Little DetailsThat Tell Big Stories
I was intrigued when Susan Marsden proposed the idea of this blog, with a few of us telling historical stories. With the exception of a few pieces for Western Mariner it’s been years since I’ve had any sort of platform to talk about Prince Rupert.
It’s not as if the stories stop coming. As I write this, in fact, I’m just back from having coffee with Henry Shimizu and Butch Currie, who were in the same class at Borden Street School and hadn’t seen each other since 1942.
Going for coffee made me think that a good beginning point for my part in this blog might be to talk about my approach to historical storytelling, and what might make it different from the approach of others who will tell stories here.
I read Barbara Tuchman’s Practicing History when it came out in 1981. It set the tone for my approach. To put the lesson into my own words, clichés aside, sometimes the best way to convey what it’s really like to be in a forest is to focus on a single tree.
I can easily tell you what happened in March 1942, but can I tell you what was lost? Maybe. If I show you detail, and we both understand what that detail means. If I make it as real as when I look up from my laptop, now, and see that clock on the mantel that Lonnie gave me as a Christmas present when we were still just dating. Otherwise both what I see, and what it means to me.
I don’t know what details I’m looking for, but I’ll recognize them when we meet. I do this in two ways. I physically touch the story, and I listen to the past speak.
The details have to be true. When I say that fresh snow had fallen during the night, that morning of March 21, 1942, I’m telling the truth. In the grey dawn the snow changed to cold rain and the wooden sidewalks were just slush and treacherous patches of polished ice. Gulls cried overhead as the army truck pulled up in front of the New Dominion Café & Hotel on Third Avenue. The Shimizu and Nishikaze families locked the door for the last time, stepping gingerly on the ice, already wet and shivering against the rain, struggling with heavy suitcases, as they climbed into the back of the truck to join the Nikkei people already there.
How can I physically touch such an emotional moment? Well, here I am at the museum in 2014, white-gloved, reading the final ledger from Hirokichi Yamanaka’s grocery store. On March 18, 1942, $6.19 was charged to the New Dominion, leaving a balance of $28.14 on the account. That’s a detail I was looking for without knowing it—a poignant, heartbreaking, final entry before the pages went blank.
I touch the past, too, through accumulated understanding given to me by many years of listening. I stand on Third Avenue and remember all those voices. In time my vision gets a little hazy, and people driving by wonder why I don’t wave back, and then I see Lower Third as twin walls of wooden commercial blocks. Instead of a corner of City Furniture, it’s the New Dominion Café & Hotel across the street.
Bundled against the cold, Henry Shimizu and Harry Nishikaze are trudging down Third Avenue to help Jitsukazu Yabu at his boatyard in Cow Bay. Community means helping each other—that’s the real message of the kaikan, the Japanese community centre up near Sunrise Grocery. Yabu works alone, and the boys help by sweeping up wood chips and carrying planks.
I watch until they’re lost in twilight, then need a cup of coffee to stave off this evening chill. Dinner is over, so the teenagers will have largely taken over the New Dominion—kids from the hodgepodge of races that make up Lower Third. Now, of course, the wartime boom has saved all these working class families that were damned near destroyed by the Depression and by the so-called “management” of the Board of Trade types. The New Dominion is busy.
Tom Shimizu greets me at the door. Even after 34 years in Rupert he’s no master of the English language, but he’s so congenial that it doesn’t matter. His smile alone lets me know I’m welcome. He’s standing at the till behind the long counter at my left, in front of the mirrored wall where the last of George Nishikaze’s daily pastries are driving the teenagers right off their cobs. They’re nursing their coffees and Cokes from every stool, and wishing they had a bit of lettuce to spend on a slice of that pie.
And pardon me boy, but on the Wurlitzer by the stairs to the rooms above, Glenn Miller’s on the Chattanooga Choo Choo. Track 29.
When I take my seat I smile at Tom’s wife, Henry’s mother Kimiko, and the equally pretty Nishikaze girls, Judy, Chie, and Mary. They’re like actresses, laughing and bantering as they work, almost floating from the stools to the booths and all the tables in between.
George Nishikaze is already gone from the kitchen, of course. He has to be back at 5:00 a.m., starting his day by making those fifty box lunches for the drydock crew. George is an amazing cook. It’s a funny thing, though, especially for one of the first generation Issei—he doesn’t cook Japanese food, only American. Earlier tonight when they ate their supper, in shifts, in the family dining room behind the kitchen, it was the wives who prepared the Japanese dishes.
Tom won’t be finished until the restaurant closes at 11:00. Then he’ll gather up the ketchup bottles and the salt and pepper shakers, the bowls of oyster crackers for the soup, and when he has them stashed in the cupboard below the mirrored wall he’ll treat himself to an hour’s reading before bed.
I see it all. Do you?
I said that I also listen to the past, and for the New Dominion that meant listening to Henry Shimizu. But to understand and decide I had to listen to voices on all sides.
It took me many years—almost twenty—to find the voice I wanted for the story of Prince Rupert’s vanished Nikkei community.
Was it poor William Jones? He was a gangly, craggy-faced Welshman of nearly 40 years teaching experience in western Canada, and he taught his diverse students at Port Essington that they were all Canadians. His life was destroyed that day. His Nikkei students were barged across to Haysport Cannery, to join Henry and the others on that guarded train with the windows painted out. Jones fired off useless letters, rushed to Hastings Park to be with his students, couldn’t, and then faded into bitter, disillusioned retirement.
Or should I use the voice of Alice Myra Goodwin, the English war bride of Yoshizo Takeuchi, one of the many Rupert Nikkei veterans of the Canadian Expeditionary Force? Yoshizo survived two years in Belgium and France and was wounded at Vimy Ridge. Now he was a fisherman and raised his family on Borden Street. What could Alice do but go with her family into those dung-crusted cattle stalls at Hastings Park, now that Yoshizo was the enemy?
I interviewed the late Roger Obata, an old school chum of my friends Al and Ced Mah, who worked for Canadian and American intelligence during the war, and like Henry was a Member of the Order of Canada. I researched Jun Kisawa, the young law student who motored out from Prince Rupert in a gas boat in 1929 to deliberately break the law so that he could change it. The Rupert courtroom was packed with Nikkei, white, and First Nations fishermen, cheering when he proclaimed, “Canada is not only your country but also our country. We are all Canadians.”
But in 2014 when I listened to Henry Shimizu, for some reason that I can’t explain, I knew that his story was my story. Somehow, for me, this was the right voice.
Oh, and one last thing. When it comes time to write, I write quickly. I’m a reporter on a deadline. I find that it gives the story immediacy. This is happening, really happening, and it’s happening right now. Do you believe me?
Join me in my booth over here by the Wurlitzer. I like this one, Jimmy Dorsey’s “Blue Champagne.” Kimiko Shimizu will bring you a cup from the big coffee urn back by the kitchen door. I strongly recommend that you try the pie—George Nishikaze’s pie is the best in town.
And that, too, is a true detail.