A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

                                         (Above: Eliza and me, circa 1995)

How do I sum up 30 years in 550 words? I can't, of course. But 30 years ago today I wrote my first column, and they've been the happiest years of my life.
In 1985 I was hired by the Oakland Tribune to be its gossip columnist. Only one problem: I hate gossip. So I decided to write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, instead.
My editors weren't happy, but the readers seemed to like it, so what could they do? It was the smartest move I ever made.
I've spent the last three decades years hanging out with some of the nicest people in the world, like Joseph Charles, the Berkeley Waving Man, who got up every morning, donned his trademark yellow construction worker's gloves, and waved to the cars passing by his home on the corner of Oregon and Martin Luther King, calling, "Keep smiling!" and "Have a GOOD day!"
And Marion Martin, who celebrated her 100th birthday by writing, illustrating and publishing her first book, a collection of stories she told her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. (She published her second book a year later.) They all adored her, and one of them confided her secret to me: "She'd pull each one of us aside and say, 'You're my favorite; don't tell the others.'"
I had the privilege of being present when Melvin Ayers of Albany was reunited after 40 years with a little French girl named Francoise - whom he and his twin brother, Alvin, had befriended during World War II when their Army unit liberated her town of Somme Py - and introduced her to all his buddies at All Star Donuts at El Cerrito Plaza, where he had coffee every morning.
I interviewed Buffalo Bob and his sidekick, Howdy Doody. And Morris the Cat. And Miss Manners. And Molly Ivins. And MacNeil and Lehrer.
I wrote about magical places like Children's Fairyland, an oasis of calm in the middle of downtown Oakland. And the Center for Early Intervention on Deafness, which helps hard-of-hearing toddlers lead normal lives. And Senior Center Without Walls, which, with a simple phone call, breaks down the isolation that many homebound old people find themselves trapped in. And, of course, Island Cat Resources and Adoption, a selfless group of volunteers who have rescued hundreds of homeless cats and kittens, including my two girls, Pepe and Sally.
I've had the pleasure of working with wonderful colleagues, whom E.B. White must have been thinking of when he wrote in Charlotte's Web, "It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer."
So what was my favorite story? Easy: the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Japanese-American World War II regiment that fought so bravely, it was awarded more medals, man-for-man, than any other military unit in American history – all this while many of their families were imprisoned behind barbed wire in American concentration camps.
And my favorite quote? Josie Little, the grandmother of Jill Pervere, winner of the 2001 Piedmont High School Bird Calling Contest. "It was a perfect call, and she's a perfect child," said Little. "But what else would you expect a grandmother to say?"
Don't get me wrong: This is no farewell. They'll have to carry me out first.
Thanks, everyone. It's been a blast.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Going For Broke

(Above: Harry Madokoro's grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles)

On July 25, 1944, Private First Class Harry Madokoro wrote this letter to his mother from the battlefield near Luciana, Italy:
"Not knowing how to pray, I have to depend on the family to do a lot of praying that all this strife ends soon so we may all go home and enjoy the simple things of life. Believe me, war is hell! It's not a pretty picture to see young kids who have not seen or begun to live life, all shot up or torn up by shrapnel, laying there, never to speak or laugh again.
"I only wish I could get those bigots, those hate mongers, those super-patriots, here to see them. Here at the front we're respected as fellow Americans fighting for the same cause. We're proud as hell to be in there pitching, doing our share of the work."
Those are the last words he ever wrote. A month later she received a telegram informing her that he had been killed in action. He was her only child.
Harry was killed when he volunteered for an unusually dangerous night patrol. He volunteered because many in his squad were young, inexperienced replacements.
When she got that telegram, Harry's mother was living behind barbed wire at the Poston Detention Camp II, Block 213-13-G, where she and Harry had been imprisoned ever since they had been rounded up, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, after Pearl Harbor.
Despite this outrageous treatment, Harry – and a lot of other boys – volunteered to fight for the country that had done this to them.
They joined the all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team; and they fought so well, they were awarded more medals, man for man, than any other military unit in American history.
They were given the most dangerous jobs, including rescuing the Lost Batallion, 211 Texas National Guardsmen who were trapped behind German lines - which they did, but at the cost of more than 800 casualties.
They were fighting two wars: one against Nazi racism in Europe and another against American racism at home.
Every year on the third Saturday in May – Armed Forces Day - veterans of E Company, Second Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team gather in Oakland's Roberts Park for a brief but moving memorial service to honor their friends who, like Harry, made the ultimate sacrifice.
Over the years the ceremony has expanded to embrace the entire 442nd RCT, then all who died in World War II, and finally all casualties of all wars. This year's ceremony will take place on May 16 at noon, and the men of Easy Company invite you to join them.
Roberts Park is at 10579 Skyline Blvd., about a mile from the Joaquin Miller Road/Lincoln Avenue exit off Highway 13. Follow the signs for the Chabot Space & Science Center and take the first turnoff on the right to Roberts Park.
Tell the guard at the gate that you're there for the ceremony, and you'll be directed to the far parking lot. Then follow the sounds of patriotic music about 100 yards into the park to the site of the 442nd RCT Memorial Redwood Tree.
In today's era, when rock guitarists are called heroes and football players are called warriors, here's your chance to meet the real thing.