Dr. Satsuki Ina was our special guest presenter yesterday in the little theater of our Visitors Center. Her story turned out to be unforgettable and for reasons I would never have guessed.
Over the past several months I've become more and more familiar with the WWII internment stories through being the ranger on hand to assist Flora Ninomiya every Thursday afternoon when we feature the JACL-produced film, "Blossoms and Thorns." Though her commentary varies little from week to week, there are always kernels of new truths and deeper understandings to be had, and our friendship has deepened over the weeks through the sharing of that history.
That being said, I was aware that Dr. Ina's story was going to add a new and dramatic layer on the stories since there were few similarities in the lives of these two women. Flora had grown up in the small town of Richmond where her family had lived for at least two generations in a tight-knit community of rose grower families when War came. There was a community there that supported them throughout the awful ordeal over those 3 and--a-half years of imprisonment. Satsuki had grown up in San Francisco after being born in a prison camp while her parents were incarcerated as "No-Nos," (those who refused to sign the two loyalty questions and were eventually sent to the barren Tule Lake encampment). As might be expected, about the only thing these two women had in common was that they were both Japanese Americans, and the fact that they "looked like" the enemy. Today that would be called by its proper name, classic racial profiling, an evil that still causes pain and suffering for many Americans despite the fact that not a single person of the 120,000 imprisoned was ever found to have been disloyal to this country.
After sitting through this powerful award-winning film and Dr. Ina's comments at the end, something truly extraordinary happened that I will never forget:
Sitting directly behind me was a member of our administrative staff, Bertha, who grew up in the little Box Car village here in the train yards of Richmond -- a child in one of the Native American families who've made their home here since long before the WWII era. Sitting beside her was her husband, whom I'd never met.
At a point in the question and answer period at the end of Dr. Ina's talk Bertha's husband raised his hand to speak. He identified himself as a member of the Navajo tribe before beginning his brief but moving story. He spoke of being six years old and in his dentist's office when an FBI agent came to the door to ask for the doctor who he then ordered into custody. It was at this point that this dignified elder burst into dry sobs as he said holding his arms out in front of his body as if to form a vise -- as he spoke, "... and I grabbed onto his legs and tried to stop them from taking him away!"
We're speaking of a time so long in the past that most of those who lived the history are now gone. Yet, the hurting is so deep -- still -- that this man is reduced to tears as he speaks of his experience as a 6 year-old. It was a reminder of the point in "Blossoms and Thorns" when an elderly Mr. Aebi, the Swiss-Italian nurseryman whose family maintained the Ninomiya's nurseries for the 3 and-a-half years until the war was over when it was turned it back to them, intact ... when (in the film) he breaks down in tears remembering ... as a child ... witnessing the transaction between Mr. Ninomiya and his father that created the life-saving pact that saved the livelihood of the Ninomiyas.
I will be eternally grateful to have lived into a time when the National Park Service has created a place and time for these critical long-awaited conversations to be held. To be associated with a national agency that is encouraging the breaking of the long silence around issues vital to the health of the nation is a gift to be treasured. This, alone, is one of the many great reasons around which to build a national park.
Maybe the answers will begin to bring some understanding to the question: "Why do they hate us so?" and in so doing we can continue the painstaking process of repairing the deep flaws in a social system that has been so hurtful to so many -- Americans, all.
... so many of us are still among the walking wounded.
Maybe soon the healing can begin.