Mike Malaghan
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 strong language and racial slurs.

Chapter 53 continued…

A jeep rolled to a stop in front of the Pink Palace. Four sergeants, all white, jumped out.  Kenta’s group stopped and stared, their mouths wide open.

“Oh boy,” said Chuckles. “It’s him.”

The tall sergeant with pock marks on his face hitched his pants and sneered at the Nisei group. He turned to his mates. “It’s our lucky night, boys. These girls hardly had to work with these runts.”

Far fewer insults had ignited many a fight. Kenta’s squad, knowing his AWOL status, kept walking down the road. The other sergeants, more interested in the ladies than brawling, walked up the steps. One called out, “Hey, Crockett, let it go.”

“Private Takayama!” shouted Sergeant Crockett.

Kenta slowed, but resisted the urge to turn around. With Short Pants tugging on his flapping shirt, he resumed their normal pace.

“This is not the end,” shouted Crockett. “There will be a time when it’s just you and me.” Crockett showed Kenta’s back the finger and walked into the Pink Palace.

The small group of alcohol-buzzed soldiers, deprived of sleep, nodded at a honking vehicle and jammed into that single taxi.

“To the USO,” ordered Kenta.

“You gotta be kidding me,” said Chuckles.  “I don’t remember the warm welcome.”

“We’re not going to dance,” fired back Kenta. “Where else can we crash for the night?”

The new initiates in the art of late-night carousing straggled into the USO. Nearly a hundred other GIs lay sprawled on mattresses scattered on the pinewood floor. An enterprising group of young women offered laundry service — two bits would get a GI a pair of pajamas for the night and their freshly cleaned clothes delivered in the morning.

After handing over their clothes, the boys collapsed onto the closest vacant mattress. Tonight, they had conquered the railroad houses. Tomorrow: Hattiesburg.

Chapter 54: June 6, 1943

Kenta’s bladder woke him before dawn. Lights —harsh lights— hung from the ceiling. Outside the windows, city street lanterns radiated amber halos. Silverware and cups and saucers clinked, foretelling coffee and doughnuts. The room stank of stale beer and jockstrap sweat. Kenta credited Lillian’s generous snack trays for the taiko drummers in his head pounding at half-strength.

He picked up his freshly laundered clothes sitting on two, long folding tables next to the coffee and doughnut counter, then followed the arrows on the floor down a hall to the shower. Fear outweighed his fleeting thoughts of guilt over his thirty-second liaison the night before. First anger, and then alcohol, had numbed his brain to the consequences of being AWOL. Standing under his first hot shower since arriving in Mississippi, he realized how lucky he had been. No way would he press his luck with a day in town. He would be on the first bus back to Camp Shelby: You needed a pass to get out, not to get in.

Kenta returned from the shower to find Short Pants munching on a jelly-filled doughnut. Specks of powdered sugar dotted his chin. Short Pants growled, “My headache is growing, and after the Pink Palace raid on my wallet, my funds are shrinking.”

Kenta grabbed a glazed doughnut, took a big bite, and began speaking with his mouth half-full. “Get your sorry ass in gear. We’re lucky. The first bus of the day, mostly for locals working on-base, will be here in less than five minutes.”

Once on the bus, Kenta and Short Pants found empty seats up front, but standing room only in the back, suggesting the bus must have started its route on the colored side of town. They took seats in the front row, near the driver, who did not seem pleased to see brown faces with funny eyes sitting so close to the front. At each subsequent stop, they watched the Mississippi version of a kabuki play, as mostly white riders boarded the bus. Three stops later, there were no more empty seats.

On the outskirts of town, neighborhoods once again reflected a change from white to colored residents living in hamlets on the road to Camp Shelby. When the bus stopped, all the whites standing got off and stepped aside. They waited for the few colored riders to disembark. Then the Negroes waiting at the bus stop got on, followed by the whites who had disembarked earlier. No one spoke, not even among themselves, and neither group ever acknowledged the other with eye contact.

Kenta’s neck muscles tightened. His headache worsened as the dance of injustice played out in front of him. At least the Jim Crow antics diverted his attention from worrying about his own precarious position.

Until he saw a sign: “Rainbow Club.”

Three white soldiers were waving down the bus under the blinking neon sign. Isn’t that where the sergeant said Doi would be hanging out? The snake in Kenta’s stomach thumped. He instinctively reached for his missing cap left at the USO — to pull down to his eyes. The bus stopped. Kenta bent down to pick up an imaginary gum wrapper when the soldiers stepped onto the bus. The snake quieted as the soldiers walked down the aisle, ignoring Kenta and Short Pants.

With ninety-thousand soldiers on base, what are the odds of one of those haoles recognizing me? wondered Kenta. He began to breathe normally. Short Pants gave him an elbow and a smile that said, “You’re one lucky son of a bitch.”

As the morning sun slanted through the bus’s scarred windows, a shack-lined crossroads came into view straight ahead. Two colored men in uniform stood at the bus stop pole. The bus slowed and the driver peered through the windshield.

“Ain’t got no more room for n—s,” he mumbled.

“Ain’t that the truth,” said a gap-toothed bubba sitting behind the driver wearing work pants smeared with gray paint.

The driver hit the gas pedal.

As the bus shot forward, Kenta and Short Pants yelled out, “Hey!”

“We’ve got room for those guys,” protested Kenta. “They’re soldiers.”

The driver spat tobacco juice on the floor. “You’re lucky I let you on. Only did it ’cause I have to.”

Kenta jumped up and cuffed the bus driver on the shoulder. “Stop the bus!”

“Sit down, Jap-boy!” shouted the bus driver.

Short Pants, right behind Kenta, knuckled the man on the head.

The bus swerved. The driver took his foot off the gas pedal to regain control. Again, the bus slowed.

Everyone on the bus went silent. All eyes focused on the battle upfront. Then, from the back came, “Stop the bus. That’s the rule.”

The driver jammed the gas pedal, jerking the bus forward. The passengers who had been standing quickly grabbed on to a pole strap or a seat back to keep from falling.

Kenta wrapped his right arm around the pole to which the coin box was attached and grabbed the driver’s ear with his left hand.

“You pick up those soldiers or I’ll rip off your ear,” Kenta demanded. He planted his feet on the floor of the bus and pinched the driver’s earlobe like a pair of pliers, pulling as hard as a knight trying to extract a sword from stone.

The driver wrenched his head right. The coin box pole blocked his attempt to slug Kenta, who increased the pressure, twisting the earlobe violently.

The driver jammed hard on the bus’s brakes. Kenta lost his grip and banged his head on the front window. The bus stopped. The driver opened the door, then got up from his seat. Using his truck-tire belly, he bumped Kenta toward the door while swinging his right arm into Short Pants’s gut.

“Get off — now!” He took another step forward, again bumping Kenta backward.  His arrogant smile told his audience that he was enjoying this drama. “So long, Jap-boy.” He took a bigger step and gyrated his gut forward for the coup de grace. Short Pants slipped behind the driver.

As Kenta fell back, he grabbed the driver’s shirt pockets with both hands, karate-style, and steadied himself at the edge of the step, bending his knees. Before he could pull forward, Short Pants guessed the maneuver and kicked the driver in the ass. Gripping the driver’s shirt tighter, Kenta launched himself backward. The driver lost his balance, flailed his arms and shot forward. Kenta hit the ground rolling, just in time to avoid being crushed. The driver’s face slammed into the gravel. His left arm draped across Kenta’s chest like a lover’s would. Kenta twisted and got to his feet. He jumped over the driver and ran up the steps of the bus. Short Pants sat grinning in the driver’s seat, his hand on the clutch.

To be continued …


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