Desert Rebirth

January 29, 2012 by Admin

By Michiko Uchida

The door of my study had been removed so that it would no longer open out into our narrow hallway, causing us to squeeze by the room sideways.  Passing by that empty doorway, I witnessed a huge mountain of my accumulated stuff—a miscellaneous collection of unmounted photos, unanswered letters, boxes of all sizes and shapes containing various items I’d been meaning to use for my card-making projects, an old idle Singer sewing machine that required repair, unread books, and on and on.  I determined I’d better dive in and immediately organize the mess.

I started the following day, tackling the northeast corner of the room, which had a stack of wrinkled papers that I’d neglected for months or even years. I’m so glad I finally did.  I scrutinized each paper out of curiosity and to determine its importance. Why did I save that one?  I asked myself over and over.  Then I came across a faded and crumpled legal-sized single sheet that had my daughter Leslie’s name on it: the record of her birth in Topaz on July 30, 1945, only a few weeks before our departure from Topaz.  Of course, she would not have remembered the flurry of our packing and the final goodbyes to our neighbors.  But that long-forgotten day brought back memories of our difficulties, because I had to do most of the work by myself.  Kiy was in the army and had received only a short furlough.  But now, of course, all that is just a memory. Still, I found it exciting to come across that paper.

I called Leslie to tell her, “I discovered your birth record.”  She was as excited as I was. It was such an unexpected discovery, especially since I had never discussed those camp days with my children.  I had not forgotten, but Leslie herself had never asked about the happenings of over 60 years ago.  She came over to see the document for herself.  Leslie, who has a curious mind, sat with me at the dining room table, studying the document.  It was mostly a one-way conversation.  Leslie would say, “. . . and then?” I recalled to her that it was the hottest time of the year in Utah.

Packing up our accumulation of three years was not very simple. What to take home, what to leave behind, what to discard?  Leslie herself has a daughter, so she realized what the basic necessities of a newborn child requires.  In retrospect, we actually laughed at the predicament— she in sympathy, and I in amazement at what it must have entailed.  Leslie now is in her 60s and I in my 80s, so we now truly realize the immense burden of such a task.

These revelations gave her the desire to see her birthplace.  By great coincidence, it so happened that Topaz was soon to celebrate becoming part of the Federal Parks with a pilgrimage to honor this occasion.  What an opportunity!  Her husband, Gary, had also been incarcerated as a three-year-old child.  She convinced him to join her.  Her enthusiasm convinced him to go.  Of course, I wouldn’t miss the chance to go as well, so the three of us registered to attend the pilgrimage.

The day we had impatiently anticipated finally arrived.  We flew from Oakland to Salt Lake City and rented a late model car to drive to Topaz.  Unexpectedly, at the Salt Lake City Airport, we spotted Toru Saito, who had resided in Topaz Block 4 along with my family.  Wearing his cowboy hat and holding his guitar, he was leaning against a pole.  He had missed a connecting flight with his friend.  He exclaimed, “I was hoping that someone heading for Topaz would disembark a plane.”  So the four of us headed for Topaz.

What a contrast to my first trip.  We had traveled by ancient, stuffy, uncomfortable trains with soldiers guarding us and then transferred to semi-open trucks where we sat with silent, straight-faced strangers who shared our unhappy situation.  We were driven along dusty and bumpy roads, green alfalfa cultivated on both sides.  Finally, we arrived at an area that looked like the end of the earth, a desert enclosed by a barbed wire fence.  Immediately, we were enveloped by a fierce dust storm, which we encountered too frequently during our years of imprisonment.  The trip was hot, but not unbearably so.

When we finally entered the area where the celebration was being held, we were honored by the Boy Scouts bearing the U.S. flag, the mayor, the governor, and other dignitaries.  Each of them gave a brief speech.  An invocation by a Buddhist priest and a Christian pastor was offered.  And Toru changed from his usual informal shorts and t-shirt into a formal dark suit, singing under the flag as it waved in the breeze. This photographic moment made all the newspapers.   Other gatherings and special meetings followed and even a movie where I lost my sun hat in the dark.

Ken and Leslie standing at the site of Block 4, Barrack 4 where they were born right next door to each other.

The most important task of our visit, however, was searching for 4-4-D in the flattened desert that long ago had held our busy city where thousands of us Japanese Americans were imprisoned.  The most serendipitous moment was bumping into our Block 4 next-door neighbor, Mary Murata, whose son, Ken was born in Topaz like Leslie and was visiting Topaz with his mother.  We rejoiced over meeting each other after so many years and agreed, “We should visit 4-4-D together.”  We all felt sad that this time both of their fathers were gone and would not witness this happy reunion.

Ken and Leslie stood side by side at the very site where they were born in 1945. We took their photo.  I wiped away my tears.  I didn’t look at Mary.  Watching Ken and Leslie, I realized this was probably the first and last time they would be pictured side by side at their birthplace.

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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