“Where the water touches this soil of disintegrated granite, it acts like the wand of the Enchanter, and it may with truth be said that these Indians (Owens River Valley Paiute) have made some portions of their Country, which otherwise were Desert, to bloom and blossom as a rose.” –Capt. J.W. Davidson, US Cavalry, 1859
Shame shadows us, popping in and out of consciousness like a Hollywood gumshoe tail who, every time we turn around, ducks into a doorway and hides, his back pressed to the window glass. If victory is everybody’s child and defeat’s an orphan, then a people’s collective crimes float like ghosts, rarely glimpsed but never quite forgotten, impossible to rub out yet easy to sugarcoat. I think it was Mark Twain who wrote that the human conscience is an abominable creation, and proof positive of God’s malfeasance, seeing how conscience lacks the strength to get us to follow it and yet it still won’t shut up. Not so with the guilt that comes with a lynch mob’s crimes. Like with the crazy aunt locked in the attic, or the institutionalized son who’s a child molester, respectable people keep the open secret, their eyes averted and lips zipped.
For at least 1,500 years the Owens Valley Paiute had been diverting the Sierra’s cascading creeks in ways that, by irrigating the lowlands, expanded nature’s gardens and attracted a bounty of animals, fish and birds. So it makes sense that when the pioneer cattlemen, after casting their hungry eyes over the Paiute’s vast waterworks, decided to steal them, simultaneously they’d reduce the rightful owners to the status of sub-human savages. It’s called blaming the victim and it’s not so much an intellectual position as a psychological defense mechanism—self-delusion as alibi. Striped to its bare bones, what has America’s notion of its global manifest destiny ever been but a way to blame God for our crimes?
When in the 1950’s I was a little boy growing up in El Lay, to go and see my grandparents we’d pile into our car and take San Fernando Road out to the town of San Fernando. From there we’d head west on Chatsworth Ave. and, past the old Spanish mission and on the southwest corner of Sepulveda Blvd., we’d come to a truck farm that was worked by a family of Japanese. With just an acre or two, mom, pop and the kids grew about any kind of vegetables you could think of. They sold them, along with other local produce, from their roadside stand framed with peeled tree trunks and roofed with palm fronds, and their sandy blond parking lot was dotted with hand-painted white paper sale price signs thumb-tacked to sandwich boards. We always stopped and shopped, my mom hefting, squeezing and sniffing the offerings, my sister and me keeping our hands to ourselves and my dad searching for a peach to bite into. One day my dad announced how the family didn’t own, but were only renting, the land they were manicuring. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my dad explained, the family’s farm, and maybe hundreds more like it, had been stolen. . .
When I was old enough for driving lessons, my dad took me out to the empty parking lot of Santa Anita Racetrack. Once he mentioned how the parking lot had been used to assemble thousands of ethnic Japanese citizens until they could be shipped to their permanent quarters hidden away somewhere where nobody had to look at them. I could tell the story gave my dad the creeps— in 1945 he’d toured Dachau in Bavaria—and after that Santa Anita’s parking lot always gave me the creeps. How many Jews had gone to their deaths because they’d mistakenly believed they were Germans, Poles or Ukrainians? How many native-born Californians had lost everything because they’d mistakenly believed they were Americans?
My whole life I’ve known about the crewcut ruins of the Manzanar “relocation camp” sprawled out there across 500 acres of scrub just north of Lone Pine in Owens Valley. Yet, like the next-door mass grave holding the bones of the Chinese coolies killed during the great earthquake of 1872, I kept Manzanar in my mental shoebox along with the rest of my tourist curios. Like the crumbling beehive-shaped charcoal kilns at the mouth of Cottonwood Creek, the stone Winnedumah Pillar standing tall in the Inyos, the giant white Owens Lake talc mine with its gaping mouth looking like the house of a trapdoor spider, and the ruins of the stinking Dirty Sock hot springs resort, Manzanar was another roadside attraction, a bronze plaque set in a highway turnout boulder, a California landmark, historical tidbit, the answer to a trivia question. (“Manzanar” means “apple orchard” in Spanish, which is what the land was before El Lay “bought” the water in the 1920s, shipped it south and let the orchards—555 acres of apples, peaches, pears and plums, and the surrounding croplands, die of thirst).
After Japan unconditionally surrendered, the GI guards went home, the inmates got their walking papers and the camp itself was (legally) scavenged and picked clean by the local ranchers, merchants and Indians. Before Manzanar became a National Historic Site in 1992 and the “Interpretive Center” opened in 2004, about all that was left out there was a grid of about 750 concrete barracks and barracks-sized foundations, a graveyard, a stout brown stone guardhouse and a bright white concrete obelisk with black Japanese writing painted on it. Built by the prisoners, the obelisk is set on a wedding cake pedestal with three layers and, every time I’d visited there, the surfaces were covered with some kind of prayer-offerings.
During our first-time visit to the new museum this last trip, I finally found out what the inscription on the obelisk says: “A monument to console the souls of the dead.” It was a wish that disturbed me since I’d been brought up to believe that the best thing about death was how it solved all of your problems for you. But now the vision of the wounded souls of the dead needing consoling, of captive spirits wandering lost beyond memory, by hinting at what had been usurped and the depth of the damage that had been done, was something I wasn’t prepared for. This here’s a war museum, I suddenly realized.
By refusing to offer any sort of compensation until 1988 when 28,000 of the 110,000 former inmates of the gulag had already died, the Feds saved a big pile of tax dollars. By not opening an “Interpretive Center” at Manzanar until 70 years after the fact, they saved, and are saving, a whole bunch of face. Beginning in early 1942, here at this exact spot, was Owens Valley’s one and only real estate boom and population explosion—over 10,000 residents appeared practically overnight—and here, for the one and only time in its senile skinflint history, El Lay’s Department of Water and Power opened its local spigots and made the desert bloom. Yet, because of the shame, to those speeding by on US Hwy 395, Manzanar’s less famous than the Subway sandwich shop up the road a piece in wind-whipped Independence.
A tour through the museum/shrine gives you the straight story of a major atrocity and it’s a bellyful. It’s a barebones reminder and warning about what happens when ignorance and fear reigns over the dominant majority and fear-mongers, money-grubbers and race-baiters rise to rule. Of all of life’s cruel masters, the artifacts and exhibits mournfully whisper, moral cowardice is the most exacting.
Back outside and walking through the ruins in the glowing sunset shadow of pyramidal, snow-flecked Mt. Williamson, I imagined a family of prisoners huddled around a woodstove inside a drafty wooden crate and felt their desolation. How dreary this giant land must have seemed to fishermen from Treasure Island and San Francisco Bay; to farmers from Fresno and Sacramento; how alien, frigid, sweltering, empty, heartless and lonely. Over 100 orphans were kept locked up here in a “children’s village” and I wondered what it’d be like to have to personally explain to those little boys and girls how they came to be dire threats to public safety even though, having fought in Vietnam, I knew the answer full well. I’d recently read that the youngest Afghan “terrorist suspect” we’re “holding” in Cuba was just a rag-hanging snot-nose when he was “arrested” by American liberation forces entering his village some 10 years ago, and I wondered if things have gone downhill or have only remained the same.
I shifted my eyes southward and rested them on the curly bronze contours of my beloved Alabama Hills, birthplace of my wanderlust and home of my spirit allies, and it occurred to me that I’d stumbled upon a part of what ails we-the-people today. When it comes to the truth about ourselves as human beings and where we’ve come from as a nation, we’ve been jacked around so many times that we’ve forgotten how to feel homesick.
I wrote about the Alabama Hills in my story Solitude, which is posted under “Nature and Spirituality.” Like with the rest of the stories , it comes with snapshots.
It was the summer of 1970 and my girlfriend and I were finishing up breakfast in a sidewalk cafe on the waterfront in Tangier. We’d recently picked up a brand new VW bus at the factory in Hanover, West Germany, and now we were on our way south to Marrakesh and the Berber tribal areas beyond. But first we wanted to drive out to the Caves of Hercules. Located almost exactly at the northwest corner of Africa, the place was a series of sea caves fronted with tide pools and blowholes and flanked by Roman ruins. Our multi-lingual Moroccan guide and sidekick, the son of a merchant who was named Mohammad, had insisted that we couldn’t leave Tangier without first touring the caves, and over the last few days we’d come to enjoy his company and trust his advice. Two English women we’d met in the old city were also at the table and they were coming along for the ride. Because the local kif was weak, the night before Mohammad had scored a quarter ounce of Lebanese hash for me and my girlfriend to take south with us and we figured, once we were out in the countryside, that a few puffs on our portable hookah would help brighten our sightseeing day. We were right, too, though not in all of the ways we expected.
1970 was a good time to be Americans abroad. Thanks to Europe and Asia’s self-immolation during WW2, American manufacturing was king and the dollar was King Cong. Take our use of the VW bus. A “wedding” gift from my dad, he didn’t have to put up any money because a friend of his owned a VW dealership. After my girlfriend and I put 11,000 miles on the bus and slept in it for the better part of two months, we shipped it from the North Sea, across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and to the Port of Long Beach. After paying the shipping fees and import duties, taxes and registration, and after reimbursing his friend for his costs, my dad sold the bus and made $200 on the deal. During the 1930’s the Spaniards had also set themselves on fire, and Spain was still ruled by the Fascists and dirt poor. A Spanish tortilla (a sort of potato omelet sandwich) cost 5 cents American and a liter of wine (our drinking water) was 35 cents. In Moroccan bazaars you could get a three course meal for 35 cents.
It was also a good time to be Americans in Morocco. Most Moroccans had little use for Spaniards, and even less for the French, but they liked Americans. When in 1942 the Americans decided to enter the European Theater by way of an amphibious landing on the wide sandy beaches outside Casablanca, the local Vichy French objected. So the Americans pulled a Pearl Harbor on their garrison. Using an aerial sneak attack in the dead of night, they BBQed Frenchmen by the truckload. If Mohammad’s attitude was any indication, the Moroccans were eternally grateful.
The dirt parking lot on the bluff above the Caves of Hercules was lined with robed and sandaled peasants selling trinkets, clothing and camel rides. But with Mohammad along we didn’t have to worry about them cornering us. The caves were made of schist, and for centuries people had been chiseling millstones out of their walls and ceilings. The hundreds of half-circles carved into half-circles gave the interior of the caves the appearance and texture of snake’s skin, and we couldn’t help but feel a little awed by the tremendous amount of patient hand labor that had gone into providing us with the spectacle. Ironically—or maybe not so ironically—until the Moroccans had regained their 1,000-year-old national independence 14 years before, the caves were also used as a whorehouse.
Tangier has been a seaport for at least 2,800 years and much of Morocco’s poverty is due to its exhausted soils. The croplands between the caves and Tangier were nowhere near as bountiful as we were used to seeing either in California, Carolina or England. Mohammad had sworn that while his people were very, very poor, nobody went hungry because folks took care of each other. While I was skeptical at the time, during our long lazy loop through the country we never did see any kids with bloated bellies and very few beggars. The Moroccans and the Berber tribesmen we met had great stores of hospitality and generosity, and more than once we’d been embarrassed (our VW made us rich) by offers of food, shelter, advice and favors.
Anyway, after our tour of the caves we’d driven out to the lighthouse at Pillar of Hercules. We wanted to see the mixing of Atlantic and Mediterranean waters and smoke some hash. But the stiff wind blowing across the Straight of Gibraltar prevented us from lighting our hookah. So we’d had to content ourselves with watching the chaos of whitecaps, streaking seabirds and the tall ships sliding by.
Now, back in the VW and returning to Tangier, I spotted a graded dirt road forking off the highway and leading into scraggly cornfields. About 100 yards down the road stood a tall round shade tree, and I asked the others if they wanted to park and puff on the hookah. Tangier was just over the hill, the sun was getting low and so why not get stoned before spending a final night wandering the intricate maze of winding streets, alleys, pathways, tunnels and stairways inside the old city? Since everybody thought mine was a swell idea, we went and parked under the tree. I laid out a blanket and we sat down in a circle around the hookah.
When we piled back into the bus, we were walking on clouds. I got behind the steering wheel and, after everybody was safely settled in, while backing up to get us turned around, I drove our ass-end square into the deep roadside ditch. Instantly the bus was at the angle of a cannon barrel and, after hitting my accelerator as if to erase my mistake, almost as quickly I realized that my rear tires were spinning in midair and that we were seriously stuck. Mightily discouraged by my revelation—my girlfriend was glaring at me like I was some of kind of idiot, the English women were wearing poker faces and poor Mohammad, thinking he’d’ve warned me if he’d been on his toes, was shrinking—I killed my engine and advised the others to please carefully exit the vehicle.
I pushed open my door, climbed to the ground, jumped into the ditch and squatted down to evaluate the width and depth of our dilemma. My rear tires were airborne, alright, but the rear bumper had caught the outside of the ditch and no damage had been done. Noticing that the bottom of the ditch was lined with fat, Frisbee-shaped rocks, I got an idea. If I could use the tire jack to lift one side of the axle, then we could gather rocks and use them to build a floor under the tire. Once the tire was seated on the floor, I could release the jack and do the same to the other side. Once both tires had a floor under them, by golly, we’d be able to drive right up out of there. If the local people could chisel millstones out of schist and build mud city walls 20 feet thick and 30 feet high, certainly we could spring the VW.
So the problem became to find the owner’s manual so I could locate the newfangled tire jack and figure out how to use it. Finding the manual was easy enough but, because it was an inch thick and didn’t come with a decent index, I wound up thumbing through it page by page. While I was doing so a shiny BMW pulled off the highway and, obviously coming to our rescue, it parked in the shade of the tree. In the backseat were two middle-aged women staring balefully at us and out from the front seat popped two big beefy Germans in slacks, sport shirts and shiny shoes. They walked up real close to me and, after realizing that I couldn’t understand what they were saying but grasping that I was looking for my tire jack, one of them grabbed the manual out of my hands and began systematically thumbing through it.
Five little Moroccan peasant dudes appeared out of the cornfields. Delighted by the diversion and paying no attention to the crowd of us, they lined up behind the bus, braced their hands and feet and, at the count of “Ugh,” they pushed the VW up and out of the ditch.
Much relieved and filled with gratitude, I dug in my pocket to offer them some money for their trouble. But they laughed, shook their heads and pivoted around to get back to work. One of them, before disappearing into the cornstalks, turned around, faced us and raised a clenched fist to the cobalt sky. “Moroc!” he whooped in salutation.
–Originally published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser
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When I was a little boy my grandpa, who was a cartoonist and columnist, told me about a family of tourists that got a flat tire on a country road beside an insane asylum. The dad set about changing the tire and, for safe keeping, he set his loose lug nuts in his upside-down hubcap. He returned to his trunk to fetch his spare tire and a big truck whooshed by, smashed his hubcap and scattered his lug nuts to who-knows-where. Realizing he and his family were now stranded in the middle of nowhere, his schedule ruined, the man proceeded to have himself a hissy-fit.
“Hey, you.” Somebody called.
The man looked and there was an inmate of the insane asylum staring at him through the wrought iron bars of the fence. “What is it?” The man asked.
“Take a lug nut off your other three tires and use them for your spare. Town’s just down the road a piece and there’s an auto parts store there on the right. Drive slow and then buy yourself some new lug nuts.”
What a brilliant idea, the tourist thought. “Gee, thanks, mister.”
“Nothing to it. I might be crazy but I’m not a moron.”
April 1st: “Free Frisbees for the People.” Or, “Michael and me take appropriate action.”
April 10th: Advice for the Young, Part Two. “Grandpa’s gone ta Gaga and grandma’s gone with him!!!” Or, “Hello, Lieberman.”
April 20th: Michael and me go into business.