George Takei Liked My Tweet

Image result for Allegiance show logoSo I went and saw Allegiance. This is a musical show about the internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese-American citizens and legal immigrants who were forced from their homes by armed soldiers soon after Pearl Harbor, told to take only what they could carry, and confined for four years in camps across the western part of the country. Just the thing to inspire choruses, comic turns, and dance numbers, right?

Right. It worked.

If you have not come across it before, this production, which premiered in 2015 and had a five-month run on Broadway, was the brainchild of George Takei, the onetime Mister Sulu and modern-day social activist who may well be the oldest Twitter addict in existence. (Favorite alltime quote: “Back when I was young, it was illegal for me to marry a white woman, and now I’m married to a white dude.” Bears on the book of the musical. We’ll get back to that.) Takei’s family was one of those taken out of their houses and loaded onto a bus — poignantly, he describes his mother lugging a sewing machine because she was sure they’d need to mend their clothing — and he lived and went to school in the camp till he was nine and the bomb ended the war and everyone got a bus ticket and $25 to go out and start life anew. Yeah. (Real reparations were finally paid during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.)

John Tateishi says the experience was both humiliating and disorienting. “We came out of these camps with a sense of shame and guilt, of having been considered betrayers of our country.” He says that after the war most families never spoke about it. “There were no complaints, no big rallies or demands for justice because it was not the Japanese way.”

But decades later and inspired by the civil rights movement, the Japanese American Citizens League launched a contentious campaign for redress. It divided the community along generational lines. (Transcript from NPR’s All Things Considered, August 2013)

In Allegiance — not directly based on Takei’s family experience, but on the kinds of experiences that happened all around them — there’s every sort of reaction to the internment, from a determination to prove loyalty by serving in uniform, to explicit refusal to sign loyalty oaths. Some internees keep their heads down; others stage protests. There’s — fairly predictably — romantic attraction between an internee and one of the camp personnel, double jeopardy since even outside the camp they couldn’t have legally married at the time. And a grandfather, played by Takei himself — who also takes the part of the family’s estranged son fifty years on — simply kneels down on the packed soil of mountainous Wyoming and coaxes vegetables out of it. It is worth the whole production to see how much fun Takei had playing slightly dotty old Ojii-san (whose origami skills come in handy when the loyalty questionnaires make their appearance). I was there on Crispin’s Day when all Takei ever got to do on camera was say “Aye aye, Captain” (except for that memorable time he channeled D’Artagnan stripped tastily to the waist), so watching him turn in two disparate and nuanced performances in the same show at the age of nearly eighty was slightly exhilarating.

It’s a musical show, so I expected the broad brush, and historians have lodged their complaints about ratcheting-up of the conflicts between internees and American soldiers, while I squirmed over a too-contrived fatal accident. And no one is ever going to nominate the fairly bland and derivative score for a Tony (though I’m still shivering over the Japanese-language chorus that arises from a stage foxed with light and dark at the moment the war is finally ended). But the music occasionally flashed — at the moments when irony and bitterness were uppermost, the breath of Kurt Weill animated the score:

Allegiance isn’t generally available yet, though this was a high quality recording of a live performance. My guess, they are hoping to see if it can be revived or go on the road before they make it too easy for someone to buy a video. I only knew it was going to be in the theater for one afternoon because I follow Takei and his Twitter feed alerted me that show was being rebroadcast on the anniversary of the Presidential order that established the camps, now observed as a day of remembrance. (When I tweeted back “got our tickets!” a little heart promptly appeared on my timeline: “George Takei liked your Tweet.” I’ll never wash my smartphone again.)

It was more than remembrance; it was a touch of verb. sap. People can fight and shed blood for their country, while others dig in their heels and resist when they see their country doing the wrong thing, can differ so much about what’s right that they go through life without ever speaking again, and they can all still be loyal Americans. I hope we can keep that in mind going forward.*

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*It occurred to me while clocking mileage that I ought to clarify that last. I am not referring to people who “differ” because they somehow have a problem with inclusiveness, fairness, due process under law, and other forms of common decency, some of them enshrined in the Constitution, some of them now matters of law. America at its best has always aspired to fairness and fraternity, even if it has taken a long time to realize even part of that ambition. I have yet to decide what to call people who, rather than argue about how best to defend them, actually scorn the ideals embedded in the Bill Of Rights, while waving American flags. 😦

 

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Parade Rest (V)

The last known pages of my father’s Army memoir manuscript.

The company party at the end of the basic cycle was a high point. We hired a party room in one of the restaurants in Columbus, and the beer flowed freely. It was a fitting climax to a day that had begun with a battalion graduation review, complete with band. Since I had been involved in music from the age of 5, and had become a passable French horn player, and since this was the first band music I had heard in over four months, it impressed me tremendously. After the graduation parade, we were told that the entire ASTP program had been dismantled, and that we were to continue training until the Army had decided what to do with us. “COMBAT” was the first thing that entered my mind, and the first thing I did was to contact the bandmaster and arrange for an audition.

My parents had shipped my horn to me from home, and I showed up at the appointed hour to meet and play for Mr. Goldstein, the Warrant Officer Bandleader of the 184th Army Ground Forces Band. My audition was simple, short and evidently adequate, as ordered transferring me to the Band were cut two weeks later, and I became an Army musician, much to my relief.

My first official duty with the 184th AGF Band was to turn out of bed at an ungodly hour, go to a rail siding on another part of Ft. Benning, and play marches while my buddies from basic got on the train bound for Camp Claiborne, LA to join the 85th Infantry Division. I later heard that the 85th was sent into combat, and I never heard from any of them again.

It was a strange experience, after years in a high school band of some 65 members. There were only 28 of us. The band had originally been a part of the 38th (Indiana National Guard) Division, and when regimental bands were dropped in favor of one division band, had been shipped to Ft. Benning to serve the ASTP program and the Officer’s Candidate School nearby. Most of its members were Indiana small town and farm boys, not noted much for excellent musicianship, but nevertheless a good bunch of people to be with. Mr. Goldstein was a New Yorker, and although not a band-oriented musician, was talented and easy to work under. We did question his manliness, however, until one day when he was feeling ill and had gone back to his quarters at noon to lie down a while. A senior officer, passing his room and seeing him stretched out, commented, “Running the band from your bed again today, eh, Mr. Goldstein?”  The reply, terse and pointed, was “Go fuck yourself.” We didn’t question his ability to stick up for himself after that.

And that is where my father rolled the paper out of the typewriter.

Flat-footed, nearsighted, he would never have come ashore at Anzio or Normandy, probably not even marched in the rearmost rearguard of Patton’s Army; most likely would not have seen any more of the Pacific than could have been viewed from bases in Hawaii. He had his horn and he belonged in the band, where he stayed, with an interruption for college on the GI Bill, for the remainder of his twenty Army years.

I remember the stories about Colonel Braun, otherwise known as Commandant Braun, who had allegedly been rusticated from service in Europe because of abusive and brutal habits, in front of whom the troops had to pass in review every week. Someone — was it my father? On one side his people were Norwegian and German — wrote a cantrip that went “Was ist dem Farbe von Pferdenscheiss? Braun, Braun, Braun!” Passable German everybody-talk for “What’s the color of horse-shit? Brown, brown, brown!” It ran in triple time on an ascending scale from the tonic to the mediant and back down on the repeated “Braun” to the tonic. Someone in the tuba section would play it, no matter whether the band was doing Sousa or Alford, every time they passed directly in front of the reviewing stand.

I remember the tale of Butterbutt, the portly recruit who exceeded my father’s KP adventure one night by getting into such a condition that his buddies managed to convey him, buck naked, to the latrine just in time for him to blow out at both ends.

Sometime in the nineteen-sixties I found a cache in the attic containing some of his old wartime C-rations. The chocolate was dry and crumbling, the fats extruded onto its surface, but it was still intact. I ate it.

A few years after he wrote these memoirs, in nineteen seventy-six, I took exception to a course of action he had proposed — not the end, merely the means, an ethical dispute at most. Until the day he died — because I think that the person he was died on the day he had a massive stroke in his early eighties — he reportedly said of me merely “I have no daughter.” I know, it kind of puzzled me too.

After he had the stroke he asked his second wife, my dear friend the Serpent Woman, to hunt me up because he wanted to somehow make it up to me. Whatev’s. I got on the phone and said don’t worry about it.

He died five days after the man who had once been my husband, in 2007.

There is silence and immobility.

Parade, Rest.

 

Parade Rest (IV): March Music Interlude

My father’s 1943 army memoirs, continued.

One other occasion stands out in my memory of these early Army days – the four-mile forced march. The object of this little exercise was to march each platoon from HQ on a circuit tour of the area, a distance to total four miles, returning to HQ in less than 50 minutes.

After much grief with stragglers in the rear on other marches we had taken, Lt. Hiller had devised a plan to make us look as good as possible. He put all the cripples (including me, with a sprained ankle just healing) up front. This way the pace would not be too rapid for those in the rear. We set out; double time, quick time, double time, quick time. singing while at quick time. Lt. Hiller had told us weeks before that he expected us to sing dirty songs on the march, and if we didn’t know any he would teach us some. He didn’t need to, as one of ours came up with this:

[Editor’s note. I have taken the liberty of transcribing this song as my father sung it to me, rather than precisely as he wrote it down. – I assume Charley was Lieutenant Hiller’s use-name, which probably went down better than Floyd in the Army world. It went to the tune of the infamous “Infantry song,” and I always used to imagine it accompanied by an oom-pah brass band. Words in all caps are to be shouted.]

We’re Charley Hiller’s Raiders,
The rapers of the night,
We’re dirty sons of bitches
Who would rather fuck than fight.
OHHHH,
Hidey, didey, Christ Almighty,
Who the hell are we?
Jim, jam, GOD! DAMN!
We’re the infantry. SHIT!

to be continued…

Parade Rest (III)

More of my father’s barely-begun World War II memoir, barely edited for run-on paragraphs.

Our leaders were, for the most part, efficient and pleasant.   The company commander was one Captain Cohen, first name forgotten, whom we saw once a day at reveille. Our platoon leader was Lt. Floyd Hiller, commissioned for excellence on the battlefields of North Africa and sent back eventually to the States as cadre. I do not remember much about our platoon sergeant, except that he was regular Army, not overly bright and seemed more concerned about some physical irregularity in his navel than about training us. The cadre was rounded out by Corporal Barnhart (Cupp’l Fanbelt to us), a draftee who used to bound into the barracks every morning before light, singing at the top of his voice and throwing light switches. The tune never varied – “Oh, what a beautiful mooooorrrnning,” – and he thought it was great fun to roust us all out this way even on the dreariest of rainy days.

Lt. Hiller was a gem – rough and gentle at the same time – a man who could dress you down for a mistake and yet leave you with the feeling that he respected you as a human being.

Several events of the fourteen weeks of basic training stand out indelibly in my mind. One was Christmas time, 1943. Having taken some of my hard-earned $50 a month and purchased gifts for my parents, I wrapped them and waited for the chance to mail them. The opportunity came one day when we were suddenly told at noon that we would not fall out again until 1400 hours (2 p.m. real time). I rushed to the post office down the road, stood in line for a while, and accomplished my objective. On arriving back at the barracks, though, I found it empty. I rushed over to the orderly room to be told that the company had fallen out early to march out to a training site quite a distance from there. Corporal Redsecker, the company clerk, told me to run, not walk, to battalion HQ to see if I couldn’t get  a ride on the truck that was being dispatched from there to carry blackboards, etc. to the area.

At HQ,  a major informed me that the truck had already left, but he officially excused me from the afternoon’s training, after I told him my sob story about the mixup. I reported back to Cpl. Redsecker, whose observation was, “Well, maybe the major excused you, but I won’t. Report to the mess hall tomorrow morning for KP.”

Feeling thoroughly chastised and a little chagrined, I spent a miserable afternoon in the barracks alone, and was not much heartened by my compatriots’ comments of “lucky you” when they returned from the field.

That tour of KP started out miserably and ended weirdly. My first assignment after breakfast was to clean grease traps under the sinks, and I can’t remember ever performing a more distasteful task. The traps were completely fouled with cold grease, slimy and smelly, which had to be scooped out by hand into a bucket and thence carried out to the garbage cans. Then I was put to work cleaning pots and pans, and thus the day went.

Along about four in the afternoon I was told by one of the cooks to go over to the PX and take four 1-gallon vinegar jugs with me. He informed me that the PX manager would know what to do with them, and he did. He filled each of them with beer from the tap, and I carried them back to the kitchen and watched them go into the refrigerator. As soon as the company had vacated the mess hall after the evening meal, Cookie broke out the beer, winked, poured a thick china mug full and handed it to me, with some kind of comment about me being a good worker.

We alternately drank beer and finished cleaning up the day’s mess, and about 7 p.m. took the remaining three gallons of beer upstairs in my barracks, where Cookie lived. I drank free beer until lights out, then attempted to retire.  It was the first time I had ever had too much to drink, and, as I put my head on the pillow, the whole barracks began to revolve slowly around my bed. I sat up. It stopped. I lay down again. It started rotating once more. Up. Down. Then, finally, the inevitable nausea gripped me, and I dashed for the latrine. Rid of a lot of the offending liquid, I returned to bed, managed to get the room quieted down, and finally dropped off to sleep. I cannot remember how I felt the next morning, but I looked forward to my next tour on KP – an event which never came to pass.

to be continued…

Parade Rest (II)

More of my father’s World War II memoir. Don’t get excited, he never got overseas. Still…

After a few days of this routine, my adventure really got under way, as orders came through transferring a small group of us to Ft. Benning, Georgia to undergo customary infantry basic training. We were several slated eventually to go to college under the Army Specialized Training Program (ASTP). This was a device invented, no doubt, by some Congressman whose son faced going overseas with the fighting troops.

We entrained in Denver, and the Army afforded us Pullman berths, a luxury I was never again to enjoy as a soldier. There was a bitch, however –   two to a berth, and my berth companion was Mexican-American. My small-town, middle-class upbringing had relegated such people, along with the Indians and the blacks, literally to the other side of the tracks, and I was not quite comfortable about sharing a berth built for one with someone whose skin was so much darker than mine. I do not remember his name, but he turned out to be a rather nice fellow, and my prejudice against skins of another color crumbled a bit more.

The trip to Georgia was uneventful, and I do not remember much about arrival at Ft. Benning, except that I was issued leggings, a pack, pup tent, rifle belt, and all the other paraphernalia that go with being a combat soldier, with the exception of a rifle. That was to come later.

The following Monday morning basic training started in earnest. We began to learn the niceties of class order drill, how to GI a barracks for inspection, how to assemble a full field and combat pack, and the 12 general orders. I, too, thought there were only ten (“I will walk my post in a military manner”) until some of the old-timers with a week’s more service than I informed me that number Eleven was “Thou shalt remember the other ten,” and that number Twelve was “Thou shalt not stick thy wick in the WACs.” Since the only WACs I had seen up to that point looked like Russian farm laborers, the last one didn’t concern me much.

I was plagued off and on by the aforementioned “Is this really me?” feeling. I felt most of the time as if I were in a dream world, that this couldn’t be happening, and that I would some day just wake up and find myself back in Alliance, Nebraska, in my own bed. This feeling remained throughout most of my broken 20-year Army career*, although eventually reality began to crowd it out of my thoughts more and more. I know my mother didn’t raise her boy to be a soldier. The fact that he became one was due to a series of circumstances starting with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, altered by many later happenings. It just never seemed as though I were there, learning to do all the things a soldier must in order to preserve himself in combat. (The emphasis was on self-preservation then – “Keep your ass down!” – rather than on the Korea and Viet Nam indoctrination of “Kill, kill!”). This “in limbo” feeling, of course, was shattered periodically by the reality of fatigue, by the damp Georgia cold, or simple hunger.

to be continued…

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*Curious. When said career ended, I was already thirteen.

Parade Rest

Crewsie Cut, Crewsie Cut,
Wilt thou be ours?
Thou shalt wash dishes,
And GI the showers;

And sit on a fart-sack,
And field-strip a rifle,
And face a Court Martial
For each little trifle.
Uncle Sam Needs You!!!

The Serpent Woman,  otherwise known as my Wicked (not) Stepmother — still only six months younger than I am; the poor dear will never catch up, I fear — found some more manuscript in my late, pack-rat, I-have-no-daughter father’s file cabinets.

I remember when he wrote this — I’m pretty sure on the old Smith-Corona manual typewriter that I learned to type on, before I wrote a really bad poem that won a prize in a contest and became the curator of a modern electric that he liked to borrow. I had told him, after hearing his Army stories for years, that I thought he had a memoir on his hands and I would help him write it if he liked, by reviewing the manuscript and functioning as that second pair of eyes that every author acknowledges somewhere in the opening pages for tireless critique of the manuscript yada yada. I even came up with a title for him.

I was probably about seventeen.

He wrote a half-dozen pages. I am really sorry he didn’t persevere.

***

It was a bitter cold night in November, 1943, and I was walking guard around an unlit grouping of dull yellow barracks at Ft. Logan, Colorado. I had lapsed into an “Is this really me?” frame of mind, a mood which occupied most of my free time since reporting for active duty a few days before. Clad in ill-fitting, shelf-wrinkled OD’s, I trudged my post, damning the powers that routed me out of a warm cot in the middle of the night to protect government property, armed only with a billy club.

A figure appeared from nowhere, and I shouted at it with ersatz authority, “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Sergeant of the Guard,” came the reply.

“Advance and be recognized!” I countered bravely.

It was  the sergeant of the guard, I finally discerned, as our noses met In the darkness.

“You’re relieved, soldier. Go back to bed.”

I thanked him, and ambled sleepily off in the direction of my new home, checking my trusty Westclox Wrist Ben to find that I had been replaced an hour ahead of time. Evidently the sergeant felt some compassion for recruits, a quality I had not expected.

********

This whole thing had started about a month before, in mid-October at Ft. Warren, Wyoming, when I held up my hand and incanted after a young commissioned officer, “I, —– ——- ———, do solemnly swear – ,” and went on to agree to defend the United States of America against all her enemies, everywhere. I had that morning completed the classic Army physical with all its ignominies (“Bend over and spread your cheeks” and “Now, milk it!”), and fresh from a mess hall noon meal of baked beans and hamburger, I was beginning to feel violent stomach cramps, brought on, no doubt, partly by the food but more by the nervous strain of being wrested from my comfortable home life to become a draftee.

Army dad

To be continued…

Phantom Germans (II)

Early on this blog, I mentioned Donna Barr‘s intriguing proposition that she, and I, and any number of other women around our age, harbored the transmigrated spirits of soldiers killed waging the wars of the Third Reich, who had returned to earthly life swearing to wage peace, and resist the death-drunk totalitarian impulse that fuels wars of nationalism and conquest.

I suppose you could start with giving someone a good massage.

I thought about it last night when a late-evening client began talking about her mother, who’s also been on my table — a tiny lady who banged up her back on a holiday visit not long ago. “Mom tells me about what it was like when she was in school, when the Germans took over the town,” she said. They were on the border between two occupied territories of Eastern Europe, and at first the Wehrmacht simply staked the place out and billeted themselves on the residents: “Mom’s parents had to put up this gay lieutenant” [shades of Barr’s Desert Peach!] “who would play the Marseillaise on the piano, until the other officers warned him he could get in trouble.” At first it was only the Wehrmacht — “only” is relative; later it was the SS, of whom even the Wehrmacht officers were afraid. People who had crowded into an open-air market might find the market randomly blocked off, everyone inside it ordered to board a train to a work camp, and their families wouldn’t see them again.

Because of that war, I was born. There was nothing else that would have brought a hornplayer from Nebraska deep into the American South to meet a local girl who was doing war work. I used to meditate on the oddity of being a legacy of war — an antecedent I share with countless people all over the world — long before the occasion when Frau Barr offered me her Phantom German theory.

And here in this brave new century, writing dates on my checks that figured in the futuristic science-fiction of my schooldays, I loosen the shoulders and relax the neck of a small-boned woman who once watched her parents cope with booted men in gray uniforms, striding through the parlor, appropriating the household treasures.

Did I wear a uniform like that?  It would make a good novel. All I know is, Time is not a straight line. It’s a spiral or a helix, doubling back on itself, like our DNA.