By John Dillon
Tea has brought me many cherished friendships, yours among them, which is why I’m sending you this email. Below you’ll see something I’ve just posted on Facebook. It’s about my father and how, through a long journey, what he did while I was a boy led me to tea.
Before I do that, though, let me thank you again for your friendship and wish you a most joyous holiday season!
75 years ago today, my father (Lou Dillon, Jr.) headed out early to attend church. On his way, he heard ominous sounds overhead and looked up to see the horrifying sight of hundreds of Japanese warplanes bearing down on Pearl Harbor. He rushed to the Navy dredge on which he was serving to help get it out of its dock and to safety, since it would be certainly needed for the clean-up that would follow the attack.
He wrote an account of what had happened to his mother in Portland and she shared it with THE OREGONIAN newspaper. They published excerpts of it, making it the earliest first-hand account of the attack and it’s aftermath to be reported by a Portlander. I still have the paper . . .
This is how the war began for my dad and more dangerous assignments awaited him. He eventually worked as second mate (the person responsible for navigation) on the Bozeman Victory and, as a member of the Merchant Marines, he was serving in the branch of service that had, percentage-wise, the highest fatality rate in the US armed forces during World War II. His closest brush with death came near the war’s end. His ship was off-loading ammunition on Okinawa when a kamikaze pilot ended his suicide mission by plunging down the vessel’s smokestack, a maneuver that should have destroyed the Bozeman Victory and ended my father’s life. Miraculously, given the explosive cargo on board, neither happened.
After the war, dad gave up his life at sea so that he could be an ever-present parent. By the time I entered boyhood, he worked as the on-shore representative for a steamship company. Part of his job was to meet ships as they came into the Portland harbor, bringing them important papers and payroll. If he had to visit a ship on a weekend, he’d often take me with him and some of those ships were from Japan. Despite his wartime experiences, he maintained his respect for the Japanese and their culture, a admiration he’d developed during his pre-war sailings to Japan. Though I visited ships from all over the world with my father, I loved boarding the Japanese ships the most. After all, no one dotes over children quite like the Japanese and I always came home with an exotic gift from that far-away land.
It wasn’t a surprise, then, that early in my theater career I developed an eagerness to explore Japanese theater, making my first trip there in the late fall of 1977, soon after I’d taken over the artistic directorship of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. What I didn’t know was that that trip would be the first of over two score extended journeys to Japan involving multiple productions, trips and lecture tours that would take me to every corner of the country, from Hokkaido to Okinawa. And after we moved to Seattle in ’93, I began my study of the Japanese tea ceremony (“chanoyu”), an exploration that would last over two decades and bring me even closer to Japanese culture and that would lead to some of my dearest friendships.
And so this day brings a powerful brew of emotions for me as I mourn a father departed, grateful to his service to his country and for opening my eyes to a world beyond my hometown. And there’s thankfulness for all the friends I’ve met through my explorations of things Japanese and the profound sadness for all the tragedies that war always brings.