How many of us remember an event or person who inspired and changed our entire life? Most of us have those special “heroes” who came into our lives and our resultant path in life has been led by their influence.
My first memory of hearing a musical sound was when I was 4 years old. It was a melancholy sound of a trumpet, played by a lonely man. I nicknamed him my “Poo-Pa-Poo Man”. He played the same melody over and over again in the school playground. This melody has remained in my brain since I was 5 years old. My mother said she thought the man might be a bit crazy and warned me not to go near him. I defied my mother’s wishes and slipped out of nursery school to see my Poo-Pa-Poo Man while the other children were taking a nap. He was so nice and pushed me on the swing and played his instrument for me. I was so happy, but my mother was not. I then kept my distance as my mother expected, but I was still fascinated by the sound of that repeated melody. This first sound of music led me to a lifetime career as a music educator in public schools and a performing soprano.
At the time I heard my Poo-Pa-Poo Man, I was living in Heart Mountain, Wyoming, where my parents Kizo and Sakaye Kometani, my three older brothers, Ted, Tom, George, and I were incarcerated between 1943-44. We lived together in a single room, 20 X 24 feet – one of 6 such “apartments” located in a tarpaper barrack. At the start of WW II, we, along with 120,000 other Japanese Americans, were sent to one of 10 different internment camps, all because we looked like the enemy. Being only a young child, I thought that this was how all people lived. My parents set out to help us feel as “normal” as possible in an impossible situation. The Japanese word that describes their strength is, “GAMAN”. “Grin and bear it and persevere”. This word gave them quiet strength, which made it possible to remain sane and survive in such difficult times of injustice.
My father was a self-made artist, inventor, and talented machinist and mechanic. He also was a singer and philosopher. We cherished his Dusty Coal Dignity Lesson. Our apartment always had more smoke from our potbellied stove than our neighbors. When we asked him why, he took us to the center of the compound where coal was delivered. People were pushing and hoarding the precious coal - the camps only source of heat in the harsh winters. He waited until everyone had gone and we shoveled the small dusty pieces of coal into our buckets. His lesson was that no matter how hard your life is, don’t act like an animal, and always be human.
After my mother passed away in 2000, we finally found my father’s colored pencil drawing of this scene. All of us were shocked to see the title of the drawing: “The Coal Rush”. My father came to America to join his father when he was 14. After the war, he became an American Citizen. Sadly, my father passed away from a heart attack at age 57 - before he could realize his dream of becoming an artist. My mother was left a widow for 38 years. She was an amazing woman. She was first-generation American, “Nisei”, as both her parents were born in Japan. After the release from the camp, she worked in a factory making mousetraps until age 65. She then started her own business selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners, driving door-to-door until she passed away at 91 years old. No one could resist her charm. She said that she was alone, but never lonely because of her family, friends, and customers. She lived modestly, saving her earnings for her family. My mother was my “super hero”!
My parents have been my real heroes. They taught us to go on with our lives with no bitterness from the past and to excel. In 1944 we were released from Heart Mountain and settled in Marengo, IL, a small town of 2,500, 65 Miles NW of Chicago. The town was welcoming and nurturing. My parents wanted to prove that we were loyal citizens of the United States and told us to not speak Japanese or eat Japanese food outside of our home. So, it wasn’t until my 55th class reunion that I spoke to my classmates about my background. They were shocked, then curious and lastly, accepting as I told them of my past. Today, I honor this terrible injustice of the internment by sharing my story at schools and with organizations when invited.
It was in the Marengo one-room schoolhouse where I heard my second sound of music, played on the piano by our music teacher, Mrs. Coarson. I was in 2nd grade when I decided that I wanted to do something extraordinary and with Mrs. Coarson as my piano teacher, I set out to become the greatest pianist in the world. In my freshman year at Northern Illinois University, I heard the sound of a beautiful soprano voice and was enthralled. My next “hero” Mr. Howard Dill entered my life as the new NIU voice professor. In one year he transformed me from an alto to a coloratura soprano, and I changed my major from piano to voice. In addition, I started embracing my heritage and began incorporating Japanese art songs in my concerts. After graduation, I taught music in the Illinois public schools and loved the fact that I could share my passion for music with my students and watch them come alive with their new found joy of music. My husband used to say, “and you have fun and get paid, too?” Coming to Fort Wayne in 1978 turned out to be the best thing we could have done. I taught music in Southwest Allen Co. Schools for 28 years and met Mike Schmid, an art teacher. We co-founded FAME, Foundation for Art and Music in Education in 1987, which has touched over 4,500,000 children with multicultural arts education since it’s beginning.
Now back to my “Poo-Pa-Poo Man” - after 71 years of searching for his identity, he has been found. All because of an article published in the Journal Gazette, which featured my family cookbook and mentioned Heart Mountain. Here in Fort Wayne lives Dr. Kevin Murphy whose older brothers along with their parents lived in Heart Mountain after WW II. His wife Pat connected me with the eldest Murphy brothers, Ben of California and Jim of Arizona, who have been researching and collecting information about Heart Mountain. Last October, they discovered the identity of the trumpet player and even sent me pictures of him. His name is Ichijiro Yoshida, who died long before I could thank him for his music. Through this story, I think that my Poo-Pa-Poo Man’s memory will live on - with my sincere gratitude. Thank you Ichijiro Yoshida for being my first hero.
If you have individuals who have had a life-changing impact on your life, please seek them out and thank them. Also remember, your own life touches others in ways you may never know.
- Dorothy Kittaka, Heartland Board Member