My colleague Kam Jacoby and I had been interviewing folks in Santa Barbara County’s little city of Guadalupe as part of a book project we’re working on, and Harry Masatani and Bindo Grasso were happy to share their reminiscences and opinions with us when we met them on the steps of the American Legion Hall.
Masatani, who is 86 and still runs Masatani’s Market on Guadalupe Street with his wife and sons, was born in Santa Maria to a Japanese immigrant father and a Hawaiian-born mother of Japanese descent; he spent his childhood in Guadalupe on these very streets. Grasso moved here decades later and had a concrete business in town until his retirement four years ago at the age of 90. They met at the coffee counter of a restaurant near the market in the 1950s; the two friends refer to themselves as brothers, and the bond of respect and affection between them is palpable.
Coincidentally, they had first crossed paths in 1942. Masatani had been taken to Santa Anita, California, to be shipped off to a Japanese internment camp. Grasso was one of the soldiers charged with guarding the newly arrived Japanese-American prisoners. They couldn’t have imagined they would one day be friends, but Grasso admitted the whole business didn’t sit well with him even then. “My parents were born in Italy,” he said. “They didn’t put me in a camp.”
As for Masatani, he still speaks of the experience with bewilderment not bitterness: “Wartime. Japanese. I got locked up. On December 6, we are Japanese Americans, you know? December 8, we are classified as enemy aliens. Enemy aliens … how ’bout that? Not Americans anymore. FBI came and picked up all the heads of the household, all the men, so just the women and children are left. And shortly after that came the order to evacuate the West Coast, so they rounded us up.”
There’s a photo on the wall of Guadalupe’s American Legion Hall showing General Eisenhower greeting the troops, and Grasso is one of the soldiers in the picture. He served his country with honor but doesn’t make a big deal of it. “I didn’t do anything special,” he said. “I just did what I was supposed to do.” By this, he means that on the day before D-Day, he parachuted into Normandy, landing behind enemy lines to help set up beacons and secure important targets for the troops that would follow. No big deal.
Despite having been imprisoned as an enemy alien for much of World War II, Masatani decided to join the U.S. Army in 1945. Recalling how his mornings in the internment camp began with the Pledge of Allegiance spoken while surrounded by barbed-wire fence and guard towers, he said he took liberty and justice quite seriously, along with the responsibilities he believed came with them. Eventually he returned to his hometown to take over his father’s market, and he bought the Victorian house where he and his wife still live. Shortly after the family moved in, someone fired a gun through a bedroom window –– you can see the bullet hole in the floral wallpaper. But Masatani is a gentle and resilient man who has always opted for forgiveness over anger.
By now we’d stood chatting in front of the American Legion Hall for nearly an hour, and Jacoby and I assumed these two old guys would go home to take a nap. But no, they were heading out in Grasso’s car to visit another friend of theirs, who’s 99.
“Sometimes we get in the car to go for a ride,” Grasso said, “and we end up driving 200 or 300 miles. A road trip.”
They climbed into Grasso’s car and drove off.