October 26, 2012 by Admin
“Why can’t you just forget about it and move on?”
In the early 1970s this is the response I got from a friend when I told her what little I knew of my family’s time spent in one of America’s concentration camps. The words were unexpected and, yes, stinging to hear. I can’t say if they stung as much as weathering the icy cold of a Wyoming winter in a bare, tarpaper barrack room with a single potbelly stove for heat; as plodding through piled up snow and cutting winds to get a meal or to use the toilet and enduring humiliation heaped upon injustice. My aunt remembers, “We were treated just like cattle. . . the soldiers with pointed rifles making us march in line to the train. . . and we didn’t do anything wrong. It made me so mad.”
I can’t say because I can’t remember. I was an infant. My mother often told me the story of how I entered the world in this barren, desolate land called Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The less than inviting environment apparently didn’t agree with me, and I was scheduled for an early exit. At fifty days old, the doctor informed my mom, “She has pneumonia and is not expected to survive the night; I can try a new medication with a fifty-fifty chance for recovery.” It worked, and I remained at Heart Mountain for the duration of the war.
Even so, I was told that half my life was spent at the camp hospital as I would easily succumb to the frigid winter temperatures there. My aunt annoyingly recalled how the gossipy ladies of the laundry room predicted that I would end up with mental deficiencies and retardation due to my many bouts with fevers of extremely high temperatures. What better reason did I have for not having pursued a career in rocket science?
I knew of my continual illnesses because the subject of camp was talked about openly in my family. As a child growing up, I always knew I was not from here: San Jose, California. I always knew that –among my siblings – I was the only non-native Californian. Even though I claimed California as my home, I always knew about that other place. Furosato, the Japanese term for birthplace or hometown, comes to mind. Place creates a bond that draws masses of us back to our hometowns during the New Year and Obon seasons. This sense of homecoming overcame me in the summer of 1967, when I saw Heart Mountain for the first time that I could commit to memory. This visit marks the only time my parents had gone back since their three and a half year stay there. My mother immediately recognized the message board and distant hospital chimney. Not much else remained except for chunks of cement strewn among the dirt and dry grass. A small plaque identified the site as a former “relocation” center. Where were the visible traces of what once was home for over 10,000 of us? At least this day, we were there as visitors, not as prisoners. Not knowing if I would ever come back to my other hometown, I treasured the time I shared with my family on that day, at that place under blue skies, sunshine, and no barbed wire.
Exactly forty three years to the day later, I did return to Heart Mountain with my sister, Joyce, and friends, Joyce and Ken, who also had family members who were incarcerated there. We went for the 2010 pre-opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, which officially opened the following year. I marveled at the yet to be completed project, at the transformation from a single plaque to a first rate learning facility. More significantly, the development of this project afforded us easier access to the camp site unlike on my previous visit. I was thrilled to see the old hospital building and its 75 foot tall chimney, up close, despite their severely dilapidated condition. I was even more thrilled and motivated to make this second visit in order to hike up Heart Mountain. I was told, “The hike is not difficult,” and I had long hoped to do this trek.
What I eagerly signed up for, for me, turned out to be a long and arduous journey (a cakewalk for many others). On a map, the mountain trail resembles the back of a stegosaurus. It zigzags through a subalpine forest, disappears beneath rock surfaces, gets extremely narrow at some points, and is not the “gradual slope” that I was told; it’s steep, and the loose, gravelly surface in some areas can be hazardous. In fact, we had two accidents that day; both had happy endings thanks to the quick action of alert fellow hikers. In the first and more serious incident, I heard that a hiker had slipped and was left dangling headfirst off the mountain trail. His rescuers had to grab on to his feet then pull him up to safety, whereupon he continued bravely onward. I, too, had a scare on the way down when Doug suddenly slipped on some rocks and gravel. We both fell and started to slide off the trail, when suddenly, fellow hikers Ken And Phil rushed from behind to stop him from sliding any closer to the edge. My friend Joyce and Linda, Doug’s wife, arrived in an instant, grabbing my arm and ankles to keep me secured on the path. The fall was scary, but I couldn’t complain; it did allow for a few more minutes off of my feet. As the trail grew steeper on the way up, I could feel myself growing weaker and the need to stop and take in the scenery became more frequent. On my umpteenth rest stop less than half way to the top, after much trudging, huffing, and creeping along, I thought to myself: What was I thinking when I signed on to this? Those gossipy ladies in the laundry room some sixty something years ago knew what they were talking about – I did end up with loose marbles.
But the gambare spirit instilled in us as children along with a little help from my friends kept me going. Actually, I got a lot of help from my friends. It started with Joyce pulling me up by the hand as I lagged behind. Ken found me a branch on the trail saying, “Here. . . try using this.” It served as the perfect walking stick for the entire hike. Ken took over for Joyce when I continued to poke along. This kept up for a time when Doug, who was following behind the three of us, offered his help: “My wife says I make a better mule than a husband; why don’t you hang on to my belt, and I’ll pull you up.” He ended up pulling me up the trail by hand for most of the rest of the way up that mountain. The generosity of these friends, these helping hands, helped me realize my dream of getting to the top of the mountain that marked my birthplace.
The view from the top was breathtaking and sobering at the same time. I thought of my parents and other family members who never got to enjoy this mountaintop panorama; their only experience would be the reality of having to survive in the camp below. I thought of their struggles to overcome adversity, to try to live a normal life under far from normal and often demeaning conditions. I wondered how my family managed as we were cramped into one small room of living space and used sheets as room dividers. I wondered how they managed to put up with the noise level of barrack rooms separated only by eight foot partitions and no ceiling. I wondered how they managed common toilets and shower facilities with no doors or partitions; this disregard for personal privacy was an affront to my family’s and, probably most other, Japanese Americans’ sense of dignity. Without plumbing or cooking facilities in their one-room space, I wondered how my mother managed to care for my toddler siblings and me while making frequent trips to separate locations for water, food, laundry and bathroom needs be it night or day – some of the time through winter blizzards or summer dust storms. How did my baachan manage to cope with all this in addition to a half-paralyzed body? How did they manage the regimen of a mandated camp life: from having to eat common meals in common halls at commonly prescribed times to being required to have passes with check out/in times noted whenever they left the camp for short trips?
My aunt remembers the time Estelle Ishigo, an accomplished artist and resident of the same block building as ours, told her that she and her husband were going to go for a walk away from the camp grounds and asked, “Do you want to come along?” My aunt and a friend gladly accepted the invitation. She remembers “taking a wash basin and some bacon . . . cooking over an open fire and eating . . . the four of them. . . just to get away from it all.” They didn’t bother to get passes. The Ishigos knew of an insider’s way to get in and out of the fenced area. This was a beautiful yet brief escape from the confines of camp life for at the end of the day, and when night fell on the camp, they were still prisoners. After my long hike up Heart Mountain, my fatigue and aches dissipated in less than three days. Their hardship and aches, however, lasted for over three years. My struggle to ascent that mountain was dwarfed by all their tribulation.
As for forgetting about it and moving on. . . Moving on was never an issue. We all did because we had to. But forget about it? Forget the forced removal from our homes and incarceration by our own government without due process? The concentration camp experience was a pivotal period in Japanese American history. For me, it represents the patience, courage, and sacrifices of our Issei and Nisei forbearers who faced and overcame the obstacles of prejudice, ignorance, and injustice. It’s a part of my Japanese American heritage. It’s a part of who I am. I can’t forget about it.
The history, this camp experience, this Heart Mountain: when we were branded as aliens; herded onto trains; when we were confined in “relocation” camp, from which many went off to war, as did my uncles, while our families remained incarcerated – these were my thoughts – bits of memory buried in time, only to resurface on my second visit to Heart Mountain. In commemoration of that visit and the thoughts evoked therefrom, I chose Heart Mountain as the subject of my New Year’s greeting card for 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. Since both my mother and sister are rabbit year people who were sent to camp, I depicted them as two rabbits gazing at the mountain beyond along with the opening line of the Japanese song entitled “Furusato.” In addition, I jotted down these few words to accompany the print design:
“Chasing rabbits . . .
My old Wyoming home far away:
Home of the brave.
Land of the free.
This is what I think of when I think of Heart Mountain. It is, in essence, my memory of that other hometown.