As we reached the fifth hour of our drive to Grandpa’s house, I could smell the ocean air and feel the breeze from Mom’s car window. I looked to my right to see the Pacific Ocean that seemed to stretch for miles and miles. To my left, my 7-year old brother, Max, sat with his eyes glued to a comic book, which he only paused reading to ask my parents, “Are we there yet?”
Their response each time was, “Not yet, Max.” This time they added with a little more excitement, “Only one more hour to go!” I could tell that Mom and Dad were trying to look happy for Max and me. Even though their voices sounded happy, their faces looked sad every time they thought Max and I weren’t looking. Especially my mom’s. I’m in 5th grade now – Mom and Dad should know that they can’t fool me like they used to when I was younger. Normally, I just give my mom a big hug when she looks extra sad. That makes her smile every time. She places a soft kiss on my forehead, hugs me tightly, and says, “I love you so much, Mary.”
As we drive closer and closer toward Grandma and Grandpa’s house, I take my eyes off all the pretty houses to my right, and look to the front seat where my mom is sitting. People say I look just like her. We have the same dark brown hair, the same almond-shaped eyes – that’s what Mom calls them – and the same smile. Well, at least that’s what people tell me. My mom and I like to cook together, play board games together, and we each take turns braiding each other’s hair.
My mom and my grandpa were close when she was a child too. Mom was an only child, so Grandpa would spend as much time as he could, taking her to baseball games as a little girl and letting her help with his garden in the backyard. For me, I never really knew Grandpa Kenji. Most years, we only got to see each other on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and one time every summer for family vacation. Grandpa had always been very quiet. He liked to garden and sit on the front porch, and he loved my Grandma May more than anything in the world. Before Grandma passed away a year ago, Grandpa would sing and hum around the house, especially when Mom played the old piano in their living room. He would go on walks with Grandma every morning. And he would smile. My favorite part about Grandpa was his smile.
After Grandma May passed away, though, his smile faded, his garden began to grow more weeds than vegetables, and he became very sick. I remember seeing my Mom crying and hugging Dad when I had gotten up to go to the bathroom late one night. My mom’s shoulders were shaking, and I could see that even Dad’s eyes looked shiny with tears. The next morning, Mom brought Max and me into the living room and told us that Grandpa Ken missed Grandma May so much that he just couldn’t bear to live without her. Mom and Dad say that when you die, you go to Heaven, and that that is where Grandma and Grandpa are now.
So here we are, making the drive from Jacksonville, Oregon to Pacifica, California once again. My dad got a job in Oregon when I was five years old, and even though Mom asked Grandma and Grandpa to move to Oregon with our family, my mom says that Grandpa Ken did not want to sell their small, cozy house in Pacifica. Pacifica is a city right outside of San Francisco, according to the map of America that’s hung on my teacher’s classroom wall. It was the house that Mom grew up in with her parents, and the first house that Grandpa Ken bought when he became an adult. I remember she would joke with Grandpa, “Dad, you are going to live here in Pacifica until your last breath!” At least, it had only supposed to be a joke.
At last, we rolled into the gravel driveway. The only noise that buffered the eerie silence our family had as we unpacked the car was the constant sound of waves crashing on the beach only three blocks away. We grabbed our overnight bags, unlocked the front door, and walked into the empty house. Behind me, I heard my mom take a deep breath, and then let it out slowly.
Max and I set our bags in the guest room we always stayed in when visiting Grandma and Grandpa. It has two twin beds – one with pink sheets and one with blue – that Grandma would always make and fold perfectly for us. The beds were still made neatly, but for some reason the room just felt cold, and the bedsheets less homey.
There wasn’t much time for play, or even for rest, once we arrived. As I was grabbing some fruit snacks from our snack bag, I saw Mom had already sat herself down at the kitchen table and was creating a list of everything that needed to be done to clean out the house in a weekend. The house was not very large – Grandma and Grandpa did not have that much money, which I found out while eaves dropping on my parents one night. But even with a small house, there was still a lot of furniture, objects, and cardboard boxes for the four of us to go through.
I hadn’t even gotten the second fruit snack into my mouth when my mom called me over. “Mary, finish your snack, and then we’re going to get to work. Do you know where Dad and Max are?”
“No… MAX!!! DA-!!!”
“Mary, what have I said about screaming? Why don’t you go find them first, and tell them that I need everyone in the kitchen to divide rooms and tasks for the house.” Mom raised her eyebrow and smirked at me, the way she does when she’s really not mad at all, but still wants something to get done “or else.”
Once all four of us arrived in the kitchen, Mom gave each family member a room to work on and declutter. Dad was given the garage, Max was given the guest room, and… I was given the storage room. Great. I have only been in the storage room a handful of times, and only to help Grandma get the nice glasses and plates out for Christmas dinner. The storage room probably has the most boxes and junk that no one has touched for years. I grab another bag of fruit snacks as I scowl at the ground and head towards the storage room.
As I open the storage room door and turn on the light, I immediately notice all of the dust particles floating in the air around me. I brace myself for the work ahead, and grab the first box I see. Taking a seat on the wooden floor, I tear off the packing tape that is keeping the box together, open it up, and peer inside, wondering what mystery could be inside this cardboard box… and… encyclopedia books?! Really?! “Well, that was thrilling,” I mumble to myself. I push the opened box towards the door, and look around for which box to open next.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see a shoe box tucked in the corner of the room, with some big black letters written across it. None of the other boxes had any letters on them. I have to push some bigger boxes to the side to get there, but once I reach the shoe box, I place it in my lap, brush off the layer of dust covering the box, and read the big, black, bold letters on the top: “CAMP.”
My mind immediately thinks back to Camp Greenway. Camp Greenway, a place that I can still picture clearly with the log cabins, carpet ball, the lunch bell, and Lake Greenway. I had just gotten back from Camp Greenway a few weeks ago, and it was a blast. At first, I was nervous to go because I didn’t know anyone, but Mom still made me go, and I made two great friends by the first night! We decided to set up our bunks right next to each other, and even carved our names in the wood of one of them when the counselor wasn’t looking. I wonder if Grandpa Ken went to a camp like Camp Greenway when he was younger too…
I open the box, and peer into the old shoe box to discover its contents. I see lots of odds and ends objects… an old, beaten-up ping pong ball, a full deck of the 1941 New York Giants baseball cards, some tomato and cucumber seed packets for a garden… Man, camp is way different now! I thought to myself, as I kept looking through the box. Since we’ve been practicing math so much in class, I quickly took the current year of 2016, minus the year on the baseball cards, 1941. 75 years. Last July, I remember we celebrated Grandpa’s 85th birthday party – his last one. So that meant that Grandpa was 10 years old when he went to camp. That’s how old I am! Maybe Grandpa went to a boy scout camp like Max goes to every spring – he must’ve gotten these garden seeds there.
I continued to look through the box, and found that along with these objects that Grandpa Ken must have gotten from Boy Scout camp, there were also many pieces of paper that were old and wrinkled. I set all of those aside for now in order to see what was underneath them. Under the deck of cards, I felt something that was kind of cold, and thin, and… OW!
I quickly pulled my hand away from the Camp box, and looked down at my finger. There was a tiny prick that started to form a bubble of blood on top of my skin. I leaned in closer to the box to see what in the world would have pricked my finger so easily. Woahhh, I thought, as I picked up a dark gray piece of barbed wire. There were lots of sharp pieces that stuck out of the wire. I must’ve poked my finger on one of those. Curious as to why Grandpa had barbed wire at his camp, I dug deeper into the box; this time a little more carefully so I wouldn’t hurt myself again.
The two objects I pulled out of the camp box next were a picture and a tag with a string tied to it. In the picture, there were three boys smiling at the camera. One was holding a baseball bat, another a beaten-up baseball, and the boy in the middle had his arms around the other two with a big smile on his face. They looked like they were my age. I tried looking closer to see if I could figure out which boy was Grandpa, and… then I noticed that this picture did not look like it was taken at camp. The place my Grandpa and his two friends were in this picture looked nothing like Camp Greenway. The ground was all gravel and the cabins behind them looked very old and dirty. And behind the three boys, I even saw a man dressed in a uniform – he looked like a guard! – and barbed wire. I looked over to the barbed wire I had just taken out of the box, and then to my finger, which had stopped bleeding by now. What kind of camp was this? I ask myself yet again.
Next, I look at the tag that reminds me of the ones Mom and Dad have on their suitcases when we go on vacation, only this one is much older. The tag read “Name: Kenji Sasaki; Family Number: #115734; You are instructed to report ready to travel on: May 10th, 1942; Tule Lake, CA.”
Now my mind was running a mile a minute. This didn’t look like a normal camp. Why was Grandpa Ken given a family number? Does everyone have a family number? And why was Grandpa’s camp surrounded by barbed wire? Were they in prison? What would Grandpa have done to be in prison at 10 years old?
All of these thoughts raced through my brain as I continued to empty the box of its contents. What remained was only a few more pieces of paper that were tucked in the corner. One was drawn and colored like the comic books that I see Max reading all the time. But this comic was very scary. It only scared me more of what kind of “camp” Grandpa went to. Next was a letter with lots of words on it. On the top, it read “Instructions to All Persons of Japanese Ancestry.”
I picked up the last, final object of Grandpa Ken’s camp box. It was an envelope. I opened the envelope, which had already been opened, and peered inside. Two more pieces of paper. The first, I unfold, and see a seal on the top of the paper… From the White House?! Did Grandpa know the president? It was even signed by him at the bottom, and dated October 1990. Wow, I thought, we just learned about the presidents in history class. Either Grandpa did something really bad or really good to get a letter from President George Bush. I hoped the second option would be true. And then I look at all the other objects from the box, and frowned. It just doesn’t make sense, what did Grandpa Ken do that was so bad? He was always so loving to Max and me – I don’t think I’ve ever seen him mad or mean in my life.
I took the second piece of paper out of the envelope, and saw that it was a check for Kenji Sasaki – Grandpa… For $20,000 dollars?! Why did Grandpa put $20,000 in his camp box hidden in the storage room?! I thought Mom said they didn’t have much money. This is much more than the twenty-six dollars and fifty cents I have in my piggy bank!
While I was holding the check, still shocked by how much money I had discovered, I looked back down at the envelope it came from. I leaned closer so that I could read the small, scratchy handwriting in the top left corner: Kelly. Kelly is Mom’s name!
I had to find Mom. Or Dad. I had to tell them what I found in Grandpa’s camp box. Did Mom know that Grandpa might have gone to prison when he was my age? And why is Mom’s name on the envelope that had $20,000 in it?
Just as I thought this, my mom popped her head in the door. She gasped, “Mary, you’ve been in here for two hours and you’ve only gone through two boxes?”
I stand up with the box and its contents, and in a rush say, “But Mom, look! I think Grandpa Ken must have done something really bad when he was my age. It looks like he went to prison. And he hid a $20,000 check in this box! The envelope has your name on it. Also, the box says ‘Camp,’ but this camp looks nothing like Camp Greenway.”
My mom looks very confused for a couple of seconds. Then she looks down at the box. Then at me. Then back at the box. Something seems to click in her mind, and she quietly says “Oh…” to herself. She adds, “I can’t believe you found this box, Mary. Grandpa must’ve had it hidden in here collecting dust for years and years. Why don’t we sit down, and I’ll explain the camp Grandpa Kenji went to.”
We sit back down on the wooden floor. My mom quietly looks through all of the objects, with a similar sad face that she tried to hide from Max and I earlier in the car. Eventually, she says, “Grandpa never liked talking about camp. The camp he went to was very different than the summer camps you and Max go to. Mary, have you learned about World War II in history class?”
I smile, and say proudly, “Yes, we have! It began in 1939… Oh, and Franklin Roosevelt was president!” I add, remembering our last history unit on the presidents.
“That’s right,” Mom says. “During World War II, there was an attack made by the Japanese nation on Pearl Harbor, which is in Hawaii. After that attack, many Americans were scared of anyone that had Japanese heritage, even if they had been American citizens their whole lives. Because of this fear, President Roosevelt decided that it would be best for all people who were Japanese to be kept in places called ‘internment camps.’
“These camps were meant to keep the Japanese-American citizens safe from any prejudice or violence, but in reality, these citizens were forced to leave their homes and be confined inside these camps with small houses and minimal food.”
“Is that why there’s barbed wire and a guard in this picture?” I ask, becoming more and more curious. “Because they had to stay in the intrament camp? And Grandpa didn’t actually do anything bad to make him live there?”
My mom smiled softly. “No, Grandpa did not do anything bad that made him live in the internment camp. He and his family had to leave his home, and they each could only bring one bag with them – this is the luggage tag he had on his bag,” Mom said, pointing to the tag with the family number. “And,” she added, “when they got out of the camp, they had to start their life over. Their last house was ruined by other selfish people. That is why Grandpa did not want to move out of this house when we moved to Oregon. It was the first house he bought once he got out of the camp, and since then, has never wanted to leave it again.
Then my mom looks puzzled. “I knew and heard all about the apology that President George Bush sent out to those that lived in the internment camps,” she says. “But, I had no idea that Grandpa Ken had kept all of the money in this box the whole time.” She looks at the check again in disbelief.
“And look at the envelope! It has your name on it. Is all this money for you? Why do you think he did that? Wouldn’t he want to spend it?” I ask.
Mom thought for a moment, still looking at the check, and then said, “I think the money only reminded Grandpa of the years he spent there, trapped behind barbed wire. He probably wanted nothing to do with anything that caused him to remember those years.”
“He didn’t even want to think about his time at camp, so he hid the money,” I say, starting to understand. Then I ask Mom, “Well, what are you going to do with it?”
My mom paused. As she was staring at the check, she said, “I’m not sure yet. I want to do something with this money that would make your grandpa proud. When he was your age, his whole life was put on pause. It was like starting over when he was able to get out of the camp. What do you think we should do with it?” she asks me.
Wow, I thought to myself, this is a big decision. How have I not heard about any of this until now? Grandpa stayed silent about it for all these years because it hurt him too much to think back on it. I can’t believe I was considering that Grandpa might have been a criminal. I now see him as a stronger and bigger hero than I ever did before.
I looked up at my mom. “Mom, can we use the money to keep Grandma and Grandpa’s house and to take more vacations to come visit? I don’t think Grandpa would want us to clean out everything, and then sell it.”
A big, big smile spread across my mom’s face. “Yes, that is a wonderful idea, Mary.”
I smiled just as big. Then I said, “Mom, can we also tell Dad and Max about Grandpa’s camp box? I want them to know Grandpa Kenji’s real story.”
“That sounds great, Mary,” my mom says beaming.
“And what about my classmates and friends? Can we tell them too?”
My mom grabs my hand and pulls me up off the wooden floor. “Of course we can. I’m so proud of you. Let’s start with Max and Dad, and then we can tell your classmates about Grandpa when we get home. Deal?” I smile and nod. We reassemble Grandpa’s camp box and head out of the storage room together, hand in hand.