Finding Escape in Cards

Life in the Japanese American concentration camps was far from ideal, but as bad as the circumstances were, Japanese Americans tried to make the best of their situations. Having outlets like sports, dances, and especially card games helped children do exactly that.

This creative short story is inspired by my grandparents’ experience in camp at Poston 1 and Heart Mountain.

The year is 1944.

I pick up a card. An Ace of Diamonds.

“I’m out,” I proclaim triumphantly, laying down my run of spades and a set of three aces. “Do you guys want to lose again or are we done for the day?”

“One more game!” Keiko pleads. “I can’t quit until I win at least once.”

I look over at Yoshiko, who just shakes her head. We’ve been playing for hours and it’s almost dinner time, but I know that Keiko won’t take no for an answer.

Photo courtesy of George Kakuda, Discover Nikkei

It’s been two years. Two years since they put us in camp, and as bad as things are, we’ve slowly adjusted to life out here in the desert. There are some things that I just can’t get used to; the heat and dust storms, for starters, are unbearably bad. We try not to complain, but the absolute lack of privacy in the showers and toilets is still uncomfortable. 

Don’t get me started on the food; if you’ve never had bologna in okazu before, well, that’s for good reason. They try to make things taste like home, and it helps that the cooks are nihonjin. My grandfather is a cook, so I know they try to make the best out of what they have. But when we’re thousands of miles away from the open sea and they give us things like ika to put in our food, the okazu turns out just as bad as it does with the bologna in it.

Photo credit: Discover Nikkei, WRA

This is life in camp, but like the cooks, we’ve had to make the best of life as we know it. Our barrack isn’t as bleak as it was when we first arrived. Sears has become our best friend, and after getting bed covers for the cots, shades for the windows, and a curtain to separate the room, we can almost look past the fact that we’re situated in a wooden box about as big as our living room back home.

They built a school in the middle of camp, so what used to be an exhausting walk from block 27 all the way to block 59 for class is now only a 5 minute walk. There’s a new auditorium where we have our dances, and people have carved out their own work doing different jobs around camp. In fact, I make $14 a month working as a typist for the Poston Chronicle. Not bad for a 16-year old who doesn’t have anything to spend money on.

Most importantly, we just try to have fun. I’ve never been an athletic person, but from baseball, to volleyball, to basketball, to ping pong, there’s always some sport to play to keep us occupied. I might not be able to serve the ball over the net, but hey, keeping the ball up and not getting hit in the face is a win for me. Coming from a farm, I actually haven’t been able to go to dances in the past, so being able to jitterbug with other kids and let loose is actually something I’ve come to love about camp.

Photo Credit: Discover Nikkei, WRA

And of course, we have our card games. We play sports often, and we have dances now and then, but everyday once school ends, you can count on the fact that Yoshiko, Keiko, and I will be sitting in my barrack around the table playing cards. Whether it’s rummy, hearts, double solitaire, or bridge, we can play for hours on end, and we get competitive.

All of us are just ma-ma, but that doesn’t stop games from being intense as we fight for bragging rights. Yoshiko and I usually dominate, and with Keiko normally complaining the whole time, we welcome any other competition when kids from the block want to play.

We all played cards before we came to camp, but with so little to do now, they’ve become an essential part of our days, an outlet for the monotony and isolation that camp brings. In those moments of fierce, but playful competition, we can forget about the circumstances that we’re stuck in and just be kids again. 

I know our parents can’t afford the same luxury. I hear them talking, worrying about what the future holds for our family. When the war is going to end, whether we can return to the farm, how to get back on our feet after having our lives upended. They do their best to protect us, to brace for the future, all while smiling and pretending that everything is going to be okay.

They don’t have to front for me though. I might be young, but I’m old enough to understand the struggles that we’ve been through. And I’m fine. Because as much as I worry with them about the future, and as much as I long to be out of camp, the best I can do is to make the most of the present. 

I wish I could be having the typical high school experience. I wish we could be back on the farm, back with our friends, back to when things were normal. But that’s not reality. We’re prisoners, held captive in our own country. And while there’s so much not to like about camp, it’s like my parents say; gaman. Keep pushing forward, keep persevering. And the little things, like sports, the dances, and card games, help me do exactly that.

Photo Credit: Discover Nikkei, WRA

I sigh and start to grin. “Well, what are you waiting for? The cards aren’t going to shuffle themselves!”

Keiko’s eyes light up as she grabs the cards and rapidly shuffles before we change our minds. “I hope you guys are ready to lose,” she taunts. “I can feel it, this is finally the one.”

Yoshiko cracks a smile, and in that moment, I feel myself right back at home. No longer a prisoner in camp. Home. 

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