by A. Miller
The first thing I did was steal my dad’s gun. I needed one because I knew there’d be soldiers at the racetrack, and Dad’s got an old Colt from when he was guarding a bank back in Stillwater. He says he never killed anybody with it, but I figure that’s just modesty. I figure the only person tougher than my dad is Joe Louis, and even then you never know.
Anyhow, the next thing I did was take a Red Car trolley all the way past Pasadena to Arcadia. It was Saturday so I had to leave from Sixth Street, and that’s where I fouled up the first time. One of the conductors came walking up in his uniform and asked me where I was headed, calling me “little fella” and all that. Well, I was so keyed up I said right out:
“To the racetrack.”
Now everybody knows Santa Anita’s been closed since the war started, so he kind of squinted and looked at me funny.
But I handled it all right. I told him my aunt lived right by the track and I always went to see her on Saturdays. “On account of she’s dying,” I said, and that did the trick: the conductor gave me a real serious nod and patted me on the head, and then I was on the trolley and we were chugging east into the mountains.
I can’t remember when I first got the idea of breaking Mike out of prison. I guess it was when he sent me that letter about how he had to leave but he’d be back in no time and we’d go find the gold. The truth is we’ve been friends pretty much forever--six months, at least--and he’s the only person at Calvin Coolidge who isn’t an idiot.
Calvin Coolidge is full of idiots. I always thought Mike was an idiot too till the day Bobby Healey pinned me down on the concrete for insulting his girlfriend, who’s a big tall girl who looks just like a horse except no one will ever say so since Bobby Healey’s so mean. Anyhow, there I was getting the skin rubbed off my face when Mike walks up and says:
“You better watch out, Bobby, because Mr. Symes is coming and he looks mad.”
Well, as soon as he said that Bobby jumped up and let me go, only Mr. Symes wasn’t even at school that day--it was all a lie, and I knew right then that Mike wasn’t an idiot. After that we were best friends. What we both like most of all is history, and we always go to a little table in the corner of the library and look at books together--big old books that Mike picks out because he’s got the best eye for books I’ve ever seen.
Anyhow, one day Mike brings this dusty old book over to the table and sets it down real careful, like it’s made of jewels. And what do you think was inside? Maps. Probably the oldest maps ever made, all about the early days of California, when the Spaniards had an empire and they were always sending priests and other people up through Los Angeles and other places to build towns and convert the Indians, who were heathens.
Well, Mike and I knew something about Spaniards. What they liked best of all was gold, and they sent it all over the world in these big old ships called galleons, and these ships were always wrecking on rocks and cliffs and things and then people had to go down and pick up all the gold that was scattered on the ocean floor. So Mike looked at me and said in that quiet voice of his:
“I bet those priests had gold too, when they came up here. I bet there’s gold buried under all the missions they built.”
Well, you see now what kind of brain Mike has. That’s logical deduction pure and simple, and right then we decided we ought to go dig for gold at all the missions, starting with the one at San Gabriel.
Anyhow, that was our plan, but then one day Mike wasn’t at school, and the next day I got that letter in the mail, telling me where he was and why he had to go, and that’s when I decided to steal my dad’s gun and take that trolley out to the racetrack.
Of course I wasn’t stupid: I got out a few stops before the track and walked the rest of the way. I figured it’d take me ten minutes or so, but do you know what? It took me two hours--two hours of dead walking right along the road with that pistol in my satchel. By the time I finally saw the track I probably had forty gallons of sweat on my body and what I wanted most of all was a Coke; but of course I didn’t have one, so instead I checked my pistol to make sure I had enough bullets to shoot a few soldiers if I had to. And I did: six in the chamber and two more in my pocket, just in case it turned into a firefight.
Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the racetrack at Santa Anita, but it’s a nice place. There’s a big fancy building for people to sit in and watch the races, and then there’s stables and things and a big dirt track and a bright green infield that’s full of the lushest grass that grows anywhere in the world.
Or at least that’s the way it used to be. Now it’s all different. Now they got a big barbed wire fence that goes all the way around the track, and big searchlights up on platforms that they can sweep around at night to check for jailbreakers, and miles and miles of little buildings covered in tarpaper, which is where Mike and everybody else has to sleep, on account of there not being enough room for them in the horse stalls.
But the main thing I was interested in was the soldiers, and there was a heck of a lot of them. Somehow in my mind I’d always pictured just one soldier standing over Mike with a rifle in his hands, and me throwing a rock or something or distract his attention, and then me and Mike taking off for the road before he’d even noticed us, and then me maybe having to murder a few people with my gun if they tried to stop us.
But do you know what? When I stopped there on the road and looked down at the track, I could see thousands of people moving around--just thousands of them: civilians and soldiers and I don’t know many million Japanese. It was like a whole city. And the worst part was, I couldn’t tell where Mike was, or which building he lived in, or whether one of the kids I saw walking around was him or not, because from that distance everybody looks the same.
Well, you can imagine how mad I was. Of course the war’s pretty important, and when a war comes along you have to do everything different and everybody has to sacrifice; but when you think how Mike and I were just about to become millionaires on account of all the gold we were going to discover--well, it made me furious that he got locked up. And anyway I don’t see why it matters if he’s a Japanese. Me and my dad come from Oklahoma, and if you’ve ever been there you know Oklahoma’s just as far from California as Japan is.
Anyhow, that’s another way I fouled up. Because while I was standing there on the road being furious, a car came up behind me and this pretty woman leans out the window and says in a real sweet voice:
“Are you lost, little fella?”
Well, I suppose now I should’ve shot her. But the gun was in my satchel, and to tell you the truth I don’t think you ought to shoot a lady unless you have to, especially if she’s pretty. So I just kind of mumbled something and started walking again, but she drove along real slow beside me, asking me who my parents were and what my address was and all that kind of thing.
And do you know what happened? I got kidnapped. Somehow that pretty woman convinced me to get in her car, and the next thing I knew I was in some office at the racetrack and the woman was telling some sergeant or something how I was a lost little boy and then all these people were asking me more questions than I’d ever been asked in my entire life.
I was so mad I started to cry. I’m not ashamed of it. I was mad at myself, mostly, because I saw how I’d gone about rescuing Mike all wrong. What I should’ve done is come at night, and we should’ve worked out some kind of signal between us, a bird call or something, so that I could give a squawk and then he’d give a squawk, and that way I’d know where he was and I could go straight to him instead of getting kidnapped.
Well, you can probably guess what happened after that. That sergeant got real serious and made me tell him my phone number, and then he called my dad, and then about an hour later my dad came bursting into the office all covered in sweat and looking like he was just about nuts.
Now you’ve never heard cussing till you’ve heard my dad. I figure if there was some kind of cussing competition he’d win it every time, and he did pretty well there in the sergeant’s office, going on and on for about ten hours and saying things like “I damn near had a heart attack” and “Don’t you know how goddamn worried I was about you?”
I said I didn’t care if he was worried or not because I was on a rescue mission, and rescue missions are more important than anything else; but he didn’t care about that. Nobody cared except that pretty woman, who was a secretary or something.
“Now who was it you were planning to rescue?” she asked in that real sweet voice.
Since she asked so nice I told her all about Mike, and how we were going to find the gold, and how I don’t mind sacrificing things for the war but the one thing you shouldn’t have to sacrifice is your friends, because you only get so many friends at a place like Calvin Coolidge, especially when you’re small.
Well, I guess that finally made them think, because after that they all got kind of quiet and the sergeant told the secretary she ought to look up Mike’s name and see where he was.
So she went through about a thousand pages of this big book, looking at names and dates and who knows what, and then she got real sad and said she was sorry, but Mike and his folks had only been at the track a few days, because the track’s only kind of a holding station, and eventually everybody gets sent up north to a place called Manzanar.
“The Nakashimas left on Monday,” she said.
“But you don’t have to worry about them, son,” the sergeant put in real quick. “They’ll be just fine up there. We just have to keep an eye on their kind and make sure they don’t do any spying for the enemy.”
At least that’s what I think he said. The truth is I was so mad and crying so much I didn’t even know where I was. If I’d remembered that pistol I probably would’ve massacred the whole bunch of them, but then Dad picked me up and threw me over his shoulder and carried me out to the big old Packard he’d borrowed off Mr. Newhall to come and get me.
Anyhow, we drove home after that. I figure that was probably the worst car ride in the history of the United States. Dad talked straight through the whole time, telling me how bad I was, and how if I ever did anything like that again he’d whip me till I died, and how the sergeant and the people at the track were just good folks who were defending our country and that’s why they’d locked up Mike.
Well, I couldn’t take that. I knew he’d whip me for it, but I told him only an idiot would lock up somebody like Mike, who was probably the best treasure hunter I’d ever met, and I said one day I’d break him out of Manzanar and we’d go dig up the gold in those missions and be millionaires, and if that sergeant ever came up to our mansion we’d tie him up like a bandit and have him shot.
And I meant it, too.
* * *
A. Miller lives in Los Angeles and has stories forthcoming in Kaleidotrope and Big Pulp.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
For the writer, I'd say that finding the right balance between historical accuracy and vivid storytelling is the most important part of a historical fiction story.