And chaos was the rule. Besides the Parks clan, and their arkful of pets, it
was a hangout for all the stray kids in the neighborhood.
I tried my best to be charming, but I couldn’t seem to connect with
anyone, human or otherwise. Slowly, painstakingly, I made inroads with
Penny’s mother, Dot. She reminded me of Auntie Mame—zany, madcap,
eternally young. In many ways she was a permanent teenager, resisting her
role as matriarch. It struck me that she was more like a sister to Penny than a
mother, and indeed, soon after dinner, when Penny and I invited her to
come get a drink with us, Dot jumped at the chance.
We hit several hot spots and wound up at an after-hours joint on the east
side. Penny, after two cocktails, switched to water—but not Dot. Dot kept
right on going, and going, and soon she was jumping up to dance with all
sorts of strange men. Sailors, and worse. At one point she jabbed a thumb in
Penny’s direction and said to me, “Let’s ditch this wet blanket! She’s dead
weight!” Penny put both hands over her eyes. I laughed and kicked back. I’d
passed the Dot Test.
Dot’s seal of approval promised to be an asset some months later, when I
wanted to take Penny away for a long weekend. Though Penny had been
spending evenings at my apartment, we were still in some ways constrained
by propriety. As long as she lived under their roof, Penny felt bound to obey
her parents, to abide by their rules and rituals. So I was bound to get her
mother’s consent before such a big trip.
Wearing a suit and tie, I presented myself at the house. I made nice with
the animals, petted the goose, and asked Dot for a word. The two of us sat at
the kitchen table, over cups of coffee, and I said that I cared very much for
Penny. Dot smiled. I said that I believed Penny cared very much for me. Dot
smiled, but less certainly. I said that I wanted to take Penny to Sacramento
for the weekend. To the national track-and-field championships.
Dot took a sip of her coffee and puckered her lips. “Hmm . . . no,” she
said. “No, no, Buck, I don’t think so. I don’t think we’re going to do that.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I went and found Penny in one of the back rooms of the house and told
her that her mother said no. Penny put her palms against her cheeks. I told
her not to worry, I’d go home, collect my thoughts, and try to think of
The next day I returned to the house and again asked Dot for a moment
of her time. Again we sat in the kitchen over cups of coffee. “Dot,” I said, “I
probably didn’t do a very good job yesterday of explaining how serious I am
about your daughter. You see, Dot, I love Penny. And Penny loves me. And
if things continue in this vein, I see us building a life together. So I really
hope that you’ll reconsider your answer of yesterday.”
Dot stirred sugar into her coffee, drummed her fingers on the table. She
had an odd look on her face, a look of fear, and frustration. She hadn’t found
herself involved in many negotiations, and she didn’t know that the basic
rule of negotiation is to know what you want, what you need to walk away
with in order to be whole. So she got flummoxed and instantly folded.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
PENNY AND I flew to Sacramento.
We were both excited to be on the road,
far from parents and curfews, though I suspected Penny might be more
excited about getting to use her high school graduation gift—a matching set
of pink luggage.
Whatever the reason, nothing could diminish her good mood. It was
blazing hot that weekend, more than one hundred degrees, but Penny never
once complained, not even about the metal seats in the bleachers, which
turned to griddles. She didn’t get bored when I explained the nuances of
track, the loneliness and craftsmanship of the runner. She was interested.
She got it, all of it, right away, as she got everything.
I brought her down to the infield grass, introduced her to the runners I
knew, and to Bowerman, who complimented her with great courtliness,
saying how pretty she was, asking in complete earnestness what she was
doing with a bum like me. We stood with my former coach and watched the
day’s last races.
That night we stayed at a hotel on the edge of town, in a suite painted and
decorated in an unsettling shade of brown. The color of burned toast, we
agreed. Sunday morning we spent in the pool, hiding from the sun, sharing
the shade beneath the diving board. At some point I raised the subject of our
future. I was leaving the next day for a long and vital trip to Japan, to cement
my relationship with Onitsuka, I hoped. When I returned, later that
summer, we couldn’t keep “dating,” I told her. Portland State frowned on
teacher-student relationships. We’d have to do something to formalize our
relationship, to set it above reproach. Meaning, marriage. “Can you handle
arranging a wedding by yourself while I’m gone?” I said. “Yes,” she said.
There was very little discussion, or suspense, or emotion. There was no
negotiation. It all felt like a foregone conclusion. We went inside the
burned-toast suite and phoned Penny’s house. Dot answered, first ring. I
gave her the news, and after a long, strangling pause she said: “You son of a
Moments later she phoned back. She said she’d reacted impulsively
because she’d been planning to spend the summer having fun with Penny,
and she’d felt disappointed. Now she said it would be almost as much fun to
spend the summer planning Penny’s wedding.
We phoned my parents next. They sounded pleased, but my sister Jeanne
had just gotten married and they were a bit weddinged out.
We hung up, looked at each other, looked at the brown wallpaper, and
the brown rug, and both sighed. So this is life.
I kept saying to myself, over and over, I’m engaged, I’m engaged. But it
didn’t sink in, maybe because we were in a hotel in the middle of a heat wave
in exurban Sacramento. Later, when we got home and went to a Zales and
picked out an engagement ring with an emerald stone, it started to feel real.
The stone and setting cost five hundred dollars—that was very real. But I
never once felt nervous, never asked myself with that typical male remorse,
Oh, God, what have I done? The months of dating and getting to know
Penny had been the happiest of my life, and now I would have the chance to
perpetuate that happiness. That’s how I saw it. Basic as Accounting 101.
Assets equal liabilities plus equity.
Not until I left for Japan, not until I kissed my fiancée good-bye and
promised to write as soon as I got there, did the full reality, with all its
dimensions and contours, hit me. I had more than a fiancée, a lover, a friend.
I had a partner. In the past I’d told myself Bowerman was my partner, and to
some extent Johnson. But this thing with Penny was unique, unprecedented.
This alliance was life-altering. It still didn’t make me nervous, it just made
me more mindful. I’d never before said good-bye to a true partner, and it felt
massively different. Imagine that, I thought. The single easiest way to find
out how you feel about someone. Say goodbye.
FOR ONCE, MY former contact at Onitsuka was still my contact.
was still there. He hadn’t been replaced. He hadn’t been reassigned. On the
contrary, his role with the company was more secure, judging by his
demeanor. He seemed easier, more self-assured.
He welcomed me like one of the family, said he was delighted with Blue
Ribbon’s performance, and with our East Coast office, which was thriving
under Johnson. “Now let us work on how we can capture the U.S. market,”
“I like the sound of that,” I said.
In my briefcase I was carrying new shoe designs from both Bowerman
and Johnson, including one they’d teamed up on, a shoe we were calling the
Boston. It had an innovative full-length midsole cushion. Kitami put the
designs on the wall and studied them closely. He held his chin in one hand.
He liked them, he said. “Like very very much,” he said, slapping me on the
We met many times over the course of the next several weeks, and each
time I sensed from Kitami an almost brotherly vibe. One afternoon he
mentioned that his Export Department was having its annual picnic in a few
days. “You come!” he said. “Me?” I said. “Yes, yes,” he said, “you are
honorary member of Export Department.”
The picnic was on Awaji, a tiny island off Kobe. We took a small boat to
get there, and when we arrived we saw long tables set up along the beach,
each one covered with platters of seafood and bowls of noodles and rice.
Beside the tables were tubs filled with cold bottles of soda and beer.
Everyone was wearing bathing suits and sunglasses and laughing. People I’d
only known in a reserved, corporate setting were being silly and carefree.
Late in the day there were competitions. Team-building exercises like
potato sack relays and foot races along the surf. I showed off my speed, and
everyone bowed to me as I crossed the finish line first. Everyone agreed that
Skinny Gaijin was very fast.
I was picking up the language, slowly. I knew the Japanese word for shoe:
gutzu. I knew the Japanese word for revenue: shunyu. I knew how to ask the
time, and directions, and I learned a phrase I used often: Watakushi domo no
kaisha ni tsuite no joh hou des.
Here is some information about my company.
Toward the end of the picnic I sat on the sand and looked out across the
Pacific Ocean. I was living two separate lives, both wonderful, both merging.
Back home I was part of a team, me and Woodell and Johnson—and now
Penny. Here in Japan I was part of a team, me and Kitami and all the good
people of Onitsuka. By nature I was a loner, but since childhood I’d thrived
in team sports. My psyche was in true harmony when I had a mix of alone
time and team time. Exactly what I had now.
Also, I was doing business with a country I’d come to love. Gone was the
initial fear. I connected with the shyness of the Japanese people, with the
simplicity of their culture and products and arts. I liked that they tried to add
beauty to every part of life, from the tea ceremony to the commode. I liked
that the radio announced each day exactly which cherry trees, on which
corner, were blossoming, and how much.
My reverie was interrupted when a man named Fujimoto sat beside me.
Fiftyish, slouch-shouldered, he had a gloomy air that seemed more than
middle-age melancholy. Like a Japanese Charlie Brown. And yet I could see
that he was making a concerted effort to extend himself, to be cheerful
toward me. He forced a big smile and told me that he loved America, that he
longed to live there. I told him that I’d just been thinking how much I loved
Japan. “Maybe we should trade places,” I said. He smiled ruefully. “Any
I complimented his English. He said he’d learned it from the American
GIs. “Funny,” I said, “the first things I learned about Japanese culture, I
learned from two ex-GIs.”
The first words his GIs taught him, he said, were, “Kiss my ass!” We had
a good laugh about that.
I asked where he lived and his smile disappeared. “Months ago,” he said,
“I lose my home. Typhoon Billie.” The storm had completely wiped away
the Japanese islands of Honshu and Kyushu, along with two thousand
houses. “Mine,” Fujimoto said, “was one of houses.” “I’m very sorry,” I said.
He nodded, looked at the water. He’d started over, he said. As the Japanese
do. The one thing he hadn’t been able to replace, unfortunately, was his
bicycle. In the 1960s bicycles were exorbitantly expensive in Japan.
Kitami now joined us. I noticed that Fujimoto got up right away and
I mentioned to Kitami that Fujimoto had learned his English from GIs,
and Kitami said with pride that he’d learned his English all by himself, from a
record. I congratulated him, and said I hoped one day to be as fluent in
Japanese as he was in English. Then I mentioned that I was getting married
soon. I told him a bit about Penny, and he congratulated me and wished me
luck. “When is wedding?” he asked. “September,” I said. “Ah,” he said, “I
will be in America one month after, when Mr. Onitsuka and I attend
Olympics in Mexico City. We might visit Los Angeles.”
He invited me to fly down, have dinner with them. I said I’d be delighted.
The next day I returned to the United States, and one of the first things I
did after landing was put fifty dollars in an envelope and airmail it to
Fujimoto. On the card I wrote: “For a new bicycle, my friend.”
Weeks later an envelope arrived from Fujimoto. My fifty dollars, folded
inside a note explaining that he’d asked his superiors if he could keep the
money, and they’d said no.
There was a PS: “If you send my house, I can keep.”
So I did.
And thus another life-altering partnership was born.
ON SEPTEMBER 13, 1968,
Penny and I exchanged our vows before two
hundred people at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in downtown Portland, at
the same altar where Penny’s parents had been married. It was one year,
nearly to the day, after Miss Parks had first walked into my classroom. She
was again in the front row, of a sort, only this time I was standing beside her.
And she was now Mrs. Knight.
Before us stood her uncle, an Episcopal priest from Pasadena, who
performed the service. Penny was shaking so much, she couldn’t raise her
chin to look him, or me, in the eye. I wasn’t shaking, because I’d cheated. In
my breast pocket I had two miniature airplane bottles of whiskey, stashed
from my recent trip to Japan. I nipped one just before, and one just after, the
My best man was Cousin Houser. My lawyer, my wingman. The other
groomsmen were Penny’s two brothers, plus a friend from business school,
and Cale, who told me moments before the ceremony, “Second time I’ve
seen you this nervous.” We laughed, and reminisced, for the millionth time,
about that day at Stanford when I’d given my presentation to my
entrepreneurship class. Today, I thought, is similar. Once again I’m telling a
roomful of people that something is possible, that something can be
successful, when in fact I don’t really know. I’m speaking from theory, faith,
and bluster, like every groom. And every bride. It would be up to me and
Penny to prove the truth of what we said that day.
The reception was at the Garden Club of Portland, where society ladies
gathered on summer nights to drink daiquiris and trade gossip. The night
was warm. The skies threatened rain, but never opened. I danced with
Penny. I danced with Dot. I danced with my mother. Before midnight
Penny and I said good-bye to all and jumped into my brand-new car, a racy
black Cougar. I sped us to the coast, two hours away, where we planned to
spend the weekend at her parents’ beach house.
Dot called every half hour.