Hiro

“Lighten up,” he said, cracking open a beer with his teeth. “Siddown, watch the game with us.” He leaned back in his chair, one hand on his wide belly, the other brandishing the bottle of chilled Anchor Steam Beer. “Have some chips, you’ll see, it’s gonna be a great game.” And he threw his head back to let his laugh ring out, lips drawn back over the strangely stunted, discoloured teeth. “What happened to your teeth, Hiro?” I asked, conscious as ever of my clipped, prim English vowels. He looked at me, reached up with his free hand to tug at the sleek, black pony tail, wiped his hand on his T-shirt and said “Oh that?” Fixing me with his black eyes, he added in his spacious drawl, “Yeah! That’s from the camp. Didn’t you know? Too much fluoride in the water. Some kindda ex- per- iment.” And his laugh rang out again.

He was a potter, a craftsman of exquisite, uncompromising pieces, fired in a kiln of his own devising, fed with a supply of local wood. When I met him he was still teaching, bestowing his expansive laugh and hard-won craftsman’s wisdom on the would-be potters of an ordinary California high school. To me he seemed utterly Japanese with his short, stocky build and lustrous black hair. His Japanese wife, gentle and soft-spoken, ruled with a firm hand. Never seduced by the American dream, she made sure the children spoke Japanese and knew how to eat correctly. But Hiroshi was the all American guy, the high school football coach. He took his football seriously and relished afternoons spent round the TV, downing beers with the guys, digging into the bag of Doritos and holding forth about the merits of the 49ers. I can see him now, sucking on a joint of potent home-grown, throwing popcorn into his mouth, cussing and guffawing. At games, he sang with all the vigour of a true patriot, belting out the Star Spangled Banner with unambiguous enthusiasm, pledging allegiance unquestioningly to the flag.

But for me, there was always the name, Hiro, Hiroshi, Hiroshima. : the mushroom cloud, twisted steel, melted flesh. My parents had been there only a few months after the bomb, granted day passes as officers of the occupying forces to enter the stricken city. We had a fragment of pottery they had picked up and smuggled away from the site. It sat on the mantel in our suburban post-war detached house, a reminder of the horror. I had watched films, gazed in disbelief at those images. I’d signed up for the local CND, always wore my ban the bomb badge, marched and demonstrated against the bomb.

But my new friend Hiroshi did not share my zealotry. Interned as a child with his fellow Japanese Americans, locked away in a camp for the duration of the war, spurned by the country his parents had adopted, he bore no grudges, carried no bitterness. For all I knew, his cousins and grandparents had been obliterated by one of those atom bombs. Righteous anger was the only possible response to those who argued that it had been a necessity. I raged on Hiroshi’s behalf. But he just laughed and turned his attention to his pots, breathing life into shapeless lumps of clay.

 

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