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2-Tanforan and Topaz

When did you find out that you were going to go to the internment camp?

Soon after that. On the telephone posts there were these notices that said that Japanese Americans needed to report—I couldn't read, I was not an early reader—needed to report to certain areas. It wasn't called relocation, but there were areas. We were in San Mateo county so we had to report to Tanforan and because I didn't read and I was really young this is what I heard. I overheard that we were going to this place called Tanforan which was for race horses, they had races—is that still there? No, I think there's a shopping mall there now—and everybody was upset and we were packing. My parents were packing and they had to pack everything into two suitcases per person. Afterwards I asked my mother what was in those suitcases and she said they had to take some bedding and utensils to eat, so a tin cup, I remember, and I think those camping plates we must have had—forks and knives and some clothes. But the clothes were apparently a problem because they didn't know where they were going. So it would be like imagining that your parents right now and yourself, because I had cousins who were your age, who were just suddenly told you were going—somewhere, and we're not going to tell you where—but you must be there at a certain time.

We reported into Tanforan and it was very tumultuous and chaotic and I remember thinking I was going to throw up all the time. I've subsequently seen pictures of it and it was basically the racetrack and there were some amusing things about it. One of the first things we had to do was go with our parents and fill up our mattresses—mattress tickings—because there were just cots to sleep on. You had to fill it up with the straw from the stables and they said "make sure you have enough in it, but not too much." I guess my parents got over-zealous and they stuffed them full and all night long my little brother kept rolling off onto the bed and he'd cry and they'd have to put him back on and they must have had to unstuff it the next day.

We lived in barracks then. The barracks, I remember, they were hastily put together and the boards had cracks in them, like this. You could look down and see the ground underneath the barracks. I had a very active little brother apparently, who chose to pee between the cracks if he could and he would also take things and drop them down where somebody had to crawl after them. He also learned to swear for some reason, so he would say things like "God damn son of a bitch" and then he would throw down pennies. He would only have just learned to talk cause he was, well, he was already three so there was no excuse but that's what he said.

I remember there being dried ice. I think because that's probably where they cooked the food somewhere near the race track, under the stands or somewhere. There was dry ice and it would, you know, dry ice sort of does that, and being very scared and not wanting to get near it. Because it actually looked ghostly to me. I had these fantasies of—there was barbed wire around the place, posts and barbed wire. I remember going close to the barbed wire and looking out into what was the rest of civilization. And to this day I can see dead bodies out there. Of course there were no dead bodies but to me that's what I thought I saw. A lot of fear that I have came from that time. So I stayed away from the fence and never would get near it, like phobically away from it. Because I knew that that was happening out there and that the rest of the world was terrifying. Instead of what was terrifying was what was going on so it was kind of a displacement of, a projection of what was happening. I projected it onto the other world that I no longer was part of, or that my family was not part of.

When did you go from Tanforan to Topaz?

I think it was three or four months that we were there. And then we went on trains, and I have no idea how we got on the train, I mean where the train departed from, but it was somewhere, obviously, in the Bay Area. By then we knew we were going to this place called Topaz, Utah, which was in the desert. It was a long train ride; it was very hot, I remember, so it must have been summer. When you're a kid it's just a train ride, you're on a train and it's going clackity-clack and you're going off somewhere.

At one point in the middle of the desert where you could see nothing anymore, the train stopped. This is my mother telling me this, because we were supposed to take a break in the middle of the desert in the heat of the day. There were MPs, Military Police, that were on the trains riding in the cars with us. They made a semi-circle around, pointing their guns at the people who unloaded. My mother was furious, being a good University of California grad. She yanked, I remember her yanking down the shades of the train so that we couldn't see. But I had caught a glimpse of the soldiers making a semi-circle but I did not actually see them doing that. It was hard to talk about this with them until I was in college; we never talked about camp. Her comment was "what did they think we were doing, women and children, in the middle of the desert? Were we going to run away? To where? To nowhere." It was the kind of silliness and absurdity that happens at a time like this when there were no rules or a first time experience.

What was your first impression of Topaz?

That it was the desert, just like my mother said. I found out what a desert was, which was a lot of sand, and heat, dry heat, and nothing else, really. The camp, I found out later, held about 100, no not that many, I don't really remember what the numbers were. There were tar paper barracks that were arranged in blocks, and some of them were not finished and didn’t have windows in them yet. Our family was assigned to a barracks that—the six of us were in a room that was about this big, I think, no bigger. I remember, we woke up, and slept on cots, which were basically metal things with—metal stands, with those wire mattress—do you relate to that, it had a little wire things? You would put a mattress on top of that and your bedding on top of that. Waking up, and we were covered with sand because there had been a dust storm and the sand had blown in through the windows because there were no windows. The glass hadn’t been put in yet. That was my first memory of waking up in this strange place that was to be our home for three years.

And there was a potbelly stove in the middle, a metal stove, and a bucket I think to carry coal in, and a shovel that was about this big [gestures approx 2' tall], which I still have. I left it in my old house, which I recently moved out of. I think it was the only artifact that survived the camp days, because, who would want a souvenir? But that shovel is still in the family, it's now my daughter's, I told her, "never throw away that shovel" because it is a part of history of the family. That was one of the memories. I have, memories of, in order to go to the bathroom, you had to go to a central location, and there were barracks around the block and then there was a laundry room/bathroom house or place, and then where you ate, I forgot what we called that...I don't know, it was like a lunchroom, it'll come to me. In order to go to the bathroom you had to go outside and down the block—to the bathrooms to the toilets, and if you did laundry, you had to do it there also.

It was a breaking down of this family culture, this close-knit thing for children. It did not affect me, but it affected, I learned afterwards, people who were teenagers especially. Who then learned that their father's word was not the law, necessarily. The older generation they felt that it was not a good thing that happened, that it degenerated the family and culture. It caused some of the disintegration of some of the close ties, and the feeling of togetherness. We ate rice, and I remember my brother being really mischievous, and would get first in line, and he would demonstrate whatever the food was holding it up. Once it was pickle cabbage, which the Japanese like, I was so embarrassed because he held up this pickle cabbage, and the leaf was about that long, was waving it around. He was really naughty.

Were your other siblings born at the time of your internment?

One of my brothers was born in camp so we called him the sagebrush boy. My sister was probably 18 months when we made the transition. When we were in Tanforan, I remember it was not sanitary, the conditions were not sanitary and she got trench mouth, which is a disease that happens when there are a lot of people and not very much sanitation. They had to paint her mouth with—it was called gentian violet—so her mouth was purple and she wouldn't sleep so she had to sleep on my mother’s chest with her very bad breath I guess.

My little brother was born in camp. There was a little hospital like a clinic, and those people who were physicians, you know worked in there and the nurses worked in the thing and so he was born there. I remember tying my mother's shoelaces because she couldn't see down over her big tummy to tie her shoelaces just before she went to the hospital to have him. I remember him coming home, you know this cute little brown baby, making our room even more crowded. And my mother was very handy, more handy than my father, I think, he was a thinker and she was the doer. She made a little crib for him out of lumber that had been left from the building site. She made a chair, she made a high-chair she told me, she made this little crib so he wouldn't fall out of it. So they had hammers and nails.

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