I would go insane if I lived in a place like this. The dirt, rocks, and sagebrush look the same mile after mile, in contrast with the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains looming in the background of the desolate Owens Valley. My mom steers the motorhome from Highway 395 onto a dirt road. We pass an abandoned sentry post that my relatives helped build and park in a paved lot. We have entered Manzanar, the World War II Japanese Internment Camp which incarcerated 10,000 men, women, and children, two-thirds of whom were American citizens. These people were forced from their homes into this desert because of their ancestry.
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As I walk away from my motorhome, I feel trapped between the barbed wire and the empty guard tower which once held machine guns and American soldiers. I head towards the auditorium which had been converted into a museum. With each crunchy footstep upon the sweltering rocky sand, I think of the Japanese American internees who made this exact trek in the “land of the free”.
When I enter the museum I am relieved by the cool breeze of the air conditioning and right away I see the list. The list has all of the names of those interned in Manzanar. Automatically, my eyes scroll to the top of the black and white photograph of Old Glory waving above a barrack and one name stands out among the others– Eiichi Norihiro, my beloved grandpa.
I walk past the thousands of cranes left by visitors as prayers for the families before I exit the auditorium and head towards the cemetery. In the middle of the desert with the ominous Sierra Nevada Mountains in the back, I see the familiar white obelisk with black Japanese characters inscribed in its surface. As I approach it, I feel the presence of my grandpa and his brother who helped construct it. When I arrive, I see the bullet scars left by the local townspeople who believe the internees were the enemies and am brought back to the harsh reality of life.
After paying my respects to those who perished in the camps I head toward the barracks. The accurately reconstructed barracks represent the poor living conditions my grandpa had to endure. The only barrier separating him from Mother Nature’s wrath was a tenuous layer of wood and tar paper
Grandpa was part of the sand crew who brought raw materials into the camps to build structures like the sentry post and cemetery obelisk, so he would often drive as far as he could on the highway before he was stopped and ordered back into the camp. His short-lived adventures later drew him to revisit Manzanar, so he can feel free in the land of incarceration.
Ironically, the most negative event in my grandpa’s life eventually led to his true happiness–camping. His wartime legacy of resilience and daring adventures will forever be preserved as it is passed onto future generations. Rather than being bitter about his imprisonment, my grandpa had been introduced to a new world beyond the barbed wire. This influenced the upbringing of my mom, and now my brother and I. He instilled family values into his love of traveling and camping. Grandpa taught us to appreciate others. He knew what it was like to be labeled as the enemy and disrespected by the American government. For these reasons, no matter where we travel, we always have a profound appreciation of the people and cultures who surround us. Through these travels, I live through my grandpa while his spirit lives on forever in my heart.
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