Someone Else to Meet in Heaven
by Norm Stolpe

Young men go to war. Sometimes because they have to, sometimes because they want to.
Always they feel they are supposed to.

It was like that for San. He had heard the older men talk about the humiliation Japan had
experienced at the hands of the Russians, the Chinese and the Koreans. But he was less
interested in recovered glory than the opportunities for prosperity in the expanding Japanese
Empire. He didn’t try to figure out what it might mean that the Emperor Hirohito was divine; but
the prospects of sharing a thriving future with his country as the hub of the Pacific inspired him.
San didn’t understand or ever care about the war in Europe, except that it might draw Japan’s
newest rival in the Pacific, the United States, away and allow Japan a better chance to expand
and flourish. So when the Japanese military began to push the United States out of the Pacific
and back to North America, San believed he had to go. When he was called to military service,
he wanted to go. When he saw the love that blended pride and anxiety in his parents’ eyes as
he said good-bye and joined his two older brothers in the service of his country, he knew he
was supposed to go.

San was assigned to a unit that went south to drive the invaders out of the jungles and off of
the islands of the Philippines. Fighting in the jungle on desolate islands was not easy. Spotting
the enemy before they spotted you was nearly impossible. When fighting was fierce, soldiers
often lost communication and became separated from their units.

In one particularly chaotic firefight, San and three others from his unit became disoriented in
the jungle. They tried to interpret the sounds of airplanes, bombs and gunfire to find their way
back to their unit, all the while keeping a lookout for enemy soldiers who might be lurking
among the dense foliage.

Exchanging glances and motioning each other to keep silent, they came up behind five soldiers
from the United States dug into foxholes with their backs to them. “Shoot them or take
prisoners?” they silently queried each other. “Prisoners,” they agreed. When San put the
barrel of his rifle at the base of one soldier’s skull, the soldier in the foxhole cowered and
began weeping loudly. An angry, scolding shout in a language San could not understand came
from another foxhole. They were no longer four lost soldiers. They were the captors in charge
of five enemy prisoners.

After tying their prisoners’ wrists and confiscating their weapons, they resumed their uncertain
march to rejoin their unit, guided by the erratic sounds of war. Shortly before dark they arrived
at the camp their unit had been using as a temporary base of operations. No one else was
there. Whether for defensive or offensive purposes, their unit must have moved on,
abandoning this site, but still leaving it intact with sufficient provisions for a brief stay.
One small bamboo barracks on stilts had only a single entrance and would be a secure place
where they could take turns guarding their prisoners. Staying there for a while seemed the
wisest option as the war seemed to have moved away from them. They heard no airplanes, no
explosions, no gunfire. The jungle was empty, no soldiers of either side, no villagers, no one.
After a couple of days, they began taking turns making ever more distant forays to seek some
contact with some Japanese military, even if it wasn’t their unit. The food at the camp would run
out. They were responsible to hand over their prisoners to the proper authorities and rejoin
their unit, wherever it was now.

After a couple of weeks, as San was making one of these excursions, he heard what he
thought was a truck motor. Moving cautiously, lest he be seen if it was an enemy vehicle, San
crept closer and closer until he recognized not only the Japanese Rising Sun flag but also a
friendly Japanese face. San ran out of the underbrush onto the rutted dirt road, wildly waving
his arms. San embraced the driver and hurriedly tumbled out their story. The driver asked,
“Can you get your prisoners back to this road?”

“I’m sure we can,” said San. “We’re less than half an hour walk from here.”

“Good then. Follow this road the same direction I am going. In two or three hours you’ll come to
a coalmine where POWs are digging coal out for us. Officers are there who can tell you what to
do next.”

Nine weary soldiers walked into the compound of the coal mine. Four relieved to find friendly
faces and five more anxious than ever about what awaited them.

“We haven’t heard from your unit for weeks,” the officer in charge of the coalmine told San and
his companions. “Our only communication comes when we send a truck load of coal to the
coast every few days. We’re shorthanded, so I want you four to stay here and help us. Since
you have already managed your prisoners, they will be your special charges.”

“We really don’t know anything about being guards or about coalminers,” San answered.

“Doesn’t matter much. We’re all pretty much figuring it out as we go here anyway. Besides, I
don’t know where to send you and don’t have any way to get you there.”

San was troubled at the words of the officer. This was nothing like the order and efficiency he
had come to expect in the Japanese Empire.

After a while one of the prisoners got sick. The one with hair the color of berries could hardly
stand to work in the mine. But they didn’t have any secure place for sick prisoners or any way
to care for them. One day he was so weak that no amount of prodding or shouting could get
him on his feet to work. As they struggled with him, one of the other prisoners started shouting.
Ni began a desperate, sarcastic laugh. “I was the one who said we should have just shot them
in their foxholes. War is no game. If there’s a shot to be made, you make it. No guilt. No
hesitation. You fire and you don’t think about who you’re shooting or killing or why. If you want
to come home again, you just fire, you don’t think. It’s the thinking that gets you killed. Now I
have to shoot him anyway.”

Weeks at the coalmine began to stretch into months. Boredom plagued the guards even more
than the prisoners, who had the physical labor of the mine to occupy them. An uneasy
familiarity grew in the relationships between the prisoners and the guards. Neither trusted the
other, but the routine of their established roles allowed a measure of relief from the tensions
between them, even though neither made any effort to connect at a personal level. Ni said to
the others, “We don’t want to know their names, and we don’t want them knowing ours.”

Absentmindedly San picked up a couple of fist-sized stones and tried to juggle them. The
prisoners were relaxed and staying away from the gate San was guarding. After some time San
noticed one of the prisoners watching him with obvious amusement. Slowly the prisoner walked
over to San, gesturing, talking and laughing. Of course, San could not understand what the
prisoner was saying, but from the gestures San could tell the prisoner wanted to show him how
to juggle.

The two stones moved smoothly through the prisoner’s hands. He stopped and motioned for
three more stones. What an entertaining diversion! First one, then two stones went high in the
air as the other three circulated in increasingly intricate patterns. By this time the juggling
prisoner was singing with a rhythm that matched the movements of the stones and the other
prisoners had gathered around for the entertainment.

The stones were now going up so high that San and the three other guards, who had also
come close to see what was going on, had to crane their necks to watch them. Then without
warning, the juggling prisoner hurled a stone that struck Ni squarely in the face. Blood sprayed
from Ni’s mashed nose and dribbled from his mouth and ears. Ni fell to the ground stunned.

“Treachery!” screamed San as the juggling prisoner’s next stone struck Ichi on the chin. From
the loud, hard cracking sound, San knew that Ichi’s jaw was broken. He saw Ichi’s eyes role
back in his head as the blow rendered him unconscious. In the quick moment it took for San to
see what was happening, he drew his pistol and tried to shoot the prisoners, but two of them
tackled him around the knees, and his shots were wildly useless. San was sure the first blow of
one of those juggling rocks had fractured his skull. He thought, “Ni was right. We should have
shot them in their foxholes when we had the chance. Now none of us will go home.” Then came
the second blow and everything turned red, then black.

“So did all of you get back home?” San asked Eddie.

“No, just three of us. A landmine got our captain. He was checking around a bend in the road
to be sure it was safe before we drove the truck there.” Eddie noticed that they could
understand each other now. Did that mean San was speaking English? Or was he speaking
Japanese and didn’t know it? Or maybe language just works differently here in heaven.

“The war must have been over quite a while before you got here.”

”Yea,” said Eddie. “It didn’t take long for Japan to surrender after the U.S. dropped atomic
bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

“Atomic bombs?”

“Yea. Instead of regular chemical explosives, these things are a nuclear reaction out of control.
Besides the explosive power of thousands of regular bombs, lingering radiation burns and
poisons for years. Just two bombs a few days apart did what thousands of guns, ships,
airplanes couldn’t do in years. Ended the war.”

“These were dropped on cities? On civilians?”

“Yea. Thousands died in just a few moments. And thousands more kept dying for a long time. I
don’t really understand how they work. Too complicated for me. I don’t understand how our
countries decide to do war. I just tried to do a good job at what I’m supposed to do. But I was
sure glad when the war was over.”

“Our countries must really hate each other after all of that.”

“Oh, there were bad feelings for a long time, but before long there was what they called a cold
war with communism in Russia and China.”

“But they were you allies when our countries were at war.”

“Yes, but after the war was over the United States helped Japan recover, Germany too. Now
our countries are very friendly. Old scars still hurt on the anniversaries of the bombings of
Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima. But those pains also remind us how much better it is to share
peace and prosperity.”

“So since Japan lost the war, the United States must really run the Pacific now.”

“Japan and the U.S. are big trading partners now. We still compete economically, and for quite
a while Japan was doing a lot better than the U.S., but that’s kind of slowed down lately. Both
countries are a lot more prosperous that they were before the war.”

“So what did you do when you got back home?”

“I married the best woman in the whole world. We could never have children, and she died
many years ago.”

“I was married for a couple of years before I went to fight. We just had a baby girl, but I never
saw her. My wife sent me a letter to tell me she was born. I got it just before we captured you
and your friends. After we got separated from our unit we didn’t get any more mail. We were
probably listed as missing in action while we were guarding you at the coalmine.”

“Since you got here, to heaven, you know, has anyone come to tell you what happened to your
wife and daughter?”

“No. I assume my wife married someone else and had more children. My daughter is probably a
grandmother by now. But I don’t know anything. Do you think I’ll find out?”

“Well, I met five people here who helped me understand my life. They told me things I didn’t
know. And I got to tell my wife what had happened to me after she died. She didn’t seem to
know those things, but it seemed to matter a lot more to me to tell them to her than it did for her
to learn them. She seemed to already understand her life by the time I got here.”

“So do you suppose one of us has a lesson to teach the other one?”

“Maybe, but I don’t feel like I have a right to teach you anything. You were the kindest of our
guards, and I took advantage of your kindness, so I could kill you and escape. We were both
young men, confused but trying to serve our countries the way we were supposed to. But here
in the jungle, we weren’t thinking about what our countries were fighting for. It was just kill or be

“We could have shot you in your foxholes instead of taking you prisoners. That’s what Ni said
we should have done. If we had done that, then you would have been here waiting for me when
I went home to my wife and daughter. I would have participated in the peace and prosperity you
say our countries have shared since the war. That’s what I had hoped the war would bring to
Japan. But somehow it didn’t seem right to shoot you when you weren’t shooting at us. Taking
you as prisoners was the right thing to do.”

“Was it right for us to kill you so we could escape?”

“I can’t tell you that, but if I had been your prisoner, I think I would have tried. You couldn’t know
it, but we had word that a major U.S. attack was coming, so prisoners and guards were being
moved to the coast. We hoped to be taken back to Japan. We were just about the last ones left
out at the mine when you escaped. We expected the truck to come to get us in a couple of
days. Who knows what might have happened. We knew POWs were being executed if there
were no facilities to care for them. They might have shot us as deserters, since we had stayed
with you at the first camp so long and couldn’t fully account for ourselves. Maybe you were
supposed to go home and live your life. Death doesn’t just take someone, it misses someone
else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed. You
said you met five people here in heaven who taught you lessons so you could understand the
meaning of your life.”

“I never did get on track after the war. I did get married, and my wife was wonderfully loving. But
I was wounded. The first wound was a bullet that shattered my leg and left me with a limp that
got worse and worse all my life. The second wound was to my spirit. I felt defeated and
trapped. When my father had a heart attack, I took his job as a maintenance man at an
amusement park. As a kid growing up, I liked helping him and getting to know the people there,
but I never wanted to spend my whole life at Ruby Pier – that’s what it was called. I did what I
was supposed to do, but I didn’t think it mattered. My lame leg and recurrent nightmares never
let me leave the war behind. The five people I’ve met here have sorted that out for me. But I
have no right to be teaching you one of your lessons or making sense out of your life. Neither
do I have any right to think that your purpose in any way depends on passing something to me.”

“Perhaps we are sharing the discovery of a lesson together. Not only does war prompt people
to do monstrous things, it causes people to see each other as monsters. It goes beyond the
perceived threats and causes that drive nations to war, to seeing each other as individual
monsters. Ni laughing in despair when he shot your sick friend because we had no way to care
for him. You using your juggling skill, learned at the amusement park, to kill the guard you
thought was more kind than the others. Now we meet in heaven to be friends, not just by some
act of cosmic grace that transcends and transforms the distrust and hatred that defined our
brief but formative relationship, but to share the realization that outside of heaven, in the
temporal realities of economics and politics, our nations and our peoples are not monsters to
each other but partners, friends. We share one story, just viewed from different angles. It is the
same day, the same moment, but one angle seems to end happily, the other badly. Who is to
say which is which?”

©2006, Norman Stolpe, All Rights Reserved.  Used by permission.

All Rights Reserved.
Norm Stolpe's introduction:  The story derives from "Five People You Meet in Heaven.
In that book Albom tells the story of Eddie's life as he meets people who have
influenced important turning places in his life. He meets them "in heaven" after dying
in a freak amusement part ride accident rescuing a little girl. One of the themes of
Albom's book is that the same events can look very different from the perspective of
someone else who shared the experience. Another is that what may be a very little
thing of almost no consequence to one person can alter someone else's whole life. An
important part of Eddie's story is his experience as a POW held by the Japanese in
World War II. But Eddie does not meet his Japanese captors in heaven. As I have
written this short story, I have tried not to alter any of the facts in Albom's book. Only
tried to look at them through the eyes of the Japanese soldiers who captured him. My
intention has been to extend the ideas of Albom's book, including some of the exact
lines he used to articulate these ideas, into a much less comfortable arena as a way of
wrestling with my own ambiguities about the time in which we are living."