Saturday, May 13, 2006

Gulag, "Relocation Center", whatever...

In light of Fixer's earlier post, this is a little eerie.

Seeing as how one of the purposes of our trip is to kinda scout out potential retirement places, and seeing as how W. and his 29% (and dropping!) would dearly love to "relocate" those of us who are reality-based, and indeed have prepared "illegal immigrant (wink-wink) detention centers", today me 'n Mrs. G combined the two using our finely-tuned sense of history and visited the Manzanar National Historic Site here in the Owens Valley between Independence and Lone Pine. I've driven by this place a hundred times over the last fifty years, so this trip I made it a point to stop, and I'm glad I did.

Manzanar is one of ten Relocation Centers for Japanese-Americans during World War Two, mostly in the Western states, but there were two in Arkansas. These were for people and families who were not suspected of anti-American thought or action. There were other camps for those who were under suspicion, and they were much more heavily guarded. There were ten thousand people interned there, and no one ever tried to escape although one young man was shot while gathering firewood outside the wire. He recovered.

These folks, the Issei, first generation people from Japan who were not allowed to become American citizens, and their kids, the Nisei, most of them born here, who were American citizens, were basically yanked out of their lives and sent to the camps. Many of them went home to nothing - everything had been stolen or otherwise acquired from them by their white "neighbors" - and had to start over. Some of Mrs. G's sister's schoolmates were born in the camps as there were (and still are) lots of Japanese farmers in her Central Coast hometown.

These folks made the best of a bad situation, and turned Manzanar into a veritable garden: they grew crops and planted fruit trees and lawns to gussy the joint up. There were hundreds of lawns, but only one push mower, purchased by the War Relocation Authority at the hardware store in Lone Pine. I bet there wasn't any of that "when ya gonna bring my mower back?" stuff! Owens Valley residents picked fruit from the trees for years after the camp was abandoned.

I could go on ad nauseam about these folks and Manzanar. There isn't anything left of the wood-frame-and-tarpaper barracks, which were totally inadequate for the high desert winds and hot and cold temperature extremes in the area. A few of the stone structures, made of rocks, notably a couple of guard shacks and some staff housing foundations are still there. These are all that was there when I was a kid: no signs, no park, no nothing. My dad told me what it was, but basically no one wanted to know. There is a more recently built white obelisk monument to those who rest in the camp cemetery and a brand-new reproduction guard tower right next to the highway. Fitting, I'd say.

Since the National Park Service took it over in 1986, forty years after the camp was abandoned, it has been improved as a NHS: there is an Interpretive Center, which is government-speak for a museum. There is an Auto Tour, basically a dirt road around the camp with low signs telling what was there, such as "Buddhist Temple", "Catholic Church" (in honor of the nearby mountains, I innocently asked Mrs. G if it was "Our Lady of the Slopes". She hit me.), "Camouflage Net Factory", and locations of various barracks areas, the hospital, etc. You can see all this on the Virtual Tour. Highly recommended.

The Interpretive Center is amazing. Photos, video, artifacts, explanations of life in the camp, re-creations of living quarters. There are stories of the young American men from the camp who fought like tigers in Italy, including one posthumous Medal of Honor recipient. It brought tears to my eyes more than once.

The main emotion I took away from Manzanar, however, is anger. Anger at the vile things our government can do to its own citizens in a time of xenophobic (or any other kind) fear and hatred, or any other manufactured excuse.

Anger at the fact that FDR knew this was illegal when he did it in 1942, but only admitted it two weeks after his re-election in 1944. Sound familiar? Well, it would if we had a president who ever admitted a mistake.

Anger even at Reagan, whom I never cared for much anyway. In 1981 he apologized to the remaining internees and kicked 'em down some money in "reparations". He did this right after a Federal court ruled in favor of the internees in a lawsuit charging federal wrongdoing that had been in the courts since 1945 or so. Covering the government's ass because all those folks didn't have the decency to die by the time the ruling came down.

And anger at Americans who let, nay, encouraged, such an illegal breach of the Constitution against other Americans and remained silent for years despite knowing it was so wrong.

I felt a little shame as well.

Bush is ten times as desperate and dangerous as FDR could have ever thought of being. At least FDR had a real war to deal with. If Bush and his criminal cabal have learned anything from history, it is that they can do unconscionable shit like locking up Americans for any or no reason and get away with it.

Be warned, my friends.

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