Wabi Sabi - a way of looking at the world with a kind of quiet insight, to find beauty, even in imperfection.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Rohwer Whispers

When I first started writing Broken Dolls, I wasn’t aware there had been two relocation centers in southeast Arkansas. This discovery added new layers to my story which follows the lives of a Japanese-American family from 1941 to 1968.

In November 2009, I decided to visit the site of one of the relocation centers, Rohwer. I began with an interview with the former mayor of McGehee, Arkansas, Rosalie Gould, an authority on the history of the Rohwer and Jerome Relocation Centers. She holds an extensive collection of artifacts from the camps and has maintained relationships with many former internees. She told me fascinating stories that were told to her by internees, and she shared her collection of photographs, artwork and essays. Her interview started my passage into the past and helped me to better understand what it meant to be a Japanese-American in the 1940’s.

But my real empathic journey began the following day, when I drove to the site of Rohwer Relocation Center. When I was a child, I’d visited Topaz, a relocation center in Utah where my mother spent three years of her childhood. As a little girl, I couldn’t grasp the concept of being “relocated.” In fact, I thought it would be an adventure to live in a desert camp named for the semiprecious stone found there, and I looked all over to see if I might find a jewel. But I saw my mother crying as she recollected her days in camp, and it made me queasy, but I didn’t understand why.

So, on that very warm day in November 2009, I hoped that as an adult, I might feel something deeper and come to a better understanding at the Arkansas site.

I left my hotel, and my gas gauge indicated I had approximately 1/8 tank of gas. I approached a gas station at the crossroad of US-65 and AR-1, where I would turn off the highway to get to Rohwer. I debated whether or not to stop. I pulled in and found the pumps were not auto-pay. Lazy and in a hurry, I didn’t want to take the time to go inside. So, convincing myself the site couldn’t be that far off US-65, I turned onto AR-1 and headed in the direction of Rohwer.

I drove and drove. And drove. Through acres and acres of cotton fields, still dotted with puffs of white. Through marshy patches of tall trees. All the while the gas gauge snuck toward “empty.” Surely I’d pass through a small town that would have a gas station. But what if I didn’t find one before I ran out of gas? There was hardly a house in sight. I really was out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere.

As my heart beat nervously, I wondered when I would finally arrive at Rohwer. And would it be before I ran out of gas? Then, in the middle of my frustration and fear, an epiphany hit me. I realized my anxiety might be similar to what the Japanese-Americans felt as they were being relocated from California to Rohwer, Arkansas.

Such a strange-looking land. So hot and humid. In-the-middle-of-nowhere.

The “low gas” warning light flashed on, feeding my fear of the fast-approaching empty tank. But I immersed myself in that fear and apprehension and imagined being on the train that brought the internees from California almost seventy years before.

When will we be there? What will Rohwer look like? Will there be armed guards and barbed wire, like at the last camp?

In the distance, I saw a couple of buildings, perhaps a town?

Please have a gas station.

My heart pounded.

How much farther to Rohwer? Why aren’t there any mileage markers? What if I’m not going the right direction? Please have a gas station.

There it was. A tiny station in a tiny town. Though it was not an automatic pump, I counted my blessings and proceeded inside to pay. I interrupted the conversation of two young girls behind the counter and an awkward silence followed. One girl glared at me while the other took my credit card, and I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wondered why. Was it because I wasn’t from “around these parts?” Still engaged in imagining the feelings of an internee, I even wondered if it was because I am half-Japanese, so close to Rohwer. I finally decided it was probably because I’d cut short the gossip of two teenage girls.

Finally, a couple of miles farther down the road, I saw the sign for Rohwer. I turned right onto a gravel road and crossed the railroad tracks on which the internees would have arrived. I got out of the car and stared down the long, lonely track. I turned 360°. A small swamp. Cotton fields. Tall, shrubby trees. Arkansas Highway 1, Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial monuments.

The tarpaper barracks that housed almost 12,000 Japanese-Americans from September 18, 1942 to November 30, 1945 were gone. All that was left was a group of monuments that stood in a grove of trees in the middle of a cotton field, and a tiny cemetery of internees who had died while in camp. I felt lonely and sad, but at the same time grateful, to be the only visitor at the small site.

Swatting mosquitoes away from my face, I closed my eyes, and imagined getting off the train after a four-day ride from California. Being half-Japanese, if I had been alive during that time, I too would have been sent to a relocation center.

The wind whispered in my ear as I walked around the site looking for any memento that might tell me a secret of the camp. A lost trinket. A carving in a tree. A name I might recognize on a headstone.

At last, Sachi, the young girl in my book, whispered a secret to me that changed my story in Broken Dolls. Sachi has become a part of me, and every page I write is a visit with her. One day, when my book is finished, I’ll miss her.

As I prepared to leave Rohwer, I wanted to leave my own monument to the internees. I searched for something special, but the area was barren. Gravel crackled with every step I took in my search. Rocks! That would be my monument. I stacked several and left them as my personal monument to the Japanese-Americans who were taken from their homes in California and brought to Rohwer, Arkansas.


Then, I drove away with the secrets I’d learned.

1 comment:

  1. I think you captured the relocation experience very well. In California I knew of a woman who had been at Jerome and she still hated Arkansas, many years later. Looking forward to reading your book when it is finished!
    Pat Browning
    now of Yukon, OK