Made To Order
By Margaret Kokka
Both of my brothers and I were born in the midst of the Great Depression (between 1931 and 1936). My father had worked as the foreman of a maintenance crew for the Union Pacific Railroad Company and they provided company housing located in Nacin, an isolated rural area in eastern Oregon, miles apart from friends and neighbors. Our playground was the wind swept dusty backyard dotted with scrub tumbleweeds or the nearby swift flowing Deschutes River where we would wade along its banks. By the time my older brother was 5, he’d wandered over the surrounding hills, often accompanied by the family goat. Rather than the dangers from traffic or crime associated with the cities, the perils he faced were prodding and disturbing; a sleeping rattler or nearly losing his footing at the edge of a ravine.
Our daily routine was broken with occasional train trips to Portland often born out of necessity. A visit to the dentist to pull a tooth or three separate visits to the local midwife practicing out of a hotel room. Once a family vacation to Crater Lake.
Even after we moved to Redmond, then a small town, necessitated by my older brother entering first grade, the railroad company transferred my father several more times until we finally settled in Vancouver, Washington.
Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 ordering the evacuation of Japanese American on the West Coast.
This time rather than the railroad company that employed my father, it was the US government issuing the directive to move. So, in 1942, my family, along with thousands (a total of 120,000 nationwide) of Japanese Americans, was transported courtesy of the US Government into an assembly center just outside the outskirts of Portland, Oregon.
This time this move was different. This time I had a numbered tag pinned to my outer clothing. This time I noticed young uniformed soldiers standing guard at the entrance of the barbed wire fence.
Inside the assembly center we joined the hundreds of other Japanese American families jammed together sleeping on make shift mattresses stuffed with straw with only olive drab woolen army blankets strung on wires providing a semblance of privacy. Reminiscent of the Noh dramas where black-clad actors huddled at the rear of the stage and the audience mutually accepted the pretense that they were invisible even as they moved the scenery. And so these blankets and the open horse stalls lent a poor illusion of sheltering each family unit’s privacy. During the night our ears were assaulted by the cries of colicky babies or overhearing painful marital arguments as heated voices bounced against the cavernous ceilings of the horse pavilion.
Soon my mother, father, my two brothers, and I along with other families were shepherded onto train cars. We recall an overnight sleepless train ride, papered windows blocking our vision as we chugged toward yet another home at an unknown destination.
As we disembarked from the bus which deposited us at the gate of Camp Minadoka, located near Twin Falls, Idaho, we were met with hundreds of black tarred barracks arranged in rectangular blocks, each block configured around a kitchen installed in a central mess hall filled with long wooden tables and benches. Food was served cafeteria style as we waited in long lines. In the middle of each block were communal bathrooms, showers and laundry facilities. Over the next 3 ½ years our family’s address was Block 35, Barrack 6, Apartment C and our assigned identification number was stenciled on our suitcases and all other personal property. Until the internees planted flowers, shrubs and spread gravel between the barracks, we were subject to gusts of desert sand prickling our noses or at times in the midst of swirling dust storms, we lost our bearings as we struggled to find our apartment among the hundreds of identical barracks. During the evenings we could hear and feel the hot desert wind searching for an opening under the window sill often awakening with the taste of the gritty ashy residue of dust left on our dry lips.
Living in such close quarters with hours of idle time each day, fostered a situation ripe for rumors, gossip and with everyone in each other’s business. We knew about the loud quarrelsome couple living behind us, we knew about the elderly woman suffering from dementia, lost and wandering about in the middle of the night, we knew about the young mother when she screamed and slapped her toddler who had smeared his feces into the crib slats. However, after the initial bewilderment and difficult transition to this rupture in their lives, the internees began organizing their lives. Block managers were elected, a local newsletter was produced and distributed, experienced fellow internees taught classes in flower arrangement, dance and sewing and jobs were created—working in the mess halls, laboring on the surrounding farms, school and hospitals were established.
Perhaps the group who was the most psychologically marooned were the fathers who lost their livelihood, who were no longer providing for nor protecting their families , who lost their authority and their voices. Control over their lives was given by default to their adult sons who had the education and language skills necessary to weigh factors affecting their families’ futures. These were also the young men forced to reach torturous personal decisions. Initially Japanese American men were not drafted but eventually they were given a choice to volunteer for segregated units. Would they volunteer as their families were imprisoned behind barbed wires? They were questioned by the US government as to their loyalty to this country. Although their sacrifices have been well documented in the history of the 442 unit with their motto of “Go for broke,” there were young men who refused to volunteer as long as their civil rights had been violated by the forcible internment of their families. These young men were imprisoned for following their conscience. This created a long bitter divide between these two groups but has basically dissipated as time and death laid this dispute to rest. By the end of WWII, these GI (government issued) communities were emptied of their inhabitants and the desert wind, hot sun and sagebrush once again reclaimed these lands.
Although that government action remains only a blip in the history of our country, this blip has been resuscitated and the controversy flares anew, a different time, a different group of immigrants, different circumstances. And my hope is for a different outcome.