It was the summer of 1954. David Ito was from the only Japanese family we had in our town. I was glad he was my best friend. Actually, he was my only friend. His father moved his family to our small town of Prichard, Illinois when David was only eight years old. That was three years ago.
Only two and a half months apart, I was the older one of our daring duo. I even was a couple inches taller than David was, so that settled it. In spite of being an awkward girl, our differences in age and height made me quite superior at times, although David always snickered at that notion. To me, theses differences were huge and monumental, like the distance of the sun from the moon. To David, that was typical girlish nonsense. He thought it was so like a girl, to try to outdo a boy. And he should have known. He was the only son of five children, and he was the oldest.
At first, David was not interested in being friends with a girl. But I was Josephine Dunn, Josie they called me, and I was not just any girl. Yet, like David, I did not know if I really liked him enough to be his friend. We started off with this one thing in common.
I knew he was smarter than anybody I ever knew, that is except for my father, a self-taught man. The tomboy that I was, I was not so interested in books and maps, and David was almost obsessed with them. Yet, there was a kindred spirit that ignited us to become close, something coming in between two misfits to make a good match. David was obviously so different from the rest. He came from an entirely different culture, looking so out-of-the-ordinary than the typical face of our Anglo-Saxon, Protestant community, and me, never really fitting in with any group of peers in school, I liked him.
David knew he did not fully fit in. I surely did not fit, either. My brother, Carl, made sure very early on in my life that I was to be aware of one thing. And that one thing was that I did not belong in my family, or really anywhere in life. Mostly, this was because I was not of my father’s first family, but I came after my father’s other children and was the baby, the apple of my father’s eye. But that wasn’t the real reason why Carl hated me.
During World War Two, my father enlisted in the army. He already had two small sons and a daughter to look after, and they already had suffered one major blow in their young lives. They had lost their mother to cancer. Louise Dunn was an important figure in their lives. She was well liked in town and very much missed by her family and friends.
Why their father wanted to leave his children behind, possibly fatherless, made no sense to other people. But Jim Dunn came from a proud military family and would not listen to anyone telling him not to fight but rather to stay home with his children. His father fought in the First World War, and three of his great grandfathers fought for the Union Army in the Civil War. It was not like my father to back out of a fight, not one with great principles. My father was no coward.
Not only did my father leave three small children back home, but a new, young wife. Two years before World War Two ended, he made it back home to his lovely, young wife and family. Back in France, my father was wounded in his right leg. The result of the wound caused my father to forever walk with a limp and the assistance of a cane. It was actually a blessing in disguise what would transpire. He could have easily came home in a pine box. He was thankful, though, that he came away with his life. After recovering for a few months in a French hospital, my father was eager to go home to his family. At least he was able to walk, and to walk away alive.
This lovely, young woman who was waiting for him at home was twenty-year-old Flora Laurent, now Flora Dunn, my mother, and she was eleven years younger than my father. All soldiers were certainly eager to get home to their loved ones. My father was one of thousands who was thrilled to be back on American soil, but his thrill was about to dampen. Once my father laid eyes on his wife again, there was no hiding her highly expanding belly and the overall weight gain showed in her lovely, plump face. She had no excuses for her husband, or any made-up stories to tell him, and there really nothing for her to say to explain why she was in this condition. Simply put, she was lonely.
Most men would have left such a situation, would have gone as far away from it as they possibly could have. Being too ashamed and resentful to stay, they would have washed their hands of her in a heartbeat. Having a cheating wife and an unwanted child on their hands to raise would be too much to bear. Any man, in his right mind, would say that was asking for way too much trouble. Most men would have divorced someone like my mother, kicked her out, and especially they would hate the child she would be soon be giving birth to, but not my father. He always stood against the grain.
Not only did Jim Dunn forgive his young wife, he took me under his wing like I was his very own. Once I knew he was not my true father, I could never fully fathom why he was not ready to pack me off to an orphanage or dump me off somewhere far away. Why he was so forgiving and accepting made him more than a war hero. It made him my hero. That was why I loved him so much, especially because, soon after I was born, my mother was out of our lives. Perhaps, such a young woman should not be raising three step children and a newborn baby.
My father never mentioned any of the details of my conception, but he simply did his best to love me. He was a tall, very slim and a quiet man by nature. With light brown hair, grey eyes, and a kind face, he looked every bit of the hero I saw him as. He was willing to help anyone in a pinch, and most people who knew him respected him. Nobody in town ever talked about this situation to my father. To begin with, my father was not a talker, and he probably thought if he did talk about it, the pain and shame of it would not go away.
One of my brothers, Nathan, and my sister, Ann, seemed to treat me like a regular sister. Yet, Carl, the oldest child, hated me from the start. As a girl who was six years younger, I never understood why. He was the golden boy, with keen blue eyes and golden, wavy hair, as were Nathan and Ann. I had long, dark brown hair, which I kept in two braids, with plenty of unsightly brown freckles, and very dark, brown eyes. Compared to my sister, who was five years older, I never felt like I was a great beauty.
I was pretty young when Carl blurted out to me in anger, “Your mother is a *****!” I cried a bit, wiped away the tears with my small hands and yelled back, “No, she isn’t!” Of course, I was too young to know what that word meant. When my brother followed that statement up with, “and you are a *******”, I ran straight to my father. I was almost seven years old.
My father scolded Carl pretty badly that day. Carl would not speak to me for months, and that was fine with me. That evening my father sat me upon my knee. “Daddy, what is a *****?” I asked him.
My father gently put his fingers up to my lips to shush me up. He then went into his wallet and showed me a weathered black-and-white photo he had of himself with his arms around my mother. It was in that wallet for some time, and he pulled out the wrinkled thing and placed it in front of me.
My father must have handled that picture a thousand times. Even with all the bad quality, with the wrinkles, I could see a lovely, young lady, with light eyes and dark hair, smiling as she was in the arms of her protector. My father looked proud in the photograph.
He said to me, his expression serious, “whatever Carl or anybody says about your mother, she will always be your mother and I love her for that”. I looked earnestly in his somber, grey eyes. “Why did she go away?” I asked him.
My father thought long and hard about how to answer me. He replied, “I don’t know. She was young and had more dreams in her than this town could hold for her”. He smiled awkwardly and added, “But at least she left me the best gift I could have—you.”
I would never forget the warmth I felt with my father during that conversation. Certainly, I would never forget Carl’s cruel words, or sometimes the odd glances on the faces of townswomen, like they were studying me, comparing me to how I looked next to my father, or their whispers as the whole family would be out in town for an occasion. It did not happen every day, but this would happen whenever and wherever, when a couple of busybodies would pass me and my father walking down Main Street, or when we went into the ice cream parlor, or when I went with my father to the dime store, and it always made me feel very strange and vaguely sad, like I had no real reason to be sad but was anyway.
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That summer of 1954, I was a bit older, maybe a bit wiser than when Carl first insulted my estranged mother. I was eleven years old, and David was my equal, my sidekick. Feeling less like a kid, I tried not to boss him too much, and he tried not to be too smart in front of me. I held my own, though, had my own intelligence, but my smarts were more like street smarts. After all, I had Carl to deal with.
David seemed destined for something better in life. My life seemed like it would always be the same, like my feet were planted in heavy mud. David and I would talk about the places we would loved go to, but David would mark them on a map and track them out like his plans would really come to fruition. I never liked to dream that big. Sure, I would love to go somewhere exciting, somewhere where I’d never have to see Carl again, or some of the kids at school, but I knew why I had a reason to stay. I respected my father. That is why I did not wish to leave. And David respected his father. That is why he knew he had to leave.
David Ito’s father was a tailor. David’s parents came from Japan, and they hoped for a good life in their new country. Little did they know what would be in store for them. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, their lives, with many other Japanese Americans, were soon turned upside down. David was born in an internment camp designed to isolate Japanese people from the nation once Americans declared war on Germany and their allies. David and I were both born in 1943, and since the war ended two years later, David had no memories of the internment camp experience. Even so, David was impacted by it, because the memories haunted his parents.
There was no getting around it. David and I, as different as we were, liked each other. Still, neither he nor I felt any silly kind of puppy love attraction. David had still thought of girls as mushy and silly, and that is why he liked me. I was not mushy or silly, and I could shoot a sling shot better than he did. David loved the sling shot his parents bought him for his last birthday. They allowed him to have it just as long as he never shot it at anyone.
David Ito, being the oldest child in his family, and the only son, allowed him to feel quite special, a very prized boy for just that reason. Mr. Ito worked two jobs to support his family, and Mrs. Ito took in laundry and cooked for the locals who could not cook their own meals. Mrs. Ito was an excellent cook. Whatever they had to give their children, David was first in line to receive it.
The majority of those in my town of Prichard respected Mr. Ito, at least those who did business with him. He was not only able to get good tailoring business in town, but some of the neighboring towns gave him a bit of work, too. When he was not working in the textile factory, Mr. Ito was busy with his measuring tape and sewing machine.
Even though Mr. Ito gained the respect of the townspeople, he still was not one of us. I am sure he knew it, too. Yet Mr. Ito lived in America most of his life. He was only nine-years-old when his parents came here with their children. Like David, Mr. Ito certainly knew he was Japanese. The mirror told him that every day. But he also knew felt an internal tug-of war that America was his country more than Japan was, even when he was proud of his roots, even though he was once locked up in that camp, and even when some people felt that he did not belong here.
If David was called an unkind name, I felt it insulted, too, for our friendship meant that much to me. How many times I got in trouble for fighting at school! My father would be called into the principal’s office, and I was asked by Mr. Murray to explain why I would act in such an undignified way. “They called David a ***** ***”, I exclaimed. “David is my friend!”
Because David and I were best buddies, we heard lots of jeering remarks. “Josie loves a ***! Josie loves a ***!” some of the children taunted. And Carl, with his meanness, loved to be head of the line to pick on us. He once said to me, “It figures that the only friend you can get is a scrawny ***!”
In spite of my troubles at school, Father greatly admired David and his father, and he thought that David and I were good for each other’s company. Mr. Ito greatly respected my father, in return, not only for his business but because my dad could fix any car with just about any problem. Jim Dunn was not only a brilliant man, in my eyes, but the best mechanic in town. When Mr. Ito needed work done on his car, my father was right there for him. It was an even exchange of paid work and admiration.
Both my father and David’s father felt our relationship was harmless. After all, everyone in David’s family knew and expected that he would marry a nice Japanese girl. There was no question about it. Where he would find one was not too important for a boy of his age. Neither of us experienced puberty yet and, under the watchful eye of my father, we would just be the best of buddies.
David pretended like the remarks said about him never bothered him, but I knew differently. I knew he hated Carl, and we avoided him as much as possible. David was nothing like me in this respect—he was not a fighter. Truly, he did not have a fighting bone in his body, not one that picked up a sword to stab it in the heart of someone else. It was not that David was not brave, for he was, but he knew the ugliness of war without ever even having to go to battle. Nevertheless, he used his intellect to fight off any of the racist remarks made about him or his family. He had to face it—the war had only ended nine years prior and a few of the war veterans in town fought in the Pacific.
Because of the taunts David had experienced in school, I was not surprised what David’s father had in store for his beloved son. Mr. Ito could barely afford to send one child to private school, but he was about to send one. David was about to be that child. When David told me that when school resumed he would be going to a boy’s school in Chicago, my heart sank. Why? Why did he have to go? I would never see him again!
“You will see me in the summer”, he reassured me. He looked at me as I tried to appear brave. I sat cross-legged on the grass and stared straight ahead like I never even heard him. I had a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit, and my lips felt like they were quivering.
We were both using old pop bottles for target practice. They sat in a row on an old tree stump shining in the evening sun. David was shooting at them with his prized slingshot. I had a makeshift one that I created out of a tree branch and a rubber band.
“You won’t even remember me”, I complained.
“I will to”, he insisted. “I remember everything.”
“Oh, sure you will”, I said sarcastically. “You’ll be super duper smart and I will just be a dummy”. In anger, I rose up my slingshot, and I hit all three bottles, one by one, then I threw the slingshot to the ground. David missed all the shots he took earlier.
David threw his slingshot down, too. “For being a girl, you are pretty smart!” he shouted. “You are too smart for your own good! The reason I like you is because you are better than anyone I ever met in my entire life. Well…not better than my parents, but you are the neatest girl I ever knew in my life!”
For a while, we didn’t talk. We just sat there and let the warm, summer breeze do our talking for us. I pulle