Friday, August 29, 2008

Manzanar Pilgrims

"As I came to understand what Manzanar had meant, it gradually filled me with shame for being a person guilty of something enormous enough to deserve that kind of treatment. In order to please my accusers, I tried, for the first few years after our release, to become someone acceptable. I both succeeded and failed. By the age of seventeen I knew that making it, in terms I had tried to adopt, was not only unlikely, but false and empty. .... It took me another twenty years
to accumulate the confidence to deal with what the equivalent experience would have to be for me."
- from Farewell to Manzanar (Ten Thousand Voices) by Jeanne Wakamatsu Houston and James D. Houston

I rented a car in Los Angeles in the summer of 2008 and traveled for two days to Manzanar where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were interned during WWII. About 250 miles, or 405 kilometers, one way to get there. Drove the familiar Cal 14 Highway that I took to see Cal State flower poppies some years ago. Passed Lancaster and Mojave and I stayed at Ridgecrest overnight to take it easy. Mojave is the gateway to Death Valley. Right after Mojave, I stopped the car to photograph the Red Rock Canyon cliffs, with colorful layers of pink, red and brown, which I took as a welcome sign. Ridgecrest has many hotels and gas stations as my American son-in-law told me before my departure. I asked the hotel clerk, as I checked in, about the town population. 20,000 was her answer. She said that more than 10,000 people work at the Naval Weapons Test Center in China Lake. The temperature read 97 degrees F (36 degrees C) at 4:00 PM.

I started at 7:30AM the following day as I was told I would have more than an hour drive. I aimed to finish my visit before it got hotter. Highway 395 leads to Mammoth Lake, the ski resort. It's a scenic back road with snow covered Sierra Nevada ranges. Sequoia National Park on the the other side of the ranges. Slowed down as I entered the town of Lone Pine, 10 miles south of Manzanar. While wondering where the exit might be, the sign "turn left here for Manzanar" suddenly appeared. It was a two way road. I yielded to cars from the opposite side. A dusty and bumpy road finally led to Manzanar. The sentry stands on both sides, and you face an awesome Mount Williamson in the back. I thought I was the first to arrive there but there were a few visitors waiting already ahead of me.

Manzanar is in the Owen Valley. In 1872, a severe earthquake buried Owen Lake. However, the snow-fed streams form Owen River and the local people cultivated apples. Manzanar means apple orchard. The City of Los Angeles with an increasing population, sought sources of water and built a long aqueduct from Owen. The orchards disappeared in the 1930s. The Manzanar internees siphoned water from the aqueduct and cultivated vegetable farms.

Manzanar possessed many photographs of the Japanese incarceration as compared with other detention camps and I wondered why. At one time, cameras were forbidden as they were considered to be a spy act. The chivalry of the great Sierra Club photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984), as well as the arduous camera-manship of Toyo Miyatake, and others succeeded in getting the ban removed.

In the summer of 1943, Adams received a visit from Ralph Merritt, an old Sierra Club friend, and then the Director of the Manzanar War Relocation Camp, in his Yosemite home. Ralph was concerned with the sudden arrival of 10,000 interned Japanese Americans and the impact on the community and the environment. He wanted Adams to monitor the impact but said: "I cannot pay you a cent, but I can put you up and feed you, plus gas for transportation." Adams took the job and visited Manzanar. Not just once. Four times! I saw Adam's photos titled Owen Valley produced before the war started. I figured the valley was one of his favorite places.

"My first impression of Manzanar" he wrote in his autobiography, "was of a dry plain on which appeared a flat rectangular layout of shacks, ringed with towering mountains. The shacks created a mood that was not relieved by the entrance gate and its military guards. ... However, the interiors of the shacks, most softened with flowers and inimitable taste of the Japanese for simple decoration, revealed not only the family living spaces but all manner of small enterprises: a printing press that issued the Manzanar Free Press, music and art studios, a library, several churches, a clinic hospital, business offices, and so on... I was profoundly affected by Manzanar."

The photographic essay and book Born Free and Equal by Ansel, awed as a photographer with God's eye was published in late 1944. However, it did not draw the expected attention to the chaos of war. It is only very recently that the book back in print attracted renewed enthusiastic attention.

Jeanne Wakamatsu Houston, the author of Farewell to Manzanar, was eight years old when interned directly from Los Angeles, and left the camp at the age of ten. Her scars, however, remained quite a long time, as I quoted above. Her father, who owned a fishing boat in Los Angeles, had been arrested and sent to the Federal North Dakota prison in suspicion of providing oil to the Japanese submarine that attacked a beach near Los Angeles. When his suspicion was cleared, he was sent to Manzanar to join his family.

Jeanne returned to Manzanar, accompanied by her family, in l972 from Santa Cruz where she and her husband taught at the University of California. She showed her sharp observation as an internist rather than a casual visitor. The barbed wire surrounded the housing area of 550 acres (2,250,000 square kilometers), but the original camp which included farm and cattle feeding land, was ten times that size. She spotted a white obelisk gleaming in the distance and marking a subtle line where the plain begins gradually to slope upward into the alluvial fan that becomes the base of the mountains. She visualized the ruins of a variety of gardens handmade; everywhere designated as firebreaks, which impressed Ansel Adams. She heard ghostly voices of the deceased in the wind. She even remembered the insistence of her father to leave "in style". He went to the town of Lone Pine and brought back a salvaged blue Nash four-door with two flat tires. He honked and cruised around to show off. Jeanne wrote that the car sounded like a boxer working out on a flabby punching bag.

The only remaining building was the senior high school auditorium. In l972, the auditorium was the servicing station for Los Angeles City Power and Water. In 1992, this auditorium was turned into the National Park museum and Manzanar became the national historic site to symbolize ten detention camps. The objective was to tell the future generation the importance of preserving civil rights, not to repeat the same mistake.

Bob Lefsetz is a music critic and analyst who lives in Santa Monica. He writes the "Lefsetz Letters" on the net and has a large readership. In April 2008, he planned his birthday celebration in Mammoth and there he went with his wife and friends. But his plan was foiled. The ski slopes were rock solid ice, akin to skiing on a washboard. They decided to descend the mountains. After Bishop, between towering peaks and the desert, trying to see through the bugs embedded on the windshield, he remembered Manzanar and stopped the car. He had driven by Manzanar so many times without stopping. It was six o'clock and the place was to close in half an hour. "The ranger suggested that we either see exhibits or film. We chose film. It's the power of film. It took us to another time and place. They emigrated - built new lives - until the U.S. Government took it all away. Parents sold possessions for pennies on the dollar. Incarcerated to the California desert - blistering hot and bone-cold in winter - wind never stopped. All the toilets in a row, no dividers in between. With the war over, the prisoners were given a ticket wherever they decided and the princely sum of $25. Visited cemetery before driving out. How many lives ruined and lost for an unjust, ridiculous cause. No Japanese American was ever convicted. If this is the American dream, I want no part of it. Most Americans do not travel to Manzanar unless they are skiers." Lefsetz urged, "do visit Manzanar and study this history to prevent a similar tragedy in the future."

I saw on the net many responses from the readers including those of the Japanese Americans in question.

After the museum and driving around the camp, I spent some time praying in front of the memorial tower. Maybe 20 minutes or so. Cars came, stopped, some walked to the tower, retreated, and left. One of them asked me what is meant by the character on the stone. No English explanation. To console the spirit of the dead and pray for their eternal peace. I exchanged conversation with him. He said he came from the south, not too far away. Seems an American youth of sincerity. I gave my email address saying if you come up with anything about Manzanar, write to me. I said "I will promise to answer."

It was in 1963 that President Kennedy spoke to university students a few month before he was assassinated. "What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? .... Not the peace of the grave or the security of slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living and the kind of that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and to build a better life for their children - not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time. "

I heard the assassination news in Manhattan while working. "Impossible" was my cry and tears rolled down my face to the floor.

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