During a rainstorm in April, I fell and broke my right ankle. A week later, I had surgery at Kaiser’s Los Angeles Medical Center, where I’ve had the best possible care from a highly professional, multi-ethnic staff. One of the questions I was asked in the pre-op interview was, “Have you ever had an operation?” I had to think for a minute.
It was June of 1961 when I had an appendectomy at a hospital in Culver City. I was eight and had been suffering from stomach trouble. There’d been speculation I was a hypochondriac and faking illness, so I was happy about the upcoming operation. I felt vindicated. I was to spend a relaxing week in the hospital.
Of course, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of pain involved. On the lighter side, I was cheered up by family stopping by, including Phil and Marion Shigekuni. They were expecting their first child, my cousin Laurie. On another day, my divorced parents happened to show up at the same time with their new spouses. It was a surreal moment, but they were all smiles.
One of the things we talked about was how Jeff Chandler was there in the same hospital. Known for his prematurely gray hair, Chandler was a popular actor at the time, the equivalent of George Clooney. My new stepfather joked that I was hanging out with movie stars and asked for my autograph.
One thing not so funny involved the nursing staff. This was the old L.A., with bitter memories of the war with Japan still fresh in people’s minds. Most of the nurses were kind, but there was a night nurse I’ll never forget. Remember Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or Kathy Bates’ character in “Misery”?
Unfortunately, I was at that awkward age when boys are no longer seen as cute. Catching me off guard, she administered an alcohol rub-down that felt like it was going to take my skin off. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. There were questions and comments about the Japanese that implied she was no great fan.
After watching too many John Wayne movies on TV, I confess I didn’t like them much, either, but I then realized I too was the enemy.
“Well, do you speak it?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
“That figures,” she said, sarcastically.
The next day, my American-born grandparents asked what was wrong. I tried to explain. They apologized for not predicting something like that. They were upset but not completely surprised. “She looked like a mean one,” mused my grandfather. Today, there’d be a civil rights lawsuit, a visit from Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton and my picture in the paper. In 1961, we were still just trying to get by.
My great hospital adventure had gotten old and I was anxious to be on my way. Sadly, Jeff Chandler never made it home. He died after a botched operation, age 42. His final role was in “Merrill’s Marauders,” released the year after his death.
It’s ironic that in real life Gen. Frank Merrill’s team, who secured the Burma Road during World War II, had several Japanese American MIS interpreters. In that case, the true story was better than the movie.
Dan Akira Nishimura is the nephew of Senior Moments columnist Phil Shigekuni and can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.