Wonder Years

by Glen Kitayama

The last Summer vacation that I ever took with my parents was our trip to Lake Tahoe in 1974. I was 11 years old at the time and had just finished the 6th grade. I don’t recall exactly what we did on that vacation, but I will never forget the ride back home to Los Angeles.

For some reason, dad decided to take the long way home: Highway 395. I remember sitting in the back seat of our Ford LTD wondering when the heck we were ever going to reach Los Angeles. After a couple of hours, my dad pointed to his right and said, "That’s where I went to camp when I was a kid." I looked outside at the barren strip of land and figured that the place must have looked a heck of a lot better when he was young. "Why don’t you ever send me to camp?" I asked. He looked at me through the rear view mirror, shook his head, and said, "Maybe someday you’ll understand."

As I grew older, I learned through my paternal grandfather that the place that my dad pointed out was called Manzanar. I loved my grandfather. From the time that I entered junior high school until the day that he died, I visited him on practically every Saturday. When my grandmother was alive, she used to make sandwiches for lunch while my grandfather and I watched the baseball Game of the Week on channel 4. After my grandmother died in 1978, lunch was either the green burritos and fries at Manny’s El Loco on Atlantic Boulevard or burgers at Nancy’s hot dog stand on Second Street in J-town. No matter where we ate though, the conversations seemed to revolve around two particular subjects: the "god-damn" Dodgers and camp. With the Dodgers, the conversation went two ways: my grandfather always thinking that they were "good for nothing" and me always believing that this would be the year that they would win the World Series. With camp, all that I could ever do was listen and learn.

Like most other JAs living on the West Coast, my grandparents lost everything when they were taken away to camp. They didn’t have a whole lot to begin with, but what they did have came through hours of work at the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. Just before the war, my grandparents began fixing up their house in Boyle Heights. They treasured their new curtains and new furniture. However, their most prized possession was the brand new Emerson radio that they purchased so that the family could enjoy their favorite programs. All of it was gone by the time that they left for Manzanar. My dad remembered that a lot of people came over to the house to look for bargains. He also remembered my grandfather kicking them out of the house and telling them to "go to hell!" According to my dad, most of their belongings were given to the Mexican American family across the street because "at least they said ‘thank you.’"

I think of my parents and grandparents every time I made the trek to the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage. Out of the four of them, my dad is the only one who is still alive. My grandfather died in 1989 at the age of 87. He lived long enough to see redress pass, but not long enough to see his $20,000. My mom died in 1991 soon after we discovered that she had a brain tumor. She also never saw her redress money. When the check came, my dad split it evenly between us and my two older brothers. My share helped to pay for my graduate education at UCLA.

While at the Pilgrimage, I often take the time to talk with old friends. When I first started going to the Pilgrimage in the late 1980s, you could still find a few Issei like my grandfather in the audience. Now, thirty plus years after the first organized Pilgrimage, the number of attendees who were actually in the camp are greatly outnumbered by those who weren’t even born during World War II. As one of those in the latter group, I understand the allure of the camp. My friend Tony Osumi, a hapa Yonsei, told me that the first time he had ever been to Manzanar was in 1972. He nodded his head and added: "You never forget your first time here."

Once, as I prepared to leave Manzanar to make the 4 hour trip back home to LA, the crowd began to do the tankobushi. While listening to the music and watching the dance, I remembered my grandparents and my mother. When they were alive, I never took the time to thank them for all that they had done for me. I also don’t think that they ever realized how deeply their experiences and stories became ingrained in my head. Years from now, if I ever have children, I hope to take them to Manzanar one day and say, "That’s where your grandfather went to camp when he was a kid." And hopefully, they’ll understand.

Glen Kitayama is a teacher at Wilton Place Elementary School. An earlier version of this story originally appeared in the Rafu Shimpo newspaper. This also appears in Nanka Nikkei Voices published by the Japanese American Historical Society of Southern California