Guest Post: Facing the Beast by Peggy O’Connor

I received a number of private emails in response to my blog essay Aftermath, which I wrote the day after the January 6th invasion of our Capitol building. A number of my readers wrote about not only their own fears and reactions, but that my perspective had given them some hope. Of course, that pleased me. Still, I hadn’t thought of it as a hopeful essay; it was simply my way of trying to process the frightening events using the one tool I have… writing.

One email — from Peggy O’Connor — was different from the rest. She told a story from her childhood in the “genteel” South and in occupied Japan. It’s a tale of innocence told with love, and yet with a clear understanding also of her ignorance of the worlds in which she lived. Peggy’s email resonated with me, capturing a simple truth that we can take from January 6th. I’m honored that Peggy chose to share her story with me, and has now given me permission to share it with you. (Please read it to the end; it isn’t going to be what you expect.)

“I read your article. It is uplifting. You are describing a moment in time where we must face the beast, and in facing it, overcome our fear of responding to it. The scab has been ripped off, and the infection beneath is exposed for cleaning and healing with care and attention.

“I have a childhood tale, one which informed my world view as a Southerner.

“First, I was from East Texas, where my Granddaddy served the community as town doctor. He was revered by all, black and white. The rich paid money, and the poor paid in chickens. Black and Brown and White families were treated with equal urgency. My Grandfather was a Baptist Deacon, church leader, and my Grandmother was a Church Lady. She had manners, and treated the help well. The “help” was Black and Hispanic men and women who cooked the meals and tended the garden, and helped with the grandchildren (including me) while we waited for Dad to return from Korea after spending the entire WWII on the front lines in the Pacific with the US Navy as a Chaplain. The Confederate flag was a common sight at the frequent town parades where men showed off their prize horses.

“We had a 600 acre farm, granted by Spain to my great great grandfather on my Grandmother’s side. A Polish family sharecropped the farm. My Grandaddy treated all their ills for free, and rebuilt the farmhouse to be wheelchair accessible when old man Wiscnoski had a stroke. Grandaddy supplied the treatment, and the wheelchair, too.

“This was the genteel south, totally blind to racism and the horrors of slavery. The Civil War was about states rights, not slavery, so they taught us, and the Confederacy was noble, they said.

“As far as I know, there were no Jewish people in town.

“When Dad came back from Korea, severely shell shocked after 10 straight years of war, the Navy began to move us around. First to South Texas where I was one of 3 white kids in a one room schoolhouse with a wood burning stove. Spanish was the main language. I was a minority. I fell in love with a Mexican-American boy (first grade), chased him down, and kissed him. My parents were brought in and told about the incident, as if it were a tremendous problem because of the racial thing. Fortunately, my parents paid no attention, just smiled and nodded, and my first crush was not squashed.

“Later, we moved to California, 2nd grade. The schools were integrated. I had Black friends, and my Grandparents just got used to it somehow. Then we moved to Tennessee, Memphis, 1956. The school was segregated, and my schoolmates were all poor white sharecroppers. We lived in a rural area and across the street was a family of 7, desperately poor. My mother brought them large boxes of groceries every week, and the whole gang of kids came to our house every Wednesday evening to watch Walt Disney.”

“After living in a totally integrated California, Memphis confused me. No one told me how different this Southern cauldron of racial strife would be, so when I encountered a water fountain in the department store which had a sign that said “Colored”, I ran gleefully over to drink what I thought would be rainbow colored water. Just as I turned the faucet on, a store clerk snatched me away and sternly admonished me to never, ever touch one of those colored fountains again. I blushed with fear and confusion and anger and embarrassment. I never told my parents what happened, I just worried about it now and then.”

“Grandaddy died in Shelby County. After we brought his body back to East Texas to be buried on the farm, we moved to Japan, right after the Occupation.”

“I was 10 years old, and I took to Japanese culture, language, values, and norms the way only a 10 year old primed for acculturation can absorb. My friends were Japanese neighborhood kids and Navy Brats. We lived in Kamakura, in a house on the beach that my parents bought for $400.00. Too bad they sold it when we left. Kamakura has some of the most expensive real estate in the world now. Kamakura was the site of the Big Buddha, and every Saturday, I rode my bicycle to the Big Buddha park, fed the deer, and climbed over the fence to sit with the Buddhist monks in meditation in an open air temple. I don’t know why they tolerated me, but they did. Years later I would formally take up Buddhist studies and meditation.

“I learned to love fish and rice and fried octopus on a stick and giant Japanese vegetables, made huge by human manure. I danced in weekly parades in full kimono garb and wooden geta shoes. We sang the Japanese National Anthem every morning, and I remember it to this day.

“We travelled everywhere in Japan except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No one ever talked about the war, or the bombs. In school, the focus of our international teachers was on language skills and Japanese history — we visited museums every week.

“When we returned to the USA, Texas, I was 13. I dressed like a Japanese school girl complete with pleated skirts and white socks and patent leather shoes. The American girls dressed like ladies in pumps and lots of petticoats and wore makeup. I didn’t fit in. In the 9th grade I dropped out of school. I read lots of books and rode my horse. Still no one talked about the war, the bombs, and what it all meant.

“I eventually went to a private Baptist boarding school, placed out of 3 years of missed high school, and graduated in one year. I was 17 and immediately entered the University of Texas.

“One day, I was wandering around the stacks in the Tower library on the top floor. I found a photo journalist book about Hiroshima and Nagasaki right after the bombing. The pictures were horrific, and as I paged through the book I realized the enormity of this tragedy. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to scream. I burst into tears, and wept for a very long time, sitting on the floor, alone in the stacks. My entire world view was changed permanently. Everything that was unsaid, was finally said.

“We have to face the horror in order to leave the horror to history.”

 

 

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