This intriguing short story has been submitted by long time reader but first time contributor Malcolm Hood. Wishing all readers of Aviation of Japan a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Rufe Revelation: A Purple Passage
There’s an occasional feature in our local paper announcing 100th birthdays in the area. Typically, it lists family and friends who joined the celebration, a line or two about the person’s career or profession, and sometimes a quote about the ‘secret to a long life.’ Of course for many centenarians, often a family member must provide this info. This year I noticed one for a man named Noboru Fujimoto, who had obviously spoken on his own behalf. The photo showed a man sitting beside an elaborate cake, with a well-creased smile and bright eyes, surrounded by staff members. He had retired in 1988 from the Sherwin-Williams corporate offices in Cleveland and moved to southern climes to live with his daughter and escape the harsh Ohio winters there. After service as a mechanic in the Japanese Naval Air Force from 1940 to 1945, he’d come to America from his hometown of Hakodate on Hokkaido in 1947, working for his passage, first on a tramp steamer, and then a Cunard liner. He landed in New York and found a production-line job with Benjamin-Moore Paint in Brooklyn. By 1950, he had saved enough to send for his wife and daughter to join him in America, soon moving the family to Cleveland after a job offer from Sherwin Williams. With the death of his daughter in 2012, however, he had no remaining family. The secret to his long life was shochu, “a staple of Japanese diet,” the article explained.
The nursing home was on the other side of town, but the first day I had some time I headed over. I mentioned seeing the article on Mr. Fujimoto and asked if I might be able to visit him briefly. I could tell this seemed a little strange to the person in charge, and who could blame her? But she walked me down to his room. “Someone is here to see you,” she announced. He looked up and smiled. “Yes?” It was awkward. But after I told him I had wanted to meet him after reading about him in the paper, he seemed amused, and said, “I have plenty of time.” The nurse left us, and looking round the room I noticed little in the way of personal items. There was a photo of two women who had to be his wife and daughter, some business awards and a framed collage of small photos with the faded colors of seventies and eighties era prints. “Tell me about yourself,” he said. He kept the flow going by asking additional questions along the way, and was both kind and surprisingly sharp. Yes, I was married. Yes, born here, rambled a few years but returned. My father? He was in the Navy. Aviation Machinist Mate, First Class, retired a Chief Petty Officer. “Ah.” I thought he was about to rise to this, but then he said, “And your mother?” When an attendant brought a tray in with supper, though he’d not said a word about himself, I knew it was my cue to depart. He said, “Thank you, Ruth,” and then invited me to visit anytime.
And I did. Somehow our conversations had never turned to his wartime experience. It was not until my fourth visit that I noticed some familiar shapes barely peeking their dusty noses over the edge of a high shelf. Old stuff, but a wonderful surprise and immediately recognizable: a Lindberg Betty; the ancient 1/75 Hasegawa Pete; and a Jo-Han Rufe. I asked him if I could get them down and clean them up a bit for him. “By all means. I haven’t really seen them in quite a while.” Under all that dust, the Rufe was that Humbrol Mauve color, so easily recognized and now so completely discredited. When cleaned, I could see they were still quite nice and carefully done. Did someone make these for you, I asked.
“Yes. I made these for me.” After he retired, he had taken up model-building with enthusiasm, and these were all that remained of what once was a much larger group. He asked to see the Betty after I had wiped it clean with a damp face cloth. He shook his head. “Lindberg. Hopeless.” I felt a true bond with this man! Then the Pete was passed over for inspection. “Fairly crude kit; good for its day, though,” he said. Finally, the Rufe: he took off his glasses and held it by the float, one eye closed. “This one is better. Not enough dihedral, but at least the shape looks like the airplane.” One of the units he served in operated these, he said. 452 Ku. “Even the Cleveland winters were never as cold as those months.”
“Nice airbrush work,” I said. It was smooth as silk.
“Actually, they’re hand painted, he replied. “Wet sanding between coats, then buffing. My own mixes - except for the Suisen. A company called Humbrol made a color that was right on the money.”
I reeled and clutched the bedside table for support. “But that…that doesn’t…seem like a logical color to paint a combat aircraft,” I said. “Oh, we felt the same, believe me,” he said. “And technically it was against regulations. But it was an officer’s order. And when an officer told you to do something in our Navy…”
It felt a little tawdry to press the point for the sake of laying an obscure bit of arcana to rest. But I felt a duty of sorts; the continuing myth of the Purple Rufe has always perplexed and nettled me in an age of enlightened color research. I’m known to be cranky about it. But I kept my tone courteous. “You’re telling me that some of your floatplane fighters in the Aleutians were really painted that color?”
“Only three of them, actually, and only for a month or so,” he said. It required several questions on my part, but essentially he told me this: while the unit was based in the Aleutians, a 452nd Ku Suisei element leader took advantage of an extended zero-viz-no-flying break to have his three worn aircraft better camouflaged for the environment than their pale weathered grey afforded. As choices were limited in this new and distant theatre, crew chiefs were ordered to do so by mixing fresh grey paint with the red primer and blue-black colors on hand. Fujimoto related overhearing one pilot’s comment that the aircraft blended more effectively against the heavy overcast conditions so often found in the Aleutians, “particularly near dusk.” One of the planes was lost with its pilot in combat. The other two were destroyed in a williwaw that hammered them to pieces at their moorings, and their pilots were shipped back to Japan for reassignment. In 2015 Fujimoto-san could not remember the flight leader’s name, or that of others involved.
Still I persisted. I have read too many times of how unreliable the memories of veterans could be. He had made the model over thirty years after these happenings, in the mid-seventies. How could he be sure the Humbrol color was the right shade? He said, “Two things. I was in the business a long time, and for me, color is a trigger for memory, like fragrance is for most people. Right before I built this, my late wife had bought a pair of shoes that struck me as the exact color we had painted those airplanes – though of course I never mentioned that to her. Mauve. And about the same time, the Humbrol set of Japanese colors came out, there it was. The very same color. If you know what you’re doing it’s an easy color to mix. In fact, I introduced it into our Interiors line in the fifties. But, still…the Brits! How did they get on to it?” He paused then, and looked at me with concern. “Are you all right, friend? You look ashen.”
I recovered my composure just as a young man in blue scrubs entered and said, “Time for physical therapy, sir.” We said our goodbyes. But in the doorway, I remembered. “The second thing, sir. What was that?”
“Oh. Thirty-seven years at Sherwin and Williams. ‘We Cover The Earth.’ Remember?”
I’m sad to report that this was my last sight of this gentle soul. When I next visited about a month and a half later, I was told he had passed away peacefully in his sleep two nights before, after a cold had suddenly turned into pneumonia. One shouldn’t be surprised when a hundred-year-old man dies. Yet it was a blow. After giving me the news, the Head Nurse asked me if I could wait a minute and returned with a woman of about fifty who introduced herself as Ruth. She asked me if I would walk down to his room with her. “Mr. Fujimoto knew he might not make it past this one. He left me a note that, in that case, he wanted you to have a couple of things.” There was a box on his dresser, and after she placed it in my hands, we sat in chairs that had been pulled up by his bed. I opened the flaps, and inside were the 1/72 Johan Rufe model and an unopened bottle of Iichiko Frasco Shochu. “A staple of Japanese diet, eh?” I said.
“That newspaper guy couldn’t even spell it, so that’s what he was told. But the answer is yes, if you asked Noboru. And this is the good stuff. For the last four years, whenever I was on nights, we each had a shot at 7:15.”
She was enjoying my surprise. “I kept it in that cabinet up there, and I had the only key. Soon after I started working here, he had asked if I would do him a favor, and bring him two shot glasses. “Right,” I said. “Keep it up, buster.” The next night he asked me, ‘Did you bring the glasses?’ And the same thing, every night when I came in with his supper. Every night he had a little different way of asking, made me laugh every time.” She laughed lightly now, and like lightning through a window, I saw her face at twenty-five. Lovely. “He had a great sense of humor, didn’t he?”
I really hadn’t noticed, but I said yes, as I wanted to hear this.
“After about a week of this, I’m starting to weaken, you know? I think, what could it hurt, he’s a sweet guy; it’s just a couple of glasses. It’s not like he has a bottle of booze under the bed. Then one night I put the food down, swing the tray over…and he hands me two twenties and says, “Make sure you get the heavy ones – only crystal.”
“Well, I’m stunned. But still pragmatic. I thrust those two bills back in his face and said,’Mr. Fujimoto, I like this job. I need this job. If anyone saw me take –‘
“He said it really softly, closed my hand over the money and said, “Have a little faith in me.” And to my own surprise I said, “Okay.”
“He said, ‘Good, good. Who are any of us without faith?’”
“I didn’t think I could even find two shot glasses that together would cost forty bucks. Wrong. The ones I found that I really liked were Waterford, came in a little crushed velvet box and cost eighty two. It wasn’t like me, but I bought them. Ten minutes past seven, Brenda always takes her break, so I have the floor by myself til seven-thirty. The next night I went in and put that velvet box in his hand. You should have seen his face. It was certainly worth forty-two dollars! And I’ll be damned if he didn’t reach under the mattress and pull out a bottle. “I’ve been waiting a long time to have a drink with you,” he said. I asked him if this was sake. “Shochu,” he said. “Quite different. Far better.”
“I know it sounds all wrong. Unprofessional, unethical, unwise; but it was none of those things. Somehow I knew it was safe as houses. He had a wonderful confidence, and it was catching. We never had more than one, either. But he never offered the same toast twice; a romantic at heart, I think.”
“How did he get the bottle though?”
“I asked him the same thing finally. One night, one of the orderlies had come in to tell him it was his last week on the job and to wish him well. He said, ‘Frank, I need a favor.’ Frank loved the guy, and I’m certain he didn’t hesitate. Noboru had never opened it. It was a nightly ritual for most of his marriage, he said. They had continued it after his wife could no longer care for him at home, and after she died, his daughter did the same. He was the soul of discretion, and I’m not surprised that no one here ever noticed. A toast, a drink, a kiss goodnight.”
I think Ruth saw the look on my face before I knew it was there, and more fool me. Her voice was clipped. “And he was always and ever the gentleman,” she said.
I thought that was end of our interview for a moment, but she needed to round things off, I think. “I always picked up another bottle when the time came. And his last week he asked me to pick up one for you; his treat of course, I can’t afford it. Only a few weeks ago I asked him why he had never opened the one under his bed, because he adored the stuff. He said, “Oh, I never drink alone. That’s a slippery slope. But it would have killed me before long. Thanks to you, I lived to be a hundred.” I think she had forgotten I was there for a minute. If so, the spell was immediately broken when she clapped me sharply on the knee, leaned in, and said, “And if you ever repeat any of this to a soul, I’ll just tell everyone you’re lying through your teeth.”
“Ruth, I’m stunned to hear that. Stunned but still pragmatic, as a friend of mine once said. Because I think we can both agree that Noboru Fujimoto was a great man.” We parted ways, and when I arrived home, I thought I’d take a look at the Rufe model under a good work light. What meticulous workmanship it showed; on careful inspection the tail-codes were hand-painted, and the skin panels varied in tone ever so subtly. Even I had to admit it was a nice color. There was a note in the bottom of the box. “Have a little faith in me ~ N.F.” It was written on the back of a 1959 Sherwin Williams paint chip - “Near Dusk.”
I opened the shochu, and though it was a new experience, I was sure Ruth had been right. This was the good stuff. Wow. And I was glad for it, as for a moment there, I had wavered. But after a couple of shots, and then another, my reason returned. Fujimoto was indeed a remarkable man. But as I’ve often said, veterans can remember things wrongly. Worse, he was a romantic. Worst of all, he had a sense of humor. There was room for the model in my showcase, but one has to do the right thing. I took a last look, closed the flaps, slid the box under the bed, slipped under the covers, and slept the sleep of the just.
In the interest of accurate color research,
With special thanks to Malcolm for sharing this fictional short story with Aviation of Japan.
Image credit: Unknown artist, from 'Many A Northern Sadness', with permission