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Entering the grounds of Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, visitors are greeted by the wreckage an atom bomb creates. Not a symbol. The real wreckage left standing as witness to nuclear devastation.

And with every subsequent step, the message is: Peace is the only way forward.

Next month marks 66 years of sustained peace between Japan and the United States.

I visited Hiroshima in May as a poignant stop on a tour of Japan that is, in itself, a peace story -- the personal zone of world peace created by international student exchange programs.

In 1964, my family welcomed Ikuhisa Ishikawa for a year's stay as an exchange student. Just two decades before, our countries had been at war.

When the atomic bomb dropped in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, Ikuhisa's father was a veteran of the Japanese invasion of China and my parents worked in defense plants in Michigan. My father had lost a brother after the Battle of the Bulge and my mother's brother had just returned from the European Theater. Peace did not seem at hand. U.S. forces were about to occupy Japan.

In the intervening years, however, circumstances changed. The occupation ended. The goal of the Japanese political leaders of World War II -- positioning Japan as a global power equivalent to the mightiest in the West -- was occurring through a booming economy with vast international influence. Mass media was making the world a smaller place as one culture's icons found audiences abroad through the magic of the airwaves.

Our countries were allies, not combatants.

At the human level, these changes opened the door to a year of mutual fascination between a Japanese teenager and an American family in Toledo, Ohio.

When we received the postcard indicating whom we would host for a year, we were intrigued that he was Japanese and mystified by the pronunciation of his first name. My father immediately nicknamed him "Ike." It never occurred to us that there might be unwelcome political overtones to that nickname.

For Ike's part, he found our efforts to pronounce Ikuhisa a constant source of amusement. He says of his nickname, "I loved it. I still love it." The Japanese, he explains, "don't hate the people of the country we have a fight against."

And in the United States, by 1964 the fight was against Communism, not the Japanese.

Ike was already in love with American culture, especially folk music. He used lyrics from the Brothers Four and the Kingston Trio to sing his way to fluency.

A Japanese song was popular then with American teenagers like my brother, Rod, and me. On the U.S. airwaves, it was called "Sukiyaki," not because it was about that famous stew, but because it was easy for Americans to pronounce.

It's safe to say that then, as now, the penetration of American culture into international markets was more thorough than the opposite. Ike had more insight into and curiosity about American culture than we had for Japanese culture.

In truth, we were more fascinated with his interest in all things American than curious about all things Japanese. Many stories prove this point, like our meager effort to learn how to use chopsticks when we had an expert in-house for a year!

Nevertheless, it worked. It was wildly successful on the home front and when Ike arrived at school, he was an immediate hit.

Ike came to us through the American Field Service, an organization that began in World War I when American ex-patriots living in Paris volunteered as ambulance drivers, transporting more than 500,000 wounded soldiers to hospitals.

Between the world wars, AFS established an international scholarship program, which developed into the organization now known worldwide for its high-quality international exchange programs designed to promote peace and understanding one person, one family at a time. Its peace mission is as deep as that of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

Perhaps it's more accurate to say it builds peace two families at a time, since the families in two countries are changed forever.

The power of that peace initiative was apparent from the day Ike stepped into our lives. But its scope has been revealed by its lasting power -- in our case 47 years and counting.

The day Ike left Toledo at the end of that exchange year was the first time I ever saw my father cry. Ike was getting on a bus full of AFS students leaving their host families and, as he later told us, "all you heard was people crying in 35 different languages."

What we couldn't know that day was that this was to be a lifetime bond that deepened over the decades and a distance of 6,500 miles.

In 1971, Rod and I encouraged our parents to visit Ike for their 25th anniversary. By serendipity, as our talks were occurring in Ohio, Ike announced his engagement in Tokyo. My parents participated as family members in his Shinto wedding ceremony.

Ike's parents invited mine into their home, a very uncommon honor in Japan where private homes are not venues for social occasions. For three weeks they became part of the household, getting a rare, intimate look at how the Ishikawas lived their lives. Ike's two moms and two dads compared notes. That certainly deepens a bond!

As it turned out, we had many such experiences over the years. Ike's career in international business, much enhanced by his fluency in English, brought him back to the United States in the mid '70s. His young family joined him, giving us a tremendous opportunity to participate in each other's lives. His two sons are age-mates of my brother's children and at numerous gatherings throughout those years we watched the children grow.

In 1996, Ike, Rod and I vacationed in Hawaii with our spouses. Japanese and American, we saw the Pearl Harbor Memorial together.

Ike served on the board of directors of AFS Japan from 2001 to 2004, at several points organizing peace events with another AFS member, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba.

A second assignment to New York City from 2004 to 2008 brought Ike back into close contact. His children were grown and his wife stayed in Japan to care for aging parents, but Ike was a regular at our family Thanksgiving dinners. Telephone contact was easy and he delighted in introducing my partner and me to Japanese-style karaoke in New York City.

And this spring, it was my turn to visit Japan and see Ike in his home environment. It was thrilling. Traveling around Tokyo by foot, subway and train, we saw the neighborhoods he travels daily and places, particularly museums, that he loves.

We were charmed by a luncheon in a little Swiss restaurant with his mother and brother, especially since his mother, unable to sit due to back problems, made a Herculean effort to be there.

The next evening his 4-year-old granddaughter warbled the alphabet song in English for our benefit. And we participated in a tender moment when Ike presented his son and daughter-in-law with kimonos remade for his granddaughters from the collection of his late wife, Yoko.

Within 24 hours of these events, we had electronic messages establishing contact -- an ongoing relationship -- with his brother and his son.

Having heard our museum schedule in Tokyo, Ike's brother offered advice on an artist we might like in Kyoto.

Ike's son, whom I last saw as an 8-year-old, wrote on my Facebook wall: "Thanks for the wonderful Tokyo meeting of last night. It was GREAT. To be honest, it has been a long long time since we met, and the little chance to meet American people in an ordinary life in Japan, made me slightly nervous before we met. But there was absolutely nothing to worry about."

This is the human-level parallel to peace initiatives among nations.

I took the images at Hiroshima very personally. Exhibits and videos throughout the museum and the adjacent park give an even-handed outline of the responsibilities of our two nations for what occurred there: the Japanese for military aggression that started the war, the Americans for building such a horrific weapon and dropping it, in part, because of the politics at home. To maintain public support for the resources spent in developing the bomb, it had to be used.

When I saw pictures of the suffering of human beings, I saw the Ishikawas.

When I heard about the annihilated mobilized students -- children called into the war effort to clear firebreaks for anticipated bombing raids -- I pictured Ike, his brothers and his sons.

When I saw photos of neighborhoods here one minute, obliterated the next, I pictured Ike's tree-lined street and condo.

The artwork created by atomic bomb survivors moved me beyond tears.

For two families, the Ishikawas and the Pattersons, war between our two countries is unimaginable. Multiply that by all the families that have participated in student exchanges through AFS and programs.

This is peace, acted out in the real world on a very human scale.

Let there be peace on earth.

> IF YOU'RE INTERESTED

More than 65 schools in Western New York host American Field Service students. In addition, local students are eligible to become exchange students through AFS. Foreign students arrive here in August and it's not too late to host one.

Contact:

Hosting Coordinator for Eastern Region

Julie Mendez

e-mail: jmendez@afs.org

Phone: 1-800-876-2377 ext. 130

Fax: (410) 630-7292

Local Hosting Coordinator

Inge Gabel

e-mail: gabel@roadrunner.com

Mobile Phone: 716-909-9977

Home Phone: 716-694-5302

For Study Abroad and general information visit www.afsusa.org

Kay Patterson is vice president of quality and compliance at Spectrum Human Services. She lives in Buffalo.