Ken stories are folklore in our family. Of all the foreign students we hosted, Ken Nishimura has earned that dubious distinction of being the one to ensure a good laugh at every party.
Actually, Ken was the exception.
We served as a host family for French, Irish, Bolivian and Spanish students through the Rotary Club. Through a connection with International House we also took in students from Pakistan, Mexico, England and New Zealand. Some stayed for only a week, others more like a semester and in the case of Margo from Japan and Elena from Spain a year and even longer.
Ken wasn’t a student. He was a journalist and wrote columns on popular music. He arrived at the Warwick Beacon because I responded to an inquiry before the advent of email about an exchange of reporters, only as it turned out there was no reciprocal arrangement for a Beacon reporter. We got Ken and Ken left his impression.
To my surprise, Ken’s command of English was limited, hardly anything like Margo, whose stay with us overlapped for a couple of months. I imagined if he intended to work as a reporter for an American newspaper he would have at least been able to string together a couple of sentences.
What he lacked in English he made up for in just being Ken. After two weeks at the Beacon without producing anything worthy of print yet befriending people wherever he went, I came up with the idea of having him spend a month at Vets High where I figured he could learn enough English to do a comparative piece on Japanese and American high schools.
Although he was 33 years old, Ken fit right in and was an instant hit. I never got the story I was looking for, but Ken was soon tuned into the rock band scene that was his primary interest.
Now he wanted to go places and use his press credentials to cover concerts.
This is when Beacon reporter Joe Baker stepped in and found a red Chevy Impala for Ken. For $150 Ken had wheels and life began to change. He frequently didn’t return until the early morning and then he’d be up until daybreak writing reviews to mail off to Japan.
There was a routine, and then one Friday afternoon I got a frantic call at the Beacon.
“This is Ken,” he said excitedly. “Yes, I know,” I responded.
“This is Ken,” he repeated even more hurriedly.
This had to be something serious.
“I no put in P.”
I was confounded.
“I put in R.”
Apparently, Ken arrived at the house to find the trash barrel from that morning’s collection was blocking the drive. When he got out to move it, the car took off in reverse before he could jump back in. It didn’t go far; it hit a neighbor’s house. There wasn’t much damage, but the police were there as well as the neighbor and all Ken kept saying was “I no put in P.”
He wasn’t amused by my reaction. Convinced he was going to be taken off and locked away, he spent the night translating his insurance policy into Japanese word by word. He probably learned more English from that accident than all the time he was at Vets.
On another occasion over dinner Ken announced, “Car have problem, red light come on.” He looked terribly concerned, so I started asking questions.
“Was steam coming from under the hood…was it hot…where were you driving?”
“I drive 95,” he responded. My first thought was that he was driving 95 MPH, although it was doubtful the Impala could go that fast. I soon learned that he meant he was on Route 95.
“How fast were you driving?”
“I drive 50,” he answered. That was hardly excessive and I imagined there were a fair number of impatient drivers flashing obscene gestures at Ken. Knowing his disposition, he surely assumed they were just being friendly.
But the question triggered a thought and a look of comprehension spread across Ken’s face.
“Ah, I have in number 1,” he said. He hadn’t put the car in drive.
I was envious of Ken by the time he returned to Japan. In an effort to restore normalcy at home and the Beacon, I lined him up for a two-week “internship” with the daily in Southbridge, Mass. From there the Providence Journal took him under their wing, sending him to their Washington bureau for a stint. In Washington he connected with the Des Moines Register and went there for another couple of weeks. Wherever he went he left a trail – maybe not damaged houses or smoking cars – but an indelible impression.
I’d cross paths with reporters from the papers he’d visited and everybody knew him. What’s more they, too, had Ken stories.
Over the years we’ve lost touch with all but a few of the foreign students we hosted. We still exchange Christmas cards with Elena from “Spaina,” as we’d say, and our son Jack visited her when he was in London where she works.
Now we have carts for a trash and collection days are Monday, but I’ll never forget my bewilderment and then amusement when Ken declared, “I no put in P.”