Occasionally, Good Fortune falls upon me like a soft, Spring rain. Today was one of those days.
Some of you may know my “home base” is in San Francisco’s “Western Addition”, which, before Pearl Harbor was a substantive Japanese-American community.
At the beginning of WW II, they lost their homes, businesses, community and freedom. Family and dignity were shattered, as they were transported to detention camps in physical and psychologically inhospitable locales around the US.
Thus, living here now, it is impossible to be emotionally and intellectually unaware of a community, which, notwithstanding their abuse, learned to forgive and resuscitate their cultural values.
April, annually, brings forth “Japantown’s” Cherry Blossom Festival: a combination of serious historical significance as well as a “street party” and parade stretching over two “public” week-ends and many private and semi-private “in-week” activities.
My specific “incentive” occurred as Kaiser’s Senior Advisory Council offered an invitation to a Sunday morning brunch across a street from our small “St Francis Square” community. (Our community of 300 racially integrated, middle-class families celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Across another street is the Chinese Consulate; across another, an affluent apartment highrise complex and condominiums. Behind us, a still struggling African-American community whose roots extend back to when, as Japanese were moved out, people of color were brought into a now vacated neighborhood).
An extended preamble to our brunch, in a neighborhood hotel meeting room of some fifty tables, mostly Japanese-Americans of an age who would have lived through their dislocation. Some speakers would slip into Japanese, drawing applause and laughter, which went over some of our heads. A “Japanese jazz singer” (in her own words) invoked collective singing of a well-known Japanese tune (reminding me somehow that “Oh, Susanna” could evoke response at picnics within my own experience).
Looking beyond the singer, though, were hundreds of well-lined faces, bring back images of a TV film “Return to Manazar” and artistic and photo-essay displays of how, even in detention, this culture created communities.
My mind drifted back to a June day in 2007, when, after overnighting in Jerome/ID, headed out, on flat, two-lane ID-25 past miles of green fields, to Minidoka Internment Camp ruins.
As with Manzanar, this embarrassing abridgement of citizens’ rights has offered little incentive to maintain these camps, so it would have been easy to drive by and hardly notice, except for a small National Parks sign, and, surprisingly, two huge “Greyhound”-sized buses.
Walking back from my distant parking spot, was surprised to see multi-generational crowds emerging from these buses… silver-haired, conservatively dressed “grandparents”, casually dressed “40-Somethings”, and a small array of youngsters and teenagers.
Cameras being an “Open Sesame” for conversation, discovered groups from Portland/OR and Seattle/WA made an annual pilgrimage back to this site, which had been an enforced “home” for senior members of the tribe.
Two Park Rangers drew this crowd into fields and, with aid from memories, recreated a physical and a psychological sense of life here in this barren wilderness.
A water tower, a few wooden barracks-type buildings, an cottage-sized warehouse, and a small stone memorial are all that remain… but, somehow, memories began to rebuild a picture.
It was difficult to catch names, so “George”, a tall, slim man, with bushy white hair beginning to bald on top, in wire-rimmed glasses, spoke of his youth in the camp: episodes of swimming in a small aquatic irrigation channel, climbing to the top of the camp’s water tower, slipping beneath a wire fence to explore.
Someone else reminded “George” of the irony that, as local farms sent their young men off to war, a labor shortage brought many of the detainees into local farm fields. Reinforcing this (almost “on cue”) several station wagons approached, disgorged “occidental” seniors (who turned out to be local farming families) and a stumbling, memory-driven inter-racial “love fest” began a babel of stories and remembrances.
Despite its attraction, there comes a moment recognizing myself as “voyeur”, and that these groups deserve to share their moments sans outsiders. So, slip away… reflecting that “good fortune” visited what might otherwise been a insular, analytical assessment… and turned it into a memory of great vitality, joy and humility (can NOT imagine my Irish ancestors coping so well).
Thus, looking over a roomful of these elderly Japanese (some of who had been incarcerated at Minidoka, some 70-plus years before), honored at a brunch, seemed to be still another moment of grace in my life.