I have to admit, I love joking to people that my parents were born during The Great Depression, I married a Baby Boomer, and I AM a Generation X. Now, talk about trying to fill-in the generational gaps! Although to put another spin on this claim, my parents were born at the tail end of The Depression and had us kids in their late 30’s. My husband was born near the cut-off “Boomer” line and is only thirteen years older than me. So really, in retrospect, the “shock” appeal looses its fun and stun. Yet, there is still something to be noted about this link, this connection, between three generations. I do think people take it for granted or just simply disregard history because all too often we are concerned with the now. And I’m not the one who wishes to lament over humanity’s past. That’s not my point. The questions I’m trying to evaluate are these: How closely are we linked to history, and thus, to each other?
I remember when our boxy television set only had eleven channels and years prior to the cable box crossing the threshold of our home, one day I stopped turning the channels at an odd image. I had seen black and white reflections flicker in the glass screen before, so that wasn’t the odd part. And normally I would keep passing these boring, colorless reflections in search of cartoons. What stopped me were these men, who wore bowl-like hats, ran in fields and ditches carrying tall, thin guns. And in these fields, marred with coiled-wire fences and charred trees, were men laying in the mud, lifeless. I didn’t like what I saw. I knew the lifeless bodies meant that these men were dead.
But I continued to watch a few minutes longer. It was more than curiosity. For some odd reason, I felt a connection towards this reflection. And I began to wonder in the middle of all this action, when did they have time to go to the bathroom? Or what happened to them when they got sick because it was obvious they didn’t have any beds to rest in. I know I certainly didn’t like being sick, being stuck in bed, and not having the energy to play and having only your thoughts to keep you busy- that is if you weren’t preoccupied wishing the pains of your body would go away. At the age of six that was all I understood.
Years later I read a book about English children that were sent to America because their homes were relentlessly being bombed by foreigners. They were separated from their families so that they could remain safe. The very idea of war and separation was as foreign to me as planet Mars. But at the age of eleven that was all I understood.
Then at the age of fourteen I came across another book about a young girl searching for her real father, who was Japanese-American, only to discover he had been imprisoned in an American internment camp during WWII. I had never heard of these camps up to that point in my life. In Europe, yes, but not here. Not in America. That was it. I wanted to understand a hell of a lot more!
So in the year of 1988, (the year that the Olympics were held in South Korea, the Iran-Contra scandal swelled the media, Jesse Jackson ran for president, Sonny Bono was elected mayor of Palm Springs, and Jimmy Swagger stepped down from the pulpit thus sparring his scandal with a prostitute,) I went to the library to begin my journey.
Many of the books I had read about that subject matter were difficult for me to understand at that time since they were written at an academia level. It was immensely frustrating. And sadly, until college, I read very little as TV and movies gripped a stronger influence. But I quarried anyway. Three years later I even put together a 30 minute mini-documentary for a class project and then wrote a short story. Nine years later I expanded that story into a novel.
Why? I don’t have any Japanese ancestry in my family tree. I live in the Midwest and grew-up in a medium size town where cultural diversity is a bit underdeveloped. My reason is simple: I don’t want to continue to live in a conical world. Consciousness does not develop and mature by existing in a frozen pond, therefore after I had graduated college in 2000, my husband and I drove to Bainbridge Island, just on the tail skirt of Seattle, Washington, to pursue my journey. I already had made a couple of contacts to set up interviews; contacts I found researching on the internet.
My first interview was with a dentist, Frank, who is second generation, although in the Japanese tradition he is considered third generation, a Sansei. Frank, much to my surprise, was tremendously open about his experiences, from what he could remember since he was only two when he and his family were evacuated. He remembered the “ping-ping-ping” sounds of the train transporting them to a place where there were rumors of large mosquitoes awaiting them there to suck them dry. He remembered chasing tumble weeds down the dusty streets. And the time he became stuck in the mud, being too small to get himself out, crying until one of his uncles popped him out, leaving his boots rooted in the mud.
Frank was also candid about the Japanese-American community itself, including their own prejudices and insecurities as well as their resilience, because after all, as Mark Twain had simply put it: “There is a great deal of human nature in people.” Then, with a smile, he told me that he was an extra on the movie set Snow Falling Over Cedars during the big evacuation scene, (which you can see him standing directly behind the main character as she tearfully stands on the ferry boat.) After the interview, Frank supplied me with a long list of others who had consented with telling their stories in the past but only three out of the list were willing to speak with me. I took no offence given that I was a stranger. For instance, one told me over the phone that he had no further interests with additional interviews and, to confirm his point about his past, he revealed that he had burned his army uniform after his discharge. All I can say to that is “wow.”
So, the three who had agreed were family and a good friend of Frank’s; all of whom were incredibly gracious and humble that words fail to provide justice for their sincerity. Kay, his cousin, spoke with me with such ease that I felt like we had been friends for years and, ironically, had traveled through my home state once. Lily, his sister, cooked lunch for me and my husband in her home. Gerald, his friend, not only took us out to dinner but also bought our meals. All I can say to that is “wow.”
After my Bainbridge Island trip, I continued to keep in touch by sending out holiday cards with updates of the progression of my novel, including the endless rejection letters! They would write back, but Gerald would always call. He preferred that kind of connection instead of writing. Bad penmanship, he had claimed. I enjoyed the conversations about personal matters such as family or when I still had questions about camp life. This went on for seven years. On the seventh year when I didn’t hear from Gerald, I did start to worry a bit. I procrastinated calling him, justifying my life as being too busy to pick up the phone for a ten minute conversation. Then one Sunday afternoon I finally did. His daughter, Kathy, answered and had to tell me that he had passed after struggling with a terminal illness. I didn’t even know he was sick. I spoke with Kathy for a good while, (it was a pleasant conversation about her father’s life,) and after we hung-up, I felt a knot in my stomach. For five minutes or so the tightness made me a little nauseous while I stood in my kitchen, immobilized.
I didn’t know Gerald very well, but the time I spent interviewing him and the yearly phone calls during the holidays definitely linked a relationship. And I felt saddened. Not only for the loss of Gerald, (or Gerry as everyone on the island called him, this kind hearted man who did not let his experiences make him bitter or self-destructive,) but also for the loss of a dying generation.
The Bainbridge Island trip established an important experience. Not only did my husband and I visit one of the most breathtaking countryside in the U.S., but it was even more vital meeting those who had endured the imprisonment. To collect the photos, the interviews, the documents from the historic society and then to link these images with the physical surroundings greatly enhanced the relationship between the past and present. Because the past is full of links, it makes recognizing its patterns easier to identify with.
For instance: I met a woman, originally from Zimbabwe, (remember it was once known as Rhodesia,) but had lived in South Africa, who she and her husband had designed the landscape for Nelson Mandela’s home after he became president. My sister was friends with an English woman whose Polish grandparents knew and exchanged business with Oscar Schindler, you know, from Schindler’s List. I knew a receptionist of a local newspaper who once opened her home to a foreign exchange student from Brazil whose grandfather authorized Adolph Hitler’s German citizenship. (Keep in mind that Hitler was Austrian, not German; much like with another misconception that Napoleon was actually Italian, not French.) My writing teacher grew up in the slums of New York City and, in his quest to overcome poverty, violence and drug addition, had met and became close friends with Mario Puzo, the father of The Godfather. And then there’s my father who, in the summer of 1955, was on both the Ed Sullivan and Bob Hope shows!
The “pattern” I’m referring to is somewhat like a Mosaic window where the past and present are welded in a colorful design. The concept of time does seem to extend beyond the traditional viewpoint because it does hold a connection, this humanistic “link.” All we have to do is recognize it and understand its value.