Faint Echoes of Pearl Harbor

How Pearl Harbor Shaped the Modern World - The New York Times
NY Times

Before I went outside to rake the last of the fallen leaves, I heard a little story about Pearl Harbor Day. As is often the case, as I pulled the leaves to the street, I mused about what I know about that day 79 years ago today. Oh, I have read many articles and tomes about World War II history but what did I know first-hand.

If you yell into the right canyon, the echo of your voice comes back, loud at first, then more faintly until it disappears. Today we live in a world of barely perceptible echoes of the Pearl Harbor attack. In fact, there may be a couple of new generations who have no idea why we consider this anniversary at all. When I was young, the echo was that first loud return. Men and women who responded to Pearl Harbor surrounded me. Both of my grandpas were in combat. Walls and mantles of the homes of my friends were dotted with mementoes of the war. Still, I can’t imagine any of the men I knew ever willingly calling themselves “the greatest generation.” They did their service and came home to make a new world. Remembering their war was mostly reserved for the clubby bastions of Elk’s halls and VFW bars… if they said anything at all.

For three years during college, I had a summer job in the sprawling warehouse of our valley irrigation district. I was the oddity, the college kid who showed up every summer. The work was dull, but the warehouse was air-conditioned, so I did what I was told to stay out of the desert heat. It was there that I heard a loud echo of Pearl Harbor.

One veteran on the crew was a gruff Texan named Joe Smith. If there was anyone who inhabited that so American name, it was Joe. Short, shaved head with an aging body that was once completely one muscle, Joe was a guy who hovered on the edge of anger every minute of his life. No telling where that enormous chip on his shoulder originated, but we all learned that Joe didn’t have a brain wired for kidding. When he was confused, he turned red and puffed his chest, ready for action. I learned a lot about how not to spend my life from Joe. He could take the smallest, mindless task and stretch it to fill a day. One day, I saw him spending hours standing at a workbench honing the edges of a stack of machetes that the field workers used to clear small irrigation ditches. I had done that entire job in about an hour before. I cautiously approached Joe at the bench and remarked.

“Hey Joe, how are you doing today. Getting a good edge on those machetes?”

Barely looking up, Joe turned his head and replied, “Make’n eight boy—make’n eight.”

With that, he turned back to his work. I had nothing more to say and walked away, sure that I never wanted to be that guy, the sad soul who treated a job as nothing more than a time marker in eight-hour increments. Not all work is noble, a good thing to learn early.

My first year in the job, the manager and the foreman were both war veterans who were very proud of their service. The big boss, Charlie, always wore a white shirt and dress pants. He had been a pilot. Bob, the foreman, had a light grey uniform that showed his rank.  All us workers had dark grey uniforms. Bob’s voice was so quiet, almost shy, that we had to pay close attention when he spoke. For hours each day, Charlie and Bob would be down in the office, doing something. We workers were never sure. Bob appeared and walked the floor. A tall man, I was pretty sure that in his youth his nickname had to be Slim. To me, he appeared to be a bit lazy, but his encyclopedic recall of every part in the warehouse was vital. When the buzzer went off and we went up to the counter to meet the field workers who needed a part, even the most obscure one, Bob knew exactly what they meant and where to find it.

Charlie mostly made appearances at our shared lunch time near the foreman’s desk in the warehouse. He pulled out a chair and faced us, regaling us with profane tales from his sex life and dirty jokes. The warehouse was a men’s club, and no perversity was off limits. Charlie had once been a traveling salesman and fancied himself a woman’s man. Wizened, with irregular features, I couldn’t squint my eyes enough to figure out what any woman had ever seen in him.

My second summer, there was someone new in the warehouse who also wore the light grey uniform of power. Sam Hirakata had taken over one desk in the office next to Bob. I liked him immediately. Unlike everyone else, he was interested in what I was studying at school and seemed to respect that I worked several jobs every summer to help pay my way. Very quickly, when he was on the floor, we gravitated toward each other. Sam had owned a small grocery store for many years but needed to have a job now that had medical benefits.  His kids were not interested in the family business, so he had closed shop and come to work at the water district. This was the last act of his work life. Sam’s family had once been farmers in the valley, with extensive holdings. His war was very different. Second generation Japanese American, nisei, Pearl Harbor meant that his family had been deported to the interior and interned for the duration, their lands given up and sold for pennies on the dollar to Caucasian owners, ironically, Armenian immigrants. His family spent the war in camp outside the tiny town of Poston, Arizona. The highway marking the Japanese exclusion zone ran in front of the camp. Funny thing about his telling me these stories. I didn’t detect any bitterness. I found that strange as I would have harbored a Joe Smith size chip on my shoulder.

There was new tension in the warehouse. Away from everyone, at what he now considered his bench, Joe engaged in passive aggressive rants, always in a lowered voice about the “Jap” being a boss now. Oh, he would do what he was told and screw on a public smile, toothy false flag, but he was not happy. The genuine change was in Bob. He had always assumed that he was next in line for Charlie’s job, a wish and assumption that he had nurtured for over a decade. Now, his lifetime goal was in doubt. He had become almost robotic in his job. Sam was attuned to Bob’s reaction. He tried to maneuver around it. He didn’t react to the slight affronts, and too strident questioning about his decisions. Sometimes, when Bob was sloughing off his anger with Sam in the area, Sam would quickly catch my eye.

One time, when we were alone in the office, he said, “Jim, I have seen this many times before. It is better to just do my job and let go.”

My last summer in the warehouse, everything had changed. Charlie was gone. Bob was gone. Joe was gone. Sam now had the white shirt and grey pants. The workers seemed happy about the change. Sam came up from the office regularly and even pitched in at the counter when we got slammed with requests. Sam seemed thrilled to have me back and gave me a good firm handshake the first time I came up from the locker room.

One day, I asked one of the old timers, the guy who drove the loader in the pipe yard, what happened. He took off his hard hat and shook his head.

“It wasn’t good,” he said, looking at the floor, “Bob blew up.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I don’t know if you heard this, but Bob had a pretty bad time in the Marines. I didn’t serve but I guess because I am about his age, he told me about it.”

“I knew he was there, but I never asked,” I replied.

“Yea, when they announced that Sam was taking over, Bob stood up in front of everyone and yelled that he would never work for a dirty Jap. Then he quit.”

            My last summer there was a good one, mostly because I knew I wasn’t coming back. I worked hard and tried not to be so much the annoying college kid that I was the first two summers. Sam and I talked often. His kids had gone to college, and he loved to talk about them and ask me questions about what I wanted to do after I graduated. Sam never mentioned how Bob left. It seemed like he had built a special box for anything related to the war, a place he stored the anger and the slights. When he talked about Bob at all, it was kindness. Knowing the truth, I thought that remarkable.

The leaves are all raked and the garden tools stored in the garage for winter. Another season come and gone. I think I am that second echo now, the one that is a little fainter but clear still. Anyhow, that’s what it feels like on this Pearl Harbor day.


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