Prone to Wander

Stories of our Grandfathers

September 23, 2013

It is four in the morning when I wake up from a night that has been full of dreams – vivid, restless. I can’t sleep, and the conversation from the day before plays again in my mind.

“Do you know that word?” he asks.


But I hesitate just before I say it. I have been told that World War II is taboo for the Japanese. I have been told that the Japanese don’t talk about it to avoid revealing any hidden shame.

But he is the one who brought it up. So I decide to answer.

“Yes,” he says. “Kamikaze. My grandfather was going to be one of those.”

I have no idea what to say, so I nod.

“He was taught to love Japan in a different way,” he says. “But then the war ended, before he could become a kamikaze.”

I look at this young man walking beside me through the park, still a boy in many ways. He is fragile but resilient. Shy but bold. I study his face and wonder if he looks just like his grandfather did at seventeen.

“He passed away when I was young,” he says. “But we all learn about the war now. They teach the students about it every year. So that it will never be repeated.”

Sometimes he is so quiet that he barely speaks a word all day, and sometimes, like today, he seems to talk for hours, stumbling over the English words as they pour out, but saying so much.

Earlier as we had crossed the street he had asked me if my own grandparents were part of the war. And I had told him no – my grandparents were too young at the time.

Kamikaze. It is a word that most of us can’t comprehend. I certainly don’t. There is a cultural context to that word that perhaps only the Japanese understand. As children in history classes here in the US, we are taught to disparage the notion of suicide bombing. And rightly so. But it would be a terrible mistake to assume that the decisions that those Japanese men made at the time were not incredibly complicated. They believed that this was something they had to do for their families and for their country in a time of war.

It became a duty of provision, necessity, and love.

I examine my thoughts after he speaks. How should I feel about this? How should I respond?

And suddenly I realize that I have not been entirely truthful with this boy.

Great Grandmother and Grandmother (left) and sisters - Western Oklahoma, late 1930s

My Great Grandmother and Grandmother (left) and her sisters – Western Oklahoma, late 1930s

In the 1930s and 1940s, Western Oklahoma was hit hard by the Dust Bowl. Crops dried up and blew away – and my great grandfather found himself without money and without a plan. All around him were men who wanted work but couldn’t find it. My great grandfather had a wife and three little girls – one of them, my grandmother.  The pressure to provide likely bore down with a sense of helplessness: surely a man who couldn’t provide for his family was no man at all.

At some point during the war, a government farm inspector came through town and discovered, through a series of questions, that my grandfather was intelligent and had previous experience as a train engineer.  They asked him to take several tests which he passed, and they offered him a job as a conductor, which my great grandfather eagerly accepted.  The job required the family to move first to Kansas, and then out to California, and it often took him away from the family for weeks at a time.  But it was a job – and it would keep a roof over their heads.

It became a duty of provision, necessity, and love.

In August of 1945, two atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. They had been manufactured in New Mexico and then transported carefully by train across the deserts of the southwest.  In California, they were then transferred to ships and planes.

My great grandfather was a conductor on one of those trains. 

Great Grandfather

My Great Grandfather

As this connection dawns on me, I look over at this boy and wonder whether I will ever tell him this story.  I realize that perhaps I am the one with the hidden shame. Did my great grandfather know exactly what was on the train at the time? It’s unlikely that he did, but I know it haunted him until he passed.

The story still hangs in the quiet silences at family dinner tables. It occasionally wanders across my grandmother’s face when she recalls her father.

It’s a quiet, unspoken, sad story.  But strangely, it is always and forever a part of everything.  It is a part of me.  And it’s a part of this boy.

If the bombs had not been dropped, this boy’s Japanese grandfather might have gone on to become a kamikaze – and this boy might not be standing here with me today. If the bombs had not been dropped, my grandmother, the little girl out in Western Oklahoma, may have starved or had a very different life – and I might not be standing here, either.

It strikes me that the past is the past, and what’s been done has been done. However awful those choices may have been, we are all firmly and decidedly standing here because of them –and in many cases – in spite of them.

We are here to break the past, to conquer it, and to redeem it. If we look at it closely, we find that we are all of us tangled together – across generations and continents and chasms of culture and language, and even by war and confusion – but our stories are all entwined, knotted, and woven together into the very same fabric.

And as I glance over at this boy walking next to me through the park – and blink back the tears behind my sunglasses – I wonder suddenly whether we’re both secretly tying off threads and finishing a small piece of a long, patterned story of forgiveness and redemption – this story that our grandfathers began.

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