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the letter

He was slightly fearful as he opened the envelope. Watching with great uncertainty, his family felt the anxiety, too. There was a lot riding on this letter. When a 17-year-old boy applies for acceptance to the statewide Young Scholars Program, he places his ego in competition with countless other qualified students. Scott Tennyson may have been The King of All History at John F. Kennedy High School, but he knew there were lots of other Kings and Queens at countless high schools throughout the state. So, to be honest, Scott was not particularly confident about the contents of the letter he was unfolding.

It took a few seconds for him to fully comprehend the words he was reading. But when the message became clear, Scott jumped triumphantly in the air. “I won! I won! I can’t believe it, I WON,” he yelled as he raced around the living room of his house waving the letter. “I’m going to State University. I’m a Young Scholar,” he shouted as he grabbed his sister, Jennifer, and hopped around in circles with her. With the same enthusiasm he embraced his mother and then his father—and then his mother and father together—reminding them many times, “I’m in the Program, I’m in the Program. Ya-hoo!”

“This is fantastic,” he exclaimed, but with diminishing volume and a steady decrease in liveliness. “I’m so glad the school counselor urged me to apply—and my history teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, recommended me. So did the principal. They’re all great. This is unbelievable. Wow!”

His family was thrilled by the news. Jennifer gleefully celebrated with Scott. Mr. and Mrs. Tennyson were full of way-to-go handshakes, pats on the back, more hugs, and a few kisses on the cheek from Mrs. Tennyson. Scott was going downstate for two weeks this summer to participate in the elite Young Scholars program. He was a winner. Everyone was happy.

As Scott continued to rejoice, Mrs. Tennyson took the letter and read beyond the first paragraph. “This is wonderful, Scott,” she said. “It says here that all expenses are paid. You’ll live in a campus dormitory, and you’ll be one of only four people from throughout the state to be designated as Young History. It says that other students will be classified by the disciplines in which they won—areas like Young Art, Young Chemistry, Young R.O.T.C.—there are almost a dozen fields listed here.”

“Let me see,” said Mr. Tennyson as he took the letter from his wife and read it. “This is great, Scott. It looks like all your hard work is beginning to pay off. We’re all so proud of you. But, wait a minute—hold on,” he cautioned. “It says here that the program requires an entry essay. I don’t remember you writing an essay recently. What did you write about?” he asked with a touch of confusion in his voice.

“Write about?” responded Scott with surprise. “What essay? I didn’t write an essay. The application never required one. What are they talking about?”

“You’re right,” Mr. Tennyson said as he reread the letter of acceptance. “Apparently an essay wasn’t part of the original requirements,” his father continued. “But, it says here that all participants must arrive on campus—and that’s only six weeks from now—with an original composition on a topic of their own choosing.”

The excitement of the moment quickly dissipated. Scott looked bewildered. How could he write anything at this point in the school year? He was facing final exams at school. He had planned his studying for finals, but there was no extra time to compose an independent essay or research paper on any topic.

“Well,” he conceded, “I have to write it if I want to go. I’ll just have to study more efficiently and make time to research and write. It has to be done. What are the topics I have to choose from?”

“I would say, Scott, that it looks like you’re on your own—there is no list of topics,” Mr. Tennyson explained. “The letter just says you have to bring the paper with you. And, not only is there no set of choices, there’s no mention of size or scope of the composition. It just says that it’s due when you register at the university next month.”

“This must be their way of testing your stuff,” Scott’s mother suggested. “What an ingenious assignment. You choose the topic, you write the essay, you make as long as you feel it needs to be. Everything is up to you and, of course, your intelligence.”

It may have appeared as a brilliant assignment to Mrs. Tennyson, but the question of what to write stumped Scott for several days. Even when he was telling people about his invitation to participate in such a prestigious program, in the back of his mind Scott was baffled.

At school he was happy to show the letter of acceptance to Mrs. Sweeney, to the counselor who first encouraged him, and to the principal and other school officials. Needless to say, it was with a justifiable amount of swagger that he let his friends know that he was going to State University this summer as a Young History participant.

Frankly, Scott’s friends never doubted that his mastery of history would win him a spot in the Young Scholars Program. After all, at JFK he was The King of All History. From simple “Congratulations” and “Well done” to a more expressive “The King Rules,” Scott accepted the approval of his classmates. It was a big victory for them too, because this was the first time a Kennedy student had been accepted as a Young Scholar. Scott’s achievement gave them bragging rights with relatives and especially with acquaintances from neighboring high schools.

When the congratulations diminished and he was alone, however, Scott confronted the daunting task before him. While studying for and taking the final exams to complete his junior year, he would have to research and begin writing a research paper. And, he felt, this couldn’t be just a regular essay. It had to be different, it had to stand out. He wanted to produce a report that reflected all he had learned from his weekly experiences in school and at The History Shoppe.

First, he had to select a good topic. Then, he needed to gather source materials, authentic documents from the event he was investigating. Scott decided that he would not worry about the length of his paper. As long as he covered his subject, he figured it would be long enough.

Still, he would have to place intellectual boundaries on the paper and make a convincing argument. Scott knew that he and his final product would be compared to the other students, and in particular to the Young History participants who were preparing their own essays. He didn’t want to embarrass himself.

Scott had one great advantage, however. He had met and learned from a master historian: Professor Petros Papadopoulos, Ph.D. Scott’s earlier experiences at The History Shoppe made him a wiser, more thoughtful student of history. Encounters with original historical materials, the Clio machine, and the wise old Dr. Pop deepened his understanding of the discipline and the methodology of professional historians. Besides, the experience with The History Shoppe gave Scott the confidence that he could meet this assignment.

He was, after all, officially a part of The Community, that special world of scholarship to which all historians secretly belonged. Why should he fear an assignment that was purposely ambiguous? It was up to him to define his subject and write this historical report. He was in charge of his paper. And he was qualified to research it and to write it.

“So many ways to go,” Scott muttered to himself. “What would Dr. Pop do in a situation like this? What topic would he select?” Scott would spend several days pondering this riddle.

Mr. Tennyson tried to help his son by offering ideas for papers—everything from the collapse of the Roman Empire to George Washington’s false teeth. But it was Scott’s mother who gave him the more substantial advice. “Remember, Scott,” she said, “this essay is not for publication. It’s not supposed to upend the academic world with a new interpretation of history. I think the people who run the program just want to evaluate the level of your abilities.

“So, don’t choose a topic where the important information is in a foreign language. And avoid any subject that sounds intriguing but has few available resources,” she continued. “Make it easy on yourself and work on a topic you know, a historical problem with plenty of accessible information. Just do it intelligently.”

Because history is so broad, Scott could select almost anything. But since his talents would be measured, he felt that he had to be inventive and relatively comprehensive. That meant going to the original sources, just as Dr. Pop had taught him. It meant looking for historical meaning, putting evidence into proper context, evaluating without prejudice, and presenting conclusions fearlessly. It meant thinking as much as possible like a real historian.

The answer actually came to him one Saturday at breakfast. While eating his oatmeal and thumbing through the morning newspaper, Scott was struck by the number of news reports on the nation’s economic instability and the personal fear gripping the American people. With the stock market tumbling, taxes rising, companies in bankruptcy, and the value of personal investments in a steady decline, the newspaper was filled with stories about men and women, even children, in great distress, uncertain about the present and fearful of the future.

This made Scott think about earlier times and other national crises. He wondered how earlier generations faced and overcome national adversity. Soon, he began to envision this question as the basis for his research assignment. Scott thought about the Great Depression in the 1930s. Thanks to Dr. Papadopoulos, he had visited several films and drew specific conclusions about the role of government in fighting economic crisis.

He recognized, too, that the Cold War in the 1950s was another terrifying time in which citizens of the United States confronted and overcame immense fear. He decided, however, to write his essay on what he felt was the greatest crisis to challenge the American people in the twentieth century, World War II.

Besides, the subject fit his mother’s wise advice about choosing something about which there was a lot of available materials. Scott also had a good idea about the overall course of the actual war. He had seen many documentaries on TV showing the conflict in Europe, North Africa, and in the Pacific. His history textbook at school spent three pages explaining the most important battles and victories that culminated with Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day) in May 1945—and Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) in September 1945.

At first, Scott thought about writing a paper on the great battles and military heroes of the conflict. But thinking about the social fears in contemporary America, he decided that he was much more interested in the home front during the war. How did the American people cope with their uncertainties? How was morale maintained? What made the Americans at home continue to sacrifice and work hard for four years of global warfare?

Compared to Scott’s understanding of American life during the Second World War, modern economic turmoil seemed a minor issue. After struggling through the dislocation created by Great Depression of the 1930s, his grandparents’ generation had to endure the possibility of dying in combat or being conquered by ruthless enemies on two fronts. Scott wanted to know how people at home were able to withstand such distress and eventually triumph.

With these questions in mind, he spent the next two weeks investigating his topic. Although Scott had school examinations to complete, he became more interested in this extracurricular pursuit. He had to organize his time. He learned to segment his work: four days of the week spent on high school matters, three days dedicated to the Young Scholars essay. Once finals were completed, he figured, he could devote all of his energy to research and writing. Needless to say, this schedule kept the young historian away from his normal life with friends and family.

“Scott, are you sure all this studying won’t fry your brains?” asked one high school pal. “How about staying after school and playing a little basketball?” another classmate inquired. Scott even avoided the attractive brunette girl who sat in front of him in Algebra II. “Why don’t you come to the mall anymore?” she asked. Scott could only answer with a shrug and variations on the old excuse, “Sorry, but I have a lot of work to do.”

As the days passed and school exams came and went, Scott became increasingly involved with his Young Scholars project. He spent a great deal of time surfing the web and reading at the city library. It was important that he gain a solid factual overview of the war years. But he also began to focus more specifically on home front issues, and to look more and more for original materials that might offer him unique ideas. That meant evaluating anything from the period 1941-1945 that gave insight into the morale of the American people.

At the city library, he reviewed old newspapers and magazines. He found informative websites on the internet. He even spent a few dollars of his own money buying relevant items he found at local stores and antique shops, including vintage paper items, DVDs of old wartime films, and recordings of radio programs from the early 1940s.

Like all good historians in the early stages of research, Scott gathered a wide range of materials, more than he would probably use. But he needed this small archive because it would inform him better than reading about the domestic front in a textbook written by someone else many years after the war. Scott wanted to be original in his essay, and the only way to form his own interpretations was to inspect actual remnants of the war era.

One of the most interesting artifacts he found was a large page from the Chicago Sunday Tribune newspaper of February 21, 1943. Under the headline “LIP SERVICE IN HOLLYWOOD!” it featured the lipstick imprints of nineteen movie actresses of the day. To Scott the most striking aspect of the page was the bottom line where readers were instructed “SAVE THIS SECTION AND SEND IT TO A MAN IN THE SERVICE.”

Although he had heard of only a few of the stars, specifically Joan Crawford and Betty Grable, Scott figured that all of these women were popular in the 1940s. He calculated that soldiers and sailors who received this page probably knew the actresses and accepted the page as sexy but ultimately innocent, a touch of nostalgia that gave the troops a chance to laugh and exaggerate among themselves. Even more, he reasoned, they must have received it as a sentimental reminder of girlfriends and wives, of pleasant times going to the movies, of living normal lives at home in a time of peace.

Another interesting acquisition was a series of Superman cartoons. It came in a DVD collection of wartime animated shorts featuring such familiar characters as Daffy Duck, Popeye, Donald Duck, and Porky Pig. However, Scott preferred the patriotic exploits of “The Man of Steel.” In particular, the cartoon called “The Japoteers” was his favorite because it dealt with espionage and sabotage, two exciting themes for Scott. Even though it was fiction, Scott liked the idea that a hero of young people, Superman, was successful in keeping America strong.

From a DVD of short musical films from the war years, Scott found many tunes that had obvious propaganda value. “He’s 1-A in the Army and 1-A in My Heart” clearly was a love song that spoke of the romantic separation caused by the war. “Over There” revived a classic from World War I and made it relevant to the new struggle against the Axis powers in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Scott found novelty songs with humorous lyrics such as “If My Mother Could See Me Now.” And serious songs like “Soldiers of Industry,” a patriotic pledge by General Motors employees to work hard and long for victory—a sentiment that all American workers endorsed.

Scott was surprised to learn from the DVD that theme songs of the various branches of the U.S. military were also popular throughout the war. Spirited tunes such as “The Marine Corps Hymn,” “Semper Paratus,” “When the Caissons Go Rolling Along,” and “The Army Air Corps Song” were reminders of the role being played by men and women in the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army, and the branch of the Army that later became the U.S. Air Force. But when it came to exciting inspiring service songs, Scott’s favorite was “Anchors Aweigh,” the rousing anthem of the United States Navy.

News of Scott’s quest for original material from World War II spread among his neighbors. Frank Jackson, who lived next door neighbor, was an avid collector of radio shows from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. He was happy to offer Scott a selection of some of his favorite wartime broadcasts. The same was true of a neighbor across the street, the school teacher Mrs. Cunningham, who loaned Scott several DVDs of rare wartime movies that broadened his understanding of attitudes within the United States.

Since his report was not just focused on wartime radio and motion pictures, Scott had to choose wisely. He found two of Mr. Jackson’s recordings of particular interest because they touched on the role of working women, an aspect of the home front about which he had become curious. One was a commercial from the Jack Benny Program in February 1943 which urged husbands to make a nourishing breakfast for their working wives before the women left for work in the morning. The second was an episode of the popular soap opera Young Widder Brown which argued strenuously in favor of women entering the work force. Both radio pieces confirmed Scott’s notion about the importance of women laborers and their contribution to the war effort.

And when he went through the many rare films he received from Mrs. Cunningham, Scott looked for a movie with a similar theme. There were several interesting titles, but he selected a short made in the middle of the war by the U.S. government, The Hidden Army, because it dealt with maintaining the morale of female employees who were tired after years of stressful labor.

But there was something else Scott detected in his survey of the popular culture of wartime America. While there was widespread hatred of the Nazis, the German people were less criticized than the Nazi fanatics leading Germany. The Italians, on the other hand, were often shown as bumbling and foolish, nice people despite the fact that together with Germany, Italy had declared war on the United States a few days after Pearl Harbor. But when it came to the Japanese enemy, Scott noticed that the wartime propaganda was not only hateful but often openly racist.

In his search for authentic materials, Scott had accumulated an array of anti-Japanese artifacts that included films, magazine art, phonograph records—even a book of matches and ornament for an automobile license plate. He was fascinated by an installment of the Terry and the Pirates comic strip that was entitled “How to Spot a Jap.” It was a full-page syndicated comic that appeared in the Chicago Tribune newspaper of July 23, 1942. In essence, the comic strip suggested to readers that any person of Japanese ancestry should be considered potentially dangerous and, therefore, watched carefully.

Scott’s most chilling discovery, however, was a U.S. Army poster from May 3, 1942. It announced that within six days all people of Japanese ancestry living in Alameda County in Northern California—a majority of whom were citizens of the United States—must be evacuated from their homes and businesses. It explained that evacuees would be transported to an Assembly Center. Scott knew that this Assembly Center was a local processing site. From there the Japanese-Americans would soon be sent to concentration camps in the Western wilderness. Interestingly, the evacuees were instructed to bring their own knives, forks, and spoons, but “all pets of any kind” were to be left behind. Scott knew that no similar action was ever taken against Americans of German or Italian ancestry although Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. a few days after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

All of these anti-Japanese items understood the Asian enemy, and even the Japanese-Americans, in racial terms. Scott knew that it would still be controversial to argue that Americans displayed a racist attitude toward the Japanese. To this day many people probably felt that in time of war there was nothing wrong with using racist words and images to define the enemy.

But one of the lessons he had learned from Professor Papadopoulos was never to fear telling the provable truth, even if it runs counter to popular opinion. This was Scott’s opportunity to live up to Dr. Pop’s challenge. The racial aspects of home front morale had to be discussed and placed in proper context. The truth had to be proven and respected.

To accomplish this purpose, of course, Scott had the collection of documents that he had assembled. In fact, he felt like an archeologist who had gathered historical materials and was about to tell the story of an ancient civilization based on what he had discovered.

But Scott then came up with a unique idea. A few houses down the street lived Michio “Mitch” Iwao, an elderly Japanese-American man who was liked by everyone in the neighborhood. Scott thought it might be informative to ask him about the Japanese-American experience in wartime. “Mom, do you think Mr. Iwao would let me interview him about the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war?” he asked. “I’ll bet he has some interesting things to say.”

“You’ll never know if you don’t ask,” Mrs. Tennyson replied. “And if he does agree, why don’t you tape record the interview and treat it as you do the other original materials you’ve been finding? I believe this is called oral history. It’s a legitimate part of historical research. Lots of respectable history books are written based on interviews with people who experienced a particular event.”

“That’s excellent, mom,” Scott responded. “I love the idea. I’ll go over there now and see if it’s O.K. with Mr. Iwao. If he agrees, I’ll set up an appointment for the interview and use dad’s portable recorder to tape and preserve it.”

It didn’t take Scott long to get an answer. In less than ten minutes he was back from his visit down the street. “Mr. Iwao said yes, mom,” Scott exclaimed. “He agreed to be interviewed. He says that he is very willing to tell share personal stories about the war years. I have an appointment with him tomorrow afternoon.

“Did you know he was evacuated from his home in California and sent to live in a relocation camp in the Arizona desert for more than three years?” Scott continued. “He didn’t break any laws. He was rounded up and imprisoned because he was of Japanese descent. Just think, mom, real history and it’s been only a few doors away for all these years. And I’ll be recording it tomorrow for the first time—and saving it for all time.”

“That’s wonderful, Scott,” responded Mrs. Tennyson. “Just think about the importance of what you’ll be doing. If you don’t interview him and make a permanent record of his story, then Mr. Iwao’s personal experiences will be lost to history forever. Your interview tomorrow will expand our understanding of this country’s history.”

The interview with Mr. Iwao was a great success. Scott asked relevant questions about Mr. Iwao’s upbringing and life before internment, and of course whatever he could remember about his wartime experiences. Mr. Iwao was forthcoming and thoughtful in his responses. He even loaned Scott some historical materials he had gathered over the years. These included Japanese-American community newspapers from Seattle the 1930s, and small news publications produced by Japanese-Americans while they were interned at a relocation camps in Topaz, Utah and Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

“And look at this, Scott exclaimed, “Mr. Iwao gave me this mobile. He’s a master carver. He made all these beautiful trout that float around on thin, almost-invisible strings and wires. It’s a real work of art.”

“It’s beautiful,” Mrs. Tennyson responded, “just beautiful. I never knew he was such an artist. Let’s hang it here in the kitchen where we’ll always see it floating in space.” “Great,” said Scott. “You know, mom, it’s ironic, but Mr. Iwao first learned to carve like this when he was in that relocation camp in Gila River, Arizona.”

By the time Scott completed the basic research and organized his historical materials for the essay—including the original interview with Mr. Iwao—he had only two weeks before the Young Scholars program began. But, it didn’t panic Scott. Because he had been so diligent in his research, and so knowledgeable about the topic, he had no problem completing his report—all forty pages of it—two days before he was scheduled to board a train for his trip downstate.

Moreover, Scott was very proud of his accomplishment. “This is the best report I can do in such a limited time,” he announced to his father. His parents agreed. “As long as you feel it’s the best you can do, then we’re satisfied,” Mr. Tennyson said reassuringly. But in fact, after reading the essay, his father and mother were more than pleased. They were quite impressed with their son’s work. They considered the paper to be a provocative, inventive, and generally well-written discussion of life on the wartime home front.

Thus, it was with well-earned self-confidence that two days later Scott Tennyson packed his suitcase, bid good-bye to his sister and parents, and entered a Yellow cab heading for the city train depot. His parents had considered driving him to the station, but they decided that it would be more adult for their maturing son to take the taxi and negotiate the train trip all by himself.

Scott liked it that way, too. It made him feel very adult. Dressed in a trench coat and wearing his father’s broad-brimmed hat, Scott Tennyson felt a decade older than his mid-teen years. He also thought he looked pretty handsome: dark slacks and polished shoes, sport coat and lightly-patterned shirt, no tie—and ah, that coat and chapeau.

When he paid the cab driver and walked into the railroad station carrying his own luggage, he was quietly gleeful. This was a serious adventure for Scott, and he was in charge of himself. Moreover, when the ticket agent in a matter-of-fact manner asked, “Where are you headed today, sir?” the young man was privately flattered. It was the first time any adult had ever called him “sir.”

With excited anticipation, Scott purchased a coach ticket for the two hour trip to State University. As he boarded the train and placed his bags above his seat, he actually said to himself in a soft voice, “This is very cool. Not a bad way for anyone to spend a few weeks in the summer. I highly recommend it.”

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