Where Did It Go?

October 14, 2012 by Admin

By Akiko Okuno

“Weren’t you interned in the Salinas Assembly Center?” Aggie Idemoto asked.  “Would you be willing to be one of our speakers for the Greater Monterey Bay Area JACL Chapters’ 70th Anniversary Day of Remembrance Event?”

“Golly, I have very little recollection of our stay in the Salinas Assembly Center. I really don’t think I’d have much to contribute.  Could you find someone else?”

This was the gist of my conversation with Aggie one day in January of 2012.  But, as it turned out, she convinced me that I should do it.  “You are the only female available and I prefer to have a diverse panel,” she declared.

With much trepidation, I began the effort of recalling those days in early 1942.  After much probing, my only recollections were of this dilemma: showering in front of strangers.  As a 15- year-old in a family of all girls, we were accustomed to taking our baths together, Japanese furo-style, but never with anyone else.  I had even faked taking showers after P.E. class all through high school in Gilroy, California, where, although we had individual dressing rooms, the shower was between two dressing rooms and someone might use the shower from the other side and see me naked.

At the assembly center, our mother solved this problem for us by waking us in the wee hours of the morning, like 2 or 3 o’clock, and the five of us, so as not to waken others, would very quietly walk to the shower room together when no one else was around.

I don’t remember about the toilets—just the showers. I don’t remember anything about meals either—the kind of food, if we ate together, even where we ate. Everything else—except a vague sense of the entrance gate designed so that we passed through individually and the needle’s prick from the typhoid shot we got as we went through—has been totally wiped out from my memory bank.

In order to uncover my story, I decided to speak to each of my sisters, picking their brains for bits of information that might awaken a memory or two.  I’m the second of four daughters, and we have often shared stories of events in Poston concentration camp, where we were ultimately incarcerated, but never anything about Salinas.  My first call was to Toshi, the eldest, but she, like me, could not remember anything about the assembly center.

“Isn’t it strange that we can remember many details of camp life in Poston and can speak so lightly about them, but we’ve never talked about the first days of ‘evacuation’?” she commented.

As we talked, both she and I realized just how traumatic the whole experience must have been for us as we had lost all memory of those two and a half months of our lives.

My conversation with Kazuye, the next sister, was a bit more fruitful.  She remembered that Mr. Hines, who was the school bus driver of our route, had come down to Salinas to visit with a couple of the Japanese students who always sat in the front seat behind him and with whom he had become friends.  That touched a  chord of memory.  She then continued, “I can remember walking along a roadway that skirted the barracks on our walk to shower when no one else was around.”  She also remembered, “We were assigned mealtimes, so everyone ate in shifts.”  This made a lot of sense since there were over 3,000 people to feed.

Then I turned to my youngest sister, Atsuko, and she verified all that Kazuye mentioned and was also able to mention some of the people we met there at Salinas—names that I did not remember nor now recall.  She also spoke of some of the activities, such as music, and various games, like volleyball—a total blank for me.

How could a time lapse of that length be so completely eradicated from my mind? Thankfully, I can remember scenes and incidents of my very early childhood:  the big barn where our neighbor stored the big bales of hay where we often played, his blacksmith shop, the swimming hole, and the orchard where different varieties of fruit trees were planted—Grandpa Smith had worked for the arborist, Luther Burbank, and had planted some of the experimental varieties in his own orchard, which bloomed with the fruits, the juicy, delicious sweetness that we so enjoyed . But now, this momentous event in my teen years remains empty; it is as though someone took a swipe with an enormous eraser and completely wiped out the camp experience.

Looking back, I am left with the realization: my mind is a blank slate.  I have been robbed of my past, a big part of my life taken from 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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