Three days before Pearl Harbor!

A discourse on the burdens of proximity to historic events


E ver since I read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne's funny, weird, satiric mid-eighteenth-century novel, I have felt some kinship for the title character. For those of you who may have forgotten, Tristram Shandy states that all his problems in life resulted from two seminal events. First, he describes how every Sunday night his father would wind the front-hall clock and then make love to his mother; Tristram states that, on the night he was conceived, his mother interrupted his father as they were making love and reminded him that he had forgotten to wind the clock. Second, Tristram describes how as a child his nanny, afraid he would have an accident, held him out the window so he could urinate, and the window sash fell!

My own beginnings were somewhat as traumatic: I was born at the Fitch Sanitarium in New York City, three days before Pearl Harbor. My mother blamed me for the war! When my mother brought me home from the hospital--two days early, because if New York City was going to be bombed, she wanted to be home with my father, my sister, and my brother--my brother promptly threw my clothes out the front door. When I was old enough to know what a sanitarium was, I questioned my mother about my place of birth: she swore it was a hospital. The burden of being responsible for the war was a very heavy one, and it was only partially relieved when North Korea attacked South Korea on June 25, 1950, my brother's tenth birthday. My mother made it clear that that war was clearly his responsibility.

So you can see why I feel some affinity with Tristram Shandy. He was right; these burdens never quite leave us.


In 1974, I made my first trip to Japan. I was defending four Japanese-flag ocean common carriers in a lawsuit, and the plaintiffs had filed discovery requests for my clients' financial records. Since we were contending that we would suffer economic injury if the plaintiffs prevailed, the discovery was perfectly proper. I had recommended to my clients that we should allow the plaintiffs' counsel--a true Philadelphia lawyer--to come to Japan and review the records. I knew he didn't know any Japanese, and I knew he wasn't equipped to deal with the yen-to-dollar conversion problems. In short, the corporate financial records of each company would be indecipherable. Notwithstanding my view, my clients felt they needed to discuss this matter with me in a face-to-face meeting. So I flew to Japan.

I arrived on a Thursday afternoon and we began our "discussion" early on Friday morning. There were tworepresentatives from each company and I. They all spoke some English, and we agreed to an agenda for our discussion. We talked for about an hour in English; they then spoke among themselves in Japanese for another hour. Without communicating their conclusions, they then went to the second issue and again we spoke in English for an hour and they spoke in Japanese for about the same period. And so it went through the day, with a break for an incredible lunch. At about six o'clock, the lead spokesman said, "Mr. Mayer, you can plan your flight home for Monday afternoon. Tonight we will have a nonbusiness dinner, tomorrow and Sunday Mr. Ishikawa will take you sightseeing. We will meet again on Monday morning." He did not tell me what they were thinking about the matters under discussion.

We went to a beautiful restaurant for dinner. After an initial beer, we switched to sake. The conversation was somewhat stilted and slow. Finally, one of my hosts said, "What does your wife call you?" I smiled and said, "That depends on whether she is happy with me or angry at me." He digested this for a few seconds, then smiled and said, "Japanese wives and American wives are very much alike!" I then told him my first name, and they began to call me Neal-san.

Then one of my hosts said "Neal-san, how old are you?" And in a flash, the burdens of my childhood came upon me. I didn't hesitate a second. I matter-of-factly answered, "I was born three days before Pearl Harbor." There was a brief silence followed by a collectively hissed "Ah-so." (At least I think that's what they hissed.) It was very clear to me that they knew exactly how old I was! I would have willingly committed ritual suicide. "Three days before Pearl Harbor!" What was I thinking?


Several years later, my wife, Jane, and I were in Japan visiting a client, and we were invited to take a one-week cruise on my client's brand-new cruise ship, the Oceanic Grace, a ship that could accommodate sixty passengers in extreme luxury. We were escorted from Tokyo to the port city of Hakodate in Hokkaido to board the ship and cruise down the Sea of Japan coast, stopping at various ports along the way and ending in Nagasaki before flying back to Tokyo and home.

When we arrived at dinner the first night out, we found that there were only fifteen passengers, and we were the only Westerners among them. The ship was beautifully appointed. One could have virtually anything one wanted. The ports of call were fascinating. Dinner every night, given the small number of passengers, was served at one large table. The captain, a highly opinionated man, dominated the conversation, along with a passenger we understood to be a doctor. The passengers were reserved but friendly. One woman was fascinated with my beard, and she kept asking permission to touch it.

The fifth night out everyone dressed for dinner. The women were resplendent in their gowns, the men in their dinner jackets, and the entire complement of ship's officers in their bright white uniforms with gold braid and gold buttons. The sakeflowed.

And then it happened!

All of a sudden I had stepped into a time warp: the only language being spoken was Japanese. It was 1939. Jane and I were American spies. They were planning the attack on Pearl Harbor! We had to get the message out! It was a transient moment, but it seemed very real. Now I wonder whether it was too much sake or the burden of having been born "three days before Pearl Harbor?"


I live in fear of my burden. I won't go to Oahu! I have read with trepidation about the plans to build a World War II memorial on the Mall in Washington. What if everyone finds out that the war was my fault?

Neal Mayer, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, is a former president of Alumni Council and a current alumni trustee. He is an attorney in Washington, D.C.

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