Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Amache on the Santa Fe Trail


There's really little to see but row after row after row of foundations, like this one, a procession of perfectly rectangular shapes angling down a slope toward what once was the front door of the Amache Relocation Camp. If you get there in a week or two, the place will still be festooned with wildflowers that put a smiley face on the whole place.

Check it out.

It's really much, much bigger than you can imagine, but then it had to be, holding as many as 10,000 Japanese-Americans, Japanese we thought--the rest of us--far too vulnerable to their own inborn nationalism to side with the U.S. of A., during World War II.  Good night, some still spoke Japanese?

So we built camps like this one, ten of them, in addition to transforming race tracks and other plots of ground elsewhere; and we filled them with Japanese-Americans.


One can only imagine how much distrust, how much hate was created by the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; but if you stand on the broad ground of Amache Relocation Center, just outside of Granada, Colorado, some morning, and look up and down the rows of foundations, you can still feel some animosity, something of the hate that must have arisen.

I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior. I don't mean a nice part of the interior either. Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands... Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.
So wrote newspaper columnist Henry McLemore.

There were other reasons as well, selfish reasons.

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.
That's what the head of a California agricultural association told the Saturday Evening Post is 1942.


There were 10,000 people here, in hundreds of rudely constructed barracks, ten thousand men and women and kids who had other lives up and down the west coast, all of them herded to places like this because of racial hatred and deep fear.


Just about everything is gone now, so many years later, but the absence of people and places have not emptied the place of voices, especially if you're alone. Once the place was a city. Once thousands crowded into its mess halls, worked its gardens, created its newspaper, maintained a place that became, for better or for worse, home for years. Babies were born, people died right here.


To call Amache a concentration camp is going too far. Amache wasn't an American Bergen-Belzen, nor anything close to the death factory at Auschwitz. The men who poured the cement for the endless foundations that sit awkwardly in the prairie grass at Ameche these days were not creating a death camp. The world knows about death camps.

But the images are stunningly reminiscent.


Because once upon a time, just outside of a tiny little town called Granada, Colorado, 10,000 people were surrounded by a fence and watched closely by armed guards in towers just like this one. In 1942, after a day that has, as Roosevelt said, lived in infamy, hate grew from the flames of Pearl Harbor, and hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans, most of them second and third generation, were herded up to places like this, where they bunked with dozens of others in habitation we still call "barracks," dozens and dozens and dozens of barracks.



There's a cemetery at Amache, a few stones set there by parents with broken hearts, parents who laid to rest their children. But there's also a small stone monument that celebrates the gift camp residents gave to a country who thought they might be traitors.



It's hard to imagine, but it's true--31 residents of Amache camp volunteered for military service and gave their lives to the country that took them from their homes and marched them to camp outside a little Colorado prairie town. The enlisted to fight for a country who opened a fenced gate, showed them their assigned barracks, told them where to sleep, then left, shut and locked the gate behind them, and made sure the men in the towers were armed and ready lest there be some sort of insurrection.

But then, ironies abound at Amache camp, where today there are no more people, only spirits, spirits abounding. I don't know Japanese funeral rites, but you may have noticed the coins on the grave of the child, above, as well as the shape of the decorative cemetery sculpture, perfectly and dynamically Japanese, as if asserting self-hood and beloved identity.


And there's an apple tree right there in the graveyard, small and well-kept, a tree that right now is bearing apples in the middle of all that emptiness, in the place where the camp's dead are buried and its heroes celebrated. Somehow, all alone that morning, I couldn't help thinking that that tree--like the wildflowers--was a blessing.


Because, Lord knows, it's easy to be jaded when you stand out there on the empty plains in a place where once there was a city of 10,000, the tenth biggest city in Colorado, a city that was, in fact, a prison. When you stand out there alone, it's not difficult to confuse Amache and Dachau.

Just imagine, this endless procession of empty foundations, is a hop, skip, and a jump from what once was the most famous highway in America, the Santa Fe Trail, the domain of Kit Carson and a host of other iconic Western heroes. What could be more American than "the way west"?

And there it is.  There's Amache.


It's hard to forget.


1 comment:

jerrry27 said...

I can not remember if Herbert Hoover's recent book Freedom Betrayed contains any comments about the Japanese internment. He did say about Pearl Harbor that if you stick enough pins in a rattlesnake it will bite you.