I woke on the morning of July 4th, 2010 to the hum of the air conditioner in the dorm room. (If you’re doing math, that means that I’m nearly 27 and married. And sleeping in a dorm-sized bed. Again.) I looked out across the hills, and smiled at the sunshine.
Another perfect 84 degree day in paradise.
I was lucky enough to spend eight weeks in Hawaii during the summer of 2010 studying World War II in the Pacific. On the 4th of July, we abandoned the classroom and visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial and met with some of the survivors.
As we approached Pearl Harbor, the vivid, striking blue of the ocean made the stark white of the floating memorial seem out of place.
The sweet, dusky smell of beach flowers mixed with the diesel from the boat and bus engines, twining with the salt of the ocean air. My heart thumped. I couldn’t help but imagine the perfect day interrupted on December 7th so many years ago, as we pulled into the immaculately landscaped parking lot.
Visiting the memorial with Veterans who survived the attack was life changing. Watching the trail of oil trickle darkly through the harbor towards the horizon, I wept for all of the men who paid the ultimate price for our country’s freedom. Being able to visit this memorial, on Independence Day, changed me.
While the morning was a memorable, sacred experience, the most moving part of my day happened during lunch.
That’s when I met Ed.
He grew up in California in the 1930’s; his parents moved from Japan to The States because of the unique opportunities American education provides. After December 7th, Ed was faced with a choice; enlist or move to an internment camp.
He said the choice was easy.
He worked in communications, and felt great pride in his service time. As our conversation progressed, I was struck by how humble he was, and I couldn’t help but think of the hours I had spent discussing situations like his with my grandfather.
Ed wasn’t angry that Japanese Americans were moved to internment camps. He wasn’t angry that the 442nd, the Japanese American Infantry Unit, the highest decorated in American History, were put in the most dangerous battle situations, again and again. All that Ed felt was pride to call a place like America his home.
“America’s education system is unique. It provides opportunities for anyone to reach for their dreams,” he said.
As an educator fighting in the trenches, I was struck by his faith in our system and pride in a country that I felt failed him. That was when I realized that I owed my grandfather an apology. For years, I had presumed to understand how an entire group of people had felt, without having met and discussed the topic with a single one of them.
Throughout the afternoon, I talked to a number of Japanese American men who had enlisted instead of moving to internment camps, and all of them were proud of their service and their country.
The next afternoon, I called my grandfather.
“I can’t believe that you’re calling me from Hawaii! This must be costing you a fortune! I won’t keep you long!” He exclaimed.
“Cell phone calls don’t work like that Papa, don’t worry about it,” I laughed. “I’m calling to tell you about my visit to Pearl Harbor yesterday. I thought of you the whole day…”
… still thinking of you, Papa, wishing a Happy Fourth of July to all Americans.