George Takei is best known for his role of Sulu on Star Trek and for his newer tag line, “Oh my” delivered with his trademark deep voice. But long before he was the Bridge Officer of the Enterprise, he was swept up with his family and imprisoned, along with 120,000 others, based solely on his ancestry, his skin color, and a few telling physical characteristics.
This sounds like a bad TV science fiction script, doesn’t it?
In the months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans, about 70% of whom were U.S. citizens, were given six days’ notice, rounded up and put into internment camps. Five year old George Takei was one of these citizens.
Fear ruled during those early days of American’s entry into the world war.
My ancestors lived just up the coast from the Takei family. Grandpa and Grandma, along with thousands of others, banded together in shifts and watched the waters and skies fully expecting the Japanese to attack the west coast of the United States. It was a time that vibrated with fear, shimmered with uncertainty. A time ruled by war propaganda.
But what I want to share with you here in this blog post is a lighter side of this time–a human story. Because history is, after all, the tale of individuals, striving for survival, for honor, for understanding. History isn’t cold laws and battle strategy. History is people. Frightened, or joyous, or hopeful, or outraged, or despairing. History is just people, doing their best in often difficult situations.
Yesterday I accompanied my friend and celebrated author of The Red Kimono, Jan Morrill, to hear George Takei speak at the dedication of the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum in McGehee, Arkansas. He spoke of healing and the power of transforming our past through acceptance. He talked of how remembering our pain opens us to past and future joys.
What I want to share with you here though, is a story Mr. Takei shared on Facebook a few weeks back. Sleeping in his barrack in Rohwer Arkansas, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, he would get up in the night to use the latrine. Can you just picture five-year-old George, running through the prison camp in the red mud after a rain, or racing through the sticky heat of a delta night, or the freezing cold of an Arkansas winter?
If you dwell on why this little boy is there, how he’s been uprooted, he and his family and thousands just like him dislocated and imprisoned, well, it’s a sad picture full of regrets and anger.
But Mr. Takei didn’t tell that story. No. He told how, when George opened the door of the barracks to race outside to the bathroom, the guard in the tower would shine his huge spotlight on him. He wrote about how that light would follow him all the way to the outhouse and back again to the barracks. Five-year-old George didn’t understand that the man in the tower was, watching for movement of his prisoners in the night, making sure no one escaped. The man lighting his way across the open stretch in the dark night only made George feel looked after, cared for, protected.
‘O’ is for Oh my, and ‘O’ is for optimism and the irrepressible joy in the human heart that only fear and hatred and anger can destroy. And then, only if we let it.