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The Land of the Brave
The day was long ago, the memory distant. Yet even now I can reach out and grab hold of it—every sight, every sound, every emotion—like it was yesterday. Which for me, in that indistinct, wavering landscape of the mind, it is. That date defined who I was to become for the rest of my life. It took my future, so full of endless possibilities, and, for better or for worse, changed it irreversibly. It shoved me in a direction unforeseen by all and controlled by few. It was a date that lived in infamy.
The stiff white collar encircled my throat and bit into my skin with the slightest movement, constricting my breathing. I felt uncomfortable in those formal clothes: the hot button down shirt, tight gray pants, and belt cinched high above my waist. My fingers found the collar’s edge and tugged, trying to free me, but to no avail. I swung my feet idly, the movements fidgety and distracting. Mother glared down at me with silent admonishment, somehow communicating to me in one sharp look to stop moving, sit up, pay attention, and we were almost done so for goodness’ sake be quiet. I sat up. The hard wood of the pew pressed into my backbone as I watched the minister drone on. I was determined to stay on Mother’s good side that day; I wanted to go play over at Rob’s later, and I had been getting too many of those certain looks recently. My young mind strayed to thoughts of the upcoming holiday. I was going to get what I wanted this year, even if it meant spending the whole month indoors doing homework and cleaning. The year before Mother had told me that I hadn’t gotten what I’d asked for because Santa knew what I’d done to Nancy, that poor girl, last Tuesday. Yeah, I’d said, well he just dinna understan’ the circumstances. That hadn’t gone over so well. All it got me was a spot in the corner and a good spanking.
A sharp jab in my side woke me from my reverie, and I realized guiltily that I’d been daydreaming again. I stood up quickly with the others and strained to see Mother’s hymnal. She kindly lowered it so I could sing out haltingly, my young voice still childishly high. After squeaky renditions of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and “It Is Well With My Soul,” the minister said his last prayer; we donned our heavy winter coats and filed out of the small church.
The walk home was uneventful. Heavy drifts of snow obscured the narrow streets and sidewalks, muting the sounds of life. Mother and Mrs. Walker strolled along, waving at people in the passing cars and chatting together about town gossip and the recent world events. Their talk didn’t hold my interest, so Rob and I lagged behind. The sky was clear and blue; the sun shone brightly in the chilly air. We simply wandered along, glad to be free of the restraints of life and the burdens which lay heavily on children such as I. Namely, how to convince Mother that making a spud launcher was a worthwhile activity. As we plotted and calculated our chances of actually pulling off such a stunt without discovery, we eventually made our way home. As next-door neighbors, we would certainly see each other again soon, but right now it was time for lunch.
I walked into the house and shrugged off my coat. Before I had even taken one step, Mother was yelling at me about my shoes. Careful not to track anything in, I removed them and placed them next to the other shoes in the hallway. As I made my way into the dining room, I sniffed the air. The roast had been in the oven all morning and now the mouthwatering smell permeated the whole house. I walked into the kitchen and peered over the counter. Mother let me sneak a taste of the mashed potatoes she had prepared. She commented on how big I was getting and how she only wished that Father were here, because he would be amazed by how I’m beginning so look so much like him. She smiled down at me, dark eyes kind. But I was puzzled. The expression that had crossed her face was conflicted and impossible. She appeared happy on the outside, but at the same time very sad. To my young mind it was a simple fact of life that someone could not be both happy and sad. To me the two emotions were polar opposites, never able to exist at the same time. She ruffled my hair and pulled me close to her side. Leaning down, she hugged me tight and held me against her for a moment or two before letting go and standing back up. With a pat on my behind and a soft command, she sent me off to set the table with my siblings.
Once in the dining room, I reached up and carefully pulled down a pile of plates from the cabinet. I walked around the table, laying down one at each place. My Baby Brother and Sister, trailing behind me, placed the silverware. We had just finished with the napkins when Mother walked into the dining room carrying the roast. She told me and Brother to go back into the kitchen and grab the mashed potatoes and salad. Eventually we all sat down to pray.
Heads bowed and hands clasped, Mother blessed our food and prayed for those around the world suffering the hardships of life. She prayed for our country, that our leader would guide us through the coming times, and for our community, that it would prosper and remain united. Lastly, she prayed for our family, that Father and James would return home soon, unharmed, so we could all be together again. Amen. We opened our eyes and dove into the delicious meal. A minute or two later, Mother looked up and asked me to go turn on the radio because we could do with some pleasant music.
Obediently I got up and made my way over to the large radio that sat on our side table. I turned it on and static burst forth. I moved the knob as stations flashed on and off in quick succession. Eventually wavering violins and vibrating cellos filled the air. Mother nodded her approval, and I sat back down. We continued to eat as the concert drifted gently around us.
I had just finished my meat when I noticed the curious lack of sound. I looked up at the radio and noticed that Mother was staring, too. We could still hear the gentle hum of the radio, which let us know that it still worked, but the unusually long silence continued. Finally we heard a crackling, recorded voice. Emergency News Bulletin, it told us, pay attention. After a second or two a reporter came on the air. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, he announced, sounding distressed, A MOST HORRIFIC EVENT HAS OCCURRED. He paused and his voice shook, THE US NAVAL BASE IN PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII HAS BEEN BRUTALLY ATTACKED BY JAPANESE FORCES. Mother’s eyes widened as she gazed at the radio in rapt fascination and horror. We sat frozen as the announcer slowly recounted the terrible events of the past few hours and described the climbing death tolls and statuses of the ships. At the mention of The Oklahoma sinking, a movement distracted me. I looked over at Mother and realized that she was crying silently, tears dripping down her cheeks. I was scared. I didn’t understand why Mother was crying like that. I was too young to realize that the distant figures of Older Brother James and Father had been stationed at Pearl Harbor for the last few months.
Still crying, Mother pushed herself away from the table and stumbled into the living room. She grabbed the phone, shoved it against her ear, and started dialing frantically. After several attempts and no success, she sank down to the carpet and started to sob. A loud, rapid knocking at the door made all of us jump. I glanced over at Mother, who continued to cry uncontrollably. I took a deep breath and walked over to the door. Opening it just a crack, I peered out. It was Mrs. Walker. I grinned nervously and opened the door the rest of the way. She burst in and exclaimed in a trembling voice, did we hear about the attack? Stopping in the middle of the room, she took in the sad scene before her: Three frightened children huddled in the corner and one weeping housewife curled up on the rug. Mrs. Walker rushed to Mother’s side immediately and wrapped her arms around her. Murmuring and rocking with her, she comforted Mother as best she could, whispering that it’ll be alright, it’ll be alright. Eventually, Mrs. Walker looked up at us standing around uncomfortably. She jerked her head slightly to the side and whispered for us to go next door. I gathered Baby Brother and Sister. We walked silently over and joined Mr. Walker and Rob as they sat glued to their radio. Mr. Walker looked up at us standing there and motioned for us to join them on the sofa. Hunkering down, we sat there for what seemed like hours, and in reality, probably was.
By the time we stretched and moved our tired muscles, night had fallen. Mr. Walker made us a simple dinner and let the younger ones sleep in the guest room while I slept with Rob. As I lay in bed that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if Mother was going to be alright and what the uncertain future had in store for us.
The following day passed in a blur. The most coherent memory I was able to retain was listening to Mr. Roosevelt over the radio as he gave his speech. For most, if not all, Americans, the most memorable line of the speech is Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy. For me, however, a different line remains fixed in my brain. At the time, the spoken words held little meaning for me. Instead they lay in my thoughts as a buried dread. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us. The character of the onslaught against us. Most would choose to believe that this refers to the fact that the attack was unprovoked and very underhanded. I, however, know what it truly means: It was an attack by people who were not Us. They were foreign; they were different. This was the character of the onslaught against us, the people who caused the bloodshed of so many innocent American lives. Yes, it was true that they lived among us, ate our food and talked like us. But they weren’t us. It was their fault, and they would soon pay for what they did. They would pay dearly, as I would soon come to know.
As the days wore on without any word or letter from Father or James, Mother grew even more frantic. Calls were made, letters were sent. Everyone had questions, but no one had answers. Our whole world was in chaos and we had nowhere to turn. One brisk winter day, I was sent to the store to pick up eggs and a loaf of bread. As I entered the grocery, I noticed that an old woman was staring at me intently. When I turned to look at her, she avoided my gaze and shuffled away. But I still noticed how tightly she gripped her bottle of milk. As I was walking home, two small boys threw snowballs and pebbles at me before calling me names and running off. Shocked and saddened, I ran straight to Mother’s arms, crying all the way. As I lay there with tears running down my cheeks, I kept asking her the same question: Why? Why. As I looked up at her calm face, she uttered a gentle reply I will never forget. “Because we’re different, honey, that’s all.” I was confused. I looked down at the clothes I wore; I thought about the food I ate. I couldn’t fathom how we could be considered different in any way. I thought about my friends; I thought about my church. Nothing made sense. However, my tears eventually dried and I got over it. It would have been forgotten if it weren’t for what happened a few days later.
That icy winter afternoon, we trudged through the gusting winds on our way to the church. It wasn’t a Sunday, but we were going anyway. The church was holding a special service to honor those men fallen in the attack. As we made our way into the already packed sanctuary, people turned to stare at us. I could feel their unwelcome gaze boring into the back of my head. At the time, I didn’t understand why these people were so angry at us. We sat down quietly near the front. I saw Rob farther up and tried to catch his eye, but when he saw me he quickly glanced away.
The rest of the service continued much like that. People that talked to me every day kept looking over at us, yet refused to look at me directly. I could feel the sharp glances even while staring straight ahead. I recall checking several times to see if I had forgotten to comb my hair or zip up my zipper. After the service started, we began to sing hymns. Eventually the minister announced that the next song would be our last, a final tribute to those brave men that had died. The organist began to play, the notes coming out as a sad, drifting melody as the church began to sing. …O say can you see… Mother broke down again, shoulders shaking as she quietly sobbed into her handkerchief. She was not alone; I watched as several women around the room also started crying. I even remember seeing some men start to tear up in silent grief as the slow notes floated over their heads. … red glare, the bombs bursting in air… Too young to know the words myself, I simply stood and listened as they were sung around me. … and the home of the brave… As the last notes faded softly into the air, the minister stood up and began reading a list of all the men that needed our prayers on this night. As he did so, candles were lit and placed on the altar. One by one he listed them off, and one by one broken families were comforted and reassured. I was watching him when it happened. I don’t think anyone else even noticed, but I did. He was reading off the names slowly and evenly when he paused. He glanced up and our eyes met. It was only a split second hesitation, but it was there. His eyes were dragged back down to the paper in his hand, and he read aloud the names of Kaito Nakamura, my Father, and James Nakamura, my Brother.
For me, that day was a day that has and always will live in infamy. That day defined who I was and who I was yet to become. To those singing the song that afternoon in the church, the lyrics said, We are strong, we are mighty. We are righteous and just. But right underneath the surface were the hidden words that they chose to forget. We are equal and fair, until we are not. You may try, but you will never be one of Us. It made me realize why people viewed me as different and why I myself did not. To them, I was an outsider, a foreigner. An alien. No matter how much I was them, I would never be them. Oh, it was all fine and dandy to spout tolerance and love for your neighbors when times were peaceful and quiet. But as soon as that veil of calm was ripped off, it was them against us. Everyone knows what happened in the months and years following that infamous day, so there is no need to recount them for you. There is no need to tell you all about the attitudes and opinions, the judging, the lies. Me, I found a special irony in those last few lines of the song. To most, they spoke of power and morality. To me, they sang a much different song.
… O’er the land of the free… and the home of the brave…