RAMBLINGS FROM THE SON OF A PAPER SON: What Could Have Been…

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By BILL YEE

Here’s a confession. The last few years I have had a morbid obsession with reading the obituary section of the Rafu Shimpo and Los Angeles Times. I am interested in what the survivors say about their deceased loved one.

I think part of the reason is that I am confronting my own mortality. I survived a scare with a wound infection six years ago after open heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. I guess along with aches and pains, reading the obituaries is part of the aging process.

Warren holding up my son Derek before bedtime.

Recently in my month-long quest to clean our garage, I came across the script of a play written by my childhood friend Warren Kubota. Warren was a playwright. He had two plays produced by Asian American theater groups. The first was “Zatoichi Superstar” and the other was “Webster Street Blues.”

We were lifelong friends. Unfortunately, Warren passed away in his late 30s. He was stricken with Hodgkin’s disease while in the Army and bravely battled it for many years. He passed away in August of 1988 and from time to time I wonder how his life could have been. For me his passing 32 years ago was one of my first confrontations with my own mortality.

I first met Warren in the fifth grade at Redding Elementary School. I have fond memories of our friendship. We were milk monitors in the sixth grade. He would get mad at me because I was always late and he had to carry the heavy cartons to the rooms by himself.

Like all Baby Boomers, our focus was on sports and of course girls. We played baseball and football in the streets, at the playground at Redding, and Lafayette Park. When it was basketball season it was the Buddhist Church on Bush Street or we would hop the fence at Morning Star School. We played without adult supervision, left in the morning and got home in time for dinner.

The Western Addition neighborhood we grew up in could be defined as the ghetto in the ’60s. Today it is gentrified and most of the black residents have moved away. J-Town, which is located in the middle of the neighborhood, provided some diversity. Growing up in the Webster Street neighborhood definitely shaped the both of us.

Ken Narasaki and Kelvin Han Yee in a scene from Warren Kubota’s “Webster Street Blues,” first performed by Asian American Theater Company in San Francisco in 1988. The play was set in 1972 during the Vietnam War. Kubota was working on a new play at the time of his death. (Photo by Cynthia Kiki Wallis)

We both went to Ben Franklin Junior High together. We were one of the six Asian kids in a predominantly African America student population.

We used to walk home together. On one of our walks home we were robbed a knifepoint on the bridge on Geary and Steiner. The thief took my bus ticket and 50 cents.

When I told Warren we could have jumped the guy with the knife, he laughed and said I was crazy. He did not want to risk getting knifed for my lousy bus ticket. He didn’t have anything of value on him. He was right!

When we graduated from Ben Franklin, we went to different high schools. He could have gone to the academic Lowell High School with his grades, but instead he went to the neighborhood high school, Galileo. He felt kids who went to Lowell were stuck up. I, on the other hand, did go to Lowell.

We did grow apart for a while, but our friendship endured in our later high school and college years. I guess it wasn’t beyond him to hang out with a guy from Lowell.

Warren’s life changed when his draft lottery number was number one. He faced the choice of been drafted and ending up in Vietnam or enlisting for four years and be stationed in Europe.

Besides becoming a functional alcoholic (his evaluation), Warren developed Hodgkin’s disease while in the Army. As a result, he lost a lung and his spleen to surgery. Through the years he endured multiple rounds of chemotherapy.

Because of his illness he left the military and returned to college, where he began his writing career. Warren was always somewhat of a cynic and a joker too. But he also had a serious side. We would have serious discussions on the issues of the period from the role of emerging feminism to civil rights.

We also had thoughtful conversations about religion and the existence of God. For example, one of his favorite topics was Buddhism vs. Christianity. I believe his writing was part of his therapy and reaction to his cancer. He always had an urgency to finish a project.

At the time of his death, Warren was coming into his own as a playwright. Would his later works have added to defining the Asian American experience? And what about his personal life? Would he have found his soulmate, had kids and aged gracefully?

We might have grown apart through the years as a result of raising families and the obligations of day-to-day living, but I do know that I have have missed our annual conversations about baseball and going to Giants games and Warren’s unique perspective on life.

He would have had a field day commenting on the current state of our politics. He used to push my buttons by saying he was supporting George Wallace for president.

We would probably be like older folks telling stories about the old days. It’s always nice to have a friend with whom you shared a common experience of childhood and adulthood, and finally old age.

As I enter the winter of my life, turning 68 this coming Christmas, I appreciate each day I have good health and can enjoy the company of friends and family. My father-in-law Lewis Abe used to say every day after you turn 65 is a bonus. He lived into his 90s and was grateful.

Warren didn’t have that bonus but I treasure the time we spent together. It does bring a smile to my face when I think of the good times we shared!

Addendum

Received a nice note from Kathy Nishimoto concerning “Auntie” Linda Fujioka: “I met Auntie Linda and the Fujioka family in the early ’50s at Unique Floral Shop in Montebello. My parents were farmers in West Covina. We didn’t visit often, but when we did the Fujiokas were there on occasions. I remember Auntie as being so cheerful and always so kind.

“Then in August 2001, I went to work for Kelly and Cheryl Goto at Unique. I saw Auntie whenever she came to the flower shop to visit. She was teaching then. She encouraged me to go back to school and get my teaching credential. So at 55, I went back and got my credential at 57! I am an ESL adult school teacher and loving it … Auntie Linda is truly my inspiration.”

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Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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