Bits and Pieces from My Childhood

January 29, 2012 by Admin

By Ruth Ichinaga

I only remember bits and pieces of my childhood.  I was seven years old when our family was forcibly removed from our home in Berkeley, California, sent to the Tanforan Assembly Center,  and subsequently imprisoned in Topaz concentration camp in Utah.  I hope to present as accurately as I can my memories of that time, but when I’ve spoken to my friends, I am puzzled and amused at how much our recollections differ.


We, as kids, often congregated at the barrack of the Kato family, who lived in Building 5, rooms C and D in Topaz. I liked to visit them.  Mr. and Mrs. Kato were Nisei and probably familiar with the games their children played so they thoughtfully packed them to keep the family entertained and occupied.  Among their three daughters, two were closer to my age and I often played with them.  There were also occasions when all the sisters and their two brothers joined in the games.  From them, I learned to play Monopoly, the perfect game to keep us occupied and indoors during the cold winter months when it snowed.  Feeling cozy while surrounded by all their warm bodies, I would lay on my stomach with my chin propped on my hands. We arranged ourselves around the board on the floor, shifting now and then to get comfortable, intently involved in the game.  Although there was only the pot-bellied stove–burning with coal gathered from the pile at the entrance to the block laundry room–to keep us warm and maybe one light bulb to help us see, we were totally immersed in the game.  My mind was intent on which properties to buy. We had no sweets or chips to munch on as we might now have.  What we did have was the warmth and fun of companionship.

Along with Monopoly, we played pick up sticks and jacks.  I don’t recall the name of another game we played but it took much dexterity and steadiness, much like that required to play pick up sticks.  It was played with small flat plastic flowers, pale blue, pink or white, and the size of a dime.  The object was to collect them by drawing a line with your little finger between two flowers without touching them.  A slip of your finger and your turn was over.

In the warmer months when the sun went down and the evenings cooled we would think up various games to play outdoors.  Usually we played in between the backs of barracks 4 and 5.  We reveled in tag , Kick the Can and Hide and Seek. I remember yelling “Olli Olli Oxenfree!” often.  I think that was the signal  we called out when someone was caught, and it was time to gather from our scattered positions to start another game.

The area behind the Kato’s “home” was a good place to play because we were more protected from sandstorms.  Block 28 was one of the blocks on the outer edge of the camp.  The end side of the barrack I lived in, #11, faced the open space of the desert.  The sandstorms were brutal at times, dust whipped up by the strong winds.  Beyond the barbed wire, in the desert, the tumbleweeds skipped and swirled and bounced about in every direction, and my skin stung as the sand pelted my face.  I found it difficult to breathe.  These were terrible conditions for us kids who wanted to play outdoors.

Laundry Room

One day in the laundry room, a young mother, round and short with plump rosy cheeks and a cheerful manner, was washing flour in a pan on one side of a divided gray cement laundry tub.  The laundry room had eight or ten of the two sided tubs: one side to wash and the other side to rinse. The woman, a Seventh Day Adventist, was making gluten. Fascinated, I watched her working with the glob of white powder and wondered at the same time where the flour came from.  I soon found myself helping her.  As the glob was being worked into gluten she began to tell me a story.  It went something like this: “One day it will be the end of the world and all who do not believe in God will die  by fire.  All who believe in God will be warned and will be able to escape into the mountains.”

I was about nine years old at the time, and the story scared me because I worried that I would be left behind.  Was my belief in God enough to spare me? I had nightmares of running and climbing as fast as I could, crawling and clawing up the mountainside, panting and out of breath with barely enough strength to reach safe ground while the flames licked at my feet.  Frantically, I looked for my family.  My body still tenses as I recall my young self worried about the fire and the destruction at the end of the world.

The woman later gave me a taste of the gluten, which was delicious. The gray glob had been transformed into thin brown tasty slices. Just as she was able to work the flour into gluten, I look back now and understand that, despite the nightmares of the fire, she was helping to shape me in a positive way.

Birthday Cake

My sister, who left camp to attend Brigham Young University, one day came back to visit us in Topaz.  She brought me a birthday cake! What a wonderful surprise I thought to myself.  “Thank you, thank you,” I blurted out and jumped excitedly up and down as my mother opened the box to reveal a round chocolate cake with white frosting and the words “Happy Birthday”  written across the top.  I don’t remember any other decorations.  The gift of the cake and the anticipation of tasting it was all I had in mind.

My sister also brought me a small can of hard candies shaped and tasting like different fruits, such as strawberries and oranges. I invited my girl friends in the block to enjoy the cake and candy with me.  Room F, the small room next to us was vacant by then, so we sat amongst the rolled mattresses and cots still in the room.  We had no decorations, party hats or gifts, just the excitement punctuated by our laughter and giggles and filled with the joy of eating a special cake from the outside world.

We also had cakes for dessert at the mess hall occasionally, but they were never frosted. I would wrap my piece of cake and take it home to save for later.  I either forgot it for a couple of days or I intentionally waited a few days before eating my stash.  The stale cake soothed my craving for the crunchy cookie-like texture, and I ate it slowly savoring each bite.

I think back on what college must have been like for my sister  who was probably only 18 or 19 years old.  She made the decision to leave the security of her home, venture out to attend school and live and work for a family to earn her keep.  She had so many new things to contend with all at the same time.  Her gesture still touches me: as young as she was and with other concerns, she generously thought of bringing a birthday cake for her little sister.  Now, at times, I run across cans filled with fruit-shaped hard candies that stir up memories of  that special day.

My Father’s Book

On some days Hannah, Kiku and I took Japanese lessons from a woman who lived in our block. In Berkeley, Hannah had lived on McGee Street right around the corner from me.  I didn’t know Kiku until we met in camp and after being released, we remained friends, attending the same high school and church.

In camp, our Japanese class was held outside on our teacher’s porch, which was supported by a couple of stairs.  A pallet of wood, the porch was worn gray from the ravages of nature:  the hot sun, the wind and the sand in the summer and the snow and rain of the harsh winters. We read from grade-level readers as well as practiced conversing in Japanese.  Hannah tells me that our class was held in our teacher’s home.  She remembers the room and neatly stacked books.  Of course, that makes sense to hold class indoors.  However, I don’t see the room or the books in my own memories.

My father borrowed one of the readers and made a copy for me. While we sat on the weather-beaten porch taking our classes, he started on the arduous task of copying each page of the borrowed book.  He folded thin white sheets of paper similar to tracing paper and wrote on both sides of the fold to form a page. The first couple of pages were written by him in black ink and then the rest were in blue ink. I don’t know if he used a fountain pen or another type of pen.  The script is quite neat and legible and testament to his considerable time and effort. I remember seeing him bent over the pages in deep concentration. He must have traced the pictures which are drawn with pencil. Most of them are colored lightly with color crayons, mainly in green.

After he completed copying all the pages, my father made a cover for the reader from what looks like a cover of a children’s magazine.  He pierced the pages and the cover in four places down one side to make the spine, pulled string through the holes and tied the pages together to make the book. Where did he find tracing paper?

The back cover is torn and the pages have yellowed, but I deeply treasure this precious book.   I hope that I expressed my gratitude to him for his effort, for the time and love he put into making this book for me.  As I look at each page, I get a sense of his mood from the level of pressure exerted on the pen, the evenness of the rows of his writing, and the size of his script. I’m glad he was able to find something to do that engaged and delighted him.  I think back and wonder how hard it must have been for him and my mother to have lived in one small barrack room with so little space to move and no area for them to have quiet time alone.  I hope he was happy with his accomplishment and that he felt some satisfaction in knowing that he provided me with my own reader to take to my Japanese class.

At some time during our incarceration my father had a heart attack and was taken to the camp hospital. I don’t know how he got there.  We had no phones to call for help. I don’t remember an ambulance on the scene. I didn’t get to visit him or know for how long he was hospitalized.

I wondered when he would be coming home.  I bided my time playing the same games with my friends, saw the woman who made the gluten taking care of her children, ate stale cake and went to my Japanese class.  After a few weeks my father finally came home.  I was grateful to have my father back and to have him listen to me read from the book–the same book he had made especially for me.

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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