HORSE’S MOUTH: Bacon Sakatani’s Tidbits on Heart Mountain Opening

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By GEORGE YOSHINAGA
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on August 30, 2011.)

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LAS VEGAS — Gee, it seems like only a week ago I was here in my favorite city. Well, actually it’s more like two weeks.

I wasn’t planning a trip here for at least another month but the phone rang and on the other end was my brother-in-law from Maui.

“We’ll be in Vegas next week,” he said.

My first thought? “Oh my gosh.”

Then as my wife always says, “It’s cheaper to visit them in Vegas than flying to Maui.”

That may be true, but with my luck in the casino, maybe it’s just as cheap to fly to Maui.

Oh well … One thing about being a writer is that I have to pack a lot of stuff I have to refer to in order to fill one page in the Rafu.

I guess writers are the only ones who can bring their work along with them.

I mean, a chef can’t bring his pots and pans and a gardener certainly can’t haul a lawnmower with him.

On the trip, I lucked out because I received several lengthy pieces that will certainly help to fill today’s column.

The first one was from Bacon Sakatani, Mr. Heart Mountain, who returned from the event at the Wyoming camp and mailed me his observations.

He entitled his piece “Bacon’s Tidbits: Heart Mountain Opening.” So here’s his article:

That was a very good grand opening of the new Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center we had last weekend at the campsite. Here are some tidbits not covered by the press.

Keiichi Ikeda and I drove to Rock Springs, in the southern part of Wyoming, to avoid the Yellowstone Park traffic, 806 miles from my place in West Covina, for our first day. I drove all the way. Next day, we went through the picturesque Wind River Canyon of Wyoming, which we both remembered on our train ride to Heart Mountain, going through several tunnels on the side of the mountain with the river next to it.

Got to Cody before noon and just outside of town, saw a full-length barrack that was still intact and it brought back many memories of our stay at the camp. Then we went to see a Nisei farmer friend in Powell as he still had a camp barrack, to check out if the 6-foot-wide by 8-foot-high asbestos wall for the stoves was still in the barrack and sure enough, the asbestos wall was still there.

So during camp days for over three ears, we lived with that asbestos wall without knowing the harm it could have done to us. I’ve heard a friend of mine had a lung removed and then died, so I must find out more about that.

In 1994, Keiichi and I drove together to this farmer’s place to get a barrack for the Japanese American National Museum and another one at a nearby location which now sits inside the museum.

In the next couple of days, we back to the Block 1 side of camp where we used to go under the railroad trestle and then into the 6-foot round culvert pipe under the highway, then into the deep ravine which we took to sneak to the river nearby. Keiichi still remembered how he went with a group to get sand from the river for the sumo dojo we used to have at the camp.

Then it brought back memories when my group went to camp at the river. The camp farm was next to our campsite, and we found watermelons growing and one of the boys had a pocket knife and started to plug the melons to find a ripe one. So after a dozen or so melons, we found one ripe enough to eat. But it started to rain, so our worried parents came after us and we had to pack up and return to the camp.

A few days later, a mimeographed bulletin came out notifying the camp that some group vandalized the watermelon patch and greatly reduced the supply to the camp mess hall — boy, were we scared for the next few days.

We also saw the steel bridge over the Shoshone River from the Block 30 side of camp. Then we went inside the root cellar where daikon, potatoes, brown onions and   vegetables like those were stored for the winter. Nearby we found the swimming hole where I passed my Boy Scout swimming test.

Then we went to see the monument for the camp, plus the Honor Roll having the 800 names of those who served in the U.S. Armed Forces and on a separate monument, the 15 names of those who gave their lives for our country.

Then nearby, the concrete storage vault of the high school. Keiichi was class president for one semester for the Class of 1945, where he was one of the most outstanding all-around athletes at the school, playing football, basketball and baseball. He recalled that when the basketball team went to play a game at the nearby town of Lovell, his team was fed a steak dinner before the game and after the game. He didn’t mention whether they won or lost the game. Other outside high schools usually gave them refreshments only.

Not only did he play football on the football field but skated on it after it was flooded with water and frozen and used as a skating rink.

At a restaurant for dinner one night, a woman came by to talk to us and wondered if we were going to the grand opening, so we said “yes” and after conversing with her, I gave her my name card so I could get in touch with her later. She saw my “Kokoro Kara” Japanese characters and immediately exclaimed, “I’ve got to get that one on me,” amongst her other tattoos.

Then at a place where we had breakfast, I sort of recognized a man walking to sit with his group of eight men. About 10 years earlier, I spoke at the local college pointing a finger at the crowd and saying, “You people of Wyoming were responsible for making the Heart Mountain camp a concentration camp … Wyoming should acknowledge that there was such a camp.” I didn’t know at the time, but the editor of a local newspaper was sitting in the front row.

The next edition of the paper’s headline read: “Former internee asks for apology from Wyoming.” So I went to complain to the editor that the headline was wrong but the article was correct, so in the next issue’s editorial, it stated, “No matter how abrasive Sakatani was, he asked for ‘acknowledgment’ and not an ‘apology.’ ”

So, a couple of weeks later, the mayor and governor of Wyoming issued a joint proclamation of the “difficulties and hardships … lack of consideration … negative sentiments” and expressed hope that such actions would be avoided in the future, and this letter was read at the Seattle Heart Mountain reunion.

So I went up to the man who walked in and asked him, “Aren’t you the former mayor of Powell?” He replied, “Hello, Bacon, I remember you.”

I took a photo quickly of the former mayor and his group and took it to the local paper’s office a block away and the story came out the next morning (Powell Tribune, Aug. 18, Page 3).

Keiichi and I also went to the local cemetery, where three unclaimed deceased persons of the Heart Mountain cemetery were taken to their final resting place. In this area, he also recalled how his group went to a farmer’s place to purchase about a dozen chickens for a San Jose Zebra team party.

In the middle of our stay, buddy George Iseri showed up and since there were only two beds in our room, I brought along a thin mattress to sleep on the floor. Since I was the one still thin, I was picked to sleep on it for three nights. That part was okay — it was their noise and constant going back and forth to the bathroom that disrupted my sleep. Luckily, the manager of the motel never found out and we were not charged for the extra person.

We drove around the campsite to Block 23 and found about 15 original barbed-wire fence posts still standing, less the wires. Then we climbed the hill above Block 27 and found the concrete water reservoir still there. A little more driving and we found the “siphon” water pipes, which must be about 8 feet in diameter, which carried irrigation water to the camp’s farm. This area must have where Keiichi’s dad found petrified wood, which is still in his family’s possession.

The final event of the grand opening was the early morning hike to the top of Heart Mountain, so we were having breakfast at McDonald’s when the cleaning lady came up to us and asked if we were there for the opening. She said, “What happened was wrong, our shameful past.” It really was a humbling moment for both of us.

So the both of us hiked to the top of Heart Mountain. It was my eighth climb but only the fourth for Keiichi. He had to be helped and dragged to the top, but he made it and on the way down, he had to have other people’s water. Luckily his replaced knee held up and he did pretty good for an old man.

My plan was to leave immediately for home, but Keiichi was so pooped out and in pain that I finally decided it was best that we stayed another night. So the next morning, I drove 860 miles from Powell to the California Hotel in Las Vegas and got there even before the sun went down. Keiichi slept most of the way and rested. Good thing he had his gambling card that gave us a free room for the night.

And guess what? Who do you think was grinning at us — Tosh Asano — and we all said, “What are you doing here?”

You mentioned the age difference between us for not knowing each other at camp, but it was your long hair, draped pants and hanging out with the “Jackrabbits” and “Taiyos” that made us avoid you. So we were all surprised to learn many years later that you were only a Mountain View farmboy. And I bumped into your Jackrabbit friend, Willie Kai, with his bus group and would have to say that he turned out to be a nice guy.

Keiichi used to wear Levis with 8 inches of rolled-up cuffs so appeared as a clean-cut   boy, but actually was from the dreaded “Virgil District.” Bill Shishima, who had a big part in the opening with his sharp Boy Scout uniform, was from Little Tokyo, so it was wrong for us to say that all L.A. people were bad. A few did turn out to be nice persons.

For what happened at the reunion and what’s inside the Interpretive Center, your old boss, Ellen Endo, should cover that. This got a little sloppy and long but hopefully no one will know the difference from your writing and mine.

Thanks a million, Bacon. You gave a different angle and report on the Heart Mountain event and I’m sure many of those who lived in Heart Mountain and who read your article will have their memories rekindled.

I know it did for me, especially your mentioning my “hanging out” with the Jackrabbits and Taiyos.

Ah, to be youthful again.

And since we’re in the “camp mode,” I’ll use another email sent to me by reader Jeri Fujioka-Wickstrom, who touches on Honolulu’s internment camp.

It’s an article about students and scientists working to uncover the Honouliuli internment camp.

First of all, they never refer to it as a “relocation center” or “concentration camp.”

That’s because those placed in the camp numbered only about 150 Japanese Americans, most of whom were community leaders.

It was decided not to place every JA in the camp because the majority of Hawaii’s population was made up of JAs, and if all were rounded up it would have been disastrous to the Islands.

The camp was located in Kunia, only a half-mile from what is now the H-1 Freeway.

Most on Oahu are unaware that under the thick cover of guinea grass and haole koa lies the 122.5-acre site where the JAs were confined during World War II.

Julie Baxter, an anthropology major who learned of the existence of the internment camp last year, said, “You’re actually helping to uncover history.”

So there has been renewed interest in the Honouliuli internment site in the past several years as the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii collaborated with the land owner, Monsanto Hawaii, to do archeological work in Honouliuli Gulch.

The internment camp was bulldozed sometime after the end of the war. Even so, remnants of the camp remain, including two wooden buildings, one of which is believed to have been used for guards.

Monsanto, a seed company, bought the land from Campbell Estates in 2007 and has been supportive of the preservation efforts at the site, allowing access to former internees, the Japanese Cultural Center and archeologists.

On a recent trip down a narrow, winding paved road that led to the gulch, archaeologists and students used historical maps and photos to search for signs of the camp.

The sweltering heat in the gulch gave visitors who accompanied the students a sense of the conditions that the JA internees endured.

Kind of sounds like the conditions those mainland JAs (many from the L.A. area) faced when they were sent to Poston and Gila in Arizona.

Never thought the rounding up of JAs in Hawaii happened, but this shows that it did.

Hey, speaking of hot, sweltering conditions, those of you think it’s hot in the L.A. area are really in a cool area.

The temperature here in Vegas has been setting new record highs over the past few days.

Today it’s 111.

So, relax and enjoy your 90-degree temperature in L.A.

Of course, for us tourists who spend all the time indoors, the temperature outside really isn’t a factor.

I’ll just have to make sure I leave early in the morning to get back to Gardena before the heat moves in. If I leave at 6 a.m., I’ll be through the so-called desert hotspot before it really starts boiling.

Until next time.

Oh yeah, no laughers today. When one is in Vegas, there is nothing to laugh at.

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George Yoshinaga writes from Gardena and may be reached via email. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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