Recently, when my colleague Kam and I were in Guadalupe, California taking pictures and talking to people, we had the honor of meeting Mr. Harry Masatani, one of the town's esteemed citizens. Mr. Masatani ("Call me Harry") still runs Masatani's Market on Guadalupe Street with his wife and sons, and he welcomed us into his home as though we were old friends. He was born in Santa Maria in 1926 to a Japanese immigrant father and a mother who'd been born to Japanese parents in Honolulu, and he enjoyed a nice American childhood right here in Guadalupe. Then one day in 1941 everything suddenly changed. In his words:
"Wartime. Japanese. You know what happened to us? I got locked up. On December 6, we are Japanese Americans...you know? December 8, we are classified as enemy aliens. The very next day after December 7, we’re enemy aliens…huh? How 'bout that? Not Americans anymore. FBI came and picked up all the heads of the household, all the men, so just the women and children are left. And shortly after that came the order to evacuate the West coast. So they rounded us up."
Harry told this sad tale without a trace of bitterness as he sat on a sofa in the parlor of his house. Behind him was a red and white blanket adorned with a banner: City of Guadalupe, Est. 1840, Inc. 1946 and three illustrated highlights: the jail house, the city hall, and the fire department.
"That old man you saw sitting there at the desk today [at the American Legion Hall], that's my friend Bindo. He was in the army then, and when the army came to round up the Japanese, he was one of the guards. Can you believe that? Now we’re like brothers. We’re like brothers."
He told us more stories...stories about hard work, service to country, forgiveness and friendship, a bullet through a window in a wallpapered room, and enduring ties to community. Suffice it to say Harry Masatani is someone who could have remained angry but is kind and generous instead. He's a man with a twinkle in his eye, someone with the sort of wisdom that includes a sense of humor. It was memorable and humbling to talk to him.
He taught me a little lesson, too. He led Kam and me up two flights of stairs to the attic of his old Victorian house, then pointed to a narrow doorway which opened onto a ladder to an opening in the roof. From there, you lift yourself to get onto the widow's walk overlooking Guadalupe, visibility way out to the dunes. Kam of course went up the ladder without hesitation, slid open the hatch, and emerged out onto the roof. I started up and then got scared...to be honest, I'm just leery of heights...and I was already worrying about getting back down afterwards, trying to picture how I'd lower myself through the opening and backwards down the ladder. Yes, I realize I was overthinking it, but I was just afraid, so I simply gave up and stepped back down into the attic where Harry was waiting for us.
But Harry wouldn't let me get away with giving up. "Maybe once in a lifetime chance," he said. "You'll be happier if you go up there."
I went. And of course he was right.