By Lionel Kearns
I guess it was built right into the language in those days—racism, and sexism too. We didn’t understand. Those words weren’t around to clue us in, so our world was a little different, I mean the way we talked. It wasn’t any worse, or any better. Just a different time, a different backstop for our lives, and our games.
My game was baseball. I was a catcher. I lived in a town called Nelson, in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada. It’s still there. You can check it out on Google Maps if you don’t believe me. But that was a long time ago. Things were different then. The ball field was right in the middle of town, behind the rink and below Gyro Park bluff with its big V for Victory sign that flashed the Morse code message dot-dot-dot-dash at us all during the war. They turned the lights off a few months after V-J Day. Oh, sorry about the jargon: V-J stood for Victory Over Japan, August 15, 1945. The sign itself stayed up there on the bluff for years. No one was in a big hurry to take it down.
In 1949 I was fifteen years old, the youngest member of the Nelson Juniors. I hope you don’t think I’m boasting when I tell you that our ball team was pretty damn good that year. We were close to the top of the league, and just between you and me, we thought we were shit hot.
The war had been over for almost four years. You know what I’m talking about: the Second World War—the Nazis and the Japs, Pearl Harbour, the Yellow Peril, and that kind of thing. We’d been watching the news-reels and the films for years. And we’d heard the stories. Hammy Gray, Canada’s own Kamikaze, had been a student at the Nelson High School. That’s my high school too. Hammy got a posthumous Victoria Cross for dropping his bombs right down the smokestack of a Japanese ship the day before the war ended. He was a hero, I’ll tell you. Killed everyone on board, they say. I know a kid who made a model of Hammy’s plane, a black bent-wing FU4 Corsair. It was a beauty. We would have joined up too, my brother and I, if we’d been old enough, or if the war had lasted a few more years. We would have given our lives for the cause, just like Hammy. “We just want a crack at the Japs!” That’s the way Pig-Iron said it in Gung Ho. I think Pig-Iron was Robert Mitchum. Of course all that war stuff was beginning to fade by 1949. The villains in the comic strips had changed color. Now they were criminals, or evil communist spies.
Baseball in our town was returning to its former glory. During the war there weren’t enough players to keep the district’s leagues alive, but now with the vets back from overseas, and more of the younger players staying in the area, baseball was making a comeback. The game had always been big in Nelson, at least until television came along. So when I say baseball, I mean local action, crowds in the stands, public dances to raise money, and plenty of general support for the town teams, both the Seniors, and the Juniors.
I guess you’re wondering how I made the Nelson Juniors when I was so young. I’ll tell you, it was because of Charley, and because I was Charley’s brother. He was the team’s main pitcher, and I was his catcher. We were pretty good, too. That was our Dad’s doing. He had Charley throwing a ball to him since before Charley could walk. By the time I came on the scene, Charley was an accomplished hurler. Dad promoted my ball skills too, and as I grew into it, I took over the catching duties. We were always practicing. An hour a day, out in the back yard. Even in winter we’d be firing snowballs at the target set up against the fence. Dad never encouraged me to pitch.
“No rivalry,” he used to tell us. “The Prendergast boys are a team.” And we were, most of the time.
Charley and I had played ball together all our lives. I usually played with Charley in his division, several levels above my age group. That was uncomfortable for me sometimes. The older kids gave me a bad time, just because I was young, but they wanted Charley on their team, so they learned to tolerate me, and I learned to keep my mouth shut, and to make myself scarce after the games. I also became a pretty good ball player.
That spring we’d been invited to New Denver to play a game on Victoria Day. That was a national holiday in Canada, you know. The old queen had been dead for 50 years, but we were still celebrating her birthday like she was alive, waving our Union Jacks, because, well, Canada didn’t have its own flag in those days and it was part of the British Empire. I guess tradition dies hard in our part of the world, or maybe we are just slow to change. In any case, our team was in New Denver, a small town on the shore of Slocan Lake. We were taking part in the community’s annual Spring celebration, and that’s where my story begins.
New Denver is one of those little towns in the interior of the province where the Japs from the West Coast were interned during the war. Well, I know I shouldn’t use that word, but that was what everyone called them in those days. It wasn’t just immigrants from Japan. It was a racial thing. They had to go whether they were born in Canada or not. The way I heard it, the Mounties just rounded them up and put them on trains headed East. They lost everything: fish boats, houses, personal property. It seems a shame when you think about it now, but in those days no one was surprised. It was for their own good. That’s what my father said. So much hostility down in Vancouver. After Pearl Harbor, a lot of people thought there was going to be an invasion.
All the little towns in our area got wartime internment camps. And the Japanese had to damn well stay there too. They couldn’t come into the bigger centres like Nelson, where my family lived. Charley and I knew about the camps. We’d seen them from the road when we drove by with my Dad on fishing trips. That was the way it was, and nobody made a fuss about it. After the war it took time for things to change. There were lots of rules and regulations. Some of the families moved out of the camps, relocating in other parts of the country, and some gave in to government pressure to go back to Japan, but the rest stayed put in those little towns, because they were still not allowed to return to the West Coast.
Our baseball game was the main event of the afternoon celebrations. The morning featured a parade down Main Street, led by the Kootenay Kiltie Pipe Band from Nelson. They were followed by the local fire department volunteers mounted on an old but gleaming pump truck, a car full of scarlet coated Royal Canadian Mounted Police, five clowns and two jugglers, the boy scouts and the girl guides, and children with decorated bicycles, tricycles and wagons. Then came the floats, the first one loaded with little girls in frilly white dresses and little boys in starched white shirts and bow ties, all clutching streamers that hung down from the top of a wobbly May Pole. They were followed by half a dozen decorated trucks sponsored by local service clubs and associations. We were standing there in our baseball uniforms, whistling and hooting as the floats went by. But it was the last float that I remember most.
“Get a load of those Jap chicks!” someone said.
On the back of a 5 ton flatbed that was covered with paper flowers, there was a flowering cherry tree, and under its branches, sitting and standing, were girls in colorful Kimonos, bound with wide silk sashes and bundled with big bows at the back. The girls had rosy cheeks and red lips, and their black hair was swept up and full of flowers and combs. They had paper fans and parasols, and sandals with raised soles. One of them was playing a funny sounding string instrument, and they were singing a song whose words sounded like…sa-koo-ra… sa-koo-ra. I had never seen, or heard, anything like that before. The girls were beautiful. As they passed, the crowd on the sidewalk clapped and cheered, and my team-mates made their usual stupid remarks, which I will not repeat. But we were impressed with the oriental splendour on the deck of that 5 ton. Some of us ran down the sidewalk to the front of the parade so we could watch that float pass again. The girls were throwing cherry blossom twigs out over the onlookers’ heads. I jumped up and tried to catch one, but Charley grabbed it instead. The girl who threw it was looking at me. That is what I remember. We looked right into each other’s eyes. Then she turned away as the float passed by.
It is difficult to describe what I felt at that moment, but it was intense. My stomach tingled and my face burned and I was embarrassed and elated and excited and I didn’t know what to do. I did not want Charley or any of the team to notice, but I felt that something strange was happening to me.
The parade made its way to the fair grounds with its midway and festive competitions. You know the kind of thing, foot races, sack races, spoon and egg races, three-legged races. I would have participated if it hadn’t been for the scornful looks of my baseball buddies. After all, in a couple of hours we were going to be the main attraction. Meanwhile we ate hamburgers and hotdogs and cotton candy, watched the kids on the carousel and scouted out the ball diamond at the far end of the field.
The game was scheduled for early afternoon. As we warmed up, I glanced at the cherry blossom float parked in the distance behind the hotdog tent. I wondered what had become of the girls in their kimonos. By the time the game began, they were sitting in the stands. I knew I was going to have trouble playing ball with that girl watching me.
We had never played this New Denver team before. Our regular league included most of the larger towns in the area: Trail, Rossland, Creston, Cranbrook… but New Denver played in a league with the other smaller towns, like Slocan City, Kaslo, and Greenwood. These teams, like New Denver, were made up mostly of Japanese players. It was only in special invitational situations like this one that we got a chance to see what the small town teams could do.
The New Denver ball club was no push-over. Charley did his best to keep their hits to a minimum, but they got on base one way or another, and they were great runners. My performance did not help matters. I muffed an easy pop up behind the plate, and then, with a runner stealing second base, I pegged the ball over the baseman’s head. I never make flubs like that in a game. What was happening? I knew that girl was watching me, and I wanted to be magnificent, but the harder I tried the more errors I made. Charley glared at me from the mound, and stopped responding to my signals. It was his way of showing disgust. I didn’t do much better at bat. I struck out twice, and was tagged out trying to steal second. Their catcher’s throw was like a rifle shot, right past the pitcher’s ear to the second baseman’s glove, which was waiting for me as I tried to slip by. This was not what we were expecting.
Charley and I had been playing together for a long time. We had gained a reputation for giving base runners a lot of trouble. Very few of them stole bases on the Prendergast boys. That was an acknowledged fact in our regular league, but no one had informed the New Denver team of this threat. Inning after inning they maintained their lead, and it was their base running that was giving them the edge.
“Nail that little Jap bastard!” the coach snarled at us. By the third inning we knew his name was Billy Tanaka. Charley and I tried to pick him off on every base, but despite his extravagant lead-offs, he was incredibly quick in getting back a millisecond before the baseman put the ball on him. He laughed at us, and the crowd in the stands laughed too, as he streaked down the base lines and slid under the infielders’ gloves. He had come in three times, once by stealing home. My despair was turning into anger.
In the top of the eighth we managed to bring in two more runs, tying the score. For a while it looked like we might just pull this one off, but in the bottom half of the inning things took a turn for the worse. With one away, there was Tanaka on third base. Talk about tension! It was between him and me now. I was not going to let him get by again. I signaled for an outside curve, but Charley fired a fastball right down the inside. I guess he was trying to intimidate the batter, who managed to jerk back and clonk the ball with the lower part of the bat. Charley dived off the mound but missed the ball. By the time the shortstop grabbed it, Tanaka was almost on me. I knew the throw was going to be too late, so I deliberately stepped out onto the base line to block him. I didn’t care if it was an illegal move or not. I was expecting a collision, but at least I thought I would stop him. I was wrong. Tanaka went into his slide and came at me feet first, hitting my shin guards and knocking my legs out from under me. He just went right on through, his spikes tearing sock and skin at the side of my shin guard as I went down. By the time I jumped back up it was all over. Tanaka had scored and the home crowd was going crazy.
I limped over to the dugout, got a couple of band-aids slapped on my leg, and finished the inning. We failed to score in the top of the ninth, and so New Denver beat us. It was a humiliating defeat. We all knew that my dismal performance was to blame, but no one, not even Charley, mentioned it. I was thankful for that.
We changed our clothes in the dugout, and wandered over to the midway to get something to eat. We threw darts at balloons, knocked prizes off shelves with BB guns, and played Crown and Anchor. We were all under the legal age to gamble, but the croupiers scooped our money off the tables anyway. We were also under the legal drinking age, which was 21 in those days, but that did not prevent the rest of the team from going back into town to soak up a few beers before the dance began. It was time for me to fade away. We had a kind of unwritten agreement between Dad and Charley and me that I would not participate in that part of the team’s activities.
I hung around the midway by myself for a while, and then went across the road and down to the lake. There were a few people there under the big cottonwood trees, families, their children playing at the edge of the water. It was a peaceful scene after the uproar of the game and the hustle of the fairground. I lay in the shade and closed my eyes and listened to the waves rattling the pebbles as it lapped at the shingle beach. The dance would not begin for a few hours.
The sun was about to go down behind the mountains by the time I got up and started to wander along the lake front. I wondered if the fish were biting. The shoreline gradually curved around towards the mouth of the creek that separated the two parts of the town. There was a trail through the willows that led along the edge of the water. The air was warm, and full of cottonwood fluff floating down from the trees, and the creek was high and noisy with the spring run-off. I was taking my time, enjoying the loneliness of the evening, when I came around a clump of bushes and there was a girl sitting on a log. She was startled at my sudden appearance. As she stood up I recognized her. She was the one from the float. She was wearing a regular cotton dress now, but her hair was still done up the way it had been earlier. My stomach twisted into a knot. I didn’t know what to do.
“Is this the way to the community hall, where the dance is going to be?” I asked, awkwardly, hoping my voice would carry over the noise of the creek.
“No,” she said. “It’s back there, the way you came.” I felt dizzy. I took a step towards her. I was trying to move, and act, naturally.
“I saw you in the parade,” I said. I could feel my face going hot again, but I was talking to her. I was moving past my fear, and she was smiling.
“I saw you playing baseball,” she said.
“Oh, you saw that?” I said. “You saw all those errors I made?” And we both laughed, and then it became a little easier.
“It’s a beautiful evening,” I said, after a pause that was almost too long.
“Yes,” she said. There was another pause. “This is my favorite spot. I sit here and listen to the creek and look at the lake and the mountains.”
I turned and looked out at what she had been contemplating. The Valhalas with their snowy peaks on the far side of Slocan Lake were lit up by the last rays of the sun, and there they were again, reflected upside down in the blue-green water.
“That was my bother who spiked you,” she said.
“That …”, I swallowed what I was about to say. “You mean Billy Tanaka?”
“Yes,” she said.
“He’s a pretty good player,” I said, without much enthusiasm, “but he made a mess of my leg.” I reached down and pulled up my cuff. The blood had soaked through the band-aids and was oozing down into my sock.
“Wash it in the creek,” she said.
“Yes!” she said. “The water’s clean. The cold will stop the bleeding.”
“Do it, you big chicken!” she said. I was a bit taken aback, but followed her instructions. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and waded into the creek. The water was freezing. I stood there for a few seconds, and then looked around. She was wading in.
“See,” she said, “it’s not so cold.” I thought of reaching out and touching her, but she was just out of reach, and my feet were too numb to move. Finally I hobbled out of the water. The band-aids had come off and the bleeding had stopped.
“I have to go home now,” she said, putting on her shoes.
“Aren’t you going to the dance?”
“No. My father says I’m too young. I have to be home before dark.” As soon as I had my shoes and socks on she began to run down the path along the creek. I followed her. When we got close to the bridge she stopped. “I live over there,” she said, pointing across the creek. There were a few lights flickering through the trees. I couldn’t see much else, but I knew what it would be like. Rows of little wooden shacks with tar paper roofs and tin stove-pipe chimneys.
“We call it the Orchard,” she said.
“Can I walk you home?”
“No, I’ll get in trouble.”
“What’s your name?”
“There’s something I want to ask you, Vicky”
“I have to go.” She said.
“What does sakoora sakoora mean, the words in the song?”
She looked surprised. Then she looked at me and began to sing, softly, but loud enough for me to hear.
Sakura Sakura…Yayoi no sora wa… miwatasu kagiri…
She broke off, turned and ran a few yards down the path, then stopped and turned back.
“It means cherry blossoms,” I could hardly make out her words over the noise of the creek.
“Cherry blossoms as far as you can see.” She shouted. I watched her run across the bridge and disappear.
There was no one else around. I stood there for a while, and then sat down on a log. Gradually more lights winked on across the creek. I tried to convince myself that she would somehow be able to slip out of the house and come back. I must have stayed there for several hours. It was pleasant enough. A warm evening. I could smell the blossoms. The sky, as much as I could see beyond the tree branches, was full of stars. Eventually I walked up to the highway and over to the main part of town. When I reached the Community Hall the dance was just closing down.
“Where were you?” Charley asked.
“Just walking around,” I said.
* * *
On July 1st, Confederation Day as it was called in those days, we had a return game in Nelson. This time we won. After the game I asked one of the New Denver players why Billy Tanaka was not with them.
“The family moved back to the coast as soon as the restrictions were lifted,” he said. “His old man was a fisherman.”
* * *
That’s the end of the story, of course. Nothing left now but the memory, and this scar on my leg that nobody else notices. These last few days I’ve been looking for Vicky Tanaka on the internet. I wonder if she still remembers the noise of the creek, and the cottonwood fluff floating down through the trees. I want to know if she ever thinks about that parade, and the baseball game, and the little guy who talked to her down by the water. I would like to find her. I want her to say that it really happened.
Lionel Kearns was born in Nelson, British Columbia. In 1955 Kearns moved to Vancouver to work on the CPR trains, and to enroll at the University of British Columbia, where he associated with a number of young writers, including George Bowering, Frank Davey and others in the TISH group. Since his first publication in 1959, Kearns has been steadily producing poetry volumes as well as poems, stories and essays that appear in various magazines and anthologies in Canada and around the world. His work ranges from traditional pieces in print to more experimental and dynamic screen-based forms. Kearns currently writes and develops his art in Vancouver. His new book of poems, A Few Words Will Do, was published by Talon Books, Vancouver, in 2007. Visit the author at www.lionelkearns.com