Stories from My Life, #9: The memory is old and faint—am I only imagining that I once stood in the audience of President John F. Kennedy?
Copy from President John F. Kennedy’s diary: Tuesday, August 27, 1963
I remember the setting, the White House lawn. I stood only feet from the 35th President of the United States—and he spoke to me. It was in the morning.
Have you ever stumbled across a memory so old that you begin to question whether it actually happened?
The year was 1963, and I had just graduated from high school in Somerset, Pennsylvania. I would be starting college that fall at Pennsylvania State University—a big deal for my family because I would be the first to go to college.
But during that intervening summer, thanks to my father, I had the first of a four-year summer job stint working for the federal government. I had been accepted as a Student Trainee for the Weather Bureau, as the National Weather Service was called back then. This opportunity meshed perfectly with my planned major at Penn State: meteorology.
I remember riding a bus to Washington, DC, my first assignment, the Weather Bureau’s original main office at 24th and M Street. All I had going for me was an address where a relative said that I could rent a room. For a week or so, I walked the couple miles to work, the stifling city heat leaving me soaked with perspiration at the end of each day. To my surprise, it wasn’t long before my handlers realized that they had nothing for me to do. Off they sent me to the Sterling Observational Test and Development Center, adjacent to Dulles Airport, which President Kennedy had dedicated only the previous November. For the remainder of that summer, I left my distinctive mark on the city—I painted every weather shelter within driving distance.
Enough background. Sometime during that summer, I remember being invited, along with other students, to the White House to be addressed by President Kennedy. I recall standing not far from him. Trouble was, I hadn’t revisited this memory in decades and was worried that my imagination had gotten the better of me. I had no proof to document this significant event: no diary notation or pictures. One person who I think was there with me that summer was my roommate, Doug Downen. Sadly, he passed away recently.
Determined to prove that I had not lost my mind, I took to the Internet. Some three hours later I struck pay dirt, the personal diaries of President Kennedy. My cherished reminiscence occurred on the 27th of August, and you see above a copy of the first page for that day. It says that between 10:00 and 10:12 that morning, “The President went to the South Grounds and greeted The White House Seminar Group – students who are working in the various governmental departments during the summer months.”
At Penn State less than three months later, I found myself walking to a swimming class when I heard a radio blaring from a window. I soon learned that our President had been shot. Shortly thereafter, while we were in the water, our instructor told us to go home. President Kennedy had died. I can still remember the absolute silence that consumed the venue.
When Truth and Fiction Intersect
In my career writing fiction, I’ve emphasized scientific thrillers. Although I always say that the science in my story is sound, and the details of the physical locations have been researched extensively, my tale is entirely fiction. Not so for my latest novel, How Much Do You Love Me?
For this historical novel that revolves around the Japanese Interment of World War II, I’m proud to say that, except for my fictional characters and their fictional story, 99% of what happens to the characters in my book actually happened to real people. Because much has been written about the Bellevue, Washington, Japanese community that was torn apart by the internment, I set my fictional family within that community. Many from that community were sent to the Pinedale Assembly Center and then on to the Tule Lake Relocation Center, both in California. I decided that my characters would follow that path.
With this in mind, you can imagine my delight last month when I opened a hand-written letter from someone who had followed that same route. And she, Miyoko Saiki, lives near me, here on the Monterey Peninsula! Here is her letter:
May 22, 2016
Dear Mr. Tag,
I just finished reading your novel about the evacuation of the Japanese in 1943. I was also born in Bellevue and went to Pinedale and Tule Lake as you wrote. I was 14 at the time— it brought back many memories.
I went to school in Tule Lake and graduated in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, after the segregation. I left camp and went to Cleveland to find work and stayed there from 1944 to 1952. I met my husband George who was born in Monterey. We came here for a vacation and moved back.
I don’t know how you learned so much about what we went through. It was a terrible experience. Pinedale was over 100 degrees. When we left Bellevue it must have been in the 50’s. In Tule Lake we went to school typing class with no typewriters. Our Spanish class teacher would not let me speak English in the room—so we spoke Japanese!
The author then goes on to ask me how she could get an additional copy of the book. She concludes: Thank you, Miyo Saiki
The “segregation” that Miyo refers to in her letter occurred after the infamous “Yes/Yes, No/No” question that had been asked of all internees as part of the “Loyalty Questionnaire.” Those who responded no/no were considered to be potential troublemakers and sent to Tule Lake. Those who responded yes/yes were given the opportunity to move to another of the ten camps. Miyo moved to Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The characters in my book moved to Minidoka, Idaho.
Upon receiving Miyo’s (Miyo is short for Miyoko) letter, I telephoned her immediately. I met her at her house and, later, we had lunch together with my wife, Becky. The photo above was taken at the lunch.
Miyo is a delightful, interesting, and pleasant person to be around and converse with. Because she was already fourteen at the time, Miyo has clear memories of her internment experience. To my surprise, she is a DEVOTED San Francisco Giants baseball fan. We agreed that another visit might be in order sometime.
Three memorable incidents from a decade of book signings
I’ve had dozens of book signings over the past decade, beginning with the publication of my first thriller, Category 5, in 2005, and ending with my historical fiction novel, How Much Do You Love Me?, in 2014. Both Borders (until they departed) and Barnes and Noble bookstores have been receptive and very good to me.
I’ve written previously about what I’ve learned about conducting a successful book signing: http://www.paulmarktag.com/how-to-conduct-a-successful-book-signing/. But here, I recall three memorable incidents that are special to me:
Incident #1. Never judge a book by its cover!
This event occurred in the early days of my book signings. It was a cold, rainy day outside a California Borders. But before I tell you what happened, let me provide some background. I’ve learned how important it is to engage in conversation with potential buyers. Unless you can market your book and be a friendly person to talk to, you won’t have many sales. Still, in so doing, when someone walks by, I have to decide whether that person might buy my book. Some general rules prevail: women always buy more books than men; teenagers rarely buy your books.
So here’s what happened! Did I mention that it was a cold, rainy evening? This lady walks into the store, barefoot as I recall. Her clothes were disheveled and I, stereotypically (no credit to me, that’s for sure), decided that she was a homeless bag lady. I debated whether to ask her if she liked thrillers, but decided not to discriminate. I told her about my book, and to my surprise, she asked to purchase one, and I signed it. She then got to thinking that one of her relatives might like a copy. By the time she finished, I had signed five books. To this day, she holds my single-person sales record. I learned my lesson and decided, then and there, that it’s never wise to prejudge someone when it comes to selling a book.
Incident #2. Be gracious when the opportunity arises!
This event occurred a year or two ago. I had this one fan who had purchased one or two of my books previously. During a December signing (which is always a great time to sell books), he returned to buy another one. First, he wanted to have a picture taken with me (not an uncommon occurrence) and seemed genuinely appreciative for that. But what happened next blew me away. He handed me a Christmas card, which by itself was a nice gesture. But, then, I opened it and was stunned to discover a $50 Macy’s gift card. Shocked, I ran after him, explaining that a gift like that was much too generous. He disagreed and left the store.
Number #3. It’s a small world after all!
This event occurred just weeks ago at the Barnes and Noble in San Mateo, California. I don’t know what the odds are for what happened, but they must be tiny indeed.
I sold one of my thrillers to a young couple. The lady asked that I make it out to her father-in-law. As I wrote, I remarked that his last name was the same as someone in my graduating high school class back in Pennsylvania, a continent away. Long story short, her father-in-law was, in fact, my high school classmate. I bet I could spend a lifetime doing signings and never again have something like that happen.
From research to writing fiction: how one transitioned into another
Here is a nice article written about me on Penn State | News
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