kilogram incendiary bombs.
Here was an incredible story. I wrote it up for the Bangkok Post and the media around the world picked it up. Hundreds of letters and e-mails followed.
I missed out on a bigger story, however, and that was to learn more intimate facts about the pilot and his private life. It would have made a great and interesting book, the war through the eyes of a Japanese pilot. I had learned that after Pearl Harbor, Fujita flew reconnaissance missions over Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, Wellington and Auckland in New Zealand and other Pacific ports which included Suva in the Fiji Islands and Noumea in New Caledonia. He admitted he and his observer were in constant fear of discovery, but they had never been spotted or attacked.
My conversations with Captain Fujita had been limited. His English wasn’t that good, and we could only talk about general things. I wanted to know details, how the aircraft was stored aboard the tiny submarine, the methods of propulsion used to launch the plane and so much more. On my next visit, I arranged for an interpreter to join us. But I was too late. When I phoned Captain Fujita’s home from Tokyo, I learned he had died a few weeks before. His story was lost forever.
Many other interesting leads took me to exciting places. I visited with shamans and soothsayers in Malaysia and witch doctors in Indonesia. I followed a sixteen-year old Filipina to witness her being nailed to a cross in the Philippines. I interviewed pirates in the Sulu Sea and deep-sea divers in Borneo. The reward of being a travel writer is meeting strange and fascinating people. They do exist but you must seek them out. I follow the simplest tip, the most innocuous rumor. It may lead to a dead end but sometimes I hit pay dirt.
Travel writing has taught me to be open-minded and tolerant of other cultures and religions. I learned a long time ago that I am little more than an observer in these far-off places. I am there to visit, nothing else, and my objective is to learn something about the people who live there. I am neither to teach them nor to lecture them. They have their customs, habits, religion and way of life and it is not my duty to alter or change their way of thinking. I leave that task to others whom, I hope, are more qualified than I am.
Unfortunately, there are times I divulge secrets passed on to me. It’s not always intentional. I tell people if they don’t want it to be known what they have to tell me, then don’t tell me. Sometimes they tell me anyway. Of course, being a good juicy yarn, it’s hard not to pass it on to readers. Bill Mathers is one of those people, a treasure diver with many good stories to tell, except with him, he said he had no objection to my writing about him, and so I did. I wrote a chapter about him and his diving adventures Asian Portraits, later republished under the title The Strange Disappearance of Jim Thompson and Other Stories. Bill regretted he ever told me that I could write about him. It almost cost him his life and nearly led to his execution. It so happened that Bill owned a beautiful schooner called So Fong. He used the vessel for diving expeditions. On one of his expeditions, he found himself into serious trouble with the authorities, and what I had written about him wasn’t much help for him. In fact, it was my writing that almost sent him to the gallows. It was most unfortunate.
Bill was sailing So Fong with a crew of four from Singapore to Hong Kong when, supposedly, he was in Vietnamese waters and apprehended by the Vietnamese navy. So Fong was taken into custody and confiscated. The crew, after a long delay, was released but Bill sent to prison. The charge were spying. In the closet in his cabin he kept his old U.S. Navy uniform. He had charts of Vietnamese water . It looked grim for Bill Mathers. Also found aboard was my book Asian Portraits. It had a chapter on Bill and his escapades as a diver. For nine months Bill was kept in solitary confinement without having any word from the outside world. He was told of the charges against him and was twice taken from his confinement to be executed. Then, without telling him what they were doing, they escorted him to a waiting Air France plane, and he flew to Bangkok.
The world was waiting for the bearded, much shaken man when he stepped down from the plane at Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok. A press conference followed. He was convinced, he said, he had been held in prison for what I had been written about him in Asian Portraits. I felt like crawling under my seat, vowing I would give up writing forever. Bill later learned what the charges were and, in fact, his father had sent a copy of Asian Portraits to the Vietnamese authorities to show that his son was an innocent diver searching for archaeological wrecks. Not long after his ordeal Bill set off on another expedition, with another salvage boat, and we heard it was to find a Manila galley off Saipan in the South Pacific. It was a Portuguese wreck, or perhaps it was Dutch. Bill never told me. He said he would see me when he got back. His story did appear in National Geographic. He found the wreck, and it was Portuguese. Bill is on another adventure, but he won’t tell me what it is.
Travel writers are sometimes accused of falsehoods on matters with which they had nothing to do. It happened to me when I wrote about a junk shop on Rope Walk Lane in Penang. It was a decrepit place when I saw it, stacked high with junk that soiled your hands and clothes when you rummaged around. But what treasure you could find in the rubble. It made a good story and I wrote about the shop in a travel column for the Bangkok Post. The next time I went to Penang, I stopped at Rope Walk and found the owner had my newspaper story framed and hanging on the wall. I did more photos, upgraded the story and did another feature for a glossy magazine. It was awhile later that I was severely criticized for my story. I was accused of exaggerating and writing about conditions that didn’t exist. I couldn’t understand why until the next time I went to Rope Walk. The owners had cleaned up the store with items for sale neatly displayed on shelves. Many even had the prices on them. My articles were behind glass frames on one wall. It wasn’t even remotely the same place as when I first saw the junk shop and wrote about it. That is the fate of a travel writer. You find a neat little restaurant you like. It’s never crowded, and there is always a table. Then see what happens when you write about the place and it gets known. You have to wait in line the next time you go. What to do! In conclusion, I don’t write history; I write about history. There is a difference.