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Authors: Sandra Dallas

Tallgrass

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TALLGRASS

 

 

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SANDRA DALLAS

TALLGRASS

ST. MARTIN’S PRESS
   
   
NEW YORK

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in ths novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

TALLGRASS.
Copyright © 2007 by Sandra Dallas. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.stmartins.com

Design by Greg Collins

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Dallas, Sandra.

Tallgrass / Sandra Dallas.— 1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36019-1

ISBN-10: 0-312-36019-3

1. Japanese Americans—Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945—Fiction. 2. Teenage girls—Fiction. 3. World War, 1939-1945—Colorado—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3554.A434 T35 2007

813’.54—dc22

2006051271

First Edition: April 2007

10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1

 

 

For

LLOYD ATHEARN

And in memory of

FORREST DALLAS
(1903-1973)

Two awful good men

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

In February 1942, just two months after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the federal government to relocate all people of Japanese ancestry who were living on the West Coast. At great financial and emotional sacrifice, more than 100,000 people, many of them native-born Americans, were uprooted and sent to ten desolate inland camps. Some 10,000 went through the gates of Amache, located near Granada, Colorado.

I first heard about Amache on a pheasant-hunting trip with a friend in southeastern Colorado in 1961, a little more than fifteen years after the camp closed at the end of World War II. My friend, who’d grown up in the area, took me to see what remained of Amache—concrete slabs and roads bladed into the prairie. The buildings had been carted off when the camp was shut down, and in researching the camp not long after I first visited it, I discovered that my journalism classes at the University of Denver had been held in a former Amache barracks.

I did nothing with the information I’d collected on Amache until I read Robert Harvey’s superb book
Amache: The Story of Japanese Internment in Colorado During World War II,
with its interviews with former evacuees. I was disturbed by what I read, and not just because it exposed the shameful way America deprived its own citizens of their civil rights during World War II. The Iraq war was under way at the time I read the book, and the news was filled with disturbing stories of men being held without charges at Guantanamo Bay. I could not help but wonder if there were a corollary between the Japanese evacuation of World War II and the detainment at Guantanamo. That concern led me to write
Tallgrass.

It is the story of a Japanese relocation camp in southeastern Colorado and the effect it has on both the evacuees and the townspeople. The book is entirely fiction, which is why I renamed the camp Tallgrass. I am not Japanese, so it would have been presumptuous of me to write from a Japanese point of view. Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Rennie Stroud, a young girl whose farm is adjacent to the camp.

Despite its dark theme,
Tallgrass
was a pleasure to write because I love the characters, particularly Loyal Stroud, Rennie’s father. Originally, he was to have been a good man but a shadowy figure. As I wrote, however, I realized that Loyal was my father, Forrest Dallas, who died in 1973. Not only does Loyal use my father’s expressions, but he drives Dad’s truck, Red Boy, has Dad’s sense of humor, and, most important, he has my father’s strong moral core. I’m grateful to my sister, Mary Cole, and brother, Michael Dallas, who shared their memories of Dad.

In researching
Tallgrass,
I drew heavily on Robert Harvey’s book and on personal conversations with the author. Carl Iwasaki, my friend of nearly fifty years, shared his experiences at Heart Mountain, the Wyoming relocation camp. Bill Hosokawa, who was at Heart Mountain, too, suggested additions. Uncle Bob Glendon gave me permission to use Red Boy. I couldn’t write this or any other book without the support of my friend and writing buddy, Arnie Grossman. Danielle Egan-Miller and Joanna MacKenzie at Browne & Miller Literary Associates insisted that I go back again and again to refine the story, and my editor, Jennifer Enderlin, and copy editor, Carol Edwards, at St. Martin’s Press suggested additional ways to strengthen
Tallgrass.
Thanks to all of you.

Most of all, I want to thank Bob, Dana, Povy, Lloyd, and Forrest. You are my moral core.

 

TALLGRASS

1

THE SUMMER I WAS
thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis. Not Ellis, exactly, but to the old Tallgrass Ranch, which the government had turned into a relocation camp. Tallgrass was a mile and a half from Ellis, less than a mile past our farmhouse. It was one of the camps the government was building then to house the Japanese. In early 1942, the Japanese on the West Coast had been rounded up and incarcerated in places such as the Santa Anita racetrack. Those destined for Colorado waited there until streets had been bladed into the yucca and sagebrush at Tallgrass, guard towers and barracks thrown up, and the camp fenced off with bobwire. Then they were put on a train and sent a thousand miles to Ellis.

I remember the crowd of townspeople at the depot the day the first Japanese arrived. The arrival date was supposed to be a secret, but we knew the evacuees were coming, because the government had alerted the stationmaster and hired bus drivers, and guards with guns patrolled the station platform. I’d sneaked away from my parents and gone to the depot, too, because I’d never seen any Japanese. I expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper, with slanted eyes and buckteeth and skin like rancid butter. All these years later, I recall I was disappointed that they didn’t appear to be a “yellow peril” at all. They were so ordinary. That is what I remember most about them.

The Japanese gripped the handrails as they got off the train because the steps were steep and their legs were short, and they frowned and blinked into the white-hot sun. They had made the trip with the shades in the coaches pulled down, and the glare of the prairie hurt their eyes. Most of the evacuees on that first train were men, dressed in suits, rumpled now after the long ride, ties that were loosened, and straw hats. Some had on felt hats, although it was August.

The few women wore tailored skirts and blouses and summer dresses with shoulder pads, coats over their arms. They pulled scarves from their pocketbooks and tied them around their heads to keep the hot wind from blowing dust into their hair. Some of the women had on wedgies or open-toed spectator pumps and silk or rayon stockings. Each evacuee carried a single suitcase, because that was all they had been allowed to bring with them.

The adults stood quietly in little groups, whispering, waiting to be told what to do. I expected one of the guards to take charge, to steer the people to the school buses lined up along the platform or tell them to go inside where it was cooler. But no one did, so they waited, confused. I wanted to point the evacuees to the drinking fountain and the bathrooms in the depot. They must have needed them. But I didn’t dare speak up.

Some of the men took out packages of Camels and Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes and lighted cigarettes. None of them chewed tobacco, and none of the women smoked. Several children, cooped up for days, seemed glad to be out in the open, and they squatted down to examine the tracks or ran around, jerky as Mexican jumping beans. A little boy smiled at me, but I turned away, embarrassed to make a connection with him. I wondered if the kids were supposed to be our enemies, too. Then the mothers called to them, and the children joined their parents, fidgeting as they looked at us shyly. Only the children took notice of the group of townspeople on the platform staring at them, many hostile, all of us curious.

A man who stepped down from the last car removed his hat, an expensive one that did not have sweat stains like the hats the farmers wore. He smoothed his hair, which appeared to have been slicked back with Vitalis or some other hair oil, because every strand was in place, despite the wind. Holding the hat in his hand, he rubbed his wrist across his forehead. Shading his eyes, he squinted at the prairie grass that glinted like brass in the sun and asked the man beside him, “Where are we?” The second man shrugged, and I suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese. What if the government had taken over our farm and sent us far away on the train, and nobody would tell us our destination? But we weren’t Japanese. We were Americans.

“Ellis. You’re at Ellis, Colorado,” a woman near me called out.

Her husband shushed her. “Don’t tell those people where they’re at. Don’t you know nothing?” He rubbed his big face with a hand that the sun had turned as brown as a walnut. The man had shaved before coming to town. You could tell by the tiny clots of dried blood where he had nicked himself and the clumps of whiskers the razor had missed. They stuck up in the folds of his skin like willow shoots in a gully.

The Japanese man looked into the crowd, searching for the woman who’d spoken. She kept still, however, so he put his hat back on, tightened his tie, and buttoned his suit jacket as he leaned down to whisper something to a girl about my age. I admired her saddle shoes, thinking she must be rich, because saddle shoes cost more than the plain brown oxfords Mom bought me. I wondered how long her shoes would stay white in the dirt of Tallgrass. It wasn’t likely that she’d put shoe polish into her small suitcase. The girl shook back her hair, which was long and black and glossy. I had never seen such hair. It was as if coal had been spun into long threads. She unfolded a scarf splashed with pink flowers and put it around her head, tying it at the back of her neck, under her hair.

“Silk. Real silk,” a woman near me muttered, but I could not tell if she was jealous or just stating a fact.

A man beside her observed, “I thought they’d have buckteeth. They don’t have buckteeth.”

“You got buckteeth enough for all of ’em,” called one of the boys at the back of the crowd. The man turned around and searched the faces, but he couldn’t identify the kid who’d spoken.

I could. He was Beaner Jack. I knew because Danny Spano stopped chugging his Grapette long enough to slap Beaner on the back and say, “Good one.” Beaner and Danny were always together, except for the time when Danny was in the army. He’d been in an accident at Camp Carson, near Colorado Springs, and hurt his foot, and the army didn’t want him anymore, so he’d been mustered out. Now he was back in Ellis. Both Danny and Beaner were eighteen, the age of my sister, Marthalice, who had gone to Denver to work in an arms plant after she graduated in May. I didn’t know whether she’d done it because she was patriotic or because she was blue after her favorite boyfriend, Hank Gantz, quit school to join the navy. My brother. Buddy, who was twenty-one, had left college to enlist in the army the week after Pearl Harbor.

“Haw haw,” said Marlys, one of the high school girls who were standing beside the boys. She smiled at Danny, because he was tall and had curly black hair like a movie star. Beaner, on the other hand, was squat, with hair as thin as corn silk. He’d be bald one day, like the rest of the Jacks. And mean, too. I didn’t understand how people could be as mean as the Jacks. It was just their nature, I guess. They had meanness in their bones. I couldn’t imagine my telling a grown-up that he had buckteeth, but I wasn’t surprised that Beaner did.

The bucktoothed man glared at Marlys.

“Beaner’s a bushel of cow pucky,” whispered Betty Joyce Snow, who was standing on the platform next to me, and we both giggled. With Marthalice gone, I was especially glad that Betty Joyce was my best friend. We told each other everything. Betty Joyce and I got along as squarely as anybody. She’d sneaked away from her father’s hardware store to come to the station, and I knew she’d have the dickens to pay if her dad found out.

Then Lum Smith observed, “I don’t see nothing wrong with them. They don’t even hardly look like Japs, some of ’em anyway.” He was a small, henpecked man with no chin, like Andy Gump in the comic strips. His wife, Bird, frowned at him. Bird Smith’s hair was in pin curls, covered by a red bandanna that was tied at the top of her head. The ends of the scarf stuck up like rabbit ears. Stout, with legs the size of Yule logs, she didn’t look much like her name. She didn’t sound like it, either. Mrs. Smith was one of the dozen members of Mom’s quilting group, the Jolly Stitchers, which meant they considered themselves friends, but Mom didn’t seem to care much for her. I was glad that at thirteen, I didn’t
have
to be friends with anybody.

“That’s why they’re so dangerous,” Mr. Rubey said. “You’d not hardly think they was the enemy. But it’s a fact. Some of them have a shortwave with a direct line to Tojo.” He jerked back his head for emphasis, sticking out his chest, which made his overalls pull up over his big hams.

“Shortwave radios don’t send signals that far,” his son Edgar told him.

“Was anybody asking you, mister?”

“No, sir.” Edgar was the smartest boy in my grade, but he was a twerp. Once, I said New York City was the capital of New York State, and Edgar asked if I wanted to bet on it. I was so sure I was right that I bet a quarter. But I was wrong, and Edgar lorded it over me, saying only a dummy would bet against him. He’d known all along that the capital was Albany, because he’d visited his aunt and uncle there. That wasn’t fair, and I didn’t have a quarter. But I wasn’t a welsher, so I paid off Edgar at five cents a week. Then he made me pay him three cents’ interest.

The guards moved among the evacuees then, pointing to school buses that Ellis folks still call “the yellow dogs.” The Japanese picked up their suitcases, the women moving about like hens as they gathered their children and scurried toward the open doors.

“They ride on a machine, while I ride my horse to town,” said Olney Larsoo, who ran the filling station. His face was raw, as if it had been scoured by sand, like paint on a frame house in a storm. “I’m a World War One vet, and they’re a bunch of damn foreigners.” He leaned over the edge of the platform and spit out his wad.

“Aw, they can’t help being born that way,” someone said.

“I believe the government ought to make them go back to where they come from,” Frank Martin said, loudly enough for one of the Japanese men boarding the bus to hear. The evacuee turned around, and Mr. Martin leaned forward and repeated louder, “Ought to make them go back where they come from.”

A man made his way through the crowd then and said just loudly enough for all of us to hear, “Those folks came from California. Where at is it you’re from, Frank?” People laughed because Mr. Martin had moved to Ellis from Italy after the Great War, and he ate spaghetti and sold dago red to the high school boys for fifty cents a jar. His real name was Martinelli, and some people said that meant jackass in Italian. Mr. Martin sent a reproachful look at the man who’d spoken.

I couldn’t see him, but I recognized the voice. It belonged to my father, and he came up beside me and took my arm. “We’ve been looking for you, Squirt. We thought you were with Granny. I reckon there’s chores to do.” He glanced over at Betty Joyce, who’d begun studying the splintery boards of the platform, but he didn’t say anything to her. If Betty Joyce’s father thought I should go home, he’d tell me in a second, but Dad wouldn’t discipline another man’s child.

“I wanted to see the Japs,” I said, my face red. I knew Dad was disappointed that I’d come to the station. He’d said on the way into town that Ellis folks should have the decency to leave the evacuees alone. He hadn’t exactly told me I couldn’t go to the depot, but that wouldn’t be much of a defense if Dad decided to scold me. He’d accuse me of fuzzy-headed logic, and he might feel he had to start telling me what to do again, as if I were still a little kid. Since Buddy and Marthalice had gone away, Dad had trusted me to make more of my own decisions. But at least he wouldn’t smack me the way Betty Joyce’s father smacked her.

“I believe they are called Japanese.”

“Yes, sir.”

“These here are Japs, Loyal. Can’t you see that?” Mr. Rubey asked my father, scratching his stomach through his overalls.

“All I see are some unlucky Americans. By Dan, I dislike the enemy as much as the next fellow, but I don’t see any enemy here,” he said as Mr. Rubey turned his hands into fists. People stepped back a little. Dad wasn’t a big man, just average in height and size, and his dark hair had begun to creep back on his forehead. He didn’t look like a fighting man, but folks around Ellis knew enough not to take him on.

Once when I was in third grade, Ralph Muggins complained to the teacher, Mr. Gross, that someone had stolen a boiled egg from his lunch bucket. Mr. Gross told us all to open our lunch pails. I had a giant boiled egg in mine, and the teacher ordered me to admit I’d stolen it and apologize to Ralph. When I wouldn’t do it, Mr. Gross made me stand in the dark cloakroom. At first, I wasn’t scared, just humiliated, knowing that the drone in the room meant my classmates were talking about me, accusing me of being a thief. When the bell rang, dismissing classes, and the room grew quiet, however, I wondered if I’d have to stay there all night. The closet was stuffy, and the closeness made me sleepy, but I was afraid to sit down, for fear of rats. Dad was in town that afternoon and heard the bell and decided to give me a ride home. He ran into Mr. Gross as he was leaving the school. “Oops, I put Rennie in the cloakroom to punish her for stealing, and I forgot about her,” Mr. Gross told Dad, giving an apologetic shrug. “Good thing you came along, Mr. Stroud. I sure wouldn’t like to have to come back all this way to let her out.” Dad rushed to the classroom, grabbed me, and carried me outside. Then he slugged Mr. Gross so hard that the teacher fell to the dirt, breaking his glasses. Dad would have killed him, but Mr. Gross refused to stand up, and Dad wouldn’t hit a man who was down. Although he apologized to me in class the next day, Mr. Gross didn’t come back the following year, and folks said he should have known all along that Mom had put the boiled egg in my lunch that morning: Mom’s eggs were the biggest in Bondurant County, and the Muggins raised guinea hens. I never liked closed, dark spaces after that. And people were careful not to cross my father.

Dad stared until Mr. Rubey put his hands into his pockets; then Dad said, “Good day to you, sir.” He turned and, pulling me behind him, went back through the crowd, people parting to let us through. I looked over my shoulder to tell Betty Joyce good-bye, but she was watching the yellow dogs lumber onto the washboard Tallgrass Road. The yellow dogs sent up plumes of dust, which settled over the people at the depot. Men took out bandannas to wipe their faces, which were grimy with dust and sweat. A woman pulled her long apron up over her head. I’d seen pictures of California vineyards and orange groves, and I thought how bewildered the Japanese would be when they saw their new home carved out of the treeless prairie. Some would live there for three years, until V-J day.

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