Author teaching kids the value of mud with Colin Shannon and a buncha Pences and Danas.

My wife is a city girl. She grew up in the San Fernando valley. In a suburb called Canoga Park. Every house on her block had a concrete driveway and a manicured front lawn.

I grew up in the country. Near a little farm town called Arroyo Grande. A couple times a year one of use would use the old push mower to mow the weeds in front of the house. Our drivway was a quarter mile of dirt road.

They are different planets. Don’t think Venus and Mars, thats not it, think asphalt and concrete versus mud and dirt and all kind of things no city child ever dreamed of.

My daddy was what they used to call a dirt farmer. My uncle Jackie was a polled Hereford breeder. My grandfather, Big Jack Shannon started as a Butter and Egg man but soon switched to dairy. My uncle Ray Long was the real deal, a dyed in the wool Stetson wearing, bulldog heel cowpoke who sat a horse like God and liked his whiskey straight.  

 We all lived in old, old houses. We didn’t have central heat or insulation. We knew to put on another layer of clothes in the winter or sit closer to the stove in the kitchen. We drank our water from a well dug by hand. Purify was a word in the dictionary not in the water. Yellow and brown colored water was perfectly normal. There was a septic tank, though it wasn’t a real tank, it was a big hole out in the field lined with boards and when it was full, dad dug a new one. They were perfect place to grow the most beautiful Nasturtiums. Our roads were dusty dry in the summer and wet in the winter. The amount of rain we got could be measured by how deep your shoes sank walking home from school. Get off the road and it would suck the shoes right off your feet.

We live in adobe country. In the summer it makes great dirt throwing clods and gets so hard that chunks fly off the pickup tires and hit the fenders with a very satisfying bang. Maybe dents ‘em some too.

My brothers and I had no fear of the gross. We were the bane of my mothers existence for we attracted dirt and yucky stuff like magnets. When I was little she had an old tub washing machine, the kind with a hand ringer on top. All the laundry had to hang on the line to dry and nice clothes had to be ironed. Three boys and a husband; it was a full time job. Our water was “Hard” as they used to say and it added a tinge of yellow to anything white. You can see in the old photos of the house the line where the lawn sprinkler hit the siding, yellow below, white above.

On the ranches there were old barns, corncribs and odd old sheds where tools and seed, fertilizer and spare parts for everything lived. There were things dating back to when the chinaman raised pigs and the ranch belonged to uncle Pat Moore. Some had been saved for a hundred years, long after the machine it was meant for had joined it’s worn out companions in the old gullies where rolls of old Bob wire, tinned cans and whatever, was tossed. These places were a paradise of the found for kids. You could sit on the rusty old springs in the model T body my grandparents drove down from Berkeley in 1918. Long abandoned, it was a beautiful rust colored place where a little boy could imagine driving wherever he wanted. No glass in the windshield, no leather on the seats and no motor or radiator it was nonetheless a chariot of the imagination.

In my uncles calf shed there was a tool bench and a homemade set of shelves where resided every tool ever used on a ranch that had been in use since 1871. If you didn’t mind Black Widows and accumulated rat poop you could dig through the drawers and shelves, picking through wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers and clumps of welded by rust square nails. Over in the corner were the salt licks. Yes, they too were sampled.

J R Williams, 1931

We had black hands from picking walnuts, smelly hands from tomato vines; we were covered in mud from playing in the irrigation ditches, we’d clomp in the house shedding clumps everywhere. Shoes were not always left on the porch. The linoleum floor in our kitchen always had speckles of dirt sprinkled on it. My mom was an oilfield girl so she accepted it though she didn’t like it much. She had helped her mother wash my grandfathers oil stained work clothes in kerosene and carbon tetrachloride so it wasn’t new to her no matter her wishes or wishful pretensions.

We’d come in smelling of willow from the creek or covered in sulphur dust from running through the rows of pea vines. Our dogs, who followed us everywhere were just as fragrant from rolling in any kind of smelly thing they could find.

My dad told us that the cat poops in the sandbox were old Tootsie Rolls and we should just pick ‘em up and throw them away, so we did. He used that joke to good effect when telling stories as we grew older, especially to our wives and his grandchildren. I’ve had the pleasure of explaining to my sons the relative difference between cow flops. There are green ones, been there a few days, black a little longer, chocolate milk colored means under the crust it’s satisfyingly squishy. Flat and dried are good for sailing long distances, chocolate for smearing the unwary. Now I’ve heard that a pie tin company back east was the model for the first frisbee, but let me tell you it’s not true. A cow pie was. Judging pies is an art. Some are completely dry and might even have straw growing through them and they make the best ones for sailing. Others appear dry but are still gooey inside and they make the best if you need to blast a cousin with a little slime. Soft ones carefully picked up are best for placing under car seats or slipping into a friends school desk. Horse manure isn’t too good for throwing and is best kicked at your enemies or even better, your friends.

You could say we were scatalogical experts with mice, rats, cats dogs, goats and deer to choose from. Manny, another expert once came to our little two room school with a jar of brown pills he called “Smart Pills.” He assured kids that if they gave him a nickel he would sell a few to those who were struggling academically and they would soon be much smarter. After a few days a boy from Newsom Springs told Manny he thought the pills were just Rabbit pellets. “See, you’re getting smarter already,” Manny replied. Of course Manny went on to be a gifted salesman.

Did you know that a grease gun, they were for lubrication of all kinds of machinery and filled with 90 weight grease, look like a machine guns? Well they do and they can shoot too, a nice steady stream of greenish colored grease at anyone who gets too close when playing war, usually a younger brother but most satisfyingly, cousins and ignorant townies. 

When my dad was a boy he helped in the dairy barn after milking when all the manure and urine had to be cleaned up. They used scrapers to push it to the back barn door, then shovel loaded it onto a skip that ran down hill on a gravity cable with a trip at the end. the trip caused the skip to upend into the manure pile. Thirty cows a day, three times a day. It was a big and fragrant pile. Dad and uncle Jackie were happy to give city kids who came to visit a ride. My grandmother was not happy at all but my grandfather thought it was a lark and laughed until he cried.

The girls in the milking barn. Shannon Family photo.

On the old ranch they had cattle, hogs, and chickens who ran free in the pastures. In the old days when boys went barefoot in the summer they would have various kinds of manure squishing between their toes. If it happens often enough it can just be tossed off as normal. In 1922, a very dry year, the fleas were so bad that the boys calves and feet would swarm with them. Remember that boys used to wear short pants until they were about twelve. Before my grandmother would let them in the house they would have to bathe with kerosene to kill the fleas and then take a bath in the same water as their father and mother had just used.

There was only one vet in Arroyo Grande, Dr Doty. He was the man you called if your stock had a serious disease. He drove a pickup that was his office. The dash was piled high with receipts, gloves, an old syringe or two and a ragged “Gimme” ball cap. He’d drive up the road to where uncle Jack was and stop. A shake of the hand and if things weren’t too dire they’d shoot the breeze a little before getting down to business. Pickups in those days were built at just the right height so a man could rest himself by leaning on the hood or the sides of the bed. Nobody called the Doc unless it was serious. Cattle are usually in better health than their owners if you haven’t noticed. Sooner or later Doc would poke and prod, do his inspection and treat whatever the ailment was and be on his way.

Anything else was done by the rancher. Vets who worked in an office; there weren’t any. If your dog was really sick, he would likely live or die on his own. Cats in the barn weren’t remotely tame, had no names and had pretty short lives. The cattle were doctored, if at all possible by my uncle Jack. He would call dad and ask if he would bring me out to the ranch and I would spend a day or two helping with cow maintenance. Cows would be herded into the holding pen behind the old milking barn and then shushed into the chute, head forced through the squeeze to be doctored. Now cows are generally very nice and like human company but in this case they could be reluctant to say the least. They have a memory and if they’ve been through this before they can be a tad reluctant. So reluctant, in fact that we would place a board across the chute and I would drape my arms over the top board of the chute and push on the board with all my might. Both feet trying to shove the old girl the last two feet so her head would go through the squeeze. She would likely respond by drenching my feet and legs with manure. Some how uncle Jackie always let me do that job. He was smarter than I was.

Except when he wasn’t. Years later he was trying to do the job without help and cow got her revenge by slamming him against the side of the corral and breaking his femur. I guess it’s all even in the end.

Once we sewed up a prolapse in a cow with the shoelace from one my Keds. Helped the cow but the shoe kept coming off which didn’t help me keep my sock or foot clean either. He told me that shoelaces from tennis shoes were perfect because the would rot in a few days and didn’t have to be removed. At the end of the day, covered in cow slobber, manure and a little blood I’d be treated to a piece of homemade pie by my wonderful grandmother Annie. My grandfather always made sure the ice cream on the side was very generous. Topped off with perked coffee, scalding hot, it made a perfect day.

What we learned from all of this was that whatever had to be done, could be. Care should be reasonable. Though farm kids were sniffed at by town kids, they knew life close to the ground and it served us all well as we grew up. If we were going to be afraid it had better be very serious business. We were all prepared for the small stuff.

Will and Colin Shannon, two muddy boys. Shannon Family photo

All of this growing up prepared me for my husbandly duties. I’m in charge of all the yucky stuff that comes from having a dog and a couple cats, cleaning out clogs in the drains, removing spiders from the house, though I prefer leaving some to catch the flies and other things like the annual cleaning of the fishpond. I can tell you this, if your apple has a worm hole, eat it anyway. If you’re lucky the worm has moved on and if not, enjoy the extra protein.




And then when it was nearly over they went home. Many of the internees, particularly those from California knew by late 1944 that homecoming might not be such a welcome thing. Properties they owned or leased were in most instances gone. Fishing boats, houses, farmland, businesses of all kinds, money left in banks or other investments were confiscated by the government as Alien property and considered forfeit or simply stolen by neighbors and other opportunists. For many years there was an individual in my hometown who drove a Japanese farmers truck he had taken after the man was transported to Gila River. My father said he never showed any embarrassment and in fact was known to have said, “Served them right.”………  

The population of the camps had begun to wind down in 1943 as thousands of young men and women joined the military. Young people could go east for jobs, college or university if there was a family who would sponsor them or dormitories were available. Volunteers left to work in the beet fields of Idaho and factories churning out war materials. The only real caveat was that they couldn’t move to the west coast exclusion zone where most of them had lived before the war. Washington, Oregon, California and parts of Arizona were off-limits.

Leaving, 1945, National Park Service photo

A serious movement had begun, particularly in California to pass legislation at the Federal and State level to deny any Japanese the right to work or live in the Golden state. The same General DeWitt who had pushed so hard for 9066, Earl Warren, Harry Chandler who owned the LA Times and a cabal of like minded racists were trying to deny US citizens and their families the constitutional right to live and work wherever they wanted. 

Farmers didn’t need Japanese-American farmworkers anymore. The Bracero Program grew out of a series of bi-lateral agreements between Mexico and the United States that allowed millions of Mexican men to come to the United States to work on, short-term, primarily agricultural labor contracts. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, with many individuals returning several times on different contracts, making it the largest U.S. contract labor program ever. 

The program was created by executive order in 1942 because many growers argued that World War II would bring labor shortages to low-paying agricultural jobs. On August 4, 1942 the United States concluded a temporary intergovernmental agreement for the use of Mexican agricultural labor on United States farms and the influx of legal temporary Mexican workers began. The program lasted much longer than anticipated. In 1951, after nearly a decade in existence, concerns about production and the U.S. entry into the Korean conflict led Congress to formalize the Bracero Program with Public Law 78.

The Bracero Program was controversial in its time. Mexican nationals, desperate for work, were willing to take arduous jobs at wages scorned by most Americans. Farm workers already living in the United States worried that braceros would compete for jobs and lower wages. In theory, the program had safeguards to protect both Mexican and domestic workers. It guaranteed payment of at least the prevailing area wage received by native workers; employment for three-fourths of the contract period; adequate, sanitary, and free housing; decent meals at reasonable prices; occupational insurance at employer’s expense; and free transportation back to Mexico at the end of the contract. Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers. In practice however, many growers ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor. Between the 1940s and mid 1950s, farm wages dropped sharply as a percentage of manufacturing wages, a result in part of the use of braceros and undocumented laborers who lacked full rights in American society. 

The program was simply another way to exploit immigrant labor. It was eerily similar to the formal and informal importation of cheap labor which had existed in America since it’s beginning. It started with the British transportation of Irish rebels and petty criminals to the plantations of Virginia and the Carolinas in the sixteenth century. Plans to transport the unproductive members of society first emerged in the late sixteenth century. Richard Hakluyt wrote to Elizabeth I in 1584 to suggest that ‘loyterers and idle vagabondes’ and Irish rebeldes should be condemned to service in Newfoundland and other parts of the Americas .” Within 35 years the first slaves arrived from Africa. Wave after wave of immigrants from different places have arrived in America, each to be exploited until they could work themselves up out of the muck and be accepted as Americans. The Japanese are no exception, though they do hold the distinction as one the two ethnic group to be incarcerated in concentration camps.

At Manzanar, the camp superintendent, Ralph Merritt said that, “The only relationship that Japanese understand is that of father and child” and that Merritt “had to become the father of Manzanar.” Merritt seemed to like this idea of being the “father” to the inmate population, quoting the head of the block mangers group as referring to him as having “been like a father to us” multiple times in his own project director’s reports. Neither the Issei nor the Nisei were children by any means and the reference to “father” Merritt could have been nothing but sardonic, dry, understated and faintly mocking. The leadership of the internees were nobodies fools.

To bear out Merritt’s paternalistic attitude and despite winning the respect of many inmates, there was never any question that Merritt was their overseer. In an editorial in the ironically named Manzanar Free Press, Merritt scolded his charges for indirectly causing their imprisonment by “crowding into the seven southern counties of California.” The prison director warned the soon-to-be-released inmates not to “create another Japanese problem” by trying to return there during a housing shortage. In no uncertain terms, he made it clear that the Japanese would not be welcomed to their previous towns. That Merritt is most often remembered by the Japanese inmates as a benevolent figure and as their champion suggests how much prejudice the prisoners had internalized.

Ralph Merritt perhaps without realizing it was the mirror image descendant of the slave owners such as Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson expressed the exactly the same sentiments in his famous Farm Book. The book, a diary of the operations at his plantations detailed life among the human beings he owned. Merritt owned his charges no less than Jefferson and unlike Jefferson, his were surrounded by barbed wire and high desert and had nowhere to run.

The Issei used their culture as a backstop in order to cope but the Nisei, American born had no such cocoon in which to hide. Merritt may have though of himself as a benevolent overlord but the young resented him until the day they died. 

Interviews with the parents of my friends decry the oft repeated, “They accepted their fate and moved on.” There is still resentment today, more than you imagine. Most of what your history books tell you is self-righteous nonsense. The Japanese-Americans did not write your school books and they were certainly not consulted.

Like Jefferson’s enslaved human beings who raised families and built a functioning society with celebrations, music, religion and, in some cases education, they were nevertheless confined, disfranchised, dominated,   coerced, deprived, imprisoned, chained, incarcerated, opressed, subjugated, suppressed; the list is very long, and they all apply. 

California itself tried to pass legislation to bar Japanese-Americans from ever returning but the state was ultimately unsuccessful in its campaign to keep the Japanese out. In late 1944 the last inmates of Manazanar were shown the door. The last reluctant internees, those who were very apprehensive about what was waiting for them were told that busses would be leaving and they must go. As with all inmates they were given a bus ticket to anywhere they wanted to go and twenty-five dollars in cash. 

They faced extreme difficulties in reintegrating into their old communities and in fact in some communities did everything they could do, both legal and illegal to keep them out.

Only about ten percent ever returned to the places they had lived. There was little or nothing of their former lives left in those places. The Japanese fishing industry in San Pedro and Wilmington never recovered. The boats, nets and hardware had been sold or confiscated by the government, houses foreclosed or taken over by squatters whose “rights” had been upheld by California courts. Many, many families relocated to the midwest and east where anti-Japanese sentiment was much, much less.

In the west it was very rough. There are true and documented stories of returning soldiers in uniform being spit upon or refused services in stores and markets. There were still “No Japs” signs in windows as late as 1948, years after the war. Hate has a long, long memory. It has burrowed deeply in to collective memory and there are those today who have no memory, too young to have direct knowledge who will not accept that the treatment of loyal American citizens was wrong, They simply accept the drumbeat of racial hatred as truth.

In Arroyo Grande were this story began it is difficult to get a firm count of returnees but it is thought by local researchers that somewhat less than half the Japanese ever returned. Nearly half the Arroyo Grande high school graduating class of 1942 were transported but few ever returned. Stores and businesses were gone, farm fields, if not owned, were gone too. A non-citizen of Japanese ancestry could not own property in California and if their children were owners it had it had likely been foreclosed. Banks were quick to do that as the expropriated property could be resold at higher wartime prices.

My father’s classmate Akira “Aki” Saruwatari  (Gila River Camp, File Number: 30434851121) who had owned a Radio and Electronics store downtown on Branch Street lost everything and moved to Santa Barbara. Aki was born in Arroyo Grande, a citizen of the United Staes. He started first grade in our elementary school and graduated with my father from Arroyo Grande high school in 1930. He was a registered Republican all of his life. People from farm and ranch families tend to be on the conservative side. None of this helped. As General DeWitt and one of my fathers closest friends said, “A Jap is a Jap.”

Throughout the state there were those people who were outraged by the treatment of their neighbors and went to extremes to preserve whatever they could of the property and possessions of the dispossessed friends. Houses were occupied by neighbors and friends to stop vandalism. Some of those suffered ridicule, gunshots in the night and attempted arson. Property that was owned by the deported had taxes and mortgages paid by citizens who saw that rents were collected. Some shop owners refused payment of debts upon return. Some debts were forgiven and lest you think that these were people who had no personal stake in war, many had family members, brothers and sisters, cousins and friends who served in the Pacific. There is a universe of difference between the pejorative “They” and “my friend.” One is intensely personal, the other, and not to put too fine a point on it, maligning, slanderous, and vilifying, the refuge of the ignorant and hateful.

The returning citizens had some things going for them, they were mostly young, had been decently educated and had lived in a closed highly co-operative society. They helped each other. It didn’t matter whether they retuned to their farms in Arroyo Grande or were forced to live in crummy trailer camps in south Los Angeles and shanty towns in the San Joaquin, families even working two or three jobs to make ends meet, they persevered just as they had been forced to do in the camps. 

Years after Manzanar was abandoned, it’s buildings sold off or bulldozed, the towers taken down, barb wire removed, blowing sand gradually covered the site. It almost completely escaped the collective historic memory. In an interview for local television in Inyo County, site of Manzanar, Dee Uyeda, a former internee and Joan Busby who grew up in Independence, just a six miles drive from Manzanar  were filmed during a trip they took together to the old camp in 1981. Dee was sent to Manzana from San Francisco with her family, including her father, Shinjo Nagatomi, who was a Buddhist priest. Joan Busby grew up in Independence, just up the road. The two women met as adults when both were teachers in Mill Valley. A chance encounter in the staff room in Mill Valley prompted them to take a trip to the old camp. As they wander the desolate and abandoned grounds they talk about the huge gulf between how they spent their young lives. Joan saying that people in Independence talked about the “Bad people” locked up at Manzanar. Dee wondered if Joan’s family was one of the ones she would see passing along the road, wondering who they were and where they were going. She had no idea that Independence even existed. Dee told a little story about the kids from her school going on a picnic outside the wire, something she was allowed to do only once. The most striking thing is her description of the air outside the fence, “Free air,” she said. Even though in reality it was the same, longing made it seem softer, more pleasant, somehow different. Even an eleven year old she could tell the difference.

The Nagatomi’s were the last family to leave Manzanar, motoring north in an old station wagon in November of 1945. Her father stayed to the last, saying it was his duty as a priest to be there for the last survivors. In 1943 Shinjo helped build the permanent cemetery behind the camp. It is a shrine which has been tended by survivors for 76 years, the only intact piece of the camp other than the original gatehouse entrance. The inscription on the Obelisk which stands in the center of the old cemetery was written by Dee’s father and says, ”Monument to console the souls of the dead.”

National Park Service photo

Former Manzanar prisoners were the initial force behind the preservation of the site. 1969, the Manzanar Committee started an annual trek the old site, led by Sue Kunitomi Embrey. Embrey, a Los Angeles-area teacher who had been evacuated to Manzanar as an 18- year old. She attributed her drive to preserve and protect the site to the memory of her mother. “My mother was a very staunch Buddhist and she would always say, ‘Those poor people that are buried over there at Manzanar in the hot sun, they must be so dry. Be sure to take some water as an offering.”

Later Embrey along with another survivor,  Warren Furutani formed the Manzanar Committee and began a decades-long campaign to gain recognition, first as a state monument and then as a national historic site.

Outside the Japanese American community, resistance came from those who viewed the planned historic designations as a tribute to the nation’s former enemies. The push to have Manzanar declared a California historic site, which was successful in 1972, “was very, very ugly.”  Both WWII’s major veterans groups were adamantly opposed to the declaration. 

For the Manzanar Committee and other supporters of the project, the period of historical significance was the internment period, 1940 to 1945. This approach generated controversy among some World War II veterans. Acknowledging the wrongs of Manzanar complicates the collective memory and reputation of World War II as America’s “Good War,” which upset many veterans. One veteran went so far as to leave a voicemail message for the first National Park Service superintendent at Manzanar, saying that he traveled north from Los Angeles on a “pilgrimage of disgust” to urinate on the site’s commemorative plaque. Some felt that the public would view the park as a monument to the Japanese Empire. They viewed it as ennobling it as a prisoner of war camp

Educating the legislature and congress on the true nature of the site was hard fought and at times very bitter. Initially Inyo County in which the camp lies was also opposed, saying, “We don’t want to be known as the site of a concentration camp.”

The push for national historic site designation was delicate work that involved educating the public about the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II. Embrey and the committee once took a group of Japanese American World War II veterans of the 442nd and other combat commands with them to a meeting in Inyo County, where resistance was very high. When residents saw the old veterans in their uniforms, wearing their medals and campaign ribbons from the European and the Pacific theaters, the assumptions about the camp being a tribute to the enemy completely unraveled.

Manzanar was declared a national historic site in 1992. For the next several years, Sue Kunitomi Embrey remained involved with the park, leading a commission created to advise the National Park Service on matters related to Manzanar and the history being preserved. Even as she looked back at the past, Embrey’s eye was on the future.“I think having Manzanar named a national historic site is important for the whole nation, not just for those who were interned there,” she said. “It’s part of American history and it gives the public an idea of what can happen if people don’t care.”

Today if you drive up Highway 395 and stop at Manzanar you can see little of what was once there. There are touches though. Some ancient fruit trees still persist in the rocky soils, foundation stones litter the roadways, the cemetery with its few stones is well tended. The Japanese style Gardens still exist. The streams are dry and the vegetation so lovingly crafted by the artisans who cared for them are gone but you can still wander along the stream beds, walk the arched bridges and perhaps feel the ghost of something that once was, both horrible and at the same time sublime, for the park is not a monument to Ralph Merritt or the armed tower guards or the government who forced the camp into existence but to the courage and resilience of the internees. People who persevered in the face of humiliation, disenfranchisement and hate. People who made a life from nothing. 

Manzanar Cemetery and monument, authors photo

Perhaps the challenge here is to realize that all those involved in Manzanars present and future have to see the difference between history and nostalgia. Our memory lies somewhere between the two. Memory is a mix of history and a bit of emotion. History is what you need to know and nostalgia, what you want to hear. Nostalgia has no place here. A place like Manzanar cannot be relegated to the past and simply forgotten. The history of places like this points to who we are as a people, warts and all.


Primary sources – “provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occuring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, in digital format, or in published format.”

Densho Archives: The Densho Archives contain primary sources that document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the period of incarceration. It includes digital media, journals and letters, personal interviews and a mass of first person information.

National Park Service: The NPS has archived photographs and personal histories of dtainees, their families, camp staff and local residents in the telling the story.

Interviews: Personal interviews with family members and their children from the local Arroyo Grande area, both evacuees and non-Japanese residents.

USC Digital Library: Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive, 1941-1946.

Japanese American resettlement through the lens : Hikaru Carl Iwasaki and the WRA’s Photographic Section, 1943-1945.

US National Archives: Digital Archives

Los Angeles Times: Photo Archive

Particular thanks to those families and individuals who provided insight into the experience. Kazuo Ikeda, Haruo Hayashi, Vance Akinaka, Senator Daniel Inouye, Sandi Hirase, Will Kastner, George Shannon, Gordon Bennett, Marylee Zeyen, the Dohi’s, Henmi’s and Saruwarari’s. In a small community as ours used to be, where people knew each other there are many individuals and families that provided ancillary information for this series. I thank them all for their insights.

Nurse Aiko Hamaguchi. July 25, 1924 – September 25, 2016


Ursus arctos horribilis

There was a funny thing about old Arroyo Grande, it had two barber shops. Strangely enough they were almost right beside each other. George had one and Buzz and old man Kelly the other. Used to be men had their hair cut every two weeks and if you were sartorially serious, once a week. Nobody seemed to mind waiting, there were lots of chairs and the gossip and story telling did everything to supplement the local paper, the Herald Recorder. Men could and did flesh out stories they read with pertinent details from personal experience or just from a desire to add some spice to small town life.

We went to Buzz’s place, the one with the old lighted barber pole slowly spinning its red, white and blue. As a youngster the narrow little space had an exotic appeal. Both of the long walls sported large mirrors set so that when you were up in the chair you had an infinite view of yourself, reflected again and again into the forever. Above the mirrors were a legion of stuffed birds and small animals, surely a taxidermists paradise from the days when all wild things were fair game. In the back was a doorway that led to Buzz’s wifes beauty parlor. A pink plasticized curtain shielded the women inside from prying eyes. The whole place was redolent of pomades, Butch Wax, Wild Root Hair Tonic and the pleasant oily smell of the different kinds of electric clippers in use.

There was a sort of hierarchy to the place if you were a kid. Toddlers sat in the chair that was shaped like a pony, when they grew some they graduated to the big chair with its handles a foot peddles where a box was added for your fanny. Grow a little more and you finally sat in the man’s chair. All of it a rite of passage.

The two barbers were as different as night and day too. With Buzz it was quick, zip, zip, a brush on the back of the neck and “Next.” Buzz was a family nickname one he’d had since childhood but couldn’t have been more perfect.

The other barber, Kelly was the artist, much preferred by teenage boys. With Kelly the process was king. The drape placed just so, carefully tucked in around the paper collar to keep clippings from going down the neck. Electric clippers next, carefully applied to avoid nicks and cuts, a flourish of scissors delicately applied, the scalp massage, fingertips relaxing the neck and then application of the pomade or hair oil as required. The perfect Ducktail, a’glimmering spectacle in the fluorescent light. Paper collar tossed in the trash bucket, the drape whisked away with a flourish and the neck lightly dusted with talc and brushed. A choreographed little drama played out to the glances and murmurs of the men waiting.

Those boys who wore them, Johnny Hopkins, Larry Hill, David Askins, Sean St Denis and Charley Silva, champions of the Ducktail. Don Pace with the Ducktail and the carefully coifed Jelly Roll on top or Charley Pino wearing the last vestiges of the Pompadour. They were much admired by blond boys with fine hair like me whose cowlick could never be tamed and whose hair ,no matter how greased with Butch Wax would never stand up.

Men went to the same barber all of their lives. It was as if once you chose you were stuck for life and it couldn’t change. That happened to my dad. He pulled to the curb in his pickup, jumped out and looked into buzz’s where every chair in the place was filled and because he was in a hurry he went next door to George’s place. When he came out to get in the truck, The door to Buzz’s place opened and Buzz himself came out and buttonholed my father and said, “George you’ve been getting your hair cut in my place for thirty years, What are you doing?” Dad said he felt like he’d committed a crime.

Boys mostly sat and listened to the men talk while they waited. You didn’t hear any real profanity. Guys in those days were more circumspect than they are now even though it was completely a mans world. There was lots of story telling though.

Many writers through history have begun their careers in barber shops. Great stories and a lot to learn if you listened carefully. A story told would be polished and refined by the barbers until it was a masterwork of oral presentation.

I was in there once and Kelly asked the guy next to me, “Hey McGoo, I tell you what I heard yesterday?” McGoo said he didn’t so Kelly started in.

“So, you know that Gal that lives out by the Finks, I believe her name is Linda. Well she supposed to be some kind of topnotch animal tracker, world famous is what I hear.” Kelly went on, “She just came back from a trip up north working for some government commission studying Grizzly bears, trackin’ ‘em around, trying to learn where they go and such. According to what I heard she went up to Alaska on an emergency mission to find some guys who were lost in the Tongass Forest. Thats the place where Buzz got that moose head he has mounted down there by Vereen’s Beauty parlor, see, its right up there.”

Kelly used his comb to point it out as if there was any doubt there was a moose head on the wall, like it’s hard to miss with the mirrors reflecting the image everywhere

He went on, “It seems a couple of animal experts from eastern Europe, a guy from Russia and another from Czechoslovakia wanted to study bear habits. The thinking was that they might reintroduce bears back into that part of the world. They wanted to study them, you see, like in the wild.”

Kelly went on, gettin’ his teeth into the story so to speak. He says, ”They helicoptered them in, faster’n the roads, thats real rough country you know, nobody out there for hundreds of miles. The idea was they’d find some likely bears and follow them around, studyin’ their habits like. Check in by radio at regular times so’s the park service’d know where they was. So, looks like they’d been up there about a week and every things fine, radioed in right on time, all good until their radio went dead. Couldn’t raise them at all.”

Kelly finished up his customer, took the cash and rang up the sale on the old brass register and said “Next.” He did his little dance with the collar and drape and continued. “I talked to old man Sullivan and he said that girl Linda told him that she got a call to fly up to Vancouver because the forest service was a little concerned about the two guys, said the were a couple days overdue at the pickup point and the Mounties and the Forest Service Rangers were putting together a search party to go in and get them out.”
They flew Linda up to Juneau and then took one of them puddle jumper planes to the Windfall Lake trailhead.

The whole party loaded up and took off down a road that had seen much better days. The trees were so close that they banged their branches again the cab and the grass in the ruts was tall enough to make a hissing sound as they passed above it. I took roughly three hours to get where they were going but finally after miles of bucking and bouncing they pulled to a stop. An old and badly battered Ford pickup was parked off next to the wall of trees that circled the clearing. The truck could have once been green but that would be just a guess. One front fender was completely gone and the other was mostly rust. If you looked closely you could tell that it had been yellow. Still hitched was an old wooden, obviously homemade horse trailer with four horses waiting patiently inside. Sitting on the tailgate was a man dressed in western clothes and when he stood and walked over it was pretty clear that he was an Indian. He walked with the particular sliding gait that Indian people used, slipping his boot along the ground, not walking heel first as white men do. He was a little pigeon toed, wore blue jeans and an old Pendleton shirt with a large silk bandana looped around his neck. His high crown no-droop brim Stetson shaded his face but as he approached the roman nose and obsidian eyes, creased from being out in the sun hinted at his ancestor’s. He put out his hand for Linda to shake, that soft almost feminine grip almost always used by Native Americans meant to show acceptance and respect. With the soft touch of the hand still fresh he introduced himself, saying, “Inae Zuzeca,” but you can call me snake.” His sibilant speech marked him as one who spoke one of the Siouxan languages. “Means snake who makes safe.” he translated.

“Trail is very hard to see,” he said, “Two weeks with a lot of rain will make it hard to follow.” Snake and Linda walked to the break in the tree line where the Scientists had gone and spoke a few words to each other and then returned to the two rangers. “I will saddle the horses,” Snake said, “You pack up what you need and we’ll get on the trail.”

“Early in the afternoon the headed out and that gal and Snake, why they just followed their trail like it was nothin’. Darned if she couldn’t see the tiniest trace they left. Must be some Indian in her too you know?”

Any way after a couple days they come upon the base camp the Europeans made. They saw it was all torn up, tents ripped to pieces, gear scattered everywhere and no one in sight. The Indian guide with them pointed out a blood trail goin’ off into the trees. Somethin’ bad had happened, it was easy to tell. They all got together and made a little plan about what they were gonna do and then checked all their gear and especially checked their rifles, made sure they were loaded full. With the indian and the gal in the lead they moved off into the trees, steppin’ as soft as Dan’l Boone in Kentucky cause they didn’t know what was up ahead. “She said they walked a couple hours through the trees and brush, followin’ the trail until, finally they come to a edge of a little clearing. They could hear some noise, some rustling and snorts out there. Something big was scuffling around. So they all very quietly checked their loads while Snake and Linda slithered forward, moving real quiet like. After a minute she motioned for the rangers to come up and get a look. They raised their heads to see what she saw. Sure enough there was a big female Griz feeding on the carcass of a man and just over by the other side of the clearing a monster male was sharpening his claws on a Fraser pine.

The Rangers very quietly consulted by just a look and the whispered to Linda and Snake, “We have to take them, they’ve killed a man.” With a nod Snake carefully sighted on the female and, quick as a wink he put four big 44-40 slugs in her. She softly grunted, looked up in their direction and then slowly laid down on the dead man. She gave a little chuff and died.

Across the clearing the male stood up, looked for the placed the shots came from, spotted the woman and the Indian, glared at them and then, shaking his enormous head, he bolted into the trees. Linda and the Indian crept carefully out of hiding, listening to the male racing off through the forest, the crackle of broken branches and his enraged roars at the fate of his female fading into the distance.

Across the clearing the male stood up, looked for the place the shots came from, spotted the woman and the Indian, glared at them and then, shaking his enormous head, he bolted into the trees. Linda and the Indian crept carefully out of hiding, listening to the male racing off through the forest, the crackle of broken branches and his enraged roars at the fate of his female fading into the distance.

They carefully approached the dead sow, knelt down and looked for signs of life in the scientist but there were none. Neither of them knew him but a quick search turned up his wallet. The Indian opened it and pulled out the deadman’s identification. “Him name of Nikita Oleg Bulganin,” He said, “Is Russian.”

Linda stood up and looked all around the clearing. “There’s no sign of the other guy and we didn’t see him coming in, I wonder where he is?”

The Indian guide thought a second and replied, “Czechs in the male.”

Note: No bears were actually harmed in writing this story.