Dan Holden's Creative Writing
In 1940, Kimiko’s parents lived in the small fishing island of East San Pedro, off the coast of Southern California. The community was made up of mostly first and second-generation Japanese immigrants, but it was already many decades old when little Kimiko lived there.
Her father Toku was one of hundreds of fishermen who collectively owned several diesel-powered boats capable of sailing many miles out, or so I recall her saying. She went to a school run by the community, where she learned both Japanese and English. The kids played on the island’s narrow streets and ran through the shops and fisheries – after they finished their homework.
Kimiko was a tiny child, fragile looking with a delicate chin, light complexion and willowy limbs. But she was a tiger in spirit, chasing after the boys and longing to ride a bicycle like the American kids on the other end of the bridge.
Kimiko often went with her parents to the mainland, to sell their catch and buy food and clothes. The mainland children didn’t even know the fishing village existed, Kimiko said.
But that always gave her something to talk about, and Kimiko was never shy. She could befriend you with a smile and make herself unforgettable before lunchtime. She had an untamed spirit, an imagination big enough to touch the stars, and a heart that must have been made of the star stuff. Her playtime stories could take you to fascinating places without ever leaving the park lawn.
But what she really wanted, more than to entertain or befriend, was to simply fit in. She wanted to be off the island, to live the life of an American girl. She wanted to go to American schools, sing American songs and wear American clothes. She wanted to ride a bicycle, and her parents secretly saved every spare penny to get her one for Christmas.
Then one day – well, that fateful day, December 7, 1941- the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.
If the fishermen of East San Pedro – otherwise known as Terminal Island – had any idea this was going to happen, they might have considered leaving right away. The American Navy already had an airfield on the island, and the shipyards around it were home to hundreds of American civilian and military vessels. If the Japanese Fleet were continuing on to the West Coast, as many feared, these fishermen could be Japan’s best source of information.
But it was the American FBI that moved first, rounding up all the men on the island and arresting them – including Kimiko’s father.
The remaining islanders – the women and children and elderly – were ordered to leave immediately.
At first, all Kimiko understood was that her family and friends were leaving the island for the mainland. So it seemed like a good thing. It wasn’t long before she realized that her father wasn’t coming with them.
Partly because the fishermen of East San Pedro were removed as fast as they were, and partly because up to that point, they were excellent citizens, the government agreed to let the islanders live as farm workers at a ranch near the community of Palermo in far Northern California. This arrangement also allowed the men to reunite with their families.
And that’s how I met my friend Kimiko. My father James Miller was a foreman at the ranch, along with his brother Bill. Uncle Bill had two boys who worked there as well, my cousins Ryan and Paul.
Kimiko’s father got along well with my Dad, working tirelessly to organize the fishermen and adapt them to their new way of life. He wanted to fit in with other Americans as much as Kimiko did, to show them that he was a friend, not the enemy.
But it was an uphill battle.
If the Japanese were regarded with suspicion on the coast, they were openly vilified in the inland communities. Japanese immigrants had been competing for decades with Californians, Oakies and Mexicans for precious farm labor jobs. Their skill at organizing, bidding, and keeping their word made then the favorites of increasing numbers of employers, but they were isolated by their language.
So while they were welcomed on the farms, they were distrusted in the community. The war only increased this tension.
Kimiko’s mother and father tried their best to hide my friend from this reality. They sent her to public schools and encouraged her to read and write in English. They praised her singing and did their best to entertain her American friends, including me, with their meager earnings.
One day not long before Christmas 1942, Kimiko and I were walking along the creek on the way home from school, chatting about nothing, when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas.
“The same thing I wanted last year, but never got,” she said, with a theatrically sad face that was almost comical.
“And what was that?” I asked, smiling.
“A bicycle!” she exclaimed. “Wouldn’t it be so fun to ride a bicycle instead of walking everywhere? It would be so much easier, and faster!”
“Oh yes!” I agreed, “I want a new bike too! I used to have one when I was a little girl but I outgrew it,” I said. “So we gave it to my niece. She’s still small.”
“I would like a Schwinn bicycle,” said Kimiko. “They’re quite sturdy and they are beautiful. We were going to get one last year but it didn’t work out,” she said, “we had to leave.”
“We should ask our parents for one this year!” I said.
“Do you think so?” she asked, beaming.
“Yes! Let’s do it!”
“What if one of us gets one, and the other doesn’t?” she asked.
I thought about that for a while.
“We’ll take turns! We’ll share!” I answered finally.
“Okay!” she exclaimed, and we walked along faster, hand in hand, to the farm.
To our great surprise, when Christmas came we both got what we asked for – new bicycles! It was like a dream, though we knew our parents could barely afford them.
We rode together through the farm fields and farm roads day after day, as completely free of worldly concerns as any two young girls could possibly be.
We rode the winter away, dashed through puddles in the spring, and fought our way through the blazing sun all that summer of 1943.
We rode past our parents among the olive and orange trees, past the horses and cattle in the fields, along the winding waterways and into the town where we stopped at the park to watch the ducks and other birds swimming lazily in the pond. Sometimes we got books from the library and read to each other, or we danced among the trees with imaginary princes and heroes.
Riding and playing through those sunny, breezy days, we felt like we owned the world, like nothing could go wrong.
And then one day my mother got what to me was a completely devastating letter. The War Department had tracked my bicycle registration, and now they wanted it for essential materials – aluminum, steel and rubber.
I do remember riding over to Kimiko’s little hut at the worker’s camp that day, and crying in her arms as I recounted the letter to her. My bike was my connection to her, and she was my window to the world.
Kimiko cheered me up by riding with me again. We rode to the river and parked our bikes in the shade of an ancient oak.
“I can’t believe they are taking my bike!” I said again, throwing a stick at the creek below.
Kimiko didn’t say anything.
“Didn’t they send you a letter?” I asked.
“I don’t know, I don’t think so,” said Kimiko. “Maybe they don’t know I have one.”
“You have to buy war stamps to get one now,” I said. “Nobody can get one till after we win the war.”
“Well maybe that won’t be so long,” said Kimiko, and she placed an arm around my shoulders to console me.
We sat there for a while, watching the blue sky-reflecting water ripple down the shady little stream.
“Where do you have to turn it in?” she asked. I said I didn’t know but I was sure the war department didn’t have an office in Palermo.
It turns out I was right. My parents told me they had to take it – along with a variety of other metal wares – to Yuba City, about 30 miles to the south and not far from Sacramento. It was the same place that my father and his brother had turned in various pieces of farm machinery in the past couple of years. They weren’t too fond of the place, as it would take years for the farm to be able to replace everything that was lost.
I cried all that day before and could barely sleep that night. When morning came, I could hear my dad and his brother loading metal scrap and assorted other materials into the pickup truck. My bike was parked on the far side of the truck; I could see the handle bars from my window. I jumped out of bed and flew downstairs to watch from the porch.
As I sat there cross-armed, watching the men work, a figure appeared at the crest of the dirt road leading to our house. It was Kimiko, riding her bicycle.
I thought at first that she intended to tease me by riding around that morning, and I was preparing to be very upset when she rode up our drive. But instead of riding toward me as she normally did, she turned off, toward the men and the truck, and then stepped off her bike and handed it to my father.
“What’s this?” he asked, wiping the sweat from his nose and cheeks.
I jumped out of my chair, suddenly realizing that she must be giving the bike to us.
Turning her back to me, she said something quietly to my father, who just looked at her as if he didn’t understand. I scrambled up to them.
“What are you doing?” I asked innocently.
Kimiko turned to me and smiled.
“I’m donating my bike too,” she said, her lips trembling ever so slightly.
“You’re what?” I asked incredulously.
“I’m giving my bike to the war department too,” she said bravely, “if they want yours, they have to take mine too.”
“But you don’t have to do that, nobody said you have to do that!” I said, hoping she would change her mind and keep it, so we could both ride it.
My father popped in to add his own thoughts.
“One shared bike is better than none at all,” he said, smiling at Kimiko.
Kimiko thought about that for a minute and then looked at my father.
“Thank you for saying so,” she said. “But my family has decided that if we are to live as Americans, we must act as Americans. Whatever happens to our friends, happens to us, too. And whatever you need to do to win a war, then we need to do that too.”
“But you are Japanese!” I said. “The metal from this bike could be used to make bullets.”
“We have a different way of looking at such things,” she said. “My mother always says, ‘Nothing lasts, everything is always changing. Today soldiers may die, and tomorrow we may all be friends’. We think it is better to be friends.”
She looked at me and smiled her best friendship smile.
I was in awe. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.
For a long time, I couldn’t even figure it out. All I knew was that Kimiko and I stayed friends all that summer, and as fall came around again we made plans to walk to school together every day, come rain or shine.
But as Kimiko’s mother had predicted, everything did change.
In late August, under a sweltering sun, a military convoy showed up on the road outside Palermo. We watched the convoy roll by, and then turn left in the direction of the farm. We ran together toward the farm to see where it would stop.
By the time we got to the farm house, all the vehicles in the convoy were already stopped there. Soldiers were scrambling into formation in front of the house. The ranch owner and several of the hands were gathering in front of the lieutenant in command.
“By order of the War Department, we are here to take all Japanese nationals into custody,” he was saying.
“But they are farm hands, workers,” said the rancher. “They’ve got nothing to do with the war.”
“Orders from the War Department, sir. The instructions are to arrest all Japanese nationals, women and children included.”
I was shocked. I looked at Kimiko in horror. Her eyes were wide and she trembled in fear. She looked around for her father, who was coming around the corner from the field. He saw her immediately and ran to her, scooping her into his arms just as she broke into tears.
My father joined the ranch owner in trying to talk some sense into that Lieutenant, but he kept replying that he was only following orders, all the while instructing his men to gather the workers along the front of the farm and take everyone of Japanese descent.
In less than an hour, they were gone. They left everything they could not gather up in a few seconds and carry with them.
That was the last time I ever saw her.
I thought about Kimiko for a long time after that. I guess I really have never stopped thinking about her.
Neither did my parents.
We tried to track down Kimiko and her family, but no one would help. We learned that their homes on Terminal Island were gone, and they would not be allowed to return there. We learned that they had been taken to an Internment Camp somewhere in the West, but nobody could tell us where.
I made many attempts over the years to find her, but it was hard to know what to do. I had no real detail on who she was or where she might have gone. Perhaps she married, and her name had changed. Maybe she lived in another state, or went back with her family to Japan.
Every time our country pursued a new military engagement…Korea, Viet Nam, Iran, Iraq and so on, I thought of Kimiko and her family. I thought about the bicycles.
I guess I must have been thinking about all of that too much during our family Christmas gathering today, because my great-granddaughter caught me gazing at the orchards while I remembered.
“What are you thinking about, Grandma?” she asked curiously. She was always trying to figure me out.
I looked at her and smiled.
“Little girls and bicycles!” I said, smiling, and kissed her on the forehead.
“I’m not a little girl anymore,” she protested laughingly. “But I have something for you!”
She brought a hand out from behind her and handed me a letter. I nearly lost my footing when I saw the writing.
It was a Christmas card from Kimiko.
My family must have known what it was, because they all gathered around me as I sat to open the letter.
I could barely read it, what with my trembling hands and tears of joy. Kimiko!
Here is what she wrote:
“My Dear Maricella,
I hope this Holiday Greeting reaches you in happiness and good health.
I have always remembered our wonderful days riding along the river in Palermo. So much so that a few years ago my family and I opened a bicycle shop just for girls! Through a little help from my nephew and grandchildren, it has become an amazing success.
One day, my grandson called and said that a customer has a grandmother who always tells the story of riding a bicycle many years ago with a little Japanese friend in Palermo, but the girl was taken away to an Internment Camp.
I knew right away that must be you.
My grandson was able to gather more information and that is how this note finds its way to you. I do hope I have found you in good health. I look forward to speaking with you soon!
With love always,
I closed the letter between my hands and cried. My daughter and granddaughter held me for a few minutes while I recomposed myself.
This evening I was able to talk with Kimiko in person, on the telephone. Her voice was trembling but it was the same little girl I knew. I could almost see her eyes shining as she spoke.
I learned during our conversation that Kimiko’s parents lived into their late seventies and retired in Arizona, where she still lives today. She has children and grandchildren and great grandchildren just like me. Two of our grandchildren attend the same college and may even know each other.
After our call I sat in the living room with my family and recounted this whole story to them.
I told them that after all, friends and family really are what keeps us together. They shape us, they define us, the help give our lives meaning and beauty. They are what we hold on to through all the rough times in our lives.
Christmas trees and presents may come and they may go, but love endures forever.