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Sayonara

After 40 years as part of the community, JAL schedules departure from Moses Lake

MOSES LAKE – A driver on Interstate 90 would not guess that this Eastern Washington farm community has formed strong bonds with Japan.

There’s no hint in the clusters of fast-food restaurants and motels at the exits, or in the irrigated fields and open spaces that surround Moses Lake. You might be greeted with “hola” at the McDonald’s, but not likely with “konnichiwa.”

You wouldn’t guess at the connection, unless you happened to look up and see the rising sun.

That emblem is on the tails of Boeing 747s that Moses Lake residents have seen overhead since 1968, when Japan Airlines started training its pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers at an airport the U.S. military opened less than a year after Pearl Harbor.

The company came to the former Larson Field – known as Grant County International Airport since it was decommissioned in 1966 – because there was no suitable place in its own country to conduct touch-and-goes with jumbo jets. The airport five miles out of town had one of the largest runways in the United States and hangars big enough to cover 747s. And in a town of 10,000, at the time, there were few people to complain about the noise.

But JAL is switching to 787s for passenger flights. Boeing’s new “Dreamliners” are not only more fuel efficient than 747s, they also require shorter runways, prompting JAL to give up the expense of sending trainees and instructors – and sometimes their families – to Moses Lake. Training will be done instead at Oita Airport in Japan.

There will be an economic impact, of course, when JAL leaves town in March. Although the company only has five permanent employees in Moses Lake, about 10,000 crew members have been trained here, eating at local restaurants and golfing at local courses. JAL reserves two floors at the Ramada Inn and buys fuel and other products in Moses Lake.

The cultural loss may be greater. Hundreds of Moses Lake residents have visited Japan compliments of the airline. Others have formed friendships with Japanese visitors. Christmas cards and e-mails go both directions.

Thousands of Moses Lake children took their first flights aboard JAL airplanes. For 30 years, until the practice became too expensive, the company brought flight attendants from Japan to host one day of scenic flights for every sixth-grader in town.

“I’ve got tears in my eyes just thinking about it,” said Lorna Bolyard, a Moses Lake resident since 1953. “I’ve been active with JAL ever since they came here. … I catered the first banquet they ever had.

“They flew over my house the first time they flew.”

Doug Sly, president of the Moses Lake Sister City Committee, prefers to think of what the town has gained over the decades rather than what it’s about to lose.

“Forty years is a nice run for any relationship, and we’re just glad we’ve had them,” he said.

Riding in the spring parade

Marsha Schlangen was 17 when she was named Miss Moses Lake in April 1980. Two weeks later she was invited to accompany the mayor and the president of Big Bend Community College, and their wives, on a goodwill trip to Yonezawa.

The Japanese and Washington communities were on the verge of becoming sister cities, an arrangement worked out by JAL officials. The airline was picking up the tab for the trip.

“We stayed in the nicest hotels in Tokyo,” said Schlangen, whose maiden name is Anderson.

In Yonezawa, they were invited to the mayor’s house for dinner. Schlangen politely admired a collection of traditional dolls, and her hostess insisted she take one. She ate shark fin soup and other delicacies.

She sampled sake at a local factory.

“I don’t think I’ve had it since,” said Schlangen, who lives in Spokane. “Burned all the way down.”

The highlight was the Uesugi Festival, an annual event that draws thousands of people to Yonezawa.

Watching horsemen in 16th-century costumes as they prepared to ride in the parade, Schlangen mentioned to her host that she’d ridden horses all her life. Soon, parade organizers found her a mount and were insisting she join the group – modern American clothes notwithstanding. Her picture appeared in the local newspaper.

“It was quite a sensation” to parade-watchers, said Schlangen. “A blond girl on horseback with all these military men.”

It was the start of a tradition in which being Miss Moses Lake meant attending the Uesugi Festival and riding in the parade that honors ancient warriors. They’ve never missed a year – except once when a grateful Miss Washington was the stand-in for a Moses Lake teen who couldn’t make the trip.

“She came to our barbecue and gave a speech and just thanked us and thanked us and thanked us,” Sly said.

JAL will no longer fly Miss Moses Lake to Japan, mostly because of changes in the contest, said Brenda Martinez, a Moses Lake native and executive assistant for the airline’s training center.

But the company will continue another youth program, flying five Moses Lake High School students a year to Japan, along with their adult chaperones. That program alone has sent 190 of the city’s residents to Asia, Sly said.

“We’re on our second generation of travelers,” he said. “People who went as students in the ’80s, their children are going now.”

Moses Lake on flight simulators

Martinez said she knew little about JAL when she applied for a secretarial job there in 1981. Now she can’t imagine missing out on the opportunities that job has offered.

“Both times that I went to Japan, I was met by many, many co-workers,” she said. “They would meet us at the airport, transport us, take care of us.”

On one flight, she asked the attendant to carry a note to whoever was in the cockpit, telling them that she was from Moses Lake. The captain replied with a long note saying he considered the town his second home.

Japan Airlines flies all over the world, but nearly all its crews are familiar with Moses Lake. Even before they arrive in the land of sagebrush and scrub – snakes occasionally slither into the JAL offices – they know what to expect. By then, they’ve spent hours looking down at the Grant County landscape through the fake windshields of flight simulators in Japan.

That computer-generated scene will change when the company stops training in Moses Lake, said Captain Kazuo Noda, director of the Moses Lake training center.

Noda said he’ll miss the town where strangers say hello when he’s out walking. He’ll miss going to Seattle to watch Ichiro Suzuki and the rest of the Mariners, particularly when they’re up against Red Sox pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Okajima.

His wife speaks little English, but has become a quilter and volunteers at the hospital. They enjoy prime rib and salmon, but also shop for Japanese food at a Seattle grocery.

“We love Japan also,” he said. “But in the United States, people are very happy. There is much room.”

There will be a Japanese presence in Moses Lake, even after JAL departs.

Moses Lake Industries is a subsidiary of Tama Chemicals. Another Japanese company makes airbags for cars.

Big Bend Community College brings in Japanese farmers for English-language lessons and to learn American agricultural techniques.

Paul Hirai, a Moses Lake resident of Japanese ancestry, was among those who helped start the program. When he was still farming, Hirai would host the students for dinners and hands-on training. For his efforts, he received an Order of the Sacred Treasure medal from the emperor of Japan – one of three Moses Lake residents so honored.

Moses Lake has a Yonezawa Boulevard, and artwork from the sister city hangs in some city buildings. Japanese cherry trees blossom in city parks, gifts from JAL officials.

And now there’s a new park in town, one with a pagoda and tea hut, waterfalls, stepping stones and lanterns. It’s called the Japanese Peace Garden.

Contact Dan Hansen at danh@spokesman.com or (509) 459-3938.


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