Free, Unwhite, and Twenty-One

January 29, 2012 by Admin

George, second saxophone player from left, performs with Music Makers at Poston Camp I, Arizona, 1942.

By George Yoshida

“Going to Chicago, sorry can’t take you with me . . .” wails “Mr. Five by Five” Jimmy Rushing. Count Basie’s on the grand piano, pushing Jimmy with his swingin’ blues band. The tabletop radio’s on in my barrack, and I’m dancin’ by myself in sync with Basie’s irresistible groove. And it feels so good!

“What? What’s that, Jimmy? You’re goin’ to Chicago and can’t take me?” Of course, he can’t hear me ‘cuz I’m here in Poston “prison.” Doesn’t matter. “Hey, man, you don’t have to apologize, ‘cuz I’m going! Yeah, I’m going to Chicago, too, and Uncle Sam’s gonna pay my way. How ’bout that, Jimmy?!”

Well, I did go to Chicago and Uncle Sam did pay. I wonder if Jimmy knew how it played out . . .

After a year of detention in Poston camp, I, with many others, had received official clearance to relocate to the Midwest. We were no longer “Japs.” (Imagine, mainstream America had earlier screamed,”Japs, Japs, you can’t trust them! Put them away. Put them all away!”)  Leaving Poston was our release from prison. Our chains were exchanged for wings. Time to fly. I was goin’ to Chicago. Good friends and, hopefully, good jobs awaited me. Still, I could not dismiss the thought of Uncle Sam, sooner or later, pointing his finger at me saying, “I want you!” (Nisei servicemen in the European theater had proven themselves to be dependable and disciplined.)

On a cool and calm April morning, I stuffed a few pieces of clothing and a toothbrush into a raggedy suitcase. Said my “goodbyes” to mama and papa. I don’t know how they truly thought about my leaving. Mama had concerns for her #1 son who might be swallowed up by an unfriendly city. She looked somewhat sad, unsmiling. Papa said nothing, as usual. (He and I had been “knocking heads” for some time. I was “the selfish, thoughtless” son who needed “to grow up.”) My two younger sisters, Masa and Toshi, often victims of an ego-consumed “big brother,” may have had smiles on their faces. (Probably glad to see me go.) About ten of us climbed eagerly into the bed of a dusty truck. When the driver kicked the engine over, I thought, Damn, we’re on our way to Chicago, the Windy City. It’s gonna be great! Skyscrapers. Department stores. Movie theaters. Restaurants. And maybe, just maybe, (my fingers crossed) a date on the town with a cute chick. I was so excited I hardly noticed the handful of camp prisoners waving goodbye to us.. Soon, we approached a lonesome railroad station in Parker, Arizona. Following an interminable wait, we boarded a slow train to freedom.

Yeah, I’m on my way to Chicago! Free, unwhite and twenty-one! No longer subject to the censure and strictures of mama and papa. I mean, they always used to scold me, “Joji, turn radio down. Too loud. You disturb neighbor in next barrack.” Or “No come home late at night after dance. Everybody sleepin’. You make too much noise.” Or “Joji, come eat with me an’ papa. You all time go eat with friends.” Or “Joji, help clean house. Just sweep floor. Make your bed. That’s all we ask.” I know they meant well, but . . .  mama, papa and all of us in just a single barrack room. What a drag. I was gettin’ out!

“Poston Camp” quickly became a blurred memory. New thoughts and questions popped into my uneasy mind. What about housing? Never ever rented a room for just myself. Are there Japanese apartments in Chicago? And jobs? Hadn’t ever worked for a white boss before. Will I be able to go to a nice place, pick up a menu and order? Will I be served? Damn, not gonna’ be easy! I really hadn’t thought about the ways and means of daily life. Maybe Poston wasn’t so bad after all. Goin’ to Chicago felt wonderful, but it was coupled with grave misgivings of an unknown future.

The journey took two days and two nights of suffering the discomforts of an ancient train pulled by an outdated steam locomotive. It chugged through thousands of dry, vegetationless miles. It was tiresome. Imagine a train coach loaded to the max with other eager Poston prisoners (yes, there were others) who were weary, thirsty and often hungry. Imagine frightened, sleepless infants crying incessantly for attention . . . not nice. We young adults fidgeted back and forth in many, many configurations on badly worn red velvet-covered seats in search of comfort. Couldn’t lie down ‘cuz there was always someone alongside. No A.C. Hot! Open the window slightly (most were impossibly immovable), and we were greeted by a stream of equally warm air “conditioned” with black soot from the coal-burning engine. As we at long last approached the inner city and its grand central station, we were greeted by graffiti-splashed freight cars, dilapidated factories and unkempt residences. (Oooh, is this Chicago?)

                                                            *     *     *       

My first breakfast on the outside was so beautiful, I will never forget it. At the American Friends Services Committee hostel in northside Chicago–temporary housing provided by the Quakers for Japanese Americans–the bright spring sun warmed the breakfast nook just off of the main dining room. Seated at the table, alone, without being called to breakfast by nerve-wracking clangs of a heavy-duty iron triangle, I felt joy. I don’t remember all that I ate that morning. But I do remember putting a slice of white bread into an electric toaster, patiently waiting for it to complete its chore. When the toast popped up, I carefully spread a dab of real butter onto the bread. This memorable ritual was so long in coming. The first crunchy bite of the delectable morsel was heavenly. Just toast ,and it was heavenly!

Even “heavenlier” (Is there such a word?) was that many days later “love walked right in” (like the song) and I found my true love, my future Mrs., in Chicago.

“Hey Mr. Five by Five! Give me twelve more bars of those bad ‘Goin’ to Chicago’ blues, so’z I can toss you my ‘Windy City Blues’ in the key of L-U-V!”

Yeah, “Love walked right in and drove the shadows away; love walked right in and brought my sunniest day. . .” Cupid’s arrow hit its target and I was walkin’ on air. Her name was Helen. She and roommate Masa, whom I had known in Los Angeles, had come to visit their friend who lived in the same apartment as I did. I was in the hallway on my way to the bathroom with soiled clothes to do my weekly wash in the bathtub.

“Oh, hi Masa.  What a surprise! I didn’t know you were in Chicago. How long have you been here?”

“Oh, George. Hi. I’ve been in Chicago for a couple of months now. I came out from Topaz with my sisters. We just dropped in to visit my friend Flo. She’s in room 9. Oh, excuse me, George. This is my roommate, Helen.”

Helen said, “Hi, George.”

I replied, “Hi. What camp were you in?”

Helen responded, “I came out from Rohwer just last month.”

My first encounter with Helen was a brief exchange in awkward niceties. It was a bland encounter, but I did notice how well these two were dressed. They looked fine. Both of them had on handsome coats. I couldn’t see their dresses, but they wore nylons and good-looking shoes with medium heels. Their hair had an attractive cut–not too short, not too long. I thought, It must cost a lot to keep up with the latest styles. Would I ever be able to afford to buy clothes for these kinds of proper ladies?

“Oh well, no need to worry ’bout silly girl matters,” I said to myself. “I don’t think I’ll be seeing these two again.” I returned to my laundry chores.

                                                            *     *     *       

The following is a “weather report” of the Helen/George romance as viewed and recorded by Helen in her 5-year diary–1941-1945. (Please, Helen, I trust that it’s okay to disclose your personal thoughts about “G.Y.” and how we began our “journey.” And, Sweetie, please, no lightning bolts aimed at me from your heaven.):

1943 October 29–Had dinner downtown and met Masa [roommate] at the “Y”. Went visiting on the Northside. Met Flo Abe of L.A. and George Yoshida . . .

(6 mos. later) 1944 April 22–Went shopping. After dinner George Yoshida and a Tug Tamaru dropped over . . .

(2 mos. later) June 11–Good gosh! Slept till 4 p.m. George Yoshida and Ambrose M. came over . . .

(4 days later) June 15–George Yoshida and Ambrose called for dates, but Masa has a date so I’ll go with Geo. I guess  .. .

June 17–Gads! Whatta warm day! Fui(Fooey)! After dinner Geo.Y. took me Aragoning [Dancing at the Aragon Ballroom], He’s loads of fun, keen dancer, had T[Tom]Collins at Downbeat Room![Jazz club . . .].    

June 18–Whew! Hot and humid! Geo.Y., Ambrose and K. Kusada came  over. We danced, gabbed and laughed. More fun! . . .

June 19–Took Papa his Pop’s Day gift. Wish Geo. Y. calls. Golly, I wonder if I’m??? [Love tiptoes in?] . . .

June 24, Sat.–Went Aragoning [with Geo.Y.] and Downbeat Room later. Got home early Sunday morn–never before did I stay up so late! . . .

June 25 through July into August–a crescendo of “love in bloom” phone calls, day and night, with Helen. Holding hands and taking long, long walks along the shores of Lake Michigan. (I remember her soft hands and her sore feet.). More movies (good and bad). And more “Aragonings” with Helen in her stunning, but tasty, dresses and I (looking sharp) in my dark blue four-button suit and a maroon polka-dot hankie in my breast pocket. And dig this: a lotta delightful practice on “first base” (How long did it take you to say, “Good night”?). Yeah, love walked, no, roared in–as Ira Gershwin’s melody played in my head over and over again–and I found a world completely new.

“Hey, Jimmy Rushing, it’s Yoshida calling. How’ve you been, man? Jus’ checkin’ to see what’s happenin’ with you in the Windy City, JR. I’ve got heavy news for you:

George and Helen in Chicago, 1945.

#1–Met a fine woman on the Southside. Name’s Helen. She’s got a sharp mind and, look out, a tongue to go with it! Helen’s a good dresser, loves to dance and, to top it off, loves to eat! How ’bout that!

#2–Went to hear Billy Eckstine sing some good ol’ blues with Earl Hines at the Regal.  What knocked me out was his new singer. Name’s Sarah Vaughan. She swings!

#3–Uncle Sam’s finally got me–a bona fide U.S. Army buck private. I’m in training down at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  I can operate a Sherman tank and headin’ for Europe one of these days, but hope not too soon.

“Well, what do yah think, Jimmy? Did I hit the jackpot or did I hit the jackpot! Hope you’re doing okay.  Catch you later, man.”

It’s cold and dark here in the barrack.  Lights-out already.  Early tomorrow morning we’re going on a 5-mile training hike carrying a full pack.  I cannot fall asleep.  Thinking about Helen . . . wishing I were back with her in Chicago . . . wearing my four-button suit and dancing up a storm at the Aragon . . . great spaghetti in Italian restaurants . . . wondering when we’ll be going overseas . . .

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In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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