By Phillip Sheldon
There’s something about watching a movie during a long flight that makes me cry much more than when I’m solidly on the ground. Air pressure? Darkness? Solitude? Who knows, but it’s a real thing, at least for me.
The first such movie that I remember was To Sir with Love. It was shown on the big screen of Japan Airlines flight #2 from Tokyo Haneda to San Francisco as I concluded my year as an AFS exchange student in Japan in 1973.
It’s about a teacher who takes a group of kids that others expected little from and showed them how to achieve their goals. That was me – 13 months earlier I had arrived in Japan as an infant regarding that unique culture and now I was returning home as a Japanese high school graduate.
My year in Japan wasn’t easy – I feel that I could write a half dozen novels about what I experienced and learned during that year – but my time with two Japanese families at an elite boys’ high school run by Waseda University laid a solid foundation for the rest of my life.
Lulu’s theme song of To Sir with Love captured the gratitude that I felt in that moment of solitude high above the dark Pacific Ocean.
“How do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?” “As I leave, I know that I’m leaving my best friend. A friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong.”
To my two host families, the Yoshikawa’s and Shimizu’s, who took a chance on welcoming an American stranger (often just a strange American) into their homes I will always be grateful.
My most recent tears high above the mid-Pacific darkness were brought on by the movie Love, Simon. Like Simon I was an active high school kid with lots of friends but hiding the big secret knowledge that I was gay. We also shared the fear that once we acknowledged being gay that life would never be the same – perhaps better or perhaps worse, but different.
Secretly, as I prepared for my trip to Japan as a high school senior, I checked the H index of every book about Japan in the Glen Ellyn, Illinois Public Library to see if there was anything about homosexuality. Thank you, Ruth Benedict, for pointing out in The Chrysanthemum and the Sword that the Samurai tradition included male couples who bravely fought alongside each other.
Unlike Simon I waited until college to very slowly inch my way out of the closet, but I am grateful to my college friends who were supportive of my coming out, to my three college boyfriends who gave meaning to my coming out, and to my parents and sister who never wavered in their unconditional love for me.
Finally, I’d like to offer personal thanks to the 8 fantastic traveling companions who gave me the chance to return to my second home in Japan last November. Jim, Bill, Sammier, Neil, Jack, Ray (our karaoke master), Morrie and David – thank you for being part of this great adventure. What a wonderful team!
By Phil Sheldon during Delta flight 6 from Tokyo Haneda to Los Angeles, November 18, 2018, a 41-hour day after crossing the dateline