Zenwa Uncle, after receiving his citizenship papers in 1955, convinced my dad he could get his too, if he would attend citizenship school. Both of them were serious students of history, and could have passed the test without taking the class. But Zenwa Uncle thought it was important to take the class so that Dad would know the answers to the test that he would have to take.
Dad did not particularly enjoy the class and often expressed his frustration over the teacher. I generally viewed this with a lot of amusement, since he was always advising me to listen to my teachers and show them a lot of respect.
About the third or fourth class, my dad came home looking pretty smug, just waiting for me to ask what happened. Being a dutiful son, but not knowing what to ask, I offered, “So, … how was class?”
“Why was the Civil War fought, Bob?”
“To free the slaves,” I answered.
“Hah! Just what teacher said.”
“So what did you say?”
“Because the North felt, ‘no way could compete with the South when South get free labor.’”
I immediately thought, “Oh, no! Here comes another unasked for history lesson from Dad.”
Instead, he laughed loudly, saying, “Should’ve seen her face. Just sat there, her mouth open.”
Realizing that my dad had the gift of exaggeration, I wasn’t sure what had transpired in class, but having given off-beat answers in class to stunned teachers myself, I assumed he was not stretching the truth very much.
Next week, Dad came home, walked into the house with a very boastful demeanor and said, “Guess what, Bob?”
“The teacher come talk to me befo’ class. Said she wen research, and you know, get plenny truth what I said.” And then he laughed long and hard, relishing his moment of triumph.
Dad did pass the citizenship test, probably knowing what the “correct” answers were, and refraining from marking off-beat answers.
He died in 1962, a few years before he was eligible to become a citizen, prevented from becoming a citizen by the same law that made it possible to become a citizen: the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which allowed Japanese immigrants to become citizens, but barred subversives. Subversives could get off the list, if they were subversive-free for 10 years.
Dad was a board member of the Hawaii Star, a newspaper that was on Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) subversive list. SACB was created by the McCarren Internal Security Act of 1950. The same (Pat) McCarran who sponsored the McCarran-Walter Act. Nasty dude.
We hear about Joe McCarthy all the time, but he had others who thought like him. Lots of them. Just like today. They had enough votes to override President Truman’s veto of both laws.
Because of The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, 17-year-old Dad came to America on the last boat that allowed immigrants from Japan/Okinawa. He said that he wanted to learn to read the Bible in English. (My Zenwa Uncle, scoffed at that notion, claiming that Dad’s street preaching Baptist stage was just nothing more than Zenshu’s teenage rebellion directed at their mom).
* * *
Just a year-and-a half after Dad died, I left home to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon. My brother Tom, 10 years older than I, gave me some cash and advice before I left for Reed: “Buy some nice jackets and slacks. I bought mine at Robert Hall, and they barely lasted four months.”
Well, after seeing Reed students in jeans, sweatshirts, and maybe khakis, I decided to ignore my brother’s advice and didn’t buy any jackets and shirts and ties. But I did have my Punahou graduation baccalaureate suit.
September, October maybe, the word comes down: The US Senate Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB, Joe McCarthy’s baby) is coming to town to hold hearings in Portland. Reed student organizers tell us that we want to have enough folks to circle the courthouse block. “And don’t look like slobs. Dress nicely. We want to make a good impression.”
I could see why. A little earlier in the school year, some students were seen in downtown Portland with seemingly official Reed sweatshirts, with the school motto (which was in Latin) replaced with the words, “atheism, communism, and free love.” Imagine what would have happened if any of those sweatshirts ended up on the picket line.
All I had that wasn’t “Reed College dress,” was my Baccalaureate Suit. So that’s what I put on the morning of the demonstration. As we waited for the transportation to arrive to take us to downtown Portland, it became obvious that nobody else was wearing any jacket or tie. All I remember were the looks I was getting from everyone. I was so embarrassed.
So I just blurted, “What’s the matter? Not good enough for impress everybody?”
Everybody laughed and cheered.
* * *
1. The early months in Portland I felt like an immigrant, because I really was from a different country as far as everyone else (including the Reed students) was concerned and I felt the the anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-indigenous attitudes of Portland.
2. AJAs (Americans of Japanese Ancestry) often said (derisively) about the Okinawans in Hawai‘i, “The difference between a Japanese and an Okinawan is that the Okinawans aren’t afraid to make an ass of themselves.” Given my initial impressions at Reed, I decided I could take that as a compliment and survive very well. As a Reed student. As an Okinawan.
And I did.
That was over 50 years ago.
What would Dad think today? Faced with politicians, Supreme Court Justices, and a citizenry okay with the suspension of constitutional guarantees in difficult times, just as nasty as McCarthy and McCarran, I just don’t know …
Well, I do know. He always said, “Don’t get mad.” And then got “real mad.”
I can’t do that right now. Bad for my health. So, “Let’s catch a breath, then keep moving.”