Escape from Manzanar

My Grandmother, Bachan, answered the knocking, only to find it wasn’t knuckles upon door she heard, but a 11 x 17 placard being nailed into the clapboard siding of their Delano home.
INSTRUCTIONS To ALL MEMBERS OF JAPANESE ANCESTORY it began, the print scrolling smaller as it continued down, the words shrinking as their intentions grew more evil.
Bachan stood on tip toe and looked closely at the words, her nose almost touching the paper.
Sounding out each English word aloud in whisper, she thinks she is surely misunderstanding the instructions of eviction.
By the time my teenaged Mom came out to the porch and read it for her, their life was already slipping away.
.

I ride through the historic main gate, stop at the small guard station where a ranger hands me a map of the grounds.
He takes a look at the Pirelli big block tires on the Honda and, grinning, points to one of the multiple signs reminding visitors to Not Go Off Road.
The skies are darkened by fire smoke, the sun reddened as if blushing in embarrassment.  
The atmosphere is heavy and hellish, but feels somehow fitting as I start riding along the paved trails.
Good, I think.
I would hate to see this place on a beautiful day.

It is, shamefully, my first visit to this place.
Long ago, we recorded a song titled Manzanar, a rough 130 second song about Japanese internment.
People sometimes tag me or the band in photos of the place.
A quick stop off Highway 395, maybe on their way to or from a weekend of skiing the fine powders at Mammoth.
They take a moment out of their hilarious vacations for a somber look into America’s shadow.
#CH3 yo!, they might tag under a photo of them posing by the gates.
Or, ….in fact in your own back yard! captioning a selfie in front of the barracks, a nod to one of the lyrics.
In the comments, people chime in that they first learned of the place and that chapter of history from the song.
It’s humbling and appreciated, and I can sometimes convince myself that I wrote those words as 19 year old to teach my fellow punks of our true capacity for brutality, and not just because I needed a three syllable title to match Kimm’s bitchin’ riff.

They were told to take only what they could carry, leaving behind their furniture and home, report to a bus station.
Go somewhere else.
Bachan fretted over the weight of the tetsubin, if she could bring her bowls and cups. Mom assured her they would carry the iron teapot for her, though the lacquered rice bowls would have to stay.
Grandpa took a lantern with him to the vineyards that night, his Japanese ceremonial swords bundled in burlap like a tragically deceased infant in a burial shroud.

He dug a hole, then dropped the swords into the Earth, taking stock of the grave from every vantage in the futile hope he would someday be back to retrieve them.
He smoothed the dirt beside the grapevines he had tended just that morning but would never see harvested, their fruit still green and bitter.

The visitor center is closed, but the few restored buildings and exhibits open.
The barracks impressively present camp life of the day.
There are large photo walls and plaques filled with paragraphs of history.

But I am drawn to the still tableau of daily life here.
A matchbox sits on a shelf of bare wall stud. A blanket hangs over a clothesline, the only privacy afforded between whole families.
There, a long handled mochi mallet sits in its tub, and I imagine the rhythmic pounding on New Years Eve, making rice cakes for the traditional New Years feast.
The wind howling through cracks in tar paper, the grim smiles trying to insist holiday and tradition upon life while being held prisoner in their own homeland.

I ride around the compound and stop at each of the exhibits.
The floors are clean, the beds all made. It seems almost quaint, like a rustic resort, and I imagine if they put up string lights and sold hard cider the place could be a hot hipster glampsite.

But it is beyond the immaculately presented buildings, just past the landscaped walks of raked gravel that the moaning past seems to truly exist.
It is there, on the naked concrete slabs that still dot the grounds.
Cracked foundations, the bones of their buildings long since crumbled.
These outnumber the restored buildings, and they lay flat against the desert dust, unremarkable markers of lives shattered and held.
In the graveyard in the dusty back field, the cemetery obelisk shrine stands white against Mount Whitney, barely visible from ash-heavy winds.  


There are some interactive exhibits in the barracks, handsets you hold to your ear while looking through a photo album or diary.
When you push a button you hear a voice: a past resident telling of their experience here.  
I listen as a woman tells of arriving at the camp as a young teen. It was cold.
The muslin blanket she is handed so loosely woven she could peer through it at the weak winter sun.  

Suddenly, it is my own mother I am hearing, those stories she told of her own first night so far from home.  
They were sent down to Camp Jerome, down in the swamps of Arkansas for the duration of the war, an even worse fate than being at least still in California, I always thought.
When she would tell us stories of camp dances and group dinners at long tables, and it sounded fun to us children.
But now I think of it from a Father’s perspective.
Her parents, Grandpa and Bachan, surviving the indignities of each day.
The good natured cheer they tried to bring to their family in prison, the underlying rage that had to boil, hidden just beneath an expected serene Japanese façade.  
I have to hang up, for I can’t think of my mother, and her mother, come back to me in this way.

The night before they were to report to the bus my mother lay awake.
She sat at the sound of muffled voices outside, then raised a corner of the window shade by her bed.
Out in the street were two battered trucks, men standing in a tight circle.
Smoking, spitting.
The glowing red tips of their inhaled cigarettes floating like fireflies, their weathered faces illuminated briefly by match strike.
Mom said it was the Okies, waiting to come in when they left.
To squat in the vacated home, go through the closets and sniff at the strange pantry.
Shreds of dried seaweed are tasted then spit onto Grandma’s immaculate kitchen floor.

By the time Mom and her family were riding the bus to Santa Anita racetrack, the house is already cleared of clothes and hardware.
When they finally lay down to sleep in a horse stable that night, sharing with another family the space usually reserved for one thoroughbred gelding, dusty overalls sit upon their couch back in Delano.
Everclear alcohol splashed into Bachan’s prized lacquered tea cups, the fine paint already weeping.

But my Mom, telling the story again after we pestered her to relive it again, she never really blamed those poor white people coming in and taking their things.
They were just another tribe fucked over and set to wander, though saved the indignity of barbed wire by color of skin and crease of eyelid

In each of the halls I am joined by a few other visitors.
Everyone is masked and quiet, taking in the exhibits with hands clasped behind their backs or hands cupping their chins in thought, all in silent reverence.
Suddenly all I want, now, is sound.
Yelling or even laughter.
A roaring humbucker pickup buzzing through 100 watts of tube amplifier, an open E chord struck with windmilled fury.
Anything to break this spell of stillness, to shatter it all and to name this place for what it really was.

Leaving, I go off pavement and take the back fire road behind the cemetery.
I switch off the traction control and ABS, and paddle down to first and fucking gun it.  
The back end swings sideways with loss of traction then suddenly hooks up, and I go through the gears short shifting, getting the hell out of there.
When I look in my side view, I do not see the expected ranger truck chasing me, no lights or siren.
No one cares that I am gone.
I see only dust.
Dust rising, rising like earthbound spirits finally freed.

3 thoughts on “Escape from Manzanar

  1. I also learned of manzanar through your song. I had no idea we had concentration camps in our backyard. You guys already know I’m a channel 3 fan for life. And thanks for the history lesson, seriously! I’ll see you guys Saturday night at Gallagher’s. Cheers!

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  2. We learned about Manzanar in the 6th grade. It was not part of the regular curriculum, but our teacher Mr. Houston shared it with us as his brother James Houston was married to a women who spent her youth at Manzanar and later wrote a book ‘Farewell to Manzanar’ about her experience. The made for TV movie based on the book also won an Emmy award. When the record came out and I heard this track I felt like I had a connection to the song.

    Liked by 1 person

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