‘Over the past three years, the desert had become Hiroshi’s home. Hacienda seemed very far away to him, both in terms of time and distance, and he didn’t want to go back.’ An excerpt from Gene Oishi’s Fox Drum Bebop
June 5, 2015
The following is an excerpt from Gene Oishi’s novel Fox Drum Bebop, published by Kaya Press. Read our interview with Oishi about the Japanese American story beyond the wartime experience of internment.
When Hiroshi walked out of his barracks one morning and into the numbing winter cold of the Arizona desert, the first thing he saw was a hinomaru, the blazing sun emblem of the Japanese Empire. The huge, homemade flag—a big red ball on a white sheet—flapped grandly atop the Fuji-shaped butte that overlooked the camp.
For Hiroshi, the hinomaru had the feel of both nostalgia and danger. Before the war, it had often symbolized a harmless bit of fun, as when Mother would sometimes put a red pickled plum on bed of white rice for a “hinomaru lunchbox.” Or it could be a frightening harbinger of war, and, after Pearl Harbor, a token of evil. Its sudden appearance above the camp was both funny and scary, and as Hiroshi joined his schoolmates on their way to school, he couldn’t stop looking at it.
By the time the children got to school—essentially barracks that had been partitioned off into classrooms—the older kids on the high school side were bunched together and talking excitedly. Some were laughing; others were outraged and shouting at one another. No one could figure out if the flag was a sign of insurrection or simply a dangerous and foolish joke.
On the elementary school side, everything seemed normal, but when the bell clanged and Hiroshi and his classmates walked into their fourth-grade classroom to take their places, Miss Benson called him and Mitsuko to her desk.
Miss Benson was one of a handful of hakujin teachers at the school. Hiroshi had heard her described as a Quaker, but neither he nor his friends knew what that meant. She lived like the other hakujin in a separate compound outside the gates.
“I’m so sorry about what happened last night,” Miss Benson said.
Mitsuko seemed to understand. She kept her head bowed and said in a voice that was barely audible, “That’s all right, Miss Benson.”
The teacher took Mitsuko in her arms and kept repeating, “I’m so sorry, Mitsuko. I’m so sorry about your father.”
Hiroshi backed up a step, fearing he would be next. He had no idea what Miss Benson was talking about.
“Hiroshi,” Miss Benson said, turning to him. “I’m so sorry about your brother.”
“Mickey’s okay,” Hiroshi said. “He’s coming home.”
“I mean your brother Yukio.”
“They arrested him last night. Didn’t you know?”
When Hiroshi had gone to bed the night before, Yukio had not been with them. And when he awoke that morning, Yukio’s bed had not been slept in. But that was not unusual. Yukio often spent the night with his bachelor friends on the other side of camp.
“I’m so sorry,” Miss Benson said once again and extended her arms to Hiroshi, who backed away, turned, and ran out of the classroom. He didn’t trust Miss Benson. She rarely smiled and was cold toward the children. She would give the class arithmetic problems to work on, or have them write letters to President Roosevelt about how good America was, and while the children were working at their benches, she would stare out the window, looking as if she were about to cry. The children thought Miss Benson didn’t like being with Japanese children and was thinking of home, of being with her own people. So it came as a shock when she hugged Mitsuko. Hiroshi was not about to let her do that to him.
When he reached his barracks, Mother was sitting on her bed and talking to Sammy in soft, furtive whispers. She held a small handkerchief in her hands that she kept folding and unfolding, using it to dab her eyes.
“Where’s Yukio?” Hiroshi blurted out as he burst into the room. “The teacher said the police took him. Did he put up the flag, Sammy? Did Yukio put up the flag?”
“Such a foolish thing to do,” Mother said under her breath, as if talking to herself.
“The flag has nothing to do with it, Mother,” Sammy said. “That was just an act of defiance. They were going to be arrested anyway. The Seinen-kai was right. There was a list, and Yukio was on it.”
But Mother was hardly listening. “So foolish,” she kept saying. “Such a foolish thing to do.”
Only then did it occur to Hiroshi to wonder how Miss Benson had known.
A year later, the startling sight of the hinomaru flying atop the butte was still clear in Hiroshi’s memory. Sammy might have been right that its disturbing appearance by itself had no lasting importance, but in Hiroshi’s mind, it marked the beginning of the family breaking apart. Yukio never came back. He was sent to Tule Lake, a camp for “disloyals.” Mickey joined the Army to fight in Italy, and when summer came, Sachi left for a college in Minnesota.
By the time winter arrived once more, only Mother, Sammy, and Hiroshi remained.
With the departure of the political activists, the prison camp that been a hotbed of resentment, rage, and violence became a placid settlement in which the people had only the heat, cold, and boredom to contend with.
The soldiers who had initially guarded the camp had over time dwindled in number, and by end of the first winter, they were gone entirely. With no one to prevent it, the fences and guard towers came down, one piece here, another piece there. The barbed wire was dismantled and used to protect chicken coops against desert predators or as part of evocative sculptures representing camp life. The wood from the guard towers was turned into baseball backstops and basketball courts, and a stage was built for movies and kabuki performances. In Hiroshi’s block, as elsewhere, men built private shower and toilet stalls in the women’s latrine. A full-blown pavilion replaced the gazebo by the showers. Throughout the camp, barracks were adorned with trellises covered with morning glories and lush green castor plants. Fresh vegetables were grown for the mess halls, and poultry and pigs were raised for meat and eggs. Eventually, even a few fishponds dotted the grounds of the once desolate prison camp.
With the fences gone, the desert became a full-time playground for Hiroshi and his friends. They climbed the buttes, hunted Gila monsters, rousted brightly colored desert birds out of sagebrush, chased and scooped up horny toads that would go to sleep on the palms of their hands when their bellies were stroked.
But the peace and quiet that descended on the camp during this period was hard on Sammy. Yukio was gone. So was Jack, the hundred percent Jap who, in Sammy’s mind, was more American than any Nisei he had ever met. Sammy missed even the political dissension that had split the camp; it had at least been relevant, keeping the camp in the real world.
That spring, the once dangerous and hostile wasteland became stunningly beautiful, with sagebrush sprinkled with white flowerets, the buttes ablaze with yellow and red blooms of cholla cacti. It was around that time that Father was released from the Army prison camp in Montana. He was thin and looked worn out, but encouraged by his wife and old neighbors, he soon recovered some of his old vigor. He had been a prominent figure in the Japanese communities in California, and his name was well known among the older people still left in the camp. They elected him block manger. After that, he would spend his time in a room in one of the barracks that served as his office, playing go and entertaining lovers of the Japanese theater with his narrative chanting. His favorite piece at the time was Kanshusei, the heroic tale of a loyal retainer who sacrifices his own son in service to his lord. Small audiences would gather to hear him, and the women who attended would wipe tears from their faces as the tragic tale reached its climax. From time to time, he and other block managers would even throw joint parties that featured home-brewed sake, which was said to be of prewar quality.
Father had long recognized Isamu as perhaps his most intellectually gifted son. It pained him to see him sitting alone next to the shower house day after day. As block manager, he arranged to have a bridge built over the drainage ditch so Sammy could wheel himself to the canal. From there, he could look out over the landscape. After that, Sammy would often sit under a willow tree, spending hours reading or looking out into the desert and into the flowing waters of the canal. For a time, Kaz sometimes kept him company there, but after a while, she too left—to Tule Lake to be with Yukio.
Surprisingly, once Kaz left, Mr. Nakashima became the closest thing that Sammy had to a companion. He would often come to sit with Sammy by the canal, and the two would talk and smoke Bull Durham tobacco, which Mr. Nakashima taught Sammy how to roll. The pair would get odd looks from people, who no doubt wondered what in the world the cripple and the old eccentric could have in common. What no one knew was that they had become acquainted in Hacienda before the war.
Yukio had been the first to see in Mr. Nakashima a kindred spirit, a man in a state of continuous warfare with himself, and Sammy had often accompanied his brother on his visits to Mr. Nakashima. In camp, Yukio had continued to be one of the few people who would visit now and then with the old man. With Yukio gone, Mr. Nakashima sought out Sammy to talk to.
Mr. Nakashima had come to Hacienda as an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. Farmers like Father had been alarmed at first, but soon saw that Mr. Nakashima posed no threat to them. Times were hard, and farm workers were not about to jeopardize their livelihood by joining a union. The IWW itself was strapped for funds, and Mr. Nakashima had to find fieldwork to support himself.
Yukio had struck up an acquaintance with Mr. Nakashima shortly after returning from Japan. He had come across Mr. Nakashima when the old man was staging a quixotic and unauthorized boycott against gambling in Nakano’s Pool Hall. Yukio, who had read German philosophy while at Tokyo University, had a passing familiarity with Marx, so when he saw Mr. Nakashima passing out Marxist leaflets, he’d stopped to talk. That was the beginning of something like a friendship between the two. Mr. Nakashima was deeply grateful to have an interlocutor with whom he could expound upon his views with some chance of being understood. Yukio, though still in his early twenties, was intrigued by this old man who, like him, seemed to belong neither to Japan nor America.
Mr. Nakashima’s protest lasted only two days. It ended after a committee of elders, Yukio’s father among them, approached him to point out that Nakano’s hana tables were a better alternative to the Chinese game of fantan; whereas fantan was often manipulated by clever Chinese croupiers who used slight of hand to cheat the stupid Japanese, hana was a game of skill. Furthermore, hana kept Japanese money within the Japanese community. Such arguments had little impact on Mr. Nakashima’s way of thinking, but they did give him a face-saving way to end a demonstration he had begun impetuously, sparked by one of his fleeting, alcohol-induced inspirations. A grateful Mr. Nakano had subsequently delivered a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label to the rooming house where Mr. Nakashima resided.
Yukio and Sammy were surprised to see the bottle of Scotch still standing unopened on the shelf above Mr. Nakashima’s bed when they visited him for the first time several days later.
“Ah, Kono-kun,” Mr. Nakashima said, addressing Yukio collegially. “You brought your brother. Good. Good.”
Mr. Nakashima said he was fifty-eight, but he looked older. His face and body had been ravaged by alcohol and a hard life. He seemed as worn out as the threadbare and faded clothes he wore. His face was bony and lined and withered like driftwood, but his eyes were bright with vigor, intelligence, and humor.
Mr. Nakashima’s room was small, eight by ten feet, and lit by a lone naked light bulb that hung from a low ceiling. Still, despite its fetid air, it was remarkably neat. Even the empty quart bottles of beer along the bottom of one wall were lined up in an orderly row. The only decoration in the room was a tattered and fading poster that showed two distinguished-looking hakujin men with full white beards. Below the two heads, a parade of apes and half-apes evolved progressively into a man who marched erect, waving the rising sun flag of Japan.
Mr. Nakashima noticed Sammy staring at the poster.
“Do you like it?” he asked. “It was never used. It was made for the Social Revolutionary Party of San Francisco in 1907. I was a member—very young, very idealistic, wild. I even tended toward anarchism in those days. The white socialists didn’t want us, so we formed our own party.
Yukio, who had also been studying the poster, said, “Nakashima-san, I think I know who those men are. Marx and Darwin.”
“Yes, yes, Marx and Darwin,” Mr. Nakashima said excitedly, “but you need to hear the whole story. You have to understand our frustration. In Japan, we were students at the best universities. You were at Todai. You know what it was like. We were intellectuals and free thinkers. We were socialists, anarchists.”
“Not I,” Yukio said. “I was there to study and to learn—to honor my family and my father.”
“Ah yes, a very noble sentiment. I once felt that way myself. But at the university, my eyes were opened. Descartes, Kant, Schopenhauer. ‘Dekansho,’ we called them. ‘Dekansho, Dekansho, half the year we live with them, the other half we sleep.’ That was our drinking song. They were difficult, but we persevered because they taught us how to think. Surely you read them too, Kono-kun.”
“Yes, of course, but I didn’t really understand them. I was more interested in science and mathematics.”
“And Marx and Engels?”
“A little. I only read them because it was forbidden. I read the Manifesto in secret,” Yukio said with a shy grin. “It was like political pornography.”
“Pornography! Shame on you, Kono-kun. But I know what you mean. Reading Marx for the first time is like having a woman for the first time. A whole new world opens up to you. Yes, that was how it was.”
Mr. Nakashima went on tell the story of Japanese socialists in America at the turn of the century. “We couldn’t get real jobs in America, so we worked as domestic servants for people with no real learning, without a grain of social conscience. But what we wanted was to organize the immigrant Japanese. No easy task. Most of them were peasants. The educated among them came from the petite bourgeoisie—no offense, Kono-kun, but people like your father.”
“My father is a learned man,” Yukio protested. “And a patriot.”
“Exactly. Patriotism. Reverence for the Emperor. Those were our main obstacles. Are you a patriot, Kono-kun?”
Yukio did not reply immediately.
“I, I don’t know,” he said finally.
“Ah,” Mr. Nakashima said, beaming at him. “You don’t know. That’s progress. If the Japanese in San Francisco had been intelligent and courageous enough to question kokutai, we might have had a chance. The Japanese constitution, the entire Japanese government, you must realize, Kono-kun, is founded on backwardness and superstition.”
“Nakashima-san,” Yukio said, looking shaken, “If you said such things in Japan, you would be beaten, maybe even killed. Even in Hacienda.”
“I know, I know. I know how to be careful. This old fox has learned to see snares in tall grass. But there was a time when I was not so wary. You wanted to know about the poster. Some of us in the Social Revolutionary Party thought we needed to dramatize our cause. Revolutionaries can withstand persecution; we can stand up to physical and verbal attacks. What we cannot stand is being ignored. So we nailed a letter on the door of the Japanese Consulate. We said science shows that all humans are descended from monkeys. The Emperor, too! We are all, therefore, equal. The Emperor and all Japanese! All humans are descendants of monkeys! All the same, all equal, all brothers!”
Yukio and Sammy gasped in unison.
“Yes, calling the Emperor a monkey probably went too far,” Mr. Nakashima said, then added with a wicked glint, “even if it is true. When word got out about our letter, the Japanese community was very angry. No—more than angry. We had spat in their faces. We had urinated on the graves of their ancestors. Some toughs, good-for-nothing hoodlums, raided our office soon after. They were gamblers, thieves, men with no moral or social conscience, but they claimed to be outraged by what we had done. I think they were hired by the Japanese Consulate. They beat up two of our comrades who happened to be in the office that day. They set fire to all our books, pamphlets, and leaflets. The only reason that poster on the wall wasn’t destroyed in the raid was because it was in my room. It’s probably the only one that survived.”
After that first visit, Yukio and Sammy dropped by to see Mr. Nakashima several more times, always bringing beer or whisky with them, much to the old man’s delight. Yukio in particular was interested in Mr. Nakashima’s take on Japanese aggression in China and peace negotiations with the United States. Much to their surprise, the old Marxist defended Japan.
“Japan’s imperialism is petty,” he insisted. “The imperialism threatening world peace is that of the West—Europe and America.”
Several days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Yukio and Sammy visited Mr. Nakashima to see if he was all right. They were also curious to hear what he might have to say about the war. They found him drunk and slumped on his bed. Empty beer bottles were scattered on the floor, as were his books and papers. Even his beloved poster had been taken down and ripped to pieces. Alarmed, Yukio and Sammy asked him what was wrong. He took a long time to respond.
“The fools,” Mr. Nakashima said finally in a soft voice. “A minor power like Japan attacking the United States. We don’t have a chance. Japan will be destroyed, utterly and totally destroyed.”
Then he put his face in his hands and began to sob. Yukio and Sammy, not knowing what to say, quietly let themselves out of the room.
The next time the brothers saw Mr. Nakashima was the day the Japanese were herded out of Hacienda under military guard. They were astonished but pleased to witness Mr. Nakashima’s confrontation with the military policeman on the train. He seemed to have recovered some of his spunk.
In the camp, Mr. Nakashima’s behavior turned even more bizarre. He began talking about how he’d heard on an imaginary short-wave radio that Japan was winning the war. When Yukio confronted him about this, he said he was only trying to keep up morale.
“People like your mother are never going to believe that Japan is losing,” he said. “They need to have something to believe in.”
It was the old labor organizer in him talking. He said he was genuinely worried about what would happen to them, not when Japan won, but when she lost and America had rescued and repatriated her nationals and prisoners of war.
“What will America do then with the Japanese prisoners in these concentration camps? We won’t be needed anymore. That’s what worries me.”
After Yukio’s arrest and removal to Tule Lake, Mr. Nakashima became deeply dispirited. He had no one to talk to but Sammy.
“My life has been devoted to bringing down the capitalist system,” he mused, “and now I sit here in the middle of a desert, helpless and forgotten. When the war started, agents of American capitalism ignored me. Me! Who had devoted my life to bringing them down! Instead, they arrested Buddhist priests, Japanese-school teachers, shopkeepers, businessmen, rich farmers like your father. They arrested the bourgeoisie—pitifully harmless people. They arrested their own kind!”
The old man’s only other activity seemed to be solitary walks in the desert. He would go out wearing a straw hat and carrying a walking stick, a canvas water bag slung over one thin and bony shoulder. It didn’t seem to make much difference to him whether it was in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. He had nowhere else to be.
The one other person who provided relief from Sammy’s solitude after Yukio, Jack, and Kaz left was Hiroshi. The boy was safe for the moment, apparently happy playing with his friends in his desert playground, but he also loved stories and had a natural and instinctive curiosity that Sammy enjoyed feeding. Hiroshi loved the rhymes and rhythms of poetry, but he also wanted to know what the poems meant, what the poet was trying to say. His latest favorite was Edgar Allen Poe. He liked “Annabel Lee,” but Sammy said it was too depressing, so Hiroshi took to reciting “The Raven” instead.
“That’s good, Hiro,” Sammy said after an especially dramatic reading. “You gave it a lot of feeling.”
“I don’t get it,” Hiroshi said. “Why does the raven keep saying ‘Nevermore’?”
“It means the man’s never going to be happy again. The raven is fate speaking to him. You know what fate is?”
“Yeah, maybe. What do you think it is?”
“Fate is the same as destiny. What’s going to happen is going to happen. We all have our destiny, and we can’t change it. We’re just stuck with it. It sticks with us forever.”
Hiroshi thought about that for a moment. Then he asked, “What’s my destiny, Sammy?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe you’re too young to have a destiny. I think you can still make your own.”
“Okay,” Hiroshi said, brightening up. “I’m going to be a football star like Mickey.”
In the early disorder that had accompanied their dislocation and internment, the children had run about like packs of wild dogs with very little oversight. School days were random, the hours irregular, the days almost indistinguishable. This state of affairs lasted only until the beginning of that first winter, when Mr. Steelmann, the principal, arrived. After that, classes began and ended precisely on time, and strict discipline was imposed—and enforced when needed by a two-foot paddle Mr. Steelmann kept hanging in plain sight on the wall of his office.
Hiroshi was among the first to feel its sting.
Kachi, who lived in Hiroshi’s block, had started it. None of boys in the block liked Kachi, who was always picking fights. One day, before school, he said to Hiroshi, “Your brother was a troublemaker. That’s why they arrested him. He’s a Jap.” “He’s not,” Hiroshi retorted lamely. He wanted to walk away, but Kachi wouldn’t let up. “And your other brother’s a Jap too. They just didn’t arrest him because he’s a cripple.”
“You take that back,” Hiroshi said. “You take that back,” he repeated, clenching his fists.
“He is,” Kachi said. “He’s a hundred percent Jap, just like his crazy friend.”
Hiroshi struck Kachi in the face, and soon both were wrestling on the ground. When Mr. Steelmann arrived on the scene, he grabbed Hiroshi under his arms and lifted him off Kachi. Inside the principal’s office, Hiroshi refused to say what had caused the fight, as did Kachi. Unfortunately, what Mr. Steelmann had seen was Hiroshi punching Kachi in the face, so Hiroshi was the one who got the paddling. Leaning forward with his arms outstretched on Mr. Steelmann’s desk, Hiroshi got six smarting whacks. Kachi smirked at the tears that Hiroshi couldn’t stop from welling up. That, for Hiroshi, was a worse punishment than the paddling itself.
Mr. Steelmann was a strict disciplinarian, but he meant well by the children. He established a special mess hall where the elementary school children could eat their lunches. It served more fresh vegetables than the regular mess halls did, and the children were even allowed to go back for second helpings.
He also hired Horse Fukuda to be the physical education teacher for the kids. Horse had gotten his nickname while playing fullback at a junior college in California before the war. “I played against your brother in high school,” he told Hiroshi once. “He was a great runner. Too bad he stopped playing.”
For gym class, Horse divided the boys into four teams that played football or baseball according to the season: the Seals, the Lions, the Bears, and the Tigers. In memory of Mickey, he had Hiroshi play halfback for the Seals.
Under the prodding of Mr. Steelmann, Horse also started a Cub Scout troop. None of the boys could afford a full uniform, but all of them managed to get the official blue and yellow caps and scarves.
To earn merit badges, the boys would often go out into the desert with a compass and draw maps or identify birds, lizards, and plants. According to Horse, the merit badge awarded for learning how to cook was a particularly important one. So once a week, a team of three or four boys would join Horse at the school mess hall and cook him a breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, and toast. The school mess hall was especially well supplied thanks to Mr. Steelmann’s influence, but even there no one ever got bacon and eggs for breakfast.
When it was Hiroshi’s turn, he and two other boys served Horse his coffee with cream and sugar as he sat alone at one of the long tables in the mess hall. Horse sipped the coffee carefully, rolling his tongue in his mouth before saying, “Very good.”
Coffee was followed by a plate of bacon and eggs fried sunny-side-up, as Horse had requested. The boys were exceedingly proud that they had not broken the yolks. The toast was buttered and served on a separate plate.
Horse lifted the edge of the eggs with his fork to see if it was browned but not burnt. He picked up a piece of bacon delicately with his fingers and bit off an end, chewing it carefully. “Just right,” he said, as the boys beamed with pride.
Then, as they watched anxiously, Horse ate his breakfast, making appropriate sounds of approval and dabbing his mouth with the paper towel the boys had placed on the table. After draining the last bit of coffee from his cup, he made a circle with his thumb and index finger, indicating that the boys had passed the test.
“That was good work, boys,” he said. “Now all you have to do is wash the dishes and clean up the kitchen.”
With that, Horse left the mess with a soft smile on his face, patting his belly. When Hiroshi told Sammy about his new merit badge, Sammy laughed. “Only Horse Fukuda could think up a scam like that,” he said.
Hiroshi and his friends remained attached to Horse. Unlike Mickey and his friends in the Loyalty League, Horse would have been happy to stay with the boys, waiting out the war in the camp. But soon he too was gone, drafted into the Army and sent to Italy.
With the arrival of summer, the second since coming to the camp, the tempo of camp life began to slow down as usual. Temperatures could rise to 120 degrees or higher by midday, so Hiroshi and his friends would often go to the canal to cool off. At first, signs had been posted explicitly forbidding any canal-related activities—a boy had drowned the first year they were there. But those signs had long since disappeared. No one wanted to enforce the ban on swimming in the heat of summer.
One day, while swimming and playing by the canal, the boys saw Mr. Nakashima cross the bridge and go to the desert side. As usual, he was carrying a canvas water bag and a gnarled walking stick made of ironwood, something many of the old men in camp were fond of making. He wore a stained and battered straw hat and had wrapped a bandanna around his neck.
The boys didn’t think much of the sight. They had seen Mr. Nakashima go into the desert many times before, and it wasn’t unusual for old men to go foraging in the desert for petrified wood, rocks, and rare stones that they would then turn into sculptures, jewelry, and the like. It wasn’t until the following morning, when it was discovered that Mr. Nakashima had not returned, that people became alarmed and started forming search parties.
As soon as he heard that Mr. Nakashima had gone missing, Sammy wheeled himself to the bridge over the canal and insisted that Hiroshi help him get across.
“But Sammy, you won’t be able to get back by yourself,” Hiroshi said.
“Never mind, never mind,” Sammy said. “I just want to be on the other side where I can see better. I’m not going far.”
People from the block went into the desert on foot, and the administration sent out jeeps, but after three days, they gave up the search. There was no chance that an old man could have survived more than two days alone in the blistering heat.
Sammy took Mr. Nakashima’s disappearance especially hard. Hiroshi had taken him across the canal yet again, and the two were looking out at the desert, when Sammy said, as if to himself, that Mr. Nakashima had given him his bag of Bull Durham tobacco and two packs of cigarette paper.
“Why’d he do that?” Hiroshi asked.
“He said he wanted to quit smoking.”
Then, after a long silence, Sammy said so softly that Hiroshi barely heard him, “He committed suicide. He never intended to come back.”
“How do you know?” Hiroshi asked.
“Mr. Nakashima had nothing left to live for. He thought his life was finished. He knew Japan was losing the war. He didn’t really want Japan to win, but he didn’t want America to win either. He was in a quandary. Do you know what a quandary is?”
Sammy often said things that Hiroshi couldn’t fully understand. It was almost as if he were talking to someone else—or maybe to himself.
“A quandary, Hiro, is when there’s no right answer, when there’s no place to go, when there’s no hope, no future.”
It frightened Hiroshi to hear Sammy talk like that, so he said, “Sammy, you want me to roll a cigarette for you? I know how to do it.”
“You shouldn’t be smoking,” Sammy said. “It’s bad for you. But you can get me some matches. Ask Father for some. Tell him it’s for me.”
Okay,” Hiroshi said. Relieved that he could do something for his brother, he ran to their barracks.
By the following winter, Mr. Nakashima had been forgotten by everyone except maybe Sammy, who kept the bag of Bull Durham his friend had given him in his pocket even after it was empty.
On Christmas Eve, Mother sent Hiroshi out to check on Sammy, who was sitting by the canal as he liked to do even in the cold of winter. There weren’t many Christians in the camp. Like the Konos, most of the families were Buddhist, but the children liked to celebrate Christmas regardless.
Sammy assured Hiroshi that he was fine and declined Hiroshi’s offer to push him to the mess hall for the holiday celebrations. Sammy wished Hiroshi a Merry Christmas and told him to go and have a good time.
When Hiroshi entered the mess hall, he immediately recognized Mr. Tanaka, the head cook, even though he was dressed as Santa Claus and wore cotton wool over his face. The children, who had been served hot cocoa and cookies, were in the midst of singing “Jingle Bells” when a bright flash of light illuminated the room, followed by a loud crack of thunder that sounded like a cannon shot. The storm was close by; lightening had struck a tall saguaro cactus just outside of camp. A massive downpour immediately followed, with water gushing down from the sky as if a huge dam had burst. The drainage ditches were already overflowing, and the street looked like a rushing river.
Dry and warm inside the mess hall, no one paid much attention to the tumult outside. After the storm subsided, the children were given presents of crayons, coloring books, dolls, toy cars, and trucks. The afternoon ended with a singing of “Silent Night.”
When Hiroshi returned to his barracks, Mother asked him if Sammy had been at the mess hall.
“Isamu didn’t want to go,” Hiroshi said helplessly. “He wanted to stay by the canal.”
Father and Hiroshi went to the canal, but could find no sign of Sammy. They checked the shower house, the laundry room, and the mess hall, knocking on doors everywhere. But no one had seen Sammy. The next day, Sammy’s wheelchair was found washed up on the banks of the canal; Sammy was nowhere to be seen. When they heard the news, Father and Mother huddled together, weeping in a way Hiroshi had never before seen. Father seemed to think it was his fault that Sammy was gone. “I could have hired tutors,” he said. “His body was broken, but his mind was strong and sharp. He was the brightest of my sons.”
Five days later, an Indian goatherd discovered what they presumed to be Sammy’s body in an arroyo several miles south of the camp. The remains were so decomposed, however, it was impossible to make a positive identification. The body was cremated, so what Hiroshi saw at the funeral was a black box hardly big enough to hold a cantaloupe. Father and Mother cried over the box, but Hiroshi refused to believe Sammy was inside. He thought that Sammy, in concert with Mr. Nakashima, had staged a clever escape. He imagined them laughing together somewhere and smoking Bull Durham cigarettes.
The following summer, the end of the war was declared and the camp started to empty out. Indian families began to move into barracks that had been abandoned by the Japanese, using the pig-pens and the coops for their own livestock, which consisted mostly of chickens and goats.
At first only old people and very young children moved in. Later, young men appeared as well; they could be heard at night shouting what to Hiroshi sounded like war chants. But they were all friendly—well-disposed, it seemed, toward the Japanese.
One old man with long white flowing hair, a high, sharp nose, and withered brown skin seemed to enjoy talking to the Japanese children. It was a mutual fascination. The Japanese boys had never seen actual Indians before, and the old man, who wore jeans and a flannel shirt, looked nothing like what they’d seen in movies. The Indians, in their turn, had never seen Japanese before either. But they seemed to feel at ease with the Japanese, perhaps because they were also brown and sun burnt.
The old man, whom the Hiroshi and his friends took to be the chief, seemed to know that the Japanese in the camp were prisoners of the white man. When asked, he told the boys his young warriors were indeed practicing war chants. “The white man,” he said, “has stolen our land. One day, there will be a great war, and we will have our land back.”
As he listened to the chief talk, Hiroshi thought he understood the old man’s feelings. Over the past three years, the desert had become Hiroshi’s home. Hacienda seemed very far away to him, both in terms of time and distance, and he didn’t want to go back. In his imagination, he could see himself as an Indian brave, fighting to establish once and for all his ownership of this vast territory.
But the desert was not where he belonged, and these were not his people. The ancient land was being reclaimed by its rightful inhabitants. After three years spent there, he would soon be set free, but he’d become a rootless stranger, like the bonsai his father was fond of, trees made portable by cutting their roots. There was nowhere for him to go—not to Japan, and certainly not to Hacienda, which had expelled him. It was more than a quandary with impossible choices—he had no choices at all.
That night, Hiroshi dreamt of Sammy and Mr. Nakashima lying together on the desert sand. He was there with them, looking up at the glistening night sky, which seemed like an enormous black-lacquered bowl thickly speckled with granules of gold and silver. The light from the stars was so bright it brought tears to his eyes, and he had to blink them away. The sand and gravel on which he lay was still warm from the sun, but the air was getting cold; he could feel the chill of the wind against his cheek. He looked to the sky once more. The stars that had glittered so brightly were beginning to fade as dark clouds rolled in. Along the periphery of his vision, he thought he could see shadows circling, so he snuggled closer to Sammy. The specters seemed to go away, but he didn’t dare to look into the darkness again, so deep and impenetrable was the utter blackness that now surrounded them. He reached for the water bag, holding it close to his chest. Moisture was seeping out of its pores in an ever-growing stream. Soon the water was gushing out, becoming a raging torrent as he lay helpless with Sammy and Mr. Nakashima, melting into the desert floor.