Japanese Internment from the eyes of a four year old.
Robert LaRue b. 1937
My dad often lets me tag along as he makes his rounds of McMullen Dairy. We live on the dairy in the San Gabriel valley of Southern California. A cacophony of voices fills my memory of these home front times.
“Elgin, Elgin, come have a wee taste,” Mr. McMullen’s Scottish brogue rings out from his front porch. We climb the stairs and I watch with the curiosity of a four-year-old as the two men share a glass of wine while discussing the status of the dairy and events of the day. I know my dad’s name is Eldon and wonder why Mr. McMullen always calls him Elgin.
The house sets back among the trees of McMullen’s walnut orchard. I listen curiously to men talking in Spanish as they tend the trees.
We take our leave and walk on out to the cow pasture. Dad opens the gate and we follow the cattle down the lane to the holding pen outside the dairy barn.
The milkers take over and shout the cries of western herdsmen as they sort and move the milk strings into their respective stanchions.
Pete, the dairy operator, comes out of his house. He scoops me up, swings me around, and teases me in his Dutch accented English. He sets me down and he and my dad discuss the condition of the herd. When the cows are locked in their stanchions, Dad straps on his milking stool, sets his bucket under the first cow of his string, and the never-ending task of a dairy farm begins anew. Pete walks me back to our house and hands me over to my mom.
Mom is listening to the Hit Parade on the radio. She sends me out to play while she tends to her household chores.
I approach the backyard fence and listen to the singsong voices of the orient coming from the truck farm next door. The people speaking are bent over tending their rows of plants. A pretty little girl about my age leaves the group and crosses the field toward me. She sits down across the fence from me and we play in the dirt.
My parents have tried to explain that these people are Japanese and somehow different. I don’t understand. I can see that she is darker than Pete’s redheaded granddaughter, Sharon. Her eyes are different. But she is just as fun to play with. We play with few words, but words are not needed. Still, the fence separates us. She does not come to my house and I don’t go to hers.
The afternoon wears on. A woman comes and leads the girl away. She smiles and says something that I don’t understand. I watch as they walk toward their house. The girl turns and her hand comes up in a small wave. I wave back.
Dad comes home from the afternoon milking. Mom sets out dinner and we eat. After dinner, Dad and I go to the living room while Mom cleans up the kitchen and nurses my baby brother. Dad turns on the radio.
The smooth voice of Lowell Thomas comes over the airways. He tells us the news of the day. Most of what he has to say is about the war. The war is not news to me. Like the endless routine of the dairy, it has always been there. It is a part of our lives. We don’t feel it; it is far away. But we hear about it constantly. It is like the sound of the ocean when we camp on Laguna Beach. It rumbles in the background without end.
It is an afternoon like any other. Pete hands me off to Mother. I go out the backdoor to the yard. It is strangely quiet. I can hear the strains of Glen Miller’s “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” playing from inside the house. But no singsong voices come from the field next door. It is deserted. The plants still stand, green and growing. But no one is taking care of them. The people are gone. I sit by the fence for a while, alone. The death-like silence wraps around me.
I go back in the house and ask my mom where the people have gone. “The Army took them away,” she tells me. She tries to explain, but her words are not enough. Not enough to quell the fear welling up inside me. The first chink in my armor of innocence has been opened.