Thursday, 3 November 2011

Grandpa Ping

So I thought I would share it with you. It's part of a series I'm working on, so feedback very welcome! This one is all about Grandpa Ping.

Grandpa Ping was in one of those camps out in California in the war. Never quite got over it. At the time he protested, said he shouldn’t go to the camp because he wasn’t Japanese. Told the military he was like a mongrel dog, a little bit of everything, all kinds of Asian thrown in together like some sort of soup. Turns out the soldiers processing him weren’t really listening, heard the word “dog” and the word “soup”, came up with “dog soup” and thought ‘this guy Ping is a troublemaker’. Started his time at the camp in solitary. Got a lifelong hatred of men with clipboards from that day. Didn’t like dogs much either.

Jimmy Ping said his grandpa stayed in California for as long as he could stand, then moved here to get away from the weather. Jimmy used to come visit for the holidays when he was a kid; his father and mother ran a grocery store in Sacramento, always busy, too busy to take a break when their son was out of school. So Jimmy came to Steelton for summers and winters. When Grandma Ping was still alive, the Pings were out and about a lot; they’d play bridge; they’d pop in to Becker’s for a soda from time to time; they helped with the fireworks every 4th of July. Grandma Ping was a dynamo, a bubble of energy, fast friends with Mrs Gleason at the pharmacy. Grandma Ping taught Mrs Gleason some Japanese; Mrs Gleason taught Grandma Ping enough Latin to understand prescriptions, so she could stand in the pharmacy and, by listening in, figure out what was wrong with everyone else in town. That was Grandma Ping’s daytime soap, her religion: she could gossip her life away on other people’s ailments.

When Grandma Ping died, Jimmy came to live with his Grandpa full time. He was sixteen or so by then, and his folks said “we don’t need you at the store; we’ve got enough little Pings around to take over”. Something like that, so Jimmy told us. Jimmy came to Steelton to look after his Grandpa, finish his schooling, get himself something to do. He was one of the last people to move in rather than move out.

Grandpa Ping never forgot his time at the camp at Tule Lake. There, he was surrounded by those Japanese deemed most dangerous or least trustworthy, like some kind of devils’ yearbook. Most Likely To Start An Insurrection. Most Likely To Be Passing Secrets To The Enemy. Grandpa Ping would have been the kid on the page who was Most Likely Just To Annoy Everyone By Being A Pain In The Ass And Get Himself Into More Trouble Than He Deserved. He should never have gone to Tule Lake; he would never have gone there if he could just behave himself, keep quiet, answer questions simply, show a little respect. The whole thing about being some kind of Asian mongrel was just the beginning. After that there was the time he started trading in oranges, pretty much the only fruit that came into the camp; he would buy and sell, trade oranges (which he didn’t eat) for cigarettes (which he didn’t smoke) for cash (which he couldn’t spend). By the time he was rumbled, he’d got about $2,000 in small bills and coins, enough to get him more time in solitary and a few extra enemies, American and Japanese. Then there was the time he decided to pal up to the guards, offered to teach them some Japanese phrases so they could communicate better with the prisoners. Given the prisoners all spoke pretty good English, no-one’s quite clear why the guards said yes. But lo and behold, they learned some phrases and, next time there was a health check up or a roll call or something, they tried to organise everyone into orderly lines by shouting “Your mother was a dirty whore” and “You have the penis of a tiny mouse”. Once they calmed the riot, there were two guards dead, a bunch of injured Japanese and Grandpa Ping at the sideline laughing like a hyena.

For every moment like that, Grandpa Ping bought himself six months of trouble. Solitary confinement, reduced rations, extra labour duty. Managed to turn everyone against him - the guards, the administration, the other prisoners, the locals. After the war ended and he went home to San Diego, word had spread. Everyone knew that gaki Ping was trouble; he found himself blacklisted even amongst his old friends and neighbours. Moved up to San Francisco where things were a bit more open; people moved on a bit quicker; trade kept everyone with their eyes and minds open to the Pacific. That’s where he met Grandma Ping who fell hook, line and sinker for his tales of mischief and created herself her own little hero.

The rest is only so much sandwich filling, but the thing with Grandpa Ping was that he could never let go of what had happened to him at Tule Lake. The isolation. The punishment. In some ways, the certainty of the place too, the routine, the order. Once Grandma Ping had gone, and Jimmy had shown up with his own brand of chaos, something changed with Grandpa Ping. We heard about it from Buck Keegan who used to go and help out from time to time, fixed the roof after harsh winters, flushed out some pests that had crawled under the house. What it boils down to is that Grandpa Ping moved himself out of the family home and into a shed at the end of the yard. He would get up every day at dawn, kick pebbles around the yard all day, then go to bed at sundown. Keegan said that Jimmy would bring food out to his grandfather; each day Grandpa Ping would only eat a fixed amount of it, there would always be something left over. It was like he was back on rations again, Keegan said. A few months in, he got Keegan to bring over some barbed wire, put up a fence around the shed, made himself his own internment camp right there in his yard.

We asked Jimmy about it. He didn’t like to say much, just that it made the old man happy and who could argue with that. Then Norm Hayden and George Corrigan got talking to Julie Stensson one evening when Julie popped into Becker’s to bring in some extra chips after Becker hadn’t ordered enough. And Julie was telling them what she’d heard about Grandpa Ping and said:

“What he needs is a friend. Someone who’s been through the same sort of thing.”

That got everyone thinking and then George Corrigan said “What about Old Eli?” and it was the best idea that he or any of us could have had. Old Eli had lived in Steelton as long as anyone could remember. He’d come straight from Europe at the end of the War. He had the look of a man who was always being followed, like his shadow was his enemy, but like he knew he couldn’t run fast enough to get away. As the years passed, his long face grew longer, jowlier, until he came to look like a tired old bloodhound. Everyone knew things about Old Eli without being told. We knew Old Eli had seen some things in the war, things that haunted him. We knew he had lost people back in Europe and that he kept hoping that maybe someone was alive and that he would send out letters trying to trace people from the dark days. This was enough - to Julie Stensson and to George Corrigan and to Norm Hayden - to put him together with Grandpa Ping and get the two of them to be friends, maybe help break Grandpa Ping out of the strange pattern he’d fallen into.

Julie Stensson spoke to Old Eli the next time he was in the store. She had that kind of way about her, that she could bring up these subjects, sensitive things, in a way that didn’t feel like she was prying or sticking her nose in. Old Eli listened patiently then said that of course he would pop by and see Grandpa Ping and maybe talk a little about the old days and see what Grandpa Ping would say.

So life moved on, and Old Eli and Grandpa Ping became firm friends, sitting together in Grandpa Ping’s yard playing chess or walking around the yard kicking pebbles together. We’d thought that having someone come to visit might get Grandpa Ping to come into his house, sit in some comfort, settle back in, but it turns out Old Eli was just as happy out in Grandpa Ping’s camp as Grandpa Ping was. Jimmy Ping used to look out of the back window of the house and see the two of them, relaxed in the sunshine or cowering in the rain, always outside, heads bowed together over the chessboard, sharing their food, talking, always talking.

It was Steve Akers who first got us worried. The Akers house was a few doors from Old Eli’s, and sometimes the post would get messed up. Steve had complained to Dana Morton who ran the post office and didn’t live that far away herself, saying how could she get it wrong when this wasn’t exactly a big town. Dana shrugged her shoulders, said it wasn’t her fault if people didn’t address things properly and turned her attention back to whatever gossip magazine she was reading. Loved her gossip magazines, Dana did; she was always nose deep in the latest shenanigans of this movie star or that wannabe. Like she could ever dream of being like them, with her pudding-bowl haircut and her puddingy face and her puddingy figure. Anyway, Dana wouldn’t do anything to make the post get where it was meant to be, so it was up to the rest of us to make sure letters got to where they needed to be. And sometimes, by accident, you would just open a letter that came through your door that wasn’t meant for you.

So Steve Akers had opened up this letter that wasn’t for him, but for Old Eli. And once he’d opened it, he started reading. And once he’d started reading, even though he knew it wasn’t his letter, he just couldn’t stop. Because this letter came from someone who’d been with Old Eli in the war, who’d been at the same camp, who was bringing Old Eli up to date on this and that piece of news, and who was reminiscing about what it was like back in the war, back in the camp, back in charge of all of those prisoners. And this was the point that Steve Akers got; this was what he told us that got us worried. Turns out that Old Eli wasn’t a prisoner in a camp in Poland or Czechoslovakia or wherever: he was a guard. Old Eli was a Nazi. Now Creaky Joe, the barber, when he heard about this, said how can he be a Nazi when he’s a Jew, and the rest of us said maybe he isn’t a Jew, but Creaky Joe said he definitely is. And Becker said that maybe he had converted to Judaism at some point; and Tuke McCall who isn’t subtle at the best of times said did this mean that Old Eli had felt so guilty over taking Jews out of the world that he decided to add one back in, and things started to threaten to get out of hand, so Becker told everyone to calm it down a bit and turned up the volume on the ball game to distract us from each other.

Still, Old Eli had been a Nazi guard and Grandpa Ping had been a prisoner, even if it had been in a camp in California which was very different from what Old Eli had been running. It seemed that Grandpa Ping should know about this, or at least that Jimmy Ping should, so Julie Stensson went to talk to Jimmy, to tell him what was going on. And Jimmy took Julie down to the end of the yard where Grandpa Ping and Old Eli were playing chess, and Jimmy said “Eli, can we talk to you for a moment?”

“Of course, Jimmy. What do you need?”
“When you were in the war….” Jimmy Ping started, then stalled, so Julie Stensson carried on. “In the prison camp, Eli. What did you do there?”

“Well, I suffered. We all suffered. I hoped. I prayed, and the Lord carried me through.” Old Eli looked as holy as a pope as he spoke.

Julie persisted. “But what did you do?”

“What we all did. Hoped for the best. Tried to survive….”

Jimmy lost patience. “Eli. What we’re trying to ask: were you a guard in a Nazi concentration camp?”

Eli smiled a smile of resignation, like he’d just had to fold on the most convincing bluff he’d ever played. He seemed to shrink a little too, to become two or three inches shorter, like he’d let out a great breath he’d been holding for fifty years. “Yes, Jimmy. Yes. I was.”

Jimmy Ping and Julie Stensson just kind of stared at him for a while. Old Eli stared back. It was Grandpa Ping who broke the silence.

“We were all different people in the war, Jimmy. Back then, I was a prisoner, right here in America. Eli was a guard over there in Europe. Things change. People change. Time passes. Now we both get to be prisoners here in my yard. Or guards, if you prefer. Really, we’re just two old men who like to sit and play chess and pass the time of day. Now will you get out of here? It’s his move and I think I’m going to beat him for once.”

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