My family first moved to Los Angeles when in 1932, nine years before the war. Being six years old at the time––the oldest of my siblings––I was the only one of us able to remember the cool, wet weather of Seattle, and as such, I was the most likely to complain. In Washington, the rain came three times a week to cool the city, but in California, the black tarmac streets would bake for days without reprieve. Of course, I rarely ventured out into the sun, and my time was better occupied with tools and machines than it was sports. I would rather sit inside and take apart my alarm clock than join my brothers outside for a game of soccer. Yet, reflecting on those days, I wished I’d spent more time acclimating myself to the Southern California heat; it would’ve prepared me for the sweltering heat of the desert.
That day, standing at the edge of the cliff and reflecting on my childhood, I more than ever missed my clock. I must’ve taken it apart a million times, along with every other piece of machinery in our house, until I could identify the purpose of every wire and switch. But there was little technology in the camp for me to disassemble and practice with, with the exception of the soldiers’ rifles, which I learned early on they weren’t fond of me touching. So instead I came to the cliff to gaze at the snow-capped mountains in the distance and the ribbon of highway a mile away. I hated that highway; it was a road to freedom, so close, yet impossible to reach.
My little brother tugged at my wrist, tearing me from my thoughts about our home in the Los Angeles suburbs. “What is it, Kenzou?” I asked, smiling down at him. He didn’t return the expression.
“When are we going home?” he asked.
I sighed; it was a question I hated, one my parents tried to avoid around my younger siblings. Being older, my mother and father trusted that I understood why they took us away. After the war began, we feared they would come for us eventually, but we never imagined it would be so soon. We wanted to tell them the truth, but how could we begin to explain that this internment camp was our home, at least until they could finally ship us somewhere else? “Soon,” I answered, my voice wavering.
The Cliff was secluded, only accessible by a grueling uphill trek through the only thicket of trees in the reservation. As such, it was the only place that the guards hadn’t bothered to install fences, and there were no watchtowers within sight of it. They probably figured that the daunting drop, more than enough to kill a potential deserter, would suffice to keep us in.
Kenzou stood silently by my side, and I continued to watch the cars racing up and down the highway. The sun had just begun to set, and a few of the automobiles had turned on their headlights, turning the black tarmac into a river of light. Curfew would come soon.
“Do you remember when we heard about that man flying on the radio, Kenzou?” I asked.
The view reminded me of the scene described in a radio broadcast I’d heard a few years ago, in which a man purportedly had taken flight using a glider that he suspended over his head like a massive kite. My siblings and I sat around the radio, enthralled; I had even stopped taking apart my mother’s iron to listen.
Kenzou must’ve recalled the day fondly, because he giggled at the thought of it. Then his eyes went wide with excitement. “Do you think they’d let us make a glider here?” he asked.
For a moment I laughed, but the stark reminder of our situation quickly removed the grin from my face. I frowned and looked down the daunting hundred yard drop before me. “I don’t think so.”
Even before the words left my mouth, the idea occurred to me. The very thought filled me with delight and dread at the same time, a terrible mix of excitement and fear that made my stomach churn. In theory, with the right materials, it could be done. But where would I procure them here, when the guards zealously hoarded all the supplies? I needed something light but strong to serve as the frame, and durable fabric to keep it in the air. Perhaps…
Kenzou pulled at my wrist again. “Hiroto?” he asked, noticing how pale I’d gone. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
I turned on my little brother and spoke a bit harsher than I intended. “Go back to the tent,” I ordered. “I need some time to think.”
For a moment, tears began to well up in Kenzou’s eyes, but he quickly blinked them away and scurried off into the trees. I felt awful, but I’d seen him endure worse chastisement at the hands of the guards. He’d learned to withstand admonishment. With him gone, I knelt down before a dry patch of ground and began etching my ideas into the dirt. I felt as if I had to write everything down or I’d lose it, along with my last hope of escaping that place. Before long the entire cliffside was covered with drawings and notes.
After about an hour of thinking, I put the final touches on my plans, then stood back to examine my work. Then, just as I committed my designs to memory, a hot desert wind blew across the cliffside and dashed them away.
. . .
The half assembled, twisted hunk of metal and canvas rested at the precipice of the cliff, with the remaining pieces spread around it. Despite being early morning, the heat was already oppressive, even as the clouds hung low overhead, and the sun had not yet peeked its head over the mountains. The highway, of course, never slept; cars still sped in both directions, and only the sound of their blaring horns broke the morning silence.
My mother and father, who insisted they come along to see the construction, observed me as I worked. They kept their mouths shut as I gathered my materials and attached them to the uncomplete machine. My mother wore the same nonplussed, nervous expression she did when I used to take apart her kitchen appliances. Of course, now, it was much more than her favorite mixer at stake. If one component was misplaced or not fastened correctly, her son could fall to his death.
Her apprehension didn’t help me focus. My hands were already damp from the heat and fear of the guards finding us. Luckily, they hadn’t noticed the missing tent I stole from the supplies building, but all the same, ever since that day I’d been looking over my shoulder constantly. I felt as if they knew my intentions, that they somehow overheard when I disclosed my idea to my parents in the middle of the night. So far, nobody had come after us, but the tension mounted every day. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer.
“Are you sure about this, Hiroto?” My father asked. He raked his hands through his long black hair, as he tended to do when he was anxious. “I know that you’re good with machines, but if this doesn’t work…”
I shook my head, not even bothering to take my eyes off my work. It was almost finished, and with every passing second it began to closer resemble my drawings in the dust a week earlier. “It’ll work, dad,” I assured him. “I’m sure it will.” At last, I fastened the final piece in place and stood back to admire the fully constructed glider.
The mechanism was crude at best; since the parts were intended for building a tent, rather than making a glider, it looked much larger than it should’ve. The canvas tarp, which I’d cut to size in secrecy a few nights before, had frayed at the edges, and the hollow metal framework had started to rust. But my device didn’t have to look aesthetically pleasing, so long as it stayed airborne long enough to carry me safely to the ground.
I turned to face my parents, but rather than congratulate me on my achievement, they stood, faces solemn, with tears glistening in their eyes. In that moment I realized that I may never see them again. “I’ll be safe,” I told them, “I promise. If I tell the world what the government has done to us, people will protest. They’ll be forced to let you go.”
My father’s expression wavered, but he managed to keep his voice stable as he asked, “And what if they don’t?”
“They will,” I said, trying to conceal my uncertainty. “Nobody would stand for this.” I hugged them each in turn, though neither said a word to me as I pulled away. Then, once we’d concluded our tacit goodbyes, I spun around and stood over the finished glider, the orange canvas glowing in the rising sun. “Take care of the others for me,” I called back as I reached down and grabbed the crossbar. The device was heavy to lift, but the instant I raised it above my head, I felt the wind catch the sail and nearly send me aloft. I had to fight just to keep my feet on the ground.
My parents stood to the side, and I took a few steps back so I could get a running start. I tried my best not to think about the drop, or the jagged cliffside littered with razor sharp rocks. Still, I couldn’t help but envision myself falling from the sky, my parents watching helplessly as I fell hundreds of feet to the unforgiving earth below. I shivered, tightened my grip on the crossbar, and pushed the vision from my mind. I couldn’t hesitate any longer. After taking one last breath, I sprinted forward and charged off the edge of the cliff.
I didn’t even have the opportunity to jump before the massive sail caught wind and bore me into the air. For a moment I dangled, helpless, feeling the wind take me where it wanted. I kept my eyes closed, knowing that I’d panic if I looked down. The glider swerved and dipped with the current of the air, and I fought to regain control of the craft. Then the wind died, and the glider fell into a dive, plummeting towards the Earth far below. Although I couldn’t see, I felt the air rushing up past me, the ground nearing with every second. With a final burst of strength I tilted the nose of the craft upward, stopping my descent at the last moment possible.
Only then did I open my eyes, and the instant I did, my heart stopped. I was merely feet above the ground, so close that, as I flew parallel to it, my feet nearly scraped the rocks underfoot. If I wanted to, I could’ve slowed to a stop, dismounted, and walked the remaining distance to the highway. It was the sensible thing to do, and after my terrifying brush with death, I should’ve wanted to. But something about the freedom of being in the air made my nerves buzz with electricity. Even flying only a foot off the ground, I felt alive in a way I never had.
Unable to forebear myself, I pushed the nose of the glider a bit farther upward and sent myself shooting into the sky. I continued up until I soared high above the colossal rock formations dotting the landscape. Over my own laughing, and the wind whistling in my ears, I could hear my parents shouting, but whether it was out of fear or happiness I could not tell. Either way, I didn’t heed their cries. After having been imprisoned for the last two months, I relished the unmitigated freedom of flight. It was a sensation better than anything I’d ever experienced before.
For a while I kept my eyes glued to the ground, entranced by the rocky earth zipping by hundreds of feet beneath me. Eventually, I managed to look up, and the view took the breath from my lungs. Just a short distance ahead, the highway snaked through the desert landscape, the shrieking horns and whining engines shattering the morning silence. The cacophony sounded like music to my ears. That road would take me far away from this place, and I’d never look back. My mind spun with the possibilities. The government would come after me, once they saw I was gone, but it could take weeks for them to notice my absence. By that time I could be halfway across the country.
My fantasies came to a halt when I recalled the promise I made to my parents just minutes ago. I couldn’t stay in hiding long. I had to go to the papers, the radio stations, and tell them what had happened to us. After the attack, many of our neighbors began to fear us. But the whole nation would not hold us accountable for the actions of a people we were only distantly related to, would they? If I could rally the country’s sympathy, perhaps there was still a chance to restore the way things once were.
A sudden jolt shook my glider and broke me from my reverie. Looking up, I saw that the canvas tarp had torn loose from the frame. The wings destabilized, and before I could react, the glider fell into a dive. I opened my mouth to scream, but the air rushing past made it impossible to make a sound. I struggled to regain control, and at the last moment, with the ground only yards away, I righted myself and slowed the descent. The glider skimmed above the Earth for a moment, until the nose plunged into the sand, sending both me and my creation tumbling in a twisted mass of metal and flesh.
For a few moments I lay on the ground, cocooned in the contorted carapace of the wrecked glider, until I was convinced I had survived. Daring to open my eyes, I crawled out of the wreckage. Every motion sent searing pain through my limbs. Looking down, I could see scores of gashes across my arms and legs. The pain was excruciating, but as I gazed back at the mangled glider, I realized it was a miracle that I survived at all.
I glanced up at the cliff face, which looked much smaller from so far away, and wondered if my parents had seen me fall. I prayed not, for their sakes. Nobody could have witnessed that crash and believed I had survived. The thought made me sick, but I forced myself to forget it; I had to focus on my mission. I may have delivered myself to freedom, but now I had to do the same for my family, and everyone else I had left behind.