Weather Hindsight

Monday, August 25, 2014

Community newspapers such as the Topaz Times are a good source for researching the seasonal weather at a particular place. I don’t just mean the temperatures and annual rainfall, although that information is there, too. But community newspapers make the weather come alive by telling how it affected residents.

The Topaz Times didn’t attempt to forecast the weather. Instead, it provided information on the previous day’s highs and lows. On January 19, 1943, for example, this desert community had a low temperature of -9° F and a high of 38° F. On July 9, 1943, the low was 57° and the high was 100°.

The October 17, 1942 issue provided the following statistics: from November through April, the average monthly snowfall was 4.6 inches (ranging from 2.4 inches in November to 7 inches in February). As for rain, the average precipitation for the entire year was 8.16 inches. But these numbers present only part of the story. The real information comes in the vignettes from actual occurrences.

That little bit of rain came with a spectacular show. Here is a description from Tomoye Takahashi’s “Women’s Mirror” column in the July 31, 1943 Topaz Times.

            What a hectic life we lead in Topaz. If it isn’t tolerating the blistering 104-degree heat in the shade (113 in the barracks), it’s being frightened to death by the sort of thunder storms we used to see in the movies. That last one was a humdinger, shooing everyone into the nearest shelter, snatching laundry off clothes lines, and hurtling empty boxes dangerously down the paths. We saw a hat go sailing over the housetops. The most spectacular thing, though, was when the tar roofing above Ed Shiroma’s room, 9-6-A, ripped off going past the Kido’s of SF Tonkin fame all the way to rooms C-D. Then in the terrifying gale, brave men of the neighborhood climbed onto the roof and sat, stood, and crawled over to keep the flapping roofing down while others made motions to tack it in place. All this, under torrential rain and a fierce wind. Oddly enough, there were crowds from adjacent blocks standing in the downpour, just to watch.

But the worst of the weather came from the unpredictable but far too frequent dust storms. If you look closely, you can see one behind the building in the picture at the top of this post.

Here is Evelyn Kirimura’s description of an Easter storm. It appeared in the “To the Women” column in the May 1, 1943 Topaz Times.

            Probably we underwent the oddest Easter weather of all our born days the last weekend. Nowhere else, we believe, with the possible exception of another relocation center, did people venture forth to church services with one hand clutching a wayward hat and another grasping aerial-minded skirts; panting for air; choking on dust; and walking at a 60-degree angle.

Then there were the smaller dust storms that looked like miniature tornados. Here is another description from the “To the Woman” column, this one in the July 10, 1943 edition.

            Still a source of much amazement are the whirlwinds which disturb the still air with a mighty onrush of dust and debris, leaving stunned residents in their wake. Most of us, in an attempt to judge the direction of a whirlwind, have speeded or slowed our pace accordingly. If speed is the element, what more peculiar sight could a visitor view than a group of office girls, seemingly in full possession of their senses, screaming and running in the heat of the mid-day sun.

Temperatures are just temperatures, but weather becomes personal in a community newspaper.


The photograph at the head of this post was taken at Manzanar War Relocation Center on July 3, 1943. Dorothea Lange took the picture as part of her official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

All editions of the Topaz Times are also in the public domain.

Humor behind Barbed Wire

Monday, August 18, 2014

Like many community newspapers, the Topaz Times ran a weekly comic. Its first cartoonist was Bennie Nobori, and his main character was a boy named Jankee (probably a take on Yankee). That was also the name of the comic. You can see Bennie and Jankee in the photo at the top of this post.
Bennie Nobori used daily life at Topaz as the subject for his cartoon. The residents ate together and did not have refrigerators or cooking stoves in their rooms. So if they didn’t want to eat the food in the mess hall, they had limited options. And the cooks must have served a lot of fish, because that’s the topic of two separate comics.
Here is the one from the January 30, 1943 issue.

And here is the one from the March 27, 1943 issue.

Residents weren’t allowed to take their pets with them when they left home, but a few people managed to obtain new pets after they arrived at Topaz. So the cat in the comic is uncommon but not unlikely.
Here is one more comic that shows life in Topaz. This one is from the April 10, 1943 issue of the Topaz Times.
 Could you maintain your sense of humor behind barbed wire?
The photograph at the top of this post shows cartoonist Bennie Nobori drawing Jankee. The picture was taken by Francis Stewart on March 11, 1943 as part of the photographer’s official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.
All editions of the Topaz Times are also in the public domain.

Yankee Ingenuity

Monday, August 11, 2014

One definition of “Yankee” includes anyone who is a native or inhabitant of the United States. That includes Japanese Americans living in this country during World War II.

The Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were forced to leave their homes with only what they could carry. When they arrived at Topaz, Utah, their living quarters consisted of a small room with four walls, a floor, and a roof. The only furniture the government provided was one army cot for each person. Although the residents did get to place catalogue orders, the extremely small salaries the United States paid them for full-time work limited their purchasing ability. So they had to be resourceful.

Just how resourceful were they? As you can tell from the picture, they managed to build tables and chairs from scrap lumber and to find pictures to decorate their walls.

This is another instance where a community newspaper can help us understand how people lived and, in particular, how they responded to adverse circumstances.

Here is the “To the Women” column from the February 20, 1943 issue of the Topaz Times.


            When the resident of Topaz resettles, he will be a master of ingenuity. His knowledge of floor-saving devices in itself should make him a man of no small importance in times where housing is at a premium.

            For instance, he no longer will scoff at double decker beds, even if he has to take the upper. He will use every corner space for useful shelves from ceiling to floor.

            And as for being able to make something out of nothing, one of these days former residents will practically furnish their homes with orange boxes and two-by-fours.

            Beautiful pictures in magazines will come into their own. Snow scenes and other landscapes will grace city walls where once they merely decorated sheet rock partitions.

            Give the relocated resident a piece of sheet rock in the future and he will become a seven-day wonder. He will make partitions with built-in bookshelves which will become the marvel of urbanites.


            All of the carry-overs of center life may not be as useful, however. For instance, we must remember that the main function of the soup bowl is a dish with which we serve soup—to be drunk with a spoon. We must remember not to serve everything from coffee to tea in the bowls and drink said beverages directly from the bowl. We must remember not to rush from the table, carrying every dish we have used. We must remember that there are separate dishes for desserts, that it is not necessary to clean a place on our dinner plate for the jello or what-have-you.

            We must remember not to pass our cups to the end of the table as soon as we are seated. We must remember not to treat china dishes with the same abandon as we did our enamelware. Whether we do or not will be amusing to note.

Most people don’t think of Japanese Americans as Yankees, but they are. And the ones who were incarcerated during World War II were masters at exercising Yankee ingenuity.


The photograph at the top of this post shows a family sitting around a homemade table in a barracks apartment at Topaz, Utah. The picture was taken by Charles E. Mace on January 3, 1945 as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

All editions of the Topaz Times are also in the public domain.

A Community Newspaper

Monday, August 4, 2014

I’ve been reading PDF copies of the Topaz Times as research for a book I’m writing. The newspaper was printed on a mimeograph and the pages were double-sided, so the ink sometimes bled through. There are also places where the lettering is faded or perhaps the ink never filled in well. People worked with what they had in that time and place.

The time was 1942-1945, and the place was Topaz, Utah. It was a community of Japanese Americans who had been displaced from their West Coast homes and incarcerated in the Utah desert. But it was still a community, as is obvious from reading its newspaper.

As an aside, small town newspapers are a great way to learn about a particular time and place. Not that Topaz was exactly small. With 10,000 residents, it was one of the largest cities in Utah. But the Topaz Times was still a community newspaper. It told of births and deaths and engagements and marriages and carried a lost and found column.

The paper covered local politics (within the barbed wire expanse officially called The Central Utah Relocation Center) and local sports and entertainment events. There was an education page covering the preschools, elementary and high schools, and the many adult education classes. The Topaz Times printed letters from former residents who were now on the outside and information from the camp administration.

But there was very little news about the war and what was going on in the United States in general. If it directly affected the Japanese Americans, it was covered. If it didn’t, they had to get their information elsewhere.

Maybe some of that was censorship, even though the Japanese American staff claimed there was little or none. But it could also be a result of limited resources. If you have only so much paper and ink and personpower, wouldn’t you concentrate on the news that most directly affects your readers?

Newspapers are valuable research tools. The ones that cover national and international news are good for discovering historical background and learning what happened when. But if you want to know how people lived, read their community newspaper.

I’m grateful somebody had the foresight to archive the Topaz Times and make it available on the Internet.

But how many other community newspapers have been lost?


The photograph at the top of this post shows Rose Nakagawa working as a mimeograph operator for the Topaz Times. The picture was taken by Francis Stewart on March 11, 1943 as part of the photographer’s official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

All editions of the Topaz Times are also in the public domain.