Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Editor’s note: “A Question of Loyalty” is the second historical novel in Mike Malaghan’s trilogy on the Japanese American experience in Hawai‘i. Prior to “A Question of Loyalty,” the Herald concluded chapter-by-chapter publication of his first novel, “Picture Bride,” which chronicled Haru Takayama’s escape from Japan to begin a new life in Hawai‘i as the picture-bride wife of Kenji Takayama, a Buddhist priest. In the second novel, we follow Haru and Kenji’s children through the World War II years.
Malaghan is a retired businessman who divides his time between Hawai‘i, Georgia and Japan
Kenta checked Angelina’s eyes, wondering how much she read between the lines. She reached over, swatted his head and rolled her eyes: “Men!” Kenta closed his eyes as Angelina resumed reading.
Wisconsin is hot in the summer. We were told to enjoy it, because we’re going to freeze in the winter. Our barracks don’t have any stoves. Not that it would matter much when we’re freezing. The gaps between the boards are big enough for a small dog to squeeze through. If we had built the barracks, it would have been done right.
There are two families here that treat our squad like ‘ohana. They invite us to Sunday dinner. Both families have sons in the Army. I’ve attended the Lutheran church and USO socials a couple times. A few gals flirt with us but we are still too shy to ask any of them to a movie. Our eyes are at bust level. We don’t want to start something with the locals.
The Schneider family — they own a dairy farm — invited our squad for dinner. Their son is serving in Guadalcanal. You’d think they would hate anyone Japanese. But they said we are just as American as their son. Before eating dinner, we all held hands and told each other what it meant to be an American. We all cried more than once.
Angelina read on about their daily activities, their food and requests from Tommy’s friends to call their parents and let them know their sons are doing fine. Then she suddenly stopped.
Kenta opened his eyes and saw embarrassment written all over Angelina’s face.
“It’s … about me.” She thrust the letter at him. “You read it.”
Kenta hesitated, then took the letter and read silently.
Little brother, keep a close eye on Angelina. She’s a heartbreaker. Take good care of her. I doubt you’ll ever get tired of her, but if you do, tell me first.
Just got the two-minute warning for lights out. Keep building those roads.
Kenta folded the letter and sat up, resting on his haunches. “You’re pretty popular, Angelina.”
“I never said anything to him, Kenta.” She dropped her chin.
Kenta grabbed her hands. “He’s lonely. He’s telling me to take care of you. He just wishes he had someone like you, Angie-chan. He knows we care about each other and he wants that, too.”
“Just ‘care,’ Kenta?”
“More than care, Angelina. You’re special. When this war is over, we can talk about the future.”
“But you can’t … say the words, Kenta?” Angelina stared off into the roiling surf. “What is it about Japanese families? We were all brought up here but emotionally you men are back in Hiroshima and Kyüshü.”
Kenta wanted to say the words. He had never said them to anyone. Never heard anyone in his family say them. Such unspoken sentiment was simply understood. He wondered if Tommy would have said them.
Seeing Kenta’s inner turmoil, Angelina relented.
“Come on, let’s eat.”
Her smile made everything right again.
Waimea, Hawai‘i Island
The postman rolled his bike to a stop in front of the Takayama Hotel. Standing up and balancing the bike between his thighs, he tugged his cap down over his forehead. He searched his leather bag for the hotel’s mail bundle and didn’t notice the hotel’s front door opening, nor the middle-aged woman in a checkered housedress coming down the steps, holding something wrapped in wax paper.
“Good morning, Mr. Fehner,” Haru called out, holding up her hand and a package as she descended the weathered wooden steps. “Fresh out of the oven.”
Haru accepted the letters with one hand while offering warm, aromatic baked bean cakes to the postman with the other. She noticed the edge of a blue aerogram sticking out from the bundle. From Kenji she hoped. In May, a few days before the FBI had sent him and other prisoners to a camp in Santa Fe, he had urged her to return to Waimea “at least for a few months. The hotel needs you.”
“But the Fort Street Hongwanji …”
“Can get along without you,” interrupted Kenji gently. He knew this was the last time he could offer advice, help his wife adjust to the new reality. “You have been telling me how you have recruited ladies to take turns running water, pulling weeds, even some painting at the temple.” He paused for effect as much as for his weakened body, that didn’t have the energy to debate it once had, to speak with some authority. “Go to Waimea. You’ve said Sam and Kame need help.” Left unsaid was Kenji’s worry that Haru had overextended herself with all the volunteer work organizing bandage wrapping, bond drives and food packages for his fellow prisoners. He didn’t like the weary eyes that faced him.
Haru made a point of deferring to Kenji. She recognized her own declining energy, but didn’t know how to back away from the whirlwind of war support activity she had created. Granting Kenji’s pleas was a going-away boon to him while his “demand” offered a graceful excuse to return home. At least for a few months. Taka had moved into her Queen Emma Street home. She could return.
Haru broke her reverie to study Fehner, who had been one of the first haoles she met after arriving in Waimea as a young picture bride. He chewed and swallowed the bean cake and with an air of satisfaction said, “We’re all proud of your boys over in Schofield and Wisconsin.” Then with a wave, he mounted his bicycle and moved on to the next house.
Haru watched Fehner pedal away. For the first time in all her years in Hawai‘i, she asked herself why Japanese never applied to work at the post office. Those types of federal jobs were for whites — less educated whites than the haole bosses, but still white. It had been that way forever and no one had ever questioned why it was so. We work in the fields, and they have the clean jobs.
Haru walked back up the cobblestone path to the hotel. Still two years away from her fiftieth birthday, Haru’s complexion remained smooth, her gait strong and her mind sharper than ever. Many of her friends had aged more quickly. Decades of fieldwork on sugar plantations had etched deep lines on their sunburnt faces and bleached their original midnight-black hair to the color of thunderclouds. As the wife of a Buddhist priest, Haru had always been active in helping relieve the sufferings of others, but such work did not come with the same physical demands of watching the sun rise with a hoe in your hand day after day.
Haru smiled at the freshly painted dark red window frames and white porch railing. Despite rationing, some of the contractors staying there had “found” a little extra paint and picked up a paintbrush to show their appreciation for her well-run hotel.
Haru dropped all the mail except for Tommy’s letter into a Chinese porcelain pot resting on the third step of the four-step kaidan tansu (staircase-style chest) next to the front door. She walked to the kitchen through the family room, still trying to get used to the extra chairs and card tables that had been put up to accommodate the surge in guests. Although she had always set aside two rooms for hotel guests, Haru had never envisioned a commercial enterprise on this scale.
She strolled over to the four-burner Tappan gas stove Kenji had presented her on their thirtieth wedding anniversary, the first such appliance in the Japanese community. Haru took a long match from the small lacquer box she had found at the Yamanashi Dry Goods Store. The purchase was a rare splurge, bought with the understanding that she could return it if the matchsticks did not fit. She struck the match against the top of the stove, turned the knob on the right front grill already holding a pan, and with no need to bend and aim, stuck the match up to the pinprick holes on the grill. At the sound of the “whoosh,” she jerked her hand back and reduced the flame before placing the rice pot atop the rear grate.
Next, she turned her attention to the coffee urn, swirling its burnt-brown contents. After four hours, it was a bit sludgy. But she wanted to read Tommy’s letter now rather than take the time to make a fresh pot. Haru poured the dregs into her stained coffee cup and sat down at the kitchen table.
Happy Thanksgiving, Okäsan!
Remember Yoshihara-san, the basketball player whose dad had a heart attack last year? He met a girl at church the first week at McCoy and is now engaged! The first marriage in our unit to a gaijin. Two wives from Kaua‘i arrived in early November with only Hawai‘i clothes. It didn’t take them long to understand the real meaning of the word cold. Their husbands worried whether they could find families willing to rent to us Japanese. After a somewhat rough start, enough of the townspeople adopted us.
I visited Otösan at the Camp McCoy Detention Center on Sunday. Color is returning to his cheeks and he’s gaining weight again. It still seems strange that I am training to fight Germans in North Africa while my father is a POW a short jeep ride away in this same camp. He is always upbeat and encourages me to never let down the Takayama family name. I will try my best. Please take care of yourself, Okäsan.
Haru put down the letter. From Taka’s phone call yesterday, she had learned that the army had transferred Kenji to a POW camp in Louisiana —one expected to house Germans captured in the upcoming North African campaign that was no longer a secret. Haru hung her head as she thought of her husband being treated as a prisoner of war.
To be continued …