Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Simple Times Produced Simplistic Minds

It seems every December WWII stories proliferate. Or maybe I am so aware of the stories because of my interest in that history. As I reminisced with one of my high school classmates, we talked about our Japanese schoolmates and how we did not even think of them as being Japanese - that is, we did not think of them as being our former enemies. We pondered why and I posed the question to a number of our classmates. Every single one could not recall thinking of them in any negative way. Quite to the contrary, they were school leaders and officers, sports heros, popular. Their versions are undoubtedly different. But they also were too young to remember exactly what had happened. The internment of the Island's Japanese and subsequent return is very public and popular history now but our classmates remain reticent. So how I and my schoolmates did not seem to have any notion of their stories, to me, is a phenomenon. As evidenced in the Island newspaper of those years, there was vociferous opposition to the return of the Japanese. There were more than a few letters to the owner/editor of the paper not only chastising his championship of the Japanese but also openly disparaging their return. Clearly there was prejudice that could have influenced us in a negative manner.

But we were too young to be a part of the discussion. Too young to remember any part of it. My aunt who is ten years older than I, and was in junior high school, says she was too busy with school and with worrying about her gold front tooth to be interested. (Marilyn was so embarrassed by that tooth, she rarely smiled.) She remembers having Japanese classmates but remembers nothing about any challenge to their return. In fact, when I questioned her, she had to rack her memory to come up with any memories at all.

Our education was unrealistically simple in lots of ways. The decades of the 1940's and 50's could even be described as still quite Victorian. Children were to be seen and not heard - not to be spoken to or made aware of anything smacking of discord, violence, scandal, sexual, etc. In other words our environment was rather sterile; our education, stunted.

In high school - ten to twelve years after the end of the war - the man who taught World History bore a vivid scar that covered half his face. He was among those brave soldiers who stormed Normandy Beach in one of WWII's bloodiest battles. The world history curriculum made NO mention of the world's most heinous tragedy - the killing of six million Jews by the Nazis's. Shortly after I graduated from high school, the book "Exodus" came out. I spent an entire weekend mesmermized and horrified as I read - also angry that such critical information had not been taught.

In stark contrast, however, we were very aware of the Indians who came (mostly) from Canada to pick strawberries every summer. According to reports, they would attack any lone white person. (The same unfounded fear was attached to Filipino men; although Filipinos were more easily assimilated into Island life.) The Indians were accused of being drunks and completely untrustworthy. At a time when there was only one sheriff for the entire Island - population between 3 and 4 thousand, there was one man deputized to keep watch over the poor Indians numbering at most 3 or 4 hundred and confined to living in the farms' strawberry shacks. Talk about being ostracized!

Sometime in the early to mid fifties, my Aunt Carole and Uncle Hank adopted a baby boy. One evening we gathered excitedly in our grandparents' kitchen waiting for our first visit with the new baby. Carole carried the swaddled baby in her arms, Hank stood proudly behind her. Gramma reached for the tiny bundle; carefully lifted the soft blanket - and nearly DROPPED the baby as she gasped. Inside that bundle was a dark-skinned infant with a huge shock of black, straight hair.

"Oh - I forgot to tell you," Carole blurted, "he's Spanish." Good ole' Hank chuckled.

Many years later, Mark (the baby)searched for his birth mother when he reached adulthood during which time Carole and Hank both died. You guessed it - Mark is a Pacific Northwest Indian. We don't know where or how Mark is now. He joined his Indian family and stories of him reach us every once in a while - alcohol and drugs mostly. Makes my heart sick - he was a very dear member of our little gang of cousins.

OK - so we wrongfully interned the Japanese during WWII. We have done worse things to Indians. (All of this information now can be found on the Internet simply by searching Indian histories and circumstances.) Beginning in the late 1800's, our government had policies and programs specifically meant to train Indian children to be white - to forget their Indian ways. The programs for many decades included boarding schools where Indian kids were sent and essentially brain-washed. In the 1940's and 1950's the programs were changed to forcefully take Indian infants and children and put them up for adoption through churches and agencies. This is "cultural genocide." I have personally corresponded with an Indian woman who was snatched from her mother's arms and adopted along with other Indian kids, by an Island family. Mark's story is not unusual. There are hundreds, nay thousands, across the country who suffered these horrific acts and the traumas they caused.

My point in this is to gain some understanding of my own upbringing and what makes me tick. As I have said previously, the Island with its isolation, is rather like a petri dish of how our society has moved, changed, evolved, since the beginning of WWII. So much has changed for the good; so much has not.

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