Mavericks of the Sky


Mavericks of the SkyMavericks of the Sky
by Barry Rosenberg & Catherine Macaulay

I breezed through this book in a weekend. The story of the first few years of the U.S. Airmail Service, it’s full of action and adventure — and frequent comedy. The thought that crossed my mind more than once as I read was — “They ought to turn this into a movie.”

In 1917, the U.S. entered WWI with an air force that was still new and untried. But then, aviation itself as a field was barely over a decade old at that point. Planes, engines, and piloting skills were all going through a period of rapid experimentation and development. Everyone was working through a steep learning curve.

Flying the mail originated not in a particular demand for faster mail delivery, but from a crying need to develop pilots’ skills at cross-country flying. The first chapter of the book lays out the problem succinctly:

The country had been at war for just over a year and already dozens of flyers had been killed. … The problem had less to do with the superior dogfighting skills of aces like Baron Manfred von Richthoven than with the fact that the airmen were simply getting lost. With only a rudimentary compass to navigate by, and facing unfamiliar enemy terrain beneath their wings, they were unable to find their way back to base and eventually ran out of fuel and crashed. They were proficient with stick and rudder, but they lacked the ABC’s of cross-country flying.

Between them, the Army and the Post Office came up with a novel solution to the problem:

Beginning May 15, 1918, pilots of the U.S. Army Signal Corps would begin delivering Uncle Sam’s mail in order to gain firsthand experience in the art of navigation. Contact flying — that’s what pilots needed, experience at flying over long stretches of unfamiliar territory. And now, with the help of the U.S. Post Office Department, they were about to be given that skill by flying the mail 218 miles between New York and Washington. The idea was to put a green Army pilot on the mail run for a couple months and give him experience at flying from city to city without slamming into a mountain or riding into a thunderstorm. Theoretically, he’d then be ready to be shipped off to the front. 

From the day this plan was dropped into the lap of Major Reuben Fleet until the day he was expected to pull off the first scheduled mail run in front of an assortment of dignitaries, including the President, was a mere nine days. In barely over a week, Fleet was expected to get a whole new program up and running, from scratch to fully functional. It was an unreasonable expectation, but somehow it had to be done.

First, three airfields had to be found and prepped — one at each endpoint in New York and Washington, and one at the midway point in the relay. Major Fleet easily found an open pasture in Pennsylvania for the mid-point, and arranged to use the grassy infield of Belmont Racetrack for the New York terminus. But the Washington airfield was chosen for him. It was a small picnic ground near the Lincoln Memorial, for the convenience of President Wilson and the dignitaries. It was a dinky space hemmed in by trees — with one tree right smack in the middle of the landing space. Major Fleet argued in vain. Overruled. The best he could manage was to have that tree in the middle of the runway surreptitiously cut down one night.

Six pilots were needed for the first run, four to fly the four legs of the mail relay, and two back-ups. Of the six, two were the kind of inexperienced pilots that the program was intended to nurture. But with the eyes of the President on this first run, Fleet had hoped to use the four more experienced pilots that first day, saving the rookies for future flights with less publicity. Again, overruled. The two new pilots were connected to important men in Washington, and they were to have the honor of being part of this first run. They were sure they could do it. Major Fleet crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, the planes had been purchased on a rush order — Curtiss Jennies equipped with new powerful engines for long-distance cargo hauling. To everyone’s frustration, they were not delivered until two nights before they were to fly. And they were delivered in crates on trucks, unassembled, with missing and broken parts, and maddeningly confusing assembly instructions. “Fleet’s team had only eighteen hours to uncrate, assemble, service, tune, and flight-check each aircraft. Like so many frantic parents trying to assemble their children’s toys on Christmas Eve, Fleet’s crew began a long night’s struggle to piece together the half-dozen aircraft.” It was a mad race against the clock to have flyable planes by the next day, so there would be time to ferry three of them to Washington and Pennsylvania and get them into position.

After an all-night plane-assembly session in New York, only three of the planes were ready to fly. Four were necessary to complete the relay. With no time to lose, Fleet himself undertook to make the longest preparatory flight, ferrying one plane to the Washington terminus where it would be ready for the return run. The other two planes, in the hands of two of the relay pilots, set out for Pennsylvania. The fourth plane was still under construction, hopefully to be ready in time for the takeoff from Belmont Racetrack.

Fleet and the other two pilots flew through a pea-soup fog out of New York, struggling to reach the Pennsylvania airfield before darkness. Early the next morning, Fleet took off for Washington, arriving just in time to greet the arriving dignitaries and to give instructions to the rookie pilot who would fly this first leg of the relay. To everyone’s relief, they had word that the fourth plane had made it to Belmont and was ready for takeoff. The postal truck loaded the mail onto the Jenny, making special ceremonial flourishes over a letter added to the mailbag by the president.

So far, so good. Until the moment of takeoff, that is. The Jenny was out of fuel, after Fleet’s morning trip from Pennsylvania. A supply of fuel had been ordered to be ready and waiting, but the Lieutenant who had been delegated that job had neglected to get it done. Amidst much fury and embarrassment, hasty improvisation was the only option. After using a hose to siphon gas out of another nearby gas tank, the plane finally got off the ground.

Unfortunately, the rookie pilot promptly got lost. He went 30 miles the wrong way before making a rough landing in a freshly plowed field. By the time the word of this predicament got to the transfer point in Pennsylvania, the second leg of the relay was already late for takeoff. With not a scrap of mail in his plane, the second pilot in the relay took off anyway, knowing that there was a crowd waiting at Belmont Racetrack who expected to see the plane arrive. He flew in to cheers and applause. “Who cared that President Wilson’s letter and all the other mail from Washington was lying upside down in a Maryland field? It was the feat being honored.”

The Long Island Railroad had brought the mailbags from New York out to Belmont. They were loaded into the waiting plane with lengthy speeches by assorted officials, and the pilot took off. This leg of the relay went perfectly. The pilot reached the hand-off point in Pennsylvania, transferred the postal cargo, and saw the final leg of the relay take off six minutes later. The final pilot was one of the two rookies, but unlike the other, he did not embarrass himself by getting lost. Squeaking past the encircling trees and the crowds on the field, he brought his plane in for a safe landing at the Washington picnic ground and actually delivered the first sacks of airmail to make it to their destination.

All of this excitement happens in just the first three chapters of the book. Take my word for it — the rest of the book is just as action-packed, and if I were to describe it all, this blog post would be far longer than it already is. As we watch the struggles of the airmail service to expand routes across the country, we meet all the daring pilots who learned by dangerous experience how to fly over mountains, how to fly at night, how to fly in fog and rain and wind and snow, how to find landmarks and create useful flight maps. Cross-country aviation was a death-defying job in those days, and the number of pilots killed in action in the mail service reminds the reader shockingly that the mail service was not any safer than wartime flying.

By the time the airmail service was separated from its origins as a military adjunct, standing on its own as a division of the post office, it had come a long way from its shaky start. Planes were flying across the Appalachians and the Rockies, carrying mail from coast to coast. And rarely losing either the mail or the pilots anymore, thanks to everything that had been learned by the hard experience of those early airmail pilots.


The San Francisco Earthquake


San Francisco Newspapers Cover PictureThe San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
by a number of nameless but intrepid newspapermen

A few months ago, I began working on a LibriVox recording with my usual LV team — (GregG and AnnB) — A History of the Earthquake and Fire in San Francisco by Aitkin & Hilton, written in 1906 just a few months after the events described in the book. In the course of working on that project, I became particularly interested in the work of the newspapermen of that city. The headquarters of all the major newspapers were destroyed, along with their printing presses, and yet the reporters still managed to collect and publish news of what was happening around them. On the Library of Congress website, I found this collection of historic newspapers, including several issues of the San Francisco Call from the days following the earthquake. That led to my most recent solo project, The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire as Reported in the Newspapers of that City.

Reading these newspapers, more than a century old, felt surprisingly familiar. It connected in my mind with the reading I do at Reachout Radio, where we do live readings from today’s newspapers. In the Aitkin & Hilton book, even though it was written shortly after the event, the story was told in the past tense, as something already beginning to pass from “news” to “history”. In the newspaper readings, everything is happening in the present tense, in the immediate here and now. If only radio had existed in 1906, I might have been a Reachout Radio reader, turning the pages of the papers, looking for the articles that would be most informative to the listeners on the other end of the airwaves.

We would have to begin with the leading articles, the ones which pull together the big picture of what’s happening. Where are the present fire lines and which way is the fire moving? Where are the civic leaders meeting and what is their game plan? Where are people to go for safety, and how are they to get there? Before the internet, before television, before radio, the printing press was the clearing house for everything people most desperately needed to know.

Then there are the small and personal items. A wealthy woman lost all her property in the fire, but announced that she was giving half of what she had in the bank to the relief fund. Two men in what appeared to be a Red Cross wagon stole blankets and jewelry from the homeless camped in Golden Gate Park. Enrico Caruso got a black eye during an altercation over luggage at the ferry boat wharf. A University of California professor rescued the paintings at Hopkins Art Institute by cutting them out of their frames as the flames surrounded the building, rolling up the canvases and taking them to safety.

The reporters diligently collected data and more data, and devoted full pages to making it available. People seeking friends and relatives checked the hundreds of names and addresses published in the papers. Lists of people hospitalized at various locations were available, with a brief description of their injury. Locations of relief stations and food distribution stations were published in the paper. Businessmen, driven out of one location, turned to the newspapers to announce new temporary locations and to ask their employees to check in.

Even the “Personals” were fascinating little glimpses of small human details in the larger story. Herb asked Eve in a classified ad, “Where are you?” Mr. Monteverde published an ad asking for information on the whereabouts of the children of the Mexican Vice President, who had been staying with a Miss Velasco. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart announced that their building had escaped unharmed and that school would resume Monday. An enterprising Oakland real estate broker advertised “an earthquake-proof 5-room cottage” and advised the reader to “Grab it quick!”

The San Francisco newspapermen were working under serious disadvantages. All three major papers in the city lost their buildings to the fire on the first day. But being true news hounds, they weren’t about to give up when they were standing in the middle of a big story. Reporters from the three rival papers pooled their stories on the first day, located a borrowed press across the bay in Oakland, and put a small 4-page edition on the streets of San Francisco the next morning. By the following day, each paper had organized a temporary location of its own and was ready for some serious reporting. By the third day, the San Francisco Call was putting out eight pages of fine print, including stories from surrounding towns like Santa Rosa and Mendocino.

Of course, the newspapermen couldn’t help including an article about themselves. “Call Distributed Free to the People from Automobile — Crowds Rush Frantically to Secure Paper Wherever Stops are Made” announced a headline of pardonable pride.  Yes, we did a good job, the boys of the press told themselves and their readers. It was true; they did a job of notable importance and they did it well. And to top it off, they temporarily waived profit for the sake of their deeper mission — the perennial mission of the press, yesterday and today and always — keeping the people informed.

Encountering Ellis Island

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Encountering Ellis Island
by Ronald H. Bayor

Encountering Ellis IslandA slim little book in a series called “How Things Worked”, this book focuses on the nitty-gritty of how immigrants entered the United States during the great age of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century. How did the procedures typically play out? What was the work day like for an Ellis Island medical inspector, interpreter, or clerk? What was the day of arrival like for a steerage passenger being met by family? For one arriving alone? How was the Angel Island experience different from that at Ellis Island? How was the experience after 1924 different than it had been before the quota system?

I’ve had the general picture all my life, the stories of Grandma and Grandpa’s parents, aunts, and uncles, the depictions shown in movies and conjured in novels, the old photographs in history books, the memoirs of those who came. But for me, the general picture always needs grounding in tangible and specific details. Suppose I were sailing into sight of the United States in 1900, what would happen next? Tell me about the gangplank, the ferry, the pier, the stairs, the luggage claim area, the railings, the benches, the people I will encounter as I walk through all this. What are they writing on these forms? What questions are they asking me? Is there anywhere to sit down? A bathroom? Some lunch? Will this take a few hours, or all day, or several days?

And suppose I worked at Ellis Island. What time of day do I start work, and how long is the day? What are my duties? Am I a matron supervising unaccompanied children? An interpreter translating a babble of questions and answers? A clerk with fingers inky from filling in the blanks on all the paperwork? A doctor, studying faces and backs and gaits, struggling to make snap judgments of people as they file past? A kitchen worker hauling massive pots of soup or stew into a noisy dining area? What am I expected to look for in these masses of people passing by me? How do I feel about them?

This book packs a satisfying amount of detail into a small volume. Beginning with the voyage itself, as one woman recalls the enforced shower and haircut inflicted on everyone before they were allowed to embark, and a man recalls boarding the ship to receive a pillowcase containing a dish, cup and utensils. Chinese men at Angel Island scratched poems into the wooden walls of the barracks. Children who were delayed at Ellis Island attended a few days of school, and played on a rooftop playground.

Several stories entirely new to me have stuck in my thoughts, and made me want to read more.  There are a number of quotes from Edward Steiner, an American who traveled in steerage several times in order to report first hand on what the immigrants experienced aboard ship and when disembarking. His voice sounds forthright and observant, in the excerpts quoted here. The bibliography gives the title of a book he wrote, which I’m wanting to find and read.

Then there are quite a few stories about the repercussions of the quota system introduced in 1924. Because there were monthly quotas for total numbers of people to be admitted, and annual quotas for those to be admitted from each country, ships arriving with immigrant passengers near the end of a month or year often lay-to outside the harbor, waiting for midnight of the first day to cross the invisible line. Arriving a few minutes one way or the other made all the difference in being admitted or sent back. A shipload of Finns crossed very slightly over the line before midnight, to avoid a collision in the crowd of waiting ships, and the next morning the passengers were in luck or out of it according to how they answered the question “Were you at the bow of the ship or the stern?” Another case involved a Polish woman who had gone back to Poland on a short visit to family. Her child, born aboard ship on the way back, was threatened with deportation because the quota for Polish immigrants had just been already met for that year.

For a short little book, this has given my mind a lot to chew on.

Snow in the Cities

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Snow in the CitiesSnow in the Cities
by Blake McKelvey

This has been a very suitable week to be reading this book. The temperatures have been in the single digits, wind chills below zero, and the snow has been piling up day by day. Yesterday, Brian paid for a snowplow driver to clear out my driveway, because tackling it with a shovel in my hands was getting to be a bit more than I can handle even with Brian’s help. This morning, we had a power outage for about three hours.  Now that the computer is up and working again, it seems like a good time to say something about this book.

Reading about how people handled snow in decades and centuries past has put this week’s weather into perspective, as history always does in any case. The author describes several different responses in different eras. In the “pedestrian cities” of the 1600’s and 1700’s, the things people worried about had less to do with clearing the roads for vehicles and more to do with keeping warm in their houses. Making sure a good supply of firewood was near at hand was a concern, as was preventing the attendant house fires that often resulted. Travel between towns was often managed on horseback, breaking open a way through the drifts. Within the town, people moved short distances on foot, plowing through snow to the neighbor’s house, the barn, or the church.

By 1800, cities had grown larger, and wagons linked the city to supplies that came from the farms and from other cities. The mail, passengers, newspapers, foodstuffs, wood, all had to be hauled in. The rutted, muddy dirt roads were difficult enough without being buried in snow. The solution was an ingenious one: Instead of making an enemy of the snow, why not turn it to advantage? Replacing wheels with runners turned a wagon into a sleigh or sledge. Teams of men with horses and sledges broke open the roads and packed down the snow into a smooth hard surface which made it a delight to fly over quickly and without the usual bumps. “Good sleighing” became a common response to a snowfall.

We don’t think much nowadays about water travel as a necessity. But as folks nowadays regard a blizzard which grounds planes, so did people in the past regard a lengthy cold spell which froze ships into the harbor. For cities that depended on shipping as a lifeline, breaking open a lane in the ice to make a channel free for a ship to pass was an urgent undertaking. On the other hand, inland cities on rivers could turn an iced-over river to advantage by using it as a smooth highway, sending sleighs, horse teams, and pedestrians longer distances with more ease than they’d find struggling to break a road in heavy snow.

With the arrival of railroads and urban horsecars and trolleys in the later half of the 1800’s, came the need to remove snow from the tracks. The smooth packed snow that had always meant “good sleighing” in the past now meant clogged rails and stranded cars. The first snowplows, as we know them today, came along to clean the tracks, and with the snowplows came a battle for control of the city streets. As the streetcar companies removed the snow from their tracks, they pushed it to the side, mounding it up in what had been a smooth sleighing road. The drivers of the sleighs and sledges, defending their right to use the public roads, objected strenuously, sometimes shovelling the snow back onto the tracks. City governments often passed ordinances requiring the streetcar companies to haul away the snow to be dumped elsewhere, an expense the streetcar companies resented.

It’s interesting that most of the public effort to handle snow, up until this point, had been unconcerted work performed by the citizens. Nobody was going to come out with city-owned plows and city-employed crews to take the snow in hand. Gangs of men and boys brought out their own horses and sledges to drive through the drifts and pack them down, because everybody wanted to see the roads smooth and easy to travel. But now, in the age of mechanization of the city, it became clear that the issues were becoming too much for the random neighborhood gang to deal with. If snow had to be hauled away and dumped, people would have to be employed to do it. Similarly, large semi-public enterprises like streetcar companies would have to put up the money to protect infrastructure that the city had come to depend on.

Telephone and telegraph wires, electrical wires, and cable car wires brought down by heavy snow could stop a city in its tracks. Though privately owned, these things were a form of public utility as well, and the public had an interest in seeing service restored quickly. More and more, people looked to municipal government to take charge of the situation. More and more, we began to see the world out side the window this snowy morning in 2015. As the automobile replaced the sleigh and the streetcar, the need for snow removal became more insistent. Innovations in snowplowing trucks, use of salt and other chemicals, teams of city-employed workers, all sprang up as the 20th century passed, turning snow management into an art and a science.

My sister has been involved for years in city departments which had snow removal as a peripheral but necessary part of their function. When the city has a snow emergency, that means the Parks Department has to plow out the parks, while Environmental Services must clear the streets for traffic. Maybe having heard her talk now and then about being called out on snowstorm duties has made me pay more attention than I otherwise would, so that I am more aware of and appreciative of the magnificent efforts which make it possible for me to drive to work on a snowy day. Or which put the electricity back on, so I can post this book review.

Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

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Sam PatchSam Patch, the Famous Jumper
by Paul Johnson

Sam Patch is one of those local legends that’s just there, part of our early childhood storytelling world, like Paul Bunyan or Johnny Appleseed. Whether he was real or not wasn’t really important. In the case of Sam Patch, we were assured that he was indeed real, since he was buried in the little cemetery in our neighborhood. Okay, so there was a real Sam Patch. But were all the stories about him true? Did that matter? He was a bit of local “color” — something that made our local lore unique.

A couple of months ago, we heard a talk about Sam at the neighborhood library branch, setting the stories in historical reality.  The circus-like character with the swashbuckling costume and the pet bear and the showy leaps, the character he presented on posters to advertise his famous jumps over waterfalls, was only the performance persona. Behind the costume and props and performances was a former mule spinner from the tough working class world of the early industrial mills of New England and New Jersey. The librarian recommended this book for those who wanted to know more.

The world of that early industrial revolution fills the background of this book. The mills pulled in the wives and children of down-on-their-luck farmers from the stony soil of little New England farms. The Patch family had seen its fortunes rise and fall over the course of recent generations, from comfortable Yankee respectability, through bankruptcy, through numerous relocations, to the abandonment of the family by Sam’s father. The mills offered a job with wearily long hours and restrictive setting, but the advantage of a steady income. Sam was at work in a mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, at the age of eight.

By the time he was twenty, Sam was a boss spinner, the first American to hold a position usually filled by English spinners. In the 1820’s, the industrial looms used in these early mills weren’t as fully automated as they were later to become. In addition to the many unskilled jobs, the factory also needed skilled men to regulate the machines, to make sure the threads didn’t snap or tangle due to too tight or too loose a tension. The boss spinners knew their business, and they knew their value to the owners of the mills. Among the workers, they had high social standing. At the same time, to the owners and the others in the owners’ social world, the boss spinners still ranked as workers. There was a tension at work in this new industrial society, and Sam Patch would have been in the middle of it all.

He began jumping over waterfalls as part of a community of daredevil workers, young men showing off and letting off steam. They jumped as a sort of braggadocio, as a way of asserting themselves and winning applause, as an act of adventure and danger in a restricted life. But there was another element, too, which Sam soon tapped into. The public access to common land was being set against the increasing enclosures and privatization of land by the mill owners and the wealthy. Sam jumped waterfalls as a way of thumbing his nose, drawing attention to this “unauthorized” use of the public space. Sam’s jumps, first in Pawtucket and then in Paterson, New Jersey, became public entertainment that drew the attention and the applause away from the officially-approved social doings arranged by the community leaders.

Sam’s transition to public celebrity was a strange one for that period. Today, we are so accustomed to people who are famous simply for being famous that such celebrity is taken for granted. Sam Patch was one of America’s first celebrity daredevils, the 1820’s equivalent of Harry Houdini or Evel Knievel. His stardom shot unexpectedly across the media world of his day with his jumps at Niagara Falls. By this time, he had developed the flair of public performance that we associate with him, the colorful advertising posters, the iconic costume with the red sash, the curiosity of his pet black bear cub, everything that made the announcement of a Sam Patch Jump into a carnival event.

His fatal jump here in Rochester, at the High Falls of the Genesee River,  was the sudden end of this brief flash of celebrity. It was a sadly meaningless death, a daredevil act that served no real purpose. People didn’t know what to make of it in terms of meaning. Those who saw their complicity as onlookers felt guilty for their part in encouraging the rashness to continue. Those who had always preached against encouraging this madness saw Sam’s death as the evidence that they had been right.

But to Sam himself, a millworker who had briefly shot across public awareness and then disappeared like a falling star, what had it all been about? Was it the act of the mill boy looking for applause from his working comrades? Was it an act of social protest, a thumbing of the nose to the powers that were changing the world? Was it the act of a circus performer relishing the attraction of an audience all around him as he gave them a show?

Well, whatever he meant, he’s buried in a little cemetery in a corner of one city that has adopted him in death as one of us, making him a permanent legendary character, a story in children’s lore, sandwiched between Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed.

Heart Mountain

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Heart MountainHeart Mountain
by Mike Mackey

A slim little book, describing the experience of the people interned at Heart Mountain, Wyoming, during World War II. It’s not a wide-ranging historical account of the background or the policy or the constitutional issues involved in the internment of the Japanese-Americans. It’s simply the story of one camp, of the people who lived there, and of the details of daily life.

Here are the camp schools, the fire department, the newspaper, the churches. Here are the struggles with privacy and family cohesiveness and chronic shortages. Here are the personal reactions to wrenching loss, to discrimination, to the disruptions of war. Here are ordinary people trying to maintain something like a normal life in the midst of a prison camp.

I’ve read other books about the sweep of larger issues, about the Supreme Court cases, about the meaning of all this in the light of history. But I always need to come back to the small intimate stories of life as it was lived by real people. That’s the only way history makes sense to me. Without the stories of lives as they were lived, history isn’t really history, but something more bloodless, abstract, and theoretical.

We talk about larger issues. Of course we do, because justice and liberty and citizenship and other large ethical concepts are seriously important. But talking about them as abstract ideals can so easily go astray when we forget that they all have real-life implications for the day-to-day struggles of individual people. Theoreticians may wave away these individual stories as “anecdotal evidence” which complicates the discussion. But if you or I are the person in question, what is happening to us right now is shaping our world, influencing our views, changing our set of options, influencing what we might do tomorrow. The history of the human race since we began is made up of billions of individual predicaments dealt with one day at a time.

So the individual stories have to be passed on, because they are the stuff of history. How these particular people, each acting out of their own situation and personality, reacted to what was happening to them — this is the history of the United States. Bill Hosakawa reacted by launching a camp newspaper, giving a public voice to his dislocated neighbors. Tatsu Hori designed and built a heating system for the camp high school, making the lives of those who used that building easier. The men who organized the Heart Mountain fire department saved lives and protected the vulnerable community of wooden barracks.

For some, the pressures they faced were more difficult than simply finding a way to live with dignity in an undignified situation. Young men of draft age were eventually confronted with the painful decision forced on them by the military. If they served in the military, it was to be in a segregated unit, fighting for the country which had imprisoned them without cause and was still holding their families. If they refused, they were branded as traitors and sentenced to military prisons. One by one, each man had to decide what was best for himself and do what his own conscience demanded. Tomosu Hirahara fought and died in Brussels, and Clarence Matsumura helped liberate Dachau. Jack Tono and Kiyoshi Okamoto fought the draft in the courts, and went to prison for their efforts. Mits Koshiyama refused the draft and went to prison, while his three brothers served in the military. He respected their decision, and they respected his.

Aside from the military, others faced similarly tough decisions. The opportunity to leave the camp and relocate for work elsewhere forced many to leave family members behind barbed wire. Ruth Hashimoto was offered a job as a Japanese language instructor in Michigan, and chose to go, despite the opposition of her husband who remained in the camp. Frank Hayami accepted the chance to leave for New York, though his classification as an enemy alien made it impossible for him to find work as an electrical engineer, and he ended up bussing tables in a restaurant. Mary Oyama Mittwer was allowed to relocate to Denver, where she used her skills as a writer to craft a column called “Heart Mountain Breezes”, published in the Powell Tribune. Describing camp life in a down-home folksy style to the white newspaper readers, she craftily influenced attitudes and made friends for the internees by persuading her readers to see the people she described as just ordinary Americans like themselves.

Last year, I read my way through the stories of all the people who passed through the Philadelphia Station of the Underground Railroad, and it was that piling-up of one individual’s story at a time that made something “real” in my understanding of the thing called “Underground Railroad”. Here again, it’s stories of the people who passed through Heart Mountain camp, one story at a time, one person at a time, that accumulate to make up my understanding of a thing called a “relocation camp”. Heart Mountain was made up of these people and what they did and said and wrote and thought.

All of history is the accumulated doings and sayings and writings and thinkings of every one of us, one person at a time, one day at a time.

They Who Knock at Our Gates

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They Who Knock Cover PictureThey Who Knock at Our Gates
by Mary Antin

The stories of my immigrant great-grandparents were woven all through the years I spent living in the same house with Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe it’s because of that, but whenever I hear anyone speaking dismissively of today’s immigrants, I want to rush to their defense. When I came across a copy of this little book, written a hundred years ago, I wanted to shout “Yes! That’s it!” to the author.  Mary Antin hit the target and put her finger on exactly the point that has bothered me, the sore spot that I’ve never quite been able to name in words.

This is what burns — that we’re missing the point. Those who want to restrict immigration because “they take away jobs” and those who want to encourage it  because “they do jobs no American wants to do” are both equally missing the point. They are both talking as though it’s merely a utilitarian issue. The hollow empty place inside me, the place that hungered for a satisfaction, found something solid in Antin’s discussion. The real point is that we have an unacknowledged, unexamined moral question that lies at the root of the whole tree. Who are we, and what is America? If we can’t answer that question, then we are chasing shadows, arguing trivia.

Mary Antin takes us back to the foundation, back to the Declaration of Independence, back to the roots of the American experiment. What follows, one way or another, must grow from that root, or else it is just dead wood.

I read this little book for LibriVox.  Here’s the audiobook version, if you want to listen.

In 1914, over one million immigrants arrived in the United States, following in the footsteps of approximately ten million others who had arrived in the preceding decade. Faced with so many newcomers, many of them from backgrounds new to the American mix, voices in government and in the press had begun arguing in favor of more severely restrictionist immigration policies. In They Who Knock at Our Gates, Mary Antin broke down the discussion into three basic questions. First, the ethical question — Where do we discover a right to restrict new arrivals, in light of all men’s equal natural rights as declared by our founding documents? Second, the factual questions — Who are these new immigrants, what sorts of gifts and qualities do they possess, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and what biases do we bring to our assessment of them? And third, the slippery question of individual interpretation — How shall we decide without prejudice whether immigration is good for us, as a nation and as individual citizens? Written a century ago, Mary Antin’s analysis of the “immigration question” still speaks to current readers.

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