Debbie Nomaguchi’s grandfather, Charlie, worked at a deli (pictured above) before opening Cherry Dye Works; he was forced to sell the family business following Executive Order 9066. • Photo courtesy of Debbie Nomaguchi

Growing up, I had three grandparents. I never got to meet my grandpa Tadaichi, or Charlie, as his Caucasian friends called him. I asked my dad about the stranger in the photograph on their dresser, and he told me that grandpa had died of a heart attack long before I was born. I wanted to know more, but my dad shrugged and said grandpa’s heart just wasn’t strong enough.

When I was older, I learned that grandpa Charlie didn’t die at home or in a hospital. He died on a cot in a hastily repurposed horse stall serving as the family’s quarters at Camp Harmony in Puyallup. It was 1942 and the fairgrounds had been converted into a temporary detention facility after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. As a result of this order, nearly 7,400 Puget Sound area residents of Japanese ancestry were forcibly evicted from their homes and communities and incarcerated behind barbed wire, constantly watched by armed guards.

This February 19, 2017, marked 75 years since Executive Order 9066 was issued, and as I reflect on what it means today, I can’t help thinking that Grandpa Charlie’s death wasn’t so much a case of cardiac arrest as it was the result of a broken heart, plain and simple.

According to my dad, Charlie came to America some time around 1920. My dad wasn’t sure why Charlie left his home in Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, because he was the family’s only son and would have inherited their property.

But perhaps Charlie was stirred by the American dream. He first settled in Montana where he likely worked for the railroad. He later fished for a living; he made arrangements to be married and got a job working behind the counter at a fancy Jewish deli on Jackson Street in Seattle. When the deli closed down, Charlie opened his own business—Cherry Dye Works, a dry cleaning operation. The future was starting to look good, and this was Charlie’s American dream. He and my dad would make the rounds in the car every afternoon, delivering the laundered and pressed clothes wrapped in crisp tissue to their customers, who greeted them like old friends.

But the war in Europe and Japan’s aggression in the east were troubling. Then Japan did the unthinkable—it attacked Pearl Harbor. Suddenly anyone of Japanese ancestry living in Seattle looked like the enemy. Fear clutched the city, even though its Japanese residents had no loyalty to Japan. No evidence of espionage committed by Japanese Americans was ever found. Yet suspicion, prejudice, fear, and rumors spread like an infection. Charlie read the newspapers, heard the calls by war-panicked politicians for mass evacuation of Japanese living on the U.S. west coast.

The one … the only thing that buoyed Charlie’s hopes was the U.S. Constitution. It said that all citizens had equal protections under the law. And this, he profoundly believed. Even if he and his wife, both registered aliens, could be incarcerated, his children, who were naturalized citizens, would remain free. Free to live in their community, free to keep the family business running, free to live their lives. So he made preparations. Each night at dinner time, he schooled my dad and older sister, who were now in their late teens and early 20s, on how to run Cherry Dye Works on their own.

I used to try and imagine the disbelief, anger, and despair Charlie must have felt when he saw the flyers for Executive Order 9066. Both aliens and “non-aliens” (in other words, citizens) of Japanese ancestry were directed to gather whatever they could carry and report for evacuation. Nobody could explain why his children were not protected by the Constitution. Amidst the hysteria and racism, who would speak up and protest this denial of rights?

With little time to prepare, the house, the car, the business, were sold at a loss. But I think the biggest thing Charlie lost was buried deep inside — his faith in justice for all, the land of the free, home of the brave. He must have felt numb, packing his life into the single suitcase allowed, boarding the bus and heading toward an uncertain future at the assembly area in Puyallup.

One morning after arriving at “Camp Harmony,” Charlie arose and realized he wasn’t feeling right. He returned to the family stall to lie down, but the cot was no comfort. He suffered a massive heart attack.

My dad was the first to discover him. He ran to get help but it was too late.

Everything I know about Grandpa Charlie is based on what my dad told me. And I believe grandpa loved America. He loved what it stood for. Maybe he was naive, but I think it broke his heart to witness such disregard for the rights guaranteed to all Americans. When I think about what happened to 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry here in the United States, it doesn’t feel so much like history as a stealthy thread that has woven its way forward into current events, with mosque burnings, talk of an immigrant registry, and the president’s ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. But the difference today is that people are speaking up, taking part in protests, and reaching out to support vulnerable populations. Judges, lawyers, elected officials, yes. But most important, regular people. People like me, who understand that when the rights of “all” get twisted into the rights of “some,” we tangle up our footing on a slippery slope.

Every American has a stake in the Constitution, and defending its principles is the foundation of our country. If grandpa Charlie had lived, I think he might have told me to recognize that fear, intolerance, and cloaked political agendas undermine everything that is good about America, land of the free, home of the brave.

Tadaichi’s grandchildren also include Lynne Croft and Rich Murakami.

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