Two Blind Men and a Fool
by Sherman Smith
|Table of Contents|
Earl Crier wakes screaming from nightmares in which his ship sinks in the Arctic in World War II. He has survived but is now blind. He takes refuge in music and in the kindness of Stella. Meanwhile, other veterans return, and their most serious wounds are not always visible.
Chapter 2: Welcome Home, Son
Henry Akita, tired and heavy-hearted, fished in his pocket for a dime as he waited for the Geary Street trolley to pull up. It was raining cats and dogs, with a blustery wind. He had spent the day searching for a room and had been turned away from the YMCA, and the door had been slammed in his face at a dozen boarding houses.
His face and the color of his skin said that he was Japanese American — Nisei — and San Francisco was notorious for its prejudice against Asians. NO JAPS ALLOWED signs were still prominent throughout the city. The war had ended but not the bitterness of the experience.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled as he boarded the streetcar; every eye was on him, and none was friendly. He felt the awful weight of prejudice as he slipped the coin into the coin box. He pulled his hat down low on his forehead and grabbed a pole for support as the tram started up. He took an empty seat in the back behind two Negroes, kept his head low to avoid making any eye contact, and stared out the rain-splotched window.
Henry had fought for his country, the United States of America, and he had earned the right to call California his home. He had been born on a small farm near Salinas. That he had served his county with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team as a combat medic made little difference. His race usurped his experience.
He had a year of pre-med at Berkeley before the war and wanted to go to Stanford under the new G.I. Bill — a huge opportunity for thousands of returning veterans. It just took a little longer for the government to get around to you if you were Nisei.
Because of his combat experience he had been able to land a job as a Grade II orderly at the Veteran’s Hospital and was assigned to the long-term care ward where most of the patients’ wounds, physical and otherwise, had been suffered in combat against the Japanese. These were the cards he had been dealt and the cards he would have to play. No one had said it would be easy.
Three days after being discharged he had gone home to the family farm near Salinas, where he found the once-thriving multicultural farms now empty of brown faces. None of the Japanese-Americans that had been shipped off to relocation camps in 1942 had returned home; at least not yet.
He remembered the postcard he had received in May, 1945. The last line, in his mother’s petite handwriting had simply said:
The camp will be closing soon and your father is looking forward to us going back to the farm. We will not be able to go home until the war is over. The farm where we will be allowed to work is somewhere in Michigan. Where, we haven’t been told.
It was the first mail he had received in three weeks and it came two days after they liberated Kaufering IV Houlach, a sub-camp of Dachau.
* * *
Henry crouched low behind the first of a long chain of wooden railway cars that led towards the large wooden gate at the front of the concentration camp. The gate was open, with more cars blocking his view into the camp. An order had been given to try not to damage the train cars; no one knew what might be in them. There were rumors: the most hopeful was that the cars were filled with Red Cross supplies of food and medicine intended for the prisoners and not yet delivered.
The sun was bright in a cloudless sky as brilliant searchlights still blazed across the gate and the glistening barbed wire. He could see armed guards with maddened guard dogs straining at their leash. The roar of tanks filled the air as the advance column approached the gates to one of the sub-camps of Dachau. He waited for the first shots and the battle for the camp to begin.
At the first sight of the American troops, the guards dropped their weapons and raised their hands. His platoon stepped out from behind the railway car and approached the camp with caution. The camp guards had thrown down their weapons but were gunned down without mercy. The dogs charged the advancing Americans only to be chewed up by machine gun bullets.
The first and the worst thing he noticed as they approached was the stench of rotting cadavers. There was a cry for a medic but the only casualties he could see so far were the Nazi guards. He rushed forward to where a soldier pointed. The door to a weathered railway car was wide open, the car filled with hundred of dead bodies the retreating S.S. garrison had simply left to rot. A medic wasn’t needed.
There were forty cars in all.
The scene near the entrance to the high barbed-wired fenced interior of the camp numbed his senses. Dante’s Inferno seemed pale compared to the real hell of what lay before him. Inside the camp there were storage rooms filled with stacks of recently gassed prisoners; men, women, and children.
A row of small cement structures near the prison entrance contained a coal-fired crematorium, a gas chamber, and rooms piled high with naked and emaciated human corpses. And piles upon piles of ashes, human ashes. He had to look away.
He looked out over the prison yard where he saw a large number of dead inmates lying where they had fallen in the last few hours or days before their liberation. Since all the bodies were in various stages of decomposition, the stench of death was overwhelming.
He knelt, puked, and cried as he had never cried before. As he did so hundreds of emaciated prisoners staggered out of their crowded barracks and soon pressed at the confining barbed wire fence. They began to shout in unison, a blur of languages, which soon became a chilling roar. Most of the adult prisoners could not have weighed more than 80 pounds. He didn’t know how some of them could still be alive.
He didn’t know it then, but that stench of death would stay with him the rest of his life.
Amongst the dead he saw a hand move. The hand, skin clinging to bone, belonged to a man who should not have been alive but somehow managed to hang on to that last grasp of life. Henry knelt next to him, took his hand, found a pulse, and began to cry.
With a frail voice the man looked up at him. His eyes taking in Henry’s face with profound curiosity. “Your eyes,” he said in English with a pronounced Italian accent, “your face... are these the eyes of an angel?”
He lay still as Henry once again struggled to find a pulse. He picked the man up, leaving some of his worn concentration camp gray-striped uniform stuck to the frozen ground. The man spoke to him in a whisper he could barely hear as he carried him towards a deserted guard’s barracks in search of a bed and some warmth.
“I don’t think that you are an angel,” he whispered. “I think you are mortal like me. I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?”
Henry slipped on the snow and fell to one knee. The frail little man looked at Henry’s face and Asian eyes. “Perhaps one day I’ll tell you about the angel’s eyes. I’m going to see them now.” That was the last man to die in Henry’s arms, but not the last of death he would see in the war.
At Dachau he could not forget that his family was still interned in a relocation camp back in the good old United States of America, land of the free. The camps were not the same, but that did not ease the pain in his heart.
* * *
A few blocks from his intended stop the street car jolted to a halt. The doors opened with a hiss as four young punks dressed in worn San Francisco Don’s varsity jackets boarded and made their way towards the back of the car.
A beefy pug slammed his fist forcefully down on the back of a seat jarring its occupant. “Look what we got here.” He leaned down and stared into the black man’s eyes looking for any sign of rebellion. The man never took his eyes off his own shoe laces. “I got no problem with niggers riding in the ass of the bus where they belong but I’ll be damned if I’ll ride in the same car with a butter-head.”
Henry looked up from beneath the brim of his hat. All eyes were on him except for the black men. The conductor jerked his thumb up pointing towards the door. The punks in their varsity jackets were not the sporting types, and they were out for blood. Henry rose and made for the door, careful not to turn his back towards them or to give them any further reason to attack. Their were low whispers through out the tram. “I didn’t know there was a Jap on board. The nerve, and our boys just barely back home — those that made it.”
The doors hissed closed behind him.
The rain had lessened but the wind still blew cold and raw. He hastened towards a side street without looking back. He did not need to, the hiss of the trolly’s door a second and third time followed by the heavy sounds of running feet on the rain drenched street, told him all he needed to know. He had been taught self-defense in the Army and had been a boxer in high school, but he wasn’t foolish enough to take these guys on. Right now, he needed to get off the street.
He ducked into the front door of a neighborhood bar: Adam’s Place. It was early, the bar empty except for the a man sweeping up peanut shells off the floor. The man was short, about Henry’s height, with a belly worthy of any barkeeper. He had a full head of cloud white hair, with spectacles perched on a blue-veined nose set against a rose-flushed face.
“Good morning,” the man said with a welcoming smile. “I’m not open for business yet, but you are welcome to some coffee on the house.” He leaned the broom up against a table and peered through his glasses at Henry.
“Thanks,” Henry said as he looked over his shoulder, then slid into a dimly lit booth in the back of the room.
The barkeeper seemed to notice Henry’s edginess as he calmly walked over to the bar and pulled what appeared to be a sign from a drawer and hung it on the back of the cash register.
Through the corner of his eye Henry saw the barkeeper pull a baseball bat from its hideaway. Things are getting dicy, he thought as he retreated to the deepest corner of the booth. He felt beneath the table to see if there was room beneath. The table wasn’t bolted down. It gave him an even chance to avoid the bat, if he could use the table as a shield. An old man with a bat he could handle, if the street thugs came in, he was toast.
He eyed the door, they were close.
The barkeeper wiped his hands on his apron. “No need to worry,” he said in a non-threatening voice. “You stay put, out of sight and out of mind. I’ve dealt with hooligans like this before.” He knew by the shouts exactly who he was about to deal with.
The beefy pug, with acne and a sweaty lock of hair drooped over one eye, burst into the bar as if he owned the place. His three pals skidded to a halt immediately behind him. They were jazzed, high on adrenaline and eager for a fight. One twirled a length of bicycle chain. The beefy pug screeched: “Hey, old man, you got a Jap in here?” Their eyes searched the bar.
“You see that?” The barkeeper brought down the bat with a resounding whack on the side of the bar, then pointed at the sign he had hung on the back of the cash register. NO JAPS ALLOWED! “I put it there December 8th, 1941. I don’t cotton much to anyone who attacks my country — nor,” he punctuated, “punks who act like storm troopers without a brain or a grain of decency. My door is open for fresh air, not to punks like you.” The bat slammed against the side of the bar. Whack! “Now get!”
The toughs saw the old man meant business. “Your day will come, old man,” the greasy pug hissed, his finger pointed menacingly. “Right now we got a Jap that needs to join his ancestors.” The bicycle chain whipped the back of a chair, stripping the paint. They left as abruptly as they had entered, their cries fading as they sought their prey elsewhere.
The barkeeper waited a moment then poured a cup of coffee. “Cream?” he asked as he turned towards where Henry sat.
Henry was lost for words, dumbstruck by this simple act of kindness.
“Cream?” The bartender asked again.
“No, sir. Cream? Ah... sure... No, black is fine.”
“Well, when you make up your mind, come on over here to the bar where there’s better light, those assholes won’t be back.”
A breeze blowing through the open door scattered peanut shells across the floor as Henry approached the bar. He stepped soft;y in a slight dance, not wanting to crush any of them; the old man was trying to sweep them up. He could not help but step on a few, and each crunch seemed as loud as an exploding artillery shell.
The barkeeper chuckled at his expense. “You working at the Vet’s Hospital?”
“Yes, sir,” Henry said. He looked at his watch. “First day. How did you know?”
“Your shoes are a dead give-away, son. You bought them at the hospital supply store?”
The man held out his hand. “Edward Gibson.” He looked Henry over. “Nisei,” he said with a little respect. “You served with the 100th?”
Henry stood straight, proud to answer: “442nd Regimental Combat Team; Medic.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Edward Gibson said as his eyes misted over. “I didn’t catch your name, son? My friends call me Gibby. I’d be proud if you would do the same.”
“Henry.” Now he felt foolish for thinking Gibby an enemy when he had picked up the baseball bat. “Henry Akita,” he finished, not afraid to use his Japanese name.
Gibby turned a light on behind the bar. “Henry, take a look over here. I think it will explain a few things.” A ‘T-Patch’ shoulder emblem from the 36th Army Infantry Division hung proudly in a glass frame. A framed picture of a young man in uniform sat on the counter immediately below.
“This belonged to my son Adam.” Gibby’s eyes glistened with the memory. “The photo was taken just before he shipped out. He served with the lost battalion. Adam’s platoon took ninety percent casualties. But of course you would know about that wouldn’t you?” Gibby held his gaze. “A Nisei medic saved his life. The day I got his letter is the same day I took this out of the window.” Gibby pulled the sign NO JAPS ALLOWED! from the back of the cash register and tore it in half. Then half again. He held out his hand. “Welcome home, son.”
Copyright © 2013 by Sherman Smith