It’s Friday the 13th and time for a sojourn into the land of Ghosts and Spirits…
Arguably, we live in a time of tumultuous change. The political and social climate has served to polarize Americans into metaphorical camps; those on the left and others on the right. Civil liberties are threatened on both sides of that divide. The loudest voices point fingers as they cry foul. Yet, in our not too distant past, Americans were literally robbed of their civil liberties through executive order, rounded up, and placed into actual camps. Concentration camps.
Though not as insidious as Dachau or Auschwitz, the upheaval and uncertainty of World War II created both xenophobia and racism amongst some Americans which led to our own version of concentration camps. The unrest prompted democratic president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to mandate Executive Order 9066. This enabled the civil rights of Americans to be stripped away in a single swipe of the pen. Over a hundred and twenty thousand persons of Japanese ancestry were rounded up and summarily placed in prison camps.
One of these places was in the central western desert of Utah. The region was prone to frigid winters with average snowfall of a foot and a half and triple digit heat in the summer. Dust storms and swarms of gnats or mosquitoes rounded out the more “temperate” months of the year. It was flat, barren, and isolated. They called the camp “Topaz”.
The camp lasted for three brutal years. During that time, prisoners were given only the most meager of supplies. They were forced to endure the harsh environment with only a pot-bellied stove to fend off the frigid temperatures which leaked through their tar-paper barracks where they resided.
The hardships and conditions were documented in film by Dave Tatsuno, who smuggled in a camera to document their plight. The color footage demonstrates imprisonment in the camp from the inside. The footage is fascinating and available online currently.
All of this is well documented at the Topaz Museum in Delta, Utah. It chronicles the time and tribulation of the prisoners in the camp, along with historical relics and significant context. It also mentions the eventual demise of the camp incited through a pivotal incident. One that culminated in blood.
Guard towers surrounding the camp were manned with snipers, though even if a prisoner ever did escape there was nothing but inhospitable desert for miles in each direction. Nevertheless, when a prisoner got too close to the fence, a warning shot was fired. 63 year old James Wakasa fell victim to this practice, though this time there wasn’t a warning shot.
Some say Mr. Wakasa didn’t understand the guard’s warning. Others claim he couldn’t hear it. There are even some that say a warning wasn’t given prior to the fatal shot. Regardless, when James Wakasa got too close to the barrier, he was executed as a potential escapee.
The incident helped bring scrutiny to the manner in which the camp was run. Security was loosened. Ideals changed. Eventually, in 1945, the camp was disbanded.
The museum chronicling the events was a somber place, and rightly so. But the sentiment of gloom would only be intensified. From there, it was off to the actual site of the camp.
The buildings long since gone, many cannibalized for their wood and structure, Topaz is now nothing more than a big empty space with concrete footings and the occasional remnant of what once was. Walls of imagination and rumination have replaced the physical semblance of the camp. These are the ghosts of Topaz.
Is it hard to believe that it is two and a half hours away from Salt Lake City. Even without barracks and buildings encircled by razor-wire lined fence and surrounded by guard towers, the place is imposing. The unforgiving Utah desert swallows up the place for miles in each direction, disappearing into the distant horizon. The isolation is palpable.
The next thing that is apparent is the absolute silence, save for the occasional mournful wail of the Delta Winds. The formidable sense of loneliness is easily conveyed by the surroundings and the silence. Quiet punctuates the solitude.
The only reprieve the prisoners faced from the enveloping silence were the sand storms or snowfall as carried on those same Delta winds, though they must have been somewhat angrier in that time. As we walked along, each lost in our own thoughts, we dwelled on the past. The ghosts were strong here. The horrific history of the internment camp haunts the place.
Though that one murder could have left a different, more literal ghost. Poor James Wakasa, shot dead just for standing too close to the fence. His death was close to the pump house for the camp sewage system. The concrete base is one of the last vestigial remnants of the camp left in existence.
Upon location of the pump house, we found ourselves realizing just how easy our lives truly are, despite how divided Americans seem to be in these times. It is almost unimaginable in this day and age to realize that we could be rounded up and imprisoned based solely on our race. Could such horrors occur in the future, based solely on political or religious convictions? Will history repeat such atrocity?
And what of poor Mr. Wakasa? Did he find peace after he left the camp in a pine box? Did he ever truly leave?
From there, it was time to lighten up the somber mood of the group. A change of venue was in order. Something local and with a personality all its own. It was time to change from ghosts to spirits.
On West Main Street in Delta, Utah, we found a place that fit the bill. A unique tavern stuck in its own time, abandoned by modern convention. Only instead of being possessed by the 40s like the Topaz site, this place couldn’t break free of the late 70s. A little bar by the name of Curley’s Lounge. It was to be our local haunt du jour.
In many ways, Curley’s was just as isolated as Topaz. We still felt like we were the last people on earth, save for the sole bartender. We had the place to ourselves. It was spooky.
Many Faces and I went up to the bar and ordered tall mugs of beer on tap. The bartender told us the cost, also throwbacks to another age, while asking us if that was okay with us in an apologetic manner. We tried to hide our “we just robbed the stage” faces and agreed that the price was acceptable.
The place had character in spades. Oodles of it. We picked a spot in the corner and awaited the rest of Who’s Watson (which is the name of our “gang” of five) to arrive.
In the corner is where they would find us. Next to the piano adorned by a miniature skeleton clutching an empty bottle of Jack Daniels. Behind that, dated pictures of Elvis, the Three Stooges, and James Dean. A glorious oil painting of a naked lady on black velvet served as an undeniable focal point. Yes, there were spirits here to be sure.
At last Many Faces and I were joined by Sputnik O’Reilly, B. Rock, and Claude “Rudy” Allen. Another round for the gents was in order. Though not technically a “spirit”, beer was our drink of choice. After a melancholic day at the Topaz ruins, we didn’t want anything too “heavy”.
Then, mugs were raised repeatedly in toast. Beer flowed freely enough to wash away the Delta Winds.
Soon, the solemn day was forgotten. Spirits were buoyed. Grins replaced scowls.
Curley’s was a great way to unwind and enjoy the company of good friends.. It was a welcome juxtaposition to the Topaz Museum and ruins. The whole experience was a fantastic glimpse into America’s past, warts and all. With it we take memories which run the gamut of human emotion. Our tour of ghosts and spirits in Delta, Utah, had come to an end.