We'd already built a bridge through our letters

WE'D been writing to each other for 15 years. Within a few minutes we'd be face to face for the first time. Was he feeling the same butterflies and practicing his greeting in English as I was mine in Japanese? Those weren't the only questions in my mind. Since his brief call yesterday there were several, some easily answered and some not. The sound of his voice caught me quite by surprise.

Though he'd mentioned in a letter something about a business trip to the United States, when and where were unclear. Now he was calling me from San Francisco. I could tell he'd carefully rehearsed exactly what he wanted to say. Since I knew very little Japanese, he carried the burden of translation. We established the time of arrival and what airline, but before I could find out how long his visit would be, the call ended with a cheerful ``I see you tomorrow!'' Click.

We had traded photos, so recognition was no problem. A small, meticulous man in a black suit carrying the businessman's international symbol, an attach'e case. His palm was moist as we shook hands. Those butterflies weren't mine alone. It obviously pleased him I was even attempting to speak his native tongue. We were off to a good start.

When he indicated there was no baggage to claim, one more question was answered. He'd flown all the way to Portland, Ore., to spend six hours with us. It was a special day.

The children were allowed to be late to school so they could come to the airport. Senkichiro was delighted. They plied him with questions faster than he could translate. Just as I'd watched his children grow up through pictures and letters, he'd done the same with them. We felt like family.

A tour of the house and yard obviously fascinated him, especially the clothespin I kept on the mailbox for outgoing mail. He found this to be a ``fine idea!'' A figurine of Snoopy on my desk was another winner. ``Ahhhh, Snoopy! Very popular in my country.''

When first pondering what to serve for lunch, I felt a typically American menu would at least be good for conversation . . . yet, if he'd been here awhile he'd had his fill of hot dogs and hamburgers. I decided to focus on Oregon products, featuring a broiled Dungeness crab and Tillamook cheese sandwich. Having just read that ice cream sales in Japan are astronomical, I served ice cream for dessert.

The remaining hours flew as we went from subject to subject, overcoming the language barrier by frequent use of dictionaries, pantomime, and photo albums. We laughed at the picture of Toichiro, his son, a kimono-clad three-year-old who was beaming, a white napkin askew on his head, after crashing through their rice paper wall. He was now a teen-ager ``too interested in baseball.''

En route back to the airport we stopped at my parents' home. Like his wife, my mother was an artist and a gardener. Rapport was instant. Somehow Senki-chiro's visit made it all come full circle. Since early childhood the Orient had interested me, so much that I gave my youngest daughter a Japanese middle name: Harumi, Spring Beauty. It was a gift, a tribute, to my Oriental friends. Years later my son was to marry Mariko from Kobe, Japan.

Words weren't needed as we exchanged a final embrace; each knew how the other felt. We'd already built a bridge through our letters. Now, in six short hours, we'd crossed that bridge.

More than 30 years have passed since that first letter. Someday I hope to call Senkichiro and say, ``I see you tomorrow!''

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