Stories from My Life: Grandparents from Russia, the Depression, and Costco Blueberries
Image, Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
My grandparents on my mother’s side, Fred and Molly Kern, emigrated from Russia in 1913. They didn’t consider themselves Russian. They spoke German and came from a German region. The story goes that Grandpa and Grandma stole away in the middle of the night because Grandpa’s family would have stopped them. Furthermore, their timing was indeed fortuitous. Had they waited just one more year, with the start of World War I, Grandpa would certainly have been drafted into the army. Considering the high death rate of Russian conscripts, my mother may never have been born, and thus I wouldn’t exist.
Their trip to the new world was made possible because other family from Grandma’s side, the Woidas, had made the initial journey. Several years ago, Becky and I located the Ellis Island records for my grandparents’ entry into America. Noteworthy is that they arrived with their first child, my Aunt Susie, who was only months old. My wonderful and kind Aunt Susie died in 2013. Her life had spanned a complete century.
When I think about the commitment my grandparents made to this epic journey, I am amazed. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. Everyone coming here knew that they would never return to their birth homes. And the journey across the Atlantic was no fun; they rode in steerage. They settled in southwestern Pennsylvania, ironically, near the town of Berlin (which is where yours truly attended first through seventh grade).
My grandparents were farmers and lived hard lives. And it wasn’t like they arrived in Pennsylvania, bought a farm, and began farming. Initially, their land was covered by forest; fields had to be deforested. Because the farm by itself couldn’t support his family, Grandpa worked various outside jobs, including coal mining. (He learned from dynamiting coal seams that he could use the explosive for removing tree stumps.)
As I understand it, Grandpa worked mines during the day and his fields at night (using his miner’s hat lantern). I’ve been told more than once that Grandma worked with him at night, looking occasionally back toward the house. A light in the window signaled that a baby needed nursing. These were tough people, folks. The depression hit my grandparents like everyone else, and they had to work even harder. One positive was that, by living on a farm, no one starved.
So what does this have to do with Costco blueberries? Because of our vast agricultural delivery system, Becky and I enjoy them practically year-round. To me, these blueberries are symbolic of the many blessings I have, and have had, in my life. Every time I buy them, I feel guilty. If only I could send some of the advantages that I have today back in time, back to the days when my grandparents were struggling and working so hard.
Interesting addendum: I knew my grandfather well and always remember him as being bald. Turns out, I discovered, he got the flu during the worldwide 1918-1920 influenza pandemic, lost his hair, and it never grew back.
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The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 10: Life at Tule Lake
As depicted in the above photograph (courtesy of Densho; see note below) of a plaque set in May of 1979, the Tule Lake interment camp was operational from May of 1942 until March of 1946. It had the capability to house over 18,000 Japanese Americans.
Life at Tule Lake was trying. Basic accommodations and monotonous lives, together with fences and guard towers, left no doubt in anyone’s mind that they were in prison–a large open one, but a prison nonetheless. Their homes were nothing more than barracks, divided into sections, each heated by a coal-fired, pot-bellied stove. Surprising to most outsiders, internees supplied most of the labor and administration. The War Relocation Authority defined three classes of wages: unskilled labor, $12/month; skilled labor, $16/month; and professionals, $19/month.
The above photo and the one following are courtesy of NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration
As with the other internment camps, Tule Lake was a fully functioning community, with a hospital and schools for the children. There were four levels of education: nursery school, elementary, high school, and adult education. There were no chairs initially, and the children had to sit on the floor. Books and teachers were scarce too, but conditions improved with time.
Facilities were meager. For example, modest by nature, Japanese women resented open toilets and showers. No one became more popular that men who acquired scrap wood and installed partitions between toilets in the washrooms.
A recreation department, with over 100 volunteers, worked hard to keep internees’ interests satisfied. Sporting events were popular, as well as adult education courses that afforded everyone a chance to learn new hobbies. Women, particularly, used their imaginations to make their humble surroundings homey, including planting flower gardens and participating in various craft projects. Women were challenged to produce stylish versions of the dull, government-issue navy blue peacoats. Acting in plays, singing in choirs, making jewelry, and playing ping pong were among dozens of activities offered. Those who had experience or an interest in publishing worked on the staff of the Tulean Dispatch, a three-column mimeographed newspaper.
Sadly, for various reasons, families often got separated within the camp. Demeaned and discouraged by the humiliation of their situation, many Issei (Japanese immigrant to the U.S.) fathers lost control of their children, who ran wild and found friends in other blocks, spending time there and eating separately from their parents.
Wartime shortages that affected the country in general made their way to the camps. Mess halls declared that meals on Tuesdays and Fridays would be meatless. Sugar, butter, and coffee were other food items impacted. But no one went hungry because fish, eggs, and cheese were plentiful.
Up next: The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 11: Internal Resistance and the JACL
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Note: Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project is a digital archive of videotaped interviews, photographs, documents, and other materials relating to the Japanese American experience. Additional information on the project is available at www.densho.org.
Stories you can listen to, #11: Just Deserts
In my continuing series of short stories, Just Deserts was one of my first thrillers. I liked this genre so much that it spawned a trilogy of thrillers beginning with Category 5. One important technique I learned from reading James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider is to use shorter chapters and scenes to speed up the action; you’ll see that strategy used extensively throughout Just Deserts. In this story, a selfish, entitled daughter decides that she wants it all.
NOTE: Before I receive notes back from readers, let me assure you that the title of this short story is correct. It is “Just Deserts” and not “Just Desserts.” Here is the definition From Wikipedia, “Desert /dɨˈzɜrt/ in philosophy is the condition of being deserving of something, whether good or bad.”
Click here to either listen to or read the story.
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Kudos for How Much? from local newspaper, The Californian
To read review directly from The Californian, please click here. “How Much Do You Love Me?” (Sweetwater Books. $16.99) by Paul Mark Tag. Local Connection: Since his retirement from the Naval Research Laboratory, Paul Tag has devoted his time to writing. Trained in meteorology, the Monterey Peninsula resident has used his background and a local… View Article
Stories from My Life: Remembering my best friend in college, Harriet Emas Nicholson
I decided to write a novel when I was in my late 20s. But I soon realized that I didn’t have enough life experiences to call upon. Two decades later I tried again and began writing short stories, which led me to my first thriller novel, Category 5. Fast-forward through another two decades and two… View Article
Stories you can listen to, #10: The Necklace, #326
In my continuing series of short stories, The Necklace, #326 is told from only one point of view, that of retired school teacher Ruth Armstrong. Her sole mission at the auction is to buy one particular item from the estate of Dr. Thomas Griffey’s late parents. Will she succeed? And why is #326 so important… View Article
The Japanese Internment of World War II, Part 9: The Tule Lake War Relocation Center
Above image of Tule Lake, circa 1943-44, courtesy of Library of Congress This blog is Part 9 of a series discussing the internment of Japanese in the United States during World War II. This sequence is meant as an accompaniment to my historical novel, How Much Do You Love Me? Part 6, “One Family’s Journey… View Article
Wine and Dine Literary Society
This past Wednesday evening Becky and I had the pleasure of attending a book-club meeting in Livermore, California where I addressed the Wine and Dine Literary Society. They had chosen How Much Do You Love Me?, my historical novel on the Japanese internment of World War II, as this month’s read. In the picture you see… View Article
Stories you can listen to, #9: Lemonade or Iced Tea
In my continuing series of short stories, Lemonade or Iced Tea, although relatively short at 900 words, is told from three points of view: mother (Emily), daughter (Janet), and fiancé (Timothy). Will Timothy end up marrying Janet? You decide. Click here to either listen to or read the story. Feel free to share this blog…. View Article
White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy receives acclaim from Kirkus Reviews
White Thaw: The Helheim Conspiracy is the third in my trilogy of thrillers. Here is a copy of the Kirkus review: KIRKUS REVIEW In Tag’s (Category 5, 2005, etc.) thriller, a scientist learns that Nazis are planning a return to power with an attack of worldwide proportions—and that her family in Colombia may… View Article