Starting from Loomis and Other Stories
Starting from Loomis and Other Stories

Starting from Loomis and Other Stories

by Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Tim Yamamura

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781607322542
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Series: Nikkei in the Americas
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 192
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Hiroshi Kashiwagi is a Nisei writer, playwright, actor, and the winner of the American Book Award in 2005 for Swimming in the American: A Memoir and Selected Writings.

Read an Excerpt

Starting from Loomis and Other Stories

By Hiroshi Kashiwagi, Tim Yamamura

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 2013 University Press of Colorado
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60732-254-2


Starting from Loomis

There were over 150 Japanese families living in Loomis. It was a large community for such a small town. In the schools, too, there were a lot of Japanese kids. I started school in 1928; we were living in the country, so I rode the bus the school provided. I spoke only Japanese then; what little English I knew I picked up during the few miserable months I spent in kindergarten.

Reading was daunting. Father helped me every night through the first two readers, laboriously sounding out the words in a heavy accent. With the third reader he threw up his hands and told me I was on my own.

I believe we Japanese children were segregated or tracked at public school. We were so happy in our school that I didn't realize we had this odd arrangement until recently. From the fifth through eighth grades I had the same teacher and the same classmates, plus or minus a few. "Mrs. Land was promoted too," we said of our teacher, who followed us every year. In our grade there were two sections — one made up of Caucasian children of ranch owners, storekeepers, officials, and other prominent persons and a sprinkling of Japanese. I don't know how the Japanese were chosen for that class; I suppose they were considered better students, though some of us in the other class made higher scores on tests.

Our section consisted of Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, and poor white kids, some of whom came to school barefoot. It was during the Depression, though we Japanese always wore clean and decent clothes — which meant no patches. Once after school, when I was home and had changed my clothes, I had on a pair of overalls with patches on my seat. A boy who was at our house called me "patch-ass." I remember how hurtful and humiliating that was.

I guess we were the "B" class. Mrs. Land, bless her, kept harping on our grammar and "pidgin English," so much so that we all learned to speak correctly, at least in her presence. Some of those who were picked on a lot said Mrs. Land didn't like Japanese. I don't think that was the case; I thought she was a good teacher, really concerned for us.

I wasn't called on much, which was lucky because I didn't always know the answers — I just pretended that I did. Even so, on my report card Mrs. Land wrote tersely, "he is intelligent and sensitive."

* * *

Most of the Japanese who lived in Loomis were farmers. A few owned their farms; they had bought them before the 1913 Alien Land Law was enacted, which forbade the ownership of land by Issei (first-generation Japanese). After 1913, some bought land in the name of their citizen children to get around this law. But most Japanese leased the farms or sharecropped.

From the time I was a child, around ten or eleven, I was out in the orchard picking fruit — plums, peaches, and pears — in the summer. I remember when I first started I was paid fifty cents a day. It was kid's pay, though I think I was doing an adult's work.

When I was paid at the end of the summer, I was called to Mr. Okusu's office, which consisted of a simple rolltop desk with piles of papers and accounting books and a chair in the corner of the parlor. As he handed me the check he said, "You worked hard for this, now spend it wisely," and I said, "Hai [yes], thank you," with, of course, a bow. I don't remember the amount of the check, but to me it seemed a princely sum. In fact, I had never had a check in my name, much less for such an amount.

* * *

We got along with the Caucasian kids at school and in the neighborhood as long as we remembered our place. We were the Japanese kids whose parents worked the farms, who lived in shacks, took furo (Japanese baths), and only wore zori (flip-flops) inside the house and to and from the bathhouse; we ate fish, rice, tofu, sushi, and other weird things.

I had a few white friends, but we were never very close. I don't remember ever going inside a hakujin (Caucasian) home, and I don't remember them coming to our house. When we had the store in town, a few came to shop, especially in the late spring or summer when Mama sold snow cones. I wonder if it was in response to the ad a fellow student (I think a girl from the eighth grade) had solicited and put in the school newsletter — "Get Mama's Snowcones at Loomis Fish Market." That was definitely a good time for the store and a busy time for Mother.

* * *

In 1941, the family was sharecropping a ranch in Penryn, a small but active town about three miles from Loomis. Father had already gone to the sanatorium because of his tuberculosis, so Mother was the head of the household and had to make the difficult decisions. Mother was around thirty-eight at the time; I know she wasn't quite forty. The running joke later was that she was never forty, always claiming to be thirty-Ânine (she was like Jack Benny in that respect).

I had recently returned from Los Angeles. My parents were fearful that I would catch my father's TB since I had lung issues as a child, so they sent me to Los Angeles to finish my last year of high school. I was back with my family again and, along with my mother and younger brother and sister, doing all I could to help the family make ends meet.

The small twenty-acre ranch where we lived was our main source of income. We were allowed a monthly advance of fifty dollars on the crop to live on. This was hardly enough, and we had to supplement it with our savings or what we earned working at other ranches in the summer. After our harvest in late August, we went to pick grapes in Lodi, a town about forty miles away, living in a labor camp for two months. We would come home with a tidy sum that would see us through the winter months.

We had a flock of New Hampshire chickens we had raised from day-old chicks. The roosters were butchered on special occasions, and the hens provided a plentiful supply of eggs; the surplus we bartered for groceries. Mother's vegetable garden was a source of fresh vegetables throughout the year.

Togan (Chinese winter melon) grew abundantly. The greenish gray melons looked like huge stones in the garden. Togan soup was our comfort food. I suppose it was a Japanese version of a Chinese dish. I make it now, trying to duplicate Mother's soup — the distinctive taste and smell of togan mixed with pork, dried shrimp, and shiitake mushrooms. I love it. It takes me back to those early days when my mother, like other resourceful Issei mothers, accomplished so much with so little. Togan soup — so warming and filling and good. I remember how happy it made me; I would have it every day if my wife would allow it.

After the fruit harvest, after all the expenses had been deducted, we shared the net income 60/40 — 60 percent for the owner and 40 percent for us, less the advance we had already spent during the year. Some years we made a few hundred dollars, but I don't remember ever making over $500.

At the time of the evacuation order, Executive Order 9066, we had been working since the end of the previous season, and we left for camp in May 1942, which was before the harvest. This meant that, except for the monthly advances, we were not fully compensated for the days we had worked — Mother, my brother, and I, who worked after school and on weekends.

When we were about to leave for camp, the boss asked us, "Are you okay? Is it okay?" He probably would have given us some of our wages if we had asked, but we didn't know at the time that it was within our right, so we told him we would be okay — we lost most of our season's wages that year. He did give us fifty dollars for leaving our pickup truck with him. He was a kind man, thoughtful and sweet. He used to bring us the Sacramento Bee every night after he and his family were through with it.

We said goodbye to the boss and transported ourselves on the pickup to Loomis, three miles away. The fruit house was the gathering place from where we boarded a bus to Arboga Assembly Center near Marysville, about ten miles away. After unloading our suitcases and duffle bags I drove the pickup to the Ford garage in town, where I left it for the boss by previous arrangement. Then I went to join my family and face the unknown future of life in camp.

* * *

I once wrote a poem that stated that on December 7, 1941, when I heard the radio report that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, I, a Japanese American, was chopping wood left-handed. I'm not sure what I was trying to say. It's true that I'm a natural-born "lefty," partly converted by my parents to be a "righty," as was customary at the time. To this day I often feel an ache, a frustration, in one hand over the other, as if one side of me is always neglected or ignored while the other is in use.

Perhaps in the poem I was trying to relate this feeling to my reaction to the devastating news. Of course, my first reaction was shock and disbelief. Soon after, though, I wondered what would happen to us Japanese Americans. Who are we? How are we perceived by others? What will happen now that war has begun?

My younger brother and sister were attending Placer Union High School, riding the school bus from Penryn to Auburn, a distance of seven miles. Though the situation was awkward, they didn't report anything unpleasant happening after Pearl Harbor. Most of the teachers were fair, telling the students that we were Americans like everyone else.

However, some teachers could barely contain their hate and prejudice, including my public speaking teacher who I thought had been my favorite. I understand that as soon as the Japanese were gone, she was active in a committee to keep the "Japs" from returning to Auburn. When I was in Arboga, I remember writing to her for advice on forming a drama club, and I never heard from her. I was certainly wrong about her.

The Nichi Bei newspaper was our primary and most reliable source of information. Nichi Bei provided an invaluable service to our community during those trying days until the very last day it was permitted to publish. Other metropolitan papers and radio stations were unreliable, filled with sensational and alarming reports — war hysteria was in the air.

As we prepared to leave for camp, Mother made two rather large duffle bags, sewing them by hand because the canvas material was too thick for her treadle sewing machine. The material was cut from the tent my father had put up when he tried to isolate himself in the pasture because of his TB. It was amazing how much those bags could hold. We were able to take far more than what would fit in an average suitcase. I still have one of the bags somewhere. It's a reminder not only of how resourceful Mother was but also of all Father was willing to sacrifice for us.

* * *

We first went by bus to Arboga Assembly Center. Barracks had been hastily built on what had been a pasture — swampland — which had been leveled by a bulldozer. The mosquitoes and gnats were vicious, especially with the women, feeding on their exposed arms and legs. I think this was when they took to wearing slacks — not as a fashion statement but as a survival mechanism.

Our quarters in the tarpapered barrack consisted of a single room with four US Army cots, mattresses, and blankets. The partitions on both sides of the room did not go to the top, so we could hear everything going on in the rest of the barrack. Of course, whatever we said or did could also be heard by the others. But I found the cot fairly comfortable and slept well enough at night.

For our meals, we lined up with our tin plates. God, how I hate food heaped on tin plates and those tables with built-in benches. Even now at picnics I dislike those tables. The food, though plentiful, was poorly prepared by well-intentioned but amateur cooks. Despite their white aprons and chef's hats, they fooled no one; they were still former farmers, students, insurance agents, fruit pickers, fishermen, and janitors — hardly cooks.

Camp was a great equalizer. Everyone, no matter what his or her background or previous position in society, was reduced to a number. It was possible to go to the shower room and run into the former president of the Japanese Association or the priest from the temple or Mr. Sasaki, the boss and owner of a sixty-acre ranch who always wore a straw hat on a summer Sunday. Without their clothes on, it was almost possible not to recognize them. In fact, that is what we all sought, anonymity, especially in the shower room.

What was most outrageous was going to the latrine, a public outhouse with accommodations for eight or so without partitions. We sat there cheek-to-cheek, so to speak. An often-heard remark was erai toko de aimasu, nah. I don't know how to translate this properly; perhaps "what a horrible place to meet" or "what a miserable situation" ... something like that.

I was quite active at Arboga. I had been out of high school for almost two years, anxiously waiting for my brother to graduate so I could go on to college. He was to have graduated in June, but he didn't quite make it as we were ordered to go in May. Freed from the drudgery of farmwork, I found life in Arboga fascinating and challenging; there were so many new people.

I threw myself into the various activities of camp life. I attended meetings of every kind, participated actively, and volunteered for almost everything. Soon I was working as an orderly at the hospital and writing for the camp newspaper, pursuing areas of interest to me. Most Nisei with any ambition hoped to become medical doctors who would serve their own people, and I was no exception; that seemed to be the only profession open to Japanese Americans. I also liked to write, even though I knew it was an impractical pursuit. I think my father was rather pleased with my writing interest as he was an inveterate letter writer and reader himself.

Letter writing was the only contact we would have with Father from that point on. We spent May to August 1942 at Arboga. Even though it meant packing and moving again, we were glad when the order came to transfer to a more permanent camp at Tule Lake.

* * *

On the train trip to Tule Lake I was assigned to be monitor of our car, responsible for about thirty passengers, as a result of my active life at Arboga. It was an easy assignment; the shades were drawn, our movements were restricted, and there was very little interaction among the people. They sat quietly, grimly, preoccupied with their thoughts, trying to endure the discomfort of the ancient train — the cobwebs overhead and the hard wooden benches. It was a long trip, a long night, and none of us slept much. At the designated time I distributed sandwiches and milk to the people, some of whom weren't interested in eating. There was baby food for mothers with infants.

When we arrived at Tule Lake in the morning, we were welcomed by a man who claimed to be our block manager. Though he was a stranger who we later thought was a bit officious, it was nice to have someone greet us when we arrived at this desolate, strange place near the northern border of California. "If you need anything, just ask me," he said. He provided us with mattresses and US Army blankets; we unpacked and settled in.

After the miserable experience in Arboga, we were excited about the flush toilets in the latrines; in fact, we made a special trip to the latrine to check them out — two rows of porcelain toilets that actually flushed. We tried them several times to see if they really worked; they did. However, the lack of partitions between the toilets and the trough urinals was disconcerting.

One of the first things I did was look for work. I took the most available job as a carpenter's helper, putting up sheetrock in the apartments. I joined a motley crew of five or six men of disparate ages. I believe I was the youngest among them. Except for the crew chief, none of us had any experience in carpentry, barely able to hit a nail straight, but we were welcomed everywhere as daiku-san (carpenters). People moved out all their furniture — cots, crude tables and chairs, hastily made from scrap lumber — and waited for us. We were served sodas and refreshments and treated rather royally, which to me was embarrassing as I thought we didn't deserve it. We were just doing a job, making the quarters more livable, finishing what the government had failed to do.

* * *

A typical day in camp would begin with the mess bell for breakfast. Getting up was routine, but breakfast, which was usually hotcakes — not my favorite, especially when they were served cold on metal platters — was not much of an inducement. I had never liked the alternative, cereals, dry or cooked, so I often skipped breakfast.

I had worked as a "schoolboy," or houseboy, in Los Angeles and acquired a taste for lamb and mutton, which was fortunate as lamb or mutton stew was a dish Nihonjin (Japanese) usually disliked. They served a lot of it in the camps. So there would often be an entire platter of the stew that I could enjoy to my heart's content at dinnertime.

My mother had sold fish at the store in Loomis, and our friend had worked for many years at the Capital Fish Company in Sacramento and had contacts with wholesalers outside. Both knew their fish well; they also knew how much Japanese loved fish, how they craved fresh fish, which was rarely served in the mess hall.

They decided to use what savings they had to start a cottage business selling fresh fish. They put in an order with Paladini Fish Company in San Francisco, and within a week a box of fish packed in ice arrived by railway express and was delivered to our door. We would leave the box outside on the shady side of the barrack, and the fish would stay fresh for several days. No matter how hot it got during the day, it was always cool or even cold in the shade.


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Table of Contents

Cover Contents Figures Acknowledgments Introduction: Hiroshi Kashiwagi: A Disquieted American Part I Starting from Loomis My Parents Sacramento Nihonmachi Nihongo Gakko Bento Three Spanish Girls Dominguez I Will Go and Return After Supper New Year’s Eve, 1940 Papa’s Hat Part II Little Theater in Camp Starting from Loomis . . . Again Swimming in the American Tuberculosis in Our Family Summer Job at Mount Baldy Nisei Experimental Group and Later Career as a Librarian Barracuda and Other Fish Tule Lake Revisited What It Means to Be Nisei The Funeral Birth Certificate Story Live Oak Store No Brakes Afterword

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