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.
Ching’s train slowed as it passed the sign that read “Hattiesburg. Pop. 21,026.” Probably double that by now, he thought. The April rains increased, and the wind blew harder, as if to say, “Don’t overstay your welcome.” The only pedestrian Ching saw through the rain-splattered window was a bent-over colored man walking into the wind.
Once part of the Choctaw Indian Nation, Hattiesburg typified the post-bellum South. Four hundred men and women of Irish, Scottish and English heritage — most of them from Georgia and the Carolinas who sought refuge from the lingering ravages of the war — founded the town and its pine lumber-based industry in 1882. Of course, the coloreds followed, but no one counted them as early settlers. Two years later, the railroad built a new line between Meridian, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, and chose Hattiesburg as a way station. Timber mills and the turpentine industry flourished. The town received another boost in World War I when the army chose the area just south of Hattiesburg as a recruit training center. Then, depleted forests and the end of “the war to end all wars” fueled a two-decade depression until the army reopened Camp Shelby in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The town bitched and boomed as residents pined for more tranquil times while building new homes.
Ching balanced on the oscillating connecting plates between two carriages. The wind buffeted his face, marked by two days of stubble. As the train screeched to a halt, Ching spotted the first batch of “Japs, Go Home” posters plastered on the coal dust-coated red-brick columns that supported the station roof. He felt his heart beat insistently inside his chest. Judging from the partial scraping of rectangular shapes on the walls, a few of the signs had been torn down, although many were freshly posted. Not a good omen, especially since Ching had telegraphed ahead his arrival time to the chief of police, the mayor and the editor of the Hattiesburg America. He had emphasized his desire to help the community adjust to the influx of the Japanese. The newspaper’s editor telegraphed an invite to visit his office, just across from the railroad station.
Ching stepped down onto the platform into typhoon-like gusts of frigid air. Early April in Mississippi felt more like February. He set down his Samsonite to button his coat, regretting he had buried his woolen scarf in his suitcase.
A colored porter wearing a billed cap with the name of the hotel embroidered on it met Ching.
“You must be Mr. Ching, suh. I’m to walk you to the newspaper office. I’ll take your luggage directly to the hotel a couple doors down.”
Ching smiled with wry amusement. “Who doesn’t know that I am arriving?”
The white-haired porter stared at him, uncertainty in his big brown eyes. “Suh?”
“Never mind,” said Ching. He palmed the man a quarter and followed.
All eyes turned on Ching when he entered the newspaper building. Conversations ended mid-sentence. He responded with a wide grin and a tip of his fedora, dripping with rain, to show his appreciation to all who interrupted their work in his honor. The smell of fresh ink, smelted lead and stale cigarette smoke hung in the air. The curious stares followed as Ching strolled confidently ahead to the glass-enclosed room at the back, assuming it must be the editor’s office. Passing an untended reception desk, he walked right up to the closed door.
Inside, two men sat on opposite sides of an oversized desk cluttered with papers. The thin, doughy man who faced his direction locked curious eyes on Ching. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled halfway up his forearm and a narrow black tie hung askew. A ribbon of a black mustache divided his face in half. The other man wore a tight-fitting police uniform, his bulging back indicating a portly figure. Ching knocked on the door just as the receptionist came hurrying up behind him, a woman whose deeply wrinkled face suggested she had held her job since the days of Woodrow Wilson.
“Sir, sir!” she huffed. “I’m sorry, but you can’t just go in there.” Ching smiled, but did not move. The woman grasped his elbow. “Please come over to my desk and I’ll check my appointment book and see if Mr. Logan is available.”
The door swung open before she could steer Ching away from it.
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Logan,” the woman said to the thin, mustached man. “I just stepped away from my desk for a moment to powder my nose,” she said, slightly flushed. She glanced at Ching with disapproval and embarrassment.
“It’s OK, Mrs. Harwood,” said the man, who then greeted Ching in a deep Southern twang. “Welcome to the pride of Mississippi.” He turned to the woman. “Could you please bring us all some fresh coffee?” Turning to Ching, he added, “Sorry, we don’t have any tea.”
Ching ignored the presumption. He wondered if his subtle Hawaiian Pidgin accent might be just as difficult for them to decipher as their Dixie drawl mystified him. But he had adjusted to various accents in Hawai‘i and felt assured he would quickly adjust to Mississippian pronunciation.
“I’m Johnny Logan, the editor,” said the man, ushering Ching into the office, heavily laden with cigar smoke. “This is Chief Jack Ditmar.” Ditmar made a half-attempt to squeeze out of his chair, but its rosewood arms seemed to pin him to the seat. The white crew cut he sported gave him the air of a longtime master sergeant.
“Pleased to meet you,” the chief grunted. “We are all admirers of Madame Chiang Kai-shek.”
Ching, who considered General Chiang Kai-shek and his politically astute wife a corrupt anachronism spawned by the worst of Chinese war-lordism, smiled graciously.
“Thank you.” He refrained from adding, “And I am a longtime admirer of Huey Long.”
The receptionist brought in a Dixie flag–emblazoned tin tray on which sat three cups of coffee. She served the men in frosty silence and quickly left, shutting the door behind her a little more forcefully than necessary.
To be continued …