In the small West Coast town where I grew up, as in many communities, there was a layer of gossip so thick that it formed actual legends around some of the inhabitants, past and present. One that seized my imagination was the story of the Bs, who lived in a creaky, haunted-looking house on a hill in the countryside. There were all kinds of crazy rumors about that house and its inhabitants. A purported mafia association was one of the kinder ones. Now I didn't fall for every story I heard, but when I met Mrs. B. I began to credit my busmates who talked about how "creepy" the Bs were when the bus rolled past their home.
Mrs. B., apparently, had made a sizeable donation to my junior high school band, I don't remember what for, but I think we got some uncomfortable uniforms shortly thereafter. Because of this she addressed the lot of us, the gist of which as far as I could tell was how lucky we were that she was there in front of us. She was actually bragging that she was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, that she could trace her ancestry back to someone who had fought on the Right Side of that conflict. Being able to trace ancestry back that far was interesting, if bizarre, in my mind; flaunting it seemed simply rude.
"I am a descendent of one of America's first families," she said starchily. The saxophonist behind me made a fabulous musical joke: the first four notes of the Addams Family theme, which if you knew what the Bs' house looked like was a perfect pun, Addams Family, Adams Family... hee. I stifled my laugh.
I didn't think too much about the Bs until a few years later, when a high school teacher whom I respected shared a good deal of her own considerable store of local lore with me. "The Bs," she said, "Those people." She tsked. "Completely insane --- did you know Mrs B STILL writes letters to the paper supporting Nixon?" This was years after Nixon's resignation. "You know, they stole their land from the Japanese, the Nisei, during the War. Of course, a lot of people around here did..."
At that point, Mrs B and her husband passed, in my mind, from being comic buffoons to being first class villains. The hills were, literally, alive with the presence of the Nisei, the orchards around us had been planted and tended by them, but the Nisei themselves had been driven out, despoiled, by none other than those creeptastic denizens of the Haunted House on the Hill. I mourned the vanished Japanese American community, therefore I hated the Bs.
The Nisei were a major part of the store of local oral legend. When I was younger, I was playing War on Mr M's flatbed trailer with a bunch of kids from my neighborhood. We were pretending we were reenacting Iwo Jima or something, running up and down and shouting and making moderate mayhem, when Mr M came out and yelled at us to get off his land. He stopped me before I left with the rest and said tearily, "You're playing war, huh? War is a terrible thing." He put his hand on my shoulder and sobbed. "World War II, everyone thinks it's so great now... but that's when I lost Yoshi," he complained. "Yoshi... let me show you." Mr M took me on a tour of his orchard, where there were fabulous grafts that Mr M attributed to Yoshi. One tree had seven kinds of cherries on a single trunk, there were a few grafts that I have since read horticultural texts declare impossible, plum and peach and cherry all together, and some lattice arborsculpture in apple trees that served no purpose other than to declare Yoshi's artistic vision. It was hard not to feel the presence of Mr M's departed gardener/factotum.
"Nothing," said Mr M tearily, "has been right for me since That Man Roosevelt took Yoshi away from me, all because of that damned war." I restrained myself from asking how Yoshi felt about this, and whether things had ever been right for Yoshi. This frankly seemed a secondary consideration to Mr. M, who mourned his own loss of Yoshi's skill at orchard and business management more than he mourned Yoshi himself.
There were so many stories that I lost count, that seemed like the story I had heard of the Bs, of landowners who had acquired large acreages from the Japanese for pennies on the dollar.
There was another story, about a defunct schoolhouse down the road... "Almost half the kids in this school were Japanese, one day that half wasn't there, the grown ups told us the Japanese kids' parents had guns and were doing bad things and had to be sent away," a woman reported. She was about my parents' age. In my own generation I knew of only one Japanese American kid in my school. Clearly most Japanese had not come back after their expulsion.
I heard other stories like that all over. I don't know if older people singled me out to tell me stories, or if I was unusual in actually listening to stories they told all the kids, but I did hear, and remember, a lot. And I read what I could find, to fill in the gaps. I knew that the American Legion, a group closely allied with Mrs B's beloved DAR, had pushed for the expulsion of the "Japs" even before any executive orders were signed.
After my teacher's revelation about the Bs, and how they had acquired their land, I wanted to find out, exactly, what villainy the Bs had perpetrated, how, against whom. These people were so monstrous I had to get the story of their crime, statute of limitations be damned.
As it happened it wasn't too much longer before I had an opportunity to get some real intelligence on the Bs. An older acquaintance (who moved in slightly tonier circles than I) mentioned he had gone to the Bs recently for a dinner party.
"So are the stories I have been hearing about them true?" I asked.
Well, my friend told me, there were no small animals being tortured there, like you hear. The house was smaller than it looks but about as creaky. However, the woman was a bit of a "macher" in the Republican Party. And not the moderate wing of the Republican Party. She had a large picture of herself with the man she still referred to, in 1979, as "President Nixon", posted prominently in the dining room.
EEww, I said.
"Is it true," I pressed my friend, "about them getting their land from the Japanese when they were interned?"
"Well, yes," my friend agreed.
"Ah ha," I said. My suspicions were confirmed. Evil Nixonite so and sos.
My friend put out a cautionary finger, to stop me from going farther. "I know they did, because the Japanese couple they got their land from, the Ks, were at the dinner. Apparently, they come to ALL the Bs' dinners. They're great friends, actually."
He told me the story the Japanese couple had told him: Japanese Americans had only a few weeks to dispose of their real estate or surrender it to government control. Most lost everything, sold it to neighbors for a song or less, and of course many didn't even have land to dispose of. But the Bs, remember they were young kids then, somehow scraped together something close to a fair price for the couple's land. It was probably not what the land was worth, but the country was coming out of a depression and NOBODY had what the land was worth, coming up with something like seventy percent of the value, which the Bs did, was unheard of. Yet the Bs managed it, despite asset freezing they managed to pay the Ks. They kept up a correspondence through the war. Because of the Bs' financial decency the Ks were able to live through their exile in relative comfort and land on their feet after the war. And because of the emotional support the Ks, unlike many Nisei, moved back to the general area that had expelled them. The area that had signs like this.
Of course the Bs had profitted somewhat from the situation, and they did not deny that; but my friend said the Ks were adamant that it was a mutually beneficial arrangement, the best that they could have gotten in the circumstances, and that the Bs did the absolute best they could to be decent in the situation they had. (This, I reflected, was certainly more than the lachrymose pacifist Mr M had done for Yoshi. And more than I had heard of anyone else doing.)
What is more the couples retained an easy, pleasant friendship decades later, seemingly unmarred by resentment or guilt on either side.
I took a big step back from the account I had mentally written. My "narrative", of how the Bs personally cast out and despoiled the Ks, was simply wrong. I had judged unfairly.
Mrs B had warped values, she was stuck on her ancestry, she was crazy for Nixon. But the decency the Bs showed their neighbors the Ks was so uncommon at the time that it rated some kind of merit badge in my book. The willingness to be decent when public opinion and personal advantage are aligned on the side of the indecent is far too rare, perhaps even a tad heroic.
From actually hearing the presumed victims' own account, from reading Below The Fold in this story, I had learned a valuable lesson. Casting anyone as a villain in a drama because I don't like them or because they don't share my politics or any other reason besides the pertinent facts is prejudice, plain and simple. For good or ill, everyone has a human story, even Daughters of the American Revolution. And I should wait to hear that story before I cast judgment, even in my own mind.
Perhaps Mrs B was still a comic buffoon. But she, and her husband, were no villains.