Celebrating 100 Years of Oakland Technical High School
William Forester, Class of 1948
While at old-man chores, I muse about the 1940s. Then, as now, government policies seem a mix of folly and wisdom. In 1942, we citizens, largely mute, collectively failed to challenge governmental “Relocation” of Japanese American Citizens and their families to remote camps, totally disrupting their lives. Relocation started in 1942, during my first weeks of junior high school. Most folks scarcely noticed Relocation apart from passing newspaper coverage; no debate and too much cheering. Racism was always thematic in our land; in this lately-declared war, American Jingoism too surged to the fore.
1942 was the year. That was the season I first rode Key System Transit to school. The #59 bus meandered down from hilly Montclair through the Rockridge District. At the intersection of College & Broadway we transferred to a #6 streetcar, which carried us out College Avenue to our school, Claremont Junior High. As a kid from the lily-white hill district, who had attended a lily-white hill elementary school, I had never encountered a citizen of Japanese ancestry. Narrow? Indeed! Blasé? Sure! We lived with whatever innocence was possible in a culture shot-through with racism. At Claremont I met, and soon learned to really like, Stuart McCormick. Stu recently died; his memorial will occur tomorrow. The changes of circumstance — from the Great Depression to WWII mobilization — impacted our juvenile lives. Mobilization took millions of men from the national labor pool; it afforded energetic kids increased opportunity to earn money — doing paid work of many types. Kids still played, and attended school as usual, but many worked for wages. Life without smart phones was neither dull nor idle.
Stuart worked at Auer’s Market on College Avenue. Al Mendoza sold newspapers at 40th and Broadway where the C trains dropped commuters to/from San Francisco. I worked as a parcel handler at the United Parcel Service plant on 24th Street. Forty-two cents per hour was real money, needed by the poorer kids/families, and appreciated by the rest. Depression prices meant a nickel had measurable purchasing power. A Coke or a Mars bar could be had for a mere Buffalo-Nickel. A long ride on a bus and streetcar cost 1/14th dollar; seven tokens for fifty cents. The public transportation systems were crucial to our mobility. For example, the Key System carried me to/from school. With frequent service, it also carried me to/from work six evenings per week, always well after dark, with but one transfer at College/Broadway.
Perhaps by courtesy of the national propaganda apparatus (the national Office of War Information), the Claremont Junior High School student body were treated, en masse and free, to a spectacular one-man show. A (presumably Russian) man brought to our school stage an array of fifteen different-sized Balalaikas. This vaudevillian strummer-singer made those Balalaikas cry, croon, or thunder, as he plucked the strings of exotic guitars with triangular bodies! He played/sang Russian tunes, ranging from lullabies to martial music. Fancy that! Trying to teach American juveniles the art of the Balalaika! Well, I suppose we may have learned Stalin was our ally, for that present moment. After the war we were taught wartime friendship can be a temporary expedient. War morale was high; a priority. We patriotically saved tinfoil, rubber-bands, and animal fats; we longed for more gasoline, meat and butter than was allocated. We bought war stamps/bonds, sang patriotic songs, and read newspapers.
In 1942, Claremont Junior High School had an ‘open-campus’. Did we have learning opportunities? The amenities of the streets of North Oakland, including varied bakeries, creameries, soda-fountains, burgers & hot-dog joints afforded an ample landscape for adolescents to experience new, and ever-broadening, educational, social, musical and recreational opportunities. Our classes, noon dances, school shops, Lake Temescal Park & playfields, Forest Pool, the Cal Stadium, the College Bowl, Radio was everywhere; movie theatres too were a part of this rich tapestry of learning opportunity. With the use of public telephone booths and an occasional movie, we were inevitably growing toward adulthood.
In January 1945, Stu, I, and a couple hundred other graduates of Claremont Jr. High matriculated at OTHS. Tech served large chunks of our city that was both polyglot and polyethnic. My classes were increasingly ethnically integrated; soon I had scores of friendly Asian classmates; I began learning something of Chinese culture and cuisine; both vastly rich traditions.
After one term of high school English, I opted/gravitated to the staff of the school newspaper, the Scribe, and in senior year I worked on the Jan 1948 Yearbook. I recall a very busy, largely carefree whirl of activities; a very happy time. Putatively more mature at age 17-18, nevertheless I was oblivious to the low-profile presence of a handful of new classmates; the class roster had recently enlarged a bit. The names were clearly Japanese. These students had lately returned, to their home turf, after release from the War Relocation Camps. Yet I failed to notice their return; not to mention their departure back in 1942.
After the abuse of their rights of citizenship for four years, these late comers should have been warmly recognized, welcomed and invited into the school’s circles of friendship. As our editorial crew worked over the details of the graduating class, the Japanese names should have been noted, but in fact they were never mentioned. To my enduring shame I failed to observe their presence. I failed to acknowledge them with a friendly word.
Only in 1950, at UC Berkeley, did I meet Toyo Masa Fuse, then a UC foreign student from Japan. In summer 1951 I was first acquainted with Grant Noda, a Nisei ‘Relocatee’. My first taste of Japanese food occurred late in 1952 at Azuma Tei, a restaurant of Monterey.
Ten years later, as Stu and I did, most of our peers went to the Korea War. A few died, more than a few gravitated to a life as military careerists. Most came home to continue their lives. While stationed in Tokyo during the Korea War, I learned a good deal of Japanese culture, decorative art, performance art, and cuisine. My interest in Japanese persons, issues, history, art, culture etc. has been life-long.
Through past decades, each time I browse our 66 years old yearbook, I see names and photos of a half-dozen [probably Nisei] Technites of Japanese extraction. They are: Glenn Kawamoto, Kayoko Mary Kita, Kimiko Wong née Kitagaki — thought to reside in SF’s Sunset district, Sunao Morizomo d. April 19, 2006 Danville, CA, Mayumi Shiozawa, Ed Takeuchi – d. August 24, 2013 Pinole CA. Logically all six must have been relocated. As a lifelong card carrying civil libertarian, I now abjure the shameful history our Japanese American classmates endured.