On Killing Kittens and Burning Bathtubs.

After I posted eight (not really) random facts about myself, some of you inquired about how I burned the bathtub. Mel was the only one who mentioned the kitten affair, and I’m glad he did. Kitten-killing is like the international sign of E-vil, a universal metaphor for maleficence that ranks up there with demons, Nazis and Rush Limbaugh. Speaking of which, I’m glad that I’m in such good company. I have been off Limbaugh for at least thirteen years now.

What prompts a four or five year old child to drop a big rock on a wee, cuddly creature? I mean, that’s seriously fucked up. I still ask myself this. I remember thinking about it, and carrying the rock over–it required some effort. Thankfully, that’s where my memory of the incident ends.

My dad was stationed in Greece at the time. We lived off-base in a duplex in the middle of an olive orchard. My mom would’ve been about 24 years young, a native Japanese-speaker married to an American soldier stranded in the middle of the Greek countryside. I don’t remember my dad being around very much. She had my infant twin brothers to deal with, and I’m sure I didn’t get much of her attention. What I remember of it wasn’t pleasant: her shutting me outside when it was night and raining, and my crawling into the neighbor’s doghouse; being forced out the door and stumbling down the marble steps in the dark–when I fumbled for the light, realizing that the wet on my head was blood; being dressed up as a girl one time, totally against my will. Maybe the answer to my question is there, somewhere.

I realized, just now, that I’ve come a long way. I’ve never laid hands on my children (in anger, or even to discipline them); I’ve never even shouted at them (plenty of raised voices, however), though I’m way more critical of them than I should be. I don’t think I’ve ever emotionally abused them in any way. My kids have had to put up with a father who is plagued by insecurity and self-doubt, but maybe I’ve broken at least one chain. Perhaps the positive aspects of my parenting will outweigh the negative.

One legacy I’ll leave them is the Tale of the Burning Bathtub. I’ll share the short version of it with you.

A little cultural and historical background info is necessary: when I was growing up and when I returned to Japan to serve my LDS mission (early nineties), most modest homes lacked central water heaters. Baths and kitchen areas had little gas-powered water heaters that you turned on when you needed hot water.

Japanese bathtubs are nothing like American and European ones. Even the smallest ones are deep enough to submerse a large man, if he’s curled up in the fetal position (I would sometimes float this way). They are made for sitting rather than lying in. Also, they are more for relaxing in the evenings rather than washing–you clean yourself outside of the tub, then sit in the water until your skin turns pink like a lobster and your face is soaked with steam and sweat.

Missionaries generally bathed in the morning. And because there was no central water heater (or central heating, or insulation), this meant that one of us had to get up an hour before we had to get up to heat the tub full of freezing water (that we would fill it up the night before). The gas in the heater would ignite like the broiler on an oven, and then the device would start sucking in the cold water through a pipe on the side of the tub and shoot it out again through another.

So one morning, I crawled out of my futon at 5am, breath frosting in the air, and hurried to the bathing room. It was dark, but I could just barely make out the water line on the tub. I switched on the tub, listening to the clicks of the igniter until the gas popped into flame. I then snuggled back into my futon. This morning, instead of going back to sleep, I put the tape that my girlfriend Jana had sent to me into my Walkman and began listening.

A few minutes later, I noticed an eerie, moving glow through the translucent sliding doors. I sprang out of my futon, calling for my missionary companion, “OOOOOOTANI CHOROOOO!” (“Elder Oooootaniiii!”)

I grabbed the fire extinguisher and stepped near the door of the bath room. I had the presence of mind to duck beneath the smoke and to reach in and shut off the gas. Then I sprayed the entire powdery contents of the chemical extinguisher onto the burning husk of the bathtub.

Apparently there is a word in Japanese for what I had accomplished (in igniting the fire): kara yaki, or “empty burning.” I had turned on the water heater attached to an empty bathtub. Lacking water, the heater sucked in the cold air and shot out a super-heated torrent. There are limits to the abuse an acrylic tub can take.

My other two memories of the incident:

  • The mission president’s reaction when I phoned him at six in the morning and told him, “I burned our bathtub.”: a subdued “Oh, dear.”
  • The only time I’ve ever seen Japanese people enter a home without taking off their shoes (big rubber boots in this case) is when the fire department came to make sure that the fire was out and to write up a report.

I hope you enjoyed the tale.  It’s one of my kids’ favorites–they ask for it often, especially when we have company.  Maybe it’s a reminder, to all of us, that their old man makes mistakes, and that it’s all right.


  1. Most exxxcelllent master John. The emperor will be pleased that there is one less kitten to stand in the way of his plans to control the galaxy.

    So are you saying that the waterline you could barely make out was an illusion? Any stories about how this might have been a plot by Satan to take-out a couple of the Lord’s anointed?

    Thanks for the care you took in the details of the story — it’s amazing what one can learn at MoF. :)

  2. ahhh, that’s fantastic & just what I needed at 4 in the morning (oof). I’m less curious about the water line & more about the “kara yaki”. Is that the same “yaki” as in “yaki soba” and “teri yaki”? So you made an “empty barbeque”? Muahaha.

    I think you can allow yourself forgiveness for the kitten. What is so clearly ongoing guilt over the event since it happened is quite enough penance. This is something that I’ve had trouble learning: you don’t have to keep beating yourself up for the stupid things you do. Take a deep breath, realize that it was you who did them, and move on. Hopefully learning something in the meantime. You may have scratched the surface of the whys in your memories of Greece. It sounds like there has been a lot of healing since then. And perhaps the life of one kitten, at the end of the day, is little compared to what might have been.

    I’m getting philosophical, which probably means I should try to sleep. Thank you for the 8 facts and for the two stories :)

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