Hiroshi Kono is eight years old and only just beginning to question the racial and economic inequities he sees around him, when he and his family — along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans — are packed off to a concentration camp run by the US government. The harsh and barren world of the Arizona desert where Hiroshi and his family find themselves sets sibling against sibling, parent against child and neighbor against neighbor in a complex grappling with duty and disappointment that will reverberate through the ensuing decades. The Los Angeles Post-Examiner is pleased to present an except from Fox Drum Bebop by Gene Oishi. Fox Drum Bebop is available from Kaya Press, at your nearest bookshop or online at Amazon.
When Hiroshi got out of his car behind Baltimore’s Eastern District Police Station he saw a pitiful looking dog chained to a dumpster with two handcuffs wound around its neck. He couldn’t be sure if it was the vodkas he’d had over lunch, or the doleful look the wretched creature gave him, but Hiroshi couldn’t let it go … Against his better judgment, he decided to rescue it. The mutt, he discovered, was a bitch. On his way to the vet, as his car filled with the moldy burlap stench of an unwashed dog, he decided to name her Vodka.
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Heavy drinking was part of the newspaper culture at the time, and the Herald was no exception. In this regard, Hiroshi had no problem fitting in. Drinking came naturally to him; he’d started when he was a teenager and had kept it up in the Army, at Berkeley, and in France. He never let it affect his work, however. Within a year, he was taken out of the districts — a quick promotion. After another year as a general assignment reporter, he was put on the desk as a rewrite man.
Hiroshi’s nightly routine soon involved going to Bellini’s for “lunch” after the early edition had been put to bed. One night, over wine and pizza with two of his colleagues, the conversation turned to Vietnam.
“I have a way,” Hiroshi said. “We have to admit we’re never going to win this war. If we do that, we’ll find a way out.”
“Kono,” Caulfield said, “we can’t lose. We’d lose face. You of all people should understand that.”
Caulfield covered City Hall, one of the prime beats on the paper, and he was in line for a position at the London bureau. But for all of that, he came across like a prep school twit.
“Here’s something else I understand,” Hiroshi continued, undeterred. “Blacks are rioting all over the place — in Rochester, Philadelphia, Watts, San Francisco, Cleveland. Yet we’ve got a half-million troops in a piddling little country in Southeast Asia trying to beat back a revolution we should be supporting. Johnson’s got his head up his ass. He can’t see another revolution that’s coming right under his nose, right here in the US of A. Which side are we going to be on when that happens? Which side are you going to be on?”
His colleagues, taken aback, remained silent. Hiroshi said no more. He drained his tumbler of wine, which was how they served it at Bellini’s, and ordered another.
Hiroshi smoked Gauloises, a nonfiltered, noxiously potent French import that blended dark Turkish and Syrian tobaccos. As bad as they smelled and tasted, it was unthinkable to be seen smoking anything else while sipping coffee at a Left Bank café. Gauloises were what intellectuals — writers and artists — smoked. While in Paris, Simone had smoked them too, but she had long since given up the habit. Meanwhile, Hiroshi had worked his way up to nearly two packs a day. His bronchitis was getting so bad he feared he was getting emphysema, lung cancer, or both. When he finally went to a pulmonologist to get checked out, he was prescribed daily doses of theophylline, a bronchodilator. The doctor put enough of a scare into him that he quit smoking cold turkey.
But the cure had a bad side effect. The sudden cutoff of nicotine to his system put Hiroshi in such a deep funk that Simone said he was becoming impossible to live with. He was restless, irritable, and quick to take offense at any perceived slight or neglect. Worse still, he found himself trapped in dark and morose moods. When Hiroshi mentioned all this to his doctor, he was told that he should probably see a psychiatrist, but that he might try a regular course of exercise first.
Hiroshi began getting up at five in the morning to jog. He would take Vodka along with him, and because it was still dark at that hour, he would let her run off leash. She took full advantage of this freedom, running in and out of yards, treeing cats, and knocking over trash cans. “Atta girl,” Hiroshi would say. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down!” She seemed to understand and would run up to Hiroshi and give his hand a flick of her tongue. In the shimmering glow of the street lights, it almost seemed as if she were giving him a conspiratorial wink.
A big problem with jogging so early in the morning was that Hiroshi’s body rhythms were thrown out of sync. About fifteen minutes into his run, his bowels would begin to churn, and he’d have to duck into the woods or, in an emergency, behind a large rhododendron or a bank of azaleas. This bit of unpleasantness eventually had an effect on his feelings toward Vodka. He was already aware of Vodka’s coprophagous leanings; he frequently had to jerk her away from dog droppings on their walks.
But he was not prepared to see her going after his leavings. Once he saw her emerging from behind the bushes where he’d just been, licking her chops. He recoiled at the sight. This beautiful dog with her look of fine breeding was a shit-eating cur.
Gradually, over a period of two years, the late nights and heavy drinking began to take its toll. Hiroshi would often skip his morning runs with Vodka, and eventually he stopped them altogether. This meant that Vodka was chained to her run for long periods of time, sometimes for days on end. Simone did her part to keep Vodka fed and watered, but she was at the university most of the day, teaching and working on her dissertation. She didn’t like walking the dog at night, so it was up to Hiroshi to take her out.
Vodka’s leash was attached to a wheel that could roll the length of the 20-foot run, so she had a wide radius of mobility. Nevertheless, even with those liberal constraints, the long periods of isolation produced a gradual change in her personality and character. She would snap and growl at any dog that came near her on their walks. She especially detested female dogs. Whenever she encountered one, it would take all of Hiroshi’s strength to restrain her.
One Sunday evening, when Hiroshi was walking Vodka in the neighborhood, a yapping Yorkshire terrier named Mopsie, long ill-disposed toward Vodka, foolishly came too close and snapped at her.
Hiroshi was not being as attentive as he should have been, because Vodka got Mopsie in her teeth and, with one violent jerk of her head, snapped the little bitch’s neck. No wolf in the wild could have disposed of its victim with more dispatch. Hiroshi had difficulty suppressing a certain pride in her performance, but when Mrs. Greenberg, Mopsie’s mistress, rushed out of her house, wildly waving both hands in the air and screaming, he went through the motions of scolding and beating Vodka, who, feeling betrayed, looked pitifully sad. He apologized profusely to Mrs. Greenberg who, inconsolable, said over and over, “What have you done? Mopsie, my poor Mopsie.”
When the Greenbergs demanded that Vodka be put down, threatening to sue, Hiroshi got one of the lawyers who hung out regularly at the Court House to send a letter to them. Hiroshi dictated the letter, pointing out that it was Mopsie, not Vodka, who had been off leash and running free at the time, and that Mopsie was the one who had initiated the fight. The lawyer added a hint of a countersuit.
When Hiroshi offered to pay him for his time, the lawyer said, “Forget about it. Let’s just say you owe me one.” The letter proved effective, and the Greenbergs backed off. But word of the incident quickly got around the neighborhood, adding to Vodka’s notoriety.
Working on the desk was a major promotion for Hiroshi. As a rewrite man, Hiroshi retrieved calls from reporters in the field and wrote up the stories they reported about fires, train wrecks, muggings, burglaries, rape, or murder. Despite his misgivings about the intrinsic racism of the process, Hiroshi was good at making snap judgments. A shooting in the West Baltimore ghetto might get two graphs buried deep inside the paper; a similar incident in lilywhite Roland Park would get frontpage coverage.
Though Hiroshi kept up his daily visits to Bellini’s, it didn’t affect his work, which had become routine. The bigger problem was boredom.
Then Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Three days later, the desk called him at home.
It was his day off, but rioting had broken out in East Baltimore and every available man was being sent out to cover the story.
When Hiroshi got to the site of the rioting, he found that the police had set up a roadblock on Eastern Avenue.
“I’m with the Herald,” Hiroshi said.
The officer shrugged. “Okay. Keep your windows rolled up.”
Hiroshi could smell smoke and see flames shooting up on Gay Street from five blocks away. He got as close as he could and parked his car. The pavement was a tangle of hoses, and police cars screeched in and out of side streets, lights flashing, sirens screaming.
The fires still raging on the next block had been extinguished here, leaving behind the charred hulk of a furniture store and an adjacent row house, its front door gaping open. Curious, Hiroshi picked his way through the rubble and into the house. Remarkably, a light bulb was still glowing in the front room; the electricity was still functioning. The air inside was heavy with the sour smell of water and soot. The windows had been shattered, probably by high-pressure hoses, and the furniture was overturned and soaked through. The kitchen, however, appeared to have been spared. An undisturbed bowl of fried chicken rested incongruously on a small table in the corner.
“What you doin’ in here?”
He turned to see a woman holding a child on her hip with one hand and grasping another by the wrist.
“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am. My name is Hiroshi Kono. I’m a reporter with the Herald.”
“That don’t give you the right to go pokin’ into people’s houses.”
“You’re right, ma’am. I’m sorry. I was just trying to see what the damage was like.”
“Well, now you’ve seen it.”
The woman followed Hiroshi back into the living room, where they both stood for a moment staring at the broken windows. There was a jagged hole in the ceiling where a large section of plaster had fallen off, and the carpet was sopping wet. “Lord, have mercy,” the woman said.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” Hiroshi said.
The scene brought back memories for Hiroshi, but nothing as bad as this. His home had also burned down, but he’d been long gone when it had happened.
The woman looked at him for moment, then continued surveying the damage. “Oh Lord, Oh Lord,” she murmured as if to herself.
“Sorry,” he said again as he slipped out the door.
Gene Oishi, former Washington and foreign correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, has written articles on the Japanese American experience for The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek, and West Magazine, in addition to the Baltimore Sun. His memoir, “In Search of Hiroshi,” was published in 1988.