A Quaker Story of Remembrance –and Maybe Prophecy
Pirates Six, Cubs Three
Pittsburgh, PA, sometime in the 1980s.
I wasn’t having a good night. And I hadn’t had a good day. Needleman in the Washington office had called just after lunch. “Nelson,” he barked, We need you here right away.”
I had to help the boss get ready for a big hearing before the Defense Systems Commission. Tomorrow.
I told him I’d promised to take the kids to a ballgame.
Needleman wasn’t impressed. “They play ballgames in Pittsburgh every night, Nelson,” he said. “We get a chance at a hundred million dollar contract once every ten years, if we’re lucky. This hearing could win it for us. The boss needs your data, and he needs you here to explain it to him. Tonight.”
His tone softened a little. “Look, Harry,” he said, “we’re not just being hard-nosed here. You know what this contract could mean to the company.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I know.”
And I did. There used to be 22 engineers and designers working for our company. Now there were only ten. And if another round of layoffs came, my name would probably be on the list.
So I knew very well what this contract could mean. When the new Air Force nuclear missile blasted off, it would only mean that a few valves and switches would have our logo on them rather than somebody else’s. But for the company, and me, it meant jobs.
Jenny understood this too, but she wasn’t happy about it.
“What am I supposed to tell the kids?” she demanded. “They’ve been looking forward to this for a month.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Tell them the truth. You can still take them to the game.”
“You know it’s not the same,” she said. “You’re the baseball nut.”
She was right. I was the one with a 1963 baseball card autographed by Roberto Clemente in my wallet. “Well,” I suggested, “maybe take them to a movie?”
“Yeah?” Jenny was skeptical. “Like which one?”
She had a point. Our boy Matt was almost twelve. No film without Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone blowing up futuristic skyscrapers occupied by Bruce Willis and a thousand masked terrorists would satisfy him.
But Stephanie, who was eight, would insist on seeing The Lion King for the fifth time. And for that matter, Jenny yearned to see The Bridges of Madison County on our VCR.
I sighed. “Maybe there’s a new doggie picture out,” I said hopefully. “They used to work, if the mutt was cuddly for Stephanie and slobbered a lot for Matt.”
The other line on my phone started beeping. I was afraid it was Needleman again.
“Look, honey,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I gotta go. You’ll think of something.”
“As usual,” she said, and hung up.
After that, the afternoon was all downhill. When I called the airport, the last direct flight to Washington was just loading. All the other flights went through Newark, with a two-hour layover, and besides there were heavy thunderstorms in New Jersey and planes were being delayed there.
Next I called Amtrak, and found out the train to Washington went through Philadelphia, and sounded like it took a day and a half.
Which meant I was going to have to drive.
When I got out of the office, rush hour traffic was slow as molasses. Creeping past Three Rivers Stadium, I watched enviously as a few cars pulled into the big parking lots, coming early for the game I had to miss.
South of town, on Interstate 79, there were signs for construction ahead, so I got off on Highway 40. Forty is a mountain road, sloping and curving through the Alleghenies into western Maryland. Traffic was light, though there were thunderstorms scattered across the mountains, and banks of fog drifting through the valleys.
By the time I passed Fort Necessity, where George Washington surrendered to the French in 1754, I had the game on the radio, an AM station There was interference from distant lightning, and between the bursts of static the news wasn’t that good anyway: By the third inning the Cubs were ahead by five runs, and the Pirates’ best pitcher had been knocked out of the box.
That’s it, I thought, peering into the grey past the slapping windshield wipers: The end of a perfectly lousy day.
The Pirates are getting clobbered, again. I’ll bet Matt and Stephanie are screaming at each other outside the cinema twelve, and Jenny is ready to strangle them, and me too. If this rain doesn’t end it’ll take me all night to get to Washington. And then when all is said and done, General Electric will probably get this big contract. And I’ll be out of work.
I was really working myself into a case of the blues, with a heavy dash of self-pity thrown in. Maybe that’s why when I saw the guy hitch-hiking near Uniontown, I felt such an urge to pick him up: Misery, after all, loves company.
I mean, I don’t pick up hitch-hikers; I’ve read all the horror stories. But usually when I see someone with a thumb out, they’re either kids who look like they’re having an adventure, which I’ll let them have with somebody else, or down-and-outers who seem desperate or possibly dangerous, and I’d just as soon not find out which.
But this guy, at that moment, seemed different. He was wearing a suit for one thing, even if it was a bit wrinkled and way out of fashion, and carrying a small suitcase. Also, he held his head up, and my headlights gleamed on his gold-rimmed eyeglasses. He was vaguely middle-aged, and didn’t look at all desperate or dangerous. He smiled when he saw the car.
I was going slow anyway, because the fog had gotten quite thick. And suddenly, there I was, pulled over, he was opening the door, then leaning back against the seat and pumping my hand.
“Nicholson,” he said, “Herb Nicholson, and I’m mighty grateful you stopped, yes I am. It was getting pretty damp out there. I’m sure the Lord sent you to help keep me from drowning.”
He chuckled at this, but I had the feeling he meant it too. The remark was both reassuring and unsettling: I didn’t much want to listen to a sermon, but on the other hand, a religious passenger was probably a safe one.
“How far you going?” I asked.
“Washington,” he chirped. “Pentagon. Gotta see Mr. McCloy, first thing tomorrow.”
“Really?” I immediately had second thoughts about his sanity. You don’t just hitch into town and walk into the Pentagon. You need lawyers and lobbyists, people who charge the big bucks. Like Needleman. “Um, where’d you come from?” I asked.
“Pasadena,” he answered. “California. Been a long trip, that’s for sure. Left two weeks ago.”
“You been hitch-hiking all the way?”
“Oh no,” he said. “Only here and there. Out to the camp in Manzanar, where there wasn’t any bus or taxi. And a stretch in Mississippi, after we got bumped from a train by some war shipments or other.
He shook his head. “Same thing happened in Cleveland. The army wants a train, they get it. Then you either wait for the next train, or find some other way. I couldn’t wait anymore, so here I am.
He glanced at me. “That ever happen to you? Getting bumped from a train, I mean.”
“Um,” I stumbled, “not recently.” I was sure now that I was carrying some kind of mental case. Probably harmless, but not operating in the same dimension.
A blast of static from the radio caught his attention. “That a ball game?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. Pirates and the Cubs.”
“Is that so?” He seemed puzzled. “They in spring training?”
“No,” I began, but then stopped. I had a feeling it wouldn’t do any good to explain that the season was half over. His time sense was clearly out of whack. “Cubs are ahead,” I said lamely.
“Don’t have a radio in my truck,” he said. “Too bad. It’d be good to listen to on some of my runs to the camps.” He rubbed his hands together. “I’d a driven it out here if I could, but o’ course, you can’t get much gas, what with the rationing and all.”
While I was trying to remember when there had been gas rationing, he looked around the interior of my Toyota. “Real nice car you got here, friend. You maybe working in the war effort?”
The question caught me off guard. “I-I guess you could say that,” I answered. After all, I thought, what else is designing parts for missiles?
My hesitation seemed to embarrass him. “Gosh, Mr. Nelson, I don’t mean to be asking sensitive questions,” he said hurriedly. “I’m not digging for military secrets or anything. It’s just hard to get away from the war, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I know.” After all, war work was practically all my company had left. That was why I was driving through the fog to Washington, instead of sitting with my kids at the ballgame.
On the radio, the announcer’s voice was suddenly a shout: “There’s a deep drive to left! It’s going, going–you can kiss it goodbye! And the Pirates narrow the gap!”
“A home run,” Nicholson said thoughtfully. He looked down at his hands for a moment. “They had baseball on the radio in Japan too, the last few years I was there. People here don’t know that, but they love the game over there.”
“Oh, I’ve heard about baseball in Japan,” I said. “It’s more well-known here than you might think.”
He shook his head. “You’re unusual,” he insisted. “Out west, and in the newspapers, you never hear about it. All they talk about is Japanese atrocities. That’s how they got away with locking up all my people in those camps.”
“All ‘your’ people?” I echoed.
“My church people,” he said. “Nisei, Japanese-Americans. I was the pastor of a Japanese Methodist church in Pasadena. Still am, actually.”
He shrugged. “But ever since March two years ago, my church doesn’t have any members. Took `em all to those camps. They’re still there, too. But maybe if I can talk to Mr. McCloy, he’ll start letting the Nisei out.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re the pastor of a Japanese Methodist church?” I glanced at him again. “Um, no offense, Mr. Nicholson, but you don’t look, er, the least bit Japanese.”
He grinned at me. “Bet I don’t look Methodist either,” he chuckled. “`Cause I’m not. I’m a Quaker. But I worked twenty-five years in Quaker missions in Japan.”
“Twenty-five years,” I said. “That’s a long time.”
He looked wistful. “I loved it though,” he said. “I woulda stayed longer, but their government threw me out in 1940. Thought I was a spy.”
He chuckled again. “Imagine me, a spy,” he said.
“I can’t see it,” I agreed. “What happened?”
He shrugged. “OH, I just kept talking about what their army was doing in China. Read about it in American church magazines.”
He rubbed his stubbly chin. “Terrible things, too, but they kept it all out of their papers.”
He peered out the window, as if wondering whether someone was watching us from the mist.
“When I got back to California, the Methodists asked me to fill in for their Japanese pastor, who was sick. ‘Cause I could preach in Japanese, you see. But after Pearl Harbor, they locked him and all the rest of ‘em up.”
He shook his head. “And I been trying to get ‘em out ever since.”
So there it was. I glanced sidelong at my passenger, his jaw now set, spectacles focussed on the gloom ahead. He was apparently caught in some kind of time warp, thinking it was the middle of World War Two. He still looked harmless enough, but I figured I better go along with his fantasy just to be on the safe side.
“What are these camps you’re talking about?” I asked.
“Concentration camps,” he said. “In the middle of nowhere. A big one was Manzanar, out in the California desert. Arizona. Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Even Louisiana and Mississippi. Whole families are there, thousands of people.”
“What had they done?” I asked.
He slapped the dashboard with one fist. “Nothing! But after Pearl Harbor, the papers carried a bunch of lies about sabotage and spies. Said the Nisei were gonna help the Japanese army invade California.”
“Were they?” I questioned.
“No!” he insisted. “It was bunk. But it worked. The Army cleared the Japanese-Americans out of all the West Coast. Most of the Nisei lost everything. And they’re still locked up in those camps, even though they haven’t found a spy among ‘em yet.”
“That doesn’t sound right,” I said weakly.
“It sure isn’t,” he agreed. “A shame on America, I call it. So a few of us have been visiting the camps and fighting the whole thing ever since.”
He took a long breath. “But that’s not the worst of it, if you wanna know the truth.”
“What’s that?” I said automatically. But did I, I wondered, really want to know this stranger’s worst truth?
Nicholson was getting more intense as he talked. “It’s like this,” he began. “They’re taking the young men out of the camps, drafting them into the army.”
He ran a hand through his greying hair. “Now, how do you like that: the U.S. government locks you and your family up for no reason. Then wants you to go into the U.S. army and fight for that same government, while it still keeps your family in a concentration camp. Can you believe it?”
“Well,” I said weakly, “it does sound somewhat strange.”
“You bet!” he thumped the dashboard again. “Even though the boys are going in, and winning all kinds of medals, it’s as unfair as it can be. And that’s just what I told Dillon Myers last month.”
“You told who?”
“Myers,” he repeated. “He’s head of the War Relocation Authority. The outfit that runs the camps. Came to Pasadena last month, and we talked with him at the Orange Grove Friends Meeting. I told him straight out how wrong the whole thing was.”
Nicholson grinned ruefully. “He agreed with me too.”
“He did?” I was confused. “Then why are they still keeping them in the camps?”
Nicholson sniffed. “He said that was the army’s decision, and he couldn’t tell the army what to do.”
“Well,” I objected, “if he couldn’t tell the army, who could?”
Nicholson grinned again. “He told me I could do it. Said I needed to talk to John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, at the Pentagon.”
The light began to dawn. “And so–” I began.
“And so,” he picked up, “when he said that, I told him, ‘Mr. Myers, I’m on my way.’ And I been on the road ever since.” He grinned at me triumphantly.
Now I was definitely in doubt of his sanity. “Um,” I asked, “does Mr. McCloy know you’re coming?”
“Not yet,” Nicholson was unruffled. “I wasn’t sure how long it would take, you see. But Quakers have a saying, Mr. Nelson. ‘Way will open.’ And I’m sure it will.”
“Hmmm,” I mumbled, “I suppose so.” I could guess what Needleman would think of that Quaker saying.
The rain had stopped, and the sunlight was gone, except for a few last rays whitening the tops of distant thunderclouds. The radio announcer said it was time for the seventh inning stretch, and I reached over and turned up the volume slightly.
“What’s the score?” Nicholson inquired.
“Don’t know,” I said. “I think the Cubs are still ahead, though.”
They were, but by only three runs, and the rest of the game was exciting, if not satisfying. The Pirates loaded the bases in the eighth and again in the ninth, but managed to get only two men home, and lost by a run.
I turned it off after the final out, and was about to say something about the game when I heard a muffled snort beside me. Nicholson was asleep, head slumped against the cushion, and he was snoring quietly.
Dream on, old man, I thought. Lord knows where you came from, and you’re carrying a big load of memory, or fantasy, or something, and you probably need the rest.
He didn’t stir until we were on the George Washington Parkway, passing under the lights around the Key Bridge into Georgetown. It was a good thing, too, because I was growing more and more uneasy about what I was going to do with him. Did he even have a place to stay?
“Almost there,” I said when his eyes flickered open.
He blinked and looked around. As we passed Arlington Cemetery, the Pentagon came into view, its vast low bulk filling the foreground to our right. He sat up straight as soon as he recognized it.
“Well, well, so here we are,” he said quietly. “The temple of war. When is America going to build a Pentagon for peace, I wonder?”
He turned to me, and his tone was cheerful again. “Just let me off anywhere up here,” he said.
“But,” I protested, “it’s after ten o’clock. You can’t see anybody there now. Where are you going to stay?”
He only grinned, and patted my arm reassuringly. “Oh, don’t you worry ‘bout me. I’ll be fine.” He pointed at the nearby corner of one of the building’s vast parking lots. “Yes, right here would be just right.”
I stopped, not knowing what else to do, and he retrieved his bag from the back seat. He leaned back into the car to shake my hand again, vigorously. “Mr. Nelson, I sure do appreciate this. I really do.”
“Um, good luck,” I said lamely as he turned toward the building, and then I drove off.
All the way across the Fourteenth Street bridge into Washington, heading for the hotel where I was to meet Needleman and the boss, I worried about him, alone and confused out there in a dangerous city.
If he was lucky, maybe the military police would pick him up and at least keep him safe, find him a shelter perhaps, or a ticket back to where he’d come from. But–
“Harry,” Needleman said later, “I asked you a question.”
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I was just thinking–”
“Um, I was thinking that, um, Pasadena is a long way from here.”
Needleman frowned. “What’s that got to do with your data?” he asked.
I focussed on the charts and printouts spread across the hotel table.
“Oh,” I said again. “Sorry.”
But it was Needleman who should have been sorry, for getting me down there on a wild goose chase. When we arrived at the hearing room of the Defense Systems Commission the next morning, there was a piece of white paper taped to the door. Needleman read it, then swore.
“They’ve canceled the hearing,” he told the boss. “Judge called in sick.” He studied the paper. “It’s been rescheduled for August 14th.”
“August,” grunted the boss. “That’s right in the middle of my vacation.”
Mine too, I thought, but kept my mouth shut.
The boss was not happy. “Get it moved up, Needleman,” he commanded. “Can you handle that?”
Yeah, Needleman, I repeated silently, can you handle that?
“Yes, sir,” Needleman answered meekly.
The boss looked briefly at me. “Well, Nelson, looks like you’ve got a day off, whether you wanted it or not. But you earned it. See you at the office tomorrow.”
He touched Needleman’s arm. “Can you get me to the airport in time for the eleven-thirty flight?”
Instead of driving straight back to Pittsburgh, I decided to spend some time at the Martin Luther King Library, reading about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two. The more I read, the more fascinated, and horrified, I got.
Herb Nicholson might have been lost in the past, I decided, but everything he told me checked out.
And there was more, about how much of the hysteria was whipped up by groups of white growers and farmers out west. It wasn’t just racism behind it, though there was plenty of that. They also wanted to get rid of the Japanese-Americans because they did good work and were strong competition.
I also found out that a special Nisei Army unit did win a great many medals for bravery, fighting the Italians and Germans in World War Two.
Eventually the families in the camps were allowed to return to their home areas, and start life over again. And Congress had finally agreed to pay the camp survivors for what they had lost, though it took almost forty years to get around to it.
But one thing I discovered bothered me. I looked up John McCloy in Who’s Who. Sure enough, he was Assistant Secretary of War.
But that was during World War Two. McCloy was now dead, had been for ten years.
In that case, I puzzled, who was Herb Nicholson going to see in the Pentagon today? If he got in at all, that is.
By this time, it was mid-afternoon, and I figured I better get moving if I was going to get home at a reasonable hour. I called Jenny from a pay phone.
No she said, the kids had not caused a riot at the cinema twelve last night. “We just got pizza and some videos,” she said. “They were good sports.”
I was relieved. “Just hurry home,” she added. I promised I would.
But that promise was easier made than kept. I was unfamiliar with Washington traffic, where rush hour starts by three-thirty, and my car crawled back down the George Washington Parkway at about three miles an hour.
Then a truck jack-knifed on Interstate 270, and I spent another hour baking in the heat waiting for the wreck to be cleared. By the time I got past Frederick, Maryland it was after seven, and thunderstorms were again building over the mountains ahead.
I didn’t mind the thought of rain; it would cool things off. But I stayed on Interstate 70, headed for Breezewood and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, figuring it would be faster than Forty in wet weather.
It was at Breezewood, just outside the Turnpike entrance, that a man stepped out of a phone booth by a gas station and stuck out his thumb. It was raining, but when my headlights glinted on a pair of gold-rimmed glasses, I knew right away who it was. Somehow I wasn’t even surprised.
“Well, Mr. Nelson, so good to see you again,” he declared, and pumped my hand more enthusiastically than ever. His old suit was damp and a little more rumpled than yesterday, but he still had the small suitcase and the same air of dignity.
He settled back while I collected a ticket at the booth and pulled onto the turnpike. When I looked over, his eyes were closed.
I was awfully curious about what had happened to him, but decided to let him take it at his own pace. After twenty miles or so I turned the radio on very low, and learned, between the static, that the Pirates were again trailing the Cubs, three to two, in the bottom of the seventh.
His eyes opened. “Still behind, are they?” he murmured.
“They’ll catch up,” he said. “I’ve got a feeling. Way will open.”
I couldn’t wait any longer. “Speaking of way opening,” I said, “how did it go for you today?”
He sat up. “Excellent,” he declared. “Almost perfect.”
“So you, uh, got to see Mr. McCloy?”
“Yes, yes I did,” he said. “Ran into an old ex-missionary, working for Navy intelligence now. Took me right in.”
He stopped and pondered a moment. “You know,” he said more quietly, “they came to me a year ago and wanted me to work for the military too, because I know Japan and the Japanese language.”
“Why didn’t you?” I asked.
He turned to me, cheeks pink with indignation. “What? And be obliged to go along with this concentration camp business? Never. That’s what I told them, too. Besides,” he added more quietly, “I’m a Quaker. The military way isn’t our way.”
He sighed. “Or at least it shouldn’t be. A lot of our young men are going in, though. That’s the truth.”
He paused. “Guess they’ve got to follow the best light they have.”
“What did McCloy say?”
Nicholson brightened again. “He was very sympathetic. Agreed with me almost completely. But said he was up against public opinion. Showed me a basket on his desk full of letters from these people out west, full of nonsense about Jap spies and suchlike. I hate that word: Japs.”
“How are you going to fight that?” I asked.
“Simple,” he said, thumping the dashboard for emphasis. “McCloy had another wire basket, an empty one, and said if I could fill that one up with letters demanding that the camps be opened up, he’d start letting people out.”
“You think you can do that?” I questioned.
“You betcha I can,” he insisted. “I already called Philadelphia, and I’m headed back to Cleveland. The Quakers there and around the country will shower him with letters.”
A big grin. “And just wait til I get back to Pasadena. There are a lotta good folks who’ll write once they know it’ll help. If McCloy’s a man of his word and I have anything to say about it, we’ll have ‘em outta there in no time.”
We were in the highlands now, following long descending curves into darkening valleys where fog banks swirled and floated. We passed a sign for a service area, and I saw that I needed gas.
I was also thirsty, so while the tank was filling I went inside to buy a soda. When I got back in the car, Nicholson wasn’t there.
I climbed back out and looked around. He was at the edge of the service area, his suitcase in hand, gazing intently into the mist. I walked over. “What is it?” I asked him.
He didn’t look around. “I can see them,” he said. “They’re getting ready. They’re getting ready to come out of the camps, and head back home.”
I looked past his shoulder. All I saw was thickening clouds.
He turned to me. “Mr. Nelson,” he said, “I appreciate the lift, I really do, but I’ll just get off here. I need to catch up with the people.”
Before I could answer he had shaken my hand one more time, and stepped out into the darkness.
“Hey,” a voice called from behind me. “You gonna pay for this gas?”
I turned and walked back toward the attendant.
“Sure,” I said, “sorry. I got distracted.”
A few minutes later I was steering carefully down the mountain, toward the long tunnel, thinking about Needleman and Washington and the Defense Systems Commission.
Do you suppose. I thought, are there any jobs for engineers in Pittsburgh that aren’t tied to making missile parts or other weapons?
There must be. I decided to start checking the papers next Sunday. There was a burst of static from the radio, and I flipped it off.
Then I noticed some people walking in the fog by the side of the road, carrying bundles and bags. They looked tired, but their heads were high, and they strode along purposefully, as if they knew just where they were going.
What the devil, I thought. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing ahead but miles and miles of forest. What is going on here–?
But then my headlights glinted on a familiar pair of gold-rimmed glasses, and I understood. Herb Nicholson had not been mistaken back at the service area. And now he was back among the people he loved, joining in their long journey home.
As I passed, he turned his head and raised a hand in greeting. A moment later I was in the long tunnel through the mountain, and then out the other side.
Here the sky was clear, and a few stars were showing. When I tried the radio again, the static had quieted, and the announcer was shouting exultantly.
“What a finish!” he crowed. “A game-winning grand slam homer in the bottom of the ninth.”
He took a breath, and I turned up the sound. “Final score,” he said, Pirates six, Cubs three.”
Much of this story is true. All of it is copyright © by Chuck Fager.
Manzanar is now a national historic site, managed by the National Park Service.