Papa came home stunned today. “The Japanese Army attacked Pearl Harbor. News is reporting thousands dead,” he said to Mama, tears streaming down his thin cheeks. I’ve never seen him cry. Not even worry. He’s always so calm.
I could hear Papa pacing throughout our small apartment all night. Now tissues litter tables and fill the garbage bin as we rise this morning. Papa is sitting on the couch, staring forward with an emptiness in his eyes. With her quiet strength, Mama moves about the room, trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy, urging us to eat and prepare for the day. But her worried glances towards Papa betray concern.
Mama tells Kenji, my older brother, to get me ready and walk us the few blocks to school. Kenji does as he’s asked, and soon, we step out into the brisk but not too cold morning of San Francisco.
I’ve never told him, but I deeply admire Kenji. He’s nineteen, handsome, beloved, always smiling and dreaming. He takes after Mama, though one wouldn’t immediately know; like Papa, she also often keeps a stoic demeanor and constantly works around the house or takes care of us kids. But she loves painting and writing, and sometimes I can see her quietly singing to herself as she cleans the house.
“I’m going to join the Army,” Kenji says as we walk.
“Papa won’t be happy with you moving to Japan,” I reply.
“No fool. The U.S. Army!”
I look up at him, knowing the weight of his words. “You know they won’t let you,” I reply, my voice small, a mixture of admiration and realism.
“You’ll see,” he says with a determined look. Deep inside, I know he’ll find a way. Kenji always does.
“What do you think will happen now?” I ask Kenji.
He’s silent for a moment, then speaks, “Rumors are starting that people of Japanese descent will be relocated. Many in America already don’t like us. They say we’re a threat and will commit espionage.” That last word hangs in the cool morning air.
Why do people dislike us so much, I wonder. Yes, many of our traditions are Japanese. And Japanese is the language we speak at home. Yet, we are also deeply American. Papa speaks with great reverence for this country that welcomed him in. He loves America, even if Americans don’t always love him. “We have to work hard, prove our loyalty and friendship to people here,” he has always told us. “Never get discouraged.”
The rumors become real. Two months after the attack comes an order for us to move. Officially, it’s called an evacuation, done for our safety. But we all know better. As one man tells Papa, “They say this is to protect us. But people tell us the guns in camp point to the inside, not the outside.”
As we gather our belongings to leave, I look at Mama. There is fear in her eyes. She’s worried that we’re going to be killed. Papa consoles her as best he can, telling us all that these are our circumstances and we’ll make the best of them. Kenji somehow still has his ever-present smile, as though this is just a regular day. I can’t help but smile, too, when looking at him.
Amongst our friends, we’re lucky. Relatively speaking. We don’t have to move anything from our home. Papa’s dear friend, Saul, a fellow doctor who isn’t Japanese, will take care of everything for us. It’s an odd fate, but I hear Papa talk about how Saul has family members who are likely in concentration camps in Poland. Saul worries for them and doesn’t know how they are. Now, he’ll fear for us, too. Saul bows to Papa as they say goodbye. Papa bows back. Then, they hug each other.
We walk to the bus stop designated to take us to what will become home. Unfortunately, the stop is right next to my school. I see kids from my class – some stare and jeer, calling us names. Some come over and say how sorry they are for what’s happening. I appreciate these caring ones.
The bus takes us to a place called Manzanar. Without the fence and barbed wire, it’s quite pretty here. Snow-capped mountains loom on the horizon, towering over the barrack houses. The air is fresh, and we can gaze at the beauty of the myriad stars at night. Though we’ll soon learn about the cold winters and hot summers and the wretched dust storms.
Home is now a one-room barrack in which we will all stay. Papa and Mama immediately proceed to set strict schedules for us. We have school, homework, and chores. Parents and community leaders do their best for life to feel normal. Community activities quickly form. Baseball leagues become one of the camp favorites. We all join, and sometimes, on warm afternoons, there is a feeling of normalcy with the sounds of the ball hitting a bat, crowds cheering, boys trying to impress the girls, and parents congratulating their kids. But such feelings quickly pass. There is no joy in living in the camp. We are prisoners. Papa’s friend was right. The guns do point to the inside.
Kenji left for the Army today. He promised to write.
The days have been more lonely with Kenji gone. Our home misses his warmth and charm. Time continues to pass in what is now a familiar, steady pattern. We have school, then homework, baseball, hanging out with friends, chores.
Occasionally, the daily habits are interrupted by a letter from Kenji. He’s been accepted into the Army and will join the 442 Regiment. They’re going to Europe to fight in the battles. One day comes another letter from him, from Europe. He writes,
We went to battle on June 26. What horror. I wish people knew how devastating war is. If we’re lucky, this will be the war that could end all wars. Yet, I must say how moving it is to see the bravery of men who surround me. I’ve never seen anything like it. There was one fellow soldier, Sadao—also a California kid. We had never met but knew some of the same people. In a battle recently, he jumped on a grenade to save a group of us. I’m here now because of him. You can’t find words for people like that.
It isn’t easy. And I ask that you please not worry. I’m proud to be here. Like you always say, Papa, America is our country. This war needs good men to help defend the life we have.
War is over. That’s it, done. Families are eager to leave camp. We do, too. But we anxiously await news of Kenji. Is he alive? That matters more than the monotony of camp. Finally, a letter from Kenji arrives. “I’m coming home. Can’t wait to see you all.” That’s the whole letter. It’s perfect.
Papa and Mama begin gathering our belongings. “Pack your stuff, we’re going home soon,” Papa says with a smile.
“Are we going to stay in America?” I ask Papa.
“Of course. This is our country.”
- “Dust Storms of Manzanar” is a historical fiction short story. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.
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