Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Reflections on Manzanar and America

I first met Denis Wolcott after I hired him straight from college to come to work at the Marietta Ohio Times, a small newspaper in a small town that must have seemed a million miles away from his home in Southern California.
He arrived in the Mid-West still wearing Southern California garb, for which he took an inordinate amount of kidding. Marietta's social norms were not quite the same as those of the University of Southern California.
He survived, prospered, did a good job as a reporter, and like the rest of us working for Gannett in the 1970s, moved on to bigger and better things.
He's back in Southern California where he began, a father and a grandfather, and made a recent trip to one of America's historical sites.

I copied this off his Facebook posting. I recommend it to you.

By Denis Wolcott

A recent camping trip up to the Eastern Sierras in CA with my two youngest daughters meant an opportunity to stop on the way home at the Manzanar Historic Site. Set near the foot of Mt. Whitney, Manzanar was one of the 10 relocation camps where more than 100,000 Japanese American citizens and resident Japanese aliens were interned during World War II.

Seeing is much better than reading about it. The girls were at first reluctant to go. They were tired and needed a shower. And, they had both been to the Holocaust exhibit at Washington, D.C., and were not excited to see more examples of hate and ugliness. They also remembered the former instructions to not bring up this topic in front of their grandfather (my dad) because it would result in a long debate. You see, my dad was on the side of those who thought the government was doing Japanese Americans a favor to relocate them to "protect" them from the hatred and bigotry rising up in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

So, as we approached Manzanar, I persisted and they were thankful I suggested this stop. (If you want to check out this site with a virtual tour, go here: It is very easy to stop along Highway 395 and spend 30 minutes or longer at a place that could be the closest this country came to a concentration camp (of course, without the mass killings). As thousands of other motorists zipped by, we did the tour.

History provides a great platform for today's events. Mixed in with a very telling story about the bigotry and events that allowed our country to this horrific decision to inter U.S. citizens are other examples of where the the world made mistakes. From denying women the right to vote, to segregation to the 9/11 attacks.

At this point in the tour and as we left Manzanar (after the must-see stop at the cemetery), I told my two youngest that in spite of all the history lessons that should help guide us away from making the same mistake, we are witnessing two more similar events: the immigation battle in Arizona and the debate over an Islamic Center near the site of the World Trade Center.

We all hope our past is behind us, but, sadly, history has a way of repeating itself. This is why they teach history in school. This is why they erect monuments to help us remember.

What I've told my children, and any friends who can stand my occasional rants, is to avoid the trappings of being caught up in the heated debates on highly sensitive and politicized issues. The better course of action is to investigate the facts yourself - not let others feed you - and to make decisions with information, knowledge and a cooler head.

Thankfully, I'm beginning to see some of this in action with the debate over the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan, just blocks from the former World Trade Center. Some of the facts are starting to gain more attention than the ill-informed rhetoric and "hate" radio (some call it "talk" radio). Bravery and rational thinking, like that demonstrated by New York City Mayor Bloomberg, are being commended.

I was glad to hear my children talk about our country's founding (people fleeing other countries because of religious persecution to find safe haven here), and why our first amendment was the first amendment.

So as my two youngest children settle back into their summertime routines and look to grab as much fun as they can before hitting the books (and my oldest begins to raise her own and offer life lessons to her daughter), I vow to still occasionally throw the lessons of rational thinking at them. I truly believe all bright, young minds are born without a prejudice gene. And my hope for them is that they use the power of their minds and convictions to help this country from repeating its ugly past. I see these strengths in them now.

I remain hopeful.

And, I hope their examples give pause to others. At first, reluctant to accept an ugly past exists or, at least, not wanting to see a depressing site. Sure, who wants to see this?! But, eventually, with a little coaxing, willing to peak inside the building and gain some additional perspective from a factual and very revealing display. The result? Thank you for showing this to us. It was educational and opened my mind to more things to contemplate.

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