“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.
Did you hear that the blond oil cartel lady that’s always on TV—“the deeper you go,” says she, “the more good things you learn”—isn’t a real human being? Yup, that’s true. The news is all over the internet and, I don’t mind saying, I’d already suspected as much in my own wicked mind. I mean, here’s this blond oil cartel lady who’s constantly on all of the TV channels and radio stations, inside newspapers and magazines, coming through the mailbox and up on billboards—already she’s clocked more screen time than Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor put together—yet nobody knows her name, or what country she’s from, or how she got her job, or how much money she’s making. While they keep the camera jumping around to try’n keep you from gazing into her eyes, freeze-frame your TV, get up close, take a gander and, I swear, those eyes are so spooky you can’t even tell what color they are. It’s a giant commercial vacuum inside those eyes; its funhouse mirrors filled with ranks and files of empty safe deposit boxes replicating themselves into infinity.
The oil cartel lady isn’t some kind of Stepford Wife robot, either. For one thing, the Stepford Wives were fictional and, for another, they were programmed to be the Ideal Woman from the rich suburbanite’s point of view: hard working, neat, organized, bright, submissive and alluring. Putting aside their sex and status appeal, the Stepford robots were the functional equivalents of a perfect company slave: you get a productive, reliable worker, you have no healthcare costs and, after it’s outlived its usefulness, you don’t have to feed and clothe it and, when it dies, you get no funeral bill. From the point of view of some high-rise Imperialist having African diamonds to mine, supply lines to secure and savages to civilize, the Stepford robots made soldiers so perfectly programmed they’d die before they’d question the wisdom of an order, much less the Divine Order of Things.
But the oil cartel lady isn’t an object to be exploited or a toy to be played with. She’s a whiff of digital wind, a puff of smoke, a clear plastic bottle of gourmet outer space. The product of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on market research and development, she’s a platinum-plated Madison Avenue think tank chimera; a fabulous monster, a wholesome holistic hologram of Ole Ben’s timeless American wit paired with maternal sweetness and presented with the fair sex’s take on Corporate Charity. She’s blond but not too blond, simple and sincere, her creamy Anglo Saxon-Teutonic-Nordic skin blemish-free, youthful and pure, her business suit formal but not black, her aura androgynous, her shoes plain and practical. Tall and willowy one minute and short and muscular the next, she’s your wife, big sister, mother, grandmother, Earth Mother and Holy Mother. Always on the move, always focused, balanced, engaged, engaging, empathetic, emphatic and serene, her neutral voice tones bursting with subtle hints of earnestness and enthusiasm, her Queen’s English-techno apparatchik speak perfectly Global Market, she spreads the Good News while her bold assurances and reassurances land inside your memory as gently as rose petals alighting on perfumed bath water.
With your help, the oil cartel hologram lady is providing fuel for 1.9 million American jobs and more jobs everyday—good, productive, permanent jobs with limitless potential for advancement, enrichment and fulfillment. Along with legions of good Americans everywhere working together for the common good and our common destiny, she’s providing us with a “clean environment” and our children yet unborn with “a clean energy future” and the limitless Promise of Tomorrow as Our Business, Our Only Business. She’s “fueling our comfort” and “our way of life,” “prosperity,” “security” and “the building blocks of future medicine.” She lights our homes and churches and schools, warms our food and bellies, farms, pharmaceuticals and factories. The perfect embodiment of the glorious Miracle of Free Capital and God’s Invisible Hand of Justice, she’s The Economy, stupid, and so the Giver and Taker of All Things. The constant breaking news updates we get alerting us to the very latest minute fluctuations in the world’s stock, bond, currency and commodity markets, plus the very latest up-ticks and downticks in the Leading Economic Indicators are measures of the pulse of God, and the oil cartel hologram is His television face.
It’s her body language that gives her away. If you saw a creature moving like she does in a parking lot, or inside a shopping mall, you’d be struck dumb. Is she some poor suffering psychotic trapped by the opera music relentlessly grating between her ears? Is she dangerous? Should I run? Yet, cocooned within the magically glowing mindscapes of our electronic living room campfires, she’s transformed into a sweet Angel sent from High Heaven. Without our oil, she so graciously informs us, you people starve. God doesn’t want you to starve and, since we keep you alive, we’re with God. Crude oil is the Holy Water we sprinkle on our newborn babies, the exhaust, coal dust and petrochemicals they breathe from cradle to grave the refreshing breath of The Exalted One, the dying oceans the Sinai Desert they must cross.
I know, it’s all subliminal and, sure, what’s a web of lies when they’re serving a Higher Purpose? And, sure, the oil cartel lady is just one Icon in an ever changing menagerie of them —there’s Old Clean Coal, the Energy Czars, the Atom B. Nuclear twins, Inc., The Good Hands People, the Copper (“Need a Penny, take a penny”) Kings, Burger Barons, Taco Titans, Pentagon Princesses, etc., etc.—but still the oil cartel lady is the star and centerpiece of the most extensive and expensive propaganda campaign ever waged against the sound minds of the people in the whole history of the world. I think we should know it and chew on it and, there, now you know. So don’t be fooled. That way lays madness and ruin.