The air grew warmer and heavier as they descended from the high altitude of the mountains and entered the flatter terrain of eastern Colorado. After lunching in Canon City, she changed into a short sleeved tee and repacked the long sleeved flannel shirt she’d put on earlier in the cold mountain air of the western slope where they lived. It had been snowing. By evening, they were in Lamar where they would spend the night before journeying onward toward Wichita, KS.
He was the chief of police in a Colorado mountain town and sometimes it was wise to take a few days of vacation and get out of town. His wife was never allowed to have any public political opinions and she always had to dress well and smile whenever she appeared in public, even if only running downtown to fetch the mail. There is no home delivery in their little tourist mecca to this day.
After entertaining out-of-town guests one weekend and being totally annoyed with the waitress who ignored the fact they were dining with friends, and repeatedly came back to their table to interrupt and complain about someone or something, the time seemed right to pack their bags and head out. It provided great freedom for them to become anonymous somewhere where they were just another couple on vacation.
The morning air of the next day was crisp, but promised to become sunny and hot. After coffee and donuts, the favorite cuisine of all cops, they once again headed eastward. After driving 18 miles, and just west of the town of Granada, they saw the sign they were searching for. It was tacked on a huge cottonwood tree on the right side of the highway. It wasn’t more than a foot square and it was painted white. Simple black block letters spelled out “AMACHE” and an arrow pointed down a brown and deeply rutted dirt road that seemed merely to cross farmland. They turned right onto the road.
Where the road quickly dead-ended, an identical sign was tacked on another tree. At this juncture, if one looked straight ahead, they could see a standard barbed wire fence and behind it, dozens of concrete foundations. Off in the distance, there was some sort of round building with a tin roof and close behind it, a small shed-type building that had been white and also with a tin roof. The faint tracks of a road were plain where it crossed the field and an unmarked gate was fastened now only with a wire hoop over a fence post. There were no signs, except for the one saying “AMACHE”.
Ignoring the directional arrow, they turned the pickup truck to the left and, at the first intersecting road, turned to the right and soon came to a series of what appeared to be empty government tract houses sitting uniformly behind a fenced area. Each small house was identical to the next, though they were painted different brilliant colors. They were tiny houses and in good repair with even the window glass and doors still intact. A few of them even had wooden trailers sitting on grassless front yards. There were probably around 50 of the minute houses built in a rectangular pattern with the fronts of the houses facing the outside of the rectangle.
The middle section of that rectangle formed a large courtyard that contained a playground area for children. At the eastern end, still sturdy basketball hoops hung on their aging, but intact, posts with only the rope nets missing. Weeds grew up between the cracks in the concrete of the basketball court. At the other end of the playground stood a group of slides and swing sets, again in amazingly good condition. It was, in essence, a modern ghost town. One swing in particular caught the eye as it swung back and forth and back and forth – in the wind. It creaked as it swung, but otherwise, an eerie silence prevailed.
Looking toward the fields behind the housing complex, they were astounded to see more concrete foundations, as well as to both sides…acres of them. There were hundreds of them and they could be seen as far as their eyes could focus. They agreed that it must have been an enormous compound.
What they were standing upon and looking at was one of the compounds that the American government established during World War II in which to house the Japanese Americans that were rounded up and held as virtual prisoners in their own country. One would have to assume they were feared to be involved in espionage after the shock of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Japan. In hindsight, the government came to realize that this was an enormous error and we must remember that it was done with the knowledge available at that point in time and communications weren’t what they are today. At that time, this had to have been the ultimate public safety concern this country had ever known.
Neither of these two people is of Japanese ancestry and both of them are patriotic to a fault. Their interest there had nothing whatsoever to do with politics or war. They were drawn there by curiosity and awe, with an interest comparable to visiting a Civil War battlefield site.
He had actually seen this very compound as a little boy, right after the war had ended, but he had no idea what it was then or where it was now. He remembered when he’d seen it as a child, the buildings were still standing, but they were all empty. They had been looking for it along this road for 11 years and probably would never have found it had he not, ironically, met an American lady of Japanese descent that was in Colorado to trace her roots. He had met her on a call one day in the town where he worked as the chief of police. It turned out she had been born in the complex, somewhere in these very fields, after her family had been taken there from their home in California. She barely remembers being there. Her grandfather died there. When the war ended and they were released, her family returned his ashes to California for burial.
The visiting couple both had been small children during World War II and neither of them knew very much about this particular event, except that it had happened. The government seems to not be proud of this maneuver and is probably why the barracks only exist in memory today, leaving just the concrete foundations, which you would not normally take any interest in. However, people were born and died there and it is, shameful perhaps, but in fact, still a part of our country’s history.
For a time, they stood there amongst what was probably the housing for the military guards and their families, in fascination. Eventually, they decided that the compound really should be commemorated in some dignified fashion. Perhaps it was a terrible mistake, but it was, is and always will be “there”, regardless of whether or not it remains visible.
It should be noted that “Amache” is not a Japanese word, according to the lady who was born there, though she neither speaks nor reads a word of Japanese. Her understanding is that it is the name of a Native American princess. What its significance is in the particular area was unknown to her or these travelers. But wouldn’t it be a wonderful name for a park?
In fact, Amache was the daughter of a Cheyenne sub-chief named Ochinee, also known as One-eyed Chief. In 1861, when she was only 15 years old, Amache Pehee married the handsome Missourian, John Wesley Prowers, who referred to her as Amy. He was a trader at nearby Bent’s Fort and was credited with bringing the first cattle into the area. Prowers County is named after him and is the county in which “AMACHE” is located. The Amache Relocation Center began on August 27, 1942 and ended on October 15, 1945. It housed 7,597 evacuees, two-thirds of which were United States citizens. In 2001 it was listed as one of Colorado’s most endangered historic sites.
As the couple prepared to leave, the woman turned once more in the spooky stillness and her eyes were drawn again toward the old, metal swing set at the other end of the playground. One little child’s swing was still swinging back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…with an endless, ghostly cadence.
Copyright © 2013 Jackie Taylor Zortman
NOTE: This won an award in the Public Safety Writers Association’s 2013 Writing Competition in Las Vegas on June 14, 2013. Jackie is a Charter Member of the PSWA, having joined in 1994 when it was The Police Writers Club, founded by Roger Fulton.