Of Greatest Worth
By Jeff Westover
The first week of December found her happily engaged in preparing for the holidays. She was about three months from delivering her first child. And after a few years of young married life—completing her education and working while her husband completed his–Maurine was ready to enjoy the upcoming years in a more settled fashion.
It was not yet to be.
Events transpired that first week of December in 1941 that changed lives for generations to come in nearly all nations around the world. And life for Maurine in this turmoil would be no different. The grand effort of World War II galvanized the nation and everyone in her life. From all sides of her family, people were separated and displaced. Busy and involved. Her vision of a steady and warm future would just have to wait a little while longer.
Her husband, Leon, was classified as 4f—physically incapable to serve in the military due to a severe injury sustained in his youth on the farm. But her status as a new mother and his physical classification did not preclude them from the war effort. He was a schoolteacher by day and a steel mill worker by night. Together they worked the scrap metal and rubber drives.
In the summer of 1942, Leon the eldest of several brothers at war—received a job offer suited for a man who desperately wanted to be involved. It would require a huge sacrifice. And, because Maurine was educated and qualified, it would provide a means for her to serve, too. Before long they found themselves teaching school to children in a Japanese relocation center in faraway Topaz, Utah.
What they did was not popular. Where they went was not inviting. But the same could be said of everyone involved in the effort at that time. And like so many far away from home and family at Christmas during World War II, they walked away with memories and deep appreciation for the season that they may not have previously possessed.
For Maurine, the war experience was one of contrasting injustice. While on one side of the globe the world fought a tyrant, she faced the shame of injustice imposed by her own suspicious government. In communities all over the West Coast families of Japanese descent were forced to sell their homes, businesses and possessions with only a few hours notice. They could take whatever they could fit in a suitcase and they were shipped to isolated camps located well inland all over the American West.
Maurine found them to be a stoic people. Respectful and industrious in every way, she came to love them and their children as they endured the madness that the world’s circumstances had created. She lived with them behind the barbed wire, pledged the flag with them each morning, and with them, tried to make the best of it. They in turn loved her and her family. They were enchanted with her infant son and often assisted in tending him.
Christmas that year proved most interesting to her. While some of these people were Japanese immigrants all of them were Americans. They too had a reverence for the holiday even though many of them were not Christian. The lessons of giving during this season did not have to be taught to the Japanese-Americans there because they were so widely practiced in the art of giving selflessly. This was proven to Maurine by the singular act of a little boy who decided to give at great personal risk.
As the Christmas season approached, parents of the Japanese students in the class helped their children produce gifts for Maurine. Many of them gave works of art or craft projects of their own making. But one little boy had wrapped up his most valuable possession. And the sight of it made Maurine gasp as the meaning of it tore at her heart. Wrapped in tissue was this little boy’s pass.
To understand, one must realize that Topaz was a military-style camp. The people interred there did not have rights. They did not go where they wanted to go. They had few possessions of their own. And they lived under the strictest rule of law being told where to go and when. Each Japanese-American person in the camp, even the youngest of the children, was given a pass that allowed them to move about their business within the camp. To lose the pass, to sell it or to fail to produce it when asked would impose a strict measure of discipline upon them. The nation was at war, and right or wrong though it was, these were the rules under which they lived. The pass was their most valuable possession.
To give the pass back to the little boy would prove to be a rejection that he and his family couldn’t bear. Through this gift he was expressing love and appreciation of her. Living under the circumstances of great injustice, this little boy (and, undoubtedly, his family too) was willing to risk what little freedom he had and give it to her as a gift. It was the most selfless gift she had ever received in her life.
In violation of strict procedure, she requested and obtained a new pass for the little boy. She kept the pass in her possession for the remaining days of her life. Over 40 years later, as she recounted this story for me, Maurine recalled how many of those students remained in touch with her after the war. She followed their lives, their weddings and babies. One even sent a photo to her when he graduated from West Point. The giving did not stop that Christmas. And it would not stop for years.
The experience in the windswept, desolate place called Topaz touched Maurine’s life forever. The war did end. And the life she sought before the war, she found. But it was all the more rich for having to delay it to receive a most valuable gift in the most unusual of circumstances.