A morning at Minidoka

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

Uncle Jim doesn’t remember much about the place, except the long, dusty road leading to it. He would have been too young for school by the time it closed in 1945, and neither of my grandparents ever spoke about it much, save the story my dad used to tell about grandmother gathering money and taking notes on what to buy in town for Christmas.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
From the Minidoka Interlude, September • 1942 to October 1943

Once the war ended, and the internees had been sent home to try to rebuild their lives, most of the nearly 600 buildings were given away, the land parceled out to returning (white) war veterans on a lottery-based system. Until recently, there was nothing left of the sprawling compound locals called Hunt Camp but a couple of shacks, a dilapidated root cellar and a modest, blue house marked “visitor’s center.”

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

What today is rolling farmland was once sagebrush covered ash soil and basalt. Like other sites, this was chosen carefully: public land, far enough from any large urban center to attract undue attention. Clearing the brush exposed the fine soil and silt to the wind. Row upon row of barracks were hastily built of green wood that shrunk as it dried, leaving cracks in the walls. There was no insulation and dust fell on everything inside and out. The high temperature the summer of 1942, when the internees started arriving, was 102. The following winter saw record lows of 21 below zero.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka

Minidoka back then was a town of fewer than 200. At its peak, Hunt Camp hosted 7,318. In all, more than 13,000 Japanese immigrants (Issei) and second-generation Americans (Nisei) at one point or another called it home. They developed the surrounding farmland. They built the canals and irrigation systems still in use today. They provided cheap labor to area farmers during the day, returning to their barracks at night. They sent their sons to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in US military history, whose members helped liberate one of the satellite labor camps at Dachau while their own families waited for them in American barbed wire-fenced compounds.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
“You have to understand the sentiment of the time”

“You have to understand the sentiment of the time,” a woman in the audience explained at a presentation I attended last spring. “People were very nervous about the war.” Maybe. But war-time hysteria grossly oversimplifies the issue and sidesteps the hostility against Asians that had been building since Chinese workers were recruited by the mining and railroad industries the century before. Japanese and other east Asian workers followed.

By the time of Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese movements had been active all along the west coast.  Alarm over the attack stoked existing racism and fueled rumors and lies. Early news stories were of Japanese Americans in Honolulu staging elaborate acts of sabotage that somehow facilitated the attack when what they were actually doing was storming the blood bank center shortly after the bombing with offers to donate.

I first heard about the camp from my dad, who told me about my grandmother’s Christmas errands. That’s really the only insight any of us has into their time there, that and the friend Dad found in Hunt Camp survivor Ron Yakota while serving in the Army Reserves. Ron had introduced himself to Dad, recognizing his name as that of the baby born in 1944 to the camp’s chief of internal security and his wife. The two became friends and then later lost touch. Ron’s gift to my family of an ornately decorated bottle of sake remains unopened to this day.

Embarrassingly enough, I never thought much about the camps nor my grandparents’ experience until I was a young adult. Having recently read David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, I broached the topic with dad in an unfortunately bourbon-fueled conversation that was forever after (mistakenly) known as “That time Beth compared Granddad to a Nazi”* (which I most certainly did not, nor ever would**). Owing to the potentially explosive nature of the subject––given, I suppose, a youthful lack of diplomacy and a recently realized sense of righteous indignation on the topic––neither Dad nor I ever broached the topic with each other again.

Still, I remained curious about the camp and how my family came to be involved. Last year we happened to pass through a Japanese festival downtown, and I talked to a woman at the National Park Service about it. I interviewed the director of the Friends of Minidoka on my radio show and attended her presentation at my Rotary meeting.

I briefly considered signing us all up for the Minidoka Pilgrimage as well, a four-day retreat in Southern Idaho for survivors, their families and others who want to learn more about life in the camps. Recognizing what a feat it is to carve out even one day of family time with two employed teens, we decided instead to attend the dedication of a new Visitors Center and tour the site with the boys.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
Formerly Warehouse #5, now the new Minidoka Visitor’s Center

The Visitor’s Center was once Warehouse #5, the camp’s tire and motor repair shop. Today it houses displays and a bookshop, a ranger information desk, and auditorium. The entire historical site includes land that has been donated to the NPS and a few buildings, a dilapidated root cellar, a rebuilt guard tower and a long row of barbed wire fencing.

On the tour, our guide encouraged the survivors among us to share their stories. We gathered in a cramped, sweltering building that once housed four to six families, while one woman recounted winters of bitter cold in a building with neither insulation nor running water.

“Our mother bought a pot so we wouldn’t have to walk to the latrine in the middle of the night,” she said, then called out over her shoulder, “that’s how you were potty-trained, Eddie!”

“I’m still not!” her brother called back, and we all laughed with their family.

The mood was jovial all afternoon. Teenagers took the arms of elders as we walked, taking pictures and listening to stories.

In the mess hall, Atsushi “Ats” Kiuchi, an affable man with a floppy hat, talked about his life there as a teenager.

“Each block had their own mess hall,” he said, “but the kids knew which blocks had the best cooks, and we’d eat there instead.” His playful reference to the dismantling of the cherished Japanese family tradition of eating meals together elicited a smattering of laughter.

I walked with Ats later while he told me about the teens separating themselves into groups. There were the Country Boys who came from the rural areas, and the O.T.s (“that’s ‘odiferous turds’” he said, leaning in with a chuckle) like himself from the cities.

The groups formed baseball teams that regularly whooped teams of guards and farmers. The compound boasted thirteen baseball fields, a swimming hole (dug after a couple of drownings in the nearby canal), and a rough golf course. Our group passed one rebuilt field, and someone started tossing a ball. A few others ran bases, stirring up silt that hovered above the ground in the summer heat.

Along the perimeter of the camp the mood turned somber as we contemplated lengths of barbed wire fence. The original barrier was absent when the first internees arrived––where would they go, off into the desert? When it was later installed, incensed residents regularly cut through the wire until the contractor briefly electrified it (no word on whether anyone was hurt before this practice was halted).

A reconstructed guard tower stands at the entrance to the park. The original was said to have been erected as a fire watch, but armed guards faced inward, toward the cleared land of the camp.

Throughout the tour, I was struck by the grace with which the internees met such injustice. Some had been given days to prepare to abandon their homes, others mere hours. Many returned after the war to find little remaining of their lives. They who’d sent their sons off to fight for a country that then asked them to sign loyalty pledges, they’d posed for photos showing the nation a rosy portrait of life at the “camps” to which they’d been “evacuated” as though for their own safety.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
Members of the 442nd from Hunt Camp

I’d long wondered about my own family history here. Like the Issei, Granddad was notoriously tight-lipped about that time. His quote in the Minidoka Interlude, the camp’s commemorative yearbook, was “very satisfactory,” something he once told Uncle Jim was more fit to publish than his actual thoughts about the place.

It wasn’t until Uncle Jim reminded me of another story that I started to think of the context under which my grandfather might have accepted such a posting.

Prior to the war, Granddad was a Twin Falls police officer. In 1939, early one May morning he and his partner, Officer Craig Bracken, had stopped and were attempting to arrest two convicted felons who had robbed a gas station and stolen a car in which the owner had stashed a loaded .38. As they approached, Officer Bracken was shot and Granddad returned fire. Both of the suspects fled but were later captured and convicted of armed robbery, the one who fired the gun also convicted of murder. Officer Bracken left behind a wife and three children.

All of this happened before Uncle Jim was born. I imagine my grandmother, home with her first child, stridently insisting Granddad find another line of work. It wouldn’t have easy in the midst of the Depression, but less difficult than denying my feisty 4’11” tall grandmother. If she’d wanted Granddad to find another job, that’s precisely what he would have done.

Of course, all of this is conjecture. I was five when Granddad died, and much older before I’d begun to question the events surrounding one of the most shameful eras in US history to date, or the role any of my family might have played.

It’s been twelve years since Dad’s passing, and much as I’d like, I can’t remind him I never meant to call my Granddad a Nazi. But I can share this history with my own children at a time when it seems more important than ever we remember even a country that purports to hold freedom as its highest virtue is still capable of inflicting horrors of such magnitude.

Before leaving the rolling farmland bordered by a wide canal and barbed wire, I stopped in the visitor’s center one last time to drop off the keepsake bottle my mom had kept closed in its box for fifty years. I’ve seen exhibits of gifts the internees made to townspeople and farmers who’d done them small favors. Maybe they’ll include it with those.

Midlife Sentence | Morning at Minidoka
A gift from a friend

* I did not, in fact, nor ever would compare my grandad to a Nazi. What I said was “how is it possible people could assume Japanese Americans were in league with the Japanese empire against the United States, but our family, of German heritage, didn’t have to worry about false association with Nazis?” My family’s German heritage is on my mother’s side, by the way.

** With God as my witness, I did not call my Granddad a Nazi.

Teens in New Orleans: A family trip to the Big Easy

Midlife Sentence | Teens in New Orleans

First of all, don’t come at me about the title, you guys. I know teens does’t rhyme with the way you’re supposed to say New Orleans, but it’s cute and kitschy and SEO friendly, and y’all know I’m all about the market.

Secondly, you should know this trip just about didn’t happen, even though we’ve been planning it for months. We were going to run the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon as Mike’s official 50th half before age 50, and show our son, his girlfriend, and our exchange student one of our favorite cities in the world, which we’ve been unable to visit since before Hurricane Katrina.

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Day trips to Baden and Vienna and the view from a doorway

Midlife Sentence | Baden and Vienna, Austria

After a couple days of getting Jack situated in his new digs in Wiener Neustadt, we had some time for sightseeing. We’d contacted Hanna, a former exchange student who lives with her family in nearby Baden bei Wien, a spa town famous for its hot springs. Baden is a short train ride from Wr. Neustadt, and Hanna met us at the station to take us to her home for lunch with her mother, Monika.

Afterwards we took a walking tour through town, and Monika pointed out the sights. It had been really warm in Austria since we arrived. It was a relief to have some cloud cover and cooler temperatures.

Baden is the premier resort town of Austria, surrounded by forested hills. It’s historically known for being the favored retreat of Austrian emperors and famous composers. During the summer it hosts Europe’s largest outdoor photography exhibit. The theme this year is “I love Africa,” and we strolled through photos displays of wildlife and people from a different continent.

Midlife Sentence | Baden and Vienna, Austria

The town has a very upscale but relaxed vibe. It felt a lot to me like our own Sun Valley, only less cowboy and more Mozart.

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Moving my kid abroad and practice in managing my expectations – our first two days in Austria

Midlife Sentence | Weiner Neustadt Austria

I don’t ever remember being that little girl who envisions her wedding. I don’t remember setting any particular expectations of parenthood, or thinking about what my first house might look like.

There is one little daydream I have long entertained, though, without really ever thinking about it: that of our kids going to the same university their dad and I were attending when we started dating.

Since the boys were little, we’ve been taking the six-hour drive North to Moscow, Idaho, for a football game every fall as often as possible. There were years we couldn’t make the time, or waited too long to get a hotel room, but there was a while when we made it a regular habit.

We joked about indoctrinating our kids as future Vandals. We bought all the swag, we took tours through living groups, we showed them where we’d lived and hung out. They dug it. And who wouldn’t? The Palouse is ridiculously gorgeous in the fall when we would visit, and the 130 year-old campus is the picture of time-honored tradition, with cobblestone lanes weaving through stately brick buildings. I’m sure most of it doesn’t look much different from when my grandparents attended in the 1920s.

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10 Very Boise things we’ll be doing with company this summer

midlife sentence | boise things to do

My dad liked to tell a story about a conversation he’d had with a colleague, maybe an intern or some other young employee, about how time passes faster every year the older you get.

“Well, the years must just be whipping by for you, then,” this person pointed out, a statement my dad found particularly adroit, and enjoyed sharing with us a number of times over the years.

I usually think about that “whipping by” sentiment this time of year, when I realize summer has snuck up on us again, leaving me totally unprepared for weeks of juggling family activity and working from home, and I’m on the edge of frantic all the time when I’d much rather be taking some time to enjoy the season.

In fact, I think shared that little anecdote about my dad in an earlier post, so apparently, I’m at the age where not only are the years whipping by, but my memory regularly takes a powder as well.

I’ll just warn you, I don’t think things are going to improve.

Anyway … that’s not the point of this blog. The point is: it’s summer. Already. And while we don’t have any big trips planned, we will be having company. Jack’s invited a friend to visit from Denmark. He’ll be staying with us a little less than a month, which is just about the perfect amount of time to share a summer sampling of my awesome hometown. Here’s a little list of ten very Boise (and close to Boise) things we’ll be doing with our out-of-town guests this summer:

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Seattle with Teenagers

Midlife Sentence | Seattle Space Needle

“I’m a weed detector,” Jack said as a distinctive acrid aroma filled the foyer. From the living room we heard the front door open and then close not one second later, followed by a chorus of giggles.

Apparently our Weed Detector had been successful in locating the enjoyer of said aromatic herb, standing in her own little fog on the front porch about five feet away from our entry.

I don’t know if most towns would appreciate a travel blog starting out with an anecdote about pot, but if you’re planning a trip to Seattle with adolescents, it’s probably helpful to come to grips from the outset with the fact that that Seattle is one of the most weed friendly towns in the US. If you happen to hail from a conservative state like ours, and you’re traveling with a small gaggle of teens, you can probably expect a little fascination with the topic, as well as someone pointing out the head shop on just about every single corner.

Midlife Sentence | SeattleIf nothing else, we established right off the bat this weekend that our sophisticated older kid is quite the bloodhound, able to suss out cannabis smoke within a radius of little more than arms length. Nothing gets by that guy.

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A little more time in Copenhagen: Tivoli, the Zoo, and a Spectacular View

Midlife Sentence | Copenhagen, Christiania

A couple of weeks into our trip, we had another opportunity to explore Copenhagen, when we returned from Finland with the honeymooners, en route to Sønderborg. The flat we rented this time was more centrally located than the one in Nørrebro, and if the weather cooperated, we’d easily be able to walk to a few attractions.

The weather did cooperate (which in Denmark means temps in the low to mid 60s, intermittent rain and some sun. As with our last trip to northern Europe, I made the mistake of packing sundresses. Sigh.), so we came up with a plan to do way more than would be physically possible for mere mortals in one day (if you know us, you know that’s kind of our MO).

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Exploring more of Denmark: Haderslev, Aarhus, Skagen, and a Viking Graveyard

Midlife Sentence | Denmark Skagen

We returned from Germany on Sunday and dropped Jack off at his host family home in Sønderborg (he’ll finish out the last week of his exchange and then travel home from Billund. Our tickets are outbound from Copenhagen), and continued on to see a couple of other points of interest in Denmark.

One of those was the town of Haderslev, not too far north of Sønderborg. Mike picked this place out because he thought it would be a quiet stopover on our way north, and also because at least one of my ancestors is from here: my grandmother Betty’s great grandfather Nis Jensen Krough, to be exact. Nis was born in 1849 in Haderslev, and died in 1908 in Des Moines, Iowa. He married Gertrude Marie Christiansen, also of Denmark (although her birth city is unknown to us).

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What to do with one day in Germany, or zwei or drei

Midlife Sentence | Lüneburg Am Sande

It has happened before: regardless of what Einstein said about the definition of insanity, we’ve done the exact same thing we’ve always done and had something totally unexpected happen. Take this trip, for example. We’ve had such good luck finding lodging with minimal knowledge about where we were going or extra wads of cash to spend. Even when we were in Copenhagen, and I’d made our airbnb reservations after reading exactly one article on how cool the Nørrebro neighborhood is, we ended up getting a hip, little flat in what turned out to be the neighborhood about which everyone we’ve talked to since has made that sucking-air-through-your-teeth-sound at, even then we had good luck.

That luck-with-the-lodging thing kind of went pfhht in Hamburg.

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Our Denmark Adventure: How Somebody Totally Undersold Sønderborg, and I’m Going to Need a Pastry Intervention

Midlife Sentence | Sonderborg

Our oldest son is a young man of many talents, but I must say, he’s got a ways to go if he wants a future in the travel industry. When we’ve talked about the town he’s called home this past year, he totally undersold it. The impression he left us with was: safe, small, and rainy. There’s a rocky beach and a harbor, a decent mall, and a great kebab shop within walking distance.

We weren’t really prepared to be blown away by Sønderborg, a seaside town of around 30,000 that straddles the narrow straight of Alsslund in southern Denmark.

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