The Spinach King
At a Seabrook Farms reunion, confronting painful
family histories became a shared experience for the descendants
of Japanese war internees and the heirs of C. F. Seabrook--"the
Henry Ford of agriculture," and the author's grandfather.
From The New Yorker
February 20, 1995
The town of Seabrook is in a part of South
Jersey that almost no one visits, because there's no obvious reason
to go there and it's not on the way to anywhere else. Even people
who grew up in New Jersey have no clue what I'm talking about when
I try to describe where Seabrook is--thirty miles south of Cherry
Hill, across the state from Atlantic City, in the cul-de-sac that
dead-ends into the Delaware Bay. Although Seabrook is only an hour's
drive from Philadelphia, and two and a half hours from Washington
and New York, it is surrounded by vegetable fields, and you can
drive east for forty miles without seeing a mall or a Levittown.
Road signs are perforated with bullet holes, and there are long
snakes of tire rubber burned onto the road. The earth is chestnut-colored
and looks comfortably worn. The fields drain into tidal creeks--pronounced
"cricks" by the locals--which flow into salt marshes and on into
The Japanese American Citizens League held a fiftieth-anniversary celebration in Seabrook last October. About six hundred Japanese Americans attended the weekend--most of them former residents of Seabrook, about half of whom still live nearby. Between 1944 and 1947, twenty-five hundred people of Japanese ancestry came to Seabrook from the internment camps around the country where they had been corralled by the United States government after Pearl Harbor. They were recruited by my grandfather Charles Franklin Seabrook--known as C.F.--who was the head of Seabrook Farms, which by the nineteen-fifties was one of the largest producers of frozen vegetables in the country. My grandfather's basic idea, which was to apply factory methods to agriculture, required a lot of labor. In the early twenties, he published a message in a local paper, which read:
Some people who are mad enough to desire a quiet, comfortable home with modern conveniences, in the country, and a chance to save money, rather than high wages with dirt, noise and uncertain employment. The place has nothing to recommend it except good treatment, healthful living, steady position, and an opportunity for everybody to work their way up in a new and growing business.
No sulkers or people with touchy feelings need apply. Anyone who says that he can get a job from "So and So" any time he wants had better take it. It is better than this one. Our regular work day is a ten-hour day. However, the work consists in doing whatever the employer feels like asking at any minute of the day or night.
Many of the workers at Seabrook Farms were refugees of twentieth-century upheavals and hardships: Italians avoiding their war with Turkey in the nineteen-tens; former soldiers of the White Russian Army in the late teens and early twenties; Americans who lost their jobs during the Depression; Jamaicans and Barbadians and German prisoners of war in the forties; Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs fleeing the advance of the Soviet Army in 1945; Japanese Americans from '44 to '47; and Estonians and Latvians running from Stalin's rule in the late forties and early fifties. My grandfather built "ethnic villages" for the different groups, and this collection of villages became Seabrook. In the nineteen-forties and fifties, there were thirty different languages spoken in Seabrook, a town of about five thousand people.
I drove down to Seabrook for the anniversary, too.
I went partly out of curiosity about my family history, and partly
out of a dim sense of obligation. My wife, Lisa, and I took the
Turnpike to my parents' house on Friday evening, and the next morning
we drove over to Seabrook in two cars: Lisa and I with my sister
Carol and her family; my mom and dad in Dad's car. It was a perfect
Indian-summer day, too warm for the suit I had worn for the occasion.
When I was little, going to Seabrook gave me a stomach ache. In Seabrook, something bad had happened between my grandfather and my father, and it resulted in a kind of family apocalypse that destroyed Seabrook Farms. The mystery of what went wrong in my family has become part of the landscape around Seabrook; it seems to linger in the orange lanes leading back into the stunted pines, and in the sun glittering on the spinach fields beside the road. The whole place feels haunted to me. As we got closer to town, conversation in our car slowed down, and the wind and the sound of the engine filled up the silences. We turned onto Route 77, a sturdy concrete road that C.F. built in 1921, on which he transported vegetables to Camden. We passed the Seabrook Buddhist Temple and went through an alley of plane trees, planted by my grandfather, which are big now and give the road a stately appearance, like a country road in Provence. The trees were the only obvious sign that something momentous had once happened here.
Today, Seabrook has the forlorn look of a company town without the company. The local grocery store no longer carries a large selection of Japanese food, although it's probably the only place along N.J. 77 where you can buy roasted wasabi nuts. In the center of Seabrook is a huge empty space: the former site of the power plant, a four-story brick building with a tremendous two-hundred-and-twenty-five-foot phallus of a smokestack, which was torn down in 1979. It's as if the empty land that my grandfather filled with energy, machines, buildings, and people had been distilled into an essence, and the essence had been poured right here.
The entrance to the Seabrook School auditorium
was crowded with people registering for the weekend. Most of the
crowd was Nisei and sansei--second- and third-generation
Japanese American people, now mostly middle-aged, who were children
at Seabrook, went away to college, and never really came back. There
was a smaller number of issei, or first-generation Japanese,
including ninety-six-year-old Fuju Hironaki Sasaki, who had been
"mayor" of the Japanese community in Seabrook, and a few yonsei-fourth-generation--as
well. We picked up our Seabrook Fiftieth Year Celebration tote bags
and were shown to our seats, in a row near the front that was set
off by a yellow ribbon. I nodded down the row to my father's brother
Courtney, who is eighty-six, and to various cousins. The aisles
were filled with people embracing each other. In front of me was
a woman's face, squeezed over another woman's shoulder, tears overflowing
her tightly shut eyes.
The anniversary began with a percussive blast from the Seabrook Hoh Daiko Drummers, who perform each summer in Seabrook for the Buddhist festival of Obon, a festival honoring the dead. (Legend has it that a disciple of Buddha had visions of his mother in Hell; by doing charitable deeds, he was able to attain forgiveness for her. The drumming announces her redemption.) Then the master of ceremonies, Ed Nakawatase, said, "I'm a former resident of Dormitory 8, Apartment 10, 819 Barnard Street, and I'd like to say to all of you, Welcome home." The local Boy Scout troop led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance to one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all. The Reverend William Borror, pastor of the Deerfield Presbyterian Church, which was my grandfather's church (his employees called it "St. Charles' Cathedral"), stepped forward and said a blessing: "We thank you that you are a God of mercy and that you are a God of justice, and that your purposes are worked out in time and in the lives of those who seek to do your good."
Children of Japanese internees often speak
of the difficulty of getting their parents to talk about their wartime
experience. The younger generation want to know what happened in
the camps, so they can pass along this almost Biblical event in
the family history to their children; the older generation don't
want to talk about it, because the pain of the experience is still
too alive. When members of the younger generation ask their parents
about the camps, they often hear the phrase shikataganai,
a Japanese bit of stoicism that translates as "It couldn't be helped."
Richard Ikeda, who was at Seabrook as a boy and is now a physical
chemist at DuPont, across the river, told me that shikataganai
is a way of saying, "O.K., life is unfair. Now get back to work."
Josie Ikeda, Richard's mother and a longtime Seabrook resident,
says that parents downplayed the terrible experience of the camps,
partly in order to protect the children. "When we were in camp,"
she told me, "I was very bitter, fighting everything, but then I
became concerned that my bitterness would pass to my children, and
so I tried to change my attitude. I did not want them to grow up
feeling bitter toward their country. I wanted them to love their
country." Theodora Yoshikami, the co÷rdinator of multicultural programs
at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, who was
born in camp and spent most of the first twelve years of her life
in Seabrook, told me, "You could never talk about the camps with
my parents. I never knew what went on. Until I was nine, I thought
when people said 'camp' they meant summer camp."
Events like the anniversary and the camp reunions are often arranged by the younger generation, to help the older people talk about their wartime experience. Many of the kids go to the reunions with their parents, in the hope of seeing through a rarely opened window onto the family past. The younger Nisei and sansei tend to be more militant in their attitude toward the camp experience than the older people. The camp exhibit currently at the Los Angeles Japanese American National Museum, for example, which includes a reconstructed barracks, would have been unthinkable twenty-five years ago. The sansei were the force behind the Redress Movement, which led to the creation of a federal commission to study the internment policy, and which concluded, in 1983, that "the broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." In 1990, the federal government began awarding every surviving internee twenty thousand dollars.
After the prayer, the mayor of Upper Deerfield Township, C. Kenneth Hill, talked about being the son of migrant laborers who came from Tennessee to work at Seabrook in 1947. Donna Pearson, forty-one, who is the head of the Bridgeton City Council, also spoke. Her father, Samah Pearson, came from Jamaica in 1943, and went to work in the Seabrook bean fields. "We grew up in a multicultural household," Pearson said. "We learned to speak patois. Some of my first gifts were from Japanese Americans and German-Americans. . . . We have to remember the reasons for coming here weren't always the best. There was a lot of pain, there was a lot of suffering, there was a lot of loss, but I think the biggest lesson is that people survive. We come together, and we learn how to live together." Pearson paused to collect her emotions, then continued, "There's no obstacle you can't get over. There's no excuse for can't. There is always more in life to do and to achieve. Because if my parents could do it, so can I."
A hundred and thirty years ago, my great-great-grandfather
Samuel Seabrook, who had been the caretaker of Horace Greeley's
estate, in Chappaqua, New York, brought his family down to New Jersey
to live, ignoring his boss's advice to go west. His son Arthur became
a sharecropper and sold vegetables door to door from the back of
a huckster wagon. In those days, the word "truck" still meant "commercial
produce," and New Jersey supplied most of the truck for Philadelphia
and New York. In 1893, Arthur bought a fifty-seven-acre farm, partly
covering the site now occupied by Seabrook. He worked it with his
son--my grandfather. C.F. was small and thin and very serious. His
pale-blue eyes, behind steel-rimmed spectacles, could appear icy.
In almost all the photographs I have of him, he is glowering--his
jaw pushed out, his mouth set stubbornly. He was proud of his body,
especially of his feet, and was always showing off his high arches
and tapered ankles as evidence that he was descended from good stock.
As a farmer, C.F. was distinguished by a strong dislike of dirt. Although his education ended at the age of twelve, when he went to work full time for his father, he had an intuitive understanding of the principles of engineering, and he applied this to the automation of the work on the farm. I was raised on his story: C.F. down on his knees as a boy, weeding onions in the heat, looking up to see a man towering over him on horseback, and resolving someday to ascend to that height; C.F. as a young man, hearing someone in Philadelphia talk about overhead irrigation one day, trying this new invention on his celery bed, and, banking on the value of his succulent irrigated celery, going up to New York and persuading some men to lend him the money to expand his business; C.F. as a budding industrialist, buying his father out, and going on a building spree around Seabrook. Over an eight-year period, he put in thirty-five miles of roads, two railroads, a power plant, six enormous greenhouses, an ice plant, a sawmill (to make boxes for the truck), a canning plant, a cold-storage facility, and a school, and he laid out villages for his employees and their families: the "Italian village" for his Italian workers, and so on. In 1924, he went bust and lost the business, but he had got it back by 1930, and soon began freezing vegetables for General Foods, which had acquired the patents for Clarence Birdseye's quick-freezing process. In 1943, Seabrook Farms began selling its own brand of frozen vegetables. C.F. was often referred to in the press as "the Henry Ford of agriculture." In a dazzling picture story that appeared in 1955, Life called Seabrook Farms "the biggest vegetable factory on earth."
C.F. didn't own very much of Seabrook Farms outright. The plant, along with the rest of the infrastructure, was built with borrowed money, and all of it was periodically on the verge of being taken over by creditors. A lot of the land was owned by small farmers who had contracts to grow truck for C.F. What my grandfather supplied was vision. He saw fifty thousand acres of small farms functioning as a single enterprise, and he put a lot of his energy into creating a community to bind the farmers and the workers together. The geographical isolation of the place made his creation seem like a separate world. It was a world of hard work and opportunity, the rewards of which were personified by C.F. himself, whom everyone called "the Old Man," even before he was forty.
In 1905, C.F. married Norma Dale Ivins, whom we grandchildren knew as Nana. She was the daughter of a successful farming family that had been in the area since Colonial times. She was taller and better educated than C.F. was, and she helped him finish his education through correspondence courses, and taught him grammar. My father, named John but called Jack, was born in 1917, the youngest of four children. When he was seven, the family moved into a large farmhouse on a dirt road called Polk Lane; everyone in town referred to it as the Big House. Around this time, C.F. made several transatlantic crossings, and he observed what rich people wore, and what they ate and drank; he wanted his house to seem luxurious. He put in a tiled swimming pool--the first pool many people in the area had ever seen--and in the bean fields around the Big House he planted a grand formal garden, like the ones he had seen at great houses in England. High hedges separated the garden into elaborate sections. Wisteria vines trained as standards marched down the center of one section, banked on both sides by beds of hyacinths, tulips, snapdragons, rhododendrons, and chrysanthemums.
In my father's first memories of family dinners, everyone is discussing the business. For him and his two older brothers, Belford and Courtney, the family and the business were the same thing. Money was mixed up in everything. By the time he was nine, my father was working sixty-hour weeks during his school vacation. When he was thirteen, his father made him the quality grader. "It's unbelievable that C.F. would put this much trust in a thirteen-year-old boy," my father says. "His whole life depended on what he got for those crops." This, Dad says, is one of the most puzzling things about his father: a part of him wanted to trust his family members completely, but he also treated them badly, constantly playing one against another in order to get his own way.
C.F. educated his three sons to be engineers, sending Belford and then Dad to Princeton, and Courtney to Lehigh. Their sister, Thelma, was not included in the family business. (I often wonder what it must have been like to be the only daughter in that family--ignored by her competitive brothers as they carved out their fiefdoms.) My father married immediately after graduating from Princeton, in 1939, and returned to Seabrook to work. He and his wife, Ann, lived in one of C.F.'s nicest houses; in fact, it had been previously owned by the man whose shadow fell across C.F. in the onion patch. As a young squire of twenty-five, my father had a Japanese cook and a Jamaican butler. His older brothers were already executives, each with his own area of expertise: Belford was the chief engineer, who designed and ran the freezing plant; Courtney was head of sales. My father took charge of labor recruitment and union negotiation and began building relationships with bankers in Philadelphia and New York.
The image of the Seabrook family was intrinsic to the value of the Seabrook brand. Pictures of father and sons working together frequently appeared in newspaper and magazine stories about the business. "The fact that there was a real family named Seabrook," my father says, "lent itself to a form of publicity that was far more effective than paid advertising." Seabrook Farms' frozen creamed spinach was better than Birdseye frozen creamed spinach because we Seabrooks grew it ourselves. "We grow our own--so we know it's good--and we freeze it right on the spot!" was the company motto. During the fifties, my father was dubbed the Spinach King by the company, and pictures of his handsome face were widely distributed in Seabrook Farms publicity.
But, although father and sons worked side by side, they were not close. "C.F. was never close or intimate in any way with any of his family," my father has written in a memoir of Seabrook Farms that he has been working on. He goes on:
None of us thought this was odd, it was just the way life was. In fact, it was not until 1953, when the three of us were grown men, and a psychiatrist pointed it out, that we realized how odd that was. We also realized that C.F. had had no close friends in his lifetime. Seen up close, he was cold and calculating, but in public he was highly successful at projecting a warm, caring, friendly image to a large group. At most family parties there was tension, because C.F. would be sarcastically critical of some family member, a daughter-in-law who was hard of hearing or a pre-teen grandson who happened to be overweight.
Nana did her best to shield "the boys," as everyone called her sons, from his fierce passive aggression, but she was no match for C.F. My mother, Elizabeth Toomey Seabrook, once asked Nana how she could have allowed C.F. to be cruel to her sons, and Nana responded, "There was nothing I could do." She could hardly protect herself. On another occasion, she told my mother, "No one will ever know the person I was meant to be."
In the nineteen-forties, C.F.'s health began to fail, and it became even harder for his sons to deal with him. It often fell to their wives to mediate. C.F. sent for a nurse who had once saved his life by curing him of dysentery in the Crimea--a large Australian woman named Miss Leila Small. From then on, anyone who wanted to talk to him had to go through her. Ann Seabrook remembers trying to plead her husband's case to her father-in-law during one of their disputes. C.F. was shut into a steam cabinet that Miss Small often put him in, with just his skinny old head poking out of the top of it, snarling, "Jack's got me by the balls!" When you ask my father about his stormy relationship with his father, he often says, "Well, it goes to show that you can't keep the old bulls and the young bulls in the same pasture," and that, usually, is the end of the conversation.
In the mid-fifties, C.F. began to show signs of what was then called "hardening of the arteries." He had a series of "spells" during which he would, say, show up in a Bridgeton clothing store wearing several layers of bathrobes. But he was capable of being rational when he had to be. My father was then between marriages--this was during his Spinach King phase--and he was often seen with actresses and models in New York hot spots like "21" and the Stork Club. His name appeared frequently in the gossip columns. Charles Ventura: "Frozen-food tycoon Jack Seabrook is planning an early merger with actress Eva Gabor." Dorothy Kilgallen: "The once-flourishing romance between Jack Seabrook . . . and Eva Gabor . . . has grown colder than his products." Earl Wilson: "Ann Miller and Jack Seabrook, the frozen foods fella, are a new duo." Dad's getting all this attention seems to have made his father envious and vindictive. One night, C.F. appeared at the New York apartment of one of Dad's girlfriends, wanting to take her out. He apparently wasn't ready to quit being the Spinach King himself.
Among the people sitting in the audience at the Seabrook
anniversary was Ray Ono. On the day I interviewed him, in his house
near Seabrook, his wife, Mariko, who is the grandmaster of ikebana,
or Japanese flower arranging, for South Jersey, was holding a class
downstairs for two women. It was cold that morning--the wind, which
had been roaring in the trees the night before, had blown the cold
in--and the spinach fields were glistening with frost. Six weeks
after our discussion, Ray, who was in his early sixties, died suddenly,
and when I heard the news the sound of the roaring wind came back
to me. In Ray's study, where he and I talked that day, he kept his
engineering degrees, five patents, and a picture of his father's
fishing boat, which dates from his family's pre-Seabrook life, on
the West Coast. After Ray and I were finished, we had lunch with
Mariko and her students, and discussed flower arranging. Mariko
said, "In ikebana, you can make the arrangements out of anything--grass,
branches, rocks, even things you find in the road. You don't have
to use only flowers."
Ray Ono's Seabrook story, like that of many other Japanese Americans, starts on December 7, 1941. Right after Pearl Harbor, the F.B.I. picked up most fishermen of Japanese ancestry living in California, on the theory that they were in the best position to be spies. Ray's father, a tuna fisherman who owned a boat with his brother, was arrested one day as he was returning to the dock at Terminal Island, in San Pedro, where the Onos lived. For months, the family did not know what had become of him. They never saw the boat again. Ray told me, "We heard it was used by the Navy as a minesweeper, and might have been sunk off the Philippines. But we're not sure."
There were immediate calls for the rounding up of all the hundred and ten thousand Japanese residents of the West Coast. Representative John Rankin, of Mississippi, said on the floor of the House, on December 15, 1941, "I'm for catching every Japanese in America . . . and putting them in concentration camps. . . . Damn them! Let's get rid of them now!" Henry McLemore, in a column published in the San Francisco Examiner, a Hearst newspaper (the Hearst papers were constantly warning their readers of "the yellow peril"), wrote, "Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands. . . . Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them." Earl Warren, then the Attorney General of California, said that placing the Japanese in camps was a good idea, because "when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them. . . . But when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound."
The men who contributed to making the final decision to send the Japanese to the camps--Franklin D. Roosevelt; Henry Stimson, who was Secretary of War; John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War; and Francis Biddle, the Attorney General--were the kind of preppie Eastern-establishment types my father had vaguely in mind when he raised me. Biddle expressed reservations two days before the President signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military the authority to carry out the operation. "A great many West Coast people distrust the Japanese [and] various special interests would welcome their removal from good farm land and the elimination of their competition," Biddle wrote to F.D.R. He added, "My last advice from the War Department is that there is no evidence of imminent attack and from the F.B.I. that there is no evidence of planned sabotage." But F.D.R. signed the order anyway, on February 19, 1942. No civil-rights organizations, including the A.C.L.U., actively protested the order. The Japanese American leadership did little to resist the camps, either. The Japanese American Citizens League stated that it opposed internment if the policy was motivated by West Coast anti-Japanese racism (which, in hindsight, it clearly was), but would go along with internment if, as F.D.R. had claimed, it was to protect the Japanese from racism, and to help the United States win the war. The Japanese leaders suggested to their community that going quietly to the camps was the best way they could prove their loyalty to the United States.
In May of 1942, signs went up in Japanese neighborhoods like the Onos' that all people of Japanese ancestry had seventy-two hours to report to an assembly center, taking with them only as much as they could carry. The Los Angeles assembly center was the racetrack at Santa Anita. People lived in the horse stalls for five months, until the internment camps were finished. Josie Ikeda remembers showering in the big open area where they washed down the lathered-up racehorses in peacetime. "There was one elderly Japanese woman who was so embarrassed, she wore her clothes in the shower," she told me. "We laughed, but it must have been terribly humiliating for her." In October, the internees were moved to the camps, of which there were ten altogether, most of them in remote areas of Arizona, Idaho, and Arkansas.
Ray Ono's family went to Manzanar, one of two camps in California. They remained there for fifteen months. By December of 1944, Roosevelt had begun to have second thoughts about the internment policy, and the government announced that it was closing the camps down. Everyone had to get out. But many of the internees stayed until the government forcibly removed them, because they were afraid to return to their homes. Alfred Elliott, a congressman from Tulare, California, had said, on the floor of the House in 1943, "The only good Jap is a dead Jap," implying that this statement would apply to "every one of them that is sent back" to California.
To permit Nisei of draft age to serve in the military, the government devised a "loyalty test." Question 27 was "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?" and Question 28 was "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States?" The young men who answered no to both of these questions--about one in ten--were called "no-no boys," and the government made an attempt to segregate them at the camp at Tule Lake. The yes-yes boys were allowed to be drafted (many enlisted), and a large number of them served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became one of the most decorated units in United States military history.
The war was good for Seabrook Farms. In one year, the company
sold sixty million pounds of processed vegetables to the military,
which was amazing business. But the war also made C.F.'s labor problem,
always the weak link in his operation, even worse. On this count,
C.F. disliked the war. When Belford told C.F., shortly after Pearl
Harbor, that he was going to seek a commission, C.F. was furious,
and never forgave him; that was the end of Belford's executive position
with Seabrook Farms. It was as though Belford had committed an act
At the end of 1943, my father, who had stayed home from the war and had taken over some of Belford's responsibilities, heard from the American Friends Society, in Philadelphia, that the internees could be recruited as workers. Like many Americans, especially in the East, my father had been only dimly aware of the internment situation, but it sounded to him like one possible solution to the company's labor problem. Seabrook Farms sent scouts to the camps to offer them my grandfather's Fair Deal, and a small group of internees from a camp in Arkansas came to inspect Seabrook. C.F. promised every man and woman a job at the going wage, a house with heat and utilities, and decent schools for their children. In return, they had to agree to work for Seabrook for six months.
Many people who came to work for my grandfather had nowhere else to go. Seabrook became their refuge. Richard Ikeda, who is now sixty, told me, "Seabrook was a real community--there was kinship to the community, obligation to the community. Work was hard, but everybody was in the same boat and suffering together. If there was a funeral, people shared in the expense. If someone needed medicine, people contributed what they could." And there was far less overt racism in Seabrook than elsewhere. My uncle Courtney spoke to the men at the local clubs--the Elks, the Moose, and the Rotarians--and told them he didn't want any trouble for the Japanese.
Barry Semple, a former history teacher at Bridgeton High School, who spoke at the Seabrook anniversary, told me afterward, "I think South Jersey is more a part of the Deep South than it is a part of New Jersey. This is not recognized in Trenton. You say that South Jersey is more like Mississippi or Alabama than it is like Trenton, and those people in Trenton--it's impossible for them to comprehend that." Semple was an active participant in New Jersey's efforts to integrate the local public schools, in the sixties, and he was threatened by the Klan. He went on, "So, with all the hatred of the war, for the Japanese to come in here, and for something this positive to happen--it's an amazing thing. And it says a lot about what your family must have done."
But Michi Weglyn, the author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps, who also spoke at the anniversary, told me that life for her parents in Seabrook was hard. She remembers that her mother's hands cracked from sorting beans all day and wouldn't heal. When she was planning her remarks, Weglyn told me, one elderly man said of working conditions in the plant, "It was awful. I hope you're going to give them hell." Weglyn thought, Oh my God, what have I got myself into? She also reread Seiichi Higashide's book, Adios to Tears: The Memoirs of a Japanese-Peruvian Internee in U.S. Concentration Camps, which contains a section about working life at Seabrook:
We were required to work 12 hours a day. Initially, men were paid 50 cents an hour and women 35 cents an hour, with no overtime pay or differential for night work. If one arrived at work late, or if one went home sick, that portion would be subtracted from his hours in five-minute units. We had only one free day every two weeks, when we moved from one shift to the other. There were no paid holidays, no sick leave. Even for that time, these working conditions were considered to be severe.
In the end, Weglyn gave a mostly nostalgic speech, her voice vibrating with the emotion of what she could not say. She recalled working as a d.j. on the night shift in the plant when she was in high school, playing Perry Como records to keep the workers awake, and especially remembered playing "Prisoner of Love," which was the hit song of the summer of '46.
Ray Ono and his family lived at 969 Roosevelt Street, in a concrete-block building that was not much of an improvement over the camp barracks, and in some respects was worse. In camp, they had had no refrigerator and a wood-burning stove; in Seabrook, they had an icebox and a coal-burning stove. Manzanar was temperate in the wintertime; Seabrook was freezing. In camp, internees did not have to work, and their food was prepared for them by the military; in Seabrook, people had to work very hard and provide for themselves. But Ray told me, "Psychologically, Seabrook was a lot better. There wasn't barbed wire around us. We were free."
For Ray, as for many of the boys and girls, camp had been fun, and Seabrook was more fun. "As a kid, you don't worry about hardship. You're going to school, and you have all these activities," he said. In the summertime, Ray picked beans, like all the boys, working beside Estonians, Latvians, Jamaicans, and Puerto Ricans. The Japanese kids organized their own gangs, with names like the Rainbows and the Blue Devils, but, instead of fighting, the kids competed in baseball, football, and basketball. Ray was a good athlete, and went on to glory as a running back at Bridgeton High School. Barry Semple told me about watching him play in 1950: "Ray was behind a guy named Tex Robinson, who was a great football player. . . . But then Tex's jaw got broken, and everyone said, Oh, well, that's it, we've only got this little Japanese kid to fill in for Tex--we're done for." Ray, in his first game replacing Robinson, scored three touchdowns--two of them on long, spectacular runs. "That was the first time I really began to realize that the Japanese were really something special," Semple said.
After the war, Seabrook Farms grew rapidly. Under its
own label, it produced a vast amount of frozen spinach, frozen baby
peas, and frozen lima beans. The technology of frozen food was exploding,
and Seabrook was at the forefront. Science was applied to every
aspect of agriculture. Temperature, sunlight, water, and seed were
all taken into account and factored together as "growth units,"
in a system that allowed Seabrook to react to changing weather and
to determine the day when the crops would be ripest. Harvest was
a highly organized military assault on vegetables--the agricultural
equivalent of D Day. The harvest of lima beans went like this: First,
tractors dragged mowers through the lima-bean fields, laying the
vines into windrows. A loader followed, gathering the windrows onto
flatbed dump trucks. (This went on day and night, under floodlights.)
The trucks carried the windrows to a viner, a very loud machine
that separated the beans from the stems and leaves, which were fed
to the company's beef cattle. (My father had to keep the cattle's
existence a secret from C.F., who hated all animals.) The beans
were rushed to the plant to be washed in flumes, blanched in steam
tunnels, and funnelled downstairs, into a circular container filled
with brine. The heavier beans would sink in the brine, and the smaller
ones--which would be packaged as "Extra Fancy Grade"--would float
on the surface. After being sorted, the beans passed along a conveyor
belt lined with women, who removed any refuse and stray smaller
beans, and they went on to automatic packagers and then to giant
"freezing trays," which were set at thirty-seven degrees below zero.
If the beans came from nearby fields, less than an hour had passed
since they were harvested.
Ray's father was one of about forty men who removed packages of frozen beans from the freezing trays and put them on racks, which were then moved by other men to a cold-storage warehouse or to waiting refrigerated trucks or railcars. "My father was a part of the precision machinery that Seabrook was famous for," Ray told me, "a worker in an assembly line of food." Ray's mother also worked in the plant, separating lima beans. The parents alternated their twelve-hour shifts, so that one of them would always be home with the children. Although a lot of Japanese American families saw Seabrook only as a place to regroup, and returned to the West Coast in the late forties, Ray's father insisted that the Onos remain. "The boat was gone, and all we had were the clothes on our backs," Ray told me. "So we stayed. Dad's job was terribly monotonous. He knew about working on diesel engines, from his fishing days, and we tried to get him to work in the shop, where the work was more interesting, but he wouldn't do it." He unloaded freezer trays until he retired, in 1958; he died in 1960. "He'd come home, eat supper, have his glass of wine, and go to bed," Ray said. "He didn't tell us much about it. We knew it was hard work. It was hard to determine what his feelings were. He had the Japanese attitude of shikataganai--'it can't be helped.' " Ray added, "The thing is, we were poor, but we didn't know we were poor. Our parents never let us feel like we were poor. This is something that came out very strongly at the Seabrook reunion--the incredible effort our parents made to keep the family strong and together, and the respect we owe them for that. You hear a lot about why the Japanese Americans have done all right, while other minorities can't seem to get going. I think the real difference is the strong family structure."
The point at which my grandfather began to hate his
sons is hard to place. My mother, whom my father married in 1956,
remembers my grandmother telling her it began when C.F. realized
that he was old and his sons were young. Nana also thought that
C.F. felt guilty over the way he had dealt with his own father.
In 1911, without telling his father, C.F. went to meet with some
financiers in New York, hoping to borrow money to expand the farm.
He took the train to Jersey City and crossed the Hudson in a ferry,
which landed not far from where I live now. After he had secured
the money, he went home and offered to buy his father out for far
less than half of what his New York creditors had proposed the farm
was worth. Basically, he cheated his father. As C.F. grew older,
Nana believed, the guilt he felt over how he had treated his father
turned into paranoia that his sons would do the same thing to him.
The fall of Seabrook Farms was set in motion by Hurricane Hazel, which struck South Jersey in October of 1954 and wiped out all of Seabrook's spinach crop. An association of Philadelphia bankers, led by a man named Ben Sawin, told C.F. that they felt he wasn't up to the task of rebuilding the company, and that they wanted my father to take over. A three-man voting trust, composed of my father, Sawin, and C.F., was established to manage the business. "C.F. seemed to accept this," my dad says. "He held a big family meeting in 1954, and announced that he was retiring and that I would be running the business from now on. Mother was overjoyed. Belford started clapping, which was rather indelicate."
In 1958, Seabrook had its best year ever. "Now in board meetings people didn't talk about 'truck' anymore," my father says. "We talked about expanding and diversifying sources of production. We were moving into frozen orange juice and gourmet frozen entrées. The Seabrook brand was a national brand now, and to keep it constantly supplied we needed growers in Florida and California. But your grandfather couldn't understand that." The truck-farming economy on which my grandfather's vision was based was giving way to a supermarket economy in which fresh produce would be available all year round and consumers wouldn't care where it came from.
In 1959, C.F. refused to renew the voting trust. The banks informed him that they would not continue to lend money to Seabrook Farms unless he renewed it. Like any farming enterprise, Seabrook could not survive without the banks. But C.F. was stubborn; he wouldn't budge. The head of Gerard Trust then told my father that, in order to save the business, the family should have C.F. declared incompetent to manage his affairs so that, if necessary, he could be forcibly removed.
Here my father faced an almost impossible choice. Did he stick with the bankers, who were offering him his livelihood, the salvation of everything he had worked for, and the chance to run the business on his own, even though this would mean condemning his father? Or did he stick with his father, even though it meant ruin for both of them? Dad chose the bankers: he was his father's son. For my grandmother, the choice was between C.F. and my father, and she chose her beloved Jack. My father's sister, Thelma, and her husband thought that what the boys were trying to do to C.F. was unfair--that, whatever the old man's weaknesses were, he didn't deserve this humiliation. They sided with C.F. A hearing was scheduled to determine whether C.F. was competent or not. Nana and her sons hired Richard Hughes, who later became the governor of New Jersey, to represent their side.
While the hearing was pending, C.F. had another "spell," and the family had him taken to a psychiatric hospital. C.F. soon got out on a writ of habeas corpus, and went to the Philadelphia newspapers with his story, accusing his family in print of having "shanghaied" him into a mental institution so that his sons, whom he called "Boy Scouts," could "take control of the business." He also said, "This is a conspiracy on Jack's part." These clippings have been carefully preserved by my father's former secretary, Elizabeth Gauntt, and are stowed in the barn at my parents' place, along with the glowing publicity from that time (things like a copy of Alice Hughes' column A Woman's New York: "Not everyone is as fortunate as myself and 19 other . . . editors and writers invited to be the guests of a happy family of 'gentleman farmers' in New Jersey").
Shortly before the day of the hearing, C.F. played his trump card. On a Saturday night in May, 1959, he sold Seabrook Farms to a wholesale grocery company for three million dollars. He had created Seabrook Farms, and, to keep his sons from taking over, he destroyed it. On the day of the sale, C.F. appeared in a local barbershop wearing three neckties, and, when someone asked him why, he said, "Three million, three neckties." C.F. also changed his will, to make sure that his wife and sons wouldn't get any of this money--effectively disowning them. He and Nana continued to live together in the Big House, but they took their meals separately, and rarely spoke. When C.F. died, in 1964, and the family saw that he had left virtually no money to Nana in his will, and hadn't even provided a place for her to live, they sued the estate, so that she was able to stay on in the Big House and receive enough money to sustain her.
A few months after Seabrook Farms was sold, my mother answered the door one morning to find a man, sent by C.F., holding an eviction notice. C.F. had refused to let my parents buy their house, although they had offered to repeatedly, and now he was kicking them out. Exiled from Seabrook, Mom and Dad moved to a house outside Salem, about twenty miles away. My father was forty-two, was out of a job, and owed money. I was born in 1959, right in the middle of all this--my father's first son, his namesake, who in better times might have given my grandfather joy. But, as things stood between them, my grandfather refused to recognize my birth.
All my life--in grade school, in college, at the different places I've worked--my reputation as a Seabrook Farms frozen-food heir has accompanied me. It's like a birthmark. I used to try to conceal it. At times, while shopping in supermarkets, I avoided the frozen-food section, not wanting to catch sight of that creamed spinach. (The Seabrook label lived on, even though my family didn't own it.) Even in cyberspace, a place where I had imagined, na´vely, that frozen-food heirs don't matter, someone in a discussion group I had contributed to posted: He's the Seabrook Frozen Foods heir, I heard today . . . authoritatively. To which I responded, As to my being the frozen-food heir, my grandfather started that business but he and my father had a terrible fight and he fired and disowned my father and sold the business to spite him . . . so in fact my only inheritance is bitterness.
The person replied, Never again will I buy that frozen creamed spinach.
And I replied, I know very well what that statement will cost you, and I appreciate it. Because in spite of all the pain that creamed spinach cost my family, it is still the best creamed spinach you can buy.
My grandfather did see me a few times before he died, at age eighty-three. Although my father and his father were never actually reconciled (and he and his sister, Thelma, were estranged for the rest of her life), our family sometimes went over to the Big House for Sunday lunch with Nana. I have only one memory of my grandfather. I am taken upstairs to see him by my father and mother. My grandfather is sitting on the floor, fully dressed, building something with an Erector set. My mother says, "C.F., this is Johnny, your grandson. This is Johnny," and my grandfather just looks at me in a childishly mean way, his mouth curled down at the corners. I start to worry that his hands are going to snake out and grab my ankles, and I brace myself, putting my hands on my knees, ready for him. He never did say my name.
Because C.F. gave six hundred families a home after the camps,
he is remembered by many people of Japanese ancestry as a kind of
redeemer--a very different role from the destroyer he plays in my
family mythology. One of my early memories is of going to the Sunday
service at the Deerfield church, and of Japanese faces outside the
church looking extremely happy to see me, for reasons I couldn't
understand but knew had something to do with my grandfather.
At the Seabrook anniversary, we watched a film called Seabrook: A New Beginning, made by William Brown. In the film, people spoke of my grandfather as a savior. "He was one of the finest persons you could ever meet," Samah Pearson said. "A wonderful person. And I'll never forget him." Esther Ono (no relation to Ray), who now owns a beauty parlor in Seabrook, said, "I always feel grateful that Mr. Seabrook did undertake to do this for us." I felt a familiar twist of sansei cynicism. Yes, C.F. helped these people, but it was always good business to help them. With the Japanese Americans, Seabrook Farms got a group of amazingly loyal, uncomplaining, hardworking people, who had a lot to do with the company's great success after the war. Later in the film, someone said of C.F., "He was a little man, but he had a lot of noodles." That sounded more like the C.F. I know.
I have never met anyone who worked for Seabrook Farms--outside of my family, that is--who doesn't speak well of my grandfather. When I was doing interviews for this story, people would often open their conversations with me by saying, "I want to thank you for what your family did for my family," or "I just want to say what an honor this is"--not my usual experience as a reporter. Something about C.F. inspired people. He was the American Dream come true: the poor farmer's son who by wits alone becomes a captain of industry. He gave the Japanese American workers something to believe in about America at a time when their faith was being tested.
Gene Nakata, who was ten when he arrived in Seabrook,
told me that his father did not want to return to California, because
of the loyalty he felt toward my grandfather. " 'We're going to
stay here and help Mr. Seabrook,' " Nakata remembers his father
telling him. " 'All our clothes, our furniture--all of this stuff--is
from Mr. Seabrook. Without him, we wouldn't have this stuff.' "
Richard Ikeda said, "I think your grandfather was a man of his time.
Seabrook was a family-owned business, and he felt the obligations
of the owner to the people. He felt that the workers were part of
him. In a way, it was a very Japanese system. This feeling of belonging
is what the modern corporation is trying to get back to."
But this benevolent, paternalistic C. F. Seabrook, the C.F. of the Seabrook anniversary, is not the C.F. that has been bequeathed to me. My C.F. is a racist and an ugly Red-baiter. It is said that C.F. enjoyed holding forth at the dinner table about the different races that worked for him, citing qualities of one that made it superior to another. He was enraged when one of his granddaughters became engaged to a Mexican, and sent a lawyer down to Mexico to threaten the suitor's family. He certainly did not hold the Latvians' and the Estonians' anti-Semitism against them. Many of the Japanese were anti-Communist, and C.F. approved of that: he liked to portray unions as a bunch of Commies.
Throughout the thirties and into the forties, C.F. waged an epic battle with local labor unions, which repeatedly tried to organize Seabrook. (They eventually succeeded.) From a union perspective, what my grandfather had going in Seabrook was a pre-capitalist, feudalistic state, in which the workers were little more than serfs. My grandfather argued that the workers were happy as they were, and he was not above hiring thugs to beat up workers who didn't agree with him. In August of 1934, The Nation published an account of a strike at Seabrook:
Our committee watched the peaceful picketing which was in progress. . . . When he [C.F.] thought that observers had disappeared from the scene, an attack of tear and nausea gas was launched on the strikers. . . . Belford Seabrook, son of the proprietor, himself threw a bomb into a house then occupied only by an Italian mother and two very small children. He had previously shouted to his men: "Get this woman; she talks too much." The bomb, hurled through the window, landed on a bed and set the sheets ablaze. The rooms were so filled with smoke and gas fumes that the place was uninhabitable for more than two days.
Needless to say, this version of village life at Seabrook was not mentioned at the Seabrook Fiftieth Year Celebration.
As I sat in the audience, I was a little bit nervous for
my father, who was going to have to get up and speak. His topic,
which the organizers of the anniversary had set for him, was his
father. What were the qualities of C. F. Seabrook that had enabled
him to create this unusual community in South Jersey? My father
had had a lot of trouble writing this speech. When I visited him
in Vermont, last August, he was lost in details about the engineering
marvels of Seabrook Farms; and the more trouble he had in reckoning
with C.F., the more technical details about the farming operation
he would accumulate. When I got home from that visit, I sent Dad
E-mail saying: Perhaps some of the difficulty you are feeling
in writing this is that you want to please these people by giving
them someone to worship, but unfortunately the CF you knew doesn't
fit the bill. If that is the case, well, I'm not sure what you should
do. My inclination would be to tell it like it is but I am sometimes
We talked on the phone. Dad said, "Well, I guess it's not a lie if it isn't the whole truth." His voice sounded kind of listless. I wondered if his weariness came from wrestling with the knowledge that if his father had been in the place of the California farmers who wanted the Japanese immigrants' land, he might have been just as happy as they were to put the Japanese away in the camps. Or maybe he was still angry over what his father had done to him. It didn't seem appropriate to ask Dad these questions: my sansei curiosity about the family past was butting up against his nisei reserve. Did he feel guilty over how he had dealt with his father? I could see how some of my cousins--Thelma's children in particular--might think that he should. I tiptoed around that subject with him, but he would say only, "Well, maybe C.F.'s mistake was that he didn't raise one of his sons to be a psychiatrist." That made me think of something that Ron Uba, the president of the New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, had told me, speaking of the older Japanese people's experience in the camps: "They sometimes have trouble separating the hurt of the experience out of their lives enough to talk about it."
I asked Dad whether he regretted not having a family business to pass along to his children. No, he said, he thought maybe it was a good thing that Seabrook Farms was no more. "To this day, I can't say that for me personally this was a tragedy," he said. "I was broke and out on my ass at forty-two, and I've made a lot of money since." Ben Sawin had helped him get a job with Howard Butcher, a Philadelphia stockbroker who owned several utility companies. (Today, Sawin's picture hangs next to C.F.'s picture in Dad's office. Dad sometimes wonders whether in some way he was a surrogate for Sawin's own son, who committed suicide when he was fifteen years old.) In ten years, Dad built the utility companies into a billion-dollar business, International Utilities. Like his own father, he came back from midlife disaster to achieve even greater success.
"Of course, it's conceivable we could have done great things with the business," Dad went on. "Seabrook might today be one of the greatest companies in the food business. But when you inherit something, you always have that doubt: Could I have done it on my own? I think I have more confidence now than I ever would have if I had stayed at Seabrook. Also, it might not have been good for you, or for your brother, if Seabrook had lasted."
"I would probably be running the Seabrook P.R. department," I said, thinking, Actually, maybe I am.
"American family businesses just don't last long," Dad said. "I heard there was a get-together in Europe recently of families who have been in business together for four hundred years. That's unthinkable in America."
I asked Dad if he had anything at all that his father had written in his own hand, and he said he had one letter. "I'll give it to you someday," he said. With a shock, I realized that my father did not have much more information about his father at his disposal than I did. An inspirational article about C.F. that was published in a 1921 edition of The American Magazine (Ring Lardner's essay on being thirty-five is the cover story) provided my father with a lot of the material for his speech. Surely, I thought, there must be memories of C.F. that my father carried with him--moments of happiness or uncertainty that Dad and his father had shared? Where were they? They seemed to be unavailable, blown away. Of this extraordinary man and his immense creation there was so little left!
One quality of C.F.'s that comes through clearly in people's memories of him is that he didn't like to tell you what he was thinking. He hated it when you wrote down anything he said. Sometimes my father would try to take notes at business meetings, and C.F. would rail about it: "What're you doing? Stop doing that!"
Ten years ago, I interviewed Jonas McGallaird, who was one of my grandfather's most faithful retainers, and he told me the story of meeting C.F. for the first time, in the spring of 1924. His story is the most vivid snapshot of my grandfather's methods that I have.
Jonas: I went to C.F.'s office on a Saturday afternoon, a lazy day, and there set C.F., reading a magazine. "Lookin' for somebody?" he said. I said I'm lookin' for a job. "Hmm," he said. "Where you been workin'?" I said I'd been workin' on the railroad. "Live around here?" I said I was living in Bridgeton. "Have a phone?" I said yeah. "What's the number?" He wrote the number down. And when C.F. wrote a number down you knew it was down, because he made numbers like they made 'em in Bible times. He just made big numbers. He wrote big.
"Well," C.F. said, "I gotta get on. I gotta go," he said. "You lock the door when you go out." And I said, "Well I'm goin' out, too, you lock your own damn door," I said. And that's just the way I said it, too.
The next day the phone rang and it was Seabrook. He said, "You want to go to Atlantic City?" I said yes. He said, "Well you come out to my place and we'll go to Atlantic City." So I went over to his place and there set this big Packard outside the house, a Club See-dan. C.F. came out and said, "You want to drive or you want me to drive?" I said it doesn't make any difference to me. "Well," he said, "you drive. You know how to drive?" "Sure," I said. "You know how to get to Atlantic City?" I said yeah. So we went.
In Atlantic City, C.F. spent an hour in the President Hotel, probably making arrangements for some Atlantic City bootleggers to pick up the applejack he had been making from his apple crop that year. In those days, the long grass that grew in the marshes was harvested by local farmers and sold as salt hay to local glass factories, where it was used as packing material, so farmers like C.F. knew all the little cricks and meadows through which booze could be run to the bay.
Jonas: I bought the Sunday paper and set there in the sun and after a while C.F. came out and said let's go home. . . . We got home and C.F. said, "You got a place to keep this car?" "Yeah," I said. "Off the street?" "Yeah." He said, "Now, I want to go to New York tomorrow morning, and I want to catch the seven o'clock train. Can you take me?" So I drove that Packard home and my mother said, "What in the heck are you doing with that car?" And I said, "I do not know."
In this roundabout way, Jonas became C.F.'s chauffeur. When C.F. died, Jonas asked my father if he could drive the hearse that took C.F. to his grave, saying, "The old son of a bitch rode behind me for forty years, and this is the first time he won't be able to talk back."
My father rose to speak to long applause from the crowd.
He wore a yellow bow tie, and, although he is now white-haired and
seventy-seven, he looked boyishly slim in his gentleman farmer's
suit. He said he was going to speak about "a man of incredible accomplishments
and incredible contradictions." Japanese faces around me looked
thrilled at the sight of him-the same expression I remember seeing
on the faces outside the church as a boy.
Dad began to reminisce. He recalled the house about half a mile away, now gone, where he was born. He recalled his father's father, Arthur, "a genial man" with "great flowing white mustaches." He recalled the terrible fights that C.F. used to have with his father. He recalled the stable across the street from that house, where a blacksmith named A. B. Skilowitzsky worked. "He was always stripped to the waist and sweating, even in the wintertime, and he pounded red-hot iron, and there was the smell of soft-coal smoke and burning hooves." He described how, after agricultural prices had dropped sharply, C.F. lost the business. "He was out, and he didn't look back," my father said. "This was another of C.F.'s great contradictions. He never cared about money."
My father is good at telling stories. His greatest talent may be his ability to make you believe his version of events. Over the years, I have occasionally sat listening to him explain something to me, thinking, You bastard, you expect me to swallow that, and then trying to give him my version and failing miserably, and later on, in my head, succeeding brilliantly in putting his version to rout. But on this day, sitting in the audience, I was pulling for him. I knew his view of the past wasn't the only view, but in his struggle to deal with his father's legacy I was completely on his side.
As his story got closer to its sad conclusion, I found myself hoping it would turn out differently. My father and his father would realize the madness of what they were doing. Angels would whisper in their ears. Then my father said something I had never heard before: "On October 3, 1941, C.F. had a very serious stroke, and he was incapacitated for a couple of years after that." Not even my sister Carol, who is seventeen years older than I am, had heard about this before.
"Prior to the stroke, he had exuded the confidence that he could do anything," my father went on. "His great heroes in life were the builders. Steve Bechtel and Henry Kaiser--the people who said, 'Show me the job, I'll do it. I'll get it done.' Well, that's the way C.F. was. But after that he never really had confidence that he could do things on his own. And, although he eventually learned to project a public image of confidence, when he was with people who were his peers--his directors, his bankers--he simply lacked the old confidence."
My father was saying that physical weakness had cost C.F. his confidence, and that the effort to make up for lost confidence had caused all the trouble that followed. This was Dad's version of shikataganai.
After the ceremony, many people visited the new museum
in Seabrook--the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, which
is in the basement of the municipal building. The collection there
was assembled by Ellen Nakamura and John Fuyuume, who invited the
collaboration of many other former residents of Seabrook, and there
are hundreds of good pictures of life at Seabrook from 1900 to 1959.
(C.F. apparently didn't mind having photographers around.) The rooms
of the museum are also filled with John Fuyuume's friendly manner.
John, who is sixty-nine, got a master's degree in music literature
when he was young. But he returned to Seabrook to work, and did
not leave to get a Ph.D. and teach, as he had planned, because,
he says, my grandfather told him, "It doesn't matter how many Ph.D.s
you have, it's how many Ph.D.s you have working for you that counts."
I said, "He sold you that old line."
"No, it's true," John said.
While I was reading in the museum, I saw some of the older people who had worked at Seabrook all their lives come in and go slowly from photograph to photograph. John would often join them. One elderly man paused at a picture of the Seabrook power plant, and asked John, "Were you there when they dynamited her? It was unbelievable. The dynamite took the first story clear out from under her, so that you could see clear through to the other side. But she just hung there in the air for about five seconds. It was like she didn't want to come down."
Other Seabrook-anniversary activities included a tour of my grandparents' house, which is now Seabrook House, a drug-and-alcohol-rehabilitation center. Paul Noguchi, a professor of anthropology at Bucknell, told me, "That was something I really wanted to see. The image I had of your grandfather's house, as a boy growing up in Seabrook, was that it was an impenetrable place, surrounded by shrubbery--something I never thought I'd be in." Richard Lamke, the communication co÷rdinator for Seabrook House, walked groups through the place quickly, pointing out odd patches of grandeur that remain from my grandfather's day, like the tiles in the bathrooms and on the floor of the porch. People also toured my grandfather's formal English gardens, which had seemed wonderful to me as a boy, and I was glad to see that they had kept some of their former glory. Time has not erased them as easily as it has some of C.F.'s other works.
I hadn't been in the Big House since I was eight. With Lamke, I went down to the basement, where what Jonas called "a can-house band" used to play during C.F.'s New Year's Eve parties. Some Seabrook House patients were sitting on beat-up furniture, watching daytime TV.
"And this was the bar," Lamke said, showing me an elaborate built-in wet bar.
"Guess you don't need that anymore."
Upstairs, we looked up the stairwell that leads to the room where I remember seeing my grandfather. The staircase is narrow, but it's not, as I remember it, winding, like the staircase in a chiller-theatre feature that scared me when I was a kid. I put my foot on the first step, but then changed my mind.
"There's nothing to see up there but offices anyway," Lamke said.
For lots of families, including mine, the Seabrook
anniversary was a chance to see relatives you rarely get to see.
My family's reunion took place in the back yard of my parents' house
on Saturday afternoon. My cousin Ivan Seabrook--actually C. F. Seabrook
III, and the only one of us who looks much like C.F.--told me he
had run into an old Estonian man right after the ceremony. "I said
to the guy, 'Hey, Seabrook sounds like it was a pretty great place
back then.' The guy goes, 'Oh, that was all a bunch of crap. They
were just as prejudiced here as anywhere else.'
I went, 'Whoa!' "
Everyone was talking about my father's speech. To Carol I said that the story of the stroke was a good compromise--a way of respecting C.F. while at the same time acknowledging that something had gone wrong--because it meant you could blame a physical infirmity for the trouble that came later in the family, and not blame C.F. She said, "Of course, it's also nice to believe we didn't inherit the genes that caused this kind of behavior."
My mother had hoped that the younger generation would play a softball game, but nobody really wanted to. She turned to my cousin Wessie, a plant engineer, who is my age, and said, "Hasn't the weather this fall been incredible?"
"Good for the spinach," Wessie said.
Dad chatted with Lisa, my wife. "What actually happened," he told her, "was that C.F. was in Florida when the Japanese arrived, and when he got home and found all these Japanese people here he hit the roof." Lisa tried to follow up on this bombshell, but Dad, who was known as the Silver Fox among his Philadelphia business cronies, withdrew into his den, saying only, "Well, victory has many fathers." (The next morning at the Deerfield church, as he and my mother were walking out, the Reverend Borror complimented my father on his talk, saying what a good speaker he was. "It was on the tip of my tongue to say, 'Well, Reverend, my advantage is I don't have to believe in the gospel I preach,' " my father told me.)
At lunch, I sat next to my cousin Jim, who is Belford's son and Wessie's father. We spoke about our grandfather in our own way--a reserved way that could be described as "Japanese." With Seabrooks it is often hard to tell what people are thinking, and as we talked I felt that C.F. was the source of a strange diffidence between us, lingering from the days when family members were on opposite sides.
Jim, now sixty-one, was the sansei who had the most to lose from the issei-nisei conflict that destroyed the business. He continued to work for the new owners, but quit in 1977; eight days later, he rented an office in town, and, working with his brother Charlie (C. F. Seabrook II), established Seabrook Brothers & Sons, a frozen-food company that is situated three miles from the old plant. Jim's three sons work there, and so do Charlie's sons Ivan and Peter; and lots of other Seabrooks, including my brother, Bruce, have done seasonal work in the bean fields. Seabrook Brothers is very successful, and once again functions as a local buyer for the farmers in the area. Until this year, Jim packed vegetables only for other labels, because he was not permitted to sell his vegetables under the Seabrook name. Last spring, thirty-five years after C.F. sold the name, Jim bought it back.
"It's a good feeling," he said.
After lunch, I threw a football with Carol's sixteen-year-old son, Rodolphe. My mind wandered back over the day, remembering the quiet indignation in Michi Weglyn's voice, which caused it almost to warble; and the triumph in Donna Pearson's voice when she declared, "There's no excuse for can't. . . . If my parents could do it, so can I"; and the resignation in my father's voice when he said of C.F., "He simply lacked the old confidence." I remembered what the minister had said--that God is just and merciful, and that his purpose is worked out in time and in the lives of those who seek to do his good--and I wondered whether that was true. It did indeed seem to me that I had caught a glimpse of a purpose that morning. The Japanese American families' experience at Seabrook was like the white light behind an X-ray, which was my family's experience, and in the X-ray I could see a hairline pattern I hadn't seen before. But was this God's pattern, or was it the lingering force of my grandfather's energy? Or was it nothing?
I thought about all the Japanese American family reunions going on right then around South Jersey, and wondered whether any of those people had found any answers. Standing there in my parents' yard, I had the sense that the purpose I had glimpsed that morning was already fading, as all of us returned to our own lives, each to the effort to make sense of his or her story--Ray Ono and Josie and Richard Ikeda and Gene Nakata and John Fuyuume of their stories, my father of his, I of mine. C.F. was a father to all of us. But his legacy is harsh and difficult to understand. It says that you cannot expect fairness--although you may get it anyway--and you cannot expect forgiveness, either. My grandfather's law is a strain of the Calvinism that flourishes in the Deerfield church, where, in the graveyard outside, he and his father lie beneath an eighteen-foot gray stone slab (Arthur's head at C.F.'s feet), and where there are two plots set aside for my father and mother, and more space, if I want it, for me.
Copyright © John Seabrook 2003. All rights
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