An Excerpt from
Dandelion Through the Crack
Please note that a new edition has recently been published by Soho Press with a new title: Kiyo's Story. The text has not been changed.
HAI IDE TE
MISHIN NI HIKARESHI
—John Shinji Sato
It crawled out
Then crushed by a car
—Trudy Sato, trans.
May 17, 1942. Sacramento, California.
With a start, I notice a police car following me. As I glance in my rearview mirror, peering through the pile of old suitcases in the back seat, I quickly figure I must be at least three miles outside of my legal five-mile radius. My hands begin to sweat.
Will the cops take me to jail? What will they do with the suitcases? My brothers and sisters need them to pack up for the “trip.” If I don’t get home by curfew time, what will Mama and Tochan (which means “daddy” in Japanese) do? At 18, I am the oldest, and the only one who drives besides Tochan. My brother Seiji is close to my age, but he volunteered for the US Army after the Pearl Harbor attack and is stationed at Fort Leonard Wood.
What if the police think I’m a spy?
Mr. Saiki, our neighbor, flashes through my mind. He is in prison somewhere, and his family doesn’t know where he was taken. People say there is a special prison in Missoula, Montana for spies. His son Mickey quit school to take over the farm.
FBI agents showed up at a farm, and not finding Mr. Mizukami at home, agents went to Elk Grove High School and demanded that his son tell them the whereabouts of his father. They found Mr. Mizukami pruning pear trees in Courtland, and took him in. The next morning, much to the embarrassment of his family, their father’s picture appeared in the Sacramento Bee, branded as a spy.
If the FBI thinks a good man like Mr. Saiki is a spy, there is no telling what they will do to me. If I were to be picked up now, what would my family do? Would my parents be notified? I must write down somewhere that my name is Kiyo Sato and that my parents are Shinji and Tomomi Sato at Route 2, Box 2917, in Sacramento, California. What will they do with my Studebaker? Dear God, please, please, not now!
I slow down. The police car slows down. My steering wheel becomes wet and slippery. He follows me steadily. I reach the town of Perkins, almost within the legal radius of five miles. I pass Bradshaw Road and he is still right behind me. I hold my body erect to keep from crumbling. My spine stiffens from fear. My foot can hardly control the pressure on the gas pedal and I try hard not to jerk or spurt forward.
I wish desperately now that I had taken the time to get that permit, but just to get it I have to go to Sacramento, which is over the five-mile radius. Besides, my Nisei Japanese-American friends tell me that it takes hours of waiting, that no one seems to know what they are doing. Right now, traveling eastward, out of town, I can’t tell the officer that I’m on my way to get it. The steering wheel begins to slip.
I had planned to make one more stop for vegetables at the Chinese truck farm on the north side of Folsom Boulevard, but decide to turn right and head straight for home.
Explicitly following the law, I signal a right hand turn with my left arm at a right angle out of my window, allowing plenty of time. My right foot falls heavily as it tries to step lightly on the brakes to slow down. I try with every ounce in my body not to provoke the police car behind me.
What had always been an unconscious right turn takes every effort to turn my steering wheel and maneuver over the slope of the railroad tracks. It is not until after the descent that I notice that the police car is no longer in my rearview mirror. I let my car roll down the incline, and my body goes limp. My leg is too weak to step on the brakes. When finally my Studebaker comes to a rolling halt, I fall over the steering wheel.
It is a long while before I feel the flow of blood into my blanched hands and feet.
I lift my head and see the chilling reminders down the road - huge 18" x 24" public notices nailed onto the fence posts:
INSTRUCTIONS TO ALL
PERSONS OF JAPANESE ANCESTRY
I didn’t want to stop when I first saw them. I didn’t want the world to know that I am “one of them” and have them see me jump the ditch, hold on to the barbed wire fence while I read the instructions. The small print would seal our fate. I checked my rear view mirror for any oncoming cars. Up ahead I saw more posters. I drove on. It got easier to pass up another one. The rarely traveled, quiet one-mile-long Routier Road appeared violated by black and white public notices indiscriminately nailed the whole length of the road. With only five mailboxes on the road, why didn’t they send five letters? Actually only four letters. Mr. McDonald is Caucasian.
Like a huge, ominous wave, the dreaded day creeps up the state, ridding it of anyone with more than one-sixteenth Japanese blood, which goes back five generations, guaranteeing that not a single drop of Japanese blood will be left to “contaminate” the state. Herded into fairgrounds, horse stalls and temporary assembly centers, men, women and children await the construction of permanent concentration camps.
It’s like going to a Boy Scout summer camp, the authorities tell us. Now that concentration camps are a reality, we are advised that they are not to be called “concentration camps.” They are now to be referred to as “relocation centers.” Imagine! We are to be kindly relocated to a relocation center!
News reaches us from those incarcerated at the Santa Anita racetrack. “Our family has a horse stall. No amount of scrubbing takes the smell away. We find old planks to cover the muddy front. I hope you don’t come here. It’s terrible!”
Feeling braver and needing the vegetables for supper, I decide to turn around and scoot across Folsom Boulevard. I spot Mr. Yuen working at the far end of the truck farm, picking lettuce. I drive slowly along the edges of the plots to avoid raising dust. When he sees my Studebaker coming, he leaves his row to meet me. I tell him about my close shave with the law.
“Next time, if they stop you,” he tells me, “you call me. I come get you. I tell them you my daughter.”
He will never know how much it means to me to have someone who is not Japanese to stand up for me, especially when more and more Chinese are wearing “I am Chinese” buttons. Driving home, I feel that a bit of sun is shining through the threatening, dark clouds. I don’t tell my parents about the police. They’ve got enough to worry about.