Reimagining a Father
Shuji & Evelyn Maruko - A Father Daughter Collaboration
My father drives me, car unseen, through lush meadows and evergreen. Curve after curve, the road climbs higher, through the trees, past lakes and streams. Clouds gather to fill the sky with sunset light. I wish to watch, a small request, but there is no shoulder for us to rest. We slowly stop to see clouds form a perfect pink and amber rose. Glancing back, feeling nervous and unsafe, we journey on. As light fades, the murmur of voices rise in the night. Teens, faint shadows in the darkness, are heard. Up the mountain, purple flowers bow their heads, and glow to light the road, to a small village among the trees, we go.
At the same age that I learned to drive those mountain roads, my father was ordered to an internment camp.
“The longest saddest ride of my life was the ride from our home to the Assembly Center. My brother and I ride on the back of an (army) truck loaded with our belongings. I take my last long look at our home as the truck pulls away from the curb and wave good-bye to my dog Rascal, as he lay on the lawn watching us leave. I fill my eyes with the familiar sights along Ventura Boulevard … and think about the many times we drove this road during happier times to go fishing, I keep thinking, remember these beautiful sights, it might be the last time you will ever travel down this road.”
He never saw his dog again.
The truck takes his family to the Fresno Fairground transformed into the Assembly Center, surrounded by barbed wire, men carrying rifles meet the truck at the front gate. While armed soldiers look down on them from guard towers, they are searched for contraband, and assigned to a room hastily constructed with shoddy thin unfinished walls. This day is just the first day of several years of confinement, a US citizen stripped of his freedom unable to return to his hometown and his mountain for many years.
My father writes, “Material things can be taken away at any moment, but a college education cannot.”
His philosophy was born from his evacuation from California to Arkansas, a third generation American, removed to the Jerome Relocation Camp.
Drive is also the drive of will to go on, never stop, or afraid to stop. A crash on a road, a clash of wills. I was so intense as a child. In first grade, I made my mother drive me to school early because I was afraid I didn’t do my homework even though I had already finished it in class. In high school I often thought I was so intense I would burn out before the age of forty. I didn’t know where it came from and couldn’t turn it off. Years later, when I learn more of my father’s ordeal, I begin to understand.
My father loved airplanes since he was a child. He started the first model airplane club in Fresno and competed in Nationals. He was put in the camps just one semester short of his high school graduation. His diploma is from the internment camp. My father desperately wanted to go to college, but a “Question of Loyalty” arose.
The answers to the questions would determine if he would be able to leave the internment camps for college or stay:
No 27 - Concerning the willingness to serve in the armed forces of the United States
No 28 - Concerning the allegiance to the U.S. and forswearing allegiance to the Japanese Government
The questions were confusing and caused a huge rift between father and son. My grandfather understood the questions as “Who do you love more? Your mother or your father? And you can’t say both.“ He loved both countries.
If he chose the US then he would be shooting brothers and sisters in Japan, if he chose Japan then he would be ungrateful to a country where he lived for most of his life. Faced with what seemed an impossible dilemma, he didn’t answer. My grandfather feared that the family would be executed during the war, if my father answered differently he would be the lone survivor.
My father didn’t know Japan. Would you choose to go to an unknown country or would you serve a country that strips you of your rights as a citizen? Could you swear your allegiance to a country that put you behind barbed wire and forswear your allegiance to a place that you have never been.
Only my grandmother was from Japan. My grandfather and five brothers and sisters were US Citizens of Japanese ancestry. Would she be separated from the family? My uncle was just ten years old. Would the government separate mother from son? My father was obedient to his parents, that was how he was raised. His future at stake, he ultimately answered the questionnaire the same as my grandfather, and with that, his fate was cast for several years: no college.
My father has passed away. The notes that he wrote for me over forty years ago have yellowed. I was in eighth grade when he sat down to write his memories of the internment camps for me. I did not understand the depth of his love for those mountains until I reread the notes and drove those mountain roads again last week, this time by myself, missing his calm steady voice telling me when to break and accelerate, hug the curves, breathe the crisp air. I miss him.
My grandmother told her children, “whether or not you are in camp you will go to school and get an education. Do what you love, if you fail, then you fail.” My father lived his passion for airplanes. His story is raw and made all the more powerful with reading of his loss, internal turmoil, conflict with his father, suffering, yet despite all of this, making contribution to family and country. He would eventually be released from the internment camps and go on to college, feeling awkward because he was older than the other students.
His love for airplanes led him to an engineering career in aerospace, working on top secret military projects including the release mechanism for the parachute that carried John Glenn safely back to Earth.
He said very little about the internment camps during World War II. I remember him as a quiet man with a ready smile, passive, someone who ran from conflict, I felt unprotected yet expected to be tough and excel. As an evacuee, my father lost both his freedom and his rights as a citizen. With armed guards watching, I imagine, true courage is to not speak your mind nor bring attention to one’s self. “Stay under the radar” he used to tell me when my mother was on a rampage. A bully needs to be checked but what if the bully had a gun or barbed wire. Obedience was what he was taught as a child. Silence doesn’t make the memories go away, the feelings of remain.
And yet, painful misunderstanding comes from silence. To this day, my father is labeled “trouble maker” by his own family. He was sent to Tully Lake for being an obedient son, not answering confusing questions, and giving up a chance to leave the camps early to go to college. He could have answered differently. His own brother didn’t know, still doesn’t know. “Traitor” was the label given to people who went to Tully Lake. People wanting to return to Japan were sent there. My father’s family considered going to Japan, but there was nothing left for them in Hiroshima, a foreign place for the kids. Ultimately they decided to stay, relying on the generosity of other relatives in Denver. I never saw my father embarrassed or ashamed for being sent to Tully Lake. He had nothing to apologize for.
I imagine most people’s families sit around the dining table and chat about their day. My father spoke nothing about his work. Years later after his work was declassified, I found out he was one of the engineers that worked on creating night vision goggles. So much of what we have in our society, comes from silent workers that we will never know.
While working on another project, my father told us that he had to confront his boss. He was a “fixer.” Someone that is brought in to make things work when the engineering designs aren’t coming together. Although the company was under a deadline he said, “Do you want this to work, or do you want this to crash like the Space Shuttle.” Meticulous with heavy responsibilities on his shoulders, he spoke for the safety of the military personnel using the equipment his company designed. I was very quiet as a child, afraid of people, afraid to speak up for myself when things were unfair. Life events have a way of staying deep under the surface, passing from one generation to the next, until someone opens them up.
Having lived past the age of my father’s internment and watched our lives unfold, my limited eighth grade understanding expands. How my view of my father and my own life has changed understanding a young man in turmoil, I grieve for his loss and suffering, touched by the strength and perseverance he needed to survive. No wonder my father never responded when I was considering a career in dance. Not much was said, it was out of the question, I would go to college, grad school, and take care of the family. I see now, how that must have hurt him to hear his own daughter consider a different path. His sense of duty and accomplishment achieved with seeing his daughter through grad school. Had I understood, I think I would have had more patience with him, with less eye rolling as he bragged. Somehow the love for my father, grief for his losses, and the ties to a lost of part of my life in living his dream must coexist.
Feeling the depth of pain my father must have had to relive his worst days, the notes he left behind are a treasure of love for me to reimagine him in a new way and in so doing, see my own life in a new way. The family was given a month to prepare. As much as possible was sold at my grandparents mom and pop shop, and the rest was put into storage. When they returned, whatever was left behind had been vandalized or stolen. I can see how staying silent about the past has affected me, carrying that anxiety of loss of freedom and poverty. They recede replaced by the opposite, wanting more to fill the void.
I used to think that it was unfair that my father could live his passion for airplanes and I was encouraged to take the safe route. Now I understand his pride when I earned my doctorate. I never appreciated my own accomplishment, it was just another step. As I open up my father’s past, I can say that I am living my dream too, understanding the mind, moving towards health within our individual selves and our society, true freedom.
Who can possibly choose between a mother or father, family or country? What happens when we as a nation say “no” and reduce the freedoms of our citizens that we have fought so hard to achieve? What great potential are we turning down when we allow fear to rule. What can be done to ensure that our country thrives and people have opportunity to pursue their dream, and to contribute in the way they were meant to contribute?