'Narrow road to the deep north'

As I opened the conference room door, I saw the Japanese lieutenant standing beside a small table. Northern light from one high window gave the varnished table top a watery glare.

''Lt. ?'' I inquired.

He bowed his head in a brief nod of acquiescence.

I introduced myself and sat down on one side of the table. He sat on the other. I smiled, but again he only nodded.

Afloat upon that bleared pond between us was his officer's hat. Small and round, it was just the right size to fit over his ivory-colored forehead and hair thinning back to a bald crown.

''Would you prefer that I turn on a light?'' I asked.

''Not necessary,'' he replied.

As I opened my attache case, I glanced at his face. By means of a firm mouth and contracted flesh between the eyes, he managed to wear what Veblen called ''the physiognomy of astuteness.'' Or was he in America on what he considered a mission of trust, and the pinched brow only a wish to complete his assignment with thoroughness?

At that time World War II was not the distant memory it is today. In the 1950 s when we met, the war was on both our minds, I am sure. As a section head in the engineering department of an aircraft firm, I had been asked to brief the lieutenant on certain technical publications he would use in retrofitting the particular plane Japan had been authorized to build. I could not help but view him with a negative curiosity, and he viewed me, it appeared, with disdainful suspicion.

In an attempt to dispel this feeling, I did not turn to business at once, but instead remarked, ''I have always wanted to visit Japan. Tell me, have you ever traveled the Tokaido?''

He stiffened. ''Tokaido?''

''The route Hiroshige followed,'' I explained. ''You know - when he did his set of way-station prints?''

''Superhighway,'' the lieutenant said scornfully.

I'm more than a hundred years behind the times, I thought. I had better stick to business. And for the rest of the afternoon we discussed the forms and means by which retrofits were accomplished on military aircraft deployed for active service. But throughout the discussion he studied me in the way of a man who seeks to penetrate a mask of hidden purpose.

Some years before, my section had developed a form which made it possible to ship parts that had been inadvertently left out of retrofit kits. I was then active after hours as a poet and critic, and for want of a better name for the form, and in a playful mood, I had called it a HAIKU. Since acronyms are used extensively in the business world, it took on a currency without anyone ever inquiring what the letters stood for.

Now I placed it on the table. ''This is a HAIKU,'' I stated.

The lieutenant turned one ear to me. ''What name?'' he said disbelievingly.

''A HAIKU,'' I repeated innocently, never making the proper connection, since long usage had dulled its true meaning for me.

''Seventeen-syllable poem?'' His voice told me that he believed I was mocking him.

I shook my head. ''No, we just call it that . . . for no good reason.''

His eyes opened and his mouth shaped itself as if for a sigh of astonishment. ''You use long time?'' he asked.

''Oh yes,'' I laughed, ''poetry is not a lively interest of Americans, and, in a world of RUDMs (Reports of Unsatisfactory or Defective Material) and EOs (Engineering Orders), HAIKU has been quite acceptable.''

For the first time in the hours we had spent together, he relaxed. ''Basho!'' he cried happily.

Then with business out of the way, the East and West walked side by side to the cafeteria and drank tea together.

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