Balint: Incident at Heat Mountain


There's a stretch of highway in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming that passes by the site of a World War II era Japanese internment camp.

The Heart Mountain Relocation Center — situated between the towns of Cody and Powell — held over 13,000 Japanese American citizens and Japanese immigrants between 1942 and 1945 and became the fourth biggest "town" in Wyoming.

From the grounds of the former camp, Heart Mountain looms on the horizon. When I lived in Powell and visited the site, I always thought of the cruel irony that the hopeful sounding "Heart Mountain" marked a heartless, dismal chapter in American history. Indescribably hot and dry in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter, it must have felt like a foreign country to those shipped from the Pomona, Santa Anita, and Portland assembly centers on the West Coast.

But a remarkable friendship formed there in that harsh, windswept landscape. Two preteen boys forged a bond that endures today: Norman Mineta — a former U.S. House member and United States Transportation Secretary, who was interned at the camp — and Alan Simpson — a former U.S. Senator from Wyoming who grew up in the nearby town of Cody — met through Boy Scouting activities arranged between locals and those in the detention center.

Simpson saw "No Japs Allowed" signs in his hometown as he traveled to the detention center and passed by guard towers and barbed wire fences to attend a Scout Jamboree. Even in the midst of public bigotry and fear, there are always those courageous and clear eyed ones who see beyond the hurtful rhetoric. Simpson's parents must have been cut from this cloth.

When a bill was introduced in 1988 to offer an apology and reparations to those Japanese Americans who had been locked up, both Mineta and Simpson were sponsors: a fitting testament to justice but also to their long friendship. The New York Times recently pointed out that some of the legislators who opposed that bill are still in office: Mitch McConnell and John McCain. Presidential candidate John Kasich also voted against it. Despite his own party's opposition, President Reagan did sign it into law. And there are a few other surprises among the list of supporters of the bil — two of my least favorite politicians: Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney. (It is good and healthy for me to stretch my ideas about the measure of these men.)

Norman Mineta and Alan Simpson are often asked to tell the story of their friendship. It is at once both singular and unremarkable. Children — who live apart from the pressures of hyperbolic politics — find common cause wherever they can: Legos, miniature horse collections, soccer ... or a Boy Scout Jamboree held at an internment camp. Where you come from is not nearly as compelling as where you're going.

I imagine Mineta and Simpson will be asked more and more to recount their story, especially now that Donald Trump and other politicians have said, without irony or self-consciousness, that FDR had a great idea when he rounded up peaceful, innocent people en masse. Trump's lackeys have forgotten — or never knew — that far from being a moment of valor, strength and leadership, the Japanese Internment program is a stark example of what happens when we give in to weakness and unbridled fear.

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light." — Plato.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as a state senator from Windham County.


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