The Arkansas Girls

By Dan Nishimura

“He's come back to life,” says Grandma. I've rejoined the reception in Man Jen Lo's banquet room. My nose has stopped its sudden bleeding. I think she's still upset that I dripped some blood on her powder blue sack dress. She's fussy about her clothes. That's one of the things I've noticed since I moved in with her and Grandpa Tuni.

She hands me a plate of the odd-tasting chicken. "And about time, Joey. The Arkansas girls are going to sing."

Who on earth are they? I love everything cowboy so I expect Dale Evans or Annie Oakley to come riding up the steps, firing a six-shooter. They are, in fact, the four youngest of the ten Hanamura sisters: Kate, Ruth, Jacklyn and Beth. They're called that because the Hanamuras spent the war years in Arkansas.

“They're farm people,” says Grandma, of our new in-laws. “They work very hard.” She doesn't need to tell me about hard work after lugging around Grandpa's car wash bucket all morning.

• • • • • •

The four sisters, in matching bridesmaid dresses, are huddled around a microphone. It looks like Uncle Masami's been drafted to play guitar. He can't pass up performing, even on his wedding day. Phyllis, his new bride, watches from the front table.

“This is for big sister,” says Kate. “We hope she remembers.”

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are gray...”

• • • • • •

Phyllis closes her eyes and listens. She hears a child's voice and feels someone tugging at her sleeve. “I'm tired, Phyllis. I don't like picking cotton.” It's Ruth, once again a pigtailed five-year-old.

Nearby, a crow shrieked as the skies of the countryside darkened. It was the last year of the war. Their destination, Little Rock, was many miles away. When the older Hanamura siblings were able to leave camp for jobs on the outside, seven-year-old Phyllis became nesan (elder sister) to Kate, Ruth and Jacklyn. Ruth had another complaint. “I want to go home,” she said. To her, “home” meant the tar paper barracks of their camp. Over the objection of politicians who didn't want “a bunch of traitors” in their state, the camp was built anyway, on swampland near the border with Tennessee.

Their sister Kiyomi had found a job as a bookkeeper in Little Rock, the state capital. The remaining family members received permission to join her.

• • • • • •

It was all Mama's fault. The other families were taking the Greyhound Bus. It was Mama's big idea to work their way north following the harvest. That way, she said, they'd arrive with money in their pockets and be less of a burden on Kiyomi.

Papa didn't care for the idea but quietly went along. Since he'd just lost twenty dollars in a poker game, he was in no position to say otherwise.

Mama told the kids that they'd gone to camp so she could have a long rest but two years was enough. They thought had that “farm work” was watering the victory garden outside their barracks. Now, they knew better.

“Look at how hard Mama works,” said Phyllis.

“She's used to it,” said precocious six-year-old Kate. “She's Japanese.”

All born in California, the girls only knew a few words of Japanese. Worse, they were starting to pick up twangy southern accents.

“Japanese?” asked Phyllis. “What do you think you are? Besides, if you don't work…”

“I know,” said Kate, “you won't eat.”

“That's not what I was going to say,” said Phyllis. “What I started to say was that we'll never make it to Little Rock in time for the talent show.”

“Talent show? What talent show?” Everyone perked up.

• • • • • •

Mama did the work of a man even though she was pregnant again. Anticipating another girl, they'd chosen the name Elizabeth. Papa joked that he was able to father children at his advanced age because as a boy he'd been fed a tonic made from the dried penis of a whale. Mama didn't find his bragging too funny.

Phyllis decided that she'd never have children. There were no other Japanese where they were going and to marry a hakujin was out of the question. Then again, Miles Cassidy, the young plantation owner was as handsome as Gary Cooper, so maybe they weren't all that bad.

In the distance, Mr. Cassidy rode by on a black and gray horse that kicked up a cloud of dust. With shiny dark hair and a regal bearing, he was like a Japanese lord in one of Papa's stories sprung to life. When she came of age, how could Papa possibly object?

She'd never dare have had such thoughts before. Perhaps it was due to the tingling sensations that would surge through her. People in camp had said that eating only American food might have an ill effect on the children. Maybe that's what they meant.

From the window of the worker's shack on Sunday mornings, she'd watch for Mr. Cassidy, dressed in black on his way to church. When he saw her and smiled, she almost died of embarrassment. Even so, she was back at the window the following Sunday.

• • • • • •

Most of the regular migrant workers had left for the higher pay of war industries. Mama said it was their good fortune.

“Yeah, lucky us,” thought Phyllis as she reopened a cut on her hand. “Why would anyone wish they were in the land of cotton?”

• • • • • •

Mama understood better than anyone how quickly one's fortune could change.

In the old country, Yurika Ikeda had grown up the daughter of a wealthy silk merchant. Their privileged world was filled with the scent of blossoms that fell from the plum and persimmon trees in their spacious yard.

One evening, shooting stars flared across the skies of Tokyo Bay in explosions of brilliant orange. The crowd of people gathered in the harbor for a summer festival couldn't believe their eyes.

Throughout the capital, everyone said it was an omen of a new prosperity. The Emperor's spiritual advisor went so far as to say that the shower of meteors signified an opportune time to invade Korea.

A week later, her father collapsed and died of a brain tumor. One who definitely prospered was Father's crooked business partner. Following a tearful pledge of loyalty at the funeral, he swindled the Ikedas out of their share of the business.

Yurika clung to the last of her silk kimonos; her favorite because it bore the image, in luminous indigo, of a magical bird called the phoenix. The exquisitely woven garment would be sold for passage, on the S.S. Shunyo Maru, to a new life in America.

• • • • • •

“Phyllis, what does Mama mean when she says to accept your fate?” asked Ruth.

“She means that we've all been assigned a place in the universe by the Amida Buddha.”

“You mean like our block number?”

“Something like that,” Phyllis answered. “She says it's foolish to cry over your fate. Look at Mama when she's asleep. She's totally at peace. You can almost see the face of Buddha. She also says that one mustn't give up hope because sometimes even an ordinary peach worm will emerge a butterfly.”

“Aw, do we have to hear that story again?” complained Kate. “Come on, Phyllis. Tell us about the talent show.”

“OK, all right. First prize is fifty dollars and a chance to be on the radio.”

“Jeepers!” exclaimed little Jacklyn. “Fifty whole dollars?”

“You have to be famous to be on the radio,” said Kate. “Papa told me.”

“I know. But, this for a special contest,” said Phyllis. “Have you thought of a song, yet? How ‘bout ‘You Are My Sunshine'?”

“I'm sick of that stupid song,” said Kate.

“Well, if you don't want to sing, I will,” Phyllis replied.

“No, Phyllis, don't sing!” they chimed. Her heart was equally full of music, but when Phyllis opened her mouth, a tuneless gurgle would sputter out. Fortunately, there were other ways to express oneself. Sugimoto sensei, a well-known painter before the war, praised her sketches of camp life as first rate.

The other girls inherited their musical gifts from Papa. Growing up in Koyoi Province on the Sea of Japan, he'd learned the songs and dances of the village whale hunters. After a successful hunt, the animal's immense carcass would be dragged onto the sand. The village bell would ring out.

As the whale hunters threw down their harpoon, they'd dance and shout to the pounding of drums, giving thanks to Kojira Kami, the noble spirit of the vanquished beast.

Papa could chart the tides and navigate by the stars. He knew the time of day by the position of the sun in the sky. But, to him, the soil they worked was just so much dirt.

Far from the marsh, the terrain seemed to resemble the fertile San Joaquin Valley. He noticed Mama squatting in the field. She'd take a handful of earth, sniff it, knead it between her palms, then taste a pinch of it with her tongue. She'd announce, “Cucumbers!” or “Green onions!”

“The old lady is losing her marbles,” he said to himself.

• • • • • •

When they arrived, in 1942, camp officials warned that there was no escape. Even if someone were to crawl past the snipers and the through the barbed wire, the treacherous swamps would offer no refuge.

The muddy, dark green waters were supposedly full of alligators and poisonous snakes. Buzzards big enough to swoop down and carry off a child ruled the overcast skies. Even more terrifying were the human denizens of the swamp: bearded, wild trappers. Reeking of moonshine, they could flay any living thing with their “Arkansas toothpicks,” foot-long, Bowie knives.

Phyllis hoped and prayed that the people of Little Rock were more civilized than that. Kiyomi wrote that hundreds of red and yellow roses were in bloom, the white marble capitol building, magnificent.

“Is that where we're going to live?” asked Ruth.

“No, silly, of course not. Besides, it's probably too small for all of us. I'm sure we'll find a place. Little Rock is the most beautiful city in the Mid-South.”

“Bigger than Merced?”

“Oh, much bigger,” laughed Phyllis.

She remembered how Kiyomi called her engagement ring her “little rock.” She imagined how the city must glisten like a diamond.

As she baked in the July heat, Phyllis pretended that she was already in Little Rock, sketching scenery on the banks of the Arkansas River, the air cooled by its flowing waters and sweetened by the petals of red and yellow roses.

• • • • • •

Another month passed and they found themselves in Pine Bluff, halfway there. One of the kids picked up a handbill. It announced, in fancy lettering, that the Empire Carnival would soon be in town.

The name “Empire” caught Papa's fancy. He'd heard it used only in connection with his beloved “Empire of Japan.” Besides, he could never resist a carnival or a game of chance. They'd all seen him in action. He'd play the ignorant foreigner while sizing up the odds.

“Empire or not,” Mama said, “you'll lose all our money and spoil the children with that nonsense!” Papa persisted and she finally relented, to the cheers of the kids.

The carnival was like a smaller version of the San Joaquin County Fair. The younger ones had the time of their lives riding on the Ferris wheel and the cavalcade of horses on the merry-go-round.

The carnival fortuneteller read in the cards that natural charmer Jacklyn would marry a famous actor. Everyone got a big kick out of that.

Papa paid five dollars to ride on an airplane. A relic of the Great War, it was owned by a flying ace who barnstormed the country performing daredevil stunts at carnivals and fairs.

Papa knew he might not have the chance again. The pilot handed him a pair of goggles and strapped him into the back seat. The take-off was exhilarating and Papa loved the feeling of floating on air. Light headed for a second, he felt himself transformed into Captain Tatsuya Hanamura, decorated aviator of the Imperial Navy and guardian of the skies above Saipan.

A Pacific current blew, brushing his silk scarf against his cheek. Imbued with bushido, the dashing young captain was prepared to sacrifice all for Emperor and Motherland. He fingered the trigger of the turret guns on his sleek and lightweight Zero, the finest combat plane known to man. Then he spotted it: a Corsair at twelve o'clock!

The trick pilot waved as he circled past the carnival crowd. Spurred on by the cheering spectators, he launched into a death-defying loop the loop, completely forgetting about his passenger still strapped in the back seat.

Papa was a green color when they helped him from the cockpit. He looked better after sitting for a while and drinking a Coke but didn't feel much like gambling. This pleased Mama no end. She said that it was the best five bucks he'd ever spent.

• • • • • •

Phyllis would never forget the Strongman who could lift a barbell weighing hundreds of pounds like it was a feather. He and his golden-haired assistant captivated the throng. They seemed perfect in every way. Phyllis decided to run away with them. With so many in the family, who would miss her?

She saw herself wearing an eye-catching sequined outfit being twirled through the air in the powerful grip of the Strongman. She'd make it to Little Rock, all right, though not as a field hand. As one of the stars of the Empire Carnival, she'd enter the city in style, waving from a red convertible.

That wasn't her fate because the Empire Carnival left late that night, without her.

• • • • • •

As tired as she was, Phyllis found it hard to sleep in their cramped quarters. The tin-roofed worker's shack refused to cool down, even late in the night. She hated the smell of fertilizer that seeped into everyone's clothes. Mama slept like a rock while her daughters tossed and turned.

Papa had said that he was going to the outhouse but was sharing a bottle with a group of fellow workers. Always the trickster, he grinned as he taught them the Japanese card game called kabu, knowing that he'd soon be taking their money.

A gust of wind slammed the barn door shut as the figure of bundled-up straw and rags danced about in the field. His writhing created shadows in the moonlit shack. Phyllis pressed Papa's lucky seashell to her ear, listening for the waves that would come crashing down on the shores of Koyoi. Drifting off to sleep, she dreamed of the great whale Kojira, on whose back they'd ride to the Pure Land.

• • • • • •

“You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.” The song ends to cheers and applause. I think I clap louder than anyone. Most of the adults are on their second or third glass of champagne. We're ready to cut the cake, a towering concoction of strawberries and cream from Grace Pastries.

• • • • • •

The Hanamuras did work their way to Little Rock later that year, but not in time for the talent contest.

Determined, the girls kept singing together and performing every chance they got. Baby Beth started joining in before she could talk. Phyllis would fuss over their hair before they went on stage and helped sew their costumes.

The family made a bundle growing Mama's cucumbers and green onions, proving that she wasn't crazy, after all. When the war was over, they moved again, this time to Los Angeles.

Papa was killed in a boating accident on New Years Day, shortly after their homecoming.. Though they grieved, his death prodded everyone to work even harder.

At the annual Little Tokyo Nisei Week festivities, the girls were spotted by a Hollywood talent agent who was so impressed that he practically insisted on signing them.

Billed as the Han sisters, they've performed at all the top nightclubs: Ciro's on the Sunset Strip and The Sands in Las Vegas. Kate's been seen on the TV series “Adventures in Paradise.” And Grandma just mentioned that some of them “go around” with movie stars. I'm jubilant. This is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to our family!

“Who?” I ask, barely able to contain myself. Charlton Heston? “Who?” I demand. “Gregory Peck? Who?”

“Quiet,” she says, “you sound like an owl.”

I start to argue, but the room grows still as we wait for another song.