To Topaz and Back

October 14, 2012 by Admin

By Mary Ann Furuichi

Eucalyptus Grove

When incarceration and Tanforan Detention Center are mentioned even to this day, I imagine my family standing on a hillside surrounded not by electric barbed wire fences but by a grove of silvery-gray branched eucalyptus trees. I was four and a half years old when I left Berkeley and arrived at Tanforan Racetrack.

Crossing the Bay Bridge under the surveillance of guards, we adults and children alike sat stunned and quiet, looking through bus windows at the sparkling waters and buildings. How had this happened so quickly, so unexpectedly? There were no laughter or cries, only silence.

Even now, I can still imagine the smell: the sweet woody aroma of eucalyptus trees that triggered my yearning for freedom. As a child, I was trapped in the uneasiness of the unknown. Spring of 1942. Where would we be taken? Whatwould happen to us? Watching traffic moving below on Bayshore Freeway in the distance, I couldn’t understand our reason for being at Tanforan.  Ironically, we saw no horses in this dwelling for them.  As I looked up at my mother dressed in her suit and heels, she appeared frail and frightened as she held my younger brother. “Why are were here? Why can’t we be with them?” I asked. I don’t recall what her reply was, but I sensed helplessness in the tone of her voice.   I didn’t realize that our temporary homes would be small, cramped, smelly horse stalls and that, after a heavy rainfall, I would step knee deep into oozy, soft wet mud. I missed the pleasure of picking ripe apricots and apples from trees in my backyard. Instead, later in Topaz, we only saw the flat, open space of desert with tall mountains in the distance with no trees in sight.

In Tanforan, the traffic beyond seemed close and yet far as I stood watching it from a hill of eucalyptus trees.  Uprooted, our lives were invaded and changed forever, but, like the majestic trees, we survived.

Lucky and the Horned Toad

Before the forced removal began, our family had to decide what we should take with us to camp. When I couldn’t take Lucky, my beloved mutt and close companion, I wondered, Would I see him again? He’ll be okay, I reassured myself. Lucky I named him, and that he was.

Although he was a stray and quite an ordinary-looking dog, his extraordinary smile and friendly wagging tail appealed even to Mrs. Nevins. Little did I know then how lucky he would be.  I was certain that our European American neighbor, Mrs. Nevins, middle-aged, feisty and down to earth from Kansas City, Missouri, would be caring and nurturing towards him as she was to my family before the war began; I knew he’d be safe with her. In her backyard, I would look up at the tall wooden water tower, which, by coincidence, resembled the guard tower I would associate with danger at Topaz, its shape narrow and imposing. I found joy in collecting warm-to-the-touch eggs from her chicken coop, which she made into long strands of noodles and tossed into a pot of boiling water on her gleaming stove, a stark contrast to the short potbelly stove fueled by dusty black charcoal we used in Topaz. While in imprisoned in the desert, I visualized Lucky running freely around and splashing in Mrs. Nevin’s long oval-shaped fishpond that measured the length of her large home.

Before the war, during frightening mandatory air raid drills and blackouts, as we hid in the darkness of her basement, we could hear the repeated undulating sounds of a siren and, I believe, the low murmur of a lone airplane overhead.  Mrs. Nevins allowed us to be there with her until we heard an all clear signal.

But in Topaz, Mrs. Nevins and Lucky were far away. The barrack we lived in was close to the desert, and I thought of Lucky, miles away, looking anxiously at the window of our house, waiting for us.

The ferocious wind would stir and toss the dried balls of cactus across the desert during sudden windstorms. On calmer days, I searched for glistening black flint and obsidian. Hidden within a clump of wiry sagebrush, I discovered, to my amazement, a harmless tiny lone-horned toad that was meant to be mine. This small leathery creature received all of the love and attention I would have given to Lucky, and I fed and gave it water daily. After several weeks of surviving in a cloth-covered shoebox, I regretfully released the toad as it quickly scurried away, not looking back. I wanted the toad to have the freedom that we could not have. When would Lucky and I be together again? I wondered.

When I returned to Berkeley at the age of 7 and 1/2 years old, taller, older and with a gap between my teeth, Lucky’s familiar smile and vigorously wagging tail were endearing as ever. I was grateful to Mrs. Nevins for keeping him safe and healthy. With Lucky by my side, we once again resumed our usual routine of walking around the block, and of me feeding and bathing him.  Lucky taught me that it was time to heal, and gradually, Lucky’s vibrant spirit allowed the bitter memories of the last three years to begin to fade away.

Ice and Wind

One of the first times that I experienced fear was when I had to walk many blocks from my barrack to another barrack– a school that was located some distance away.

While slowly trudging in knee-deep snow and facing the icy wind in front of me during a fierce blizzard, a large white sheet surrounding me, I barely could see.  Everything was unrecognizable. No buildings or people were in my view. As I looked for the guard tower with guns pointing towards us, it too, was indistinguishable. I was tempted to turn around and return to my barrack and stand in front of the warm, dependable potbelly stove and roll a warm egg between the frigid palms of my hand. Even though I wore sturdy clothing and a scarf wrapped securely around my face, I was unable to breathe. I was also anxious because I didn’t want to be late to school and reprimanded by the teacher. I could imagine my classmates sitting on hard wooden benches, reading, reciting and writing, using whatever items that were available. The scene reminded me of a rural school that I visited in Kenya, Africa. School materials were scarce and at a minimum, but education was important and learning was taking place.

I survived the bitter cold of Topaz because I had fortitude and determination to finally reach the schoolroom, sit at the desk, and teach myself this lesson:  how to find my own way through the cold, unrelenting storm.

The Latrine

Little privacy existed when we used the latrines in the community restrooms until doors were installed. I refused to use the toilets unless I was hidden behind a blanket held by my mother that shielded me from others. I often wondered how the others managed to relieve themselves without being as embarrassed as I was.

Unfortunately, this sensitivity carried over into my adulthood and took away my enjoyment of staying outdoors and “roughing it,” which I regret to this day. I only recall having one wonderful and memorable experience of camping after Topaz. For a week, I was with a group of teenage friends, splashing in the shallow river, catching wiggling crayfish and roasting marshmallows by the light of the moon. The indoor restrooms were a great relief because I would avoid the embarrassments I suffered at Topaz.

Ever since then, I still have the desire to pitch a tent and camp somewhere in a remote area with only a few people. At the same time, I resent my past when I feel held back by my dependence on modern conveniences.  I have the desire to walk along a trail that takes me to the coast; climb up to a hilltop overlooking a lagoon and low tides; hike to a mountain lake where I can stop to catch my breath; feel the cool breeze; gaze at wildlife and fields of flowers and sleep peacefully under the stars.

But I’m not going to do any of these–not unless I can use a Toto with a warm toilet seat and sit peacefully in a place with creature comforts.

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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