LLyn De Danaan
With thanks to Nancy Motomatsu and Georgette Yoshikae for whom my affection has grown deeper than I dare admit and to whom I vow to do the best I can with this work.
And thanks to Jennifer, a fellow at Fishtrap Summer 2008 for encouraging me to get right on this story.
Their biceps were big around and as massive as the rolled and twined tritips they were tonging about over a smoky charcoal fire. They were big, white-skinned, red faced men with ball caps and tight tee shirts that read Tule Lake Fire Department Grill Team. The shirts clung to their pecs with the sweat of the day and the heat from the blaze whipped up by the dripping fat. It must have been 90 degrees, and hotter in the bright sunshine, and yet they soldiered on cooking, yellow haired, freckled forearms, laughing. They seemed so large. The women team members, themselves not so small, were lined up behind long serving tables, white- aproned, shoveling baked beans and yellow, creamy potato salad onto our stiff, extra duty paper plates.
We stood to be served, most of my companions small Japanese Americans, some teetering, persevering octogenarians, lurching at dangerous angles with their laden plates. Many were sixty plus, but there was a good bunch of youngsters, grandchildren, and even some small children. We were on a pilgrimage in remembrance of and to memorialize the Tule Lake World War II concentration camp.
Tule Lake was home to 18,000 Japanese most American citizens from 1942 til 1946. It was the site of the most infamous concentration camp run by the United State Government’s War Relocation Authority during World War II. It had become a “segregation center,” the place that received “relocated” people from other camps who had answered the loyalty oath, administered to all internees, the wrong way. These were the no no people, a reference to how they answered questions 27 and 28. No no meant I can’t swear away my family in Japan, I don’t know what these questions mean, I can’t bear how my place of birth has treated me and my family, or I can’t pretend that any of this is right. Or for some, like the true Hoshi-Dan, I support Japan. No. The “no nos” were labeled disloyal trouble makers and placed in Tule Lake, a camp surrounded by tall fences, looming guard towers, and patrolled by wary sentries.
My friends from Oyster Bay, those who came to the Bay to cull and pick oysters after the war and some who had been here for years before the war doing the same and returned started referring to “camp” during our first visit together.
The Abos brought out a family album and began leafing through it as we gathered around a picnic table on the deck attached to Mrs. Abo’s home. Inside are trophies, everywhere trophies, large and small, awarded to Mrs. Abo for her Senryu. Her beautiful poems. Around the outdoor table, younger family were showing me pictures and asking mother, the elder Mrs. Abo, to explain the oldest images. She was demure, laughed gently, excused her poor memory, excused her lack of English language skills. Half way through the album was a picture of a man with an impish face. He has a cap that looks very like the billed caps G I s wore for work duty during the war…a dark green khaki billed cap. Behind him is a row of raw, tarpapered barracks. His head is turned to the right and there is something just there held between his lips. I see. It is a grain of rice. His eyes are full of joy and fun because there on his shoulder is a bird, poised to pick that grain of rice. It will, must, kiss him to do so. Just an instant after this picture is snapped, sometime in 1943, on a parched desert floor, Mr. Abo was kissed by a little bird he loved. This is Mr. Abo. He was a no no man, though at the beginning of the war he had tried to register for the U.S. army, he was when this picture was taken held as enemy alien in Tule Lake camp with his wife and his two children, young Joe and baby Mary. The picture is not an original. It is a copy published in a Japanese Playboy magazine in an article written by Mr. Abo’s brother’s son, the family branch that stayed in Japan and fought in the Imperial Army.
No. No. Mrs. Abo, also a no no, was born in a float house on Mud Bay in 1919. Her parents were first generation Issei who worked for an Oyster Man, J.J. Brenner. When her little brother became ill, her mother took her with the brother home to Japan where Mrs. Abo, little Yukiko, went to school and became therefore kibei, automatically suspect when the war began.
Mr. Abo was born in a lumber camp in the mountains east of the Seattle. His father had been contracted for, with other Japanese men, to work in the forest. His mother, one of the few women in camp, brewed saki and made moshi and other foods from home for the men. There were sentos, Japanese style baths, all Japanese baseball teams, Buddhist priests, and language schools. And there was poetry. There was always poetry.
In 1937, Mr. Abo went to Japan and through family found his wife, Yukiko, and returned with her to Oyster Bay. They both came back to the life of the float house, tending the beds between tides, harvesting the succulent little Olympia oysters and culling them for market. They were paid by the sack and provided with housing. Small gardens were grown right on the float houses. Native seaweed was collected and dried for soups. Clams mussels fin fish and of course oysters were free and formed the substantial part of the diet.
Then Pearl Harbor. People call it the day that will live in infamy. I understand that. I was conceived shortly after that day and along with, I’m guessing, probably many other Pearl Harbor babies, forced an unplanned for marriage on my parents who were caught up in the fear and uncertainty of a world now at war. My father, 31 years old, tried all the branches of service before the Army took him in spite of his bad teeth. He eventually was part of the occupying force in Japan after Hiroshima.
For the Abos and all other Japanese and Japanese Americans on the west coast, Pearl Harbor meant confusion, fear for what surely would lie ahead for them and their families back in Japan, and registration at the local post office. That was the beginning. Then shortly after, orders to report to an assembly center.
Only what you can carry. Think about what you can carry. One bag, before bags had wheels. The clothes on your back. The hat on your head. The pipe in your pocket.
The people down the road who owned the big dance hall at Steam Boat Island turn off kept the Abos’ personal things for them. They didn’t own their house or property. So unlike some, their loss was only their freedom. And later, their citizenship. Because being both born in the United States, they were American citizens.
Joe and Mary, little kids, Mary just a baby, really, don’t remember much of camp life. Joe kindles up some slight dreamy suggestion of a nursery school. Other friends on the Bay remember their Japanese language classes, their strict kibei teachers, people who had gone to school in Japan though American citizens and then returned. These kibei teachers had studied in increasingly militaristic schools with nationalistic teachers. So their young Nisei charges in the camp, some of whom had lived only in all Caucasian communities, were mortified by these strict teachers who made them study sometimes 10 hours a day. Then there were the daunting exercises, compelled even in deep snow. Their little feet froze and barely carried them home to sit atop the pot belly stoves in their barracks rooms to bring life back to limb. Most of them had never been around so many Japanese ever. And competition in the classroom? how’d you like to be in a class of all Japanese, one old kibei language teacher quipped in a pilgrimage talk session. Everybody got the joke and roared with laughter.
Still they made little gardens, picked tiny bleached shells from the dead lake bottom, the sand on which their tar paper shacks were built, and made corsages and necklaces of them. Or of dried and polished apple seeds. They learned to make their characters, to write Senryu poetry and to become better Buddhists. The “bu” way, someone says. We can learn from hardship and happiness.
Yet American as most of the 18,000 were, they had to prove their loyalty. And after the years in the camp, when given the choice to renounce their citizenship altogether, in the chaos and confusion of the time, many did.
The renunciants, nearly 5000, eventually fought through the courts to regain that citizenship. And most did. It is a famous class action civil rights case, one of the most famous of the last century. Your’ll recognize the name: Abo vs. Clark.
Before that fourth of July 2008 picnic we’d gathered at the site of the camp and prayed over the now empty pit in the dry lake bed where the cemetery had been. Where the suicide who’d drunk gasoline out of desperation had been laid. Where babies who died of dystentery, if Christian, had been interred. After the prayers, we boarded buses and stopped now and then to view what few artifacts there are on still on site: a cement foundation, a drain pipe, the jail and stockade. When we stopped, women, especially old women, searched the lake bed for the little bleached shells from which years ago they’d made jewelry. They them into plastic baggies then sequestered the bags deep inside purses.
As we traveled, old friends united after 60 years reminded each other of how it was. It seems the caskets for the newly dead Christians were, picked up, embalmed bodies and all, in Klamath Falls. They were brought back through the gates and past the sentries loaded not just with the departed but with canisters of sugar and coffee. It seems one young man who didn’t know what to do with a baby’s casket after he dug its deep, deep hole jumped into it, the casket cradled in his arms
It seems little girls sometimes walked the perimeter of the camp fence fetching candy from soldiers, then running quickly away while sticking their tongues out at the confused young fellows. Bored and adventurous teenagers snuck under the fence for a day hike and made for what they called Abalone Mountain, a pack of sandwiches strapped to their backs. It seems the Washington girls were warned not to go across the fire break to the block where the California boys were housed: these Japanese very American teenagers dressed like pachukos sported oiled hair combed into ducktails, cuffed jeans, and engineer boots, and twirled long chains from their belts. The Washington girls and boys, by contrast, were the preppies of their day. One young man, Jimmy Yoshihara, from Shelton, whose brother Elmer died later in the Korean “conflict,” appeared each morning at dining hall in white shirt and tie, a copy of the San Francisco Examiner folded tidily under his arm.
Then the picnic. Fourth of July. And the beef.
The Nikkei pilgrims and I moved through the line in good humor, laughing with the townspeople who, still ambivalent about their own or rather their parent’s collusion in one of the darkest moments of our democracy, nevertheless were the jolliest of hosts. The perfectly cooked beef was taken off the grill, delivered to the long serving counter, sliced, covered with barbeque sauce, and eased onto our plates. There were American flags everywhere over, above, and hung from the table.
The men with the biceps and the tritips and sweaty chests seemed diminished as the pilgrims sat surrounded by small town 4th of July America at a fairground near horse stalls not unlike those some of them had been imprisoned in before arrival in Tule Lake. Nama Amida Buddha, the pilgrims prayed as they addressed Amida Buddha at the cemetery site earlier in the day. Wisdom and Compassion. All of this, all of what we are and can be was called forth that morning. Tule Lake. Say the words and it is there before you in its impotent dryness with its bleached bones and fantasy mountain landscape, all of it, is summoned forth.
And the pilgrims ate the most American of picnics, proving, once again, their loyalty.