I had an amazing experience last weekend. I’m not actually sure how to talk about it except to say that it was special and I’m so grateful for it.
Let me back up to explain. Matt is a social studies teacher and he has two students who have a project that is going to the state History Fair competition. My sister and I did a project when we were kids that won state and went to nationals in Washington D.C. (I heard that… you pretended to sneeze but you really said “nerd,” I heard it!) so I volunteered to help them out a little bit. I basically just gave them my thoughts on the written portion. They have to stick to 500 words and they were struggling.
When they learned they got beyond the regional competition, Matt encouraged them to spruce up their project a little bit before state. Their project is on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It just so happens there was a camp called “Topaz” here in Utah, about two hours from Salt Lake City. There is also a new museum dedicated to Topaz which opened just two years ago. We planned a trip to caravan down with the students and their families. Matt called the museum and made arrangements for the girls to interview a docent and we packed up our cameras.
After a long drive (made much longer by a wrong turn), we made it to the museum to discover that the docent wasn’t available. However, it just so happened that three Japanese-American gentlemen who had lived in the camp as children had arrived to see the museum just a few minutes before we did. We introduced ourselves and asked them if they would be willing to speak to us on camera. The oldest brother (who was 10 when the camp closed in 1945) agreed to be interviewed. Then, after the interview, they told us they were driving out to where the camp used to be to find the block they lived on and invited us to come along.
I’m intentionally not giving their names here. They were incredibly kind and generous with their time, but I didn’t ask if I could write about them and I want to respect their privacy. This was the first time that the two younger brothers had returned to the site since they left. The youngest brother was born there. I couldn’t believe how open they were to sharing the experience with us, a clutch of complete strangers. I was astounded by the largess of their offer and I want to be as respectful as possible.
We drove to the site and wandered around. All of the buildings were torn down after the war, but there are still signs that people lived in this desolate square of desert nearly 80 years go. We parked and walked to the cement foundation of what was once the cafeteria.
As we shuffled around in the playa, we started to see artifacts from the more than 11,000 people who were interned here. That was emotional, as it makes the cruelty of it so tangible. The brothers shared what they remembered. As children, they were allowed out of the barbed wire fence to hunt for Native American ruins and arrowheads. Their mother made dolls from scraps of fabric and stones that she collected.
This is the site of the brother’s block (block 3). In the photos you can see a spring, the heel of a woman’s shoe, and a hair curler with some rusty nails.
Here, the eldest brother is helping Ethan to identify some objects. You can see the scattered nails.
As we walked along I saw the edge of what looked like the base of a drinking glass just poking out of the dirt. I decided to pull it out to take a look at what shape it was in. It was dirty, but devastatingly in tact; not a chip anywhere on it. My inner hoarder pleaded with me to steal it and save it. It has been in the desert for all this time and it has survived! Someone should take it and keep it safe! Someone should tell its story!
I was able to overpower my impulse. Instead, I showed it to the museum director, but apparently even she doesn’t remove artifacts from the site. I was obsessing about it for the rest of the day, though. I’m still wishing she would have taken it back to the museum. But of course I realize that it wasn’t really about the glass. It was about the brothers, who are the last witnesses to this event. It’s about history and memory and wanting to right wrongs. It’s about wanting to save things that time – by definition – won’t let you save.
We decided to slip off and leave the brothers alone to visit the site and talk. I tried to think of something to say that would convey my gratitude. We thanked them profusely and got out of their way. I hope that was enough.
Such a tragic part of American history….
What an amazing coincidence that you were the same time as the survivors.
It must have been extremely moving listening to their stories.
It was amazing! And so humbling. The girls compete at state this weekend and they probably don’t stand a chance, as they are from a poor school and they are competing with some trust fund kiddos who got a lot of help from their butlers and whatnot. But I keep telling them, “You interviewed a primary source and you had an amazing experience! No matter what happens, hold your head up high!”
That experience will stay with them for a lifetime. More so than any butler produced project….