Turning into the driveway that was flanked by two huge palm trees towering over a make-shift tent under which two people with white hair stood huddled in the rain and checked people for the secret password "Go for Broke!", which was, as I learned, the term referring to many Japanese-Americans who helped the war effort of WWII, it was obvious that the place was once a breathtaking site. Waved in, we tried to avoid the mud mess and potholes the driving rain had turned the driveway into. More palm trees haphazardly lined the winding driveway. Palm trees are nothing exciting in California but deliberately placed like this usually were meant to impress. A small plane flew overhead, headed for the tiny airport a few hundred feet down the road.
At one point the Byron Hot Springs Spa & Resort, aka 'Camp Tracy' during WWII, must have been majestic. Today it's a crumbling, half torn down frame where wind howls through the gaping window holes and amateur graffiti left by hordes of partying teenagers throws incongruous colors on the stately old brick. The promise is still there, but walking up the crumbling stone stairs, one is immediately overtaken by the massive amount of effort such a place would require to get it to any kind of working condition. Still, they are impressive grounds.
I was suddenly very glad for my down coat, and decided it's raining too hard to bring in the video and too loud with the missing windows without the microphone, so I only carried my camera and my new digital recording pen.
Greeted by the volunteers I then picked up the speaker's book, a Major Alex Corbin who did his MA thesis on the intelligence interrogation work that took place in this Camp Tracy, and I walked through the old hotel. The top floor was roped off and there were too many people to try and sneak up there (plus I didn't want to get the people who put on the event in trouble). I know photographers have come out, including one of my favorite local photogs, Thomas Hawk, and taken some impressive shots, but the building is a downright mess.
The talk was very interesting. Japanese POWs were held here before being interred to theirfinal destinations (not as ominous as what was going on in Europe). In fact, the opposite: the POWs were treated lavishly - 2 to a comfortable room, food cooked for them by Asian chefs, and inmates were allowed to dip in the hot springs. All this was done to make them comfortable and "loose". Surveillance recorders were everywhere, including in the rooms. Much important intelligence data was gathered that, accumulated with other data during the war, helped lead up to the decision to drop bombs on Japan.
I continued walking around, and I did what I usually do - picked out the people who look as though they've got some history to share and tried to get them to talk. I met Louie, a former veteran from a local farming family who told me stories of growing asparagus and the rumors that surrounded the resort. They'd often see military people coming and going into town or to the railroad station, which back then made a special stop near the hotel, and often they'd give the hitchhiking military a lift. Louie's family had lived in the general area all his life and this was the first time he was seeing the old hotel for decades, and he mentioned how shocked he was because his memories of the place were of how it looked in its glory days. Louie has survived a bunch of physical ailments and is one tough old guy. His father, brother and sister(?) or uncle - I wasn't taking notes, just listening - all died at age 67. He was well into his late 80's and going strong, having just fought off cancer and going through dialysis.
After the lecture, while waiting for Major Corbin to sign my book, I noticed a rather stiff, almost regal man standing a bit apart. Definitely ex-military. I wanted to ensure that I didn't cut in front of him and used that as an excuse to take the liberty of trying to get him to talk. He told me that he was in a movie. I asked which one, and he told me I would find some of his POW story as told in a movie called Moment of Impact that was produced by Ted Turner's network. I told him that I was going to "cyber-stalk" him and he gave me a side-eye and then chuckled when I told him that I meant I was going to look him up online.
Somehow we had gotten to talking about age and he asked me how old I thought he was. I mentioned that he was in Vietnam, as was my father, so that must make him about 80 or 85? and he raised his eyebrows. I had been joking of course. He said that he was a POW for more than 5 years. I was duly speechless for a moment, and then I asked if he knew John McCain. "He was my cell mate for many months (years?)." Wow. I said, "Well McCain is about 74 now and my father is about 67, so you're probably somewhere around there." I told him that McCain was a good looking dude when he was younger and he gave me the side eye again and said, "Yes," and I said he must have been too. I then asked if he voted for John McCain for the last election, as we'd fallen into this rather amusing, teasing conversation where I was trying to gently provoke him and he would glance at me to see whether I was serious, and his voice got low and he said "Well, I voted for him only because he was the one I thought was better." The author was ready to sign my book now and while I thanked Major Corbin I told him that he should talk to Robert, a POW himself.
They delved into an interesting conversation where Corbin said that he did not agree with the Major's assessment regarding torture. I could see from where they were both coming. Robert said that the torture he endured was real torture but he didn't agree with coddling prisoners of war. They got into a short but potentially loaded beginning of a talk on Abu Ghraib and the events there. They agreed that the prisoners there had not been tortured, but rather humiliated, and this was very bad in their culture, much as with the Japanese of WWII where keeping face meant as much as, if not more than, physical pain. He was mumbling that the prisoners in Iraq had not been tortured. I so wanted to ask him about his experiences, but I'd just met the man, teased him with the shameless way I have that works about 80% of the time, and it was cold and everyone was packing up and leaving.
I walked Robert out, and shook his hand. I reminded him that I was going to stalk him online and he smiled for the first time. He had come alone and walked off through the mud.
When I got to my computer, the first result that popped up under his name was not the movie, but something even more shocking. If you've not seen this picture, please take a look:
This photo is entitled "Burst of Joy" and I had just seen it during a trip to D.C. to the "Newseum" where they have all the Pulitzer prize winning photographs displayed - one of my favorite areas in the museum (sure beat the $15,000 table the docents made sure to mention that George Stephanopoulos did a live show from!) and I remembered this photo. According to the information posted, Burst of Joy is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Associated Press photographer Slava "Sal" Veder, shot on March 17, 1973 at Travis Air Force Base in California.
The photograph depicts United States Air Force Lt. Col. Robert L. Stirm being reunited with his family, after spending more than five years in captivity as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Stirm was shot down over Hanoi on 27 October 1967, while leading a flight of F-105s on a bombing mission, and not released until 14 March 1973. The centerpiece of the photograph is Stirm's 15-year-old daughter Lorrie, who is excitedly greeting her father with outstretched arms, as the rest of the family approaches directly behind her. Despite outward appearances, the reunion was an unhappy one for Stirm. Three days before he arrived in the United States, the same day he was released from captivity, Stirm received a Dear John letter from his wife Loretta informing him that their relationship was over.
My husband saw that my hair was frizzed out and I was covered in mud and dust fromleaning against the crumbling bricks. He asked, "Well, was it worth it (giving up a Sunday afternoon to venture out in the rain and cold)?" I didn't really have to answer that, did I?