Tallgrass

Sandra Dallas

St. Martin's Griffin

The summer I was thirteen, the Japanese came to Ellis. Not Ellis, exactly, but to the old Tallgrass Ranch, which the government had turned into a relocation camp. Tallgrass was a mile and a half from Ellis, less than a mile past our farm, and it was one of the camps the government was building then to house the Japanese. In early 1942, the Japanese on the West Coast had been rounded up and incarcerated in places such as the Santa Anita race-track. Those destined for Colorado waited there until streets had been bladed into the yucca and sagebrush at Tallgrass, guard towers and barracks thrown up, and the camp fenced off with bob-wire. Then they were put on a train and sent a thousand miles to Ellis. Irem ember the crowd of townspeople at the depot the day the first Japanese arrived. The arrival date was supposed to be a secret, but we knew the evacuees were coming, because the government had alerted the stationmaster and hired bus drivers, and guards with guns patrolled the station platform. I’d sneaked away from my parents and gone to the depot, too, because I’d never seen any Japanese. I expected them to look like the cartoons of Hirohito in the newspaper, with slanted eyes and buckteeth and skin like rancid butter. All these years later, Irecall Iwa s disappointed that they didn’t appear to be a “yellow peril” at all. They were so ordinary. That is what I remember most about them.

The Japanese gripped the handrails as they got off the train because the steps were steep and their legs were short, and they frowned and blinked into the white-hot sun. They had made the trip with the shades in the coaches pulled down, and the glare of the prairie hurt their eyes. Most of the evacuees on that first train were men, dressed in suits, rumpled now after the long ride, ties that were loosened, and straw hats. Some had on felt hats, although it was August.

The few women wore tailored skirts and blouses and summer dresses with shoulder pads, coats over their arms. They pulled scarves from their pocketbooks and tied them around their heads to keep the hot wind from blowing dust into their hair. Some of the women had on wedgies or open-toed spectator pumps and silk or rayon stockings. Each evacuee carried a single suitcase, because that was all they had been allowed to bring with them.

The adults stood quietly in little groups, whispering, waiting to be told what to do. I expected one of the guards to take charge, to steer the people to the school buses lined up along the platform or tell them to go inside where it was cooler. But no one did, so they waited, confused. I wanted to point the evacuees to the drinking fountain and the bathrooms in the depot. They must have needed them. But I didn’t dare speak up.

Some of the men took out packages of Camels and Chesterfields and Lucky Strikes and lighted cigarettes. None of them chewed tobacco, and none of the women smoked. Several children, cooped up for days, seemed glad to be out in the open, and they squatted down to examine the tracks or ran around, jerky as Mexican jumping beans. A little boy smiled at me, but I turned away, embarrassed to make a connection with him. I wondered if the kids were supposed to be our enemies, too. Then the mothers called to them, and the children joined their parents, fidgeting as they looked at us shyly. Only the children took notice of the group of townspeople on the platform staring at them, many hostile, all of us curious.

A man who stepped down from the last car removed his hat, an expensive one that did not have sweat stains like the hats the farmers wore. He smoothed his hair, which appeared to have been slicked back with Vitalis or some other hair oil, because every strand was in place, despite the wind. Holding the hat in his hand, he rubbed his wrist across his forehead. Shading his eyes, he squinted at the prairie grass that glinted like brass in the sun and asked the man beside him, “Where are we?” The second man shrugged, and I suddenly felt sorry for the Japanese. What if the government had taken over our farm and sent us far away on the train, and nobody would tell us our destination? But we weren’t Japanese. We were Americans.

“Ellis. You’re at Ellis, Colorado,” awoman nearme called out.

Her husband shushed her. “Don’t tell those people where they’re at. Don’t you know nothing?” He rubbed his big face with a hand that the sun had turned as brown as a walnut. The man had shaved before coming to town. You could tell by the tiny clots of dried blood where he had nicked himself and the clumps of whiskers the razor had missed. They stuck up in the folds of his skin like willow shoots in a gully.

The Japanese man looked into the crowd, searching for the woman who’d spoken. She kept still, however, so he put his hat back on, tightened his tie, and buttoned his suit jacket as he leaned down to whisper something to a girl about my age. I admired her saddle shoes, thinking she must be rich, because saddle shoes cost more than the plain brown oxfords Mom bought me. I wondered how long her shoes would stay white in the dirt of Tallgrass. It wasn’t likely that she’d put shoe polish into her small suitcase. The girl shook back her hair, which was long and black and glossy. I had never seen such hair. It was as if coal had been spun into long threads. She unfolded a scarf splashed with pink flowers and put it around her head, tying it at the back of her neck, under her hair.

“Silk. Real silk,” a woman near me muttered, but I could not tell if she was jealous or just stating a fact.

A man beside her observed, “I thought they’d have buckteeth. They don’t have buckteeth.”

“ You got buckteeth enough for all of ’em,” called one of the boys at the back of the crowd. The man turned around and searched the faces, but he couldn’t identify the kid who’d spoken.

I could. He was Beaner Jack. I knew because Danny Spano stopped chugging his Grapette long enough to slap Beaner on the back and say, “Good one.” Beaner and Danny were always together, except for the time when Danny was in the army. He’d been in an accident at Camp Carson, near Colorado Springs, and hurt his foot, and the army didn’t want him anymore, so he’d been mustered out. Now he was back in Ellis. Both Danny and Beaner were eighteen, the age of my sister, Marthalice, who had gone to Denver to work in an arms plant after she graduated in May. I didn’t know whether she’d done it because she was patriotic or because she was blue after her favorite boyfriend, Hank Gantz, quit school to join the navy. My brother, Buddy, who was twenty-one, had left college to enlist in the army the week after Pearl Harbor.