Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Pomegranate Fields Forever (fiction)

The biggest advantage of moving out of Paperson and into the Strawberry Creek development was that we now had a neighborhood in which my cousins and I could go “regular” trick or treating.  Many of the older men who always were the majority of residents of Paperson did their best to meet Halloween half way, but Chinese notions of candy were just too different for American children’s palates.  Instead of Baby Ruths or Necco Wafers, they would often greet us at the door with wrapped salted plums, little plastic packages of ginger, and in one case preserved cuttlefish. My grandparents understood the custom better but insisted on making the American custom meet them half way. My grandmother would appear at the door in a gown and reach into a wooden salad bowl filled with red paper envelopes that each contained a shiny dime.  When my cousins and I came, my grandmother would have us come into the back den and give us the same package with a half dollar or even a silver dollar inside.  She would whisper to each of us, “Don’t show this to any of the other children when you go back outside or they won’t be happy with just a dime.”

     About a third of the kids were always dressed by their parents as Mandarins or Guan Gong, the Chinese god of war who did get to carry a sabre mounted on an axe handle.  Looking back it seems a bit odd that Chinese parents were having their children dress up as Chinese people for Halloween, but it did recently occur to me that had any of our familes actually been Mandarins, we likely would never have found our way to California. We weren’t allowed to be ghosts because that meant putting a white sheet, the Chinese color of death and funerals, over our heads.  Also, all the masks of super heroes and cartoon characters were made in Japan. Too many parents remembered the war and the symbolic act of putting a Japanese “monster’s” spirit over their children’s faces crossed over never articulated lines. One mother from Nanjing was especially hysterical and our parents would ignore our questions about why. The year before we moved, my cousin Tommy got in trouble for inverting his underwear into a triangle and saying that he wanted to go as a Sumo wrestler.  Tommy was about twenty pounds underweight, so even if he thought he was a Sumo, he looked more like Ishii.  

As a result, the girls who got American choices were limited to princesses or witches and boys had to choose between cowboy or astronaut.  One year, in a compromise, I got to be a Colt 45 wielding Mandarin. Parents also started driving their children into Sacramento neighborhoods where they hoped to find a few Chinese families who had children who would help give their children safe passage in the mostly non-Chinese neighborhoods.  It was still embarrassing to dress up as a Mandarin and knock on doors to have the non-Chinese adults start speaking to you in painfully slow English or even worse to have an occasional clever adult try to say something to you in Chinese and to have to explain that you didn’t understand it.  Worst of all, we ran into a non-Chinese boy in a Mandarin’s costume and queue who was doing a Charlie Chan accent and started following us around pretending to know us,”Chop chop, you my cousin. I rike you.  Confucius say,Tlick o Tleet.”

My mother caught up to the boy and tracked down his parents only to get into a loud discussion about “Having a sense of humor and this is America”

Not long after I found myself back in the car on the levee road my pillowcase only a quarter filled with candy for the night. I was in little league when I ran into the same kid again.  He was Mexican and the other kids called him the Frito Bandito.

The next year, we moved to Strawberry Creek, a neighborhood in the south of Sacramento just two miles from where we’d run into Charlie Chan’s parents the previous fall.  The houses weren’t quite identical, but all were modest.  We had one Chinese neighbor down the block, a Doctor who shared our surname who had eight children with his wife.  The Oshimas lived across the street on the corner in a brown house fronted by perfect roses and tulips.  Every now and then, my mother would bring them a platter of chow mein from the restaurant and Mrs. Oshima would return the favor with a basket of strawberries from a farm outside Sacramento.  Otherwise, Mrs. Oshima almost never came out of their house and Mr. Oshima only seemed to appear early in the mornings on weekends when he would gather his fishing gear for his weekly ventures on the Sacramento River or Folsom Lake. The Oshimas lived in one of the few houses that had preexisted the development.

The rest of the neighborhood was primarily white though there were two black families on the block.  One had a daughter who was the best piano player in the neighborhood.  There was a couple around the corner who only spoke Portugese and there were two maybe more Mexican families who lived in the duplexes two corners down.  Economically, the families spanned a range at well.  There was the doctor neighbor and another who was just starting his law practice and there was a neighbor who worked as a garbageman though he never worked our neighborhood. I only knew this because his crew once showed up in front of his house and he started cursing them out. The one thing the neighborhood had in common was that most of the families there were first generation home owners.  

A little more than a decade after World War 2, the GI bill had changed expectations for lower middle class families.  Smart California developers had recognized the trend and began tearing down downtown row houses, buying up farm land, and building new houses that sold for under ten thousand dollars.  The new neighborhoods also had no “racial covenants” grandfathered into their chain of title which coupled with pressure on the heavily leveraged developers to turn over their inventory.  The result was unannounced social experiments with sidewalks, linoleum floors, and carports.  This was the Sacramento that Richard Rodriguez, Cornel West, and Joan Didion also grew up in give or take a decade and a few miles.  

That Halloween, my mother had warned me,”Don’t eat any of your candy before your dad and I take a look at it.”

A story had circulated that a child the previous Halloween in some town near Ohio had bitten into an apple laced with razor blades.  This was welcome news to me.  I didn’t think of apples, even candied ones on sticks, or bright-colored carameled popcorn balls as part of any real Halloween haul. None of these homemade items were advertised on Captain Delta or with Saturday morning cartoons.  Quality Halloween items said Hershey’s or Wrigley’s on them and the measure of a nice neighbor was whether they gave you a whole pack of gum instead of just single sticks.

There were two items that I especially liked to get.  One was Pez which came in plastic dispensers with cartoon character heads that served as a dependable source of fascination long after the candy was gone.The second was Bazooka bubble gum.  Even though it was penny candy, I liked the shape and heft of the pinkish wad.  Better yet, the gum came wrapped inside a cartoon printed on waxy paper featuring a bald not very bright kid in a t-shirt, Bazooka Joe.  If you collected several thousand of the cartoons, you could even apparently redeem them for a bicycle.  Occasionally, the gum wrapper also contained a fortune much like the fortunes inside fortune cookies.  A year earlier, Nikita Kruschev had visited Iowa and raved about all the different things Americans had figured out to do with corn, corn husks, and corn oil.  I raved about all the things packed into a single piece of penny candy.  Even the gum itself was thoughtfully notched in half, just in case you and your friend found yourself having to share one piece of bubble gum.

One can imagine my disappointment when Mrs. Oshima dropped a lipstick colored piece of fruit that seemed to cross on apple with a red onion into my pillowcase.  Worse yet, she made a point of telling me.  “Lucky, tell your mother thank you for the won tons again.  Can you remember that?”

I nodded and the other neighbor children juggled their newly gained treats while staring at me as the only one of them who actually knew Mrs. Oshima.

“Mrs. Oshima, my mom says not to take anything that’s not wrapped.”

Mrs. Oshima was a big women with a beehive hairdo and turqoise buttefly glasses.  She was wearing an apron and from the sudden whiteness of her face and eyes, she appeared to believe that my friends were real goblins.

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“But my mom said anybody.”

I had that Halloween exercised my suburban freedom and dressed as a World War 2 GI with a plastic army helmet, a white t-shirt, my father’s dog tags, and his army shirt from his time as a Fort Ord clerk during the Korean War.  I wore a holster with a plastic Browning  automatic squirt gun, a folding Army surplus shovel, and had a canteen filled with grape Kool Aid. I had tried so hard to look like a real soldier that I couldn’t have looked less like a soldier.  

I could see Mr. Oshima standing behind his wife in the living room watching our exchange.

Mrs. Derry, Debbie’s mother,  who was taking us out that night intervened. The Derry’s were especially popular on the block because they managed a root beer bottling company and on Halloween they handed out miniature cans of root beer.  

“Lucky, your mother and father can look over your treats after you get home. What do you say to Mrs. Oshima?”

I mumbled “Thank you for the apple, Mrs. Oshima.”

“You're welcome”, she murmurred, “but it’s really a pomegranate.”

“A pomegranate,what a treat,” said Mrs. Derry.  “Have any of you ever had a pomegranate?”

Mrs. Oshima disappeared behind her orange French doors.  

David Allen, who was two years older than I, mentioned as we moved down the block that the pomegranate felt exactly like a hardball. Many of the boys in the neighborhood didn’t like the Oshimas at least partly because Mr. Oshima slept during the day and would come out every now and then to tell us that we couldn’t play tag or other noisy games on the street outside their house before or after dinner.  He would come out and point at us and make shooing motions telling us “Go home, do your homework. Where are your parents?”

One time, I saw one neighborhood boy who I didn’t know well make slant eye faces with his fingers pressed against the sides of his face at Mr. Oshima after the older man went back inside to sleep.  We were always convinced that we’d never been all that noisy.

On November first, I saw Mr. Oshima cleaning up the splattered remains of pomegranates thrown against their garage door.  He was scrubbing with a bristled brush and a bucket filled with suds.  Even from across the street, the pomegranate stains in the driveway looked like blood. Later that morning, my mother insisted that I go offer to help Mr. Oshima.

Mr. Oshima didn’t seem to notice me as I came up his driveway.  I had to come up just in front of his bucket and say “Mr. Oshima”, twice, the second time a little louder than the first.

He looked up at me, but said nothing.  

“My mother asked me to help you clean up your driveway.”

The color of Mr. Oshima’s  sharp face darkened and his jaw pushed forward.  He took his wood brush with the bristles and tossed it into the bucket hard enough to splash suds in a hula hoop sized circle.

“I don’t need your help. You go home.  Don’t come near my house anymore.”

I ran home.  When my mother interecepted me in the kitchen, I could feel my heart pumping against her midriff.

It hadn’t occurred to me that Mr. Oshima might have thought that I had thrown one of the pomegranates and it hadn’t occurred to my mother either.  I started to cry, but didn’t understand why.  All I knew was that I had done something to make Mr. Oshima mad.
My mother calmed me down with a bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup then quietly went out the carport side screen door.  

The night before, I had brought home my pomegranate and placed it on the dining room table  in the piles of the things I could and couldn’t keep.  That year, my parents were experimenting with a rule that said I could choose fifty items and nothing unwrapped.  Naturally, I put the pomegranate in the unwanted pile.

“You don’t want the pomegranate?”  my father picked it up and tossed it in his hand.

“It’s not wrapped.”

“Did it come from Mr. and Mrs. Oshima?”

I nodded.

“It’s okay.  You can eat this if you want.”

“But why would I want to.”

“The Oshimas grow these.  Pomegranates are very expensive.  It’s a very generous treat.”

My dad put it on the table between the two piles.  

“They’re very proud of what they grow.  Every pomegranate you see in the supermarkets here comes from the Oshimas.”

“I told Mrs. Oshima that you and mom said not to eat anything unwrapped.”

The pomegranate wound up counting as number 51.  Before I went to bed, my dad sat at the table with my mother and myself and we ate pomegranate seeds.  They weren’t as good as candy, but they were okay tasting, a little like the red stuff in a Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple two kids’ bar drinks that always seemed mysteriously identical.  My dad tried to convince me that if you thought of each of the seeds as a piece of nature’s candy that Mrs. Oshima’s pomegranate was really the most valuable item in my candy collection from the night.  I still remember the slices of pulp bristling with the blood red seeds and the strange act of eating a fruit where you ate the seeds instead of whatever it was that grew around them.  

Before I finished my soup, my mother came back inside and spent a few minutes on the phone with my dad who was at the restaurant.  They were speaking Chinese, so I didn’t understand completely, though as was always the case I could guess from how they said things.  After dinner, my mother put together a tray of steamed chicken pieces with oyster sauce.  We walked over to the Oshimas and she insisted that I present Mrs. Oshima with the tray.

Mrs. Oshima was very gracious and we sat down in the living room with Mr. Oshima who came by and patted me on the head and shook my hand.  

“I know you’re a good boy,” he told me.  “I won’t yell at you again.”

The adults chatted for a few minutes and my mother asked,”Lucky, how did you like the pomegranates?”

Mr. and Mrs. Oshima were looking directly at me.  Between them, there was a picture of a bunch of people in kimonos.  On one of the walls was a big picture of acres of green fields.  

“It was good. Maybe not as good as gum, but I liked it.”

Mr. Oshima actually smiled.

“Lucky, do you know who might have thrown the pomegranates?”

I shrugged and looked down at the floor.  I didn’t know for sure and if I suspected David Allen I was too afraid of what he might do to me to say anything.

Mr. and Mrs. Oshima looked disappointed.  

“I’m sorry it happened Mr. and Mrs. Oshima.”

They both nodded and I then asked a question that led me to a place I’d never imagined.

“Mr. and Mrs. Oshima, why do you have a big picture of all those bushes?  I thought pomegranates grew on trees.

“They’re not pomegranates, they’re strawberries,” explained Mr. Oshima who seemed strangely sad about this.

Did you used to grow strawberries?”  

The Oshimas both nodded.

“I know you give us strawberries sometimes and they’re really good.”

That picture is what this neighborhood used to look like.”

Before I knew it, my mother and I were both getting up to go home as the Oshimas thanked us for the chicken.

That night, my father told me the story of the Oshima’s strawberry farm.  They lived in the oldest house on the street, because the neighborhood had once been their six acre farm.  During the war, the Oshimas had to be relocated because Americans believed that all Japanese in California might be spies.  A non-Japanese friend of the Oshimas had helped them keep the farm together during the war, but claimed that the strawberry market had collapsed and convinced them to sell most of the land to help make payments on equipment loans while they were at Tule LakeWhen the Oshimas returned, their house was all they had left and unaware of what had really happened, they thanked their old partner for helping them to save the house.  In fact, he had sold the land to himself and eventually turned it over for development.  When we played in the street, we played in what was once Mr. Oshima’s strawberry field.

The happy part of the story was that Mr. Oshima had gotten the money together three years after the war to buy a small plot past Galt to raise pomegranates.  He had seen a small grove in Idaho when some of the men had been given the opportunity to earn spending money by working farms inland.  As the only pomegranate grower for two hundered miles, Oshima’s change of crop turned out to be a surprising success.  Most of the neighborhood had either forgotten or didn’t know the story.  

“If the Oshimas have money now, why don’t they move away?” I asked my dad.

He just shrugged.  “It’s their choice I guess.  They don’t want to be moved off what was theirs.”

“If we’re living on their land, why don’t we give it back to them?”  

My dad didn’t have his usual ready answer.  He bit his lower lip and looked down.

“We couldn’t afford another house. We’d have to move back to Paperson.”

I made a face.

“Once something’s done, sometimes you have to just accept it,” he whispered.

It was that spring in my private school that my second grade teacher started teaching us about the seasons and their names.  The teachers there liked to pretend that they were English and to them that meant that they taught almost everything through the Greek myths or Bible parables.  We made a tree out of construction paper and cut out green leaves.  Miss Lang then wrote the months on the board and had us put green leaves on, then replace them with brown and yellow leaves, then finally tear the leaves off.  In the meantime, she told us the story of Demeter, Hades, and Persephone, though she never exactly explained what Hades did to Persephone very clearly.  

“He grabbed her from behind.,”  she told us.

“Didn’t they have police?” we asked.

Miss Lang didn’t like the question.

“No they had Gods then.”

“Miss Lang, we don’t have Gods?”

“We have a God.  So, no, we don’t have Gods like Zeus who got involved in things like Hades and Persephone.”

Miss Lang went on to tell us how Demeter mourned the loss of her daughter so much that the goddess of the harvest refused to keep the trees and crops growing.  

“All the leaves fell off the trees and the people who lived above the ground began to starve and suffer.”

She then explained that Zeus had ordered Persephone home and that Hermes had given Persephone a magic pomegranate.  She wound up eating six of the seeds and that meant she had to spend six months a year with Hades, our winter and fall and for six months in spring and summer, Demeter her mother celebrates the return of her daughter.

Do any of you know what a pomegranate is?”

I was the only child in the class who raised my hand.

Two years later, the Oshimas stopped giving out pomegranates at Halloween and replaced the tray with Bazooka Bubble Gum, a change that I celebrated.  After their son completed Cal as some sort of scientist, the Oshimas moved away, leaving behind their house with its perfect roses and immaculate driveway.  

“Where did the Oshimas go?” I asked my Dad.

“They moved back to Japan.”

“What part of Japan were they from?”

“Their family came from Nagasaki and they are taking care of one of them.”

As young as I was, all children in those days knew the name of the two cities of fat man and little boy.  I remembered the picture of the people in kimonos on the table in the Oshimas living room.

Years later, I saw an article about a man who had invented a strain of pomegranate with fewer but larger seeds.  The man was named Oshima and I always assumed that was the son of the lady who was the only person who ever offered me a pomegranate.  When I come back into Sacramento, I drive by Strawberry Creek and go through the neighborhood to see if I can find two houses, ours and the Oshimas.  In so many ways the neighborhood has not changed physically.  The houses are all still there though the landscaping has changed.  The gutters still curve upwards and I can still find the foul line where my friend Paul and I used to play two man baseball. One time, I got out of the car and walked the creek and was delighted to find that voluntary strawberries still grew near the fence lines. I wondered if the Oshimas had taken their picture of their strawberry farm back to Japan with them. The residents of Strawberry Creek are mostly Mexican or Southeast Asian now and none of the children who once trick or treated there still have family in the neighborhood.  


At 11/05/2005 02:42:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful tho heartbreaking story, cl. The Frito Bandito get his back. People think kids are little angels corrupted by the Bad Adult World, but I've seen kids go for anyone they can make weaker, and we at least get them to veneer that tendency over (unless they grow up to be DickCheney and Karl Rove). Permutations of revenge make the world stand still, I reckon.

The Japanese internment and the theft of the strawberry farm is so horrible. And then the hard fact that Lucky's family can't give them its piece of their strawberry farm back.

I wonder if kids on the west coast were more hip to the atom bombs? I keep trying to remember when I really knew? I know my parents heard about it at a gas station when they were driving back north from Mississippi where my father had been a major in the Air Corps, a flying instructor because he had no nerves and could let student pilots almost crash before intervening. I still have his flight jacket with the wolverine fur around the hood -- your breath doesn't freeze on it. Some guy at a SF Giants' game offered me 300 bucks for it on the spot, but obviously I refused. It's the only thing of my father's I have. I never quizzed my now-dead parents enough about the atom bombs nor about McCarthy either. I sure would today.

Having grown up in the country, trick or treating wasn't practical because the farms were so far apart. But I remember every town kid talking about their "haul."

I thought it was interesting that the 'brand names' had more value to a kid, more cred.

Thanks again for this fascinating story so deeply imagined.

At 11/05/2005 07:55:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I think boys in particular were very aware of the atomic bomb. Even though it was horrifying, boys when I grow up had a fascination with "the most powerful weapon in the world" which was, at the time, no longer the atomic bomb.

I also remember a fascination with the largest possible number and talk of the googleplex, supercalifragilisticexpialidocius, etc. Despite the threat that the world would end at any moment in a nuclear war with the USSR, there was a certain confidence to the time as well.

Thanks for reading the thing.

At 7/11/2006 09:48:00 PM, Blogger inkyhack said...

Wow. Great story.


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