U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Keeper of the Stories

I just divvied up nine pounds of chuck roast between two slow cookers, layering each one on top of a bed of carrots and potatoes and onions, then a couple of sheets of Reynolds Wrap crimped together and punctured so that the roast juices can run down into the vegetables but the roast will hold together, then the meat, then a cup of water and Lipton soup mix poured over the top.  Company will be here at noon:  my kids and my parents and my parents’ friends who have known me since I was in college, my husband since he was in third grade, and my children from the day they were born.

As you age, the people who remember you when you were young are fewer and fewer.  Then finally it’s just you standing there, keeper of the stories, holding in your heart the endings of those who have gone before you and the beginnings of those who are following after you. And they follow so fast.  That is the way of the world, which makes it natural, but does not make it easy.

Being a historian complicates the picture.  For instance, I can tell you without a shred of doubt that all four of my grandparents favored the internment of Japanese-American citizens during World War II.  The number of Americans who opposed that act was dishearteningly small.  Some may have regarded it as “a necessary evil,” a drastic measure, something regrettable, and gosh it seemed awful unfair  – but they did not protest it.  And many benefited from it, including my maternal grandparents.

They were destitute when they arrived in California – dirty Okies, unwanted and unwelcome, who slept rough for months in the very fields they picked.  Their first job in California was pulling carrots in Bakersfield.  That’s a job that machines mostly do now – plant breeding and hybridization has produced carrot crops that all mature at the same time, and all reach a fairly uniform length.  A carrot harvester slices into the ground at a depth just a tiny bit below the roots’ mature length and then peels up the whole row in one pass.

My grandparents followed the work, followed the crops, moving north with the harvest, pulling carrots, picking peas, and finally, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, picking tomatoes.  They slept in the field of the tomato farmer, beneath a windbreak of fig trees planted at one end.  (I learned this at my grandmother’s funeral.)  The farmer was Italian, maybe a few years older than my grandfather, with a kind wife and a big family.  My grandfather was a sturdy, hard-working fireplug of a man, who smoked but didn’t drink, and my grandmother was a kind young mother with one small child.  And that Italian farmer offered my grandfather a job, working for him as a foreman.

So then my grandparents lived in the nearby migrant housing camp for a while, and my grandfather was able to apprentice himself to a carpenter and earn a little more money that way through the winter months.  And in a couple of years, when World War II hit, he had steady work.  He built the barracks at the nearby Air Force base that popped up overnight in the middle of the tomato fields and bean fields.

He also built the barracks for the Japanese-Americans who were gathered in a “collection camp” at the county fairgrounds.

I would have to do some research to figure out which job came first – probably the internment camp barracks, thrown up fast and on the cheap.  The Air Force base would have gotten a slower start, and building it out was a job that lasted through the war and after.

So building the housing at a temporary prison camp for his fellow citizens was the economic opportunity that helped my grandparents rise from dirt poverty to respectable poverty.  They ended up buying a small lot in an unincorporated neighborhood springing up beyond the edge of town in a 50-year floodplain.  I don’t know who owned that land before my grandparents got their city-lot sized patch of it, but I can ask my mother.  I know my grandfather built the entire house himself, in between his other jobs.

And I know that the neighborhood was out near the Italian family’s homestead, and I know that throughout World War II, when there was a dusk to dawn curfew on Italian-Americans in California, my grandparents helped those neighbors who had first given them a chance in California.  I learned this too at my grandmother’s funeral, when the youngest son of that family, Azio, an old grandfather himself now, spoke of my grandmother driving out to their home in the evening to bring them whatever his mother needed but couldn’t get during the day because she couldn’t drive and the men used their trucks all day for work and there was no time for Azio’s father to run an errand into town and get home before curfew.

My family’s story is a story of displacement – they were displaced by the largest man-made natural disaster in history.  They were environmental and economic refugees, desperate for work, desperate to live.  So they migrated to California, where they were despised for being poor and uneducated, ignorant cotton-pickin’ Okies.  And they worked in the fields alongside Japanese farmworkers, and Black farmworkers, and Mexican and Chicano farmworkers – the laboring classes.  And they chanced at last on an Italian tomato farmer who needed a foreman, and who hired my grandfather for the job – surely because he showed competence and skill and an absolutely unceasing ability to work hard, but also in part because he was not Japanese or Black or Mexican or Chicano.

And the sudden removal of thirty or forty percent of agricultural laborers before the summer harvest of 1942, as well as the seizure and auction of their land and property – that “made room” in the agricultural economy of the San Joaquin Valley for my grandparents to stop being farmworkers and become farmers themselves, leasing tomato fields from year to year, joining the tomato growers co-op, moving finally in the 1960s from their tiny four-room hand-built house into a small A-frame home with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a sitting room, a real parlor, and a full bathroom.

Japanese internment surely had something to do with that economic rise, and “Operation Wetback” surely did as well.  Those two U.S. government initiatives, supported broadly by most American citizens during and after World War II, created demand for labor, drove up wages, and allowed some of the poorest whites to rise.

That’s not how we tell our family stories when we gather together and reminisce.  And that’s okay.

But when I teach, and I talk about the home front during World War II, and I talk about the post-war economy, this is one of the stories I tell.  And I tell my students that together my four grandparents held up the very sky for me, and their love buoyed me from my birth and carries me even now, and I will love them all my life.  But I tell them that these other things – these things are true as well, and it is my job as a historian to acknowledge these things too, and to help my students see that we can be grateful for those who came before us, and even proud of them, and we can love them, but that does not obligate us to honor their every deed or ignore how they were implicated and implicated themselves in grievous wrongs.

I don’t know if this is the best way to teach U.S. history, but this is how I do it.

Okay, the roast has been slow-cooking for two and a half hours.  Company arrives at noon.  I have to make a few more things, then make myself presentable.  It helps that I look just like my grandmother – the same thick chestnut-colored hair, graying little and graying late, and the same dimpled smile – and that the warmth and tenderness of her own heart leapt to my own, like flame kindling flame.  That makes the labor of love both natural and easy.

12 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Great piece. I knew of course about Japanese-American internment, but I didn’t know there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew for Italian-Americans in Calif. during WW2.

    I recall reading somewhere about a white neighbor of some internees who kept an eye on their property, I think including greenhouses, while they were in a camp, ensuring that when they returned they didn’t have to start all over completely from scratch, as many no doubt did. I think this may be from a NewsHour interview with an artist, a painter, who was talking about her parents (the internees), but I don’t recall the painter’s name offhand. Anyway this post brought that story to mind.

  2. Louis, thanks for the kind words. Yes, Italians and Germans were under curfew in the Military Exclusion Zones, which pretty much included most of the West coast. I’ll have to ask my mom, but I believe the farmer and his wife were naturalized citizens, though they may have been native-born Americans. I know the wife spoke very broken English. There are also small communities scattered around the San Joaquin Valley that were built by anabaptist German immigrants — “Dunkards,” Brethren, Mennonites, and so forth, also mostly farming communities, so they would have encountered similar restrictions, though how people experienced these restrictions might have differed from one county to the next. I’m sure somebody has written a good social or cultural history regarding this part of World War II on the home front, and I’d love to read it. If there isn’t one, somebody will write it. At one time I hoped to research this for myself, and maybe some day I will. I did write a screenplay about it for a screenwriting class, but that’s sitting in a drawer in my desk, and I expect it will stay there. In any case, this is an important part of 20th century U.S. history.

    I remember how excited I was to start reading Darren Dochuk’s book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt, because I thought it would explain how it was that people like my migrant cotton-picking grandparents were able to carve out a decent life in California. But Dochuk’s focus was mostly on the middle class, or at least on people who had had resources of some kind before they were uprooted — maybe they lost their farm, or lost their business, and then picked up and rebuilt in southern California. He didn’t really focus on the San Joaquin Valley much, nor on the lowest class of laborers, the people who were dirt-poor even before the Dust Bowl, who could read and write, but who would not have been counted as markedly literate or articulate, who wouldn’t have been considered intellectually influential, even in the broadest sense of the term.

    But they were. And they are, still.

  3. I am always struck by the irony of the 442nd regimental combat team, a unit made up of Japanese Americans. It was the most decorated unit in world war two.

    Small correction–there was no air force until after the war. Before that it was the army air corps

    • Thanks for reminding folks that it was the Army Air Corps until after the war was over. My husband served in the Army Air Corps and was proud of that fact.

  4. What a rich, thoughtful essay. Thank you, Lora. My dad was a first generation college graduate who became a journalist—his father made hats, and they lived in the poorest part of Philadelphia, among people as mixed as in rural California: Italian, Black, and others. By the time the war came he was editorial page editor of the New York Post, a syndicated columnist and a liberal thorn in Roosevelt’s side, sharply critical of the recognition of Vichy and other pragmatic decisions. He had a strong voice, and didn’t hesitate to use it even when he provoked roars from the White House. When the confinement of Japanese Americans was announced, though, he wrote that he wondered if this was the right decision, and hoped that the authorities had it right. My dad was a great man, I miss him and think about him all the time. We could use him now. But when that great national crime was committed, my Jewish father who hated racial injustice didn’t see it for what it was. That too is part of his legacy.

  5. Thanks to all for the kind comments.

    I write about my my background in general terms here often, and I occasionally mention that I have an actual family of my own — though even that is a new phase of my writing for a broad audience. I have been very protective of my heart’s treasures — their names, their faces, the details of their lives. That goes for the deceased as much as for the living. I don’t know what possessed me to write this post, to be honest — these lives are indeed among the treasures of my heart — but I’m glad I did.

    I’ll have to fact-check the details for my own peace of mind later, find out exactly what date the little lot was purchased, exactly when they moved in to their first home. Maybe they bought the lot before Pearl Harbor — I really don’t know.

    I did find out that the Italian farmer and his wife were, in fact, born in Italy. I suppose that’s why they fell under the wartime curfew.

    And I do, in fact, look so like my grandmother did in that picture — or at least I used to. Now I am almost as old as she was when I was born. Ain’t life something.

    • Enjoyed your story. My parents and aunts and uncles fled the Kansas Dust Bowl for California also, happy to leave farming and told by a sibling who went out ahead of them that there was plenty of construction work, so to come on out. In the late 30s a bunch of the men were working on the All-American Canal, an 80-mile aqueduct that carried water from the Colorado River to desert areas in southeastern California. Construction work enabled a lot of refugees from the Midwest to buy homes during and after the war. We grew up in several-blocks-wide strip called the Shoestring Strip, which connected Los Angeles to land giving it rights to a harbor. A childhood friend recently sent me the book “Terminal Island – Lost Communities of Los Angeles Harbor” by Naomi Hirahara and Geraldine Knatz, with stories about the hard times our Japanese neighbors in southern California had been through, that we didn’t know about at the time and that nobody talked about until decades later.
      We didn’t know how privileged we were.

  6. I loved your story. I grew up in Colorado where the governor there, Ralph Carr, thought the interment policy was immoral and did as much as he could to allow uprooted Japanese to come live freely in Colorado. Suddenly confused, cold (they were from California and it’s chilly in Colorado) children started appearing in my elementary school classes. Governor Carr, of course, lost the next election, but in my small town the Japanese worked hard, mostly in truck farming and flower greenhouses and made sure all their children were well educated. At one time , in my town, a doctor, a dentist and the most successful businessman were all Japanese. My liberal father, also a local businessman, was all for helping them. My not at all liberal mother wouldn’t let me play with Japanese children. And then I grew up, married my high school sweetheart and we moved to Bakersfield where I learned a whole new story about being uprooted and social classes.

  7. Thank you. I am married to an Italian and I am certain he does not know the Italian curfew and to think his father was fighting WWII at the time. 🙁 Beautifully written.

  8. Very pleased to welcome new readers and commenters to the USIH blog — thanks for sharing bits of your own family stories here. (And thanks to Bill Moyers for sharing the link with his readers!)

    For those of you who have family stories that you wonder if historians would be interested in hearing and working with, the answer is “Absolutely!” Here are a few things you could do to make sure that historians have the chance to weave your stories into America’s story:

    1) Write it down! While many historians do use interviews and audio/video recordings, written sources are still the bread and butter of our work. Your prose doesn’t have to be stylish or fancy or brilliant — just try to put down on paper the details and the stories that you are worried might be lost or forgotten or overlooked if someone doesn’t make a note of them. A written account is something you could keep for your family *and* offer to the special collections / archives of the local university library or your local historical association.

    2) Contact the history department at the nearest university or college. Let them know that you or your family member would be available for an interview for one of their research project. You could provide a brief summary of the kinds of experiences or events you or your family member might be interested in talking about, and provide contact information.

    3) Contact one of the institutions / organizations that collect and curate oral history collections. This list is provided by the Oral History Association: http://www.oralhistory.org/centers-and-collections/

    We all have something to learn from each other, and we hope you will help historians come to an even richer and better informed understanding of the past.

    But do be aware: part of our job as historians is to look at the past without sugarcoating anything. We see patterns and meanings in past events and past times that those who lived through them might not recognize — and that’s because we have the advantage of hindsight and of having more information to work with than people making decisions in the moment had at the ready. What we owe to the departed is the same thing that we owe to our contemporaries now: to tell the truth, as best we see it, as best we can.

    Our society desperately needs people who can undertake that task as a full-time job, and those of us who are doing that job (or trying to) greatly appreciate your support.

  9. Thank you, a very touching piece of thinking and writing. I have been working on my family history since 1964. I was a junior in high school then. My life got in the way of working on it very much since then except in bits and pieces. My parents were Franco-American – Canadians who moved to Maine to find work in the mills in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. I recently learned that, in 1920 my mother’s family (she was 3 at the time) had a Greek lodger in their tenement housing. How cool is that? So many stories to keep and to share!
    Doris Ray

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