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.
CONTENT WARNING: The story below contains the use of racial language.
Chapter 51 continued…
Confused and disappointed, the approaching men stopped, just in time for the MPs to step between the antagonists.
Kenta backed over to his squad. “Let’s go.”
Short Pants tugged on Kenta’s arm.
“Why’d you back down? We were right behind you.” A look of disgust and confusion filled his face. “I thought you were the ‘I ain’t taking no more crap’ guy.”
Kenta bent over and whispered in Short Pants’s ear. “I’m AWOL. Let’s get outta here.”
Back on Front Street, lined with ivory magnolia blossoms radiating a spicy-sweet bouquet, Kenta explained the consequences of being caught and reported AWOL by the MPs.
When Kenta started to repeat himself, Chuckles cut him off with a wave of his arms.
“OK, OK, we get it. But I came to party. If the haoles don’t want us here, let’s walk across the railroad tracks to the colored USO. It’s on Sixth Street.”
“How do you know?” asked Little Caesar.
“Remember that colored pilot visiting from Tuskegee that I told you about? The one who asked me to buy him a six-pack because he couldn’t go into the Sixty-Ninth PX? He told me they have great parties at their USO.”
Fats tilted his head right and raised his eyebrows. Pursing his lips, he queried, “So, he invited us?”
“Well, not like that. Not straight out. More in like a Japanese way. I mean, why would he tell me what a great party they have if he didn’t want us to come?”
No Ticket twisted his face. “You know what they’ve been telling us. We are ‘honorary whites.’ Don’t drink out of the colored water fountain; don’t sit in the colored theater section, don’t …”
“Oh, is that right?!” challenged Little Caesar, anger sweeping over his face. “How come one of the kotonks got yanked out of the line at the movie theater last week by a cop yelling, ‘You’re colored! Go where you belong!’?”
“That’s a mistake,” said Kenta. “I heard later that the movie theater manager explained to the cop …”
“Hey!” shouted Chuckles.
Everyone froze and gawked open-mouthed at Chuckles.
“Are you guys going to debate all night or party?” Chuckles paused three seconds for effect. “If we’re honorary whites, those girls would have danced with us. I’m going over to the colored USO.”
All eyes turned to Kenta, who let out a sigh of resignation.
“OK, let’s go.”
With that, Chuckles led the charge down Front Street, which was crowded with boisterous soldiers that had changed the town.
Staid storefronts were dressed up with patriotic red, white and blue bunting. Retail shops offered payday loans, and dress shops had been converted into hamburger and beer joints. Beauty parlors promoted perms and tattoo artists.
Everything changed at the railroad tracks — it was like a border where a man’s color was his passport. The coloreds who crossed from their own side approached the border sauntering and laughing. But as soon as they crossed the tracks, they switched their gait to a shuffle and kept their heads down, their appearance and mood transforming as seamlessly as a chameleon changing colors.
The noise from the brothels wafted as the Hawai‘i boys ambled across the railroad tracks.
“That’s where we should be going,” said Short Pants, pointing to a row of houses parallel with the tracks a quarter mile down the road.
“Maybe later,” said Chuckles. “Right now, I’m a-keepin’ to the mission.”
No one else responded to Short Pants’s effort to move the excursion to the red-light district. None of them had ever visited one. Embarrassment overrode desire, albeit by the slimmest of margins. Six weeks ago, these young men steeped in the tradition of respecting women were eating their sayonara meals with their mothers and sisters and promising to stay out of trouble.
The boys in aloha shirts heard the jazz music before they even saw the USO building.
Chuckles felt his gut churn with apprehension, like a gerbil spinning in a cage. But he forced himself to keep walking at a sauntering pace. What am I doing here? Am I breaking some rule with a bad outcome in the making? Like, what’s the fuss about us Japanese staying away from the coloreds? We both know something about being at the bottom of the social pile.
The gerbil-spinning turned erratic when Chuckles spotted a group of colored GIs standing outside their USO. Their easy chatter ceased as they stared at him and his mates.
Chuckles slowed and then hesitated.
Kenta walked up beside him and gave him a reassuring grin.
“I wouldn’t worry, Chuckles. They probably think we’re from the Ku Klux Klan, hunting for someone to hang.”
Behind them, Little Caesar added, “Sure, other than getting kicked out of the MIS while the print on the transfer papers is still wet, what’s to worry?”
“What’s this about the MIS?” asked Chuckles.
“This is my last night with you guys. Pence told me I’m being transferred to military intelligence since I speak fluent Japanese.”
To be continued…